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How Spain Pulled Off a Women’s General Strike

Elia Gran Mar 20

Two hundred thousand women filled the streets of Barcelona with purple on March 8. It was International Women’s Day and they were joining in Spain’s first women’s strike and the largest day of protest by women in Spanish history. Women of all ages chanted, smiled, sang and held onto one another. Many of the participants had hand-painted feminists symbols on their hands and faces.

As they passed storefront mannequins, they chanted in unison  “La talla 38 me apreta el chocho.” (“The size 38 is very tight on my vagina.”), a reference to the small pants sizes women are expected to wear and which were modeled by the mannequins

“Visca, visca, visca la lluita feministe.” (“Hurray, hurray, hurray, to the feminist fight)” chanted a large group in Catalán as they sat in the public square in front of City Hall where they were joined by the leftist mayor, Ada Colau.

The women in Barcelona were not alone. In more than 120 Spanish cities, women rallied under the slogan, “If we stop, the world stops.” The main organizers of the rallies who put out the call for the strike, the 8M Committee, demanded equal rights and opportunities for all women.

In Madrid, 170,000 people participated. In Bilbao, capital of the Basque province, up to 60,000 rallied with thousands of women singing “A La Huelga” (To The Strike) — a protest anthem sung by student groups during the dictatorship (1939-1975) of Gen. Francisco Franco.

No political parties led the women’s strike, and there were hardly any nationalist flags present. Peaceful, festive and with drums being played, women picked up and echoed chants blaring from megaphones: We’re tired of the normalized repression women suffer under capitalism, they affirmed,  tired of working without getting paid, tired of not getting our work recognized and tired of a system that frames women as a reason for poverty. The acceptance of the diversity of women — including lesbian and trans women — was one of the main demands of the strike’s manifesto.

To ensure the strike’s success, an instruction manual was shared on social media telling men what their role was during the strike — to do all the tasks normally done by women including taking care of the children while working a full day at their paying jobs — so that women could rally and make their voices heard.

Some commentators compared the women’s strike to 15M, a decentralized protest movement that erupted across Spain in May 2011 that arose in opposition to austerity and was led by youthful “indignados” whose actions helped to inspire Occupy Wall Street.

So, why did women in Spain strike?

Women’s strikes took place around the globe on March 8 including in New York City where hundreds of women rallied in Washington Square Park in the late afternoon and early evening. But nowhere were the protests as large and far-reaching in Spain.

Why?

‘Women are sick and tired of putting up with Spain’s repressive government.’

Historically, Spain has been a deeply hierarchical society that developed over many centuries under the thumb of the monarchy and the Catholic Church. There is also a rich tradition of resisting domination from workers revolts in 1830, to the founding of anarcho-syndicalist unions, to fighting a bloody civil war against fascism in the 1930s, to resisting the Franco dictatorship, to building a brand new democracy beginning in the 1970s, all the way up to the rise of 15M in 2011. However, the International Women’s Day strike was fueled above all by women’s exasperation with their present circumstances.

In Spain, women earn 13 percent less than men on average while spending 2.5 more hours per day doing domestic work, according to the Foundation for Applied Economic Studies. There is a 23 percent earnings gap between the genders.

When asked in a January radio interview about why women’s salaries lagged behind those of men, Spain’s conservative Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy said that it was none of his government’s business how much companies paid their employees.

“[Women] are sick and tired of putting up with Spain’s repressive government,” Pilar Rodriguez, a Spanish anthropologist and lawyer, told The Indypendent.

The indifference to women’s well-being is also reflected in the impunity of men who abuse and kill their partners. About 50 women per year are killed by their partners who go on to face little or no legal consequences in Spain. The case of a young woman who was raped in 2017 by five men during the bullfighting celebration in Pamplona stirred further outrage when videos of the rapists laughing after the assault were found on their cell phones.

The events of March 8 stood out for the wide variety of organizations that backed it including from male-led labor unions that have until now been disconnected from contemporary social movements and have not previously made challenging gender-based discrimination a priority.

‘You would turn on the TV and it was all men reporting on the women’s rally because the women journalists were on strike.’

Feminist groups were initially reluctant to involve labor unions, according to Rodriguez, but later came around to the idea. For the unions, the realization that women were going to strike en masse prompted them to come out in support.  

The UGT and the CC.OO, the nation’s two largest unions, carried out two strikes of two hours each during the busiest hours in the morning and in the afternoon. More radical unions like CNT and the CGT supported a 24-hour strike.  

Many schools went on strike and public transportation ran with reduced service. One of the most high-profile strikes took place in the media industry.

“You would turn on the TV and it was all men reporting on the women’s rally because the women journalists were on strike,” Rodriguez said.

Shows like the satirical program, El Intermedio, underscored the importance of women in their workplaces when they had the show’s male hosts appear on air unprepared, without makeup and holding the script in their hands because there was no one present to work the teleprompter.

“The feminist movement in Spain and in Barcelona is not new,” said Santi Mas de Xaxás, spokesperson of PAH, a militant anti-eviction group led mainly by women and co-founded seven years ago by the current mayor of Barcelona. “We were on the streets in massive protests 2014 saying ‘Yo decido, yo desobedezco’ (I decide, I disobey) when the current right-wing party wanted to change the legislation on abortion. And we got it stopped,”

Changing how women are treated in their workplaces requires taking into account the invisible work they do at home. A women’s strike brings all that to light. While some women face constraints that make it impossible for them to participate, the objective of creating a global women’s strike is to cover that gap and for each of us, in different countries, to be able to stand up and fight for labor, identity, health and educational right for those mothers, sisters, office workers, nannies, sex workers, teachers and others that can’t.

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Elia Gran is a New York City-based journalist who previously lived in Barcelona where she participated in a number of radical social movements.

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Photo credit: Twitter/@lfilella