Why Women Are Skipping Work and Wearing Red Today

U.S. organizers of International Women’s Day urge women to find creative ways to strike on March 8.
mar8strike.jpg

Photograph via Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Photographs and Prints Division, The New York Public Library.

Margaret Prescod seemed preoccupied when I reached her by phone to ask about the International Women’s Strike planned for Wednesday, which she is helping to organize. I heard background noise on the line, and asked her what was going on.

Nearly 100 organizations have endorsed the women’s strike.

“I’m loading groceries into my car,” she said, “something I will not be doing on Wednesday!”

That’s because March 8 is International Women’s Day, and Prescod is advocating that women withdraw their participation from both paid and unpaid labor. She’s going to walk the talk, too—and that rules out schlepping groceries.

Prescod represents women of color in the group Global Women’s Strike, which has been advocating strikes on International Women’s Day every year since 2000. Turnout has been modest in the United States in recent years, compared to places like India and the United Kingdom. But this year Prescod expects a stronger showing. Nearly 100 organizations have endorsed the women’s strike, including major progressive groups like MoveOn.org and the National Organization for Women—as well as a wide range of issue-based and local groups with a feminist focus. Marches are planned for cities in every part of the United States and in 30 countries around the world. Women and allies plan to wear red to show their support.

Organizers are hoping the day will build on the momentum of the Women’s March that took place on Jan. 21—but with a stronger focus on women of color and the heightened militancy that comes with withholding labor and spending.

“We’re in a crisis,” Prescod says. “The progress that we’ve made over the years has been slow to begin with. But now there’s also the worry that … what we were able to win, we have a good chance of those things being taken away.” She’s talking about things like reproductive rights, support for low-income mothers, and the rights of immigrant women.

Many women who share her concerns can’t risk their jobs.

I spoke with nine organizers involved in planning the March 8 strike, and all of them shared Prescod’s concerns. Some emphasized deportations and torn-apart families. Others described workplaces in which women are stuck doing menial work while men build their careers. Others spoke of living in a constant state of fear.

“When I’m in a parking lot and I’m by myself, I’m putting my keys between my fingers,” said Megan Shade of the Miami Femmes Coalition, a newly formed group that advocates for the rights of women, people of color, and LGBTQ people. “And I’m not the only woman who does that.”

While Prescod’s organization has been promoting women’s strikes for decades, this is Shade’s first time. She’s a 26-year-old queer black woman who works retail at the clothing store Forever 21. Like all the organizers I spoke with, she understands that many women who share her concerns can’t risk their jobs. That’s why the event she’s planning will start at 6:00 p.m., so that women can attend the march and vigil after work hours.

That’s not to say women won’t be striking. While none of the organizers I spoke with were planning a traditional strike, most were urging their members to find creative ways to avoid work and show solidarity.

Linda Oalican is the executive director of Damayan, a New York City-based organization that represents more than 8,000 mostly Filipino domestic workers in the Northeast. About 95 percent are women, mostly mothers who immigrated to the United States in order to support their children. Once here, they face low pay, long hours, and difficulties with their legal status. And now, under the Trump administration, the threat of deportation is more serious than ever.

“We’re all for the strike,” says Oalican, “but we’re not trying to make our members lose their jobs.” Instead, she’s urging them to explain the strike to their employers and ask for their support. She’s optimistic that many of her members will join Wednesday’s marches and educational sessions with their employers’ full permission.

She’s urging them to explain the strike to their employers and ask for their support.

Andrea Cristina Mercado of the National Domestic Workers Alliance says her organization has similar plans and that the strategy has worked in the past. “We’ve also seen … nannies getting permission to take the kids they care for to a rally or to a march,” she says. “A lot of beautiful examples of solidarity will emerge.”

Organizers are expecting serious impacts, including showcasing the unity between women from different walks of life. “March 8 will proclaim solidarity between women who do paid work and women who do unpaid work, as well as Native women, women of color, immigrant women, and lesbians and trans women,” says Ann Montague, co-chair of the western region for the Service Employees International Union’s Lavender Caucus, which represents LGBTQ members of that union.

Similarly, Deepa Kumar hopes the strike will help move feminism toward deeper solidarity with working-class women and women of color. Kumar is vice president of the American Association of University Professors at Rutgers University, representing nearly 7,000 faculty members. She says that Hillary Clinton’s campaign for president “put forth a version of feminism I would call ‘elite feminism,’ about breaking glass ceilings,” when “most women aren’t looking at the ceiling.” Instead, they’re struggling to pay the costs of health care, child care, and education, and Kumar hopes the events of March 8 will focus women’s attention on those problems.

For other groups, participating in the women’s strike is a way of standing up and being seen within the broader feminist context. “We want to talk about International Women’s Day from the perspective of migrant domestic workers, not from the perspective of middle-class progressives,” says Linda Oalican from Damayan, “especially in a political environment where the Trump administration has no problem criminalizing immigrant women.”

“Red means resist, revolt, revolution.”

Carol Leigh of the Bay Area Sex Workers Advocacy Network wants her members to speak for themselves, too. “It’s important for [sex workers] to take our place in the vast community of women and be sure that women’s movements … recognize those of us who are criminalized,” explains Leigh. She believes the voices of sex workers are important because they’re accustomed to being targeted in ways that the Trump administration is now applying to broader populations—especially immigrants.

“Sex workers are well-versed in the dangers that can emerge with this approach,” says Leigh. “For instance, if you’re criminalized, you can’t go to the police when you’re raped.”

And withholding work or not, women taking action will be unified visually by wearing the color red.

“Red means resist, revolt, revolution,” says Montague.

For Leigh, it means “anger and courage.”

But Megan Shade from Miami Femmes Coalition sees the color in personal terms. “For me, wearing red is blood and the sacrifice of my ancestors,” she said, “who have created this path to justice and liberation.”