The Only Way to Know If Striking Works Is to Do It

The Black Monday protest in Warsaw, Poland. Photo: Katarzyna Pierzchala

In 1975, several unusual advertisements popped up in a local newspaper in Iceland. “HUSBANDS,” an ad for a grocery store began. “Tomorrow, it’s your turn to cook. We have everything you need to cook for your wife. Now remember to shop in time.” Another offered cheap prices on easily prepared foods, alongside recipes for how to cook them. The advertisements were a tongue-in-cheek reminder to the nation’s men, Erla Hulda Halldórsdóttir, a historian of women’s history at the University of Iceland explained over the phone, that their day was coming. “At least for some, cooking for the first time would be quite a challenge,” she said. Shortly after the paper went to print, Iceland’s male population would be tasked with preparing dinner for their families. Why? Their children’s mothers would be busy: They were going on strike.

On Wednesday, countless American husbands and fathers will also face down the stove. The International Women’s Strike or “A Day Without a Woman” is asking women to walk out of their jobs (if they can), abstain from both paid and unpaid labor, and take to the streets to emphasize the importance of their contributions to society and what is lost when they elect to withdraw them. No home-cooked dinners. No meetings. No cleaning.

The strike, like January’s Women’s March on Washington, has been the subject of much discussion and some skepticism. Organized by eight grassroots feminist organizers with the intent of shifting focus from “lean-in feminism” to feminism of the working class, “the 99 percent,” questions still abound. Are the objectives clear enough? What will it achieve? Will women with privilege and financial security be the only ones able to participate? And if they are, what kind of message does that send? Not to mention the fear that not showing up to work could rankle women’s already precarious roles in the workplace. Why strike and why strike now?

Political resistance, as history has taught us, does not guarantee political change — but the first step to finding out is showing up. In Iceland and Poland, where two of the world’s most successful large-scale women’s strikes in recent history took place, there wasn’t time to deliberate about hows and ifs: There was only forward action. Uncertain beginnings, broad, lofty goals, and resistance were not enough to get in their way. Women of both countries didn’t know whether there would be a significant turnout, or if positive political change would be the result of their participation. All they knew was they had a choice to either strike or not. On Wednesday, American women will confront a similar challenge. And if the only way to find out if it striking works is to show up, the question is, will we?

Iceland’s first ever Women’s Day Off came out of the worldwide women’s liberation movement in the 1970s. Originally the brainchild of the country’s Redstockings feminist group, the women’s strike’s message was simple: “By going on strike, women wanted to show how much influence their work outside of the home and within the home had,” Halldórsdóttir said.

A flyer produced by the executive committee for Women’s Day Off in June of 1975 — five months before the inaugural event would take place — made their motivations for striking clear. “The reasons are many and here are but a few,” the flyer began. Closure of the gender pay gap, greater representation in government, respect for women’s unpaid labor inside the home, better child care, and acknowledgment of women’s important contributions to Icelandic communities across the country.

Fríða Rós Valdimarsdóttir, chairman of the board of the Women’s Rights Association in Reykjavik, said despite the widespread awareness of the strike, there was plenty of uncertainty about how it would work. “The first time women did it, they had no idea how to do it, or if women were going to show up. Then a huge amount of women showed up.” On October 24, 1975, experts estimated that 90 percent of Iceland’s female citizens took to the streets. “I think participation was better than anyone had ever expected,” Halldórsdóttir added. “All those women in Reykjavik? Tens of thousands of women came to the center of town.” Meanwhile, banks closed early, factories shut entirely, and flights were all but canceled. Grocery stores immediately sold out of sausages: “Because they were easiest for the men to cook!”

The success of Iceland’s strike can’t be measured in a piece of legislation — its goals were much more broad than that — but it nevertheless led to significant progress for the nation’s women: Five years later, Iceland elected Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, the world’s first democratically elected female president. And, after a popular first four years in office, Finnbogadóttir, a divorced single mother, was reelected three times. This, and the fact that Iceland has one of the narrowest gender pay gaps in the world (and near-equal representation in parliament), makes it easy to think that Icelandic women should put down their picket signs for now. But every ten years since 1975 (and sometimes more frequently) Iceland’s women have replicated Women’s Day Off as confirmation that there is still work to do.

“We want to keep reminding the people in charge that we haven’t forgotten about this inequality. We won’t stop until it’s gone away,” Valdimarsdóttir explained.

This past October, Polish women took inspiration from Iceland’s Women’s Day Off and called for a national protest against proposed legislation that would put a total ban on abortion — and its beginnings were equally uncertain. “The organization of [the strike] was a very short, intense process,” Zofia Marcinek, a 23-year-old student living in Warsaw said via email. “The call for the strike came less than a week before the day it actually happened, and organizing it was absolutely crazy.” No one knew whether taking to the streets would convince the Polish parliament to vote down the legislation, but, as Marcinek put it, “even if the bill wasn’t shut down, [I knew] we would be united and motivated to keep going.” Zuzanna Kynczew, a 20-year-old student at Warsaw University, was more reserved: “I was not expecting a miracle.”

On October 3, 2016, women gathered in the streets of more than 90 Polish cities, carrying wall-to-wall open umbrellas — both a protection from the elements and a symbolic image. In overhead shots of Castle Square, the women appeared like an unbreakable sea of dissent. Only a few hundred women had been expected to show up, but more than 25,000 women flooded Castle Square in Warsaw alone, and an estimated 100,000 women gathered in other cities nationwide. “We were dumbfounded. It was like a tsunami,” Marcinek said.

The mass turnout in Poland was so shocking, in part, because its participants faced resistance from pro-life protesters and feared retribution from their own government (one minister summed up his feelings on the protest by saying, “Let them play”). Unlike Iceland’s protest, where many women were permitted leave from their jobs long before the strike took place, Black Monday did not go quite as smoothly: “There were women who had lots of trouble participating,” Marcinek said. “Several teachers from a school in Rybnik faced a disciplinary commission after a male colleague of theirs filed a complaint about them dressing in black at school that day.”

Agnieszka Sarna, 43, protested in Olsztyn, a city of roughly 200,000 people 130 miles from Warsaw. “In the morning, I felt alone in the city, all dressed in black and not seeing anyone around. I even asked myself whether there would be a march at all.” Sarna said that Olsztyn is made up of “good Catholics” who are not inclined to be disobedient. “But hours passed and little by little, the city started to fill with black-dressed women in groups of two or three or more. By noon, I had no more doubts. In coffee shops, there were women dressed in black, vigorously debating the latest comments from our patriarchal politicians.”

Two days following Poland’s massive protests, the controversial abortion ban was voted down in the Polish parliament by a vote of 352 to 58.

“We made this thing work together,” said Marcinek.

In America, more than 500,000 people showed up in D.C. alone to protest the Trump administration on a Saturday. At least 500,000 women showed up in Philadelphia in 1997 for the Million Woman March for African-African women’s liberation. The 1970 Women’s Strike for Equality had an estimated 10,000 women in the streets of New York City alone. Imagine the ripples those numbers would make if women were to do the same on a Wednesday. During the workweek.

Joanna, a 28-year-old woman from the Silesia region of Poland wants American women to learn Black Monday’s rallying cry: ‘Nie składamy parasolek!’ which translates to ‘We’re not putting our umbrellas down yet!’ “It signals that we’re still fighting for our rights,” Joanna wrote via email. “Nie składamy parasolek!”

Poland’s protests were a huge risk with the very real possibility of no payoff — but the crowds did not put down their umbrellas. Following the enormous mass resistance of January 21’s marches, are we so soon to put down ours? Has everything we’ve aimed to achieve been achieved?

The women’s resistance in America has long been suffering from growing pains, and those missteps should not go unaddressed. But resistance doesn’t begin and end with one march, nor does it begin at all by only thinking about action and not taking it. In Iceland on March 8, women will be rallying for International Women’s Day, with what Valdimarsdóttir described as additional “support for the women of the United States.” Poland, as well, will be expressing their solidarity for American women in rallies.

Maybe it’s time we joined them.

Watch what “A Day Without a Woman” looked like in New York City in the video below.

The Only Way to Know If Striking Works Is to Do It