I returned from the Women’s March on Washington primed to take action. For me, that means attending rallies and postcard-writings, calling my elected reps and researching running for public office.
But I’m feeling ambivalent about my place in the International Women’s Strike/A Day Without A Woman tomorrow, March 8th. As a freelance editor and writer and stay-at-home parent, my definition of “work” is a subjective one. If I don’t have to show up at 9 a.m. to an office, if I’m not risking being fired or losing pay, does my striking have purpose? As a worker with an ebb-and-flow schedule, what if I have no deadlines tomorrow? After the hour of 2:40, when my work includes the unpaid labor of picking up my children, juggling snacks and backpacks, shuttling to gymnastics, overseeing homework, permission slips, emotions and dinner, how am I supposed to strike? And finally, as a lesbian who is largely financially supported by her female spouse, what does A Day Without a Woman mean for me?
International Women’s Day was first observed in 1909, designated by the Socialist Party of America to honor garment workers’ strike of working conditions. The strike evolved into an anti-WWII protest. The day’s early ties to socialism and the Russian Revolution (irony!) have kept it from popular support in the US. In 2011, President Obama proclaimed March Women’s History Month, recommitting to erase the remaining inequities facing women. Under our new administration, we face inequities aplenty. As with any intersectional protest movement, there are wide differences of opinion about this year’s strike. Critics charge that it is an event only white-collar women can afford to indulge, that the overall mission is unclear, that a strike has no point if there’s no management with whom to negotiate.
The strike is, of course, about more than just labor. It’s symbolic. It’s about visibility and solidarity, mobilizing post-march activist momentum, protesting workplace gender oppression — even if you yourself have the privilege of a secure and fair workplace — protesting gender violence and misogyny in general. It’s about recognizing women’s labor, paid and unpaid, in our economy. While I have held several white-collar jobs that were financially rewarding, much of the labor that I currently contribute is unpaid. And while the US government may not recognize it, my partner surely does.
The reason I am able to eschew a full-time job is because of my partner, who works full-time, earning a stable salary with excellent benefits including health insurance for our family of four. (She is not planning on striking. If she didn’t work tomorrow, it would push all of her work into Thursday, making the week more difficult for her — and for me, as she would need to make up those work hours later in the week.) Part of my job in our family is to support our household, our children and my partner, logistically and emotionally. It is an articulated agreement that she is able to thrive in her career because of the home systems I manage: having the refrigerator full of fresh food, having dinner ready, the children’s backpacks and folders dealt with, by the time she arrives home. This sounds embarrassingly 1950s, but houses don’t magically function by themselves, and without paid help, it becomes the job of one or both partners to keep things running. Recently I helped a friend with a childcare emergency; I picked up her two kids and hung with them and my own for several hours one afternoon, and then, happy to visit with my friend, I prepared a cocktail for her upon arrival. “I think I’d like having a wife,” she remarked.
My partner does like having a wife. And it’s something she doesn’t take for granted. I read a book recently about how women need to get their husbands more involved in domestic work so that the women can better thrive in their careers. It’s resonant for many women I know, but it wasn’t germane to my marriage. My partner rides our children on her bike to school every day, before biking four miles to her demanding job, and pauses every single day to print out something for my freelance work or for a kid’s science fair project, to sign our kids up for camp, to pack up leftover food from a catered office lunch so I don’t have to cook that night. She not only appreciates my unpaid labor, she clocks quite a lot of it herself. And she listens to my recurring complaint soundtrack about the uncertainty of freelance life in a diminishing industry, and continues to encourage me to pursue it anyway, as it is the work-life scenario that I most desire — while maintaining her full-time career to make that possible. So I’m not planning on striking any of my household duties that day, because what good would it do to imperil another woman, one who is my biggest supporter professionally?
What I will do tomorrow: thank my partner for her invaluable role in our economy and our lives. Research an ongoing project with my writing partner, also a woman, who also doesn’t take my contributions for granted. Talk to my kids about why people are striking (and why they aren’t) and thank the women who are striking, because activism has many different faces. And schedule my next community action.
Elizabeth Wallace is a freelance writer/editor and one of the co-authors of The Ambition Interviews, a seven-part series in The Atlantic. Photos by Genevieve Naylor/Corbis and Bill Brandt/Picture Post via Getty Images.