No Rights, No Sex: The Powerful History of Women Going on Strike

Poland's "Black Monday" strikes are just the latest in a long line of women showing their value by temporarily refusing to participate in a society that takes them for granted.

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Oct 5 2016, 8:56pm

Photo by Nurphoto via Getty

Protesting a recent proposal to completely ban abortion in Poland, tens of thousands of women went on strike on Monday, boycotting school, work, and household chores and marching in black in 60 cities throughout the country, waving black flags and mourning the death of their reproductive rights. Solidarity marches also took place around the world, from Germany to France to Kenya.

The Polish protests—dubbed Black Monday—were inspired by a 1975 march in Iceland, in which 90 percent of Iceland's women refused to do office and house work, and instead took to the streets to remind the country of their value and correspondingly low pay. Reportedly, places like schools and shops closed or ran at half-capacity as a result.

Read more: 'It Is a Desperate Cry': Thousands Strike Over Poland's Anti-Abortion Bill

The day served as a powerful symbol of a woman's power—and of the fact that without them, society would come to a standstill. Five years after the Icelandic protests, the country elected its first female president, Vigdis Finnbogadottir, who went on to serve for 16 years. As she later told the BBC, the day in 1975 was the first step towards equality in the country, engendering a "great feeling of solidarity and strength among all those women."

Just two days after the Black Monday strikes in Poland, the proposed abortion ban is in a state of near collapse. The country's former prime minister and current Liberal MP Ewa Kopacz triumphantly told reporters that the conservative party behind the bill had "backtracked because it was scared by all the women who hit the streets in protest."

There's a long and very successful history of women around the world who've gone on strike form society at large, refusing to take part in gendered activities that often stereotypically define them, such as childcare, household chores, and sex. One of the most notorious protest methods is known as "Lysistratic non-action." It takes its name from Lysistrata, a Greek comedy by Aristophanes, which tells the story of a woman determined to end the Peloponnesian War. Her method? Withholding sex. By convincing the rest of the women in Greece to not have sex with their husbands, she hoped to force the men to bring about peace.

Real-life examples of this tactic can be found throughout history. In the 1600s, Iroquois women withheld sex from their partners; they also withheld food—which was a particularly effective tactic, as they had complete control over crop cultivation—and other supplies. The strike eventually earned women veto power for all future wars; according to the Global Non-Violent Action Database, this is considered the first feminist rebellion in the US.

All together, we will win against the violent ones, with our legs crossed.

Similarly, in 2006, in the Colombian town of Periera, the partners of gang members protested violence by refusing to have sex. Working with local government, they asked gang members to hand in their guns and attend a training program. Their ultimate goal, they said, was to show men that violence isn't attractive. Later that year, women involved in the protest released a rap song with the lyrics, "All together, we will win / against the violent ones, with our legs crossed."

Kenyan women employed a similar method in 2009, when they refused to have sex for seven days in hopes of convincing politicians to end infighting and avoid violence. Other peacemaking attempts had failed, and the Women's Development Organization hoped to force politicians to come to an agreement. They wanted to bring people together, because, after all, everyone has sex. "We have looked at all issues which can bring people to talk and we have seen that sex is the answer," said the organization's chairman Rukia Subow, according to the BBC. "It does not know tribe, it does not have a [political] party, and it happens in the lowest households." Organizers even offered to pay sex workers in compensation for lost work in the hopes that they'd join the strike.

This method is not always used to protest violence. In 2011, the women in a small Colombian port town called Barbacoas refused to have sex unless the government paved the town's deadly main road. The road was so badly in need of repair that it took seven hours to travel 57 kilometers, which made food and medical care hard to come by. The sex strike came after years of more traditional attempts, like hunger strikes, failed to persuade the government.

Why sex? The protesters from Barbacoas connected sex with procreation and the lives of their future children, explaining that it was irresponsible to bring a child into an unsafe world. Their message was received, sort of. On October 11, 2011, the government promised to allocate $21 million to paving part of the road. Unfortunately, the group had to go on strike again two years later when their needs weren't met.

While sex strikes like these are sometimes successful, some critics argue that they incorrectly imply that a woman's power is physical. Still, at the very least, they start a conversation. Case in point: The Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace organized a sex strike to end civil war as part of a larger strategy that also included sit-ins and demonstrations. While the group's leader, Liberian activist and Nobel Peace Prize Winner, Leymah Gbowee, said that the sex strike had little practical results, "it was extremely valuable in getting us media attention."

History is rife with stories like these. Women can shine a spotlight on society's ills by refusing to partake in it entirely. By making their absence felt, they have asserted their power and demonstrated their value in order to get what they deserve from men in charge.