The night before Trump’s inauguration, as I was packing to go to Washington for the Women’s March, an unwelcome email slid into my inbox. It was from Micah White, one of the founders of Occupy Wall Street. The email recapped a Guardian article titled, “Without a path from protest to power, the Women’s March will end up like Occupy.” In it, White shook his mansplaining finger at all the stupid women who were on their way to a Women’s March somewhere in the world. He wanted to tell us how silly we were to think this march would change anything. We would have to follow up with action if we were to get anything real done. (So, like, was there anyone out there who did not know that?)
White gave two examples that I guess were meant to impress women with the responsibility to see their little march as the prelude to a “real” revolution. He held up both the French Revolution and the Bolshevik Revolution as successful revolts that began with women demonstrating. Unfortunately, these two revolutions had something else in common: they quickly left female grievances behind in the dust. The price of yielding to a “greater” cause is very often the sacrifice of women’s needs and rights. Too bad Micah did not think about that.
Infuriated, I sat down to write a response, knowing full well it would probably go into a “no reply” void:
The importance of the march is as much to build the solidarity as to show it. To see, in real time, that you are not alone. To see, for yourself, that there really is a movement and you are part of it. American women need this. The women of the world need this. Let them have it.
Needless to say, I never heard back. But I got something better. On January 21, I was blessed with the news of women everywhere discovering that they were part of a global community. And then, over the next six weeks, I had the privilege of bearing witness to their efforts to address a wide range of social problems, including their own.
January 21st was the beginning of community among many, helping women to find allies and then to join them. This, in itself, was an important first step. That’s because many of us came to the march feeling like a revolutionary army of one.
My sister, Kathy, for instance, went to the march in Austin, Texas after years of feeling like The Liberal Lone Ranger in town. Despite Austin being one of the “blue” havens, Texas is a red state and the din of the right wing made Kathy feel politically isolated. But after the women’s march, things began to change. One of the most important signs was the “human shield” created just ten days later by over 1,000 protestors to protect Muslims coming to the state capitol for an educational day. The Muslim event, which is annual, had been menaced by Christian protestors in 2016. News coverage made the 2016 heckling look like a wave of anti-Muslim sentiment, though it turns out there were only twelve protestors. Here is a clip of what happened:
Pretty scary. Really scary. After seeing this on television, you really might think you were the only sane person for miles. But the post-Women’s March community pulled together a demonstration that showed how large the other side is—and showed Texas Muslims that somebody had their backs.
Kathy, too, knows now that she is not alone. She is posting feminist and liberal stuff on Facebook every day. Her old high school friends (some of whom have become a little scary themselves) will just have to deal with it. She has a new community now.
Kathy’s lifelong friend Michael is a gay guy who lives a privileged life in New York City. He went to the march with a group of friends who saw the unexpectedly packed crowd and quickly became too frustrated to stay. Michael stood his ground, committed to marching with everyone else. Toward the end of the day, he started up a conversation with a black woman next to him in the crowd. The two of them conversed for a long time, standing there, barely able to move in the crunch. Then, at dusk, someone began singing The Star-Spangled Banner. The two of them stood there, together, and cried. Such emotional moments may not reach the offices of Senators, but they are the fuel of the understanding that builds a community for change.
My sister, Susan, an artist by trade, put her soul into making posters for the Women’s March. Yet just a few weeks before, she had written me an apprehensive email about the feminist group that meets across the street from her apartment in Brooklyn. She wanted to go over there. She loved their name, National Liberation Front, which is so 1960s. She was especially thrilled to learn that this group has actually been in practice since that time–they are an honest-to-god offshoot of the famous Redstockings! But Susan was afraid that her beliefs would not perfectly match theirs and that she would feel unwelcome. Specifically, she was felt that her own support for Hillary Clinton might be a problem. The website did not list Clinton as a woman who had fought for women and childcare. Yet Susan remembered only too well how much she had appreciated Hillary leading on this charge as First Lady. I wrote Susan back, telling her that, based on my experience, it really might turn out like that. Already, lefties in the news were trying to cordon off the March for those who met a long list of ideological criteria.
But today, Susan is a member of the National Liberation Front. Interestingly, the group is now composed of mostly 20 and 30 year olds, much as they were when the group was founded so many years ago. They are holding a rally on March 16 about healthcare. Susan is giving a speech at this rally, where she will talk about the difficulties she experienced getting health insurance after her husband died and impress on everyone that women are disproportionately affected by the threat to health posed by the new administration.
Rhode Island is blue as ink. My daughter Caitlin and her husband Scott planned to go to the Women’s March at the Providence statehouse. I was delighted that my granddaughter would see her dad there supporting women. As it turned out, Scott was by far not the only man. There were plenty of men in attendance at every march. This was a signal that the new women’s movement would be very different from the old, in part because there would be men in our community.
After the march, I was amazed to see action groups springing up everywhere. “Indivisible” was suddenly a household name and groups were pitching up at the statehouses all over America to express their displeasure over health care, immigration rights, racism, and sexism. Here in Providence, the Working Families Party has been very active, especially staging “Resist Trump Tuesdays.” The Women’s March itself spawned a number of groups and activities, especially through the sister marches. I was invited to a sister march “huddle” called “Liberty and Crumpets for All.” The churches, including my own, are banding together to provide sanctuary for immigrants under threat. Book groups and crash courses are springing up all over the place to discuss and confront racism. I have been gratified to see that women are taking the lead in many of these activities.
I’m thinking Micah White has been proven wrong, for the moment. The Women’s Marchers have shown they can follow through. But only time will tell whether this big-hearted protest movement, led by women, will end up doing anything for feminism or will push off toward “larger” causes.
Underneath all the noise about Trump, the Women’s March had another achievement far more important than just crowding the streets and filling the media. As I suggested in my going-to-no-one reply to Micah, this march did indeed create a moment in which women could signal their solidarity to each other. But we also now have, for the first time, a worldwide network through which women can communicate and organize across nations. With marches in so many cities, participants around the world are now connected through the platform built by the Women’s March. So many causes and groups are demanding attention right now that the sudden existence of a basic international organization that connects women at the grassroots is being overlooked. But I suspect the longest-lasting impact will be the founding of an organization that can coordinate to push women’s rights forward all over the world.
Maybe this time the revolution won’t leave the women behind. But if it does, we’ll have the means to pick up and lead our own cause.
The first test of that capability is today: A Day Without A Woman. I have my doubts about this one, to be honest. The very notion of a general strike is rooted in ages-old labor union practices that were built for men, built for single industries, and built for the purpose of causing pain through work stoppages. I don’t think the practice fits the circumstances of women at all. It’s not just that women’s jobs are vulnerable. The jobs women hold are no more vulnerable than those for immigrants, yet we have already had a Day Without Immigrants. And it’s not just that women’s jobs are scattered across many industries. That is true for immigrants, too.
The primary difference is that many women do not work for pay at all, or they work for pay in addition to a heavy burden of unpaid labor. This makes any action that focuses only on the workplace of limited applicability to the cause of women. The way the leadership addressed this problem is to tell us all to stop working at home as well. “Strike” again is the vocabulary being imposed inappropriately on a circumstance that actually does not fit the toolkit.
The idea that women are just going to stop caring for a day presumes there is someone else—and it must be a man or it will just be exploiting another woman—to pick up the slack for twenty-four hours. Otherwise, someone is going without care. How will the mothers of infants manage? Will women caring for the aged really just stop?
I am thinking no one will do this because the consequences are too dangerous and the emotional damage would be as much to the woman herself. The prescription also does not envision all the care circumstances that depart from the heteronormative, mythical nuclear family. Not good. How will single mothers fare? How will lesbian couples participate?
The organizers are also overlooking another key differentiating factor for women: the pervasive threat of violence, in the workplace and at home. How will women at risk for domestic violence strike?
And for that matter, if you have a great guy at home who will do chores in support of this action—sorry, but what change is being made here? Does that situation really count as a strike? And if the solution is for Dad to take the kids to McDonald’s for dinner? Is that revolutionary? Really?
Even if we assume a lot of women are able to actually strike within the home, there will be no one there to see it. The whole problem with unpaid work is that it is invisible, to economists and to everyday observers. Of course, the homemakers could use their day off to go out to lunch or shop. Wearing red so they can be seen. But that is just a boon to restaurants and retailers.
And, anyway, the third thing the organizers have said to do is to stay away from shopping. Now, I have said for a long time that the most powerful tool women have in the economy today is their control over consumption. And everybody is a consumer. And you do it on your own time. This is something, therefore, that all women can participate in. However, orchestrating such a thing requires substantial focus if it is to have any effect. As an afterthought to a strike, it will get lost. You need instead to do it as a focal action. You need to hold it not on International Women’s Day just because it is cute, but instead in the run-up to Christmas because it will hurt. And, at that time of the year, the impact will be measured in real time and the media will be reporting retail sales levels on a weekly basis. You do need to do it for at least a week, so that there is a big enough dip to be meaningful. It would take planning so that women could be sure essentials were on hand and that stuff like Christmas gifts are handmade or whatever. It can’t just be an afterthought if this kind of strike (really a boycott) is to be effective.
So far, there is at least one glimmer that today’s strike may work: the schools in the US are closing. However, there will be significant backlash. The movement is already being charged with including only privileged women, since most women cannot afford to strike from work (why was this issue not raised for A Day Without Immigrants?). And of course the right wing media are making much of the contradiction that women striking in the home will have to hire some other, less privileged woman to do their work for them. (The right wing never conceives that the solution might be for men to do the work.)
It will be a shame if all the great stuff about the Women’s March now turns to failure because we weren’t more imaginative about the next big public step. This, too, is a lesson. If we just pick up the time-worn tools of the traditional left, we will fail. We must think of actions and strategies that are appropriate to gender, not merely piggy-backed on old trade union stuff. It’s time to be creative.
But I will, of course, hope with my whole heart that this Day Without Women is a huge success. And I will wear red.