“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.

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.”

Vigdís Finnbogadóttir’s Election Day

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. 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.”

“One thing that I think really radicalised women is when they understood that this could lead to incarceration for women who had miscarriages.”

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.”

“Members of the committee that prepared the Women’s Day Off”

The day Iceland’s women went on strike
by Kirstie Brewer  /  23 October 2015

“Forty years ago, the women of Iceland went on strike – they refused to work, cook and look after children for a day. It was a moment that changed the way women were seen in the country and helped put Iceland at the forefront of the fight for equality. When Ronald Reagan became the US President, one small boy in Iceland was outraged. “He can’t be a president – he’s a man!” he exclaimed to his mother when he saw the news on the television. It was November 1980, and Vigdis Finnbogadottir, a divorced single mother, had won Iceland’s presidency that summer. The boy didn’t know it, but Vigdis (all Icelanders go by their first name) was Europe’s first female president, and the first woman in the world to be democratically elected as a head of state. Many more Icelandic children may well have grown up assuming that being president was a woman’s job, as Vigdis went on to hold the position for 16 years – years that set Iceland on course to become known as “the world’s most feminist country”.

But Vigdis insists she would never have been president had it not been for the events of one sunny day – 24 October 1975 – when 90% of women in the country decided to demonstrate their importance by going on strike. Instead of going to the office, doing housework or childcare they took to the streets in their thousands to rally for equal rights with men. It is known in Iceland as the Women’s Day Off, and Vigdis sees it as a watershed moment. “What happened that day was the first step for women’s emancipation in Iceland,” she says. “It completely paralysed the country and opened the eyes of many men.” Banks, factories and some shops had to close, as did schools and nurseries – leaving many fathers with no choice but to take their children to work. There were reports of men arming themselves with sweets and colouring pencils to entertain the crowds of overexcited children in their workplaces. Sausages – easy to cook and popular with children – were in such demand the shops sold out. It was a baptism of fire for some fathers, which may explain the other name the day has been given – the Long Friday. “We heard children playing in the background while the newsreaders read the news on the radio, it was a great thing to listen to, knowing that the men had to take care of everything,” says Vigdis.

As radio presenters called households in remote areas of the country to gauge how many rural women were taking the day off, the phone was often answered by husbands who had stayed at home to look after the children. As I talk to Vigdis in her home in Reykjavik, she has on her lap a framed black-and-white photograph of the rally in Reykjavik’s Downtown Square – the largest of more than 20 to take place throughout the country. Vigdis, her mother and three-year-old daughter are somewhere in the sea of 25,000 women, who gathered to sing, listen to speeches and talk about what could be done. It was a huge turnout for an island of just 220,000 inhabitants. At the time she was artistic director of the Reykjavik Theatre Company and abandoned dress rehearsals to join the demonstration, as did her female colleagues. “There was a tremendous power in it all and a great feeling of solidarity and strength among all those women standing on the square in the sunshine,” Vigdis says. A brass band played the theme tune of Shoulder to Shoulder, a BBC television series about the Suffragette movement which had aired in Iceland earlier that year.

Women in Iceland got the right to vote 100 years ago, in 1915 – behind only New Zealand and Finland. But over the next 60 years, only nine women took seats in parliament. In 1975 there were just three sitting female MPs, or just 5% of the parliament, compared with between 16% and 23% in the other Nordic countries, and this was a major source of frustration. The idea of a strike was first proposed by the Red Stockings, a radical women’s movement founded in 1970, but to some Icelandic women it felt too confrontational. “The Red Stockings movement had caused quite a stir already for their attack against traditional views of women – especially among older generations of women whom had tried to master the art of being a perfect housewife and homemaker,” says Ragnheidur Kristjansdottir, senior lecturer in History at the University of Iceland.

The Women's Day Off sticker
Sticker distributed to participants – reading “Women’s Day Off”

But when the strike was renamed “Women’s Day Off” it secured near-universal support, including solid backing from the unions. “The programme of the event itself reflected the emphasis that had been placed on uniting women from all social and political backgrounds,” says Ragnheidur. Among the speakers at the Reykjavik rally were a housewife, two MPs, a representative of the women’s movement and a woman worker. The final speech was given by Adalheidur Bjarnfredsdottir, head of the union for women cleaning and working in the kitchens and laundries of hospitals and schools. “She was not used to public speaking but made her name with this speech because it was so strong and inspiring,” says Audur Styrkarsdottir, director of Iceland’s Women’s History Archives. “She later went on to become a member of parliament.” In the run-up to the event the organisers succeeded in prompting radio, television and national newspapers to run stories on low pay for women and sex discrimination. The story attracted international attention too. But how did the men feel about it? “I think at first they thought it was something funny, but I can’t remember any of them being angry,” says Vigdis. “Men realised if they became opponents to this or refused to grant women leave they would have lost their popularity.”

Vigdis Finnbogadottir and Margaret Thatcher, 1982

There were one or two reports of men not behaving as Vigdis describes. The husband of one of the main speakers was reportedly asked by a co-worker, “Why do you let your woman howl like that in public places? I would never let my woman do such things.” The husband shot back: “She is not the sort of woman who would ever marry a man like you.” Styrmir Gunnarsson was at the time the co-chief editor of a conservative newspaper, Morgunbladid, but he had no objection to the idea. “I do not think that I have ever supported a strike but I did not see this action as a strike,” he says. “It was a demand for equal rights… it was a positive event.” No women worked at the paper that day. As he remembers it, none of them lost pay, or were obliged to take the day as annual leave, and they returned at midnight to help get the newspaper finished. It was shorter than usual, though – 16 pages instead of 24. “Probably most people underestimated this day’s impact at that time – later both men and women began to realise that it was a watershed,” he says. At the same time, he points out there have always been strong women in Iceland – something reflected in the (fictional) Icelandic Sagas. “Our past is in our blood and through the centuries life was difficult in Iceland,” Styrmir says. “Those who survived must have been strong.” The Women’s Day Off is generally regarded in Iceland as a seminal moment, though at least one member of the Red Stockings regarded it as a missed opportunity – a nice party that did not really change anything.

Vigdis disagrees. “Things went back to normal the next day, but with the knowledge that women are as well as men the pillars of society,” she says. “So many companies and institutions came to a halt and it showed the force and necessity of women – it completely changed the way of thinking.” Five years later, Vigdis beat three male candidates to the presidency. She became so popular that she was re-elected unopposed in two of the three next elections. Other landmarks followed. All-women shortlists made an appearance in the 1983 parliamentary election, and at the same time a new Party, the Women’s Alliance, won its first seats. In 2000, paid paternity leave was introduced for men, and in 2010 the country got its first female prime minister, Johanna Sigurdardottir – the world’s first openly gay head of government. Strip clubs were banned in the same year. Saadia Zahidi, head of Gender Initiatives at the World Economic Forum (WEF) says Iceland still has further to go. “While more women than men are enrolled in university, the workplace gender gap persists,” she says. “Women and men are nearly equally present in the labour force – in fact women are the majority across all skilled roles – but they hold about 40% of the leadership roles and earn less than men for similar roles.” Nonetheless, Iceland has topped the WEF’s Global Gender Gap Index since 2009. And if at the time of the Women’s Day Off only three of the 63 members of parliament were women, the figure is now 28, or 44%. “We say in Iceland, ‘The steps so quickly fill up with snow,’ meaning there is a tendency to consign things to history,” says Vigdis. “But we still talk about that day – it was marvellous.”



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