The Women’s Strike Can’t Make Room for All Women

I’m not with her. Photo: Pete Marovich/Getty Images

International Women’s Day has come to Donald Trump’s America — and all across the country, women are abandoning their posts. Classes have been canceled; children, left to their fathers; boardrooms, left unmanaged; dinners, left uncooked; blog posts, left unwritten.

The strikers are giving their communities a taste of a “day without a woman,” so as to highlight the indispensable contributions that women make to our society — even as our society suppresses their liberation.

There is broad agreement among American feminists that Trump’s election is a testament to our nation’s unpaid debts to the female population. But there is decidedly less agreement about what, precisely, is owed — and to whom.

Many of Wednesday’s protesters believe that they are owed the pussy-grabber-in-chief’s prompt eviction from the Oval Office; equal pay for equal work; access to legal abortion; and stricter enforcement of laws against sexual assault.

Others believe that the ledger runs far longer. To them, if the government wants to settle its debts with womankind, it must provide them with universal health care; free higher education; free child care; an end to mass incarceration; expanded collective-bargaining rights; a $15 minimum wage; the cancelation of the Dakota Access Pipeline; and the “decolonization of Palestine” — along with a bevy of other social democratic policies necessary for ending “decades of neoliberalism.”

The organizers of the women’s strike fall into this latter category. And this fact has led some in the former group to question the wisdom of such a broad and divisive platform. In their view, the feminist movement should restrict its focus to a narrow set of specifically gender-related issues — the ones that all feminists can agree on.

On first brush, this seems like a reasonable view. Social movements are as strong as their ranks are wide. And surely, there are more women in the United States who support abortion rights than there are women capable of locating the West Bank on a map — let alone, of passionately arguing for its “decolonization.”

Still, there is a fatal problem with demanding that the feminist movement focus on the issues that are of deep concern to all feminists: No such issues exist.

This point is well-illustrated by one of the most widely read arguments against the International Women’s Strike’s sweeping platform. In a New York Times op-ed, “Does Feminism Have Room For Zionists,” Emily Shire laments that the feminist movement’s desire to be “inclusive” has actually made it anything but.

Specifically, she argues that by insisting “that feminism is connected to a wide variety of political causes,” the movement has “alienated feminists” who don’t adhere to far-left orthodoxy:

For example, some who identify as feminists may not agree with the organizers of the International Women’s Strike when they call for a $15 minimum wage. Nor do all feminists necessarily join the strike organizers in supporting the Dakota Access Pipeline protesters. For my part, I am troubled by the portion of the International Women’s Strike platform that calls for a “decolonization of Palestine” as part of “the beating heart of this new feminist movement.” The platform also states: “We want to dismantle all walls, from prison walls to border walls, from Mexico to Palestine.”

Implying that mass incarceration is analogous to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is analogous to Donald Trump’s desire to build a wall along the Mexican border is simplistic at best.

But my prime concern is not that people hold this view of Israel. Rather, I find it troubling that embracing such a view is considered an essential part of an event that is supposed to unite feminists. I am happy to debate Middle East politics or listen to critiques of Israeli policies. But why should criticism of Israel be key to feminism in 2017?

Instead of picking divisive fights over the minimum wage, oil pipelines, and Zionism, Shire suggests that the movement focus on the key women’s issues of “reproductive rights, equal pay, increased female representation in all levels of government and policies to combat violence against women.”

The trouble with this proposal is that not all feminists share the same “key” issues.

For example, a woman at the bottom of America’s income ladder may find a $15 minimum wage far more relevant to her struggle than “equal pay for equal work” — earning the same poverty wage as her male co-workers won’t make her children less hungry. Nor, for that matter, would it make her less vulnerable to exploitation by male domestic partners.

And this points to another problem with Shire’s argument — even if all feminists accepted her priorities, different feminists could arrive at diametrically opposed means of honoring them: One might believe that combating “violence against women” requires longer jail sentences for sexual assault; another might point to the epidemic levels of rape in American prisons and argue for the abolition of the carceral state.

Similarly, one could make a strong argument that universal health care and child care, stronger union rights, and a higher minimum wage are actually more relevant to combating violence against women than many policies that explicitly address that problem: Women at the bottom of the income ladder are six times more likely to be sexually abused than those at the top. Policies that reduce the number of low-income women who are economically dependent on their partners will likely do more to reduce the incidence of rape than, for example, reforming how campuses handle allegations of sexual assault.

This isn’t to suggest that the latter isn’t necessary — nor that the specific forms of gender oppression encountered by women on college campuses and in corporate headquarters don’t need dismantling. The point is simply that the stances Shire champions aren’t the core issues for all feminists — they’re the core issues for feminists like her.

To a Palestinian woman in the West Bank, no issue may appear more central to her liberation than the end of the Israeli occupation. To a Zionist woman in Tel Aviv — whose family tree lost branches to Hitler and then to Hamas — no issue may seem less relevant to her interests. The feminist movement has no choice but to represent one woman, and not the other.

It is probably easier to argue for the irrelevance of the “decolonization of Palestine” to feminist goals than it is to say the same about the social democratic reforms on the strikers’ agenda. Far fewer women in the world suffer from Israeli occupation than are afflicted by poverty or exploitation in the workplace. Still, it is precisely for this reason that left-wing movements like the International Women’s Strike and Black Lives Matter feel a responsibility to champion the Palestinian cause: Without the solidarity of larger left-wing movements, the prospects for Palestinian liberation are quite dim.

In my view, it is reasonable to argue that the preservation of a majority Jewish state and the liberation of women aren’t incompatible goals — or else, that anti-Zionism is too divisive and peripheral a stance for the feminist movement to prioritize. But making this argument effectively requires engaging with the substance of the matter. Which is to say: It requires debating “Middle East politics.” To suggest that the Israel-Palestine conflict, the minimum wage, and opposition to fossil-fuel extraction are intuitively marginal to the feminist cause is to presume a universality of female experience that does not exist. For women who support the maintenance of a majority-Jewish Israel, it is obvious that anti-Zionism has nothing to do with women’s rights. For those who see Israel as an apartheid state, that argument is profane.

Nearly two months before Shire wrote her plea for a feminist movement more tolerant of heterodox views, Erika Bachiochi made a similar case in an editorial for CNN — but the source of Bachiochi’s alienation was the movement’s dogmatic insistence on reproductive choice.

Shire would not want the feminist movement to abandon its commitment to legal abortion to make room for women like Bachiochi. Others feel the same about Shire’s stance on Israel-Palestine.

The feminist movement cannot make room for all feminists — or, at least, it cannot represent all feminists’ core concerns. Those who wish for the movement to disown parts of the strikers’ platform accomplish little by declaring, as Shire does, that the stances they oppose have “nothing to do with feminism.”

Such claims only reiterate the point of contention.

The Women’s Strike Can’t Make Room for All Women