Sex bans, strength and solidarity: women’s strikes through the ages
The Guardian – By Zoe Williams – Tuesday 7 March 2017
The action planned for International Women’s Day is a powerful weapon. Women withdrawing their labour have inspired Greek drama and changed the face of Icelandic politics.
There is a plan to mark this International Women’s Day with a global strike; women everywhere expressing their solidarity with one another by withdrawing their labour. There is a good chance that by the time you read this, you will already be at work. There is another good chance that, if you are committed to global women’s solidarity, the work you do is already more valuable to women than it is to the patriarchy, and, by withdrawing it, you are not even cutting off your nose to spite your face, you are cutting off your nose to spite someone else’s face. And then there’s the pitfall common to all strike action: that you redistribute oppression, if only in the form of inconvenience, to people who were previously on your side, while leaving unaffected the people you truly want to notice.
Specific to women-only action is the question, knocking about since the worldwide Women’s Marches in January, over whether or not this is a good time to be excluding men, just as a united front of everybody with a shared view of humanity is most important. Janelle Brown, from the activist group Sisters Uncut, reminds us that the practical benefits of women-only spaces can outweigh the theoretical downsides: “Just not having men in the room makes decision-making much quicker. When there’s no interrupting – no bravado, essentially – you get shit done.”
Yet strikes have their own peculiarity, distinct from direct action and from marching. Demonstration is the bluntest tool: there are this many of us; imagine what would happen if we all ceased to cooperate. Direct action is pithier and often more memorable, an attention-getting iteration of an idea. Sisters Uncut, for example, did “You Cut, We Bleed”, staging a symbolic funeral service in central London to underline that, when funding is withdrawn from women’s refuges, domestic violence victims die as a result. Strikes are more concrete than either: if exploitation of any kind relies on the idea that the exploited have no inherent worth, you insist upon your value by forcing the world to imagine itself without you in it. This is why strike-breaking is such a particular betrayal – the assertion of value has to be collective, since no one on their own is indispensable from anything. So when you secede from the collective, it is more than a personal choice; it’s the neutralisation of everyone else’s power. But hey, if you’re already at work, it can’t be helped.
The original women’s strike is Aristophanes’s play, Lysistrata, in which all the women of Greece go on sex strike to end the Peloponnesian war. Modern feminists decry it for relying implicitly on the notion that women had no sex drives of their own, and just did sex as a favour to men, which they could withdraw at times of high irritation, suffering no adverse consequences, like taking away a teenager’s allowance. In fact, in the play, the women are highly sexed and dead against the idea: Lysistrata only manages to persuade them by cursing them and calling them weak, a leadership strategy that would never make it on to an MBA module but nevertheless seemed to work.
“There’s something slightly awkward,” observes the sociologist Tiffany Jenkins, “about the message that that’s what women are for, to have sex. Is that the best use of their voice and their agency?” She also believes the subject of the strike has to be the locus of the oppression, so a sex strike should be reserved to protest about sexual violence, while a labour strike is used to protest about a pay gap.
If it sounds a little abstruse, by the way, to try to solve the feminist framing of the ancient Greeks, the idea of a sex strike has reappeared more recently, in fiction if not in fact. In Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq, last December, the women of Chicago go on sex strike to end gun violence. Since then, Chicago resident April Lawson has started agitating to enact the idea in real life, though, obviously, it’s arguable how that will pan out if only she does it.
I only realised the depth and value of the idea via Hannah Arendt, and her theory that all humanist politics starts on the assumption of the infinite preciousness of every human life. Lysistrata should be understood not as a sex strike, but a reproduction strike. We won’t make any more of these infinitely precious people until you agree to stop senselessly killing them. It doesn’t really matter who likes sex and who doesn’t; nor whether a woman has been reduced to her sexual function in the withdrawal of it. The source of the oppression is the disregard for life, and the answer is to stop creating it. Having started off seeing this women’s strike as the original but probably the worst, I have come round to the idea that it is actually the best: a perfectly symmetrical, unarguable response to one kind of worldview, by its opposite.
If you worry about a sex strike sounding uncomfortably reductive, you are going to hate the domestic strike: on 24 October 1975, the women of Iceland did no housework, to protest against their feeble, 5% representation in parliament. They technically went on everything-strike, but since their democratic exclusion was mirrored in the workplace, this functionally meant they stopped looking after their children and doing the washing-up (those who did have jobs worked in schools and nurseries, so those had to close as well). A staggering 90% of women took part, after the genius move of renaming it, not a strike, but a “Women’s Day Off”, dressing up stridency as me-time. Men had to take their children to work, which gave the event its other name: The Long Friday.
This action changed the face of Icelandic politics, delivering to Europe its first female president, Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, five years later. But its significance in the wider feminist landscape is subtler, since that tension of where you situate domestic labour in the fight for equality is, if anything, more pronounced now than it was then. Feminism at home sounds a lot like nagging. The strike was underpinned by a movement, the radical Red Stockings in Iceland, and sister organisations across Europe making the case for paid housework.
We now broadly reject domestic responsibilities as innately female, so would struggle to galvanise action around them. Yet we still do most of them (statistically, I mean; I don’t personally, I am a slut) and they are still unpaid. I struggle to see much victory in this turn of events.
If you want victory, go to Poland: “The so-called Black Protest last October,” feminist activist Katarzyna Bielinska tells me, “was provoked by an attempt to tighten already the extremely restrictive abortion law in Poland by introducing an even more barbarian bill, banning abortion totally, making a woman who aborts liable for five years’ imprisonment, criminalising miscarriage and blocking prenatal foetus investigation and treatment.” Tens of thousands of women went on strike, or – this detail pleases me – went to work but dressed in black, and didn’t do anything. More than 140 cities, towns and municipalities were profoundly affected, especially public-sector work.
“The success was huge and unexpected,” Bielinska says. “The governing Law and Justice party rejected the bill three days after.” Rada Boric, from the feminist activist network One Billion Rising, said on a panel last week that the president admitted he was “humbled”. She let that sit there for a second. A man who the day before had sought what is, in my view, the most profound state oppression there is – taking away a woman’s choice of when to be a mother, then leveraging her maternal love against her – admitted not just defeat but humility.
Women’s rights will need defending in the coming politics. That seems to be incontrovertible.
Posted by Teri PerticoneShare