The famous revolutionary philosopher Siritam Whitner once said ‘power never has and never will be handed on a platter to the oppressed. Instead they must reach out and take it with both hands.’ Few understood this better than the Buentoillitant women of 1553, who organised one of the greatest strikes in the City’s history in response to the social injustice of a patriarchal society. It is still celebrated to this day; the celebrations both mark that important turning-point in the condition of women, and remind modern women of the importance of upholding their freedom.
Unfortunately, Buentoille wasn’t always the open and inclusive society it is today, and women were often given lesser rights than their male counterparts, paid less for the same work, and valued primarily for their bodies. The female ‘ideals’ held up by society in the sixteenth century were based around middle-class married mothers; women were expected to not work outside the home, and ‘women’s work’ such as childcare and cleaning was considered lesser because of its unpaid nature. Some sexist publications of the time even described these tasks as not requiring prestige or remuneration because, for women, they were ‘instinctive and enjoyable,’ and ‘essential for the health and proper functioning of the fairer sex.’
Women who did not fit this ideal were often ostracised in middle-class families, but were the norm amongst working-class Buentoillitants. It is important to remember that sexism always seeks to divide and conquer; class and race were often used as tools to drive apart women. Working-class women have always worked to earn a living (although the insistence of paying them less than men led to a reliance on male labour in Buentoillitant families), and thus there has always been division between them and middle-class women who sought to uphold their own marginal privilege granted to them by upholding the female ‘ideals’. Similarly, ideals of female beauty were seriously skewed towards white characteristics, therefore creating additional dividing lines between white women and women of colour.
Many of these ‘ideals’ were upheld and propagated by the newspapers of the time, but the repeated attempts to lobby, argue with and influence the sexist opinions espoused by the media was almost always met with aggression or simply ignored. As such, feminist groups began to make their own publications that were widely circulated, primarily amongst women in an attempt to increase their consciousness on issues of gender equality. These publications, such as Buentoillitant Woman and Her Thoughts, were made attractive to women who saw themselves as ‘not political’ by covering a wide variety of topics that were interesting to women of the time (for example, there was a craze in the 1540s for roller skating), alongside their more radical content. These publications were instrumental in the success of the 1553 Women’s Strike, as compared to other strikes that were hamstrung by non-involvement as a result of intersectional divisions. As women were often banned from joining unions (the unions feared lowered wages for men as a result of introducing more women to the workplace, and from paying those women who already worked equally) the readership of the magazines banded together to create The Union of Women, which proved to be far more powerful than any other union of the day, having 42% of Buentoille’s population within it.
The strike lasted for three weeks, and involved 87% of all the women in Buentoille. A greater solidarity between women of differing classes and races had been achieved, meaning that, crucially, middle-class women were able to use their greater means to support their poorer counterparts in the strike. Whilst many of these women did not work outside the home, they had been convinced that in order for women to achieve equality there must be a greater appreciation of women’s labour. The strike included all work, including the ‘women’s work’ that was usually unpaid; children, where possible, were left with their fathers, houses went uncleaned, the textile industry, which employed primarily women at the time, almost ground to a halt, sex was withheld even from men who supported the movement. In some instances women locked their husbands out of their homes as a way of withdrawing their labour from men, without leaving children in the hands of incompetent men, or having to live in squalor themselves. These women were backed up by roving gangs of ladies, young and old, in red neckerchiefs; ‘women’s defence squads’ in the employ of the Union of Women who would happily beat up any men who chose to become violent.
These defence squads avoided full-scale confrontation with a concerted male backlash for a long time, as the men’s groups in opposition to the strike were too fractious, and around twenty percent of men actually supported the strike. There were a few assaults by cowardly gangs of men who had long held a hatred towards women, but they were usually successfully routed by the defence squads. When the more sexist publications tried to sway public opinion by making outrageous claims of mass hysteria and witchcraft, they found that their offices were burned to the ground by the defence squads, their printing presses smashed.
Eventually, however, things began to fall apart. In the third week, as the Buentoilliçan economy slipped into a catatonic state, women began to make plans for an alternative government and were finally met with organised resistance. A huge group of well-armed men came out, and there was a stand-off between the two groups. In the avoidance of bloodshed (nobody really wants to fight their friend’s daughter or father) an agreement was made: the original demands of the strikers (three female representatives in Parliament and equal pay legislation) would be met, should the women stand down. Fatigue had begun to set in, and many women wanted to get back to their lovers and children. Despite the fact that it was less than they had grown to hope for, the women agreed.
Yet it wasn’t these small gains in the immediate aftermath of the strike that were to change the condition of women in Buentoille forever, but the threat that it could happen again, and the newfound confidence of women. Slowly but surely, progress was made over the following centuries that led to the situation we have today, and the societal change in attitude was so great that it only began to see decline in the years leading up to and during the tyranny of the Traitor King, who sought to relegate women to their former, lower status. Since the revolution things have got even better, and whilst there is still residual sexism and society is not entirely equal, there have been great strides, for example with work formerly considered ‘women’s work’ being performed by both sexes, and crucially, being paid.
Today women will celebrate that original strike with a huge march around the City, an annual reminder of their power. Men will also be locked outside of their homes, although they will be allowed to enter when they promise to do the washing up, or another task once considered ‘unmanly’. Buentoillitant women will never forget what it took to achieve equality.
Other festivals happening today:
- The Men’s Festival of Manly Things (no women allowed!)
- The Moon Sighs for June