Interviews for Resistance: On Recovering the Word “Strike”

Sarah Jaffe

Feminist organizing in Indiana, a state that was recently governed by a far-right opponent of abortion and gay rights, presents special challenges. (Sarah Jaffe)

Wel­come to Inter­views for Resis­tance. Since elec­tion night 2016, the streets of the Unit­ed States have rung with resis­tance. Peo­ple all over the coun­try have wok­en up with the con­vic­tion that they must do some­thing to fight inequal­i­ty in all its forms. But many are won­der­ing what it is they can do. In this series, we’ll be talk­ing with expe­ri­enced orga­niz­ers, trou­ble­mak­ers and thinkers who have been doing the hard work of fight­ing for a long time. They’ll be shar­ing their insights on what works, what does­n’t, what’s changed and what is still the same. 

I spent March 8, Inter­na­tion­al Wom­en’s Day and the day of the Wom­en’s Strike, in Lafayette, Indi­ana, the heart of Mike Pence coun­try. Fem­i­nist orga­niz­ing in a state until recent­ly gov­erned by a far-right oppo­nent of abor­tion and gay rights presents spe­cial chal­lenges, and I spoke with two of the orga­niz­ers of the Wom­en’s Strike about the work they did to cre­ate the con­di­tions for a Wom­en’s Strike and the work they’ll be doing in its wake to strength­en their organizations.

Megha Anwer: My name Is Megha Anwar and I am fac­ul­ty at Purdue’s Hon­ors College.

Sarah Jaffe: You are one of the orga­niz­ers of the walk-out here.

Megha: Yes, I am one of the mem­bers of the plan­ning com­mit­tee and the plan­ning com­mit­tee is con­sti­tut­ed by a whole diverse group of women. We have been very con­cert­ed in high­light­ing the work and the labor and the orga­ni­za­tion of women of col­or, of trans women. It is a pret­ty incred­i­ble plan­ning com­mit­tee. It is hard for us to have done this in a small town like this and on a con­ser­v­a­tive cam­pus, which is pri­mar­i­ly an engi­neer­ing cam­pus. But we are hap­py with what we had today.

Sarah: We are here in Indi­ana in Mike Pence coun­try. I guess it is not Mike Pence coun­try any­more because he is in D.C. now.

Megha: That is right. Mike Pence’s coun­try is spreading.

Sarah: Tell us about doing fem­i­nist orga­niz­ing in Pence country.

Megha: It has been hard, but I think more and more women are aware of the fact that their rights can very eas­i­ly be pulled from under their feet. Even here, this is con­test­ed ter­ri­to­ry. It is hard to win women over and con­vince them why their absolute right over their bod­ies is imper­a­tive. It is a strug­gle that is ongo­ing. I think what is hap­pen­ing is these are things that women of col­or and trans women have known all along, but final­ly, in a cer­tain sense, white lib­er­al fem­i­nists are wak­ing up to truth at their own doorsteps. What is hap­pen­ing is that this is becom­ing an occa­sion for women, all women, cis and trans women and women of col­or and white women to final­ly join forces. It is the awak­en­ing in a cer­tain sense, but I think there is a lot of work to be done still.

Sarah: Talk about the impor­tance of a strike, in particular.

Megha: This is some­thing that I men­tioned right at the start of our event today, which is that strike has become such a taint­ed word. It is because the peo­ple in pow­er are so invest­ed in mak­ing us afraid of our own weapons of eman­ci­pa­tion, which is why strike” is a filthy word. We have been taught that the only way in which we have mean­ing is if we are com­pul­sive­ly labor­ing for the very peo­ple who oppress us. It is impor­tant, par­tic­u­lar­ly today, because Inter­na­tion­al Women’s Day has a long his­to­ry of rad­i­cal strik­ing. What we are try­ing to do is recov­er the word and eman­ci­pate our lan­guage and stop it from being the unspo­ken word so that we can lib­er­ate our souls.

Sarah: How was the response on cam­pus from stu­dents and fac­ul­ty while you were organizing?

Megha: It is hard. You keep orga­niz­ing and then you find that there are still so many peo­ple who know noth­ing about what is going on. Again, igno­rance is not some­thing that we have cho­sen, it is also some­thing that we have been taught. We have been taught to be igno­rant of our rights, but also of the peo­ple who are tak­ing away our rights from us. It has been hard, but we have received so much sup­port. I know that a lot of women who want­ed to strike, for exam­ple, but are vul­ner­a­ble in their jobs came out and there were oth­er women step­ping in for them and sub­sti­tut­ing them while they want­ed to be here. There are oth­er women who have not been able to come out at all, not been able to walk out, but they are all wear­ing red. I think we are strik­ing both inside and out­side of offices.

Sarah: You men­tioned there is a space down­town that is strike headquarters.

Megha: There is a space down­town where the walk-out, which is a walk-out venue, but there is a spot in the town, Han­na Com­mu­ni­ty Cen­ter, which is our head­quar­ters. That is a space that has been open from 9:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. today. All the plan­ning com­mit­tee mem­bers are there and we have had peo­ple from the com­mu­ni­ty, union mem­bers come out there. We have bagels. We have col­or­ing sheets. We have got this art­work going where we are cre­at­ing one arti­fact for all the women in our lives and weav­ing threads and rib­bons togeth­er. We just have a space where we can expe­ri­ence what com­mu­ni­ty build­ing can feel like.

Sarah: To all the politi­cians who say that this is all just paid pro­tes­tors and coastal lib­er­als, what would you say?

Megha: There are sep­a­rate things that I would say to the politi­cians who think I have been paid to do this. This is one of the many things that I am not being paid to do, but this is one of the few things, one of the few forms of unpaid labor that I am will­ing to do and put my body on the line for and demand, like I said, what is our right.

To those who say that [the] strike is only the lux­u­ry of the priv­i­leged, that is bull­shit. [The] strike is the most basic form of resis­tance for the most vul­ner­a­ble women. It is pre­cise­ly the most vul­ner­a­ble women that have come out and demand­ed their rights over the his­to­ry of moder­ni­ty, real­ly. Peo­ple should stop sham­ing women who strike. The oth­er thing is, of course, it doesn’t mat­ter whether you are lib­er­at­ed or not, whether you are priv­i­leged or not. What mat­ters to us is how you are using your priv­i­lege. If you have been priv­i­leged and you are com­ing out to stand in sol­i­dar­i­ty with the most vul­ner­a­ble women, then you are using your priv­i­lege right.

I lat­er spoke with co-orga­niz­er Melis­sa Gru­ver at the Han­na Com­mu­ni­ty Center/​strike headquarters. 

Melis­sa Gru­ver: I am Melis­sa Gru­ver and I am the chap­ter direc­tor for the Younger Women’s Task Force (YWTF) of Greater Lafayette.

Sarah Jaffe: Tell me about orga­niz­ing for the Women’s Strike.

Melis­sa: I would say that it has been a real­ly pow­er­ful expe­ri­ence. Even the process of orga­niz­ing has been real­ly pow­er­ful. Basi­cal­ly, when we noticed that the call to strike had come out from Tithi Bhat­tacharya and Angela Davis et al., I actu­al­ly mes­saged Tithi and asked, Should we do some­thing local­ly or do you think our ener­gy would be used best some­where else? What do you think? What do you need?” She said, No, I encour­age you to do a local thing. Get a plan­ning com­mit­tee togeth­er.” We just put an open call out for that. A lot of folks from YWTF, but we also real­ly con­nect­ed with peo­ple that we saw in some online orga­niz­ing com­mu­ni­ties that were want­i­ng to put dif­fer­ent things togeth­er. We just gath­ered in my liv­ing room and start­ed talk­ing about What would it look like for us to coor­di­nate some­thing here?” and in par­tic­u­lar What specif­i­cal­ly to our com­mu­ni­ty and our region is it impor­tant for us to focus on?”

We all real­ly agreed that we want to cen­ter the expe­ri­ences of work­ing class women and par­tic­u­lar­ly women of col­or and have mul­ti­ple ways that peo­ple can par­tic­i­pate. But, we also want­ed to be real­ly clear that we were using strike lan­guage and that we were real­ly encour­ag­ing folks to think about doing what they can when they can to sup­port this.

Sarah: Talk about the peo­ple who are involved in the com­mit­tee and who went on strike today. What was the down­town event like?

Melis­sa: It was real­ly cool. The folks on our com­mit­tee are women of col­or, work­ing class women, women with salaried jobs, aca­d­e­mics, non-aca­d­e­mics, queer folks, we had trans women on our com­mit­tee, as well. I think that what was real­ly, real­ly pow­er­ful about the down­town action was that there were a lot of folks that were able to walk off of their jobs for that time right from down­town and folks were able to gath­er there.

It was real­ly pow­er­ful to see peo­ple walk­ing from each street as we were play­ing Bread and Ros­es.” We had prob­a­bly 50 folks there. I think that peo­ple are real­ly anx­ious to be clear about how we can make the labor of women, both paid and unpaid, vis­i­ble. We are try­ing to make the invis­i­ble vis­i­ble. What does it look like to be real­ly honest?

For exam­ple, we would pass the mega­phone and had folks say, I am strik­ing for” or I am strik­ing against” and one woman who is a local bar­tender said, I am strik­ing against being called a girl’ at my work­place.” Some folks were like, I am strik­ing for those that can’t even be here today. I am strik­ing in sol­i­dar­i­ty.” I am strik­ing against unpaid emo­tion­al labor for men in my life.” For me, it was real­ly pow­er­ful to get that kind of thing con­firmed, because just in this past year, I have been think­ing a lot about What is the unpaid labor that I do?” Not only in my com­mu­ni­ty, the real­ly clear unpaid labor that I do, but What is the unpaid emo­tion­al labor that I do for a lot of the men in my life?” So much that I have an art project that I am work­ing through that is going to make that a lit­tle bit more visible.

This was, for me, a real first step in say­ing to my room­mates, for exam­ple, that are men and my friends that are men, Here is some of the stuff that I do for you that maybe I don’t even notice.” What would it look like if I stopped? What would it look like if we all stopped? We hold this world togeth­er as women. Peo­ple would real­ly notice, I think.

Sarah: It is inter­est­ing you men­tioned it as a first step. Some of the neg­a­tive respons­es to the strike, asked, What if noth­ing hap­pens?” Talk about it as a first step. Where do you go from here? What were the new con­nec­tions made in orga­niz­ing for this that build for the next thing?

Melis­sa: Our let­ter men­tions that we are strik­ing to reflect on the work that women have done through­out his­to­ry to labor for us all. Then, to reflect on: What is our next move going for­ward? I think a lot of those con­ver­sa­tions will hap­pen here, even as we are kind of tug­ging away. Hear­ing peo­ple talk about the Afford­able Care Act and shar­ing their own sto­ries with that. I believe in the pow­er of sto­ry­telling and counter-sto­ry­telling where peo­ple can con­nect with one anoth­er over that and raise their consciousness.

But also, for Younger Women’s Task Force, this is a real­ly good oppor­tu­ni­ty to con­tin­ue to build our base and to con­tin­ue to have con­ver­sa­tions about our own cam­paigns mov­ing for­ward, which, right now, we have been focus­ing a lot on repro­duc­tive jus­tice and sex­u­al vio­lence against women with an anti-racist frame­work. Younger Women’s Task Force is real­ly think­ing right now about strate­gic ways to con­tin­ue to build our orga­ni­za­tion as it relates to work­ing class women. For us, this was a real­ly great way to con­nect with some peo­ple that maybe we have seen a cou­ple of dif­fer­ent times before. You are always think­ing, Hey, we will see you at the next meeting?”

We know that every time we do a pub­lic action like this, we gain more folks. Then, with more folks, we can strate­gize our orga­niz­ing in the future. We are real­ly focused on our work with Indi­ana Repro­duc­tive Jus­tice Coali­tion right now, but we real­ly want to make sure we are think­ing about and look­ing to see where work­ing class women are affect­ed in our own local com­mu­ni­ties and our state.

Sarah: Tell me about the Younger Women’s Task Force and how it got start­ed and some of the cam­paigns you have been work­ing on.

Melis­sa: We are a group of women in our twen­ties, thir­ties and for­ties. We don’t turn any­one away. We have sol­i­dar­i­ty mem­ber­ships avail­able. It began as a group of women gath­ered in my liv­ing room. There were 11 of us in Jan­u­ary of last year. We just start­ed hav­ing con­ver­sa­tions. We start­ed meet­ing for a cou­ple of hours twice a month and start­ed talk­ing about, What would it look like if we had an orga­ni­za­tion in our com­mu­ni­ty, a direct action orga­ni­za­tion in our com­mu­ni­ty for women?” As those most affect­ed by the issues that face women, how do we become the lead­ers in our com­mu­ni­ty to talk about and demand the way we expect those issues to be addressed? We start­ed talk­ing through what our struc­ture, our frame­work would look like. What is the dif­fer­ence between direct action and direct ser­vice? How do we want to con­nect in that way?

Then, we launched in July for mem­ber­ship. We have what we call activist mem­bers and sol­i­dar­i­ty mem­bers. We have over 60 active activist mem­bers and we meet once a month a cou­ple of hours for train­ings. We have con­ver­sa­tions about What does inter­sec­tion­al­i­ty mean? What is sol­i­dar­i­ty? How do you map a strate­gic cam­paign?” Things like that. Some of the cam­paigns that we have worked on — we threw some sol­i­dar­i­ty towards an ordi­nance to pro­tect trans folks in the work­place in our com­mu­ni­ty, a local ordi­nance that passed. We also did a lot of vot­er reg­is­tra­tion and a Get out the vote” rally.

Then, we have done repro­duc­tive jus­tice teach-ins and an action where we made Valen­tines for our elect­ed offi­cials relat­ed to repro­duc­tive jus­tice issues, which is beyond repro­duc­tive rights. We deliv­ered those with Indi­ana Repro­duc­tive Jus­tice. There were 2,000 across the state that we deliv­ered and we had meet­ings with elect­ed officials.

It is real­ly cool because we divide up. We don’t do com­mit­tees. We have squads. We have a repro­duc­tive jus­tice squad, a women of col­or cau­cus, we make bath bombs to raise mon­ey. We call them Truth Bombs. It is kind of a Fight Club sit­u­a­tion in my house. But, it is a great time because we con­nect with each oth­er. We remem­ber that we are cre­ative. I think that is super impor­tant to us that the process and the prod­uct feel sim­i­lar. If we say that we are bet­ter togeth­er, we shouldn’t be doing any­thing alone. When we can­vass, we make sure we are at least in pairs. When we are mak­ing bath bombs, we get every­body togeth­er. The process of mak­ing the bath bombs should make us feel our col­lec­tive pow­er. It is about self-care. We are sell­ing them to make mon­ey for our orga­ni­za­tion, but it is more than that. It is an orga­niz­ing oppor­tu­ni­ty. It is help­ing peo­ple that may not have expe­ri­ence in com­mu­ni­ty orga­niz­ing feel like they can be con­nect­ed to it.

Sarah: I love the idea of craft­ing as com­mu­ni­ty organizing.

Melis­sa: It is real­ly inter­est­ing, because I think this world is try­ing to con­vince us that we are meant to just destroy things. We have to remem­ber, espe­cial­ly now when it feels like every­thing is mov­ing so fast and it feels like so many peo­ple are mak­ing it their full-time job to destroy things, we have to remem­ber that we can work togeth­er to cre­ate a new world. When we are work­ing togeth­er to cre­ate some­thing else beau­ti­ful, some­thing that is meant to nour­ish us, then that can help remind us and help inform the process by which we work to cre­ate anoth­er world.

Sarah: The self-care con­ver­sa­tion some­times feels like peo­ple say­ing, I am going to a yoga retreat.” Well, most peo­ple can’t afford to do that, but tying it all back into the prax­is of your orga­ni­za­tion is real­ly interesting.

Melis­sa: Yes, that is so impor­tant with every­thing and it should be so con­gru­ent. To me, it was real­ly life chang­ing. I read this piece from CREA in India, actu­al­ly. They have this thing called self-care and self-defense for fem­i­nist activists. I read this a few years ago. At the open­ing of it, it talked about how a lack of self-care is actu­al­ly a form of self-vio­lence. It is not just like, Oh, I need self-care.” It is I am per­pet­u­at­ing vio­lence against myself if I don’t do self-care.” That changed my whole game. That doesn’t mean that I am awe­some at it, but I think it is real­ly impor­tant to think about how, for me, hav­ing peo­ple in my home is part of my self-care. Hav­ing peo­ple over, fill­ing my home with cre­ative folks, folks talk­ing about things that mat­ter, that is part of it. And my room­mates who are both guys stand in sol­i­dar­i­ty with us in that. When they come in — it is prob­a­bly twice a week I have women gath­ered in my liv­ing room. They kind of slide in. I tell them, You can sleep well tonight know­ing the rev­o­lu­tion won’t be tele­vised, but it is going to be planned in your liv­ing room.” I nev­er apol­o­gize because it is an hon­or for them to get to be a part of it in that way.

Sarah: At the time you got start­ed, you were in Pence coun­try. Now, the entire coun­try is Pence coun­try. What should fem­i­nist orga­niz­ers around the coun­try know about Mike Pence?

Melis­sa: I would say that he hates women or at least he ben­e­fits from per­pet­u­at­ing poli­cies that are against women and peo­ple of col­or and queer peo­ple and trans folks. One of our chants today was about, Hey, Pence! Step off it. Hey, Trump! Step off it! Put peo­ple over prof­it!” I think that cap­i­tal­ism dic­tates that he would put prof­it over peo­ple. We want to cen­ter peo­ple. We are a coun­try, we are a world made up of peo­ple, not corporations.

I also think that folks need to know that Indi­ana was about to fire Mike Pence and then he became the vice pres­i­dent of the Unit­ed States. On one hand, that is kind of sad. It is like watch­ing a hor­ror movie and think­ing the vil­lain is gone and then, as the cred­its are about to role, he jumps into the back of the pick­up truck of the hero­ine as they dri­ve away and you just know … But, on the oth­er hand, it is real­ly pow­er­ful to remem­ber we were about to beat Mike Pence. We can do that. Now there are more of us that are affect­ed by the issue. We can con­nect with one anoth­er. Espe­cial­ly in Indi­ana, in a place that is not typ­i­cal­ly talked about as about the busi­ness of orga­niz­ing. You might think Chica­go. You don’t always think Indi­ana. But this state was orga­niz­ing against this gov­er­nor. We can do that as a coun­try, too. We can con­nect. We don’t feel like we have got­ten rid of him. We are not going to stop fight­ing it. We are not going anywhere.

Inter­views for Resis­tance is a project of Sarah Jaffe, with assis­tance from Lau­ra Feuille­bois and sup­port from the Nation Insti­tute. It is also avail­able as a pod­cast. Not to be reprint­ed with­out permission. 

Sarah Jaffe is a for­mer staff writer at In These Times and author of Nec­es­sary Trou­ble: Amer­i­cans in Revolt , which Robin D.G. Kel­ley called The most com­pelling social and polit­i­cal por­trait of our age.” You can fol­low her on Twit­ter @sarahljaffe.
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