Response — March 7, 2017, 6:51 pm

A Feminism for the Masses

Four women make the case for a strike

Protestors at the Women's March in Washington, D.C., January 21, 2017. Photograph by the author.

Protesters at the Women’s March in Washington, D.C., January 21, 2017. Photograph by the author.

In the fall of 1909, more than 20,000 female garment workers in New York City took to the streets, demanding better hours and wages. Several months later, in what seemed like progress, their union came to an agreement with most of the factory owners. But in March 1911, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, whose management had refused to sign the union settlement, burned down, killing 145 workers. More than 80,000 people marched down Fifth Avenue to grieve and protest the conditions that had led to the fire. On Wednesday, March 8, 2017, women in more than 30 countries will again take to the streets and decline to work—abstaining from both formal and informal labor. They won’t attend meetings, they won’t shop, they won’t cook. It’s a celebration of International Women’s Day and a demand for recognition of the uncompensated work that women do. We spoke with four women in New York about what the strike means to them.

Bridget Gaitor, an African-American woman, is a special education teacher at a public school in Brooklyn.

I have a lot of kids who ask questions. They’re always asking me, “Miss, are you participating in this march? Did you hear about this in the news?” They asked if I heard about the strike that’s happening on March 8th, and I told them I’m definitely participating. They asked me why it’s happening, and we talked about women’s issues, wages, and abortion rights.

As an educator, you provide the first foundations of knowledge. If adolescents believe that we are equal, that everyone is capable of sports, that everyone is capable of any job that they put their minds to, despite their gender, then they will grow into adults knowing that, “Oh, women can do X, Y, and Z, just like men can.” It’s a teacher’s job to make sure that students understand this, so that they grow into adults that have the same mind-set.

Under Betsy DeVos, I am very nervous for education. I’ve been a public school teacher for six years. A lot of her ideas about the charter school movement scare me, and make me think that she’s moving toward privatization. I think things may get a little rocky, especially when it comes to including all students, particularly students with different gender associations.

Over the years, when it comes to feminism, myself and other women of color have felt left out of the conversation. That’s one of the main reasons I wanted to participate. I want to show a united front, to say: I understand that this is what happened in the past, but as we move forward, I want to make sure that all voices are heard.

On Wednesday, I hope that people see every aspect of feminism. That they see you have women who have special needs, women of every economic background, every social background, from different cultures, from different ethnicities, and that as a whole, we disagree with what’s happening, and there needs to be a change. We’re here standing in a united front against anyone who’s going to overturn the abortion laws that we have in this nation. We’re standing up for the education rights of women across the world. We’re standing up against microaggressions. Against anyone who thinks that tampons or pads are luxury items that need to be taxed.

I don’t think the ability to strike is a privilege. I think it’s a right. If you don’t stand up for what you believe in, there’s no point in believing in anything. If you don’t stand up for what you think is right, people will continue to do you wrong.

Mia White, an Afro-Asian woman, is an assistant professor of environmental studies at the New School. She is planning to attend the rally in Washington Square Park with her undergraduate students.

A lot of my students say, “Well, Mia, the world is a shit storm right now. What do we do? I don’t know what to do.” We have to resist this need to know exactly what the answers are before engaging in the struggle. We can only discover it collectively through the uncertainty and contradictions of coming together.

Fear travels through bureaucracies and it seems to be this very neutral thing because everybody just wants a paycheck. People capitulate and become ensnared in these systems. But we have to be willing to engage fear—to be scared, and to not know the answers. A revolutionary practice begins with saying: I love myself, and I love these people, and I’m willing to not know what exactly this means.

The idea that this is a day for the “feminist 99 percent” is key. I used to work for the Ms. Foundation for Women. We often struggled with this idea that feminism was a white woman’s phenomenon and that it did not speak to the most marginalized women. Feminism for the 99 percent is about justice beyond striving. As women, we’re told that the more credentials we have, the more likely we’ll be to achieve some measure of equality. That’s all bullshit. What we need to do is to look around and understand why it is that so many women and people are suffering, hungry, sick, depressed, alone, without health care, and without opportunity.

My mother and I were street vendors in the Eighties and Nineties. We would never have identified as feminists then. We were selling socks, three for five dollars. I want those women, who are still street vendors and home health aides, who are largely women of color and immigrants—to feel empowered to help lead whatever is coming next.

Women and humans who are feminized are on the front lines of environmental disaster. I did post-Katrina work in Mississippi, and it was black women who were basically census monitors, going from house to house. They knew who was missing their diabetes medication and who wasn’t. It was the women in Flint who were complaining to the mayor that something was wrong with the water, and who were told that their knowledge was illegitimate because they were not experts. It’s usually the most marginalized people who have learned the skills of resistance.

This is what I explain to my students. We need to think about this from a heterogeneous perspective. We have to think about anti-blackness, patriarchy, nationalism, white supremacy. We have to see this as a smog in the air that we’re all subject to. White supremacy does not mean white skin. It’s a smog we have inherited historically, just like the patriarchy. We’re all impacted differently depending on our embodiment, but it is something that we’re all impacted by. When we think about it structurally, it makes perfect sense why we need to strike.

Lamis Deek, a Palestinian woman, is an attorney and human rights advocate who is on the strike’s national planning committee.

In the United States, the voices that have been traditionally considered by the mainstream media as feminist voices have been white women, who have often, to our great dismay, parroted government rhetoric and propaganda. And in fact they have been part and parcel of using feminism in service of imperialism, as we’ve seen in the Arab world. We’ve seen many American feminists and U.S.-based feminist movements mobilize to, in their language, “liberate” and “free” Arab and Muslim women. But they do that by subjecting Arab and Muslim women to war and violence, just by a different set of people—in this case, American and European forces. We are saying that we don’t need feminism that serves existing systems of power and oppression. We’re not interested in a feminism of the elites. We’re interested in a feminism of the masses. And in order for it to be a feminism of the masses it must be an anti-racist and anti-imperialist feminism. So it was very important for me to be part of organizing this movement, to mobilize Arab and Muslim communities, to say we are agents of our own change.

Growing up in Palestine, I was raised largely by women, by my mother and my grandmothers, all of whom had to raise us, had to fend off Israeli soldiers and kidnappers, and had to farm at the same time. I come from a place where women toiled and labored under severe conditions. In that society, however, there was more reverence for women and elders, and coming to the United States, it was shocking to see the abject lack of reverence.

When my father passed away, my mother started wearing the veil. It was new to us; we were a nationalist secular family. She lives in the Midwest. And only over the past couple of years have I, for the first time, found myself constantly worrying about my mother’s safety. We had lived under a brutal, violent Israeli occupation. Now I found myself in this place where I was supposed to be safe, or at least safer, constantly worried about who was going to hurt my mother because of this new escalation and mobilization of anti-Muslim violence and racism. It made me consider how vulnerable my mother was in a way that other women aren’t — physically, socially, culturally, because she’s so visible as a Muslim woman.

Sumer Samhoury, an Arab-American woman, is a physical therapist in Brooklyn and a mother of two.

Breaking the mold of oppression takes a lot of work. The appearance of Arab-American women in the media is that they are housewives. They’re barefoot and pregnant. Their men call the shots and they have no authority in their own households. They have no voice. Our religion, Islam—not all Arabs are Muslim, but for the women that are—our religion tells us to be authoritative, but to do it in a delicate way.

I happen to be a covered woman. I wear a veil. But just because I cover my hair doesn’t mean my voice is not heard. It doesn’t mean my knowledge is not worthy. I’m a doctor. I treat pelvic pain. I treat women when they’re pregnant and in postpartum, at their most vulnerable, women who can’t be penetrated during intercourse because of certain conditions. And if that’s not empowering—teaching a woman to take control of her own vagina—I don’t know what is.

This is how I give women their voice. I say, “You’re a woman, you are just as intelligent as a man.” We are not the oppressed Arab-American women that you see on CNN. We are intelligent, we are educated, and we can offer a lot to the world.

Like I said, I treat pelvic pain. I treat urinary incontinence. I treat vaginismus, which is a condition where a woman cannot tolerate either a medical vaginal exam or intercourse. And these are all, believe it or not, often considered cosmetic. It’s a fight to convince the people behind the phones at insurance companies that a woman’s livelihood is dependent on this. And the interesting thing is, men can also experience erectile dysfunction or urinary incontinence, especially after prostate surgery, and those things are quickly covered. So, I even see some sexism happening in insurance companies. I treat both men and women, and I’ve never had to convince the insurance company when I need to treat a man. Whereas a woman, she just pushed out an eight-pound baby and now she’s got urinary incontinence. I have to convince them that this is not normal. It’s common, but it’s not normal. This is not cosmetic. This is a medical necessity. It’s really very depressing that I have to fight for these women to get medical care.

Recognition is important—recognizing that women are just as important to society as men are, and that women’s health concerns are just as detrimental to their quality of life and health as men’s conditions are. The ideal outcome of the strike is recognition: women are stronger and a lot more capable than they’re given credit for.

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Serving as a US Air Force launch control officer for intercontinental missiles in the early Seventies, First Lieutenant Bruce Blair figured out how to start a nuclear war and kill a few hundred million people. His unit, stationed in the vast missile fields at Malmstrom Air Force Base, in Montana, oversaw one of four squadrons of Minuteman II ­ICBMs, each missile topped by a W56 thermonuclear warhead with an explosive force of 1.2 megatons—eighty times that of the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. In theory, the missiles could be fired only by order of the president of the United States, and required mutual cooperation by the two men on duty in each of the launch control centers, of which there were five for each squadron.

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Among students of nuclear command and control, this practice of precluding all options but the desired one is known as “jamming” the president. Blair’s irksome protests threatened to slow this process. When his pleas drew rejection from inside the system, he turned to Congress. Eventually the Air Force agreed to begin using “unlock codes”—codes transmitted at the time of the launch order by higher authority without which the crews could not fire—on the weapons in 1977. (Even then, the Navy held off safeguarding its submarine-launched nuclear missiles in this way for another twenty years.)

Following this small victory, Blair continued to probe the baroque architecture of nuclear command and control, and its extreme vulnerability to lethal mishap. In the early Eighties, while working with a top-secret clearance for the Office of Technology Assessment, he prepared a detailed report on such shortcomings. The Pentagon promptly classified it as SIOP-ESI—a level higher than top secret. (SIOP stands for Single Integrated Operational Plan, the US plan for conducting a nuclear war. ESI stands for Extremely Sensitive Information.) Hidden away in the Pentagon, the report was withheld from both relevant senior civilian officials and the very congressional committees that had commissioned it in the first place.

From positions in Washington’s national security think tanks, including the Brookings Institution, Blair used his expertise and scholarly approach to gain access to knowledgeable insiders at the highest ranks, even in Moscow. On visits to the Russian capital during the halcyon years between the Cold War’s end and the renewal of tensions in the twenty-first century, he learned that the Soviet Union had actually developed a “dead hand” in ultimate control of their strategic nuclear arsenal. If sensors detected signs of an enemy nuclear attack, the USSR’s entire missile force would immediately launch with a minimum of human intervention—in effect, the doomsday weapon that ends the world in Dr. Strangelove.

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Bombhead, by Bruce Conner (detail) © Conner Family Trust, San Francisco, and ARS, New York City. Courtesy Kohn Gallery, Los Angeles

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