Four weeks of paid family leave isn’t enough. American women need to go on strike. | Opinion
With paid family leave significantly reduced in President Biden's domestic spending plan, women need to hit the country where it hurts the most: in the wallet, the bank account, square in the GDP.
In the last week I’ve been invited to three protests, two marches, one postcard-writing campaign, and a “wine and call your senator” party in service of reviving paid leave, which after getting axed and then added back into President Joe Biden’s domestic spending plan, has been whittled down to a measly four weeks.
I joked that it was more like “whine and call your senator” party. The host did not think that was funny. She was deadly serious about the nature of her event. As well she should be. What we are fighting for is vitally important.
Despite a flurry of activism after Donald Trump was inaugurated in January 2017, the day before the much-lauded global Women’s March, things have arguably gotten worse for women in America in recent years. Even if four weeks of paid family leave — which to be clear, is not nearly enough — makes it into law, there are so many other ways that the U.S. government is failing women. Just this week, the right-leaning Supreme Court heard arguments related to a Texas abortion law that prohibits doctors from performing abortions starting around the sixth week of pregnancy, which puts women’s reproductive rights in grave danger. Women’s reproduction is intrinsically tied to their economic future: Four times as many women as men dropped out of the labor force during the peak of the pandemic.
Even if paid leave survives in the infrastructure bill, four weeks is not nearly enough time, as day cares often won’t take infants younger than 6 weeks. And many American families can’t afford day care at all.
But the time to call our senators has passed. I’m sick of marching and protesting and writing postcards. None of it is getting us anywhere. If women want to be valued in our current American society, we are going to have to show our worth.
It’s time for American women to go on strike. We have to hit the country where it hurts the most: in the wallet, the bank account, square in the GDP.
“We have to hit the country where it hurts the most: in the wallet, the bank account, square in the GDP.”
It should not have come to this, but right now no one cares if we protest with our adorable and Instagram-friendly signs.
The time for action is now. We need to take an entire day off from our jobs, from housework, from child care, from buying things in person and on the internet. We need to prove how valuable we are by walking away from it all instead of marching down the National Mall.
Women striking is nothing new. Feminist movements have called for strikes throughout modern history, with varying degrees of success. The most successful strike — and one that should inspire American women who are fed up with being treated so poorly — was the Women’s Day Off in Iceland. It was a spectacular event that should be taught in all of our history classes (but that is a different battle).
Today, Iceland is one of the most starkly feminist countries in the world. Some have gone so far as to call it a feminist utopia. But that wasn’t always the case. Up until 1975, Iceland had many of the same problems that currently plague the United States. Work in the home wasn’t valued. Neither was caregiving.
“Women were dissatisfied about their position in society because even though they had been granted civil rights early in the century, the right to vote, the right to run for election, the right to get every education they wanted, there were still these barriers that women faced in the form of how people thought that women should be mainly mothers and housewives,” Erla Hulda Halldórsdóttir, the chair of the department of history at the University of Iceland, explained to me earlier this year when I interviewed her for my podcast.
According to Halldórsdóttir, the activists organizing the Iceland strike grappled over whether to call it a strike at all, worrying that the word strike would sound harsh and turn some women off, causing them not to come. They also worried about the media optics of a strike. In the end they decided to name it Women’s Day Off to make the event more press-friendly than a strike. It still packed a punch.
On an island of just 220,000 people, 25,000 women participated. Women gathered in massive protests in the center of the capital, Reykjavik, but they didn’t just gather — they refused to work for the entire day. The turnout was nonpartisan. Women came together in solidarity from all parties, classes, and walks of life.
Men across Iceland scrambled. Fathers bought up all the hot dogs from the grocery stores for dinner. Male newscasters had to read the news with their children running around the television studios. Banks couldn’t keep up with withdrawals because most of the tellers were women.
The goal was to show the value of female labor, to show the mostly men in charge that the economy could not function without women.
And it worked.
Iceland’s first female president was elected five years later. Vigdis Finnbogadóttir, who served as the country’s leader for 16 years, credits that day off with empowering her to run for the country’s highest office. “Things went back to normal the next day, but with the knowledge that women are as well as men the pillars of society. So many companies and institutions came to a halt, and it showed the force and necessity of women — it completely changed the way of thinking,” she said.
Screaming into the void
Iceland still isn’t a perfect place in terms of gender equality. Halldórsdóttir herself says there is still a ways to go. There’s still a gender pay gap. There are still fewer women in management positions than men.
But the country does have a generous paid family leave policy that gives five months of paid time off to each new parent, and an additional two months for the parents to split between them. The country offers subsidized day care until children are school age. Parents in Iceland don’t have to choose between caregiving and earning a living. Both of those things are possible without going into the kind of crippling debt that so many Americans are enduring.
That’s exactly what we need. We need to change the way we think about the value of women’s work and lives, about the value of our time.
“We need to change the way we think about the value of women’s work and lives, about the value of our time.”
A day off wouldn’t just cripple the American economy, it would also show women just how much power we have when we all work together for something we know is in our best interest and in the best interest of our families.
The ability to take an entire day off work is a privilege that isn’t available to everyone. It is because we have no social safety net — and the fact that so many women are responsible for providing care and income for multiple dependents — that many women cannot take a day off. They can’t do the one thing that would make the decision-makers in this country finally take serious action to improve their lives.
As each new news cycle shows, no one is listening to our screams, or watching our marches. We’re in an echo chamber and we need to break out of it by proving our worth and our value and by causing the people in charge some discomfort — at least a fraction of the discomfort they’re causing us.
Jo Piazza is an award-winning journalist and the bestselling author of the novels We Are Not Like Them and Charlotte Walsh Likes to Win. She is also the creator and host of the podcast Under the Influence. She lives in Philadelphia.