We Are the 99%, Too: Creating a Feminist Space Within Occupy Wall Street

As most people know by now, something big is happening on the streets of New York City. It began on September 17, where a growing number of protestors began occupying Wall Street, many of them camping out in Liberty Plaza. Though first largely ignored by the media, Occupy Wall Street has gained steadily increasing attention—especially following the mass arrest of more than 700 protestors on the Brooklyn Bridge October 1—and has inspired similar protests and occupations in hundreds of cities around the world. Critics of the movement have complained about the occupiers’ lack of clear demands. But, in the words of Occupy Wall Street organizer Yotam Maron,

We wouldn’t be on Wall Street if we didn’t already have an implicitly unifying message: We hold the banks, the millionaires and the political elite they control, responsible for the exploitation and oppression we face–from capitalism, racism and authoritarianism to imperialism, patriarchy and environmental degradation.

If there’s one overriding message in the Occupy Wall Street movement, it’s that the masses are sick and tired of the distribution of power in America and around the world. And they are not going to sit back quietly and accept it any longer.

There are a multitude of reasons why feminists should be engaging with the Occupy movement. When we think about the drastic economic inequities in our society, it’s not difficult to recognize the specific ways that women suffer from economic injustice. Women face a multitude of barriers to economic equality–from the still-present wage gap between men and women to the devaluation of so-called pink-collar jobs. Women also fill the majority of public-sector jobs, which are so often jeopardized in times of economic crisis. And women continue to struggle for equal opportunities in the workplace while balancing work with motherhood.

Because we are already starting from a disadvantaged position, women are often among the hardest hit in economically troubled times, and this is especially true for women of color. Women are also disproportionately impacted when states slash public services, as so many have done in recent months. Because they are far more likely than men to be single parents struggling to provide for a family on a single income, many women are devastated by cuts to family assistance programs. And as we have seen repeatedly with the threatened federal cuts to Planned Parenthood funding, as well as several individual states’ recent cuts to family planning programs, women’s health services are considered by many politicians to be expendable.

Even though many women today do occupy positions of class privilege, any real feminist analysis of society has to take into account the intersections of both race and class with gender. And when we consider that women—again, primarily women of color—are disproportionately likely to be living in poverty, it’s clear that the Occupy Wall Street movement, which seeks to end the vast economic inequity in our society, should absolutely be of feminist concern.

On the other side of the coin, though, the ‘Occupy’ movement needs to embrace feminism as part of its cause. The folks I know personally who have been working tirelessly for the movement in New York are committed to a platform opposing all forms of oppression. But those views are not necessarily a reflection of all who are “occupying” New York and elsewhere. In the short time I’ve been involved with the developing Occupy Detroit movement, I have already met with resistance from some people when trying to bring gender—as well as race and sexual orientation—into the dialogue. The arguments given are probably familiar to any feminist activist who has engaged in broader-based movements: that we will only dilute our message if we start talking about all these different issues at once; that we need to focus on this one big issue that affects all of us; that we’ll deal with all these “social issues” later.

Many—typically straight white men—claim that talking about gender and race will only divide us, when what we need is to be standing together and focusing on how we’re all the same. But the reality is that we do not all experience oppression in the same ways. There is value in uniting–the ‘Occupy’ movement’s slogan that “we are the 99%” is a powerful one–but our experiences still differ based on race, class, gender and sexual orientation. It is perhaps a well-intentioned notion to imagine that we can unite in a way that transcends these categories, but it’s a notion that has no basis in the reality of our society. Because these categories, however artificially constructed they might be, still play a huge role in how and to what degree we are exploited, it is impossible to fight oppressive forces without acknowledging the reality of how they function. We can stand in solidarity with one another without pretending that our experiences are identical. In fact, I would argue that the only true solidarity is one in which we fully recognize and respect both how our struggles are alike and how they differ.

This is not about—as many within the movement fear—just trying to piggy-back a bunch of unrelated “social issues” onto a movement for economic justice. It’s about recognizing that all of the various forms of oppression in our society are so interwoven that it would be impossible to truly fight one without fighting the others. When we think about the elite 1 percent in a position of economic and political power in America, we have to recognize that those elites are predominantly straight, white men. Their position of power is upheld by patriarchy, by white privilege, by heteronormativity. If we want to dismantle oppression in our society, we can only hope to do so by recognizing the ways in which these various systems of oppression intersect and support one another. That doesn’t mean we can’t focus on the economy as a nexus of inequality; clearly, the occupation of Wall Street speaks directly to fighting corporate power and economic privilege. But we cannot imagine creating a society rooted in equality without fighting for all forms of equality, and that includes embracing feminist values.

This might very well be a crucial point for all of us dedicated to working for social justice. The Occupy Wall Street movement is energizing and inspiring. The organizers in New York, who I receive reports from regularly, are more confident and more driven with every passing day. I, along with thousands and thousands of activists and ordinary folks across the country and around the world, believe this movement has the potential to create real social change. But the movement’s full potential can only be realized if it acknowledges and confronts all the systems of privilege that separate those of us who have power from those who do not. As feminists, we need to seize the opportunity to plug into this movement and make our voices heard. In turn, those already in the movement must be willing to listen. That’s what real solidarity is all about.

ABOVE: Day 20 of Occupy Wall Street on October 5. Photo courtesy of Flickr user david_shankbone under Creative Commons 2.0

Comments

  1. WE ARE 51%!!

  2. The argument never changes does it? Our foremothers heard it during the American Revolution, during the abolition movement, all through the Suffrage movement, the Civil Rights Movement, and those of us working in the 50s, 60s and 70s (I can take credit only for the 70s) heard it till we gagged: Don’t dilute the overall objectives with your lesser concerns about equality for women, people of color, children.

    While I cannot be among you there in New York, I encourage those who can to ignore those others who attempt to silence you. Keep reminding your detractors that the power of #OccupyWallStreet lies in its original philosophy, so well spoken by Yotam Maron, as you quoted at the beginning of this article:

    “We wouldn’t be on Wall Street if we didn’t already have an implicitly unifying message: We hold the banks, the millionaires and the political elite they control, responsible for the exploitation and oppression we face–from capitalism, racism and authoritarianism to imperialism, patriarchy and environmental degradation.”

    Broken record. Broken record. Broken record.

    With gratitude.

  3. Gina Quattrochi (NYC) says:

    I’ve been to OWS four times in the last week and what I have observed and heard about the role and status of women in the encampment is horrifying and raises deep, disturbing questions about the state of the progressive movement and it’s understanding of and commitment to issues confronting women inlcuding economic and social determinants that heighten their vulnerability to poverty, poor health outcomes, sexual violence, homelessness, etc.

    Visualize this: hundreds of primarily white men, many leftover from 60′s revolutionary groups like Worker’s World, pontificating about their “revolutionary” ideas and a so called “new society” they envision — all of this within and surrounding an encampment where the media center responsible for live streaming of all related OWS events is “manned” by 12-15 men (I only saw one women), where the cigarette smoke (seems like Phillip Morris is off the hook) is thick, the spaces crowded and young women are interdispersed on old mattresses, sleeping bags, tarps etc. among young men, old men, middle aged men, white men, revolutionary men, some men of color, male reporters, male cops (and some women too), vendors (mostly male), reporters (both genders) and then imagine the male controlled “front line” on Broadway where people(almost all men all the time) hold up issue and “protest signs” — now add to that a lack of womens’ input, particulary young women, into the “general assembly” where male voices drown out women’s 7 to 1 and perhaps the most horrifying — imagine these young women reduced by the enivroment and politic that surrounds them also subject to sexual harrassement and even assault (there has already been one arrest) by male predators inlcuding men who pass as activists.

    What I am describing is OWS at Zuccoti Park – it’s there, it’s happening and some of us have been witness to it. As I went around yesterday distributing condoms yesterday to young women since they are at particular risk for HIV and Hep C infection in such a choatic, opressive enviroment, I was overwhelmed with despair and anger. How could we, who survived the various male dominated social movements of the 60′s and 70′s fail our young sisters? How could we allow our young women to be so oppressed, so disempowered, to have their voices silenced, to be subject to neglect regarding their safety in an enviroment that professes to create change?

    How can we allow our concerns to be met with the same old devisive arguments from men and other women who fear male reprisal — with patronizing rationalizations such as “Well Amy Goodman spoke at our rally”? WTF? Have we, the feminists of the 60′s and 70′s who have raised daughters and sons in a new feminist paradigm, who run our organzations in matriarchal tradition and who fought so so hard for autonomy for 30, 40 or 50 years, how can we allow this to happen? If we are unwilling or incapable of changing this paradigm, shame on us. Perhaps if we could confront the leaders we could change it. But wait there are no leaders of “leaderless” OWS. Perhaps that is part of the design.

    • I appreciate this perspective. My sister-agitators and I are trying to organize a presence, even a group at OWS. We went around with a recorder today talking to young women there. Most were surprised and completely responsive to the facts that we introduced them too –such as how capitalism depends on women’s unpaid work, and that women do two thirds of the world’s work and own 1 Per cent of the means of production. We have started a blog where our first flier is published. Check out FeminismNowOWS.wordpress.com

      and please anyone here contact us through the blog if you are interested in organizing with us at OWS. Despite the obvious perpetuation of structural misogyny the upside is that women are coming to this space moved by activist energy and seem to respond to feminist points. So the moment might be very ripe to gather together!

  4. There is a big difference in speaking out, to feminist trying to hijack a movement that could have potentially made a big difference.

    Tell me where is the privilege of being an unemployed white guy who can’t feed his family?. A unemployed black guy and a Latino are suffering too, and a mother of 2. That is the issue.

    What you are telling me is that we should focus on blaming the white males, even though the majority of them have nothing to do with the global economic meltdown, instead of the 1%.

    The movement is confusing enough, without a clear objective this is gonna be the end of it.

    Is common sense, you need something to unify people if you want to turn this into real political change.

    • Geez. You didn’t read the article did you?!?

      What I see in OWS is a bunch of (mostly) white guys protesting at the economic inequality between them and other white guys. Because the 1% are overwhelmingly WHITE and MALE.

      As a woman I hardly feel welcome and I’m not going to join in. As far as I can tell my voice would be drowned out by, again, white guys. I’m bloody sick of it too.

      Women don’t start wars. They don’t en masse buy weapons and go over to other countries to kill other people. They don’t run the biggest corporations. They quite simply have not made this mess.

      Instead of AGAIN marginalsing us how about actually listening. Read the bloody article again.

      And you betcha I’m pissed off.

  5. This is something I have been thinking about as I watch NYC from my vantage point in DC. On TV and via the interwebs I see the images and photos of mostly white men and wonder, where are the women? Or rather, and more importantly, what is the makeup of the “General Assembly?”

  6. NYC feminists and anybody coming down here or who wants to participate in the dialogue–please go to FeminismNowOWS.wordpress.com

    and post comments, or get in touch with us to connect at the protest site.

    I know that today Eve Ensler is leading a discussion on feminism… I can’t make it.. but I’ll be curious how it goes/went.

  7. Arsenic Alyss says:

    An Occupy LA Women’s Affinity group is forming! First chat/meeting tomorrow.

    http://www.facebook.com/event.php?eid=12389623771

  8. Occupy Wall Street needs money and a direction. WE the People (WE Party) can help!

    Occupy Wall Street turns to the A United World Social Network (WE Party) for help to create change without protesting.

    WE THE PEOPLE want to see a shift in consciousness from I to WE – http://www.weparty.info

    WE are putting together a program for ALL governments – WE THE PEOPLE appeals to 100% of the people. At WE PARTIES WE are making a difference at http://www.weparties.info and not getting arrested.

    See the 100% World Peace Club (www.aunitedworld.net/club) – Create WE Party websites (www.15freesites.info) – Join the shift from I to WE

    “Learning your purpose is your energy source to promote kindness and pass your love forward” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v... -

    Your followers can definitely help us create a shift in consciousness! http://aunitedworld.net/shift

    The (http://www.aunitedworld.net) Social Network is for “People Helping People Online”

    This has nothing to do with the Tea Party. It’s the WE, Party and it appeals to 100% of the people, 100% of the time.

    The WE Party is about helping and inspiring others primarily online. It’s about doing what’s right. If a person does something that 99 out of 100 people feel is right and there is one person that doesn’t feel that way, then it is wrong! WE are the people with Character! http://charactercounts.org/pdf/KFC-Pledge.pdf

    The WE Party Mentors say “WE can make a difference” – “Yes WE can” – United WE stand” – “WE can be the change WE wish to see in the world” – “In God WE trust” – “WE the people” – “WE are the world” – I’m proud to be an AmerWEcan” – “WE are family” – “WE believe” – “WE need a media in this country that covers grassroots movements” – WE shall not be moved” – “All WE want is equity” – “WE are the 99%”

    WE created three petitions for WE Party Peace Ambassadors to sign.

    1) Pass It Forward (http://www.change.org/petition...
    2) World Peace Petition (http://www.change.org/petition...
    3) Six Pillars of Character (http://www.change.org/petition...

    It’ll just take a minute!Once you’re done, please ask your friends to sign the petition as well.

    Grassroots movements succeed because people like you are willing to spread the word!

  9. Thanks for the great article. We need to tell Amy Goodman and Naomi Klein to call out the sexism in the Occupy Wall Street movement.

    Just as misogyny killed The New Left in the 60′s and helped renew the American feminist movement, perhaps misogyny will kill OCS and help renew the feminist movement again.

    Or perhaps OCS will start to “get it” and will help renew all of our social justice movements.

  10. As you know, the solution for the working class women in America is found in the creation of sophisticated work environments that motivates the quasi-employed, unemployed, and young Americans looking for a quality organization to invest with their future. The solution to America’s need for quality jobs for her working class is found in the process of developing a sophisticated system of democratic worker owned cooperatives. Bring home the manufacturing jobs that left this country. Set up organizations that attract the Americans looking for the quality jobs. Manifest long term sustainable solutions to our need for working class equality and green jobs. Gone are the “ever expanding” growing economy labor jobs and corporate growth period of the past. The 21st century requires a sophisticated investment in labor owned and managed manufacturing plants. Create jobs in organizations that distribute profits to the people doing the work on the line….making management decisions; and maintaining stability in the American work force. We need a “new cool”….women and men equally participating in the ownership in their own manufacturing plants. Building a stronger self-sustainable work force using worker owned manufacturing plants to start-up new plants; and facilitating returning plants from overseas. Invest in our working class Americans. Build our resources and leadership by building worker cooperatively owned American manufacturing plants.

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