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.