Winning the right to be

March 27, 2018

On March 8, 2018, International Women's Day, more than 5 million women throughout the Spanish state joined in mass marches, pickets and blockades. An estimated 5.2 million women took part in what was widely hailed as a two-hour "feminist strike," with an unknown number continuing the strike throughout the day. The strike was particularly effective in education as nearly all teachers in Catalonia, 90 percent of university students in Andalusia, and 90 percent of secondary students in Madrid walked out. Big majorities of women health care workers in Catalonia, Valencia and Andalusia also struck.

The strike aimed to counter widespread inequality and a growing wave of violence against women, including an increase in reports of documented abuse and women killed by their partners or ex-partners.

The actions garnered widespread support from radicals and national trade unions, but sentiment for action was so great that even the neoliberal Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE, by its initials in Spanish) and sections of the Catholic Church supported the call. Unsurprisingly, the ruling conservative Popular Party opposed the strike, but it seems to be in a small minority as a poll by the El País newspaper reported 82 percent of people agreed that there were "valid reasons" for women to protest discrimination.

Julia Cámara is a historian, feminist activist and militant in Anticapitalistas in Zaragosa. Here, she describes what led to the success of the strike, in article originally published on March 10 in Viento Sur and translated by Todd Chretien.

IT WAS clear for weeks beforehand that the March 8 International Women's Day strike was going to outpace all our previous expectations. No one, however, could have predicted the kind of outburst we experienced. The wave, luckily, washed over all of us.

Starting on November 7, 2015, analyses of the women's movement in the Spanish state have been multiplying. In an international context that has witnessed the rise of the extreme right and seen a decline in social mobilization, many voices have wondered how and why this movement has been able to include more and more young women, to propel them into the streets, and to lead them to question the traditional logics of struggle and conflict. On the other hand, the feminist movement appears to have taken on a global dimension and attained a certain strategic horizon, constructing itself in such a way as to offer a challenge to the entire capitalist system. Time will tell to what extent its capacities develop along these lines. For the moment, here are some analytical elements that may help us collectively understand what happened during the week of March 8:

Protesters take to the streets of Barcelona during the International Women's Strike
Protesters take to the streets of Barcelona during the International Women's Strike (Fotomovimiento | flickr)

1. The call for a feminist strike signals a qualitative leap in the conception of March 8 as a day of struggle. The massive demonstrations, with a million participants in Madrid, 600,000 in Barcelona, 300,000 in Zaragoza and 100,000 in Seville, are not like other isolated acts of protest, but constitute the culmination of many hours of meetings, pickets and various other forms of activity. Beyond the demonstrations, the strike made its presence felt throughout the day in neighborhoods, schools, universities and workplaces. Faced with the ineffectiveness of merely performative acts, the feminist movement has organized a show of strength that gives a new dimension to the classic slogan "the feminists are here."

2. The strike dimension of March 8 has multiplied its impact. Taking strike action breaks with the conception of International Women's Day as a ritual celebration and makes any attempt to redirect it towards fashion or cosmetics consumption--and facile compliments of a mystified femininity--appear ridiculous. In recent months, in fact, we've heard endlessly that feminism is fashionable and that everyone wants to join; but it is not possible to join a strike in an abstract way. It is, therefore, a breaking point. We were surprised when journalist Ana Rosa Qunitana reproached Andrea Levy--a spokeswoman for the ruling conservative Popular Party--on national television when the latter attempted to claim March 8 for the right. And the strike's many last-minute adherents (up to and including the cancelation of many television programs hosted by women) make attempts to interpret it as just another normal day of protest completely impossible.

3. The inability of all traditional political actors to understand the moment is obvious. For instance, the role played by the two main trade unions federations vacillated between incomprehension and obstruction only reinforces their image over the last few years as stunned mastodons who look on with bewilderment as everything around them changes. Their decision to call only partial strikes, and their refusal to call a comprehensive 24-hour strike, not only generated confusion among many workers, but has marked them clearly as demobilizing factors. Going forward, we must consider how to combine necessary trade union work with ideas about how to direct the desire for labor and organizational conflict in workplaces that many women today express, as a result of March 8, as one of the tasks that anti-capitalist feminism faces.

4. If nothing else, the process of preparing for the strike has created, most critically of all, networks between women. The construction of political complicities and affective alliances between neighbors, mothers, daughters, grandmothers, and strangers has been the basis on which to weave a program that is as ambitious as it is necessary. The contents of the manifesto read in unison in different cities provide one good example of this. But it is also a basis upon for building collective bastions of strength from which we can fight to improve our every-day lives. For instance, during the course of the demonstration in Zaragoza, tens of thousands of women stopped to applaud a cleaning woman who shook a rag from the third-floor window of a building in which she was working. Voices were raised to sing "You Are Not Alone" to a woman in on a balcony in Madrid who buried her face in her hands, crying, as the march passed. Women from local restaurants in Barcelona and neighborhoods hangouts and children's centers in Valencia all joined in. The feminist strike on March 8 means the end of isolation, the rediscovery of the collective, and the conquest of our right to be. There is, of course, much that lies ahead. But from today forward we walk together, and whoever takes to the streets rarely returns to stay at home. The feminists are here.

First published at Viento Sur. Translation by Todd Chretien.

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