Women Who Strike
Does it look like there’s a huge crowd of us? You’re seeing just a fraction of our size. There are thousands more. –Lysistrata
In the 5th century BC, the Greek playwright Aristophanes wrote a bawdy comedy in which the women of Greece withhold sex from their husbands in order to secure the end of the Peloponnesian war. If the collective action led by Lysistrata had been real as opposed to fictitious, it would probably be known today as the oldest labor strike in the history of the world.
Lysistrata remains one of the most beloved of all surviving comedies from Ancient Greece, and for myself and many other women who have enjoyed it through the years, its central argument, that the provision of sex and intimacy is a type of labor that can be collectively withheld in order to improve the material circumstances of women and their families, invites us to unpack and analyze the many types of invisible and uncompensated labor that women in the 21st century are expected to perform.
Today, March 8, 2017, we may see one of the largest women’s strikes in history. In addition to paid work, the Women Strike website invites women to strike from “emotional labor, childcare, diapers, housework, cooking, sweeping, laundry, dishes, errands, groceries, fake smiles, flirting, makeup”. But not everyone is able to strike in that way. Single mothers and others may not be in a position to withhold this labor.
Our response today should also include listening to the voices of mothers, especially marginalized mothers, and requires us not to abandon such work, but to organize to redistribute it collectively and to secure compensation for the people who perform it, who already face intersecting oppressions such as race, class, and disability. Single mothers are marginalized, economically and culturally, while married and partnered mothers can face the choice between leaving abusive relationships and keeping food on the table.
Healthcare is a Women’s Rights Issue
Corporate feminism tells us that aspiration and success is within everyone’s reach if they endeavor to try hard enough, a message which has the unuttered flipside that failure is also down to the individual not wanting it enough… Super Mums are invariably wealthier than the readers of weekend supplements, and when asked about how they manage, they never respond: “I hired a number of women to work for low wages, cleaning and running my household, carrying out life admin, organizing my diary, and raising my children.” - Dawn Foster, Lean Out
Why is the provision of healthcare a feminist issue? For a start, women are over-represented in low-wage and part-time work, meaning that they are less likely to have access to health insurance through their employer than men. According to economist Laura D’Andrea Tyson, women make up "75% of workers in the lowest-paid occupations and about 60% of minimum wage workers". Tyson adds that "most women earning the minimum wage are not teenagers, or wives who can rely on a spouse's income." Of the women who work in low-wage jobs, half are women of color. And with 24% of women in the United States relying on their partner for health insurance as a dependent, it would be reasonable to estimate that there are at least thousands of women, especially mothers to small children with medical conditions, who endure abusive relationships in order to keep themselves and their children insured.
In addition to being disadvantaged when it comes to access to affordable healthcare, women are already providing critical care to children, parents and other family members for free. The valuing of this invisible labor by both governments and society has long been a primary goal for radical elements of the feminist movement.
Recently, unpacking the ways in which emotional and caring labor continue to hold women back has once again become a primary subject in feminist discourses. Early last year, I became aware of what is now known as the Emotional Labor Metafilter Thread, a 49-page compilation of stories on this topic, mostly from anonymous women. The document had a strong impact on many of my friends and even the most committed activists among us noted how often we had seen this type of gendered exploitation reproduced in our social movements.
At the same time, our trans sisters and queer friends noted how they were often expected to attend to the emotional needs of cisgendered men and women. Black women activists point out a similar dynamic between themselves and white activists, especially white women. It is clear that the experience of emotional labor and caring labor is not a universal one, and in order to redistribute that labor, we must also address the race and class barriers that exist in society today.
Interview: China Martens, real Super-Mum and author of The Future Generation
In a previous post, I wrote that “In order to see a transformational change to a caring society, as activists, we must first transform our relationships with one another”. Since the 1990s, China Martens has been one of the most influential and prolific writers when it comes to imagining and documenting this transformation. As a young, poor, and single mother, she responded to a lack of support structures for mothers and parents in the punk scene by creating a radical parenting zine, called The Future Generation. China is currently raising funds in order to print the second edition of her anthology of sixteen years of The Future Generation.
Brittany: Tell me about The Future Generation.
China: I started The Future Generation in 1990, when I was a 23-year-old anarchist-punk single mother and my daughter was two years old. The first issue included topics of home birth, city planning, and excerpts from books like Recreating Motherhood: Ideology and Technology in a Patriarchal Society by Barbara Katz Rothman. Its cover included a quote by Emma Goldman: “We, who pay dearly for every breath of pure, fresh air, must guard against the tendency to fetter the future”.
I wanted to connect with other parents, outside the mainstream, like myself, and not so like myself, as well as those who had no children of their own but were interested in things like social parenting, as these issues do concern us all.
I continued the zine into my daughter’s teenage years, changing all the while, writing about whatever concerned me. In 2007, Atomic Books approached me to compile a book out of the back issues. Now – ten years later – I’m raising money to help support the ten-year anniversary second edition to come out again. My daughter, who is 29 now, is going to write a new afterword for it.
I started out in self-publishing feeling I was a radical, but ended up feeling just like the average poor person, without enough options and too much stress. But I think all of it is valid, my parenting trajectory, and my personal writing, which many different people have told me inspired and empowered them in their own paths.
Why is it that childrearing and eldercare are usually uncompensated or under-compensated, especially at a moment when healthcare costs are at an all-time high?
Labor is exploited when a person is not fairly compensated. When they have no control over their work, when productivity is placed over humanity and their different needs, and when they are used up until they are thrown away. We are taught to think of others, or of ourselves, as lesser beings if our work is being exploited or if our lives are not given the same rights as people from more privileged groups. This subjugation trickles down to the expanse of our personal lives.
We live in a country built on the bloodshed and ongoing oppression of its indigenous people, on the enslavement of African peoples and on the profiteering off of war, exploitative labor practices, and other misery. It is no surprise that the work of caring for others, what we call in Revolutionary Mothering the work of mothering (beyond gender or biology), the work of nurturing, of creating, of providing for the survival of the species, is a “priceless” invisible labor.
In this society, it’s seen as weak if you need the support of other people. Caregiving is not valued. It is expected and belittled. Many people think you shouldn’t have children if you can’t afford them. The invisible (and often gendered) labor that we have to perform in order for ourselves and others to bloom and flourish, is insulted as not important because it is not paid. The worker, as a child or elder, is no longer pertinent except as a consumer or a statistic to create profit from social workers, researchers, etc.
If people were full, whole, healthy, happy, unified, they would be unexploitable. You can’t sell a happy person a lie. You have to break their culture, and their self-esteem, to profit from them. At this point, we are all cogs in the machine – being exploited or exploiting at different levels. Capitalism is a cancer built on lack: on unfulfilled, purposely manufactured, unceasing hunger.
Raising life, giving life and taking care of life in all phases of life, without exploitation, with liberation for the young and those who raise and care for them, requires a more just society.
One of the demands of Women Strike, which is calling for an international day of strike action on May 8, is National Healthcare For All. Why is the provision of healthcare for everyone as a human right essential to the liberation of mothers and caregivers?
Mothers and other caregivers often have a double, triple or quadruple job. We need to look at intersectional mothering, which is not just intersectional feminism, but also making connections between how these different identities and issues create differences in the conditions of mothering. At the root of health care is the right for every human being to have physical and mental health. Much of health begins before, during, and after birth as well as through childhood into young adulthood. Mothers are often the first teachers, nurses, researchers, culture transmitters, cooks, resource procurers, transportation, emotional and spiritual advisors, community builders, etc. and are on the front line of care work. Infancy and early childhood are very important times. As long as mothers do not have access to health care for themselves or children, we cannot live in a just or fair society.
Not every woman will be able to strike today, or participate in any action in the same way, and there should always be alternative ways to participate and express oneself as well as movements that are inclusive of all issues, including mothering. March 8 is a good day to be mindful of mothers, especially marginalized mothers, and others who cannot go on strike today. Single moms and others who don't have the same ability to strike and how we need to show up for them more every day, center marginalized mothers’ voices in our movement.
As much as intersectional feminism has caught on as a keyword, we still are not examining what intersectional mothering means. For example, the stress of racism has impacted black mothers to have more than three times the rate of infant mortality than white mothers. Immigrant mothers are threatened more than ever with being separated from their children, and with having their children incarcerated. For many, including trans mothers, their reproductive rights are in danger. Not all women have equal rights when it comes to mothering.
What can the movement for healthcare justice do to help reduce the risks that new mothers face?
Support, not judge! Especially when it comes to poor mothers, young mothers, mothers of color, queer, lesbian, and trans mothers, immigrant mothers, disabled mothers, and other marginalized groups. While marginalized mothers are some of the most impacted members of society by oppressions within society, they are also the people with the most answers to how to create a better world.
Historically, services for low-income mothers and mothers of color have been used to control their reproductive options against their knowledge or will instead of being used to empower and uplift them. We must trust a woman’s right to make choices for her own body, and we must support these choices. Poor women, young, immigrant, mothers of color, lesbian, queer, and trans mothers, mothers with disabilities, as well as other groups have often been demonized for the oppressions they face instead of aided in the liberations they sought to raise up, for themselves and their children. Listen to mothers, listen to those impacted, especially to marginalized mothers’ voices – and you will make a better world for everyone. Trust they are the experts on their own lives and aid and abet them in the resources that they need to improve the world.
Too much money is made off exploiting those in poverty, criminalization, and punishment; also in research, medicine, and social work. The power has to be in the hands of those who are most impacted to change their lives.
Trust mothers and support them so they can trust their children and themselves. There is no replacement for the power of mothering, or those who do the work, who give care, who are there in day-to-day life. We need a network of care-supporting caregivers. Every mother, no matter where she is and how society validates her, is very important to the health of present and future generations.
Brittany Shannahan is the Statewide Organizer for the Healthcare is a Human Right Campaign. An educator, social scientist and historian, Brittany has been involved in a variety of social movements in the US and the UK since 2009. You can follow her on Twitter at @ecoshenanigans.
China Martens is a Baltimore writer and a zinestress extraordinaire. She is the author/co-editor of three books. Her first book, "The Future Generation", is a compilation of 16 years of her first zine. She is also the co-editor of "Don't Leave Your Friends Behind: Concrete Ways To Support Families In Social Justice Movements & Communities" and "Revolutionary Mothering: Love On The Front Lines."