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8 March 2019updated 25 Jul 2021 6:49am

Women of the world, unite: how our economy depends on unpaid female toil

The Women’s Strike magnifies how our economic system is only a few levels of female fury away from total collapse.

By Eleanor Penny

The towering, slipshod garment factories of early 1900s New York were staffed by thousands of women, most of them migrants that had arrived on the shores of Ellis Island. To scrape a living, they endured long hours in squalid and dangerous conditions. A lively union movement was gathering force in the city around them. In the spring of 1908, 15,000 women abandoned their cutting tables and sewing machines, taking to the streets to demand better pay and conditions. It was the start of what was once called International Working Women’s Day.

Across the world today women are reviving this radical tradition. Activist groups in Brazil, Poland, Italy, the UK, US and elsewhere are calling for a “Women’s Strike”, refusing paid work and downing tools in their so-called “second shift” of caring duties and domestic labour. Their demands range from the decriminalisation of sex work to the end of austerity and improved healthcare for Trans women. Their goal is far more ambitious than a pay rise: the women’s strike magnifies unpaid, unrecognised and often invisible work.

The platitude that “women make the world go around” belies the hard graft of people producing and cooking food, collecting water, raising children, cleaning, caring for the sick and elderly and managing the household budget. Behind every well-oiled production line or high-powered workplace are women doing the often unglamorous work that makes life possible, quietly sharpening the kitchen knives and managing the flow of blood, tears, bleach and water.

Though it may be excluded from GDP calculations, this is proper economic work. The edifices of the formal economy sit upon the hidden foundations of domestic toil and informal labour. Production and profit depends on a steady supply of able-bodied workers. And that steady supply of able-bodied workers depends on the work of those who may sure they are birthed, fed and cared for.

Feminist theorist Silvia Federici observed how capitalism’s profit margins depend on the offloading of cooking, caring and cleaning onto women. If employers were obliged to fairly remunerate this labour, businesses everywhere would crumble. It’s unsurprising that a system intent on driving down wages and maximising profits is bolstered by work usually performed for no wage at all.

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This is capitalism’s most successful privatisation swindle to date: cloistering away unpaid work into the intimate bosom of the family, where women labour under the illusion that their toil is a matter of biological destiny or loving duty.

You can’t leave work when your workplace is your home or your bedroom. Feminists across the years have charted the monotony of unwaged domestic work. The hours are long and it’s impossible to clock off when raising children, leaving many mothers to work the equivalent of two and a half full-time jobs.

In these domestic chambers, workplace injustices are insidious. Domestic violence, the criminalisation of sex work and abortions, and cuts to social welfare all make the unending task of feminine work harder and more perilous to navigate.

And like most rough jobs, domestic work is unevenly distributed along lines of class, race, gender and nationality. It’s a problem for which lean-in feminists have provided no solution. Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique famously urged middle class white women to liberate themselves from drudgery – by hiring a maid (read: a working class black woman) to sweat it out. Today, British cleaning industries are predominantly staffed by female migrants working long hours on poverty wages.

You’d be forgiven for thinking such conditions require a wildcat strike. Millions of carers, cleaners, mothers and maids, paid and unpaid, all abandoning their posts, leaving food to boil over and filth to build up. The world as we know it would grind to a halt. There is no industrial action more hellishly effective than women, collectively, pausing for five minutes. No wonder the world heaps such scorn and censure on feminine anger. Our economic system is only a few levels of female fury away from total collapse.

Today’s strikers are innately aware of the power they hold, proclaiming “when we stop, the world stops”. Their show of force undergirds their diffuse ambitions: an end to domestic violence, the reshaping of divisions of labour and sweeping legal and social reforms. There is no single set of factory gates to chain shut, no single boss to picket into submission. A totalising system of workplace injustice demands a totalising strike.

But there’s just one enormous and incontrovertible problem with the women’s strike. The burden of domestic toil is usually devoted to partners, children, loved ones and friends. A women’s strike would see loved mouths going hungry. That’s the standoff between the planet’s working women and the system which obliges them to toil for free. Profit-makers depend on our domestic work – but so do our loved ones, and so do we. If women withdraw their work, the system collapses, and with it, everyone else.

It’s a practical problem that Women’s Strike UK organisers are wrangling with. The strike requires a makeshift architecture of childcare, community kitchens and shared cleaning rotas – not to mention a strike fund. In short, it requires organised battalions of willing men to collectively handle struggles which are ordinarily private and unseen. Some of our society’s dirtiest laundry must be aired in the street.

Such struggles are small efforts of a utopian imagination. Building the infrastructure that makes a women’s strike distantly possible means sketching a blueprint for a society where the responsibilities of caring, cooking and cleaning are more evenly shared.

Hence the slogan and rallying cry of Womens Strike UK: “The women’s strike is impossible. That’s why the women’s strike is necessary.”

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