Women, Should We Call a Strike?

BY JENNY BROWN

On October 5, 2013, NWL leaders assisted with and attended the Shulamith Firestone Women’s Liberation Memorial Conference on What Is to Be Done, organized by Redstockings in New York City.

Participants were asked to answer two questions about the root of women’s oppression and where we go from here. NWL organizer and Redstockings member Jenny Brown was on a panel answering the question, “What are your thoughts now on what has to be done to win women’s freedom?” Here is a part of her conference testimony, which, she noted, draws on her 20 years as a Redstockings member, but doesn’t represent the group:

We’re in an odd position because we’ve won a lot on some fronts in the last 50 years. Pretty much people agree that women should be equal (whereas socialism seems much more distant than it did in the 60s or even the 80s). We won the ability for a substantial percentage of women to get an education and a job to support ourselves alone. For the first time, women can escape personally from the reproductive jobs, we can get a job that supports us, be exploited as a worker, and die alone, just like a man. That seems to be the maximum potential in this society for women to not be exploited as women.

But as soon as we get pregnant and have children, as soon as we take on the necessary and essential caretaking of children, and of our parents—what is known as civilization—we are right back to being exploited, working without compensation, unfair family relations, dependency on men, the whole mess.

In Shulamith Firestone’s book, The Dialectic of Sex (1970), she talks about externalizing the work of pregnancy and childbearing, so that women don’t endure the dangers and physical toll. Her focus on bearing children is that it’s primarily work, unfairly distributed, and is a burden, but she really didn’t address its value, and therefore its power. Maybe because of the baby boom, and ruling class men going on about a “population bomb,” she didn’t see bearing children as a leverage point—and at that point it may not have been one.

Now we see rulers in societies that have recently experienced very low birth rates, like Germany or France or Italy, trying to figure out how to get women to have more babies, not by cutting birth control or abortion, but by inducements: Long parental leaves for women and men, subsidized or free childcare, child allowances, and of course free healthcare, visiting medical staff and housekeeping workers to help while you have an infant. You know, a real nanny state!

By contrast, here we get sex education that doesn’t explain anything, and restrictions on birth control along with expensive, hard to obtain abortions. This means that in the U.S. half of pregnancies are unintended, and half of those result in births. Whereas in much of Europe the rate of unintended pregnancy is much lower, and unintended births are lower too.

If we had the same lower birth rate they do, I bet we’d have politicians suddenly talking about the merits of universal childcare and worrying about whether we need to provide child allowances instead of just tax credits. Instead, here, they just make it harder and harder to get birth control and abortions. This kind of coercion to have babies is cheaper for businesses: They don’t want to pay taxes for public childcare or pay for leave while we’re bearing children and nurturing them.

The problem with a lower birth rate being leverage is, how do you exercise that muscle? We struggle for better birth control and abortion, so we have an individual “choice.” But collectively? There hasn’t been a picket line that women can decide to cross or not to cross, there hasn’t been a clear demand that could be met. Lots of U.S. women are on slowdown, having fewer children, later, because the conditions are so very difficult. Getting an education—which seems to take longer and is more expensive—then a job, then somehow not being tarred or stigmatized in your career by having a child right after you get a job. Then working impossible weeks trying to raise that infant, with no paid leave to speak of.

Or, for those of us in less go-getter professions, like me, simply affording it, having health insurance that covers you even for the birth! For most of my childbearing years I had an individual policy which was expensive enough and it went up every year, but then you had to buy an additional birth rider, a very expensive bet that this year you would get pregnant! It’s no wonder the U.S. birth rate went down notably with the latest crash/recession/depression.

So here’s my proposal (not endorsed by any group, this is just me testifying): In the U.S. the first types of unions were craft unions, where members of a certain skilled craft withheld their rare and hard-to-replace labor, grinding production to a halt, until they had fair compensation and working conditions. We women could maybe see ourselves as a union of baby producers, uniting based on our craft, a craft that no one else can do, to gain fair compensation and working conditions. We could take a page from the Walmart and fast food strikers and do a short strike. I think we would only have to go on strike for a year–if enough women participated–to get some substantial concessions. Set a year, say 2016, and build towards it. We refuse to have babies unless we have universal childcare, universal healthcare, paid parental leave like the rest of the world, a child allowance, men to do their fair share. I think the howls of outrage from men on the right to this proposal would be enlightening in themselves.

There was considerable debate around this proposal. What do you think of women declaring a birth strike? Is there another way we can leverage our power as the ones who produce children? E-mail us at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.