What Occupy Wall Street Owes to Feminist Consciousness-Raising

On the November 17th national day of action for the Occupy Wall Street movement, I was interviewed by a man from a Swedish newspaper who wanted to know why I was there. I smiled and said, “That’s the question, isn’t it?” Everyone wants to know, still, even after the two-month anniversary of a movement that’s only continued to grow stronger and gain more momentum, why people are occupying, who and what they’re protesting, and what they hope to change. I regurgitated what has effectively become The Message, “We want the power back in the hands of the people.” He seemed satisfied. But as he started to put his microphone away, I panicked.

“Wait!” I said. “There’s another reason I’m out here: I’m here to represent women.”

Dozens of articles have been written about why Occupy Wall Street matters for women. It boils down to one simple fact: Women suffer disproportionately in the current economic climate, which means that a protest for economic equality is a feminist protest—whether it admits it or not. A majority of the nation’s poor and unemployed are women, especially women of color and single mothers

But the issue is not just what Occupy Wall Street can do for women; it’s what women have already done for Occupy Wall Street.

1970s feminists coined the phrase “the personal is political” when they noticed, by organizing a handful of women and sharing their private experiences, that their everyday struggles were embedded in larger political systems. For instance, women’s unacknowledged and unpaid labor, especially as caregivers for children, directly contributes to our country’s capitalist gains, yet women see no real compensation for it, only a persistent wage gap.

And one of the things I love most about the Occupy Wall Street movement is that it borrows so much of its activism, specifically pertaining to how the protesters interact with one another, from the feminist consciousness-raising model of the 1960s and ’70s. Like consciousness-raising, Occupy Wall Street started with small groups of oppressed people who spoke to one another about their personal struggles, and in doing so, learned they weren’t alone or insane or weak or lazy, the way Those In Charge suggested. That discovery gave them the strength to channel the individual anger and suffering they experienced into a larger collective call to action.

If the personal has ever been political in this country, take a look at the concerns driving the Occupy Wall Street movement: home foreclosures, college loan debts, health problems representing the leading cause of personal bankruptcy, lay-offs and skyrocketing unemployment rates, rapidly diminishing pensions, unaffordable education, unaffordable and inaccessible childcare. On the November 17th day of action, protesters hopped onto train cars and shared their personal stories of how the current economic inequalities have impacted them. One, using the people’s mic, said,

My name is Justin. I was a teacher before my school lost its budget and I was excessed. This is the United States of America, the richest country in the world, and somehow we can’t afford public high school teachers.

And another:

My name is Troy, and I’ve been unemployed for 10 years. Both my sisters lost their homes. I am here fighting for economic justice for everybody on this train … I am united with you in your struggle to pay your bills.

Other examples of consciousness-raising at Occupy Wall Street include discussion groups reminiscent of those started by ’70′s feminists. There’s the Divine Feminine, a group in which female-bodied or female-identified women talk about the oppressions they experience; Ambiguous UpSparkles, started by Eve Ensler, where people come together and share their personal stories of oppression using the people’s mic; and similar groups, like POCcupy (People of Color), a group for people of color to talk about oppression; WOW (Women Occupying Wall Street) and Safer Spaces, two groups that focus on the presence and safety of women in the movement. 

Of course, a large part of consciousness-raising exists on the Internet, and I’ve heard people refer to Occupy Wall Street as the first-ever Internet revolution. Suffice it to say, Occupy Wall Street wouldn’t exist without the fast-as-hell sharing of information over Twitter, personal e-mail exchanges among both participants and skeptics, blogs such as We Are the 99% (a site that showcases photos of people from all over the world sharing personal stories of economic struggle), Facebook (where pages for new feminist groups devoted to Occupy camps crop up daily) and YouTube footage that captures precisely how personal struggle translates into collective political action.

It’s important to note that while early feminists focused much of their energy on gender oppression—and consciousness-raising groups later formed in which women discussed the impact of race—the protesters at Occupy Wall Street have turned the conversation toward class oppression. Of course, race, class, gender and sexuality remain interconnected, but as Felice Yeskel, who cofounded the nonprofit organization Class Action, argues:

Women talked about their experiences growing up in a gendered society as girls and the differential experiences of males and females. And when the issue of race was raised, feminists started to meet in same-race groups, with consciousness-raising for white women about white privilege … But it has never happened in any widespread way about issues of class.

By raising consciousness about the economic divide in this country, the Occupy movement protesters have the opportunity to finally start a conversation about an issue we rarely discuss in the United States—how the poorest people in this country, most of whom are women, manage to survive.

The simple fact? Without the feminist movement and discourse of the ’60s and ’70s, and the consciousness-raising tactics of the civil rights movement before it, Occupy Wall Street wouldn’t exist. We owe it to the women within the movement—and our feminist foremothers—to acknowledge women’s work, and to understand that a movement claiming to fight for the disenfranchised can’t afford to erase the contributions of women. And so I’ll leave you with the words of a woman from a 1969 consciousness-raising group, words that I can see plastered all over Occupy signs everywhere, “Women aren’t in a position to make demands now. We have to build a movement first.”

Photo of women at Occupy Wall Street from Flickr user WarmSleepy under Creative Commons 2.0. 

Comments

  1. Thanks for the article! I know this isn’t exactly *your* mistake, but by what standards is the US the richest country in the world?

  2. white women feminist groups like code pink are getting press and yet everywhere i look its women of color/ transnational women who are leading the POC committees of occupy/decolonize sites.

    4 indigenous women led the resolution proposal at a recent general assembly to try to change the name to decolonize in Oakland. Stop white-washing our feminism.

  3. On November 25th, AF3IRM led a coalition of organizations in a women’s assembly at Foley Square, followed by a march to Zuccotti Park, to denounce Wall Street as violence against women. About 200 women participated, many of color, many transnational…

    AF3IRM chapters have been conducting teach-ins, marches, speak-outs at Occupy sites in Oakland, Los Angeles, Riverside, San Diego and other places.

    As these events have been led by transnational women of color, they have not received as much attention from either the media or the feminist world, it seems.

  4. The reality of things is that OWS is not out there to represent the 99% or women. They are just a bunch of pissy 20 year olds that blindly follow the entitlement system despite how their ideas are collapsing the country. Under the Obama administration our economic situation just got worse, and by protesting on wall street, these fools are ignoring the real problem. Take action and vote OBAMA out in 2012.

    • Really. And vote who in, exactly?

      Also, “pissy”? Way to show respect for brave women who camp on the street to let their voices heard.

  5. I find it a stretch to relate the protests women fought in the 60s and 70s to the OWS protests now that effect every man, woman, and child in this country. The OWS protests are not something that just “sprung up” off the internet. The OWS is a managed organized effort from elements of the Obama admin to create public dissent. You failed to mention the NDAA (National Defense Authorization Act) that Obama fought to have the provisions changed to include capturing American citizens, when you listed your bullet points about what the OWS is fighting for. The truth is there are lots and lots of people at OWS who have no clue what’s going on in this country. Slants like this artice only promote this idea of divide that most feminists present, that men have no bearing in anything, and women deserve credit for everthing. Well, I’m sorry but crediting women for OWS is like sexist. You could have included what men have done for freedom.

  6. There are jobs out there… they may not be the jobs you want, but a job’s a job. ESPECIALLY if you’ve been unemployed for 10 years. I’m not a supporter of Occupy Wall Street. While you’re out there protesting, you’re not looking for a job. Not only does that hurt you, it hurts the economy.

    As far as Obama goes, he might not be the best, but who else would you vote in?

    Obama is the lesser of the evils if you ask me.

    I also believe we should be using our time and resources for something more than this.

    Occupy Wall Street is not the way to go.

  7. Stephen Sharper says:

    Feminists like to take credit for two things that they didn’t really invent at all. The first one mentioned in this article is “the personal is political” which essentially a rehash of Jerry Rubin’s “politics is how you live your life, not who you vote for”. Keep in mind that is pretty undeniable at this point that Radical Feminism partly spun off of the radical New Left movement. The second are feminists’ famed consciousness raising sessions. Mary Fair Burks (a black woman) during the first meeting of her Women’s Political Council in 1946 shared stories of assault and harassment by white men especially the police and was joined by a chorus of similar stories by her black female peers. I would call that a consciousness raising session and say it beat the first white woman’s CR session in 1969 by some time

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