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Can Occupy Fight Back Against the War on Women? | The Nation

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Can Occupy Fight Back Against the War on Women?

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Sarah Seltzer
Sarah Seltzer is a freelance writer in New York City and associate editor at Alternet. Her work can be found at ...

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Three hundred feminists blanketed the concrete in Washington Square Park last night, their attention focused by the now-familiar mic check. The “Raging Grannies” had just performed. A banner, framed by the park’s iconic arch, declared that the first NYC Feminist General Assembly, presented by Women Occupying Wall Street (WOWS), was in full swing.

After seven months of reporting on feminism and the work of women activists in the Occupy movement, I wanted to know: could this meeting be a model for how OWS collaborates with other social movements? Might I witness the forming of a new activist coalition, bringing SlutWalkers, Occupiers, second-wavers and radicals together to fight back against the assault on rights we know as the War on Women?

The assembly gathered activists of a wide range of ages, ethnicities, abilities and gender presentations, with a noticeable majority of cisgender (that is, non-transgender) white women. Not a single police officer looked on, a rarity for an OWS event.

We began in consciousness-raising knots of three. Facilitators from WOWS instructed us to speak in turn without interruption about our personal involvement with feminism. In my cluster, blushes and downturned eyes in response these big questions gradually turned into animated conversations when we fell into small talk: “When did you move to New York?” “Wasn’t May Day awesome?”

Later, we broke into larger circles to brainstorm goals, leading into an hour of intense discussions. As the sun set, speakers from each breakout group shared their results, echoing over the human microphone. Soon, the usual Occupy hand signals dissolved into vocal responses: applause, hoots and shouting.

A few themes emerged: first, the need to fight the assault on reproductive freedom; and second, the need to make feminism more inclusive of trans people, the disabled, incarcerated women, women of color, and those with “different discursive styles.”

Many goals presented were big-picture. We should fight capitalism, reclaim our history, unite with labor and educate our kids about misogyny. There were some Occupy-style solutions: those whose voices dominate should “step back” for an entire meeting. Let’s have more feminist tweets from Occupy’s account. We should distribute free condoms, as an art project, all over the city. Men should notice when they are “mansplaining” (this one got a thunderous ovation).

Occasionally, the conversation got a little jargony: my group’s representative announced our rejection of the notion that we could even come up with a set number of goals in a timed scenario. “It’s a temporality that’s… anti-feminist!” she said, getting knowing laughs.

A number of speakers alluded to an uneasy alliance between OWS and mainstream feminism. “We want Occupy’s support fighting women’s issues,” one speaker said. “We are Occupy!” shouted someone from behind me. “When I was presenting the breakout group questions last night, a woman asked if we were trying to separate feminism from the purpose of the movement,” said Simran Sachdev, an organizer with WOWS. “What she was missing is how feminism is integral to the movement!” Occupy won’t create change, Sachdev said, “if it doesn't recognize the need to include the values of feminists, women and transgender individuals.”

A push to inject feminism into Occupy and bring the action-oriented focus of OWS to feminist issues were the genesis for this General Assembly, which emerged from the Women Occupying Wall Street Caucus, a group forged in the early days of the Zuccotti Park occupation. Its members wanted to address oppressive behavior within their own ranks and pick the brains of experts on feminism.

“We have a lot to learn. Many of us are new to feminism,” said Lisa Rubenstein, one of the GA’s organizers. “This is the great thing about Occupy. I can’t even begin to tell you how much I’ve learned in these eight months.”

In planning the GA, WOWS expanded its membership to include participants like Dior Vargas, who had bypassed Zuccotti Park entirely. “I felt that I couldn’t relate to OWS’s mission,” Vargas, who works in publishing, said. But organizing around feminist issues offered “a place where I could make a difference.” “As with all the previous movements, it doesn’t take very long before feminism becomes an obvious next step,” novelist Alix Shulman, another organizer, told me. “It’s one thing to be alive for a great political movement as I was for the second wave, but to be able to do it twice in my lifetime is a huge privilege.”

The very public battles over reproductive rights all winter long provided the catalyst that pushed this group into high gear for the GA. “If there’s truly going to be a ‘war on women,' we need to form a peaceful army,” said Melanie Gold, a member of WOWS. Organizers said they didn’t want to kick start a new wave of feminism, but rather “a tsunami.”

Although this wasn’t the first feminist GA in Occupy history (activists in LA, DC and elsewhere have had women or feminist-centered GAs) it was the first in New York. Organizers wanted to emerge from the GA with a trajectory towards fighting back.

“You don’t have to agree on everything to work together and be productive,” Sachdev told me earlier this week, when I asked her how she’d feel if some attendees were fans of Occupy bête noire and high-profile Planned Parenthood donor Mayor Mike Bloomberg.

And after the report backs, announcements, and a final performance from Mahina Movement, there was plenty of energy, if not a concrete action plan.

Aspects of this GA offered a model for how Occupy can work with other progressive movements without accusations of “co-option” on either side. The fact that the organizers of the GA were both new to and familiar with Occupy meant that the attendees came from both inside and outside the movement, an example of horizontalism—rejecting hierarchy—in action. Beyond that, the GA reinforced the notion of Occupy as platform for ideas, rather than organization. The simple act of presenting feminist ideas in the Occupy format—in a public space, welcome to all, mingling with strangers beyond the reach of institutions—was refreshing and inspiring, the opening of a door of possibility, almost like the early days at Zuccotti Park. I realized with a start during the event that I’d never been in a public space that simply existed for feminist-minded conversation before, without a destination or goal or even work-oriented networking.

Will that door of possibility lead to a new coalition or plan for action? That remained unclear. None of the goals mentioned in the report-backs included targeted plans like “organize a sit-in in the US Conference of Catholic Bishops offices.” No specific march or strike or radical art project is in the works, and no one appeared as a representative from an established feminist organization to start building a formal coalition. At this point, the OWS ethos may not mesh with most institutional organizations, and perhaps that’s okay. What the feminists at the GA wanted more than a formal partnership was to keep converging and talking. So the one thing there will definitely be? Another GA.

When Rubenstein took a “temperature check” about how often participants wanted to gather, almost everyone present raised hands to indicate they wanted monthly feminist GAs. The organizers grinned. “Come back with an idea for an action that is both fun and uncomfortable,” Rubenstein exhorted the crowd before it dispersed.

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