Where Are the Women at Occupy Wall Street? Everywhere—and They’re Not Going Away

Where Are the Women at Occupy Wall Street? Everywhere—and They’re Not Going Away

Where Are the Women at Occupy Wall Street? Everywhere—and They’re Not Going Away

Women helped found and sustain the leaderless, anarchist-influenced movement—and despite running into bursts of sexism and ignorance, they are determined to stick around.


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.

What Horizontal Looks Like

Here’s an example of how these checks work within the structure of the movement to ensure that marginalized voices aren’t silenced. Early in the occupation, the General Assembly—an all-inclusive decision-making body that convenes nightly in the park—was voting on a mission statement that referred to all people being a “human race” “formerly divided” along ethnic lines.

A group of Desi women in attendance “blocked” the resolution, saying they felt it erased centuries of racism. (“Blocking” means a given proposal concerns a participant so much ethically, in some cases, that he or she may leave the movement over it. As a rule, participants are reluctant both to block or to overrule a number of blocks.) In blocking the resolution, they explained why the erasure of historical oppression is harmful over the human microphone, to hundreds of GA attendees at once.

Despite the pain and fear that accompanied that move, many of them say it symbolizes something unique about the movement, and the processes the movement has embraced: it allows anyone to voice concerns. “When we looked up and saw all those faces looking back at us, we realized it’s a really big moment,” Hena Ashraf, one of the women who participated in the block.

Another check on structurelessness comes in the form of the “progressive stack,” in which the “stack-keeper,” who is in charge of taking questions and concerns from the audiences at general assemblies, is given the ability to privilege voices from “traditionally marginalized groups.”

In other words: women and minorities get to go to the front of the line. Yesenia Barragan, 25, a Columbia student and longtime activist, notes that in reality, progressive stack often means, “my partner, who’s a white man, has to wait twenty minutes or more to say his piece. That’s how it works,” and how it should work, she says. “We need to address those power relations.”

The progressive stack, added to a “step up/step back” policy that encourages those who have spoken to let others speak, and those who have been quiet are asked to share their thoughts, ensures that a diversity of voices are foregrounded.

Finally, the movement arrives at decisions by consensus, that is, more than 90 percent agreement in the group.

This highly-structured, fine-tuned process seeks to avoid what Jo Freeman famously called “the tyranny of structurelessness” in her essay of the same name critiquing the women’s movement. “Structurelessness,” she wrote, “becomes a way of masking power, and…is usually most strongly advocated by those who are the most powerful.”

In consensus models, that “tyranny” looks like this: white men and other loud voices facilitating too often and dismissing concerns that they say aren’t germane—with other voices raising objections again, again and again.

But at OWS, since the onset of the GAs, organizers have taken it upon themselves to make sure that more and more women, people of color, and new voices are part of the facilitation team, holding trainings and keeping facilitators accountable.

Working groups also use consensus. None of the women I interviewed—from working groups including outreach, labor, media and “people of color”—had major complaints about gender politics in their individual working groups. When I observed about ten working groups sitting in serious, focused circles in an atrium on Wall Street hashing out ideas, at least half of the speakers at any given time were women, if not more.

Preserving Direct Democracy

This past week, a series of contentious GAs have debated a proposal to allow working groups to make decisions without the consent of the full General Assembly, in a “spokes council” model, that would bring together a rotating assembly of representatives to make financial and logistical decisions for working groups. These “spokes” are not empowered to act on behalf of their working groups—they are just conduits.

Marissa Holmes, a “structure” working group member who is one of the proponents of the “spokes council” proposal, writes in an email that she believes this new process, if adopted, would bolster the position of women and minorities in the movement by specifically permitting caucuses of traditionally marginalized groups as well as campers who are not in working groups to send representatives (or “spokes”) to the council.

The fate of the resolution remains up in the air, as its merits are slowly hashed out in meetings and online. Opponents argue that it consolidates power in the hands of those who regularly attend working groups at the expense of the GA.

But on both sides of the argument over the “spokes council” proposal, there’s an avowed commitment to maintaining a system of direct democracy that activists say is absolutely transformative for participants and central to Occupy Wall Street’s staying power.

In fact, many women involved in the protests say that the process of direct democracy directly counteracts the experiences of their lives. They have come to this protest because they’ve seen their families, their neighbors and their friends lose homes, jobs and healthcare and haven’t been heard when they try to register their concerns.

“We all come from disenfranchised communities,” says Nelini Stamp, a young activist who camped out with nothing but cardboard on the night of the 17th and has been working with people of color and labor working groups since. The feeling of agency and power that’s created by “having a voice, having a say in your day to day life” can’t be measured, she says—and that’s what leads to people being invested in the movement. “These are people that have been pushed and shoved. They just really want to see something work for them, unlike before.”

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.”

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