Where Are the Women at Occupy Wall Street? Everywhere—and They're Not Going Away
Creating a Safe Space
For many of the women I interviewed in New York, frustrations arise not from direct slurs or insults but from a lingering feeling that at times they’re not heard in discussions, or not respected when they try to explain their perspective.
How protesters choose to allocate their time is telling, say some women. “On the ground it is a matter of people's daily priorities. ‘Do I spend time working on the way I interact with patriarchy, or do I work on this time-sensitive direct action?’ Feminism gets pushed aside,” says Suzahn Ebrahimian, another regular working group participant,.
For other women, it’s more about interaction. Ashwini Hardikar, one protest participant, recently wrote a powerful blog post about two such experiences that occurred within an hour: a male protester giving her an unwanted hug, who then expressed shock when she responded (loudly) that she found his hug unwelcome and intrusive, and a young man chanting “Lady Liberty is a whore” and defending himself when she questioned his language. This kind of explaining and educating can be exhausting for women.
“At the moment when it happened—it was sort of just me yelling and this person arguing with me,” she says, noting that no one intervened when she confronted the “hugger.” “People looked embarrassed. But after writing about my experience folks were overwhelmingly supportive. To this day, people have come up to me to thank me for sharing my story.”
The incident hasn’t deterred Hardikar, a health educator, from coming back. In fact, she has sat in on a “Safer Spaces OWS” meeting and watched the group try to deal with and prevent incidents like the one she experienced. “People within ‘Safer Spaces’ OWS are trying to be point people to address these kinds of concerns, without involving the police or the court system unless the person wants that,” says Hardikar. The point people wear pink armbands to mark themselves as resources for protesters who want someone to intervene or talk to. Early on, a serial groper in the park was turned over to the police by the protesters after their interventions failed.
Hardikar says she finds it inspiring that there are people trying to “envision a world that is different.” “After all,” she says. “A movement like Occupy Wall Street isn’t created in a vacuum. We live in a racist, sexist and homophobic society.”
Those outside prejudices can seep into GA, too, says Manissa McCleave Maharawal, who participated in the “block” with Ashraf and helps facilitate the People of Color working group. Yes, the GA can be a remarkable opportunity for women and people of color to have their voices heard, she says. And yet, she adds, standing up before that huge audience presents a hurdle that can be tough to overcome for those who might fear that they are being asked to speak on behalf of their gender or race, or for those who have to explain subtle or internalized biases.
“There’s a double edge to it,” she says.
Ebrahimian points out that the comfort and kitchen stations—“This is the work of care, this is the work that started the feminist movement”—get more complaints than they deserve, due, she thinks, to stealth sexism. Innovations like progressive stack can at times act as a Band-Aid solution covering over pervasive power dynamics that are hard to pinpoint and resolve, she adds. Without serious and sustained work towards women’s equality within the movement, she says, “progressive stack is [just] a way for us to feel slightly better.”
In other occupations around the country, skirmishes over racist and sexist behavior within the movements have already led to schisms. A group of LA activists published an online manifesto saying they’d left the main occupation to start GAs in other neighborhoods because their concerns about race and privilege were not taken seriously enough at the main encampment—and they were accused of “hijacking” the movement. In Cleveland, a woman has alleged that she was raped by a tent partner assigned by leaders. Two female protesters at the camp told their local news station that while they take sexual assault and safety extremely seriously and are cooperating with the police, they are a leaderless movement, do not assign tent partners and had never heard the man alleged to have committed the assault. Regardless of the outcome of the Cleveland case, creating an unaccountable environment for sexual assault seriously impedes women's ability to participate—and bluntly illustrating a failure in self-government.
Several New York–based activists say their position as the “flagship” occupation has prompted them to try even harder to create a model society, to be an example to others that are just starting their movements. The “Safer Spaces OWS” initiative and a corner of the park devoted to a women’s sleeping area have attracted notice: I ran into several groups of young college women who had come to the park for sleepovers and cited those efforts as making them comfortable with doing so.
And the size and scope of the occupation in New York is, for many women, an advantage that smaller occupations may not offer. Many women have joined smaller subgroups to find an emotional “safer space” with like-minded people. And that participation shores up their commitment to the larger group.
“Ketchup,” who responded to the initial September 17 call, explains why she has shifted some of her energy to the creation of space for “non–male identified” people at OWS, spaces which include the “Speak Easy” group, a women’s group, a “Safer Space OWS” caucus and even a group devoted to discussion of spirituality though a feminine lens.
Even within Occupy Wall Street, she says, it’s powerful to enter a forum where participants can receive validation only from non-males--in a society where male validation is posited as the ultimate approval.
“Almost every day I deal with some kind of misogynistic behavior,” Ketchup says. “But the knowledge that I have that safe space, that people there will understand this behavior cannot be the norm, well, that empowers me to respond in a way that addresses the problem head-on—instead of creating negative energy and anger.”
A large number of the women I interviewed have found that kind of space at the “huge” People of Color working group and other smaller groups. “I get frustrated heavily at least once a day, but there’s always that community of folks that I very much identify with, so I keep coming back,” Ebrahimian says.
These new spaces for critique and examination exist online too. Ashraf and others have started a blog called “In Front and Center” to spotlight writing about the movement around issues of inclusiveness--the blog at which Hardikar’s critique appeared. “Solidarity with critique. That’s the framework,” she says. “You can do both—and it makes sense to do both.”
What’s exciting about OWS is that its openness allows for this kind of input, they say.
“If there’s one thing I could tell everyone at the park and around the country it’s that a critique isn’t an attack. It’s really healthy,” Ebrahimian adds. There’s pushback from the privileged, sometimes, the assertion that “we’re just ‘dividing the movement,’ but the reality is we want to make it a viable movement for everyone.”
The message is strength in numbers. “I would just say if you are a woman, please come here!” says Ketchup. “Understand that while there will be misogynists in any group, people with bias in any group, the process here exists here to check that and there is ample support to deal with that.”
Misogyny On the Outside, Power Within
For many women in the movement, their frustration lies with the world outside Zuccotti. The video “Hot Chicks of Occupy Wall Street” grossly objectified a number of female activists, and Time magazine asked whether women were contributing to the #OWS Twitter hashtag, despite dozens of female journalists and protesters' participation
Responses from OWS protesters have been swift. While women rally to the hashtag, a new Tumblr, womenoccupy.com, has popped up designed to bring visibility to activists in a non-sexualized way, and occupypatriarchy.org has arrived with a mission to network feminists among all the Occupy protests.
On the ground, women worry that the media and onlookers are eager to find “leaders” and that those leaders won’t look like them. “As we started to grow, and started to be taken seriously, there was a concerted effort to bring in diverse voices and faces to reporters,” says Barragan, a Latina woman who is a member of the press team. “In the beginning it was really exhausting because I noticed that reporters didn’t take me seriously. My job is to go up to them--and often I would be ignored. I’m not used to that. I would go home and cry,” she says.
Still, her and others’ persistence has paid off. “Since then we’ve made an effort so that even if they say ‘I want John, a white dude,’ we say, ‘No, we’re going to bring you to someone else,’ ” she says. “Now I haven’t cried in two weeks.”
And there’s a payoff for those who commit to this work. Educating people at Zuccotti Park about privilege “means a lot of work” for herself and others, says Maharawal. And it’s not always easy, she says. “But it’s worth it,” in unexpected ways, she says. She’s noticed that when she goes back to her grad school and elsewhere she’s discovered the thrill in speaking up when she sees people with privilege hogging space. She hopes that her experience means the outlets for critique created within the Occupy Wall Street movement will spread to workplaces, schools and homes.
Stamp has had a similar experience. The slowness of reaching consensus, the focus on anti-oppression, the support offered by the caucuses and working groups, she says, means “I’ve gotten to learn how to talk to people again. I’ve really felt a sense not just of solidarity but of kindness and compassion and all of these things that when you’re busy and on the go, you don’t stop to think about.”