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What would happen if the world’s women went on strike?

As the backlash against feminism grows, let’s highlight the unrecognised female labour upon which capitalist patriarchy depends.

Right now, women across the globe have good reason to feel a deep, burning fury. Not that we haven’t always had it. It’s just that these days, the men around us aren’t pretending any more.

It was Germaine Greer who claimed  that, “women have very little idea of how much men hate them”. Well, now we know. It’s reached a point where they’re no longer even trying to hide it.

For years we sought to convince ourselves that men’s oppression of women – the rapes, the beatings, the killings, the theft of time and resources and hope – had been nothing more than some random, unhappy accident. We reasoned that once men were made to understand that women were every bit as human as them, all of this would stop.

Men would no longer feel justified in stealing our resources, appropriating our labour, taking credit for our ideas, abusing our bodies, excluding us from all the decisions that shaped our lives. They didn’t mean to do it. It was all a misunderstanding, fuelled by religion, superstition and free-floating, abstract prejudice (a misunderstanding that millennia of women who’d gone before us had, inexplicably, never got round to clearing up).

But something has changed. There is nothing particularly unique about the misogyny of Donald Trump. He’s hardly the first woman-hating world leader and he won’t be the last. What’s more, as the likes of Piers Morgan are so keen to remind us, women in the US currently have rights that many elsewhere are denied.

Yet what’s different about Trump is the sheer nakedness of his hate. There’s no real effort made to blame it on the Word of God or family values or the magic, catch-all “innate difference”. It’s about power and nothing else. “You can do anything. Grab ‘em by the pussy.” I treat women like pieces of meat because I can.

Trump is the figurehead for a global backlash against women in which men are not even feigning ignorance, let alone claiming the moral high ground. Women in Oklahoma face needing the written consent of the man who impregnated them in order to access an abortion. In Russia, Vladimir Putin has just signed a bill to decriminalise domestic violence. Here in the UK, openly anti-feminist MP Philip Davies has been elected to the Women and Equalities Select Committee.

It’s not as though misogyny wasn’t doing an effective job of slaughtering women already – 47,000 die every year as a result of unsafe abortion, while in India one woman is killed every hour in a so-called “dowry death”. Adding to this is a new, emboldened form of woman-hating as statement politics.

The Global Gag Rule has been not only reinstated but widened. Who can forget that photo of Trump, a white man surrounded by other white men, signing a document that will lead to the deaths of countless women in developing countries? Does it betray a lack of empathy and self-awareness, or is it a statement in itself?

I can’t help thinking we are supposed to feel cowed by it, to accept that we have lost. We are supposed to be good girls – no more protests, no more voices raised – and hope that nothing else is taken from us. That photo is a show of dominance, a reminder of what patriarchy is prepared to do. We cannot afford to be intimidated by it.

Men do not treat us the way they do because they think we are worthless. They know our worth. As the philosopher Janet Radcliffe Richards puts it:

“The existence of rules to keep women in the power of men shows that men must have wanted of women something which women could not be trusted to provide of their own accord.”

Marriage, reproductive coercion, economic exclusion, psychological manipulation and the threat of violence all function as means of allowing men to appropriate the sexual, reproductive and emotional labour of women. Thereafter they use gender as a means of trying to persuade us that we’re not really giving them anything; it’s just the way we are.

“Women’s responsibility for care,” writes Katrine Marçal, “is presented as a free choice, and we reason that when you make a choice out of your own free will, you have to accept the consequences.”

But we are not choosing our subordinate position in a gender hierarchy and men already know this. There’s no point in reiterating it any longer; it’s time to down tools. 

The organisers of January’s Women’s March are proposing a Women’s Strike to take place on 8 March this year:

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 is an exhilarating prospect, but also a frightening one, not least because it aims to make visible the invisible: the unrecognised female labour upon which capitalist patriarchy depends.

While the march may have been an expression of justified anger and solidarity, the proposed strike goes beyond this. This is about more than fury at individual acts of misogyny, or particular issues such as abortion rights. This gets to the heart of what patriarchy is about: not what men feel about women, but what they want from them. There is a direct line between “grab ‘em by the pussy” and the simultaneous appropriation and erasure of women’s work.

And yet I find myself fretting over how, on a personal level, I’ll be approaching 8 March. I’m due in the office. I can’t imagine myself ringing up and saying, “sorry, but I have an important anti-neoliberal statement to make”.

Nor can I imagine myself not participating in any care work for one whole day. My youngest child cannot even talk, let alone form a coherent response to “Mummy has to ignore you today because of the patriarchy.”

I am a middle-class women with a supportive partner, yet even I’m worried about the practicalities. I can’t help wondering whether many of “those whom lean-in feminism ignored” will find it impossible to abstain from any form of work. After all, women do not offer up their labour cheaply or for free because it has never crossed their minds to do otherwise. Usually they do so because they are justifiably afraid: of violence, of poverty, of no one else being there to clean up the mess.

While a withdrawal of female labour is absolutely essential as a form of resistance to exploitation, I wonder whether something less impressive but more gradual and sustained than one day of “striking, marching, blocking roads, bridges and squares” could also work.

Part of what makes women’s work invisible is repetition. For many men, a day without the help of a woman becomes an opportunity for showboating: see, we managed just fine without you. Another day without the performance of one small task, and then another, and another, might offer a more accurate reflection of what it is that women actually do.

I’ve never known a time in my life when the backlash against feminism was so glaringly obvious. It is devastating, but in a curious way we also have to see it as an opportunity. Let’s harness our anger. Let’s stop telling ourselves that men don’t know what they’re doing; they do. Let’s keep reminding ourselves that the jobs women do have value and what’s more, that men see this. And let’s shine a light on the way in which men’s exploitation of women’s labour both mirrors and intersects with exploitation across racial and class boundaries.

If capitalism is not sustainable, then neither is patriarchy. If we refuse to retreat, the backlash could also end up being the death throes. 

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

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Copeland must be Labour's final warning

Unison's general secretary says Jeremy Corbyn is a friend - but must also take responsibility for turning the party's prospects around. 

No one objective could argue that last night’s by-election results were good for Labour.

Whilst it was undoubtedly pleasing to see serial fibber Paul Nuttall and his Trumpian politics put in their place in Stoke, this was never a seat where the result should have been in doubt. 

But to lose Copeland – held by Labour for 83 years – to a party that has inflicted seven years of painful spending cuts on our country, and is damaging the NHS, is disastrous.

Last autumn, I said that Labour had never been farther from government in my lifetime. Five months on the party hasn’t moved an inch closer to Downing Street.

These results do not imply a party headed for victory. Copeland is indicative of a party sliding towards irrelevance. Worse still, Labour faces an irrelevance felt most keenly by those it was founded to represent.

There will be those who seek to place sole blame for this calamity at the door of Jeremy Corbyn. They would be wrong to do so. 

The problems that Labour has in working-class communities across the country did not start with Corbyn’s leadership. They have existed for decades, with successive governments failing to support them or even hear their calls for change. Now these communities are increasingly finding outlets for their understandable discontent.

During the 2015 election, I knocked on doors on a large council estate in Edmonton – similar to the one I grew up on. Most people were surprised to see us. The last time they’d seen Labour canvassers was back in 1997. Perhaps less surprisingly, the most common response was why would any of them bother voting Labour.

As a party we have forgotten our roots, and have arrogantly assumed that our core support would stay loyal because it has nowhere else to go. The party is now paying the price for that complacency. It can no longer ignore what it’s being told on the doorstep, in workplaces, at ballot boxes and in opinion polls.

Unison backed Corbyn in two successive leadership elections because our members believed – and I believe – he can offer a meaningful and positive change in our politics, challenging the austerity that has ravaged our public services. He is a friend of mine, and a friend of our union. He has our support, because his agenda is our agenda.

Yet friendship and support should never stand in the way of candour. True friends don’t let friends lose lifelong Labour seats and pretend everything is OK. Corbyn is the leader of the Labour party, so while he should not be held solely responsible for Labour’s downturn, he must now take responsibility for turning things around.

That means working with the best talents from across the party to rebuild Labour in our communities and in Parliament. That means striving for real unity – not just the absence of open dissent. That means less debate about rule changes and more action on real changes in our economy and our society.

Our public servants and public services need an end to spending cuts, a change that can only be delivered by a Labour government. 

For too many in the Labour party the aim is to win the debate and seize the perceived moral high ground – none of which appears to be winning the party public support. 

But elections aren’t won by telling people they’re ignorant, muddle-headed or naive. Those at the sharp end – in particular the millions of public service employees losing their jobs or facing repeated real-terms pay cuts – cannot afford for the party to be so aloof.

Because if you’re a homecare worker earning less than the minimum wage with no respite in sight, you need an end to austerity and a Labour government.

If you’re a nurse working in a hospital that’s constantly trying to do more with less, you need an end to austerity and a Labour government.

And if you’re a teaching assistant, social worker or local government administrator you desperately need an end to austerity, and an end to this divisive government.

That can only happen through a Labour party that’s winning elections. That has always been the position of the union movement, and the Labour party as its parliamentary wing. 

While there are many ways in which we can change society and our communities for the better, the only way to make lasting change is to win elections, and seize power for working people.

That is, and must always be, the Labour party’s cause. Let Copeland be our final warning, not the latest signpost on the road to decline.

Dave Prentis is Unison's general secretary.