Why One Professor Decided Not to Strike for International Women’s Day

March 08, 2017

While women across the globe went on strike to mark International Women’s Day, one professor and administrator in Iowa went to class for an important lecture. It was about how art can change ideas related to domestic violence.

The strike was an outgrowth of the Women’s March on Washington, and it called for for women to band together and show "economic solidarity." For many people, that meant taking the day off of paid or unpaid labor and avoiding shopping, except at small, women- and minority-owned businesses.

“You never cancel class. That is the policy at the University of Iowa. ... This idea that you can't cancel class makes striking very difficult.”
Rachel Williams, chair of the program in women, gender, and sexuality studies and an associate professor in the School of Art and Art History at the University of Iowa, said that while some women across the country went on strike, she came to work and met with students. On International Women’s Day, she said, her students especially needed to hear and learn from a female professor.

Before the event, her department held a meeting about the implications of a strike, and what missing work would mean not just for faculty members, but for the whole university community.

Ms. Williams spoke with The Chronicle on Wednesday about how the day went. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Q. Did you do anything special for International Women’s Day?

A. I thought about it pretty extensively and we discussed it in a faculty meeting — how to approach the strike, whether to strike or not to strike, whether to tell our students, "feel free to participate in anyway you want," whether to make our classes part of that moment.

On a personal level, I’m trying not to spend any money today unless it’s at a self-identified woman-owned business. I’m wearing red and a number of my colleagues are also wearing red. I looked at my day today and thought about, "What is it that I’m going to accomplish today?" I feel like striking is one way of doing things, and on some level I would be missed, which is the whole point, right? But on the other hand, every single person that I’m interacting with today in terms of me being a teacher or a department head is a self-identified woman.

Q. What was that conversation like when the faculty met to talk about striking?

A. I’m in a difficult position because I’m an administrator. In our college, if you are not going to show up for class, you must arrange for someone else to show up. That becomes a real problem for labor, because if a professor decides not to show up and they have to call someone else to show up, they’re either going to call on another professor or they are going to call on their graduate students. That’s not a cool thing to do, to say, "My privilege to do this is going to cost you." That’s one thing we talked about, that there is a sense of inequity in terms of who can strike and who can’t.

You never cancel class. That is the policy at the University of Iowa. There must be a way of holding class or having those contact hours with students. This idea that you can’t cancel class makes striking very difficult.

If you look across campus, 37 percent of people that are tenured or are on tenure-track at our university are women. [According to a 2016 university report, 32.3 percent of tenured and tenured-track faculty are women.] That’s a pretty small number in comparison to the fact that over half of our students are women. Today’s a great day to have those discussions, today and every day.

Q. What do you want students to take away from today?

A. One thing is just to be aware that obviously at some point in time there was a reason to create a day where women across the world wanted to be recognized. That’s kind of, in and of itself, a pretty interesting phenomenon. There has to be a specific day to recognize women.

The other thing is to think about who’s not recognized in certain celebrations. One of the things that’s really important is how do we want to use language to broaden the idea of a woman or women — who lives that, who steps in that circle, and who can’t. That’s a difficult and important conversation.

I also think that it’s important for students who aren’t in [gender, women, and sexuality studies] classes to still see that there are massive inequalities and massive disparities economically, socially, culturally. It’s a really important thing to share with students.

And it’s good to just also give them a moment to pause and imagine if every single woman in the country did go on strike, what would happen, what are the implications of that.

That’s the other thing about today. There’s a lot of people that aren’t striking, can’t strike. But at least the possibility of that can exist in people’s imagination, and that’s really the power of what’s happening today.

Fernanda Zamudio-Suaréz is a web writer. Follow her on Twitter @FernandaZamudio, or email her at fzamudiosuarez@chronicle.com.