Women Strike Against Capital—and To Take Back Feminism

Liza Featherstone

In October 2016, women’s groups from different countries agreed to participate in the annual Global Women’s Strike on March 8, taking as their inspiration recent actions in Argentina and Poland. (Garry Knight/ Flickr)

Babe­land, a female-owned sex toy empo­ri­um found­ed in 1990s Seat­tle, would appear to be the ide­al fem­i­nist enter­prise. Charis­mat­ic female employ­ees exude a blunt sex-pos­i­tiv­i­ty that has been respon­si­ble for the busi­ness’ suc­cess, mak­ing the store a go-to place for dil­dos of all col­ors, angles and sizes. Now boast­ing three New York City loca­tions, Babe­land is all about female empow­er­ment. Yet many employ­ees’ expe­ri­ence with this mod­el of fem­i­nist cap­i­tal­ism under­scores pre­cise­ly why a women’s strike on March 8, Inter­na­tion­al Women’s Day, is needed.

After man­age­ment dragged out union con­tract nego­ti­a­tions for months, work­ers vot­ed to autho­rize a strike the week­end before Valentine’s Day, Babeland’s busiest sea­son. The threat worked. Work­ers won their demands, which includ­ed more full-time staff, pay increas­es, a more relaxed dress code, more hol­i­days (includ­ing May Day) and eas­i­er com­mu­ni­ca­tion between work­ers and the union, accord­ing to Octavia Leona Kohn­er, a Babe­land work­er active in the union.

Because of that expe­ri­ence at Babe­land, Kohn­er explains, she and many of her col­leagues want­ed to par­tic­i­pate in Wednesday’s action to raise aware­ness of the pow­er of work­ers com­ing togeth­er. And the his­to­ry of unions is women com­ing togeth­er.” Kohn­er points to the impor­tance of seam­stress­es and oth­er women’s strug­gles in shap­ing U.S. labor his­to­ry. Like the Babe­land work­ers’ strike threat, she says, this women’s strike will send the mes­sage that with­out us you have no business.”

Fem­i­nist strikes and protests are cer­tain­ly enjoy­ing a resur­gence, thanks to the sex­ist real­i­ty show star who is also our new­ly-elect­ed pres­i­dent. But this strike call actu­al­ly dates back to an ancient epoch now dif­fi­cult to recall: before Don­ald Trump’s election.

In Octo­ber 2016, women’s groups from dif­fer­ent coun­tries agreed to strike March 8, tak­ing as their inspi­ra­tion recent actions in Argenti­na and Poland. In Argenti­na, in Octo­ber, women demon­strat­ed in the streets and many stopped work for an hour to protest the rape and mur­der of a teenage girl. In Poland last year, a women’s strike forced law­mak­ers to reject a dra­con­ian change to the country’s already strict abor­tion laws.

Amer­i­can fem­i­nist orga­niz­ers of the strike want­ed to join this move­ment of glob­al sol­i­dar­i­ty. But there are also rea­sons spe­cif­ic to the Unit­ed States that such a strike makes sense now. There’s Trump, of course, and the very real war against work­ers’ and repro­duc­tive rights that his admin­is­tra­tion is wag­ing. But activists on the left have also been inspired since before his elec­tion to build what they are call­ing a fem­i­nism of the 99 percent.”

Tithi Bhat­tacharya, a mem­ber of the Women’s Strike orga­niz­ing com­mit­tee and a pro­fes­sor at Pur­due Uni­ver­si­ty, says the lan­guage of fem­i­nism has been com­plete­ly co-opt­ed by Lean In fem­i­nism.” (She is refer­ring to the title of Face­book chief oper­at­ing offi­cer Sheryl Sandberg’s book, which has become short­hand for an elite, busi­ness-friend­ly fem­i­nism.) The fem­i­nism of Sand­berg or Hillary Clin­ton is one in which the female own­er­ship of Babe­land is the endgame, not jus­tice for its women work­ers. Such a fem­i­nism seeks to shore up the sta­bil­i­ty of cap­i­tal­ism rather than to threat­en cap­i­tal­ism. And we absolute­ly want to threat­en cap­i­tal­ism,” Bhat­tacharya says.

Rid­ing the joy­ous” momen­tum of the world­wide women’s march­es on Inau­gu­ra­tion Day, Bhat­tacharya believes now is time to reclaim fem­i­nism for ordi­nary work­ing women. These are, in fact, the women who need fem­i­nism the most.

Meg Doher­ty, who (along with at least 30 oth­er employ­ees since last sum­mer) was fired at her job as a singing wait­ress at Ellen’s Star­dust Din­er, a pop­u­lar Times Square tourist des­ti­na­tion, sees the strike as a chance for women to unite against the kind of per­sis­tent work­place sex­ism she says she expe­ri­enced there. Men and women were not giv­en equal access to the best shifts, she says. Yet the Broad­way hits the din­ers most want to hear, from Mama Mia” or Wicked,” for exam­ple, are num­bers intend­ed for female singers. So there was always an unfair bur­den, a vocal bur­den” on a small group of women, Doher­ty says.

Some of the sex­ism Doher­ty expe­ri­enced is wide­ly shared by oth­er ser­vice work­ers. You have to have a full face of make­up on,” she explains. I won’t make as much mon­ey if I don’t have a full face of make­up on. A male co-work­er, of course, just show­ers and combs his hair” and is ready for his shift. Worse, sex­u­al harass­ment by cus­tomers is rou­tine, and management’s response is often indifferent.

Ellen’s Star­dust Din­er did not imme­di­ate­ly respond to a request to com­ment on Doherty’s alle­ga­tions. Pre­vi­ous­ly, its own­er told Play​bill​.com that work­ers were let go for good busi­ness rea­sons.” Ellen’s deeply respects its employ­ees and pro­vides fair treat­ment,” Ken Sturm said.

On Wednes­day, March 8, Inter­na­tion­al Women’s Day, Doher­ty is not putting on her face. She won’t be per­form­ing any­where, nor wait­ress­ing at any of her cur­rent jobs. And she says, I will not be singing any of those female songs.”

Doher­ty is now an activist with the Indus­tri­al Work­ers of the World. Like Kohn­er, she hopes that the women’s strike will help oth­er women under­stand what she’s learned from her expe­ri­ences of col­lec­tive action. Some­times you feel a lit­tle help­less,” she says. But togeth­er, women do have power.”

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