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Remaining Open

On women, capital, and care

On Wednesday, March 8, women from an estimated 35 countries will strike in support of a variety of causes central to the fight for universal human rights. Here in the United States, women are being encouraged to stay home from work, refrain from spending money, and, if shopping is necessary, to do so only at women-owned businesses. Some women, however, will deliberately be showing up to work that day in support of the strike — those who run businesses that primarily involve caring, emotionally and physically, for other women.

“Emotional labor” has traditionally been viewed as stereotypically patient mothering — everything from bandaging scraped knees to listening as familiar concepts are mansplained to you over and over. It refers to the way women are pushed into maternal and caregiving roles, even in inappropriate settings, such as the workplace or with a group of friends. It also encompasses all the “feminine” behaviors we have to put on, whether we want to or not, to survive an average day. For example, refraining from screaming expletives at some moron who followed you down the street muttering disgusting comments about your body, or explaining to generally well-meaning dudes why something they did was misogynistic instead of pointing them to lmgtfy.com or beating their head in with a brick.

Emotional labor doesn't have to be a burden, however; many women practice it in a conscious effort to counteract patriarchy. These women are often the owners and operators of businesses frequented by other women as a form of “self-care”: hair salons, tattoo shops, yoga studios — all workplaces whose employees require a highly specific education, a great amount of creativity, and the willingness to provide emotional support. They are the type of services in which many women may partake on a day when they’re voluntarily opting out of work as part of a strike, and many of these businesses will be staying open on Wednesday as their own form of protest — including several owned by good friends of mine. When I asked them why they’re consciously choosing to remain open on the day of the strike, the answer was roughly the same across the board: They want to care for people and help people better care for themselves.

“We do our best and try to fight the way things are in capitalism by being ourselves and doing what we do, and making other people feel like themselves, too,” says Emily Costello, owner of the recently opened X Salon and Studio in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She and her “hair family” primarily provide services to women and queer people in the area, so they view staying open during the strike as a matter of creating safer spaces, both for clients and employees. “We have our 10 Commandments of the things that fly and don’t fly at X. Two are that we don’t discriminate, and we won’t stand for prejudice in any shape or form. So I’ve made it very clear with the staff that I want them to feel, especially in the time of Trump, that they have a space they can go to, regardless of home life or whatever.”

For Costello, this means keeping the space open and available — both during the strike and during this administration as a whole — for anyone and everyone who needs care, and contributing to other safer spaces in their immediate community. “We said, 'Let’s think of other ways we can fight this bullshit.' The biggest thing we’ve been doing is picking out local organizations like the Mazzoni Center and donating, say, all our tips from a weekend to that center.”

Likewise, Brooklyn-based tattoo artist Tea Leigh feels that her choice to stay open on Wednesday has less to do with the exchange or disavowal of capital than it does with valuing the importance of private spaces where women can experience safety and care away from the ways patriarchy and capitalism intersect and cause them pain.

“Yes, you’re paying for this tattoo, but we exchange more than money in this situation. On a day like that — as heavy and weighted as everyone’s making it to be — if you are privileged enough where you can strike that day and you can afford a tattoo, I want it to be not about an exchange of money. I want it to be about an exchange of ideas, of organization, and energy.”

I want it to be not about an exchange of money. I want it to be about an exchange of ideas, of organization, and energy.

Costello was quick to note that the average haircut involves being touched as much as the average doctor visit, which places a serious energetic responsibility on the stylist. Tattooing not only involves a similar responsibility, but also comes with the knowledge that what you do causes your client some amount of pain.

Discomfort doesn’t always need to be avoided, however, on either side of the needle; physical pain can help with the release of emotional pain. “I talk about some really heavy, heavy stuff with my clients,” Leigh says. “Creating this safe space where you can come in and literally complain about anything, where we can talk about smashing patriarchy for two hours while I tattoo you ... that is, to me, how I try to combat capitalism on a daily basis, by providing a space where people can come talk about their woes. And that’s usually what people talk about — their struggle.”

Some of that struggle comes as a direct result of living under an economy designed to profit from body shame and self-hatred, and hairdressing and tattooing are things women and non-male people can do to make themselves feel more beautiful and comfortable in their bodies. Striking is one way to make time to prioritize and care for those bodies.

Similarly, some women choose to keep their businesses open on a strike day to provide care for other women and non-male people dealing with illness and chronic pain. Jesse Amesmith opened Yoga Vibe studios with her mother in 2016 after decades of practicing and teaching yoga. Her understanding of the mind-body connection is deeply informed by a sense of how oppression can directly and indirectly cause physical pain. Though she originally felt compelled to participate in the strike as a feminist and an anticapitalist, she has chosen to keep her studio open instead.

“The emotional labor that I am able to provide, do, work at, whatever, is part of my valuable skill set. It doesn’t feel unpaid, usually. In this sort of queer space, this women-owned space, this sliding-scale financial space with lots of different types of bodies and people, it doesn’t feel like I’m getting nothing from it either.”

Much like Costello and Leigh, Amesmith's decision to remain open was shaped by her sense that, on a day when women are being widely encouraged to take a step back from labor and care for themselves, she may be the first person they come to for help and healing.

“I had a woman tell me just a few weeks ago — she came to her very first yoga class, and at the end of class she burst into tears and told me that she hasn’t been able to lay down without pain in five years. Just to be able to help someone realize that they have permission to make themselves more comfortable is kind of worth any amount of unpaid ego-based feelings that I get about having an emotionally labor-intensive career. I don’t know if I would want to deny someone that on that day.”

Each of these women believes something vital happens at the intersection of skill-based, specialized labor, emotional vulnerability, and platonic or care-based physical contact between women and non-male people. To regard that emotional labor as somehow less valuable than more manual or impersonal jobs is to deny both the skill and training it takes to perform them as well as the willful, joyful participation of the people helming these businesses. It equates their lifelong commitments to community care and collective healing with surviving sexism and other unpleasant obligations.

To live within a patriarchy is to have assumptions and demands made of non-male bodies every moment. Creating, holding, and protecting spaces where we can heal as individuals and as communities is a radical practice. It’s also a risky one. It is easy — as well as logical and reasonable — to close yourself off when faced with the persistent, exhausting threat of violence.

We’re often given conflicting advice when it comes to the “right” way to protest this violence, but in the end, both participation and nonparticipation have their purpose. To strike is to actively resist a culture that believes you’ll play by and refuse to question its rules, even if only for one day; to not strike is to refuse to acquiesce to that same culture’s expectation that women will naturally stay far away from positions of ownership and leadership. To strike is to reinforce the idea that old forms of resistance can still have an impact, to prove through direct action that your absence is as meaningful as your presence; to not strike — to instead show up to work and continue to provide physical and emotional services that fortify your clients and provide support they may not receive elsewhere — is to prove that despite the patriarchy’s best efforts, you aren’t going anywhere.

“In a weird way, it kind of feels like a huge fuck-you to show up,” Costello says. “That’s how I strike ... opening a business in the time of Donald fucking Trump, where do you stand and what do you do? For me, it’s empowering people and really making sure they feel like their best fucking selves — because here and now, not feeling like yourself becomes more of the norm.”

Both striking and showing up are acts of resistance. Either way, you are remaining open: to your community, to yourself, to your belief in and insistence on a better world.

“Your identity is so important — who you are is so important — and something as simple as a haircut can make or break that whole thing,” Costello said. “Keep the people empowered, give them good fucking haircuts, then let them go out there and do their thing. That’s my part to play.”

Celebrate International Women’s Day all week with us at MTVNews.com, and for more on A Day Without A Woman, visit Look Different.