Since its inception, feminism has sparked controversy, and eventually developed an image of militancy and extremism. As a result, women who may otherwise agree with feminism’s goals shy away from adopting the label, leading some to argue that feminism was no longer a relevant school of thought for young women. And yet, issues important to the lives of these young women only grew in importance during the recession: gender disparities in wages continue, while women’s unemployment rate stays stubbornly higher than men’s; controversy over the Affordable Care Act targeted women’s basic health care. Suddenly, something changed. Feminism was no longer about burning bras and unshaved legs; young women began rallying—against victims of rape being called sluts, against the scorn of the political right and the savior complex of the political left, and for a complete systemic re-analysis.
Women have been substantially involved in the Occupy movement since the beginning, but some expressed that important women’s issues have been pushed to the outskirts. Occupy has been largely organized and propelled forward by white men and male-dominated ideas of confrontational kinetic action. General Assemblies revolved around one speaker at a time, making it impossible for all voices to be heard, and would focus more on planning action than on finding common ground. Early on, when Occupy was hammering out a Declaration of the Occupation, a few women and people of color found the original document blind to issues of gender hierarchy and racism. The woman who blocked the offending wording said, “Why are we going to create a system that just re-creates all these oppressions?”
Women reported feeling alienated, as if there were not a space for them in the movement. In response, New York-based Occupiers held the first ever Feminist General Assembly (referred to as a FemGA) on May 17th. Structured differently than a normal GA, the meeting would begin with small breakout group discussions of only a few people, allowing everyone to have a chance for their ideas to be heard by others. This would culminate in a “report back,” in which a representative of each group would relay to the gathering the highlights of their group’s discussion. Topics are wide-ranging—from the comparison of matriarchy versus patriarchy, to an analysis of the language used by Occupy—but were more focused on discovering long-term goals than on planning short-term action.
The effort was extremely popular. The FemGAs became a regular fixture, and the organizers worked to stage one at the National Gathering held the weekend before the American Independence Day. A crowd of several hundred people, including enough men to make up about one-third, gathered to find a means of advancing women through alignment, something the organizers were careful to point out is not always the same as agreement.
From the small breakout sessions to the “report back,” everyone was focused on constructive ways to address patriarchy. Patriarchy, they determined, is hierarchical, with those at the top (such as a CEO or a male head of household) considered a more valuable asset to the system; Occupy has sought to address this iniquity in our financial and political systems, but without realizing along the way this structure merely echoes gender relations and societal structure. From a justice system organized hierarchically to distribute retributive justice, to growing corporate influence that sexualizes women for profit, patriarchy is ever-more powerful at the expense of marginalized groups. According to Stephanie Van Hook, author of “Waging Feminism,” “patriarchy is a poison that we have swallowed,” and all, regardless of an individual’s gender, are shaped by it.
According to the activists at the FemGA, even Occupiers, a group that should be the most aware of the unique privileges they enjoy, have been caught up in the patriarchy, falling prey to a condescending savior complex endemic among white liberal men. The FemGA seeks to draw attention to this mindset, creating a movement that truly can be the model of a new society. Their concerns are very personal, rather than abstract. After the original encampments saw a wave of sexual harassment and even rape, many women chose not to stay overnight, and in turn lost “credibility” among other Occupiers. This sentiment is part of a broader rape culture, which results in blaming the victim for not adequately protecting herself (rather than blaming the attacker for his actions) all while trivializing the violence she experienced through language such as “the banks are raping us.” The FemGA is not only working to create a space where women will not feel threatened at Occupy events, but also to change some of the “arrogant” language of the movement. Beyond eliminating metaphorical use of “rape” and other gender- or race-insensitive terms, FemGA organizer Melanie also mentioned that a language of duality (us versus them, outsiders versus insiders) ignores details that may be crucial to finding compromise and building the movement they want.
An interesting distinction between the FemGA and the larger Occupy movement is women’s understanding of political involvement. While the general Occupy movement seems uninterested in any type of involvement in a corrupt political system, the FemGA mentioned several times the importance of having more women in office, and called on women to get involved in school boards, local government, and community decision-making. This came with the caution, however, that not just any woman is acceptable, but it should be someone willing to fight for her community against corporate influence.
The final effort of the National FemGA was to create a working draft of a Declaration of, by, and for Women, summarizing the spirit of the meeting and the eventual goals of equality and respect these activists seek.
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