Striking for Ourselves

When women in Argentina, and across Latin America, decided to go on strike on October 19, 2016, the mobilization surpassed all expectations. Organized in only a matter of days, the call resonated across Latin America and hundreds of thousands of women across the continent went on strike, marched, and protested. The strike was an immediate response to the brutal rape and murder of sixteen year old Lucía Perez in Mar del Plata as well as a series of other femicides and violent repression at the National Women’s Meeting in Rosario.

With the slogans “not one less” and “we want ourselves alive,” they were striking not only for an end to violence against women, but also to highlight the connection between this violence and the economic violence of the devaluing of women’s labor. This insistence on the relationship between male violence and the devaluing of women’s labor was one of the strike’s central messages and organizing principles.

The strike thus served to make women’s labor visible: formal labor and informal labor, paid and unpaid, reproductive labor, emotional labor. Women not only walked out of their workplaces to march, but they also refused to cook, to clean, to take care of children, to smile, to care. No longer only seeing themselves as victims of male violence and patriarchal institutions, women were able to witness their immense political and economic power. And this power was not left at the march, but taken home, taken to work the next day, carried with them in the street, in women renegotiating the division of household labor, calling out sexism at home and at work, leaving abusive relationships, and solidifying networks of care and support among women.

The strike drew a clear connection between male violence and the restrictions to women’s economic and bodily autonomy. The call for the strike emphasized how women’s economic insecurity also makes them more vulnerable to male violence, how poor women are the ones who cannot access safe and legal abortion and thus suffer the most from its criminalization, how neoliberal restructuring leaves women with more of the burden for social reproduction. While still calling for legislative reforms and more funding for government programming addressing violence and poverty, the strike also made it clear that these women were not going to wait for the state to solve their problems.  

In calling the October strike, these Argentinean women were also leading the way in the struggle against President Maurico Macri’s neoconservative policies. For months, the union leadership had negotiated away workers’ rights and wages, avoiding a more confrontational strategy. It was thus the Argentine women who called what came to be the first general strike against Macri and one of the largest instances of opposition to this his government. Along with the focus on male violence, the strike protested price hikes to utilities and public transportation, the defunding of schools, cuts to health care and other social services, demonstrating how women are particularly affected by these policies.

October 19 was not the only day that women went on strike on that month. Women in Poland had carried out a strike on October 3 to protest the introduction of new anti-abortion legislation. In both cases, women in neighboring countries picked up the call and, in many cases, decided to organize strikes in solidarity that also drew attention to local women’s struggles. It was out of these recent struggles that the call originated for an international women’s strike on International Women’s Day.

Violence & Women’s Work

While women, as the history of International Women’s Day shows, have always struggled in relation to waged work and also participated in militant labor struggles with men, the women’s strike as a particular tool is powerful because it explicitly highlights the heterogeneity and the extent of women’s labor, especially reproductive labor. The wave of women’s strikes around the world in the last year has not primarily focused on issues related to employment, but has used the tactic of the strike to protest male violence and attacks on reproductive rights. The strikes have also brought the issue of the relationship between violence and economic exploitation to the forefront.

On October 19, Argentine women announced they were striking because:

Economic variables continue reproducing male violence: because our work days are two hours longer than men’s, because care and reproductive falls on our shoulders and is not valued in the labor market. Because unemployment is two points higher for women, because the pay gap averages 27%. That is, for equal work, women earn much less than our male comrades. In a context of structural adjustment, of tariff hikes, increasing poverty and a shrinking state as the Alianza Cambiemos government proposes, women get the worst part: poverty has a feminine face and it restricts our freedom to say no when we are inside the cycle of violence.

There is a fundamental and historical relationship between women’s reproductive roles and violence against women. Silvia Federici shows how the transition to capitalism “required the transformation of the body into a work-machine, and the subjugation of women to the reproduction of the work-force. Most of all, it required the destruction of the power of women which, in Europe as in America, was achieved through the extermination of the ‘witches.’”1 In other words, among all the violences of primitive accumulation, we must include that violence against women, against their bodily autonomy, and the subjugation into a specific reproductive role.

Primitive accumulation did not imply a temporary violent episode, but constant violence against women’s bodies. Violence to keep women in their place, violence to force women to continue carrying out their reproductive role, violence to limit women’s power to organize and resist. Violence is needed to separate people from the means of their reproduction and to discourage them from creating collective forms of reproduction outside of processes of capital accumulation.2

Raquel Gutierrez Aguilar discusses women’s confinement in the domestic sphere and responsibility for reproductive tasks as what ultimately restricts our ability to be “available for ourselves,” both in terms of the labor we do and the care we provide, and in terms of our own subjectivities, to be able to fully develop according to our own desires. Neither our own labor nor our own bodies are available for us to enjoy. This is a type of violence in which as women we are not able to define ourselves or control our bodies or what they produce.3

The structure and the content of women’s labor makes is designed to make it difficult for us to be available for ourselves. This is what is made clear in Precarias a la Deriva’s extensive militant investigation with women workers in Madrid4. They carry out a series of derives with different women workers – domestic workers, social workers, nurses, teachers, freelance translators, sex workers – allowing them to see the city through each others’ eyes and embodied experiences of traversing the city, highlighting the heterogeneity of women’s labor, along with some common themes. They focus on precarity not as an abstract category defining a new theoretical subject, but as concrete characteristics of women’s labor when the line between labor and life is consistently blurred. They analyze precarity as a form of slow economic violence, everyday violence that puts women’s lives at risk and is embodied in stress, anxiety, and illness.

Precarias a la Deriva analyzes precarity in terms of new forms of employment, the displacement of the times and spaces of work, the intensification of the production process, the incorporation of imperceptible qualities (such as communication, empathy, language, attention, attitude), cuts to wages, and the loss of rights. Importantly, Precarias a la Deriva does not only discuss precarity in terms of its impact on employment, but also as a “set of material and symbolic conditions, that determine an uncertainty in terms of sustained access to the essential resources for the full development of a subject’s life.”5 In other words, they use precarity to refer to both living and working conditions, production and reproduction.

The fragmented geography of women’s labor and the individual and isolating way in which we tend to experience this oppression has always presented challenges to its organization. Women work alone in their houses or those of others, at all of times of day. Women’s work takes place in distinct sites throughout the urban landscape. It takes place in hospitals, schools, factories, call centers, on the street, in the neighborhood, in the house, in the bedroom. Women’s work is often the most precarious, lacking both stability and legal protections. It is often fragmented and dispersed, both temporally and spatially. It often goes unpaid and unrecognized.

Why Strike?

It is precisely this fragmented and dispersed geography of our labor that makes a women’s strike both necessary and potentially so powerful. A strike serves to make our labor visible, to show that the world cannot function without it. It also serves to build our power, to leave the places where we carry out our work in isolation and the roles that have been assigned to us, in order to find each other and organize ourselves.

The women’s strike takes on an especially important role in regards to domestic and care labor that goes unrecognized. In The Power of Women and the Subversion of Community, Dalla Costa and James write:

We must get out of the house; we must reject the home, because we want to unite with other women, to struggle against all situations which presume that women will stay at home, to link ourselves to the struggles of all those who are in ghettos, whether that ghetto is a nursery, a school, a hospital, an old-age home, or a slum. To abandon the home is already a form of struggle, since the social services we perform there would then cease to be carried out in those conditions, and so all those who work out of the home would then demand that the burden carried by us until now be thrown squarely where it belongs – onto the shoulders of capital….6

Even if only for one day, refusing this place and the work that has been assigned to us makes that work visible for what it is, and opens the door for demanding that the work of reproduction and care be taken on as collective responsibilities of all.

The strike also serves to build women’s power, both in relation to other movements and within them. It forces an expansive and inclusive definition of labor itself. As Gago notes in discussing the October 19 strike in Argentina:

Another key point is that the notion of the strike was greatly pluralized. On the one hand, we took away the monopoly of that tool from unions, and, above all, from those photos of the five men [the leaders of the major union federation] who appear all the time, who supposedly have the power to say “we decide when there is a strike and when there isn’t” and in the meantime they go about negotiating the terms of obedience and austerity. What we did was, on the one hand, ridicule this situation, and, on the other, remove that tool and reinvent it. What we did was say “all of us women can strike” in the conditions in which are: employed, unemployed, formal or informal workers, precarious workers, housewives… and each one of us will invent and connect themselves and demonstrate how we can make the strike a tool of insubordination, of contempt. We also problematized what is a very heterogeneous map of work, especially in regards to women’s work, that is complemented by the huge wage gap between men and women, that averages 27%. That complexity of the world of work, that is the world of life and the world of care, the world of recognition, the world of wages and the world of family relations, was paradoxically put in movement with the strike. In that sense, the strike managed to connect the issue of gender violence with the issue of economic, political, social, and cultural violence in a massive act.

Precarias a la Deriva, recognizing that women and precarious workers were marginalized in the unions’ call for a general strike in 2003, asks: “how can we invent new forms of strike when production is fragmented and displaced, when it is organized in such a way that ceasing work for a few hours (or even 24 hours) does not necessary affect the production process, and when our contractual position is so fragile that a strike means risking our chance to keep working tomorrow?”7. The women’s strike responds to this question, not by shying away from it, but by placing these issues at the center, by pluralizing and opening up the forms of action the strike can take, and by fundamentally making it clear that it is a strike for all women, regardless of the type of labor they do.

The strike also serves as a form of investigation, an investigation into what types of labor women do, when, where, how, and under what conditions. An investigation into the concrete conditions and struggles of different women in different places. It makes divisions and differences visible, a reminder that “woman” is not a clearly constituted universal category. It shows that some women have been able to get ahead on the backs of other women, by displacing that reproductive labor on women of color or women in other countries. Or as the Ni Una Menos manifesto states: “We strike to make visible that until care-giving work is a responsibility of all of society, we find ourselves forced to reproduce classist and colonial exploitation among women. To go out to work we must rely on other women. To migrate we must depend on other women.” The strikes gives us an opportunity to make these hierarchies between women visible, and begin to challenge them.

The strike, however, allows us to find each other, and to together constitute a new collective subject, bringing our bodies together in a common action and shared territory. Just as women’s labor takes many forms, so does the women’s strike: a work stoppage, a walkout, a march, a picket, a blockade, a shopping boycott, collectively refusing gender roles. The strike takes place everywhere: in homes, schools, marketplaces, neighborhoods, the streets. And, as important as what we don’t do, is what we do instead: making ourselves available for ourselves and for each other allows us to create our own forms of organization, practices of self-defense, and structures of care.

While domestic tasks are somewhat more shared today and some women have somewhat more access to stable and well-paid employment, women in the United States still have countless reasons to strike. Male violence touches us all, in our homes, our neighborhoods, our schools and universities, our workplaces, in the media. Our reproductive rights and access to affordable quality healthcare is under attack across the country. Black women are being targeted and attacked by law enforcement, native women are being raped and murdered, domestic violence survivors are being detained by ICE. Women are the ones left to pick up the pieces when raids and bans destroy our communities, when welfare and SNAP benefits disappear, when we are left without access to medical care. Debt and financialized capitalism extract value from all of our daily activities and put our very existence at risk.

Going on strike makes this exploitation and violence visible. And the strike also proposes something else. Not only a day, but a world where we don’t have to fear male violence. Not only a day, but a world, where reproductive labor is shared. A world in which women are not defined by reproductive duties at all, in which our time and our bodies are available to ourselves. This is the other side of the women’s strike: while we are not working for others we are building power for ourselves, concrete practices and networks of self-defense and care. This is entailed in the organizing required to make the strike possible: organizing the necessary care work, strike funds, support networks that allow women to skip their normal work and take to the streets. The strike is disruptive, it is a risk. But women, of course, are not unfamiliar with taking risks – our everyday lives are full of risks, often our very homes are not even safe. The power of the strike lies in making that risk collective and in creating a time and a space in which we can be available to ourselves and to each other.

 


  1. Silvia Federici, Caliban and the Witch: Women, The Body, and Primitive Accumulation (Brooklyn: Autonomedia, 2014), 63. 

  2. Silvia Federici, Revolution at Point Zero: Housework, Reproduction, and Feminist Struggle (Oakland: PM Press). 

  3. Raquel Gutiérrez Aguilar, Desandar el laberinto. Introspección en la feminidad contemporánea (Buenos Aires: Tinta Limón, 2015). 

  4. Precarias a la Deriva, A la deriva por los circuitos de la precariedad femenina (Madrid: Traficantes de Sueño, 2004). 

  5. Ibid. 28. 

  6. Mariarosa Dalla Costa and Selma James, The Power of Women and the Subversion of Community (Bristol, Falling Wall Press, 1975), 41. 

  7. A la deriva, 21 

Author of the article

is a member of the Viewpoint editorial collective and currently teaches geography at the University of Mary Washington. She is also on the National Organizing Committee for the March 8 Women’s Strike in the United States.