Organizers of the massively successful Women’s March predicted months ago that on International Women’s Day, the world would understand the contributions of women by noticing what happens when we are absent. The Women’s Strike encouraged women to stay home from work and refuse to do the invisible and thankless labor normally expected of women.
On January 21st, the cities where women marched felt overtaken by the crowds, rivers of pink hats and sassy homemade signage. Despite the fact that just 24 days before, one of America’s most preeminent celebrity chauvinists had become President, the whole world felt feminist that day. Televisions aired impressive aerial shots of protesters that went on forever. Nobody got arrested. Donald Trump spent the next week forcing his Press Secretary Sean Spicer into round after round of public humiliation by making him to engage in a pissing contest about crowd size. It felt like a victory.
Today doesn’t quite feel like that, nor should it. Women still held their kids’ hands as they walked their children to school. Female crossing guards directed traffic. The person trying to negotiate with a screeching toddler trying to escape his stroller outside of my local coffee shop was a woman. Female teachers wrangled classes of wriggling children at the 81st St Natural History Museum subway stop. A female caretaker helped an elderly man navigate the gap between the train and the yellow warning strip on the edge of the platform. In Chelsea, a woman balanced a cardboard tray of coffee as she pushed open the door to Starbucks with her hip. A woman caught the door and held it open for her. If I didn’t watch cable news, it would feel like any other day. Most of the work women normally do was being done.
On a practical level, today’s Women’s Strike is more of a wake-up call than a work stoppage. If the only way to show the world that women matter was a cease in female labor, this country would face disaster that lasted for much longer than a single day.
Further, a “women’s strike” fully realized could end up being a day when one class of women makes life much more difficult for another.
A friend who works in public health emergency preparedness and is currently dealing with an outbreak of meningitis on a college campus could not take a day off; if she did, she’d risk allowing the spread of disease, ostensibly to some college students who would also be women. My mother, a school administrator in rural Wisconsin, could not take a day off; if she did, she’d cause a headache for her mostly-female staff. Nor could my sister, a teacher, whose classroom full of children would likely be hoisted to the care of another female teacher. Nor could most of the women I know who work in media, who have been tapped specifically to write about this day and its significance and its impact, or to appear on television in professionally-applied makeup to opine about what it all means, and whether or not it’s a success. Nor could my friends who work as engineers and doctors, or women who work as airline pilots or in the law enforcement or intelligence communities. Then there’s the issue of childcare; if mothers take days off, they’ll rely on teachers to care for their children, if teachers take days off and schools are closed, day-care workers must accommodate the teachers. If the daycares close, parents (usually mothers) must figure out child care alternatives. Economic stratification means that a strike in one class puts stress on another.
The women whose labor is most valuable yet invisible are too important to not do the work that the world has taken for granted from them. They’d have to sacrifice the welfare of people who know all too well the importance of women to make a point to the Donald Trumps of the world, people who would accuse women of being selfish in trying to make their importance known. In order for many women to strike, to refuse to live their expected feminine roles as caretakers for the weak and small, they’d have to trust that if they let go, men would fill in the gaps for them. Women who are stewards for important projects and endeavors would have to trust that a man would be right there to duplicate their expertise. They’d have to trust that if they let go, a man would volunteer to help children cross Adam Clayton Powell Blvd, that a man would dress their child in her school uniform, a man would figure out a way to complete the work that needed to get done. That a man would perform the duties of nurses, or nursing assistants, or home health aides. Of OB-GYN’s, of attorneys, of executives. They’d bet the lives of those in their care and the success of their projects that men would step up.
Today’s strike, when viewed as a thought experiment, serves as an important reminder that fighting for the rights of women means fighting for equality for all women, especially those so indispensable in the lives of others that they couldn’t possibly take a day off without dire consequences. Because being a woman is not like being a nurse, or being a teacher, or being an automobile assembly line worker, because there’s no contract, or boss, or paid days off or person to make demands to. A successful women’s strike means society realizing en masse that the personhood and dignity of women of all races and classes is something those who have the luxury of voice must fight for.