The images of the 8 March 2018 demonstrations in Spain evoked surprise and excitement all over Europe. Thousands of demonstrators—predominantly women and queers of all ages—turned the streets into torrents of purple, occupied universities, held assemblies, and brought public transport to a standstill while singing joyfully. Some five million people took part in a nationwide feminist strike from paid and unpaid work alike. The event was not just the biggest feminist mobilization, but also the biggest strike ever recorded in Europe.
This did not happen by chance. There had already been major feminist demonstrations in Spain in the years leading up to the strike. In 2014, women blocked a legislative change that would have further restricted abortion rights, and in 2015 social media campaigns and demonstrations sparked a public debate around violence against women, while the 8 March protests gained momentum from year to year.
At the same time, the Spanish strike was embedded in an international movement. On 3 October 2016, women in Poland called the czarny poniedziałek (Black Monday) strike, averting a de factoabortion ban. This protest was inspired by the strike held in Iceland on 24 October 1975, in which 90 percent of the country’s working women took part. The Argentinian feminist collective NiUnaMenos (Not One [Woman] Less)—which had mobilized hundreds of thousands of protesters against femicides the previous year—harnessed this momentum, calling an hour-long women’s strike in response to a particularly brutal femicide just days later under the title miércoles negro (Black Tuesday).
By 8 March 2017, strikes had been rediscovered as an instrument of the women’s movement in many locations, and have since been a focus of collaboration among feminists worldwide both in the planning of an international day of strike on 8 March 2019—including Germany’s first women’s strike in 25 years—and ongoing protests throughout the year. Examples include the mass protests against sexual violence in Chile’s universities last June, the demonstrations against the fascist and misogynistic presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil in September, or the strike for equal pay by female council workers in Glasgow in October. These and many other events have resonated with feminists around the globe, eliciting solidarity and inspiring them to take part.
We can therefore speak of an international feminist movement currently enjoying vigorous and unfettered growth. It is worth taking a closer look at why, at this particular moment in history, women in so many countries are rising up and joining forces across different cultural and governmental settings. In an era of ever-greater fragmentation, could there be a new common denominator uniting women?
A related question concerns the future of this global movement. How can its current defensive efforts be translated into an offensive force able to effect real change? Does this require a “Feminist International” in the sense of a fixed organizational structure with binding decision-making processes, or will the women of today come up with novel, diverse, and unregulated forms of long-term international collaboration?
Global Trends: Neoliberalism and the Rise of the Right
The women’s movement is not alone in having an international dimension. Since it was first rolled out in Chile, neoliberal capitalism has been implemented in almost every country in the world, resulting in privatizations, the erosion of social security systems, and increasing disenfranchisement of workers. Capital flows extend across the entire globe, and the failure of a US bank in 2008 triggered the most severe global financial crisis since 1929, profoundly affecting the lives of countless people and leaving them feeling that they no longer had a say in the political process. It is this sense of powerlessness that is exploited by the political right when it promises to restore sovereignty within a country’s national borders.
A key aspect of this conception of order and security is often an appeal to purportedly natural gender roles, under which the rights of women and queers in particular come under fire. For instance, in his inaugural speech in early 2019, Brazilian president Bolsonaro declared war on what he called “gender ideology”. Similar views are voiced by right-wing parties in Europe, from the FPÖ in Austria to the Rassemblement National in France or the AfD in Germany. Björn Höcke’s infamous 2015 speech in Erfurt, in which he extolled the rediscovery of masculinity as a condition for the German people’s ability to defend itself is just one especially salient example among many.
Similarities can be observed not only in the effects of global neoliberalism, but also in the core elements of the political right’s responses. These responses are by no means limited to empty threats. In many countries, the social and political lurch to the right has been so extreme that effective restrictions on the rights of women and queers are already either a reality or a very real possibility. In Poland and Spain the right to abortion has come under threat, while in many other countries, including Italy and Germany, access to abortions is increasingly difficult. Faculties for gender studies, ministries devoted to gender equality, and advisory services for women are being closed down. For many women and queers, these developments exacerbate a situation that is already more precarious by the day.
The Power of Women
Although the women’s employment rate in the member states of the European Union has risen from 55 to 65 percent since 1997, women still earn 16.3 percent less on average than men. With a 21 percent wage gap, Germany is among the worst offenders in this regard. This inequality is due in part to the fact that many jobs typically performed by women are poorly paid. 27.1 percent of women in full-time employment work in the low-wage sector, compared to 16.2 percent of men. Meanwhile, although more and more women are joining the workforce, they also continue to do the majority of unpaid household, child-raising, and care-giving work. In a Europe-wide survey, 79 percent of women indicated that they cook or perform other household chores on a daily basis, compared to 34 percent of men. In Germany, the ratio is 72 percent of women to 29 percent of men. This shows that the cuts in social infrastructure seen across Europe as a result of the austerity policies of the last decade have been absorbed primarily by women. In other words, rather than being offset by their newly acquired economic independence, women’s twofold burden has become even greater. Of course, some women can afford to alleviate some of this burden—but hiring domestic help, a job typically performed by migrants, does nothing to change the unequal division of labour, and simply outsources care-giving duties to socially marginalized women, often across national borders.
This economic paradigm is supported by persistent bias against women in every segment of society, from politics, law, and religion to language, sexuality, and many others. This bias is most perniciously expressed in discrimination and sexism, in abuse and violence in domestic life, at the workplace or in the public sphere. Every third woman in the EU has suffered from physical or sexual violence. Despite a lack of systematic studies in this regard, there are indications that gender-specific—and in particular domestic—violence increases in times of economic crisis.
However, the fact that women today are standing up to these attacks so emphatically and in such large numbers is not explained solely by the threats posed to their rights and their increasingly precarious living conditions. Thanks to the accomplishments of feminism over the last century, women occupy more key positions in the production process and in politics than ever before in history. Advances in access to education, employment, and political participation mean that many women today are able to lead more self-determined lives and act with greater self-confidence than they could just a few decades ago. They are learning to use this new power in the context of the women’s strike. Broader opportunities for collaboration across national borders thanks to social media, better language skills, and increased mobility support this process. Although these aspects may appear trivial, they should not be underestimated: it was the images from Spain that breathed new life into the tepid debates in Germany.
The Women’s Strike: A Diverse Yet Unifying Practice
The strength of the women’s strike movement lies in its ability to establish connections between the often disconnected fields in which women are active. Strike as a traditional instrument of the working class is expanded to include household and care-giving work, and also encompasses social conditions. The practice of women’s strikes has its origins in the countries of the Global South and peripheral Europe—knowledge and experience are being passed on from South to North. Women in the economic hubs of the Global North should adopt and make use of this new form of resistance to locally exert pressure on the beneficiaries of a hierarchical world order.
The complex circumstances upon which the movement is based also translate into a wide range of opportunities for intervention. In this regard, the theoretical debate on intersectionality has significantly contributed to a broader public awareness. We know that the interconnections between different power dynamics on the basis of ethnicity, gender, and social class give rise to specific effects and forms of exclusion, but also to potential courses of action. Accordingly, the particular life realities and problems faced by women remain very different despite global trends. While one woman’s struggle is motivated by her precarious employment conditions as a nurse, another is fighting to obtain the legal status required for access to employment in the first place.
The international women’s strike movement gives expression to these different concerns, and allows sharing of individual experiences. At this point, the primary goal is to take a common stance of mutual solidarity and denounce the underlying capitalist structures. The unstructured plurality of issues and forms inherent in this common strike appears to be the only way to achieve inclusion for all, while simultaneously laying bare the size and complexity of the problem we all face and are a part of.
Currently, the great strengths of the movement are precisely its openness and diversity. However, in the medium term the question will arise as to whether and how these qualities can sufficiently generate the necessary momentum to actually bring about fundamental change in the world. In Germany, this question is expressed in the current debate over whether the women’s strike movement should agree on a small number of demands to be effectively enforced, or whether this approach will inevitably exclude certain parts of the movement and lose sight of the overarching goal—that of overthrowing all existing structures. In light of global political developments, however, we should urgently consider whether institutionalized forms of collaboration and decision-making at the European and international level—a Feminist International—are possible or even desirable.
A Feminist International in the Making?
History can be instructive in this regard; the idea of a feminist International is not new. The proletarian workers’ movement of the early twentieth century held several International Socialist Women’s Conferences and founded the Socialist Women’s International at its first congress in Stuttgart in 1907 (Notz 2009), initiated and coordinated by Clara Zetkin, a prominent figure of German Social Democracy at the time. Participation was regulated by a delegate system. A central office was established, and the magazine Die Gleichheit, edited by Clara Zetkin, became the official organ of the movement.
This organizational structure does not seem a suitable example for the contemporary international women’s strike movement. Unlike the Women’s International of 100 years ago, today’s movement is not organized into national parties able to assign delegates or issue mandates. On the other hand, movements which do not adopt a structure of some kind sooner or later run the risk of becoming undemocratic and falling apart in the absence of legitimate leadership. According to Rosa Luxemburg’s understanding of leadership and base, it is the task of left-wing parties and trade unions to adopt the demands of the women’s strike movement and become constructively involved in an organizational or coordinating role. This could teach them a great deal, as feminist organization remains absent from the majority of parties and unions.
In Spain, the emergence of left-wing movements and occupations following the 2015 crisis led to a lively debate on the feminization or depatriarchalization of politics. This stems from an aspiration to pursue politics on the level of the individual, which requires open assemblies and an infrastructure that fosters mutual caring. The aim of this approach is to enable each person to bring their own private experience to an assembly, secure in the knowledge that it will receive political recognition. Accordingly, dominant leadership figures, hierarchical decision-making processes, and exclusionary language are strongly criticized.
However, the practical implementation of these ideas is not yet fully matured. This is especially evident where the movement seeks to exert direct influence on government activity and the legislative process, as seen in the municipalist left-wing governments in Barcelona and Madrid. State bodies are defined by their own logic and requirements, which can clash with open forms of communication and participation. Questions on the workings of representation by individual delegates remain unanswered. What is more, their focus is avowedly regional. The international network of rebel cities that arose from the municipalist movement is a forum for collaboration, but this does not make it a blueprint for a Feminist International that combines broad participation with collective decision-making.
Nevertheless, there are certainly examples of globally organized collaboration among feminist actors and movements. The conferences initiated by Frigga Haug already act as forum for Marxist-feminist research. In South America, an annual conference of Latin American feminists has been held since 2014 under the name ELLA, and activists in Italy have announced preliminary plans for a Europe-wide women’s strike movement. How these networks will evolve remains to be seen. Here, the European left could play an organising role—after all, many active members of left-wing parties are already involved in the women’s strike movement.
One thing is certain: a Feminist International cannot simply come into being as an intellectual concept; it must be produced as a result of international struggles and movements. What is more, it can only be sustained and led by activists firmly rooted and connected within their respective movements—what Antonio Gramsci called “organic intellectuals”. In this process, the relationship between teachers and learners must remain dynamic: the movement must take it upon itself to ensure that every activist has the opportunity to take the helm—and relinquish it again. To this end, processes for decision-making, knowledge transfer, and education must be developed and tested collectively. There are as yet no fully-fledged solutions to the challenge of creating a progressive and sustainable organized resistance. However, existing experiments and experiences, such as the network of rebel cities, make collaboration across borders a worthwhile endeavour. In this sense, the women’s strike movement is a transnational learning process—one with the potential to change the world.
Kerstin Wolter is a Marxist-feminist and co-organizer of the Germany-wide feminist strike on 8 March. She is an active member of Die Linke. Alex Wischnewski is among the organizers of the feminist strike on 8 March, a member of the #keinemehr initiative, and works on transnational feminist movements for the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung. This article originally appeared in LuXemburg, translation and proofreading by Solomon Wright and Joanna Mitchell for lingua•trans•fair.