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.”