With "A Day Without a Woman," success isn't the question

After five million people around the world marched in January to advocate women’s rights and protest the new Trump administration, the Women’s March organizers called for the support of a global women’s strike on March 8, called “A Day Without a Woman,” in celebration of International Women’s Day

Two Clayman Institute scholars, Associate Director Alison Dahl Crossley and Managing Editor Marcie Bianco, weigh in on this latest campaign of the women’s rights movement. While the mainstream media will inevitably look to judge the Strike’s success, a scholarly perspective highlights the importance of situating the strike within a larger landscape of the movement. Through a gender lens, we examine the Women’s Strike’s intent, its politics, and its context within a larger social movement paradigm.

"What It Means to 'Strike,'" by Marcie Bianco

news clipping from Iceland strike

A “strike” is what I call an economic reactionary tactic of resistance. Like other forms of public protest, including marches, it is “reactionary” because it is done in response to a larger injustice or systemically-produced inequality. The immediate, desired goal of these reactionary tactics is visibility—and visibility, to note, is the first step in any civil rights movement. In today’s digital culture, this amounts to achieving virality; widespread media coverage and social media attention. These public acts of protest also allow for moments of perceptible solidarity, where intersectional coalitions of diverse communities can find, and share, common ground over a common cause or set of causes. And, perhaps most important, these acts provide the literal space for, and render visible, the emotional catharsis of a large population of people through expressions of grievance.

Strikes like “A Day Without a Woman” are particularly powerful because they have a precise target: the wallet. But this economic tactic of resistance also has economic conditions. The most famous and arguably most consequential women’s strike to date—the 1975 “Women’s Day Off” in Iceland, when 90% of Icelandic women walked off the job and gathered in the capitol of Reykjavik to protest economic inequality for women—was successful because Iceland’s labor market conditions enabled a high-impact strike. A year after the strike, Iceland established the Gender Equality Council and passed the Gender Equality Act, which outlawed gender discrimination in workplaces and schools. And five years after the strike Icelanders elected their first female president, Vigdis Finnbogattir, who won three re-elections and served as president until 1996. And, on International Women’s Day this year, Iceland became the first country in the world to demand quantitative proof from employers that they are offering equal pay regardless of gender, race, ethnicity, or sexuality.

Unlike Iceland’s women’s strike, we do not know what the effects of “A Day Without a Woman” will be stateside. The United States has greatly different socioeconomic conditions when it comes to assessing the effectiveness of a strike—most notably, that of population. The population of the United States is nearly 1,000 times greater than that of Iceland’s population. Laws of supply and demand, therefore, function differently in these two countries. For example, in the United States, especially in this emergent freelance/adjunct economy, if someone walks off the job it is very easy to replace her. The greater the labor supply in relation to the demand means that there is correlative greater level of risk involved for people who consider going on strike. If people living in a country with a surplus labor supply strike, they are replaceable—and they know it. It also means the strike itself is less consequential than one that takes place a country with a fraction of America’s population. The 1975 strike was impactful because 10% of Iceland’s population went on strike; for the same quantitative impact, 32 million Americans need to go on strike. In short, the long-term success of a strike is acutely determined by economic laws of supply and demand, as well as extant labor laws and the strength of domestic labor unions.

These conditions, coupled with the fact that many women literally cannot afford to go on strike, mean that we must rethink the usefulness of strikes in the 21st century. If optics figure so greatly in this digital age, then reactionary tactics of resistance can provide the first incremental step to larger cultural change. But is the intent—to create visibility with the hope of greater ramifications—worth the costs for women?

"Nevertheless, feminism persists," by Alison Dahl Crossley

Across the world and throughout modern history, strikes, marches, protests and rallies have been critical to social change. The March 8 Women’s Strike generated substantial discussion not only about that particular event but also about the state of the feminist movement. Who participated in the strike? Who did not? Is the strike evidence of feminist vitality? Or of the continuation of the Women’s March energy? Analyzing the March 8 Women’s Strike within the larger landscape of women’s mobilization provides answers to these questions, and an opportunity to reflect on the varying approaches to creating social justice.

women's march

Although the strike was one day only, women have historically voted with their dollar, such as patronizing women-owned businesses and avoiding, and even openly boycotting, those with records of sexism or labor abuse. Indeed, this is a key component to the “everyday feminism” that has propelled the feminist movement over time. Individual acts of resistance, or the incorporation of feminism in one’s everyday life, have been critical actions in the larger landscape of social change. Everyday feminism and collective feminist action are not mutually exclusive, nor does everyday feminism replace collective feminist organizing. Rather, gender and social movement scholars help us understand the wide range of tactics and approaches to social change that fuel a movement. The small wins of everyday feminism complement the larger wins of major protest events or sustained campaigns. In my research, for example, I find that young feminists value the incorporation of feminist ideologies into their everyday lives—evident in their purchasing and consumption habits, language, relationships, and world views, in addition to more visible and collective approaches to change.

In comparison to a one-day strike, an ethos of everyday feminism highlights the range of how women approach social change. Feminist scholars have found that the reason social movement incorporation in everyday life is so important is that many women lack access to the access to traditional power structures, both legislative and judicial. In addition, many women do not have the resources of time or money to participate in mass mobilizations such as strikes or marches, because they cannot miss work, fear being fired, and/or have commitments to care and domestic work. Because many women do not have the time and economic resources to engage in more traditional and visible forms of social movements, such as the strike, it is important to have a wide lens to accurately capture the different approaches to creating change.

Online activism is another social movement tactic that is not overtly visible in the traditional sense, but, like everyday feminism, it has undoubtedly changed the landscape of social justice work. Credited with galvanizing millions of women to protest the day after the inauguration and to participate in the strike, online organizing gives campaign participants their momentum, and also creates a platform for incorporation of movement activity in individual daily lives and habits. My research has found that developing online communities and campaigns are critical to keeping the feminist movement alive. Like more traditional and public forms of activism, however, online feminism requires resources—such as time and access to technology.

Everyday feminism, online activism, and less visible forms of protest propel a movement over time, and between surges of activism such as the strike or women’s march. That is why, when we judge the success of a campaign or protest event, it is important to contextualize it within the larger landscape of a movement. Movements persist in an incredible variety of forms and tactics. Individual circumstances dictate whether an individual can afford to participate, too. Because of this, one single day, whether it be a march, a strike, or a brief campaign, cannot accurately be a barometer of the state of a social movement. My concern is that this “day without a woman” strike is being framed as a follow-up to the astounding participation of the Women’s March, and if it does not meet these high standards of participation and impact, each of these mobilizations will be deemed failures. These narratives have plagued the feminist movement—research shows that feminism is often hastily (and inaccurately) deemed “dead,” “alive,” “successful” or “failing” by critics and pundits alike. These sweeping sentiments have real consequences for a movement and its public perception, and indicate a lack of understanding of the workings of a movement as long-lasting and critical as feminism.

We do know that there has been incredible feminist energy and momentum of late, with different communities and activist circles responding to injustices in ways that suit their own needs and grievances. A research-based perspective allows for a nuanced understanding of the feminist movement, and shows us the importance of hyper visible and less visible forms of protest. From the small wins of everyday activism to the large campaigns and noisy public protest events, all forms of resistance are critical to changing the world.