Why the Women’s Strike was Never Going to Work

Women's Strike

I chose to work yesterday.  My children had school, and though I saw several teachers wearing red, I was deeply grateful for not having to find alternate care in the event that their (exclusively female) teachers decided to strike. I worked because had I not, my own class of students would have been taught by a sub, who, since my department is predominately female, would likely have been another woman doing extra work for no extra compensation. In addition, my students, more than half of whom are female, would suffer a reduction in the continuity of the college experience that they – many of them single mothers themselves – are paying for on which they depend to improve their families’ futures.

A good friend of mine argued that my reasons for not striking are too micro: that I should be taking a macro approach instead. If every woman participated, presumably, men would be left picking up the slack.

 

Or not.

 

Many married mothers expressed the same concern: “Well, I can strike today, but the laundry/dishes/vacuuming/homework will still be there tomorrow.”

 

We often reference the day in the 1970s when the women of Iceland went on strike, foregoing any work, both paid and unpaid, as an inspiration for the International Women’s Day Strike of March 8 2017. But what we don’t consider is that Iceland at that time had a total population of ONE QUARTER of the current population of the state of Delaware. In 1991, the rates of cohabitation of parents of firstborn children is a whopping 90%.  In Iceland, there were men in nearly all the households available to pick up the slack.

In the US in 2013, only 61% of first born children were living in a household with two parents.  Of the single-parent households, 85% are single mothers. If that mother strikes, there literally is no one else to care for her child’s basic needs.  

How does this affect women today who would strike? First of all, for many single mothers, a day off work means a day with no pay.  A day “off” may translate into not enough money to cover the rent that month. It may mean not being able to afford to fill up her gas tank to get to work. It may mean not being able to pay for the childcare she depends on in order to work a full day.

The caregiver who permits a mother to go to work to support her family is statistically likely to be a woman.  When the caregiver strikes, who will care for the child? The mother, who then loses a day of pay while still performing the millions of daily tasks involved in keeping a small child alive? Another mom-friend who can take a day off?

Any working parent who has to scramble to find last minute child care due to illness or school closings knows exactly how much unpaid work is involved in this task. There are 10 million single mothers in the US today. 45% of those families are at or below the poverty line, with no paid time off and no resources. Where are the men who will step in and shoulder the burden of unpaid work? Where are the employers who will offer all workers paid time off and a robust health care plan?

 

A national strike will not shut down the whole country, like it did in Iceland in the 1970s, simply because the United States in 2017 is more vast, more diverse, and more heterogenous than Iceland has ever been. Our key values are also very different.

The United States was first settled by Puritans. One of the primary “American values” that has been in place since before the founding fathers is the idea that the only way to succeed is through hard work. This ethos is so ingrained in our national psyche that the thought of NOT working is anathema in our very cells. (It is worth noting here, however, that the west coast, which is traditionally less burdened by the New England idea of a “protestant work ethic” had a much higher rate of participation in the Women’s Strike.) We want to roll up our sleeves, and dig in, and get to work. That is why, I think, the National Women’s March had a much higher rate of participation than the strike. We are, from our beginnings, a nation of doers.

Former first lady Michelle Obama agrees: “the only limit to the height of your achievements is the reach of your dreams and your willingness to work hard for them.”

Let’s roll up our sleeves, dig in, and do this important work of achieving equality.

 

While I was working yesterday, I accompanied my students to a panel discussion on immigration policies and how it affects our local community of students. At the end of the forum, they opened the discussion for questions, and one professor asked, “How can we change minds about this issue and prevent discrimination?”

The response, given by a local physician who has worked with the migrant worker population in upstate New York for decades, was simple: talk to an immigrant. Once you put a human face, a human story, a human voice on the issue, you will look at things differently. You will imagine your son, your daughter, your mother, your father in that person’s eyes. And you will have compassion.

 

Instead of a national strike, we need to treat people better. We need to talk. We need to listen.  Can we teach our sons and daughters to respect everyone? These moments of microcompassion are the only thing that will lead to equality. Minds and patterns of behavior need to change, and policy will follow.

 

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