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Women’s Right to Refuse

Why women in the United States will strike on March 8th.

(Photo: Melissa Gira Grant)

The call went out just weeks ago for a women’s strike in the United States. March 8th, International Women’s Day, would be marked by “striking, marching, blocking roads, bridges, and squares, abstaining from domestic, care, and sex work, boycotting, calling out misogynistic politicians and companies, striking in educational institutions,” as Linda Martín Alcoff, Cinzia Arruzza, Tithi Bhattacharya, Nancy Fraser, Barbara Ransby, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, Rasmea Yousef Odeh, and Angela Davis called for in a collective statement published by the Guardian. To many American women, this kind of action may have appeared out of reach. But their vision, a next step in escalating women’s demands for a “feminism of the 99%,” is a necessary refusal, and one that women across the country have already set into motion.

Women have been striking for a long time, even if the American women’s movement has not been at the lead. Social change tactics like strikes or other forms of direct action have fallen out of mainstream feminist use, in favor of awareness-raising, calls to Congress, and the casting of a ballot every four years. “Our present situation is in some ways closer to the situation in 1908, when the first women’s strikes were led by the International Ladies Garment Workers Union,” wrote Magally A. Miranda Alcazar and Kate D. Griffiths, two of the strike organizers, in The Nation. “Was it a privilege for garment workers to strike then? Would it be a privilege for us to strike now?”

As organizers met last month to plan actions for the March 8th strike, some American women writers, like Sady Doyle and Meghan Daum, claimed the strike would have relevance to only the most privileged of women. But such cautions, framed as gestures of inclusion, disregard the women who are already at the forefront of direct actions to demand dignity and rights: As part of the Fight for 15, as water protectors in North Dakota, in “Day Without an Immigrant” strikes, in the Movement for Black Lives. There is nothing new in demands for women to strike; it’s just that when women interrupt business as usual in support of labor rights — and to challenge xenophobia and white supremacy, at that — the women’s movement has not always considered those actions as taken in the name of “women’s rights.”

Striking is about breaking with routine and stopping everyday time. Such a break can also turn our attention to the past, to what women have risked before us. Out of a series of strikes and occupations, the international sex workers’ rights movement was born in the 1970s and ’80s, led by a group of women in Lyon, France. “We were at our wits end,” one said (in testimony available now in the radio documentary, La Revolte des Prostituees). “We were sick of going to jail, of being abused.” So they stopped work on June 2nd, 1975, and 150 of them — “the women prostitutes of Lyon,” they called themselves in a letter to the French president — occupied a church to demand police stop arresting them, fining them, jailing them, and separating them from their families and children.

Their strike and occupation lasted 10 days, and they were joined by hundreds more sex workers across France, striking and occupying churches in solidarity. Though it has largely been forgotten as a landmark moment for women’s rights, that strike at the time made international headlines and sparked a movement of sex workers around the world. On March 8th, sex workers will strike again. “Women sex workers have been part of the ‘feminism of the 99%’ since the very beginning of time,” declared the sex workers’ rights organizations Empower Foundation (Thailand) and English Collective of Prostitutes (United Kingdom).

Sex workers are explicitly acknowledged as workers in the U.S. Women’s Strike platform (as they were, despite attempts to remove them, by the U.S. Women’s March). “For sex workers to strike recognizes sex work as work but our call goes further,” says Laura Watson from the English Collective of Prostitutes. “We are striking for the freedom to work and to not work in sex work. So we are striking against poverty, discrimination, and criminalization that institutionalizes us in sex work. We are striking against the low wages and exploitation in other jobs that means sex work is our best option. We are striking alongside other women because we are the same women — mothers, domestic workers, farm workers, factory workers — our struggles are the same.”

Like other women workers in the service sector, particularly in the informal and criminalized economy, sex workers who will strike are far from “privileged.” As Watson explains, “sex work is often irregular and precarious with no sick pay, strike pay, or other benefits, which is why the strike call takes into consideration women’s circumstances. Some women will go on strike, others will charge double, others will take action for however long they can and in different ways — putting a broom outside their premises [a symbol adopted by the U.K. women’s strike href=""]; or joining the international call to wear black clothes, ribbon, a hat.”

In the U.S., sex workers have answered the call in that spirit. The US PROS Collective and the Sex Workers’ Outreach Project announced plans to join women’s strike actions in San Francisco and Oakland. “I’m striking from my straight job, turning off Niteflirt, and not booking sessions,” says Red, an organizer with Support Ho(s)e in Chicago, “and I will be speaking at a rally that evening about the criminalization of sex work, stolen prison labor, and why this shit has to stop.” For Red, the strike is essential because “femme labor is often made invisible, sex worker’s labor is made criminal; something’s got to give.” Jacq, a stripper in New York, says that, on March 8th, “I intend to masturbate, have lunch with my former work wives at a women-owned restaurant, and march in Central Park. I plan to spend the evening finishing Redefining Realness by Janet Mock. I won’t be humoring any men.” Storm, an escort in Atlanta, wrote to me on Twitter she’s “just taking a day to love me, my kids and to be free with no responsibility for one day!”

It’s not Wednesday yet. But it is clear that many of the women workers already committed to the March 8th women’s strike are precisely the ones who have much to lose. Domestic workers will strike by wearing red, writes Ai-jen Poo of the National Domestic Workers’ Alliance, if they have to work. If they can strike from work, they will also be joining events like the Women Workers’ Rising rally in Washington, alongside striking women health-care workers, restaurant workers, and other service workers. Already two school districts — in Alexandria City in Virginia and Chapel Hill-Carrboro in North Carolina — have announced they will close for the day due to the number of teachers expected to participate in the women’s strike.

Only a few weeks ago, did any of this seem likely? Maybe it wasn’t meant to. “First,” organizers Cinzia Arruzza and Tithi Bhattacharya wrote on February 21st, “we want to bring back the idea of the impossible.”