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

Liz Mason-Deese is a member of the Viewpoint Magazine Editorial Collective and currently teaches Geography at George Mason University. Her research explores the territorial and neighborhood organizing of unemployed workers’ movements and other popular movements in Argentina. Her translation of Verónica Gago’s Neoliberalism from Below was recently published by Duke University Press. She will soon be unemployed and encourages the reader to find her a job.