The international women’s strike is impossible. Really, it is. But let’s be very clear – the impossibility of the women’s strike is precisely why it is one of the most important things that needs to be done. The impossibility of the women’s strike is not because the women’s strike is not a ‘real’ strike (you know, when blokes in unions walked out of factories); nor is it impossible because apparently it’s only for ‘privileged’ women, or because unprivileged women cannot strike. The impossibility emerges when we confront the reality of women’s work and what striking means today.
The timing of the international women’s strike to coincide with international women’s day is a powerful reminder of women’s history. Firstly, women have always worked – it is just that sometimes we don’t receive a wage for the work that we do. The history of international women’s day – beginning with a strike of women garment workers – many of them immigrants – in Manhattan in 1908 forces us to complicate the easy picture of men at work and women in the home and reminds us of the centrality of women’s waged labour to the development of capitalist production and that women have always struggled and gone on strike. Not only for better wages and conditions but also, as the thousands of striking Russian women of 1917 did, for peace, for bread and for roses.
For many years now international women’s day has been divorced from its radical history and has instead been captured by a particular brand of feminism – some call it ‘white feminism’, others corporate or neoliberal feminism. We have been told to ‘celebrate’ being a woman, to look at all those gains ‘we’ have made, like ‘girl power’ and all that leaning in to ‘get ahead’ in the workplace. Over the last few decades we might have had a rally scheduled for one weekend a year at best, and women’s equality has been reduced to a conversation about the gender pay gap and getting more women into positions of power.
But throughout these years there have also been many of us who have been critical of this brand of feminism – we have been clear that the ‘gains’ have not been distributed equally and that for feminism to be part of the solution it must be anti-racist, anti-colonial, anti-capitalist and inclusive of sex workers and trans women, and that it must bring the uneven distribution of reproductive labour and working class women’s realities to the centre of what we mean when we say women’s work.
It’s worth repeating. Women have always worked, but sometimes (even perhaps much of the time) we don’t get paid for the work we do. Like washing the dishes, having sex, reading a bedtime story to a young child or remembering your mum’s birthday and then remembering to send the card on time. What all these activities have in common is that they are work we can understand to be reproductive.
Reproductive work – which can be either waged or unwaged – is all the work we (mostly women) do that makes and remakes people on a daily basis and intergenerationally. The gendered division of labour means it is mostly women who do this work in the home and when they go out to work. And like most work that happens under capitalism it is work that involves conflict, struggle, violence, exploitation and expropriation. Under capitalism, we reproduce human beings as labour power. We reproduce people as workers. We reproduce them as class subjects who are disciplined, educated, skilled and moulded – to ‘know their place’, whether to be a manager, a mother or to work like a dog for someone else for less than the minimum wage.
But when we talk about reproduction it is crucial that we also consider the radical potential of struggling with questions of labour and life. The decisions and choices that we make in how to conceive, (un)birth, raise and educate our children, take care of our elderly, control our bodies, organise our households, families and relationships are crucial in imagining and practising new emancipatory societal models which are free from colonial and racial oppression, capitalist exploitation and patriarchal control.
When we bring this understanding of reproductive work into conversation with striking – which can be usefully understood as withdrawing one’s labour from the current capitalist conditions of production and reproduction, which is what the current call for the women’s strike is challenging us to do – the impossibility of striking becomes more visible: when it comes to a large amount of care and domestic work (both paid and unpaid), this work cannot stop. Sure, we can refuse to do the housework for a day or two, but when it comes to the care of children or the elderly, the very fact that reproductive labour is what keeps us and those we love or are paid to care for alive means that reproductive labour cannot be refused. Under the current conditions of capitalism, reproductive labour can only be redistributed either through processes of commodification or to someone else in an unwaged capacity.
In bringing together a politics that confronts women’s work in both its productive and reproductive capacity we are able to confront the impossibility of the women’s strike with something else: a demand for the reorganisation not only of production but of reproduction. Capitalism relies on and needs unpaid reproductive labour and our care work. We have to strike against the system that requires and relies on our lives being valued differently or our work not being valued at all. For this reason, the liberation we are fighting for can never be reached within capitalism. We have to collectively refuse to continue to offer our labour, our services and our care to those who seek only to maintain their power and profits. We strike to make our power visible, we strike in order to win.
Camille Barbagallo is a member of Plan C and is a feminist, mother, militant and researcher (not necessarily in that order) currently living in upstate New York.