The Women Who Worked Through the Strike

For the hundreds of female New Yorkers who took part in International Women’s Day, the event represented a powerful opportunity to demonstrate the value of the female presence in the workplace and the economy. But for many women, the choice to skip work was not possible or desirable, even though they supported the strike’s goals. Here are three of them:

The Nurse 

(Nafisa Masud/NY City Lens)

(Nafisa Masud/NY City Lens)

Kim Garrett is a nurse in the cardiothoracic intensive care unit at New York Presbyterian Hospital, and to her, the benefits of working on International Women’s Day simply outweighed those of marching. “The hospital is a machine that doesn’t stop working,” she said. “People can’t just turn off their illnesses.”

To Garrett, 45, it’s an issue of ethics—is it worth disadvantaging her patients, the occupants in the 31-bed intensive care unit, who have such complicated cases that many of them have been turned away by other hospitals?

Very briefly, she considered it. She did attend the Women’s March in Washington, D.C. on January 21, missing work that day to do so. She went unpaid. Garrett recognizes that, unlike many other women, she has the resources to work without worrying too much about the lost income. “I’m privileged, even though I’ll never make that money back,” she said. “But I felt compelled to show up because I could, and I could represent others who couldn’t in the process.”

Raised in Toronto by a father in municipal government, Garrett grew up discussing politics around the dinner table, and was raised to believe an involvement in politics could grant citizens the ability to make a difference. She still thinks that way, and hopes that she can find other ways to push the issues about which she’s passionate.

One of them is health insurance for young women. She remembers working in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at a Salt Lake hospital with a woman whose son had a restricted airway and required assistance to breathe. He would never leave the hospital, and after six months in the NICU an insurance agent came to the crib and informed the mother her insurance would be cut off.

The mother was well  aware of her rising bills; Garrett remembers the woman bringing her mail in with her each morning. “She’d open the mail with all these bills in them, and she’d three hole-punch them and put them in a binder,” Garrett said. “When the baby passed away, the mother left. No baby, just the binder. I’ll never forget that.”

It’s for such people Garrett chose to come to work on International Women’s Day, just as she did for five straight days following Hurricane Sandy. After that horrendous storm, Garrett remembers nurses just showing up to the hospital. “They knew this is where they were supposed to be,” she said. 

On March 8, she said, hospital staff showed support for the Women’s Day in other ways. Nurses wore red lipstick and hair ties, and in the operating room, traditional blue scrubs were traded for cranberry ones. To Garrett, these were exciting signs of new ways to make a statement.

The Teacher 

Tosha Gittens, who teaches second grade, wasn’t involved in previous marches. Gittens, a teacher at PS 128 Audobon in Washington Heights, only learned of International Women’s Day from the school’s principal the day before it happened. The principal asked all teachers to wear red in solidarity, so Gittens donned a red checkered flannel shirt for the day. But it’s only now that she understands the reasons behind it. “Maybe next year I’ll consider taking part,” she said. “I can see how a teacher’s absence could start a conversation about these things. But in my job it’s very important for me to be consistent. I need to be here for my kids.”

She does hope, though, to implement some of the march’s objectives into her lessons. “Anything that promotes women’s advancement, I support,” she said. During Black History Month in February, Gittens provided lessons on inequality, and specifically the causes and effects of these conditions. “As young as they are, the kids really add to the conversation,” Gittens said. “Once the subject is explained to them, they can tie things in to their own lives, so that when they go home and talk to their parents or turn on the TV, they can make those connections.”

She loves seeing that growth in awareness—it’s one of the many reasons she’s still teaching after sixteen years. “It’s so rewarding to see where the kids are at the end of the year,” she said. “You can see their accomplishments, academically, socially. You can see that jump over time.”

The Scientist 

Jill Dvornik, a  34-year-old scientist at Mount Sinai, has some long-term goals of her own in mind. She’s a stem cell researcher focusing on neuroscience, and for her, missing work to attend the Women’s Day marches could have ruined years of work. She and her team work with human stem cells to create just about any cell in the human body, using them to explore the effects of disease and human processes. Each sample requires work and maintenance. “Every day we have to feed them, and move them when they’ve outgrown their dish,” she said. “If we miss too many days, we can actually see signs of stress in them.”

That kind of stress could upend years of research, but Dvornik had other reasons not to miss work. “I support the cause of the Women’s March, but my work is so important to me,” she said. “It’s endless work, but there are also endless possibilities.”

Dvornik attended the Women’s March in D.C.  on January 21, and is helping coordinate the March for Science, set for April 22 in Washington. Dvornik is also looking at other ways to participate. Recently, she started contacting local government officials about issues she cares about. “It’s really easy for those who are new to the political world,” she said. Overall, she hopes to stay involved in political issues in several different ways. “I think the marches are useful for awareness,” she said. “But there are many ways to make a change.”