The Days Of Our Strikes

An abbreviated history of days without women

There was no point in calling anyone, as the operators had disappeared. A few radio stations briefly transmitted nothing but silence. Presses stopped because there was no one to set the type. Fish were canned at a much slower pace, and children didn't learn any multiplication tables. Theaters were vacant; there was no one willing to play plucky heroines or passive housewives that night. The skies seemed emptier with fewer flights. The streets, however, were filled with women.

This wasn't the apocalypse. It was October 24, 1975, and 90 percent of the women in Iceland were on strike thanks to the planning of the radical feminist group Redstockings, who wanted to find an intensely noticeable way to celebrate the United Nations's International Women's Year. About 25,000 rallied in Reykjavik, carrying large red banners demanding "WAKE UP!" Tens of thousands more stayed at home, but refused to do housework. Nail and hair salons stayed open to take advantage of the women who, for once, had time to spend on themselves. The country's men, meanwhile, rushed to restaurants, begging for toast after waking up to an empty kitchen table. Bankers became tellers for a day. Male newscasters read the news with their kids in the studio, while other dads just stayed home.

Most importantly, everyone seemed to get the point: Iceland couldn't function without women. They propped up the country with service work, housework, thankless and demanding work — and were paid less for their efforts. Iceland may have given women the vote before many other countries, but only nine had ever served in parliament. There were hardly any female executives. And Iceland's women were sick of it.

By the time Iceland reprised the strike on the event's 10th anniversary in 1985, it seemed like there was already proof of the movement's gains. The world's first democratically elected female president, Vigdis Finnbogadottir, joined her constituents in refusing to work on October 24 that year, leading David Remnick to write that it "may have been the time to invade Iceland." When Remnick, then a Washington Post reporter, called Finnbogadottir's office, a man named Hans told him, "Nobody's here. They went out." Two years later, Magdalena Schramm, a politician with Iceland's all-women party, summed up the changing times to the AP: "The men laughed at us, then they argued with us, then they tried to ignore us. They don't laugh anymore."

Last year, long after her political career ended, Finnbogadottir told The Guardian, “I would never have been elected in 1980 if it hadn’t been for the women’s day of action." Another woman said, “I was 10 at the time, and I remember it very clearly, standing there with my mother, fighting. I can still feel the crowd and the power that was there." To this day, the strike still inspires copycats — like this week’s Day Without a Woman, which will take place on March 8.

Although the 1975 Iceland strike was massive and even inspired sequels, the pace of progress toward gender equality hasn't sped up much in the years since. In interviews during the ’80s, women who'd attained high-level political positions in Iceland said they still felt their colleagues treated them like "little flowers." And as of 2016, when Iceland held yet another strike, women still made about 18 percent less than men. At the current rate, Icelandic women will finally make the same amount as men in 2068. And this is the rate of progress in a country that consistently tops lists of the most feminist nations.

“No one puts up with waiting 50 years to reach a goal,” Gylfi Arnbjörnsson, president of the Icelandic Confederation of Labor, told a local news station last year. “It doesn’t matter whether it’s a gender pay gap or any other pay gap. It’s just unacceptable to say we’ll correct this in 50 years. That’s a lifetime.” Participants in the Iceland strikes measure progress in minutes, shaving a bit of time off each protest as a symbolic gesture showing that they don't have quite as much to fight for as they did 40 years ago. In 2005, the Iceland women's strike started at 2:08 p.m. In 2016, they delayed the strike until 2:38 p.m.

The Women's Day Off in Iceland wasn't the first time women went on strike to protest the treatment of female workers writ large, paid and unpaid, instead of the labor practices of a specific industry. In 1970, tens of thousands of women charted a path that will seem familiar to anyone who has marched to Trump Tower in the past few months, when the Women's Strike for Equality took place on the 50th anniversary of the 19th Amendment.

"Somehow, it got under way," a Village Voice reporter noted at the time. "And then, only then, did the women realize how large their demonstration was. As they moved down Fifth Avenue, they kept jumping above the crowd to get quick views of the numbers still behind them. 'Did you see how far back it goes?' they kept asking each other in excited tones." If you stood on the sidewalks you could see signs like "Oppressed Women: Don't Cook Dinner! Starve a Rat Today!!"; "Repent Male Chauvinists, Your World Is Coming to an End"; and "Eve Was Framed."

The strike, sponsored by the National Organization for Women, had three specific aims: free abortion, free child-care services, and equal pay. So far, none have been achieved.

The event was nowhere near as large as the event in Iceland, and plenty of American women disagreed with those marching. Even in Iceland, where a resounding majority of women took part in the protest, the backlash wasn't limited to men. In 1985, women from the fishing village of Hellissandur told Reuters that "they wanted only higher wages for their men so they themselves could be free to devote more time to their homes and children."

The same year that Iceland celebrated the Day Off’s 10th anniversary, Wages for Housework — an international campaign on behalf of the women who prop up economies around the world with their invisible labor — went to the United Nations's women's conference in Nairobi to get delegates to recognize this unpaid, or underpaid, work. The group met the Iceland delegation, and decided to think a little bigger: They organized a "Time Off for Women" event across the entire world.

Margaret Prescod, who was part of the group that lobbied in Nairobi more than 30 years ago, is now helping to plan the Day Without a Woman on Wednesday from Los Angeles. "Even with all the progress we have made," she told MTV News, "some of that progress is under threat. For far too long, we sat on our hands and said, well, yes, previous generations fought for civil rights, and they fought for women's rights, and we're taking a lot of this stuff for granted. But you know what? No. Not only is there more progress needed, but the progress you have made, you're under threat of losing it."

And as someone who's been watching this movement since the ’70s, she says everyone should be worried and ready to strike, regardless of how safe they feel. "Frankly," she says, "for those of us who have the least as women, when we're under threat, it really trickles up." Prescod, an immigrant from Barbados, also hopes that organizers in the U.S. don't absorb the nationalism of their leader. Plenty of people abroad need help, too, she noted — or have valuable lessons to share. "In this strike, women in the U.S. are behind other countries," she says, "Poland is planning what Iceland did. In Argentina, it's also going to be massive. Women in the United States, we are late in the game to this. Women around the world, they don't intend to be held back."

And so women will disappear, if only for a day. Students in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, won't even have to go to class, because all their teachers will be gone. Women elsewhere who can’t take the day off will wear red t-shirts in solidarity. Others will merely stand up for a minute or two, or yell at the top of their lungs with everyone else in their time zone at 6 p.m. And women will be in the streets, in Argentina and Poland and Iceland, and maybe outside your home too. And, as history makes clear, the problems these actions are trying to address won't be solved overnight — or even in a few decades.