International Women's Day has been stripped of its radical roots. That's about to change.


This time last year, Ivanka Trump chose to observe International Women’s Day by releasing a series of e-cards featuring inspirational quotes tailored to the occasion. One of the cards, a dusty rose with elegantly minimal font and a #WomenWhoWork hashtag, read: “Do not wait for someone else to come and speak for you. It’s you who can change the world.”

These were the words of Malala Yousafzai, a Pakistani education activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner who, as it happens, would have been barred from entering the United States under the “total and complete” ban on Muslim immigration and travel that was then a centerpiece of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.

Elsewhere on the internet that day, Ivanka was herself speaking to change the world through a video instructing voters in Idaho to support her father in the state’s Republican primary.

“Bring your friends, bring your neighbors, bring your relatives, get out and vote on March 8 and support my father and help us make America great again,” she said, beaming at the camera, sporting a floral dress and a tasteful blowout.

Ivanka, or her communications team, saw no clear tension between using her platform that day to share branded language of women’s empowerment stripped of its political context and help elect a man who ran on policies that are now creating chaos and danger for millions of women globally. It’s almost a little too blunt an articulation of our current predicament.

In the United States, International Women’s Day—much the same as the mainstream feminist movement—has been whitewashed, stripped of its origins in the socialist and labor movements, disconnected from its more radical global contemporaries, and repackaged as an anodyne, symbolic holiday in which corporations urge you to send cute gifs to your girlfriends.

But this year, a network of organizers across the country, building on the momentum of millions of women who turned out to protest the inauguration of President Trump, are trying to reconstitute March 8 as a mass movement in its original image.

In a statement announcing the strike, its coalition of organizers explained:

The idea is to mobilize women, including trans women, and all who support them in an international day of struggle—a day of striking, marching, blocking roads, bridges, and squares, abstaining from domestic, care and sex work, boycotting, calling out misogynistic politicians and companies, striking in educational institutions. These actions are aimed at making visible the needs and aspirations of those whom lean-in feminism ignored: women in the formal labor market, women working in the sphere of social reproduction and care, and unemployed and precarious working women.

It remains to be seen what kind of turnout they’ll get at a series of general strikes and solidarity actions scheduled across the country, but the vision being put forward is clear: a day centered on and in solidarity with women who work—whose labor is paid and unpaid, emotional and physical, those who can strike and those who cannot—not just #WomenWhoWork.

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A little more than nine months before the idea for the first International Women’s Day was introduced in 1910, a 23-year-old Ukrainian immigrant named Clara Lemlich incited what would become the Uprising of 20,000, a strike of an estimated 20,000 to 40,000 garment workers that stretched out for more than two months in New York City.

According to records of that meeting, Lemlich, a young revolutionary who was a familiar presence at other strikes and had recently had her ribs bashed in by anti-union thugs, demanded a work stoppage for better wages, hours, and labor conditions. Later that day, Lemlich, along with thousands of other women, reportedly took the oath to strike in her native Yiddish: “If I turn traitor to the cause I now pledge, may this hand wither from the arm I now raise.” The Uprising of 20,000 won a series of concessions from management on wages and hours, and set the stage for broader institutional reform in response to the deadly 1911 fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory.

In a 1965 letter to a graduate student about that time in her life, Lemlich recalled that her earliest efforts at organizing had been in the company of other women: “The girls, whether socialist or not, [had] many stoppages, and strikes broke out in many shops,” she wrote. “However every strike we called was broken by the police and gangsters hired by the bosses. In 1906, some of us girls who were more class conscious called a meeting… where we organized the 1st local of the waist makers [garment union].”

Lemlich’s legacy, which remains closely associated with the earliest manifestations of the women’s labor movement in United States, is still niche history. But it “shows the ways in which women workers have always linked the economic strategy of striking and the political strategy of labor standards,” Jennifer Klein, a professor of History at Yale University, told me in a phone interview. It also shows a lineage of women who fought—literally fought—from places of great precarity to reshape institutions and improve the conditions of their own lives and communities.

Nearly 30 years before Lemlich called thousands to strike, 3,000 black women laundry workers in Atlanta, just two decades after the Civil War and under the racism of Jim Crow, organized a strike for better wages and control over where and how they worked.

The strike began as a group of 20 women, but eventually expanded into the thousands as members of the informal union met in churches and community centers to build power.

Oganizers are forcing conversations about what, exactly, the contours of a women’s resistance movement actually look like at this juncture.

Their first collective action, according to Tera W. Hunter’s “To ‘Joy My Freedom,” her book on black women’s labor and organizing after the Civil War, was at a steam laundry operated by a man named J.N. Harding. When some laundry workers tried to cross their picket line, they were subdued by force by the women strikers. Afterwards, they used an axe and nails to board up the windows of the shop.

After the city attempted to impose prohibitive fees on women who sought to join their organization, they responded in a letter to the mayor:

We are determined to stand to our pledge and make extra charges for washing, and we have agreed and are willing to pay $25 or $50 for licenses as a protection, so we can control the washing for the city… We mean business this week or no washing.

Through the strike—in its scope and tactics—black women in Atlanta organized to force a radical point about their work and importance in their communities. It also established a social model of organizing that should be familiar to anyone watching the Fight for $15 or OUR Walmart movements today.

“Those kinds of formations have now become the dominant form of organizing,” Premilla Nadasen, associate professor of History at Barnard College, told me. “Even though official union membership is declining, the number of participants in a broader labor movement is expanding” in a similar model creatively engineered by black women more than a century ago.

The amorphous strikes being called for across the United States on March 8 are of a piece with this movement to build power. “It’s not a strike, per se,” Nadasen said. Without an organizational basis, or organizational protections for women choosing to strike, many workers, particularly low-income women, women of color, immigrant women, and other marginalized women, may not be able to participate outright. Rather, it’s “a broader social action that is attempting to draw attention to women’s labor—whether it’s unpaid labor in the home or paid labor in the workforce.”

And in some ways, the significance of the strike is already becoming visible. The organizers building the coalitions behind it and columnists contorting themselves to make sense of or diminish what it means to withhold labor or show other forms of solidarity are forcing conversations about what, exactly, the contours of a resistance movement actually look like at this juncture.

The answer developing around International Women’s Day right now, however insufficient, is more than inspirational e-cards and tweets.

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Women’s leadership and efforts to build power in the American labor movement—in industrial, service, and domestic spheres—have been ignored throughout history. And they’re still being ignored: During the election, the story about the plight of working people almost uniformly focused on certain kinds of jobs—coal workers, steelworkers, autoworkers—and the faces meant to represent them, in campaign ads and at rallies, were overwhelmingly male. More than just erasing the women who also work in these industries, the popular narrative during the election around the economy and the meaning of work, from both the candidates and major media outlets, tended to erase or minimize the care working and service industries, from fast food to house cleaning, that are dominated by women.

And while the erasure of the non-white working class was an almost cartoonish hallmark of the Trump campaign, Hillary Clinton’s messaging mimicked many of these failures. She did campaign on the balancing act of being a working mother, but often targeted middle class white women’s labor—the kind of Lean In feminist that might not be overly concerned that her candidate wouldn’t take a campaign position calling for a $15 federal minimum wage.

Which is where the myopic political messaging around the working class collides with the failures of mainstream white feminism. One of the more audacious things about Ivanka Trump’s Women Who Work campaign—which is selling highly stylized white affluence packaged as a movement for working mothers—is the name itself. It makes a claim to speak for women’s labor while constructing an image that obscures what most women’s labor in the United States actually looks like.

The actions planned across the United States for International Women’s Day, rooted in American labor history and in solidarity with women globally, signal a mass rejection of that vision. A return to form. A campaign to Make International Women’s Day a Threat Again.

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