Occupying the Occupy Movement
| January 3, 2012
An Occupy movement for 2012 could gain strength and staying-power with strategies suggested by an emerging feminist critique.
As women of the Arab Spring are rediscovering, being participants, even leaders, of the uprisings hasn’t led to women’s equality—a depressingly familiar scenario, notoriously reminiscent of the 1960s aftermath of the Algerian revolution. In fact, the phenomenon is historically omnipresent (including the American revolution).
Here in the Global North, for example, women were active early in the Occupy movement. Yet that movement has presented an optic of being predominantly male (and in the United States, white and young)—as well as indifferent to the fact that capitalism simply cannot be transformed without confronting its foundation: patriarchy, itself reliant on controlling and exploiting women. And women, by the way, comprise 51 percent of the 99 percent (and virtually zero of the 1 percent).
Who then is the real constituency in need of economic justice?
The United Nations acknowledges that the world’s poor are 70 percent female. Women’s unpaid labor is worth $11 trillion globally, accounting for 41 percent of the GDP in, for instance, North America. It could well be argued that, given women’s massive amount of unpaid labor—and since women are the means of reproduction who produce the labor force itself—most women exist more under feudalism than under capitalism.
Equal pay, reproductive rights, maternity leave, childcare—all are economic as well as human-rights issues. So are sweatshop labor/maquilliadores, sex trafficking/slavery/tourism, and war’s impact on women, who with their children comprise some 80 percent of refugees and displaced peoples. Women are the primary caregivers for the ill, the young, the aged, and the dying—so health costs are “women’s issues.” The pornography and prostitution industries each run into the hundreds of billions of dollars annually; China spends $27 billion just on Internet pornography. We only have statistics for a few “developed” countries on the staggering cost of domestic violence. We do know that domestic violence costs $5.8 billion a year in the United States alone.
One would think that such “women’s issues” would make unarguable the centrality to economics of female human beings. Wrong. Too often, the Occupy movement has betrayed its own vision by revealing itself as a sexist microcosm of the society it opposes. Harassment and assaults required women to define safe sleeping areas—immediate necessities yet questionable strategically, since these can become “ghettos,” while the problem, a male sense of entitlement, goes unchallenged. Nor does this happen only in the United States, although North American sites got more press attention. Incidents of sexual assault and rape have been reported not only in New York, Cleveland, Dallas, and Baltimore, but in Glasgow, Montreal, London, and more. In some locations, male site monitors were reluctant to call police for fear that negative attention would be deleterious to the Occupy “message.”
Now, however, women are protesting that kind of protest. In Bristol, England, feminists called for “Carrying Our Safe Space With Us,” aiming to empower women to speak at Occupy general assemblies. On November 25, International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, Feminists Occupy London took to the streets denouncing rape; that same day, Italian women marched in Rome, defining economic austerity measures as a form of violence against women, and citing policies that in effect force women to work multiple jobs, paid and unpaid. In Manila, Occupy was taken over by women, becoming Occupy RH (reproductive health), Filipina-led. Women in Slovenia, New Zealand, and Australia publicly decried the lack of safety for women at Occupy sites. Such international groups as Code Pink, WomenOccupy, RadFem, the Filipina network Af3IRM/GabNet, and others raised women’s profile, thus challenging men’s hegemony. The Feminist Peace Network established the Occupy Patriarchy website, to provide a supportive, global space for feminist analysis, response, organizing, and networking within the global Occupy movement.
Having caught the world’s imagination with an admirable energy, seemingly spontaneous and seemingly grassroots, the Occupy movement is now poised at a crossroads. It has enormous potential—but lasting change will require consciousness that doesn’t ignore the majority of humanity. It needs to break free of being “a guy thing” or risk drowning in its own rhetorical generalities.
It’s not as if certain models aren’t there. The women of England’s Greenham Common “occupied” turf decades before OWS—they endured, and won. Irish women barred doors to keep men from storming out of Northern Ireland peace talks. Women in Liberia sat singing for months in a soccer field to birth a revolution. Market women in Ghana brought down a government. Gandhi acknowledged copying the concept of satyagraha—nonviolent resistance—from India’s 19th century women’s suffrage movement. These are different—and long-lasting—techniques of protest, by which at first it seemed the Occupy movement was influenced. (At the risk of offending anarchists, I’ll paraphrase two of the Women’s Media Center slogans: “You have to name it to change it,” and “You have to see it to be it.” As a woman who once agreed “Level everything, then we’ll talk politics,” I recommend examples and clearly articulated demands as pretty good stuff).
It’s not too late. As the Occupy movement in many areas moves away from the tactic of claiming physical space, a change of protest style is in order: more hit-and-run, engage-disengage, morning-long, afternoon-long, or day-long (not open-ended) demonstrations—plus focused, doable demands. Most women have far too many other responsibilities—including children—to spend months in tents playing drums, even if the tents were safe spaces. The Occupy movement needs women—the numbers, the economic analysis, the different strategic approach—to survive, let alone succeed. Yet women’s engagement with it might well require turning up in numbers massive enough to effect a de facto transformation of leadership and focus; occupying Occupy in a “women’s style” could make all the difference.
At the minimum, it should be possible to demand that men become the change they claim they want to see. (I mean, really, guys). If Occupy men can dare be unafraid of that different kind of leadership—can even seek it out and welcome it—everyone wins and the paradigm is transformed.
If not, they will at least have radicalized a whole new generation of feminists.
[Image 2: Brooklyn, Occupy Imnop, from Occuprint.org]
[Image 3: Christy C Road, Brooklyn, from Occuprint.org]
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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