March 8, 2017

A Day Without Women — One Writer’s Ambivalence


I have mixed feelings about “A Day Without Women,” the general strike planned for today, International Women’s Day.  My ambivalence has practical implications — I teach on Wednesdays, but as the week began I hadn’t yet decided whether to cancel class or not.

On the one hand, I was dismayed about the puny role played in the 2016 election by issues like reproductive rights, gender discrimination, and recognition of sexism in what was printed, said, and thought about Hillary Clinton. It was an election in which sneers at feminist “political correctness”—sneers that came from both the left and the right—stifled excitement over the possibility of electing a female president, an election in which we seemed to suffer cultural amnesia about the fragility of hard-won rights, an election in which the invented email “scandal” of a highly qualified female candidate was deemed more serious than the misogynistic boasts of a pussy-grabbing bully.  If a new feminist consciousness is emerging now that we see how serious it all was—we weren’t calling in a favorite for “American Idol” but actually electing a president—I’m all for it.

On the other hand, I’m not sure what a Lysistrata-like demonstration of how much woman are needed (we’ve always given lip-service to that) will prove. Strikes work best when they have a specific goal in mind, and although it would indeed be fabulous to show the world that without us the workings of everything would come to a screeching halt, it’s unlikely that anything near that will happen. Like electoral caucuses, general strikes (in contrast to strikes against workplace grievances, which are legally protected) favor those who can safely participate without threat of losing their jobs: students, those who can afford to lose a day’s wages, those who can hire others to do childcare, those who are their own bosses. As for those who can’t march, they can “participate” by shopping only at women-or-minority-owned businesses (hard for those who rely on discount prices) or wearing red in solidarity.  It all seems rather diffuse to me, and reminiscent of the days when feminist consciousness was just budding. Although you might not know it from the 2016 election, many of us have come a long way since then.

There’s something else, too. The post-inaugural protests that brought millions out the day after Donald Trump became President of the United States were billed as “Women’s Marches.” They were organized by women, and were marked by visuals of pink, pussy-eared caps. And yes, women greatly outnumbered the male partners, friends, and children who marched alongside them.  But there was something else excitingly new about these marches. In the old days of the women’s movement, the men who marched alongside us were there to “support” their female friends and partners in “our” causes.  We were glad to have them join in, but we knew that on some level most of them didn’t “get it.” How could they? If they were white and straight, it wasn’t “their” fight. The need for economic and racial justice they could identify with, even if not in peril themselves. But reproductive rights?  Childcare?  Sexual harassment?  Women’s issues.  Feminists tried to convince men that women’s liberation was ultimately about men’s liberation too, but without much success.

In 2017, however, the men who participated in the post-inaugural marches were there in shock, outrage, grief, and fear — for themselves, for their sons as well as their daughters, for their country. The signs they—and the women and children—carried were varied. They addressed so-called “women’s issues” like reproductive choice, as well as  “economic issues” like the minimum wage and human rights violations in the treatment of immigrants and transgender people.  However, despite this diversity—or because of it—the march didn’t seem an arbitrary mish-mash of “issues,” but had a very clear message: The (at that stage, promised) assault on democratic values to which we had just given power must not be normalized, must be resisted, and in every way possible.  It was not the first action in a new “women’s movement” but the first action in an “anti-Trump” movement — and women led the way.

That women would be natural leaders of such a movement isn’t surprising. We’ve been talking the talk and walking the walk—of resistance, persistence, and growing sophistication about what true equality requires — for over a hundred and fifty years. (We unfortunately let our guards down for one crucial moment.) It’s women, too, who are more likely to understand how intertwined and complicated the various aspects of our lives—racial, economic, gendered—are.  Those who have lately criticized “identity politics” seem to imagine that each of us occupies a primary identity (like gender or race) that we are in danger of foregrounding over “bigger” issues like economic justice and security, which are potential sources of greater solidarity. But actually, those “bigger” issues never exist in abstraction from race, gender, and other factors, and we will never achieve anything like real solidarity unless we recognize that. Academics call this “intersectionality”—and if any candidate “got” this, it was Hillary Clinton (who unfortunately was not given much chance to get that message across, as this would have required blasting through a mountain of pseudo-scandals and attacks on her “honesty” that would surely now seem laughable if they hadn’t resulted in such disaster).

Nothing is just a “women’s issue.” At the same time, everything is a women’s issue.

Reproductive choice deeply affects economic control over one’s future, and vice versa; race, sexuality, and ethnicity impact every aspect of life. The working class consists of more than white men on disappearing assembly lines in the Rust Belt — it’s also hundreds of thousands of women, urban and rural, black, brown, and white, doing all kinds of labor. And, as Hillary Clinton pointed out in 1995 in Beijing, “human rights are women’s rights, and women’s rights are human rights.” When a tape was released in which then-candidate Trump could be heard bragging about invading the bodily space of women, he was boastfully describing assault — a physical attack on another human being, not just a “women’s issue.”

So those are my reflections on the “Day Without Women.” If you don’t see a clear conclusion here (or even a clear argument), that’s because I haven’t arrived at one. To be frank, I’d be more enthusiastic about an event on a Saturday or Sunday, drawing in both men and women, but specifically aimed at encouraging and promoting women candidates for congress. But of course, it’s not an either/or. And it’s impossible for me not to support resistance to the insanity that passes for business-as-usual nowadays. As for whether I’m holding class today — I raised the question with my students, and we decided to honor International Women’s Day by meeting during class time and discussing the issues involved in meaningful resistance nowadays. Anyone who wants to join the downtown protest is free to, of course. The rest of us will talk, and vent, and question, and see if we can move a bit closer to understanding what each of us, and perhaps all of us together, can do next.


This post was originally written for the German site Zeit Online, where it has been published today in German and English.



Susan Bordo is a critic and cultural historian, and holds the Otis A. Singletary Chair in the Humanities at the University of Kentucky, where she teaches in the department of Gender and Women’s Studies. She has written many books, including The Creation of Anne Boleyn: A New Look at England’s Most Notorious Queen. Her latest is The Destruction of Hillary Clinton, out now in paperback from Melville House.