Women on Strike
This time, the colour was red. At the Women’s Marches in January, we wore pink: pink pussy hats, pink scarves and pink T-shirts with slogans like ‘Pussy Grabs Back’. But on International Women’s Day, 8 March, when women worldwide were asked to strike – both for women’s rights specifically, and more broadly against the globally ascendant far right – women wore red. On the sidewalk in New York it was easy to see who was striking or in solidarity with the strikers. There were red blouses and bags, red jumpers, red dresses, and many, many red hijabs. Red was dense downtown in the afternoon during a rally in Washington Square Park. There were red hats, coats and scarves crowding around the fountain; fathers toted daughters in red pullovers towards the playground; dogs with red leads sniffed the fire hydrants.
The move from Women’s March pink to Women’s Strike red seemed to show how far the anti-Trump left – a movement which has relied on women from the beginning, but haphazardly in the past – has come in two months. While the Women’s March promises were vague – ‘Love Trumps Hate’ – the Women’s Strike called for a $15 minimum wage. It was also about Palestinian liberation, wage theft and immigration reform. ‘These are all women’s issues,’ the organisers said in the weeks leading up to the strike, citing women who had been deported, had their unions busted or been harassed on the street or spied on by police.
I wore a red bandana around my neck to the Washington Square rally. When I arrived a women’s folk band was playing. Within minutes, a male stranger offered me a swipe of his red lipstick. I accepted. ‘Strike! Get in the spirit!’ he said. Vendors in the park called out ‘History in the Making!’ to passers-by, hawking their rainbow and American flags. Even catcalls took on an air of solidarity. 'Go make your voice heard, beautiful!' a man called out to a red-clad woman from a park bench.
But most people were focused on the stage. There were teenage representatives from the sanctuary campus movement, speaking haltingly about their fears of being deported; there were unionised nurses, describing what it was like to see patients who had put off seeing a doctor for weeks or months because they couldn't afford the visit, only coming in when it was too late. No men spoke. Nearly all the women who took the stage were women of colour. The platform was beneath Washington Square’s victory arch, and pigeons settled on top of the monument. Periodically the crowd would burst into sudden cheers, and the birds would get scared and fly to the trees, before the next round of applause sent them back to the arch again.
In the days leading up to the strike, critics suggested that striking from work was something that only privileged women could afford – an odd claim, given that strikes have historically been the weapon of the poorest, and that the 8 March strike was modelled after successful women's strikes in Iceland in 1975 and in Poland last autumn. Still, many women could not strike, and many of those who could chose not to. But every woman I know who chose not to strike felt compelled to explain her reasons. A freelance fact-checker couldn't afford to lose a day's wages. A nurse didn’t want to abandon her patients. A third woman said, confusingly, that as head of her department she was technically management, and therefore couldn’t participate in a general strike.
Two of the most popular speakers at the rally were a pair of women from the Red Umbrella Project, a sex workers’ advocacy group. ‘Sex work is work like any other job,’ one of them said, holding a cherry-coloured parasol. ‘And there is exploitation like there is in any other industry. You do it because you need to make ends meet. Capitalism is my pimp.’ They left the stage to thunderous applause. Later, a trans woman came to the microphone, and told the story of unionisation efforts and an eventual strike at Babeland, a chain of feminist-owned sex shops. ‘They didn’t care that we were feminists, they didn’t care that we were women,’ she said. ‘They didn’t listen until we impacted their bottom line.’ The crowd applauded. A chant of ‘strike!’ rose up and then faded. ‘Every day when I look at the news,’ the speaker said, ‘I thank god I have a fucking union.’