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OWS—Where Does Feminism Fit?

| November 21, 2011

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"From an Occupy Wall Street handout by RadFem HUB"

 As the Occupy Wall Street movement expands, women are working to make sure feminist issues are front and center. Here, the co-author of the new website Occupy Patriarchy outlines what it will take to succeed.

As the clarion call of  Occupy Wall Street has spread throughout the United States and the world, many feminists have greeted the movement with enthusiasm and the hope that it will be a substantial opportunity to advance many of the issues that we have been working on for so many years.  Affordable childcare and unequal paychecks, for example, are most certainly economic issues and reproductive injustice and the commodification of women’s bodies in the sex trafficking and pornography industries have huge economic ramifications.

Put bluntly, the harms experienced by women as a result of global and national economic policies are, in aggregate, different and often far worse than those experienced by men. For instance, here in the United States:

  • Women are lucky to make 77 cents on the male dollar (women of color often earn far less than that).
  • Women are still doing the overwhelming majority of unpaid work such as child and elder care and housework.
  • Women are more vulnerable to intimate violence in times of economic stress when social services that could help them are being cut.
  • Women are still paying more for health care, and our access to reproductive health services is under siege.
  • Women still do not have equal rights under the Constitution.
  • The United States is one of only six nations (including Iran, Somalia and Sudan) that have not ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).

For any real economic justice to be gained for the 99 percent, those issues certainly need to be addressed as an integral part of the Occupy agenda.

Unfortunately, logical as that might be, those who seek to address these topics and insist that they be part of the Occupy agenda are finding themselves confronting many of the same obstacles that women often face outside of the Occupy movement—such issues as safety, sexism, misogynist power structures and a lack of gendered analysis.  Women report being harassed and labeled divisive for speaking out and pointing to issues that affect women’s lives. There have been numerous reports of women being physically and sexually assaulted, and of women being shouted down and denied a chance to speak, problems that sound all too familiar to longtime feminist activists working within political, social and progressive movements.

In responding to these incidents and formulating ways to address issues within Occupy from a feminist lens, it is worth taking a step back. Wall Street is a manifestation and symbol of the much larger problem of patriarchal control and power that has been plaguing us for thousands of years and depends in large part on the exploitation, subjugation and control of women.  If we want to occupy Wall Street in a meaningful way, we also need to confront issues of patriarchy.

As a way to further that broader effort and discussion, the Feminist Peace Network (of which I am the founder and director) began a new website called Occupy Patriarchy, which I co-author with feminist activist Kathy Miriam.  We hope that this site will bring feminist activists across the world together to address the problems women are facing within the Occupy movement. We must formulate effective strategies for bringing a feminist perspective to Occupy, one that recognizes that we must address the needs of the 99 percent from a gendered lens. As Angela Davis so eloquently pointed out at an Occupy Philly march last month, it is a “complex unity.”  Just as the Occupy movement itself has spread beyond the United States, support for a feminist perspective has too, and groups such as Feminists Occupy London are making much needed contributions to the dialog.  We welcome feminists who are involved in Occupy to join the dialog both on our webpage and via our Facebook page.

As this movement develops, we are also mindful that the American Fall must take lessons from the Arab Spring, which saw the leadership and participation of historic numbers of women in the public square. Yet human rights advances are far from assured in the aftermath for these women and may quite possibly have been further eroded in some instances.  In this country, conservative media outlets have seized on reports of sexual assaults in Occupy camps as a reason to shut down the movement, completely ignoring that these kinds of crimes continue to take place every second in every city, Occupy or not, and we need to insist that these calls to rescue the damsels are seen for what they are and not in our names.

As the Occupy movement continues, there is a real opportunity to develop a broader commitment from progressives to work on issues such as unequal pay, the ERA, better maternity leave policies and the many other issues that particularly affect women. But that opportunity, of necessity predicated on the understanding that Wall Street is only part of the cause of the problems we face, won’t be easily realized.

The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author alone and do not represent WMC. WMC is a 501(c)(3) organization and does not endorse candidates.

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