Commentary | We don’t lean in, we strike

On March 8th, the organizers of the Women’s March on Washington called for a general strike, which was in turn criticized for not being accessible to the women most affected by precarious work and intersecting oppressions. As such, many women could not participate in the action, which evidently warrants criticism and a re-evaluation of organizing tactics. Even so, to even consider a general strike is indicative of a departure from the mainstream feminist and labour politics of the last couple decades. “A Day Without a Woman,” as it was called, coincided with International Women’s Day, an annual “celebration” of women that has been increasingly depoliticized despite having its roots in the labour movement of the early 1900s. The depoliticization of International Women’s Day in the last few decades is especially due to the encroaching corporatization of social movements, which is a deliberate effort by the existing system to maintain the status quo. Thus, removing the political character of International Women’s Day only serves to turn women’s subordination into a spectacle and a false narrative of linear progress, where all women now possess equal rights.

Depoliticization also props up mainstream feminist rhetoric that revolves around “leaning-in” and breaking glass ceilings within the confines of neoliberalism. According to this brand of feminism, our society has changed but our economic system stagnated. Many prefer to disregard the final signs of late-stage capitalism, which first appeared in the 1950s, such as the increasing austerity measures exploiting the poor as well as the working class, the failure of the welfare system to provide for them, and a political system devoid of actual content but rather regulated by the global market. Economic justice and labour rights seem to be an afterthought for some feminists, instead choosing to question if women can truly “have it all.”We praise the women CEOs but fail to be critical of their actions. While the Sheryl Sandbergs and Marissa Mayers of this world continue to tell us to “lean in,” we must remember that gendered and racialized inequality within the class system is a feminist issue that will not be resolved by adhering to the principles of capitalism.

Criticism of mainstream feminism, and the privileged few who lead it, is not new. In contrast to the ideals of second wave feminists, women of colour have always worked to create a movement for the masses and not the few. Feminist struggles encompass social welfare, state violence, education reform, workers’ rights, and other societal ills that are inherently tied to the subjugation of women. In today’s movement, many of those at the forefront of grassroots feminist organizing centre these intersections in their work, including the organizers of the March 8 strike. While commendable and crucial, there are limitations to organizing around intersectionality in a system that rewards individualism and encourages hierarchical specialized labour. Evidently, to reduce racial and gender oppression to by-products of the class system is false, hurtful to the cause, and ahistorical. However, as “A Day without a Woman” proves, class power underlies the privileges – whiteness, access to education, wealth – afforded to those striking. For this reason, detractors of the strike called it useless, impossible, and irrelevant in a society that no longer organizes through unions and is hostile to the welfare state. However, considering the current political climate and changing world order, shouldn’t the impossible be worth trying?

As such, many women could not participate in the action, which evidently warrants criticism and a re-evaluation of organizing tactics.

Striking as a tool for change is one that has been used since the Industrial Revolution. The March 8 strike was meant to denounce the privileged feminism of Hillary and Ivanka, the kind that uses feminist language to further capitalism, a violent system which actively disenfranchises billions of women. At different stages of capitalism, women worldwide, and not only the privileged few, have withheld production as a form of dissent. Even in recent times, most social movements have been led by women risking jobs, careers, and family for the cause. For instance, queer black women are at the forefront of the Black Lives Matter Movement, Indigenous women are often frontline defenders in the fight against climate change, and teachers’ strikes across North America have been spearheaded by women, especially women of colour. With that being said, should the burden of fighting against oppression fall on the oppressed? No. The idea that we have unbridled ownership of our livelihoods and living conditions is a meritocratic principle used by capitalists to justify oppression, exploitation and evasion of dissent. It is against this very principle that strikes are often organized. Striking should render visible some of the barriers working against a marginalized portion of society.

Strikes in a globalized and increasingly divided world may seem irrelevant or even illustrative of the very privileges they seek to address, which gives us even more reasons to give them a chance. In terms of visible collective action, striking, if done properly, can put an actual strain on the system. However, there is no denying that much has to change for striking to be effective in 2017 while still being done in solidarity with all women. First and foremost, a collective effort must be made to put historically marginalized voices at the forefront of labour organizing, which means that those with the privilege and capacity to do so will have to facilitate and create an accessible space. This effort can take the form of legal reforms and increasing unionization which allows more women to strike without fear of repercussions, radical and disruptive direct actions that increases visibility of the labour movement and raises social consciousness, and an understanding that racial and gendered inequalities within classes were created deliberately and thus, must be dismantled purposefully.

The […] strike was meant to denounce the privileged feminism of Hillary and Ivanka, the kind that uses feminist language to further capitalism, a violent system which actively disenfranchises billions of women.

Viewing class struggles through an intersectional lens can help revive a feminist movement that has strayed from its roots. The failings of the March 8 strike generally stemmed from rush organizing – meant to leverage the momentum of the Woman’s march – that didn’t allow for the implementation of workplace safeguards which would have allowed for more women to partake. We may no longer be able to organize under unions and a strong labour movement, but those spearheading grassroots movements are learning from these actions and adjusting the organizational structures of our predecessors so as to benefit all women. In the meantime, we should continue to put on actions despite their supposed impossibility. Neoliberalism convinces us that collectivity is unattainable and that the only way to demand rights and freedoms is through a system put in place to disenfranchise us and maintain power for the few. A movement advocating for the 99 per cent has no other option but to take into consideration the intersections of women’s oppressions. After all, the current state of the world calls for us to be ambitious as well as radical, disruptive, and self-critical.


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