Image: MIKE NELSON/EPA/REX/Shutterstock

At the Women’s March in January, there was a line of screaming women in pink pussy hats stretching as far as the eye could see. While there isn’t an official headcount of how many participated in the Women’s Strike on Wednesday, the visuals told a far different story.

Just over a thousand people were estimated at the strike’s major protest outside Trump Tower in New York City, compared to 400,000 people who demonstrated in Manhattan in January. More than 3.2 million women participated in the Women’s March, the largest protest in American history. Of course, the strike can’t be expected to produce the same kind of turnout as an international march. Still, millions of women still showed up to work on Wednesday or only partly participated.

Women approached this strike with hesitance, and that has everything to do with how they feel about work.

Protests make great photos. But a strike, especially one tied to demonstrations, can be more disruptive than a protest and thus harder to ignore. Anxiety about the level of disruption it would cause to their work lives — some of it real, some of it exaggerated — drove many women away.

Yes, there are important, concrete reasons why women couldn’t participate on Wednesday, but a good part of their hesitance was psychological. Americans, economists argue, are addicted to work — and this includes women. They work 25% more than their European counterparts, or an extra hour per day. A study released by the US Travel Association found that more than half of American workers don’t take all of their paid vacation days.

Our sense of self-worth is wrapped up in the role we play in the economy. The Puritan work ethic is alive and flourishing in 2017. Friends of mine who chose not to observe the Women’s Strike, for example, told me that they felt like they "didn’t deserve a day off of work," and that whole idea of it made them feel "guilty and lazy."

Nearly all of them had attended the Women’s March with enthusiasm. This time around, they used the classic, "I think it’s great, but," excuse to explain their non-participation in "A Day Without a Woman."

They totally believed in the Women’s Strike but they personally couldn’t attend because of something going on at work, even when they were privileged enough to take the time off. They weren’t surgeons in a hospital, and their clients’ or customers’ lives didn’t depend on them. Their employers didn’t threaten to terminate them. Though their wages and livelihoods weren’t immediately at stake, some still chose to sit this protest out. Their job just needed them too much.

Some were panicked that even if their employers didn’t fire them, they would think of them negatively in the future.

Then there were those who loved the Women’s March, but the Women’s Strike just didn’t sit well with them. As privileged women, they didn’t want to take part in a strike that only other privileged women could participate in (an interesting shift, given that working-class women were the driving force behind so many of the strikes of the 20th century. Multiple unions also participated in Wednesday’s strike).

Image: AP/REX/Shutterstock

They were nervous, because they had never done something like this before.

When it comes to strikes, it has always been people who have had most to lose who have made most impact. STOP w/ the privilege nonsense.

— Linda Sarsour (@lsarsour) March 8, 2017

Their inexperience shouldn’t come as a shock. Striking may have played a huge part in American history, but it’s deeply unfamiliar to most millennial women, the majority of whom don’t belong to a union. Just 10.7 percent of all American workers belong to unions, who can legally protect their members’ right to strike. Compare that to the United Kingdom, where the number stands at 25.1 percent, or Sweden, where it rises to 62.3.

In parts of Europe, striking is simply a part of life. In 2009, for example, more than a million French citizens participated in a strike against layoffs and the government’s handling of the recession. In the United States, where the recession cut even deeper, the reaction was far more muted.

"But in the United States, where G.M. plans its biggest layoffs, union members have seemed passive in comparison," Steven Greenhouse wrote in The New York Times in 2009. "They may yell at the television news, but that’s about all. Unlike their European counterparts, American workers have largely stayed off the streets, even as unemployment soars and companies cut wages and benefits."

The Poland Women’s Strike on October 3rd is perhaps the best model for Wednesday’s strike — involving hundreds of thousands of women in more than 150 cities and 60 countries across the globe.

In America, that strike was hardly heard.

None of this is to say that people didn’t have perfectly legitimate excuses for not participating, outside of cultural norms. The United States is the only highly developed nation that doesn’t require employers to give their workers paid time off. For some women, especially those in the low-wage marketplace, participation could have very well resulted in lost wages or perhaps even termination. A day off was not an option. Their panic was both palpable and grounded. Their non-participation was critical to their very livelihood.

There are plenty of other reasons why Wednesday’s turnout wasn’t as super-sized as some of us idealistically hoped it would be. Movement fatigue has likely set in. Employers and their staff may not have been prepared to strike, however sympathetic they were to its aims. It’s much more challenging to ask for a general strike, where the enemies are broader and more nebulous, than one against a specific company.

Participating in a general strike is just a much bigger ask than showing up for a weekend protest. It’s also a more invasive, riskier act of disobedience, one with potentially dramatic economic consequences.

That doesn’t stop it from feeling a little bit disappointing. Once upon a time, general strikes were used to procure labor rights Americans now take for granted — including the minimum wage, the concept of the weekend, and health and safety standards. A 24-hour strike in India in October cost the economy an estimated $2.7 billion. In the U.S. on Wednesday, Wall Street hummed along like normal.

None of this is to minimize the genuine success of "Day Without a Woman." At least three whole school districts shut down for the day. Thousands still showed up to rallies in cities nationwide. In the Capitol, Democratic congresswomen and their allies wore red and spoke out in support. And hey, Sean Spicer got into a huff. People were listening.

If nothing else, the strike set the stage and created a powerful framework for an even larger general strike in the future. The Women’s March organizers, a few of whom were arrested outside Trump tower Wednesday, likely knew this fate when planning it. Even though it was harder to drum up enthusiasm for a strike, that never seemed to lessen their commitment.

"If social justice movements were convenient, everybody would be out in these streets," Linda Sarsour, one of the March organizers, recently said on Twitter.
"It takes sacrifices and struggle. Always has."

This article was sourced from http://mathnews.net