Where Are the Women at Occupy Wall Street? Everywhere—and They're Not Going Away
A woman helps unpack boxes of donations in the "Shipping and Receiving" section of Zuccotti Park. (AP Photo/Andrew Burton)
“Where my feminists at?” read a sign propped against a bench at the entrance to Zuccotti Park on Thursday night as a General Assembly meeting began to echo over the human microphone.
Five days of observing working group meetings, sitting in on General Assemblies and talking to women at the occupation suggests that the answer to the sign’s question is a resounding “everywhere.” Women have been entrenched in the day-to-day (running meetings, procuring food) and long-term (analyzing structure, building solidarity) work of Occupy Wall Street from day one, and are committed to sticking around. Thanks to the women involved, as well as a number of their allies, OWS has tweaked its “horizontal” structure to ensure a maximum diversity of participation. They are doing this work not only for themselves, the OWS women say, but for the movement. “ ‘Liberation is not the private province of any one particular group,’ ” says Shaista Husain—an activist from the CUNY media and culture studies department, who has been working with Occupy Wall Street since it began—quoting Audre Lorde. Elevating the voices of women and people of color, she says, isn’t about “identity politics” but about sustainability, building “a viable meaningful protest against the hegemony of the rich.”
The dozen women I spoke to for this story—most of them queer-identified and/or women of color—have witnessed varying amounts of offensive behavior, such as unwanted touching or use of casually misogynist language, within the movement. And they also differ as to the extent to which they think they can elbow the “isms” out of their space. But for the most part they share a defiant hope; just maybe, they say, for once, a mobilization for social change can get it right: maintain a broad base of support, connect the dots between different kinds of injustice and achieve staying power. Their fervent wish is that the movement’s careful attention to inclusive structure, including “safe space” caucuses and working groups and a commitment to anti-oppression training, means not that misogyny will vanish altogether but rather that diverse voices will remain a core part of the movement.
“These issues are not being swept aside in favor of just dealing with Wall Street,” says “Ketchup,” a young woman from Chicago who has been facilitating meetings and organizing women’s groups downtown. “Yes, bankers’ corruption is important, but this community acknowledges that if we’re starting a new way of thinking it has to include finding true equality and really respecting each other.”
In It From the Beginning
Ariel Federow has a pithy phrase for the problem many at Occupy Wall Street are trying to avoid. “There’s a ‘manarchist’ problem in a lot of left-wing spaces,” Federow, a young New York–based artist and activist who has been active in Occupy Judaism and has regularly volunteered downtown, says. “By that I mean a small group of white guys take up space and make de facto choices for a larger group of people.” But what’s surprised her so far about Zuccotti is that this concentration of power hasn’t happened. “There’s a strong current of actively saying ‘no’ ” to that element when it does pop up,” she says, “of people doing work around safer spaces and speaking out against sexual assault. And while women are leading, there are also other men involved.”
A number of other women echoed Federow’s surprise.
Jackie DiSalvo, a CUNY professor and member of the OWS labor working group, says that while she’s heard younger women report issues like unwanted attention, her veteran eyes see a huge difference between mass movements of the sixties and the culture of Occupy Wall Street. “I was in SDS—we had all these ego-tripping superstars. There was very macho leadership, and very aggressive sectarian fighting,” she explains. Now, she says, thanks to decades of work by the women’s movement and other kinds of consciousness-raising, within OWS, “there’s really a big effort to avoid domination.”
Part of the reason Occupy Wall Street has evolved this way, says Husain, is that women, people of color and working-class people have been part of the occupation from the beginning. “It wasn’t just Adbusters and ‘Anonymous’ calling this occupation from out of nowhere,” she says. “It came from Bloombergville and CUNY students: working-class, multicultural students with a connection to labor history.”
At “Bloombergville,” a group of students, union workers, and others camped out in front of City Hall to protest Mayor Bloomberg’s teacher firings, firehouse closings, education and service cuts. Sound familiar? Many of these people are the same people who also have arrived at Zuccotti Park—and the “code of conduct” they had in their tent city has helped determine the culture of the new occupation.
“One of the things we didn’t want, which has always been the history of the left, is to start splintering among ourselves,” says Husain. “So how do we create a movement that allows us to swim with one another?” She notes that this includes an effort to discourage anti-Semitism and Islamophobia as well as racism, sexism and homophobia.
The solution, for her and others, lies in the essence of Occupy Wall Street: its leaderless, non-hierarchical nature, which allows any participation to have a say in the movement’s direction. The casual observer, unaccustomed to organizations without hierarchy, might mistake leaderlessness for structurelessness. But in fact OWS is governed by a highly structured, constantly evolving series of processes, with checks and balances to make sure no voice or one faction takes over.