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On this Women's Day, women should strike – for someone else

The idea of a women's strike goes back at least as far as ancient Athens – in the play Lysistrata, the women of Greece withhold sex to protest the endless Peloponnesian War. On one hand, the idea that men are sex-crazed warmongers and women are demure peacemakers is rather tired. On the other, hey, whatever works. In this century, women in Liberia and Colombia have used sex strikes to achieve real political gains, and to them I say: Ladies, more power to you.

More recently, and without compromising their libidos, a throng of European women walked off the job. Last October, to protest a 14-per-cent pay gap, women in Iceland punched out at 2:38 p.m. – or 14 per cent early. In Poland that same month, thousands wore all black and converged on government buildings to fight for their reproductive rights – halting a bill that would have banned most abortions and jailed women who got them.

So the idea has precedents – and positive ones – which bodes well for International Women's Day. A new generation is planning to exercise its right of refusal – not to sex, necessarily, but to being overlooked and underpaid. In the United States, especially, women emboldened by January's Women's March, one of the largest mass actions in the country's history, are promoting a countrywide general strike to protest gender-based economic inequality.

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Dubbed "A Day Without a Woman," the action is meant to show that without the paid and unpaid labour of women, economies would grind to a halt. But such things work best when there's a specific goal, and unfortunately Wednesday's planned action isn't quite there.

The official website cites as motivations both women's "economic power" and the "economic injustice" faced by women and gender non-conforming people. Those are two massive topics, and such an unfocused focus risks reinforcing a major criticism of the proposed strike: That it's mostly white-collar and privileged women who can strike without penalty; that part-time workers, care workers and other working-class women need every dollar they earn; and that even if they were willing to forgo the pay, such workers are often non-unionized – without the job security to take such symbolic actions.

It's absolutely unfair that most big banks and law firms haven't been led by a woman yet, that even highly educated women with decent salaries face both quiet and overt sexism every day. It's also a much bigger deal that many vulnerable women, many of them not white, are cobbling together a living from two or three poorly paid, precarious jobs, often as single parents and without a safety net.

Allowing the first group to overshadow the second, as usually happens, would be a shameful mistake. There is, though, a chance to turn this flaw into a selling point, and that would be for the luckier women among us to move off centre stage. Poor and working-class women have been told over and over that the advantages afforded to privileged women will trickle down – some day. It's time middle-class and wealthy feminists put their energy behind a bit of fairness that would trickle up instead.

In Ontario, British Columbia and Quebec, there's a push to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour (the rate Alberta has pledged to hit by next year). If you call yourself a feminist, it's time to get behind it.

The current minimum wage in Ontario is $11.40 an hour, which means someone working full-time at that rate will earn $20,748 a year. In 2014, the Canadian government considered $21,773 an official "low income" for a single person, let alone someone supporting a family. More women than men are likely to be working for minimum wage, and women who are recent immigrants are three times as likely as the general population to be working at that hourly rate. So this is a feminist issue – one with far-reaching effects.

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Our elderly and loved ones are often cared for by personal-support workers who are stressed, rushed and working multiple jobs. Our service and retail workers are often university graduates paying off loans on this wage, while looking for good, permanent jobs. And, oh yeah, there are men barely getting by on minimum wage, too.

Women's rights are human rights, and putting the least heard among us at centre stage could have positive benefits for everyone else. When you flip over your desk and walk out early this International Women's Day, may I suggest you yell about the need for a fair minimum wage.

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About the Author
Journalist and editor

Denise Balkissoon is an editor in the Globe’s Life section and a columnist in Comment. The National Magazine Award-winning writer is also a co-founder of The Ethnic Aisle, a blog about race and ethnicity in the Greater Toronto Area. More

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