Today I'd like to talk about something that’s been concerning me more and more lately, and that is the perception that the involvement of feminism and women’s rights groups in the occupation movement is divisive, that by bringing issues of female subjugation into the conversations taking place in the various global occupations we are somehow turning on our comrades, that we are trying to hijack the movement or steal the spotlight, that we’re being opportunistic and jumping on the bandwagon of the occupations in order to advance our feminist agenda.
Let’s start by outlining the ways in which inequality still persists in the OECD, where there seems to be a general consensus that complete equality is the norm and that any additional gains made by women would be overtaking men. On some level that is true, as a reallocation of power to achieve gender parity does require that men have less and women have more – not more than men, just more than we have now. And once again, so that I don’t get accused of saying ridiculous things like “men are like this and women are like this” - which, if you’re paying attention, is in fact the exact opposite of what i’m saying – when I say “men” and “women” I am referring to the social classes represented by each, the social construct of MALENESS versus the social construct of FEMALENESS, not necessarily your boyfriend or brother. Although your boyfriend or brother benefits from identifying with a construct which is afforded greater political, legal, economic, and cultural power, just as individual women suffer from identifying with a construct which is afforded less.
So the occupation movement worldwide, including here in Dunedin, whatever you may think of the look of the people occupying the Octagon, is about fighting the economic injustice of a system which funnels money and power to a very small minority of mostly white men at the expense of everyone else who is not part of that privileged few. That’s what the 99% references. So we’re talking about addressing poverty and hunger and political disenfranchisement, but for some reason we’re not allowed to talk about the gender makeup of poverty or hunger or political disenfranchisement. I’m not sure why that is, but it certainly does seem to be the case: we talk a great deal about the need to end poverty, in the states there’s a War on Poverty, global poverty is a cause that rallies people like no other – for example, in the UK in 2007 a world record was set when 43.7 million people participated in the event Take a Stand Against Poverty (www.standagainstpoverty.org), and 3 billion people watched the Live 8 concert series in 2005. But at no point was it discussed that of the 20% of the global population that lives on a dollar a day or less, 70% are female. Or that 2/3 of the world’s illiterates are women, or that women own 1% of the property and means of production in the world. As I’ve spoken about before, the equivalent of roughly half the global GDP is unpaid labour, of which 80% is performed by women in fields like child rearing, elderly care, and subsistence farming. In fact, it goes even deeper than that: while gender inequality persists in such dramatic levels, there can be very little headway made into the eradication of poverty. There are all kinds of statistics, like the fact that African children are 40% more likely to live past the age of five if their mothers have five years of primary education, that point to the fact that “discrimination against women is not only a consequence, but a cause of poverty” (Banyard, Kat. The Equality Illusion. London 2010). Women are overrepresented among the poorest, least educated, least healthy, and least enfranchised groups of people all over the world, including in places like New Zealand and Canada. Incidentally, in case you’re thinking it’s not so bad here, New Zealand has one of the highest levels of inequality in the OECD, and inequality itself leads to all kinds of bad things like recessions – I’ll talk a lot more about the effects of economic inequality in a few weeks, when I talk to Susan George about it.
So I could go on listing the ways in which women and children are the hardest hit by austerity measures, free trade agreements, and neoliberal economic policy, but I want to talk about the ways women are being treated within the occupation movement. It seems to me that there’s a growing backlash against what’s seen as the intrusion of feminism into a movement meant for everyone, as though women are not part of ‘everyone’. We’re accused of being divisive when we request that women’s voices be heard equally, that we give consideration to the needs of the LGBTI community or people of colour, as though excluding the voices of all those marginalized groups is not divisive, but pointing out that it’s happening is. I think that we can only move forward with this is we actually do agree to take everyone along, if we can acknowledge that the 99% is made up of a bunch of smaller percents, and that some of those percents overlap, and that many of those percents have been discriminated against on the basis of their membership in that percent. If we’re really talking about changing a system that is harmful and oppressive, we must also be talking about discouraging sexism, racism, and classism. Otherwise, it’s not a revolution, just a change in management.
There’s been one incident in particular that has caused a great deal of heated controversy that maybe you’ve heard about, and though I’m loath to give it any further attention I do think it highlights some significant issues. I’m talking about Steven Greenstreet’s website Hot Chicks of Occupy Wall Street, which I will not link to. This started as a single video of shots of beautiful, alternative-looking, admittedly racially diverse women in slow motion, with hazy hallmark music in the background and lingering shots on lowered eyelashes, collarbones, and hands running through hair, and it’s uncertain how many of those women gave their consent to be on camera. There was a great deal of backlash, obviously, to which Greenstreet responded by asking one feminist writer out on a date, for real, and making rape jokes such as this one, in response to a friend’s sarcastic comment about legitimizing the movement: “An erection legitimizes anything.” His friend replies, “Even rape?” Steven Greenstreet says, “It probably wouldn’t be rape without one.”
Now let’s be clear about one thing: I’m not saying you can’t look at beautiful women, or that going to a protest to meet someone is bad. A lot of people have come out in defense of the video on those grounds, and the fact that he focused on neckbones instead of boobs has made a lot of people see this is as celebratory rather than discriminatory. However, as Rebecca Traister and a million other feminist writers have pointed out:
“The larger, simpler argument, outside of consent or permission, is: This video is sexist. It’s an example of women participating in public life — political, professional, social — and having their participation reduced to sexual objectification. That’s what happened here, nothing more, nothing less.”
By focusing on their physical appearance, any aspect of it, the lovely or the sexy, Greenstreet and everyone else involved are undermining the reasons those women are protesting, their very real disenfranchisement. Basically it’s saying “Oh, look, she’s protesting, isn’t that cute.” It’s just one more reminder that for women, how seriously we are taken depends a great deal on how physically attractive we are – too unattractive and you never get to say your piece on camera; too attractive and you are ‘hot’ and nothing else.
It’s worth pointing out here that sexual assaults have happened at various occupations – here in Dunedin there was a series of verbal incidents that, even though they were talked out and teach-ins were agreed on, still made the space unsafe for the women at whom those comments were directed. And, I would argue, made the space less safe for women, full stop. In Cleveland an accusation of rape was dismissed as being politically motivated, as rape accusations so often are, and in Dallas when a girl was assaulted they discussed keeping girls under 18 out of the protest altogether, rather than address the assault itself. There was a gang rape in Glasgow, and Occupy Baltimore suggested that rape and assault victims not go to the police but to the occupation Security Committee instead. All these things are signs that the sexism inherent in economic injustice is not seen as worthy of addressing; that women’s subjugation continues to be marginalized as a ‘fringe cause’ or a special interest, instead of being at the very heart of the system the occupations are trying to challenge.
Because I'm obviously not the first person to notice this kind of behaviour, here are some links to really positive things that are being done to address the oppression within the movement itself and make it a truly inclusive movemet: Women Occupy, Occupy Patriarchy, Racalicious, and the All Peoples' Revolutionary Front are working tirelessly to make these conversations matter, and it might be working. Certainly women have never had the kind of platform or attention that speaking within the space of the occupations affords us, and there are a lot of people, male and female, who are using that space to widen and readdress conversations about the nature of power and privilege. All it requires is that everyone listens honestly to everyone who speaks honestly, and that all experiences and needs are acknowledged. Otherwise, what are we fighting for?