Since 2016, feminist mobilizations have reactivated the practice of the strike. Some countries have experienced mass expressions of it; in others, the term was simply adopted and with it a forceful idea: the power of social disruption. Partial strikes were carried out around the world with varying degrees of support, as were sit-ins, marches, actions, and calls to stop the various productive and reproductive circuits in which women are involved on a daily basis. For feminists the call to strike entails a number of pressing problems, since traditional models of the strike do not account for reproductive and other forms of unwaged or marginalized labor. The question then becomes what kind of strike would best serve those who tirelessly perform the labor of social reproduction and who at the same time are most denigrated and devalued. Yet looking back on the history of the strike, we are reminded that many strikes were connected to elements of working-class life that did not directly concern production. Looking to recent historical instances of the feminist strike recorded in the visual archive, this article seeks to broaden the feminist understanding of the strike by uncovering how women have used it on their own terms and in their own ways to effect change.
The Question of the Strike and the Strike as Question
Since 2016, feminist mobilizations have reactivated the practice of the strike. Some countries experienced mass expressions of it; in others, the term was simply adopted and with it a forceful idea: the power of social disruption. Partial strikes were carried out around the world with varying degrees of support, as were sit-ins, marches, actions, and calls to stop the various productive and reproductive circuits in which women are involved on a daily basis.
The call was not without its paradoxes. The strike, unlike the march, brought us to the limits of what was possible. On March 8, we were able to experience it firsthand. Some were not able to stop for even the duration of the sit-ins and marches, as the care work they perform could not wait, while the participation of others was limited by the difficulties it would create for the following day's tasks. The questions that arose concerned not only the rhythms of home life but also strained schools, hospitals, nursing homes, vending in stores and on the street, distribution centers, and transport. Who would pick up the children (if they went to school)? Who could (not) stop and for how long? What would the reprisals be for those who participated? How would one deal with food and travel? How would one participate within rural spaces? How would those in difficult circumstances join in? How would we work together although we came from unequal positions? Everything was put on hold; everything had to be rearranged; everything had to be resolved or at least thought about. In any case, the questions brought us back to the powerful slogan of the women comrades of Territorio Doméstico (Domestic Territory) in Madrid: “Without us, the world won't move!” At least (not) the world as we know it.
The strike opened up innumerable questions and with them an improbable, unprecedented space-time amid the daily turmoil that seemed a mere instant. All this reminded us that beyond the interpretations that emphasize the strike as a vanguard position, or that dismiss it outright, labeling it elitist (only some can afford the luxury of going on strike, there are those who can stop while others keep working!), what the strike provokes above all is an open interpellation in a gesture that signals a double paradox: namely, the paradox of those who tirelessly provide for others in a thousand and one ways and who at the same time are denigrated on a daily basis, violated, and even discarded because, despite everything, their lives do not matter. They must provide more labor, better well-being, more affective resources, healthier bodies, greater determination to put food on the table in lean times or in dealing with children when they come home with problems . . . but at the same time they experience more violence, dispossession, and annihilation.
Highlighting this double paradox in terms of the re-production of the human, nature, and politics—we sustain the world, but we are expendable; we call for a strike, but we cannot stop—is what brought the feminist imagination to bear on the different and unequal experiences that this call might evoke. The strike brought with it the historical tools of work stoppage and vitality from below and interpellated a subject that in its differences and singularities sought to become collective. The strike became a matter of collective action that pointed to a persistent feminist tradition that, when carefully considered, didn't owe anything to anyone: labor strike, womb strike, sex strike, fertility strike, care strike . . . and simultaneously and nested within these, daily, persistent, and creative attempts to rebuild this damaged world.
Looking Back at the Strike
Tracing the strikes led by a variety of women yields important lessons. Many of the so-called general strikes were not such; today we can recognize their partiality. Similarly, many of the world's strikes have not entered into the canon because they are not sufficiently intelligible within the paradigm of the productive strike. But that is not the end of the story. If we were to review the history of strikes, we would see the imaginary that often surrounds them, for instance in cinema, where the strike is usually depicted as a brave group of men at a large industrial site in pursuit of better wages and working conditions, dangerously receding. As Asad Haider and Salar Mohandesi have recalled, many strikes were connected to elements of working-class life that did not directly concern production, such as sanitation, housing, and food shortages and access.1 Meanwhile others that addressed safety from sexual violence, the right to abortion and pregnancy, access to health care, the ability to breastfeed, the dignity of those not recognized as “workers,” wages for domestic work, the threat of war, or access to certain spaces or key infrastructure such as roads or water sources, have occupied a significant place within working-class mobilizations.
A significant number of strikes have occurred not in the workplace but rather outside of it, in neighborhoods, on city streets, or on highways that link communities. And many more were carried out not by employees—that is, men and women who earn a salary—but by their partners, their children, and their neighbors and allies. In many places, given the marginality of salaried labor, the strike's profile is blurred or intermingled with those of takeovers, uprisings, and other actions that many would not consider to be strikes in the strict sense of the term. For many, this idea moves away from what drives a strike: work. Yet it is precisely this new perspective that allows us to visualize forms of extraction and exploitation.
Undoubtedly, an attentive look at the strike yields countless novelties. In any case, it helps take measure of the core of the feminist strike proposal: an escalation of re-production struggles that bring us closer to an authentically general strike, one that does not leave behind the work produced in homes, communities, and in the streets and fields. At the moment, the call concerns those who have inhabited the margins of productive strikes: women, unwaged or precariously waged women, and women who have mostly taken on the work of support and care. But things could go much further—to include children, retired people, family or subsistence farmers, students, the unemployed, the unwaged population, the “unproductive” sectors, the semidependent self-employed, the inhabitants of the countryside: that immense world that is below or at the edges of waged life but whose existence is tied to income, whose tasks subsidize accumulation, and whose territories and livelihoods are subsumed by mafias and corporations.
Let us briefly approach, then, in visual terms, five strikes (putting strike for a moment in parentheses) to see what this perspective yields.
In “Between Babies and Banners: Story of the Emergency Brigade,”2 Lorraine Gray recounts the experience of women in the famous strike that took place at a factory in Flint, Michigan, in late 1936 and early 1937. Their demands had to do with the acceleration of production, the regulation of working hours and wages, and union repression. This was a classic strike scenario that, seen from the women's perspective, brought up other issues. The participation of the workers' wives and homemakers from this huge General Motors city was remarkable. The confinement of the men in the mythical Chevrolet Plant 4 contrasts with the women's coming and going. Many of them took over cooking and provisioning, acts so necessary for the survival of the strike, while others, like Gerona Dollinger, resisted: “You've got a lot of little, skinny men around here who can't stand to be out on the cold picket lines for very long. They can peel potatoes as well as women can.”3 These workers' wives took the lead on the plant's political strategy and physical self-defense through the Women's Auxiliary Brigade. Their sons and daughters socialized during the strike, in the cafeterias, in kitchens, and on picket lines for more than a month, while the women repeatedly broke the police offensive and fired up the people with their proposals and creativity.
Like other industrial strikes, this one revealed a rich universe of interactions that interrupted the homogenizing, disciplining, and moralizing tendencies of the assembly line and workers' homes. The factory, the street, the kitchen, the businesses, the assemblies, the community—everything was tied together as the conflict unfolded and the women called more and more actors to the stage. Gerona recounts that when they won, triggering unionization and conflict beyond the confines of Flint itself, the men told them it was time to go home and that the dirty clothes had been piling up in the meantime. Many returned, but they never took off their red berets, and they remained tied to the union. This other side of the strike, as well as the ability to imagine it as the stoppage and reactivation of an entire community, had left its indelible mark. The idea of shifting reproduction to the center of the battlefield, as a shared act accomplished by alternative means, has been present in many labor conflicts. Although it may not appear frequently in stories or the archive, it is undoubtedly a part of women's cumulative historical experience.
The second strike, also captured on visual record in the film Les prostitués de Lyon parlent by Carole Roussopoulos, is no less revealing. In 1975, the prostitutes of Lyon stopped working and occupied Saint-Nizier Church to denounce police harassment, extortion, abusive tax demands, imprisonment, and social stigmatization.4 Shortly before this action, three of their coworkers had been murdered. The occupation took place after several attempts to mobilize and was supported first by a group of young Catholics and then by feminists. In the name of Mary Magdalene, the woman who anointed the feet of Jesus Christ, more than one hundred women took over the church; the priest refused to remove them, and the gesture was replicated in other cities. Judging from the outside, their presence became truly unprecedented for a society that suddenly saw them and, above all, heard them through the loudspeakers in the streets. They denounced their working conditions, the extortion to which they were subjected, and the effect this had on them and their children: “Our children do not want to see their mothers imprisoned.”
The right to the city and the street, to see and be seen, to lock themselves in and show that their going out was tantamount to being arrested: these became ways of publicly explaining the life of a group united because of repression. At the time, they had no experience organizing this type of action, nor any experience of dialoguing with civil and religious authorities. Following this strike and lock-in, which lasted a week in Lyon, several prison sentences were commuted, and repression against the women was relaxed for a time.
It is difficult to measure the impact of the strike, both for these sex workers and for the dominant social imaginary. But what is certain is that their speaking out and the emergence in public space of these bodies, supported by the bodies and language of their allies, unsettled the women's habitual position and their activity and condition, which had seemed completely alien to the world of work, to the proper functioning of society, to respectability, and to what feminism claimed as women's shared oppressions. Evidently, the strike and its demands, also supported by abolitionist sectors, had to do with the performance of an activity considered nonwork, informal work (or service), and something indecent (but useful). Undoubtedly, the impulse to dignify this type of work was a crucial aspect of the strike. To strike was, in this case, to be seen/heard, to come out of the shadows, to be recognized, and to be respected. Although street vending, domestic work, or recycling are not equivalent, they share with sex work some elements that make the strike strange; after all, what is “gained” by stopping, what is interrupted, what exactly is being called for? Why strike like this when one's income is made on a daily basis?
The third strike took place in the 1930s, this time in Ecuador with Dolores Cacuango and Tránsito Amaguaña at the helm. The images of them that have been preserved help us to get a sense of their poise and bravery; among these images is a fragment of Rolf Blomberg's 1969 interview with Cacuango for his film ¿Los indígenas son personas? (Are the Indigenous People?).5 These Indigenous women led the uprising of the huasipungo community of Cayambe prior to the formation of the Ecuadorian Federation of Indians in 1944.6 Two important strikes took place in 1930 and 1931 in the haciendas of Pesillo, La Chimba, Moyurco, and San Pablo Urco. The situation of debt bondage is well known and similar to that found in other regions. But what was unique about these strikes was the prominence and leadership of women. In addition to talking about labor demands, even before the call for agrarian reform took shape, women interpreted domination in a particularly complex sense, addressing issues that touched on reproduction and sexuality under the despotic regime of large, wealthy landowners.
First, they demanded remuneration for women whose work did not count. Second, they refused the requirement that women and children render personal services in the hacienda house. This was considered to be a kind of a natural obligation, as “natural” as being forced to breastfeed the babies of the landowners at the cost of the lives of their own, as narrated in Huasipungo (The Villagers), the thrilling novel by Jorge Icaza. The strike also included the rejection of women's sexual obligation to their employers, systematic rape, as well as the ritualized right of the latter to use them sexually before their husbands. They also spoke of the destruction of their homes and the killing of their animals, of everything that allowed for the precarious reproduction of their lives, which were always subject to debt and to the discretionary rule of foremen and army squads. One of the strike demands in Pesillo was for the opening of a school in Pucará. Alliances with the mestizo urban left, particularly among women and feminists, including Dolores Cacuango along with Nela Martinez, and Maria Luisa Gomez de la Torre, made possible the opening of bilingual schools in the 1940s. As in the Flint strike, the women in this struggle attended to this issue and to women's welfare more generally, encouraging their capacities for social and political participation—and those of the new generations—through training schools. “We didn't just fight for land and better treatment,” said Tránsito on one occasion. Strike, escape, revolt, assault on the hacienda house, marches: in Dolores's words: “We have fought for all and in all possible ways [Todito se ha luchado],” and this idea of “all” gave shape to the conception of the struggle that placed social and cultural reproduction at its very center.
The fourth experience of the strike, this one a sex strike, has been very important in Africa and in the African diaspora. Sex strikes have been waged against authoritarian regimes, in favor of civil and political liberties, or against war, and to guarantee sustainability in the face of extraction. One of the most notable of these actions was the one led by the “market women” in Liberia in 2003. Pray the Devil Back to Hell (2009) by Gini Reticker and Abigaile Disney tells the story of these women and Leymah Gbowee, leader of the Women in Peacebuilding Program and winner of the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize. Gbowee says she had a dream, and that dream was peace for Liberia after several military coups, authoritarian regimes, widespread militarization, and two civil wars involving tribal clashes originating from the very formation of the nation.7 According to Gbowee, “the market women” who were called to mobilize from Christian churches and Muslim houses of worship got involved first because they knew the combatants but also because there were many of them, and their work consisted in constantly moving around with merchandise and even carrying weapons in their bundles. They knew when the war was coming and what the fighting was going to be like; they knew what it cost to earn their bread and run for their lives; they knew what it was like to suffer the rape of their daughters and see their sons armed, and they were fed up with the situation. These women, Gbowee explains, as market workers, were better equipped than anyone else to muster the courage to stop the violence in order to secure a better future. The women wore white T-shirts in the name of peace and launched a sex strike that challenged men at different levels: the men of the house, the armed men but also those who remained silent, the warlords, and the government.
The sex strike underscored the power and vulnerability of the body, its capacity to produce pleasure, pain, procreation, shelter, and desire. The sex strike's effectiveness as a strategy does not always pan out, but its symbolic force is enormous. After all, if women's bodies stop, something is seriously wrong. Yet, their bodies did not actually stop; they directly confronted the murderous president Charles Taylor and stood in the way of delegates leaving peace talks in Ghana. When they wanted to have the women physically removed, these women threatened the men with a terrible curse: that they would force them to confront the naked bodies of their own mothers or those of older women (equivalent to their own mothers). This represented a deliberate challenge to any self-respecting male. The abuse of women engaging in struggle in various places in Africa, most notably in Nigeria in the 1980s, gave rise to this irrevocable gesture. The men’s extreme rage at this threat to their dignity illustrates the vulnerability present in their powerful corporeality. The crime thus turns against the one who brought it about, who in his abuse has revealed his cowardice and moral baseness and as a result is left deeply weakened. As Gbowee reminds us, abuse is the greatest pain a woman can feel, and when such a thing happens, when the violation is of such magnitude that it triggers the curse, the result is that everyone present turns to themselves and asks: but what have I done, how did I (we) get here?
Both the struggle against corrupt and violent regimes and, at the same time, the struggle against the precarization of existence have led many women to the strategy of the sex strike (which has also been called by sex workers). In 2011, the Afro-descendant community of Barbacoas in Colombia was involved in a revealing case for Latin America. The ability to directly target men with this call, as well as states, provoking unexpected public and private dialogues, has proved a powerful tool.
I would like to conclude by discussing one last strike that has become a classic point of reference in the feminist struggle: the one that took place in Iceland on October 24, 1975. It unfolded over an entire day during which 90 percent of women did not go to work, go shopping, take their children to school, prepare dinner, keep house, or take care of anyone, and instead gathered together in the streets for a political event of which we have some images and a visual document in the film Women in Red Stockings (2009), directed by Kristín Einarsdóttir. It was not officially called a strike but rather a “day off.”
The film's protagonists explain the effect the second-wave feminist movements and actions had on them and make special mention of the Redstockings of the women's liberation movement of the late 1960s in the United States. This group of radical feminists led novel actions and street theater, as well as self-awareness groups where they denounced the situation of women who had abortions, the commercial use of the female body, and male supremacy at work and everywhere else. This inspired the Icelandic women, who marched together on May Day carrying a giant Venus under the disapproving gaze of their peers, who interpreted the figure as a mockery and tried to expel them. In a short time, the Icelandic Redstockings grew, demanding nursery schools, organizing publications, performing theater, denouncing wage inequalities, organizing festivals in remote villages, making lesbianism visible, defending the right over one's own body, and rejecting domestic chores. Satirical actions, such as the crucifixion of a housewife on a Christmas tree or the appearance of a ribboned cow in a beauty contest, caused a stir, as did the idea of a strike. Well, they said, if it causes fear among women, let's call it “a day off.”
And the day off came, and with it a huge parade, with songs, speeches, and a big march that gathered women of different ages and conditions in Reykjavík. Many businesses were unable to get work done, and schools were closed as the teachers were mostly women. The same was true for stores and fish-processing plants. Some men took their children to work, and many women, as shown in figure 5, went with their children to the march. The hostility and support received by the Redstockings' actions could also be seen during the strike. Some activists say that the men were somewhere between perplexed and amused, not angry. Some could not stop their female colleagues from leaving at the risk of looking bad, while others lashed out at those who had stayed home. “But how can you let your wife get up on the dais and shout like that? I would never allow my wife to do that.” “Yeah, my wife would never marry a guy like you,” replied one of them.
It seems hard to imagine something like this without the Redstockings and the defiant energy that had built up. It went far beyond demands for equal pay or the sharing of domestic duties; by making women visible together in the square, the strike called into question their place and that of men in society, while at the same time there unfolded a joyful yet unsettled everydayness. The strike lasted only one day, but its effects were important, both in the country's political disputes and, again, in those happening in homes. This and other actions were followed by legislative changes, especially concerning care work, and, as in Liberia, the election of a female president. A women's political platform, Women's Alliance, entered the scene, and with it, as some activists remark, the conversation shifted to more conventional terrain. As happens when social energy and creativity are institutionalized, new languages were adopted, and the resulting balance sheets are not always compelling.
To the Strike, Comrades!
So what do these five strikes tell us today? What does this other perspective on the strike offer? There are many lessons to be learned from these and a thousand other strikes, unusual only in appearance, but I want to highlight at least four.
The first is that the strike puts into relief the way in which women weave together the “productive” and the “reproductive.” Interruption, for us, radically reveals the unpostponable—feeding, resting, sheltering, healing, provisioning—which, when put on hold in the struggle, becomes not a hindrance but rather a reconfiguration of the very power of the action, which, moreover, no longer belongs to a few but rather to all those who participate. As I have suggested elsewhere, the recent rebellions and uprisings in Latin America put this virtuality into play: what if reproduction and those in charge of it, instead of staying at home or retreating to the back, were to valorize it, expand it, turn it not only into a matter of demands but into the basis of action and self-organization, placing it at the very heart of revolt?8 As struggles are increasingly directed toward vital sustainability in various regions, they thus reveal through their actions that reproduction itself is the struggle.
Women, from their “nonplaces,” from their “nonjobs,” from the interstices of employment, informality, housework, and the hustle and bustle of the neighborhood and the farm, have understood the communal character of the strike and have overwhelmed its traditional repertoires. We have glimpsed, if just for a moment, what it means to put reproduction at the center of the struggle, to conceive of the general strike as a community strike, as well as the political capacity of the so-called dependent and unproductive against the system that turns them into such. To unsettle one's assigned place by ceasing the reproduction of the everyday means to occupy a place along with the rest, which implies shifting the hierarchy between what is important and what is considered to be of secondary importance. Many time is a matter of stopping normal reproductive activity, to do things in other ways.
As a second reflection, it is worth pointing out the tremendous richness of reproductive struggles and of the perspectives that consider them. They draw attention to contemporary logics that connect the violence practiced on feminized and racialized bodies, the extraction practiced on all living things, the punitive control of sexuality and reproductive capacity, cultural and educational subordination, and the appropriation of vital energies coupled with a lack of recognition. The strikes of which I have spoken, which are the predecessors and inspiration for the feminist strikes of the present, speak to different levels, connecting the bedroom, the public square, the highway and the country, industry, the kitchen and the community, the church and the streets, the market stall and peace talks, the hacienda house, the chakra (a small plot of land used for self-subsistence), and the schools—everything is woven together; everything appears to be interconnected. Interrogating public intimacy from the bottom up has been a fundamental contribution of women and feminisms. The strike (and other initiatives) flourish when anchored to each territory while simultaneously pointing to the complex dynamics that connect them, that connect us in our diversity and singularity. Red berets with shopkeepers, rural Natives with city teachers, sex workers with Christians, market women with antiwar youth, Redstockings with office workers, fish canners, housewives. The strike, some have said, is only relevant to a (privileged) sector or only speaks to experiences of work and life on certain parts of the planet. But the enormous inventiveness and diversity of these and other strikes bring us back to the idea of social mobilization as a question and to the desire to interrupt things wherever they occur.
Third, it is important to understand the use that has been made of the power of bodies in these conflicts, which in a beautiful contradiction reveals the fragility, vulnerability, and interdependence, the powerful breath of life that inhabits them, and the limits of ethics and politics. Reversing silence and invisibility, abjection and abuse, and racial and sexual classification, and working to build embodied dignities have been new elements with great symbolic value. The body has signaled a limit by ceasing to carry on and thus has revealed its reexistence.9 As Indigenous feminisms teach us, it is not worth fighting for land, water, or forests, if the first territory—that of the body—is trampled upon.10
Finally, to address work and the strike. To stop, shut down, displace, escape, remove oneself, interrupt, cut, and obstruct. In many jobs these actions are meaningless, which is why many feminists have seen the strike as a biased tool or one that belongs only to certain sectors.11 The truth is that these experiences show us that social interruption has been a powerful source of invention and struggle for different women and for women more generally. Certainly the strike is not always the best instrument; the strike does not always work by itself; and the strike does not speak to everyone equally. The strike is not a moment; it has its own preambles and is accompanied by different principles. The question “What is your strike?”12 approaches the problem but does not quite solve it. The “day off” mobilized the Icelandic women, stopping sex agitated the Colombian women of Barbacoas and the Kenyan women fighting against deforestation and monoculture, while hunger strikes motivated Bolivian vendors in their claim to the streets as a place to work. Far from turning the strike into a fetish, it is necessary to interrogate the multiple forms of disaffiliation and refusal to repeat an unjust order, whatever it may be. Along with social interruption as a questioning and a multifaceted experiment, we have the capacity to appropriate in that same gesture the global conditions of existence. What is seen from this other side of the social strike does not invoke a single model, that of large labor concentrations, but rather an enormous capacity to move and recompose jobs and lives in all of their different facets under noncapitalist logics. Some call this “biosyndicalism,” but it could have many other names.
Imagining the feminist strike has nothing to do with disregarding productive work or “the economic,” or with thinking that women don't play a part in the different worlds of work, including wage labor; nor does it mean that this form of the strike concerns only reproduction, or women themselves, notions that would separate these struggles (always already suspected of being excessively “cultural” and not very “political”) from those of the class as a whole.13 Revisiting and recreating the strike from within various feminisms is a matter of understanding how the strike expands and gains complexity as it pushes the boundaries of the conflict from the sites of “nonjobs,” “nonwages,” feminized jobs, or those tied to indebtedness. It helps us see how exploitation today revolves around vulnerability, violence, and death; it reveals how women and feminized subjects contest racist domination and the domination of nature; it shows how forms of resistance are interwoven with sexuality, intimacy, the body, and cultural expression, and how more and more actors become involved, constantly shifting and expanding the sites of conflict, the forms of action, and their agents. In short, this effort captures how the feminist strike opens new pathways for today's struggles.
In Gray, With Babies and Banners. Note that this film is not part of many of the “official” historical archives about the strike.
Susan Rosenthal collects Dollinger's experiences in a fantastic interview, “Striking Flint,” conducted in 1995.
Huasipungo (derived from the Quechua language huasi, house, and pungo/pungu, door) is a forced labor system of the Ecuadorian sierra. In order to obtain access to a small parcel of land (a huasipungo), Indian families would consent to provide agricultural labor and to serve as domestic servants for a hacienda owner. The Indians were involved in a systems of debt peonage that involved losing their freedom. The Agrarian Reform Law (1964) turned the huasipungos over to the Indian families that worked them.
Translator's note: Re-existencia is the concept used in decolonial Latinamerican thought to speak to the fact that beyond practices of resistance, communities, de facto, sustain and value different ways of existing despite adverse conditions as a means of occupying a dignified place in society. See Albán Achinte, “Pedagogías de la re-existencia”; Gómez Cotta, Identidades y políticas culturales.
This was recently pointed out by some colleagues; see Alejandressa, “Algunas reflexiones sobre metodologías feministas.”
A question posited by the group Precarias a la Deriva in A la deriva.
Errors of this kind can be seen in these criticisms of a preliminary version of this text by Chilean colleagues. See Vega, “8M Huelga de mujeres y huelga general.”