Strike!

C6UQvm-XEAApa4yFeminist activists in more than 30 countries around the world have designated tomorrow (March 8, International Women’s Day) a day of strike action; in the US, the organisers of January’s Women’s Marches have dubbed it the Day Without A Woman. Women are being urged to withdraw their labour, both paid and unpaid, and to organise/participate in local protests. Like January’s anti-inauguration demonstration (as discussed in a previous post), this event has a second-wave precedent: the 1970 Women’s Strike for Equality.

Though the 1970 strike took place in August, on the 50th anniversary of the 19th Amendment which gave US women the vote, the proposal to hold it was made in March, at a conference of the National Organization for Women. Protests were organised in cities around the country: a thousand women marched in Washington DC, while in New York there were 20,000. In some places women carried out guerrilla-style actions like ogling men (‘you’ve got strong hairy legs, why don’t you wear shorts?’), ‘liberating’ (aka invading) male-only bars and clubs, and occupying the men’s room in a building where male workers were provided with twice as many bathrooms as women.

Discrimination in employment was one theme of the day (flight attendants, who in those days lost their jobs when they had children, carried banners reading ‘Storks fly, why can’t mothers?’),  but attention was also given to women’s unpaid domestic labour. One of the event’s slogans was ‘don’t iron while the strike is hot’, and some women in California marched with pots and pans strapped to their backs.

Supporters of NOW conceived of the event as part of the ongoing campaign for an Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) making sex discrimination unconstitutional. This issue, however, divided feminists. Many feminists who were active in the Labour movement or aligned with revolutionary leftist groups did not support the ERA: they saw it as a measure designed primarily to serve the interests of middle-class professional women, and warned that it would worsen conditions for the less privileged, by invalidating the protections (e.g. limits on women’s working hours) which women workers and their unions had fought for. This led some feminists to oppose the strike:strike the Berkeley women’s newspaper It Aint Me Babe headlined a piece on the subject ‘The sharks are coming…with Betty Friedan [NOW’s founder] as pilot fish’. (We’ve seen similar objections to the 2017 ‘day without a woman’,  pointing out that a lot of women can’t afford to strike.)

Though it didn’t ultimately achieve its aim (the ERA was never passed), the 1970 strike did make an impression. President Nixon issued a proclamation celebrating the anniversary of women’s suffrage, and mayors in some cities designated the date ‘Women’s Rights Day’. Perhaps more gratifying than these symbolic gestures was the fury of some men. A senator denounced the protestors as ‘braless bubbleheads’, and one newspaper columnist called on men to wear black armbands, to signify that they were in mourning for ‘the death of femininity’.

You might think these reactions were a bit over the top: by the standards of the politically turbulent times, most of the protests were relatively small (even the New York City march wasn’t huge compared to previous anti-war and civil rights demonstrations). But collectively they added up to the largest, most visible feminist action in the US since the beginning of the second wave. Some commentators hailed this as the moment when the new women’s movement really became visible to the American public-at-large.

In 1970, women in the US marked the 50th anniversary of women’s suffrage, not by celebrating, but by protesting–making clear that they weren’t going to put up with being second-class citizens for another 50 years. And in 2017, as conservatives around the world try to curtail our rights and freedoms, I don’t think the mood on International Women’s Day will be one of celebration either. The message will be one of defiance: no going back.

 

 

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Plus ça change…

Donald Trump’s inauguration as President of the USA will take place in Washington DC on January 20, 2017. And on the following day, it has been announced, there will be a women’s march

to show our strength, power and courage and demonstrate our disapproval of the new president and his values.

US feminists have been here before. On January 20 1969, the (first) inauguration of President Richard Nixon was also marked by a demonstration in the nation’s capital. The event was mainly organised by campaigners against the Vietnam War, but it included a feminist protest in which women carried roslyn_baxandallbanners with slogans like ‘Give back the vote’ and ‘The vote wasn’t worth the struggle’.

One of the feminists involved, Ellen Willis of New York Radical Women, explained:

Since women’s 80 year struggle for the vote had achieved a meaningless victory and vitiated the feminist movement, we planned to destroy our voter registration cards publicly as a symbol that suffragism was dead and a new fight for real emancipation was beginning.

The women who formed the early Women’s Liberation Movement came out of (and often remained connected to) a New Left which believed that true democracy required a lot more than just the right to vote. They also wanted the second wave to learn from the mistakes of the first one, which in their view had lost sight of its original radical goals as it became narrowly focused on the single issue of women’s suffrage. In pursuit of that objective (which in the US was finally achieved in 1920), the leaders of the suffragist movement had put what was politically expedient over what was right: in particular, they had been willing to sell out Black women to win the support of white women in the southern states.

To the radical activists of the mid-20th century it did not seem that the enfranchisement of women had done much to advance their cause. By 1969 they’d been voting for nearly half a century, but they were still a long way from gaining equality. Radical women were not even treated as equals by their own comrades on the Left: when they tried to make a statement on women’s liberation to the assembled anti-inaugural protesters, they were met with jeering, catcalling and shouts of ‘Take her off the stage and fuck her’.

Since 1969 almost another half-century has passed, and here we are again. Not, this time, planning to give back the vote, but still arguing about whether ‘real emancipation’ can be delivered through the ballot box, still divided on whether to support a woman leader who has made compromises in pursuit of power, still dealing with the reality of racism, and still being dismissed by some leftist men as just a bunch of over-privileged whiners. And still taking to the streets to protest because the White House is about to be occupied by a man whose whose views and behaviour feminists find repugnant, and whose intentions while in office they have every reason to fear.

Postscript: this is the women’s march in Washington DC on 21 January 2017. 

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