It has been almost ten years since I founded the Feminist Peace Network as a safe a supportive place to discuss how militarism, violence and misogyny impacts women’s lives. While FPN has thrived and expanded, I am depressed beyond words to see those very same issues of safety, sexism, misogynist power structures and lack of gendered analysis within the growing Occupy movement. Just as there was an urgent need for spaces such as FPN as a response to the military attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq, it is now crucial to respond to issues of misogyny in the Occupy movement.
While occupying Wall Street is important, taking a step back, we are reminded that Wall Street is a manifestation and tool of the much larger problem of patriarchal control and power which has been plaguing us for thousands of years and which depends in large part on the exploitation, subjugation and control of women. Put bluntly, the harms experienced by women as a result of global economic policies are, in aggregate, different and often far worse than those experienced by men.
The majority of people living in poverty are female, in this country women are lucky to make 77 cents on the male dollar (women of color often earn far less than that). Women are forced to do the overwhelming majority of unpaid work such as child and elder care and housework. In times of economic instability, women are more vulnerable to intimate violence while at the same time social services that could help them are cut. We are still paying more for health care and our access to reproductive health services is under siege. And throughout the world women are more likely to go hungry and poverty forces women into sexual slavery.
If we truly want to change the economic paradigm, these issues must be integral to the agenda, yet they are being marginalized and all but invisible in the Occupy movement. When women dare to bring them up, we are met with the very tired and patriarchy preserving saws about looking at the whole and not being divisive. In a blog post that is sadly reminiscent of Robin Morgan’s description in her book, Demon Lover of the same problem in the early days of second wave feminism, Angie Becker Stevens writes about the phenomenon for Ms Magazine,
On the other side of the coin, though, the ‘Occupy’ movement needs to embrace feminism as part of its cause. The folks I know personally who have been working tirelessly for the movement in New York are committed to a platform opposing all forms of oppression. But those views are not necessarily a reflection of all who are “occupying” New York and elsewhere. In the short time I’ve been involved with the developing Occupy Detroit movement, I have already met with resistance from some people when trying to bring gender—as well as race and sexual orientation—into the dialogue. The arguments given are probably familiar to any feminist activist who has engaged in broader-based movements: that we will only dilute our message if we start talking about all these different issues at once; that we need to focus on this one big issue that affects all of us; that we’ll deal with all these “social issues” later.
Many—typically straight white men—claim that talking about gender and race will only divide us, when what we need is to be standing together and focusing on how we’re all the same. But the reality is that we do not all experience oppression in the same ways. There is value in uniting–the ‘Occupy’ movement’s slogan that “we are the 99%” is a powerful one–but our experiences still differ based on race, class, gender and sexual orientation. It is perhaps a well-intentioned notion to imagine that we can unite in a way that transcends these categories, but it’s a notion that has no basis in the reality of our society. Because these categories, however artificially constructed they might be, still play a huge role in how and to what degree we are exploited, it is impossible to fight oppressive forces without acknowledging the reality of how they function. We can stand in solidarity with one another without pretending that our experiences are identical. In fact, I would argue that the only true solidarity is one in which we fully recognize and respect both how our struggles are alike and how they differ.
Not surprisingly, there have also been blatant episodes of sexist, misogynistic objectivity such as Steven Greenstreet’s Hot Chicks of Wall Street video and blog which purports to attract guys to Occupy because there are “smart hot chicks” there. Then there is this horrific tidbit from Peter J. Reilly at Forbes,
What better way is there to “neutralize” a dissenter than by having her and especially him sexually assaulted or even merely threatened. The humiliation is unbearable.
“Especially him”? The implication would seem to be that women are used to sexual assault so it is no big deal.
It is critical that we not let such statements pass unnoticed for the supposed greater good of the cause and it is also crucial that we insist that the needs of the 99% not be reduced to a homogenous white male centric vision of what is needed. Real change on Wall Street will only come from addressing the root problem of patriarchy.
Towards this end, the Feminist Peace Network has started a new project called Occupy Patriarchy which will work towards bringing together those of us who are confronting and addressing the issue of patriarchy within the Occupy movement. The project was conceived of in partnership with feminist scholar and activist Kathy Miriam who was one of first people to begin to articulate what has been happening and whose work has been a catalyst in my own thinking. We have set up both a website and a Facebook page where we will be posting links to work being done throughout the country and the world as well as commentary and guest posts from other activists. We invite you to become part of this effort.