For nearly two weeks, teachers in West Virginia refused to go to work. They held massive rallies at the capitol almost daily, protesting low pay and rising health care costs. On the strike's ninth day, Gov. Jim Justice announced a deal to give all state employees a 5% raise and halt raising health insurance premiums. When it was over many teachers — exhausted, overjoyed and eager, they said, to get back to their students — wept.
The strike in West Virginia shows more than the power of collective organizing — it shows the power of women, political scientists and labor experts say.
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More than three-quarters of public school teachers are female, the National Center for Education Statistics reported in 2017. Like so many gendered professions, teachers are notoriously underpaid and undervalued. Salaries for teachers in West Virginia rank 48th in the nation, according to the National Education Association, the country's largest teacher's union. To fight what they viewed as chronic mistreatment, educators went to battle with a male-dominated legislature that ranked 48th in the nation in terms of women's participation. They also faced a Republican governor who days before the strike had implied that they were “dumb bunnies.”
"Why did our governor and the senate president think that it was OK to disrespect the teachers in West Virginia that way? It's because we were women," said Carrena Rouse, president of the Boone County chapter of the American Federation of Teachers who has taught at Scott High School in Madison, W. Va., for 28 years. "Because they'd been used to getting away with that. And for me it was one of those points of, ‘No no no no — we’re not backing down from this thing. You picked the wrong fight.’”
Rouse, a mother of four boys, said many of the women she works with were fed up with what they saw as repeated assaults on both their profession and their gender. She and her colleagues, political scientists say, are part of a resurgence in women’s civic engagement.
“Women have a long history of labor activity, even before they had the right to vote,” said Jean Harris, a professor of political science and women's studies at the University of Scranton. But she said what the country's experiencing now is “a pattern of heightened participation by women of all ages, in all occupations and on all kinds of issues.”
At a time when many states are working to weaken the power of unions, 20,000 teachers in all 55 counties walked out of their classrooms, defying state law against their right to strike. Since many of the state's children receive free meals at school — West Virginia has a 17.9% poverty rate — teachers worked to provide food for them during the strike, one reason why many of their communities supported their efforts. The teachers' win may have inspired other workers, with strikes now being considered in Oklahoma and Arizona.
Personal takeaway from teacher picket line: West Virginia and U.S. need to rethink priorities
“I see it as the power of women engaged in collective organizing," said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, one of the unions representing the educators in West Virginia. "I think if you looked at these disproportionately female professions, like teaching, people have basically been exploited for years because they care about kids. ... It was women taking a risk, deciding it had been too much."
The strike is part of a larger trend of women's activism in West Virginia, said Erin Cassese, a contributor to Gender Watch 2018, a non-partisan project of the Center for American Women and Politics and the Barbara Lee Family Foundation which is analyzing gender in the 2018 election. She said a new chapter of the National Organization for Women recently opened in Morgantown and a number of promising women candidates, Democrats and Republicans, are running in Congressional districts.
“I think that gender is going to continue to be an important dimension in electoral politics in the state," said Cassese, a West Virginia University political science professor.
Jennifer Lawless, director of the Women and Politics Institute at American University, said the strike may have ended, but lawmakers should expect those who participated to remain politically active. With the fight over high healthcare costs far from won and a constitutional amendment to end Medicaid funding for abortions on the table, more political battles loom large.
“[The strike] sends a clear signal to women that even in what has become a red state there are, when women mobilize, opportunities to take on policies that are to their advantage,” she said.
For her part, Rouse says she’s ready to fight.
"The women in this state deserve more. We're worthy of more. We're not just chattel. We're not a job that's traded for friends and family. Just because we're teachers doesn't mean that we deserve disrespect,” she said. "I think it's a countrywide problem where somewhere along the way it became OK to disrespect women. And I think we're coming back with a strong answer. I think we're coming back with the fire that I don't think they expected.”