Feminism is for Everyone: On the Way to a Womxn’s Strike in Germany

Doris Salcedo, Thou-less (2001-02).

The debate about a new class politics has been on the agenda since at least the rise of the right-wing populist party Alternative für Deutschland (AfD). In 2016, after the so-called summer of migration, AfD achieved a number of electoral successes. Especially in Eastern and Southern States like Sachsen-Anhalt or Baden-Württemberg, the number of voters was extremely high. We remember long and frustrating debates in our political groups and networks about which strategy the radical left should adopt in Germany. Was it all about the so-called “Willkommenskultur” that organized humanitarian help for incoming refugees, in which a large number of citizens participated, taking a potentially anti-racist political position against the AfD and their voters? What should our strategy be if the right-wing played off the welfare state against migration in a racist way? What kind of answers should a new leftist anti-establishment project give to questions of cuts in social services, housing politics, and neoliberalism? 

Of course, this summary is slightly exaggerated. Fortunately, the artificial separation between a project of diffuse class politics, on the one hand, and anti-racist, feminist, or ecological struggles on the other, proved to be theoretically inadequate and impracticable. For example, if we look at recent labor disputes in Berlin’s hospitals, which culminated in a strike at Charité, we can say that this is a protest that opposes the system of neoliberal exploitation by addressing the underpayment of caregivers as well as the further commodification of the health sector. At the same time, taking into account the social realities in this area of labor automatically involved feminist perspectives. A large part of the workforce in the health sector is comprised of womxn; moreover, the skills that are part of this job are socially treated as primarily female, such as caring for people who need assistance. 

However, feminist protests are still often labeled as merely identity politics and vulnerable to liberal appropriations. This is not only a narrow understanding of feminist ideas, but pitting class and feminist struggles against each other is also extremely unproductive. 

With regard to a new class politics, it is clear that we can no longer treat feminist struggles and the gendered division of labor as a side note. Instead, we need to make them our focus. This has already happened in the past, even beyond the housework debate in the 1970s. The Care Revolution Network, to take one case, has existed throughout Germany since 2012 and seeks to forge resilient and connections of solidarity between paid and unpaid care workers and those who depend on this care work.

In addition, we see how the gender-coded forms of work inscribe themselves within capitalist restructuring – through digitalization, for example. Soft skills, affective work and intangible service relationships – all “typically female activities” – are becoming more relevant to neoliberal forms of work, but they are still undervalued. The fact that womxn perform a large part of socially necessary labor, which is devalued as female work and subject to time and cost pressures, makes the burden on womxn enormous.

Learning from a Global Movement 

Many feminist platforms that have emerged over the last few years in the German context share such an analysis as a basis. For example, the Alliance for more hospital staff in Berlin, whose slogan “More of us is better for everyone,” tries to build solidarity structures against the care crisis and is a crucial organizational model. But how did the idea of ​​the womxn strike finally arise in Germany? A look beyond the national horizon made us rethink feminist forms of resistance. At about the same time as the debates about new class politics reached their climax, feminist protests around the world began to explode.

This is not a coincidence, of course. Simultaneously with the rise of the AfD, Donald Trump was elected president in the United States. In Poland, there was a legal tightening on the already regressive abortion policy that denies womxn their right to bodily self-determination. In short, right-wing and neoliberal forces have been (and are) on the rise worldwide, pushing progressive movements into defensive positions. It was feminists who turned this into an offensive and began to link in their protests topics such as sexual violence, sexism, and the struggle for bodily self-determination with a perspective on the economic exploitation of womxn. Long before we were starting our process toward an actual strike in Germany, ideas, slogans, and demands were travelling across the world, affecting our own feminist struggles. Our M8 demonstrations in Berlin were a mosaic of the feminist expressions of the past few years. There were the panuelos from Argentina, the pussyhats from the US Women’s March, women had banners on which they translated the NiUnaMenos slogan into the German version, “Keine mehr.” 

This view of global feminist developments has not always been free of contradictions and controversy. For example, in left-wing contexts, the first Women’s March and the #metoo movement were suspected of being prone to neoliberal appropriation. In our opinion, it has been shown that #metoo and the equivalent #aufschrei that emerged a few years earlier in the German context were co-responsible for feminist protests becoming mass protests. They have made issues such as sexualized violence more amenable to societal debates and, at least in Germany, have ensured that gender and feminism have once again become the focus of political mobilization.

When the annual womxn’s protest demonstration in Berlin in 2018 grew enormously without much organizing and we saw the pictures of the 5 million striking womxn in Spain, some of us realized that it was time to take the next step towards organizing a feminist strike in Germany as well. 

Organizing Multiplicity

Of course, a nation-wide feminist network does not build itself within a few weeks or months, and certainly not a womxns’ strike. In the past, there have been a lot of disappointments because networks couldn’t agree on central claims in their political work due to the different political backgrounds of groups and people within them. Problems and concerns are as diverse as the womxns’ experiences. In Germany, for many, the economic revaluation of their jobs is in the foreground. The extension of visas, the change of the current law discriminating against inter and trans*gender people, or the right to safe abortions compose other important topics in feminist struggles that might not get as much public attention.

That is why we did not try to identify a general demand. Instead, with the question “What’s your strike?”, we tried to start from womxn’s actual living conditions in order to find common ground from bottom up. This is much easier said than done, especially with regard to political decisions and the relationship between the womxn’s strike and the public. For example, there isn’t one acting spokesperson for our entire network; rather, everyone can go public with the Womxn’s strike and formulate their demands.

Conversely, this also means that it is important to endure political differences and respectfully deal with them, and that our understandings of feminism is shaped by the social and historical contexts in which we were and are politically active. For example, at our first nationwide strike meeting we spent three days arguing about how to name our strike. Propositions were either too academic, too white, not queer enough, or too ambiguous. Instead of pushing for an agreement, in the end, everyone should decide for themselves. The name doesn’t constitute the relevance. The project we create together does.

Another organizational aspect lies in building relationships with other institutions and mobilizing within areas that don’t relate to the womxn’s strike as easily. This January, tariff disputes flared up in the sectors of health and education, with multiple warning strikes taking place in one of the most feminized sectors right before March 8. While some of the partakers of the warning strikes became aware of us through union solidarity statements, we were also able to talk to many youth and childcare workers and hold a couple of joined meetings.

Some of them joined us for the M8 demonstration; unfortunately, our struggles still exist quite separately from one another.

Despite all attempts to create accessibility, the womxn’s strike remains a project that is initiated by feminists, many of whom are situated within academia. A lot of the workers in the sector of education do not see themselves as feminists and do not think of the womxn’s strike as their movement. It takes more time and resources to engage in dialogue and find out problems and demands which we can share or with which we can sympathize.

This is why it is all the more important to note that the womxn’s strike in Germany should not be a short-lived political campaign, which disperses again after March 8, as is often the case. We want to see the womxn’s strike as a platform in which failing can be part of the process, without becoming the end of the movement. It also means telling our critics again and again what we mean by a feminist strike.

Reappropriating the Political Strike

In Germany, as well as worldwide, we are used to unions being the ones who call for strikes. There are a handful of concrete demands, (warning) strikes, collective bargaining, and, in the end, mostly a new collective agreement. The situation is quite different with the feminist strike. As Veronica Gago puts it in an interview:

It is one thing when the union calls you to strike and you already know what you have to do, what it means, how the result is measured, and also to whom the strike is aimed. It is something completely different when the feminist movement calls for a strike and says, “We are all workers.”

The feminist strike therefore requires an expanded understanding of work from which another concept of strike can be deduced. We are all workers, whether we work with the pen, the wrench, the computer or the broom in hand, whether we get paid for it or not. A womxn’s strike encompasses not only the interruption of waged labor, but also that of unwaged domestic and care work, with the goal of showing what is put on hold when we are missing. It means taking the economic position of womxn in the capitalist production process seriously and transforming it into a force of resistance – just as we turn the pain of patriarchal and capitalist violence into rebellion.

To strike among such diverse labor sectors means spreading the strike. The strike takes place wherever womxn work and includes a variety of day-to-day work, including not washing dishes, organizing a fierce lunch break in the workplace, or demanding double wages. However, many of the jobs in which womxn engage are characterized by the fact that they cannot be interrupted, as human lives directly depend on them. This is one of the reasons why it is important to develop tactics that make participation possible for those who cannot usually strike: the undocumented, paid and unpaid caregivers, the self-employed – the list is long. Some of the work is taken on by cis-men in solidarity as to relieve the womxn’s burden. Moreover, along the lines of Precarias a la Deriva’s text, “What is your strike,” the strike should not be interpreted as disrupting care itself but as defying the conditions that make it impossible to care for one another with solidarity and in a satisfactory way. This also means testing other forms of living together in the present. In this way the strike also becomes an opportunity to experiment with concrete utopias.

We think that this form of feminist strike is not realizable within the frame of union strikes. Not only because the subject of the strike includes informal and unpaid workers, those who usually can’t strike. Also the logic of the strike is a different one: It’s not bound to a clear number of very concrete demands concerning the conditions of wage labour (higher wages, less working hours), which are negotiated by representatives of the unions and the employers association. The feminist strike belongs to each and every womxn. Nobody can represent them and there is also nobody to negotiate with about the future of patriarchal capitalism. The strike shows the inseparable connection between patriarchal violence and capitalist exploitation. Therefore, we need the unions. But even more, we need the power of womxn taking the streets. We believe the feminist movement evokes a democratization and radicalization of the instrument of the strike. 

A further problem is the ban of political strikes in Germany since the womxn’s strike is clearly a political strike. While this significantly increases the risk of repression for the strikers, we hope to reclaim the political strike from below instead of being criminalized for our demands. 

The Present Belongs to Womxn! 

The strength of the current feminist movement shows once more the fallacy that emancipation was already achieved by Equal Opportunities Offices and diversity management. It also proves that womxn’s oppression is not a subordinate or side contradiction. Globally it is womxn, queer, and migrant workers who are at the forefront of the struggle against both the authoritarian right and neoliberal privatization policies. Whether this happens with the Women’s Marches in the USA, with Ni Una Menos in Argentina or with the strikes of educators and caregivers in Germany – we are in the middle of the third wave of feminism. For a long time we dreamt of a feminist future, until we realized that we are already in the middle of it. The third wave is certainly not just about “women’s issues,” just as feminism is not a single-issue movement, but rather a movement for social emancipation. We see the womxn’s strikes as an expression of this broader motion: they address class issues as well as issues of gender violence and racism. They make it possible to bridge the gap between struggles against economic exploitation and sexualized violence, which have been tackled separately for far too long.This creates new alliances between different marginalized groups, which are reflected in the diversity of our local strike committees: Precarious caregivers are striking with left-wing queer feminists, asylum-seeking womxn with sex workers. This composition is, to an extent, new in Germany and of course conflictual at times. Nonetheless, we are optimistic that we will learn from each other’s experiences and grow together in joint organization. It is too early to proclaim the emergence of a feminist, anti-racist and internationalist class in Germany. The social divisions caused by neoliberalism are too profound to be overthrown in a couple of months. We can, however, talk about a feminist, anti-racist, and anti-capitalist movement. No matter how we proceed, March 8 is just the beginning. 

This article is part of a dossier entitled “New Dispatches from the Feminist International.”

Authors of the article

is a member of the Womxn’s Strike network in Germany.

is a member of the Womxn’s Strike network in Germany.

is a member of the Womxn’s Strike network in Germany.