By ANN MONTAGUE
In October there were mass protests linked with strike activity by women in three countries. The feminist strike demands were unique to each country and an indication of increased militancy around demands that address issues women have been fighting for year after year.
On Oct. 3, seven million women throughout Poland turned out to defend their basic reproductive rights. They were protesting a proposed law that will force women to give birth and includes a prison sentence of up to five years for any woman who terminates a pregnancy. There could be a formal investigation of any woman who has a miscarriage.
The introduction of this legislation in March sparked a massive women’s rights movement that is the largest movement focused on women’s rights in Polish history. Besides opposition to this oppressive law, there has been a strong wave of support for the liberalization of the present abortion law, which was passed in 1993.
Tens of thousands of women went on strike and students boycotted classes throughout Poland. Some 30,000 women dressed in black gathered in the rain at Warsaw’s Castle Square, chanting, “we want doctors not missionaries!” and carrying signs, “My Uterus, My Opinion” and “Women Just Want FUN-damental Rights.”
Activist Agnieszka Graff was ecstatic. She told the Guardian, “The protest was bigger than anyone expected. People were astonished. Warsaw was swarming with black. It was amazing to feel the energy and the anger, the emotional intensity was incredible.” Since the rally was too large for the square, organizers led the march towards parliament, paralyzing traffic in the center of the city for two hours.
As a result of the strikes and mass marches, the ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS) urged their MPs to vote down the controversial bill. Former Prime Minister Ewa Kopacz told reporters that the PiS had “backtracked because it was scared by all the women who hit the streets in protest.” Recent polls show that public opinion has shifted since the protests with nearly overwhelming opposition to the proposed ban and increasing support for the liberalization of existing laws.
Krystyna Kacpura, an organizer of the actions, reflected, “This victory on abortion has empowered Polish women—we’ll never be the same. After our Warsaw protest, something has snapped in us. Our struggle with politicians and the church is not over, but we’ll keep fighting for our right to choose. There is so much solidarity among Polish women right now. I have never been so proud of all the empowered women. We will never be the same again.”
On Oct. 19, tens of thousands of women walked off the job to protest gender violence and economic inequality. This was the first women’s strike in Argentina, although Argentine feminists organize massive marches every year in connection with the annual National Women’s Conferences. In fact, a little over a week before this massive action, the 31st National Women’s Conference brought thousands of women together to discuss how to move forward in the struggle for women’s rights.
There were massive marches against gender violence in 2015 and 2016 under the slogan “Ni Una Menos” (Not One Less). This year the marches and strikes came after a particularly brutal gang rape and murder of a teenaged girl. Women carried signs of missing and murdered women and chanted, “We won’t forgive, we won’t forget.”
The organizers called for women to strike in the streets between 1 p.m. and 2 p.m. and to wear black as a symbol of collective mourning over the killing of 16-year-old Lucia Perez and other victims of femicide. The women who walked off their jobs wanted to show the crucial role of women in Argentina’s economy as well as a reminder that they are the first victims of the massive layoffs in the public and private sectors being carried out by the administration of President Mauricio Macri. Feminist activist Maria Florencia Alcaraz made the connection in speaking with the Buenos Aires Herald, “Behind femicides there is an economic frame that makes women more vulnerable to violence.”
Women workers pressured their unions to support the one hour general strike. It was endorsed by all of Argentina’s major unions. However the CGT (General Labor Federation) refused to call it a “general strike” and just called it a “day of struggle and reflection.” Activist Luciana Perker ridiculed this reaction. “While the CGT is drinking tea with Macri, we take to the streets. We are striking because we earn less, we face more unemployment, we are hit harder by precarious life and poverty”.
The march comes as Macri’s government promotes a bill that will eliminate the special prosecutor focused on violence against women and femicide. According to data from human rights organizations, every 30 hours a woman in Argentina dies from domestic violence.
Iceland: Pay gap
In Iceland, women went on strike to protest the pay gap between women and men. Women make between 14-18 percent less than men, and unions and women’s organizations say that means women basically work for free, starting at 2:38 p.m.
On Oct. 24 thousands of women walked out. Current estimates say that if the pay gap continues to shrink at its current rate, it will be 52 years before men’s and women’s pay is equal. Women are saying that is not acceptable.
In the capital, Reykjavik, thousands of women gathered in the central square when they had walked out of offices, shops, factories, and schools. There were similar but smaller actions all around the country.
Women in Iceland have a long history of resorting to strikes as their favored tactic of protest. While in other countries women may demonstrate, organize rallies, or just decide to lobby for law reform, in Iceland they usually decide to withdraw their labor power from the economy. The tactic has gotten some results and empowers women for their next struggle.
On the same date, Oct. 24, in 1975, 90% of the women in rural and urban Iceland went on strike, which they called a “day off.” They left their jobs, refused to cook or do housework, or take care of the children. Many industries had to shut down, newspapers were not printed, there was no telephone service, and most schools were closed. They wanted to illustrate the importance of women, and protest their lack of political power and equal pay. At the time, women made 40% less than men.
In 2005, women left work at 2:08 p.m. the time at which they said they would have started working for free. In 2008, they went on strike at 2:25 p.m.
This year, a 20-year-old striker talked about how disheartening it is to see the continuing pay gap: “We know that no country in the world has reached gender equality, but today reminds me that not even the country that is supposed to have the most equal rights pays women the same as men.”
Many feminists in the United States have been marveling at the amazing pictures of the strikes and marches in these three countries. But how is it possible to look at what has happened there and not look at what happens here? What are the basic differences?
All three countries had an element of militancy rarely seen in the U.S. In every country the organizers spoke about the actions empowering women. That is what strikes and mass actions achieve. In Argentina every year women organize marches with 50,000 or 60,000 women in the streets, and there are conferences with thousands of women who strategize how to move forward the struggle for women’s rights.
When you look at the United States the women’s movement looks tranquil. What is the difference? One thing is that the movements in Poland, Argentina, and Iceland are independent of political parties. In the United States the Democrats undermine, control, and manipulate grassroots movements. They promise incremental change, which becomes meaningless. No wonder those pictures of strikes and mass actions captivated feminists here! Notice that in Poland after the women’s strike the ruling party did not say that they would “make changes” to the hated legislation. They said their members should vote against it.
Also, compare the tactic of the strike to the main tactic of most U.S. women’s organizations—lobbying. Lobbying politicians for small reforms is the most disempowering activity for any movement. Strikes are the most empowering.
Feminists in the United States who want a movement that empowers women should take the first step; they must cut the chain and start building a movement independent of Democrats and Republicans. We need to learn from the militancy of other countries and not just admire their pictures. It’s time to build the independent power necessary to move forward our struggle for women’s rights.
Photo: Women protesting in Iceland.