Depending on who you ask, Occupy Wall Street is either the inevitable outpouring populist outrage resulting from decades of corporate greed and abuse or a goalless collection of spoiled unemployed hippie sex fiends who just want to complain about something. Regardless of what you think about the protesters, the cause has grown from one mid-September march to a bona fide movement in dozens of cities. With voices from the far right claiming that the people protesting abuse of power by white men are mostly other white men, how are women in the movement making sure their voices aren't drowned out?
The Occupy Wall Street movement seems, to the outsider, to be about almost every possible progressive pet issue, but at its core, it's about taking up physical space. Much of the actions of government and business now occur within the virtual realm— numbers flashing across a screen, computer-based algorithms performing transactions that pass billions of dollars from one organization to another in microseconds, human-designed formulas denying actual humans medical coverage based on medical history and risk factors. The 99% of people who are currently getting hosed by the country's wealthiest 1% can't reclaim the virtual space that was never theirs, but they can assert themselves in the physical space that's rapidly being taken from them, sort of like how female participants in this year's SlutWalk movement publicly reclaim their bodies.
The movement's white male bent has prompted some female activists to opt not to participate in Occupy Wall Street at all. Over at In These Times , Sady Doyle isn't so sure that OWS cares about women, noting that the same men who had poked fun at her activism before OWS were now imploring her to join them in protest. She resents the movement's ostentatious goals and overestimation of its importance. Further, they didn't support her and other women involved in Slutwalk, so why would she support them? She writes,
The men I knew who had been Occupying Wall Street were still not there with me at the year's most heavily promoted anti-rape protest. I still couldn't rationally expect them to be. The "next global feminist movement" still wasn't moving strongly enough to occupy the city for three weeks. Or even one whole day.
Other activists are choosing the participate in the movement as reluctant educators. Racialicious contributors Hena Ashraf and Manissa McCleve Maharawal dropped in on Occupy Wall Street in late September. The two were initially pleasantly surprised by the crowd's diversity and kindness. They just so happened to be in Zucotti Park on the evening that the movement's unifying statement of purpose, the "Declaration of the Occupation of New York City," was to be ratified. And that's when things got a little dicey, as one particular line in the declaration, which was to serve as the entire movement's guiding principles and sent all over the Internet and to the press, rubbed them the wrong way. Ashraf writes,
The line was: "As one people, formerly divided by the color of our skin, gender, sexual orientation, religion, or lack thereof, political party and cultural background, we acknowledge the reality: that there is only one race, the human race, and our survival requires the cooperation of its members…"
The first major concern amongst us was that the phrase "formerly divided by" was unrealistic, and erased histories of oppression that marginalized communities have suffered. The second concern was that the "human race" language also felt very out of touch.
In spite of the fact that other delegates didn't want to listen to Ashraf's protestations, eventually the document was changed. Afterward, one of the document's framers approached Maharawal. She writes,
Which is how after the meeting ended we ended up finding the man who had written the document and telling him that he needed to take out the part about us all being "one race, the human race." But its "scientifically true" he told us. He thought that maybe we were advocating for there being different races? No we needed to tell him about privilege and racism and oppression and how these things still existed, both in the world and someplace like Occupy Wall Street.
Let me tell you what it feels like to stand in front of a white man and explain privilege to him. It hurts. It makes you tired. Sometimes it makes you want to cry. Sometimes it is exhilarating. Every single time it is hard. Every single time I get angry that I have to do this, that this is my job, that this shouldn't be my job. Every single time I am proud of myself that I've been able to say these things because I used to not be able to and because some days I just don't want to.
And there are some lady protesters who don't march and who don't gently approach the uneducated with a "Structural Oppression 101" lesson. Take FEMEN, the group of 300 or so Ukranian anti-sex trafficking activists best known for imitating self-immolation outside of a soccer game, topless protesting, and being arrested by police while being dragged away screaming. They described their tactics thusly,
They try to arrest us for appearing topless in public, but it's not explicitly outlawed by the Ukrainian criminal code. So they call it "criminal hooliganism," Code 73. I say, they're arresting us for inconveniencing the government, for being the only movement in Ukraine that functions without the financial support of a political group and for doing something quite simple and primitive - speaking the truth. Cops here are government lackeys. We're the crazy girls representing the people, by any means necessary.
Whether or not one agrees with their tactics, it's difficult to deny that they've gotten attention. However, some of that attention has come in the form of speculation that the 18-20 year old women who comprise the majority of the movement are on drugs. Despite the collective side-eye from media establishment, FEMEN enthusiastically supports the Occupy Wall Street movement, and they'd be toplessly marching alongside the protesters if plane tickets from Kiev weren't so damn expensive.
Between being conspicuously absent, marching peacefully through the streets being photographed by a creepy number of men, leading an impromptu Privilege 101 class for other protesters, and stripping naked and being dragged away screaming by police, Occupying Wall Street While Female doesn't sound like it's a bowl of cherries. Still, the role of women is necessary in Occupy Wall Street and in every political movement that would affect the population at large. We still exist, and we still need to occupy some of that space we're trying to reclaim or risk continuing to be shut out.