Great thanks to Mimi Yahn for permission to reprint her excellent essay, Whose Occupy.
January 11th was the 100th anniversary of the Bread & Roses Strike. It was more than a strike that successfully raised wages and improved working conditions for 250,000 textile workers throughout New England, more than a strike involving over 20,000 mostly immigrant workers speaking 45 different languages: it was a strike called by no one, led by no formal organization, but spontaneously initiated, organized, led and won by women. From the mass meetings—where the people’s mic consisted of continuous translations—to organizing actions that formed human chains around entire factory blocks; from organizing strikers’ welfare committees to going head-to-head with armed police and state militia called in to break the strike by any means; from organizing soup kitchens to ensuring the safety of their children by sending them to allies and supporters in other cities, it was the women who carried out most of the organizing and who consistently and persistently refused to let the men take over. It is the strike most famous for the banner carried by a group of women and young girls that read: “We Want Bread And Roses, Too.”
This understanding of the link between the personal and the political, between the human body and the human spirit, is what gives women our power and wisdom to lead. But you’d never know it from looking at the Occupy Movement.
Women have been pushed to the margins, just as they’ve been in every failed revolution and progressive movement throughout history and across the globe. Once again, women are being threatened, silenced and made irrelevant by those accustomed to writing the agendas, formulating ideology, setting policy and implementing practice.
The media—both mainstream and alternative—have played into this: The vast majority of images, interviews, videos and articles feature men as the dominant face and brains of the Occupy Movement, as if only the men’s opinions matter as the important experts and thinkers of Occupy. Worse yet, it is one race that predominates, even in the images of women: the white race. As if whites, and especially white men, represent the 99%.
But the images of Occupy presented both by the mainstream and the alternative media is an image that has more to do with image itself and far less to do with the realities of the 99%. The mainstream press mostly portrays the movement as a bunch of leaderless, unemployed (male) street kids and their female camp followers, while the alternative media present an idealized image of noble, brave, young men fighting in the trenches for the rights of the downtrodden, while their radicalized girlfriends stand bravely but quietly beside them, occasionally bearing the brunt of some out-of-control cop’s tear-gassing spree.
Neither present the women who are angry and in the trenches every day struggling against the same injustices taking place within the movement that they struggle against outside the movement. Neither present the deep analyses and outsider perspectives of women because our opinions don’t count. There’s no mention of the women who continue to be sexually harassed and assaulted, who continue to be pushed further to the margins to form their safe spaces and auxiliary caucuses in order to escape degrading and dismissive attacks, no discussion of how a movement can call itself progressive while its women cannot safely participate unless accompanied by a man.
None of the white media talk about the hard decisions that people need to make about whether or not to involve themselves and their own communities in a movement that is so clearly dominated by whites who so clearly hold onto their privilege by behaving as if the rest of the world’s populations are merely guests and bystanders rather than participants and co-creators of this movement. Do people really want to ask their families and friends to willingly put themselves into yet another racist situation, where their minority presence guarantees no allies?
Already, the dominance of men has been established and the exclusionary agendas they consider important implemented. Though attempts to introduce “fetal rights” have so far been blocked around the country, Occupy Austin decided that since abortion is a “divisive” issue, it will not be part of any Statement of Principles or official action plans. Of course, no progressive woman would ever agree to that since reproductive rights are absolutely fundamental to our most basic human rights. But the men who have taken over the thinking, policy-making and agenda of the Occupy Movement have decided that, since reproductive rights don’t concern them, it’s a minor issue. More than that, their lifelong privilege as men gives them the certitude that they have the right to make decisions for those they consider less relevant, less valued to the Movement and the human race.
For women, whose marginalization always includes terrorized silencing through physical and sexual violence, and who have almost no training in fighting back, the choice is no choice at all: Either remain silent and remain with us or go off and do your own “little” thing far from the main movement. For women, whose dehumanization and objectification has always included being reduced to her reproductive body parts—body parts which she doesn’t even have the right to own, control or protect from assault—the choice is never hers. The decision as to whether the basic human rights unique only to women should even be on the agenda is left up to those whose privileged body parts make them uniquely protected from those human rights abuses.
These are the choices we’ve been given for thousands of years: Put our own rights aside for the “greater good,” choose between your race or your gender, your religion or your gender, support your man or be a traitor to the cause. Even sexual orientation has been disconnected from gender oppression—as if only straight women experience misogyny and lesbians only experience homophobia the way gay men experience it—leaving lesbians to choose between the struggle that most oppresses them.
The principles of the early days of the Occupy Movement included recognition of privilege and a commitment to addressing and undoing the destructive, counter-productive and regressive behaviors that arise from privilege. Step back/Step up was immediately instituted at General Assemblies: This meant that those traditionally holding privilege—those who were accustomed to being the first to speak, the ones accustomed to dominating the room and the agenda—would step back, remain quiet, while those whose voices, ideas and perspectives were rarely heard would step forward. White men were to listen for a change and begin understanding that their ideas and voices weren’t the only ones that mattered. Women and people of all other races were to be given priority for speaking, setting the agenda and leading this movement to a new paradigm.
It didn’t work. Just as governments and corporations won’t stand idly by while citizens take power into their own hands, within a few weeks the entitled men who had come to Occupy in order to have their voices and ideas listened to and heeded began lashing back to retake their privilege.
In Occupys across the country, similar stories have been emerging: When people bring up the subjects of misogyny and racism, they hit back with proposals to ban those words from all public Occupy discussions permanently because they’re “divisive.” In Oakland one woman was told that including discussions about how “Blacks, Indigenous People, and Asians have been colonized in this country was a distraction,” while in Nashville, an attempt to form a women’s caucus was labeled “divisive.” In Boston, a proposal was presented to allow rapists to return after a specified period to present their case for remaining in Occupy. In New York, an angry demand was made that a women’s caucus be summarily disbanded because the women failed to include the words “female-assigned, female-identified” in a draft statement. In Nashville, women who raise the issue of the rampant misogyny—which includes cutting off live feeds when women begin speaking, refusing to allow women to create their own caucus and using social media to slander women who speak out—are being called “bullies” and labeled as “trouble-makers” and “man-haters” with an “agenda.” The Nashville men are also using the centuries-old tactic of labeling women as emotionally unstable and hysterical. As Norma Jones points out on Nashville’s Occupy Patriarchy blog, “Email after email uses language like ‘going off the deep end,’ ‘tantrum,’ ‘chaos,’ ‘severe malfunction.’ And, as elsewhere across the country, men’s postings to blogs, live streams, Facebook pages and the Occupy sites are filled with ugly, dehumanizing comments about women, ranging from crude sexual remarks to suggestions that women “deserve to be beat.”
Meanwhile, where are the men calling for change in misogynist attempts to marginalize women? Before men started becoming defensive, nearly every casual conversation I had with men regarding gender issues resulted in them telling me about the women’s area and the women’s daily meetings, as if that addressed any grievance the “feminists” might have and absolved them from any concern or need to educate themselves about “women’s issues.” More recently in New York, a man sent a request to one of the women’s caucuses for the group to intervene in what he characterized as an inappropriate, exploitative relationship developing between a man in his 30s and a 16-year-old girl. His comment was, “Who will look out for women in this movement if not your group?” But what makes this man who considers himself a member of the Occupy Movement incapable of intervening himself? Does he realize how insulting and dismissive it is to see, once again, a man treat injustice toward a woman as less important than other injustices, less morally imperative that he also “look out for” someone being exploited because of her gender? Instead, once again, sexual harassment and exploitation is disconnected from issues of injustice, oppression and abusive privilege. It’s just a women’s problem, a personal issue; so let the “girls” handle their own separate problems in their own separate safety zones and caucuses. Ironically, earlier that day, a friend posted to Facebook an appropriate quote by Desmond Tutu: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”
One of the worst and most insidious tactics I’ve seen yet is being implemented in New York’s Occupy. A group of white men are now claiming that they are being marginalized because they are losing their prerogative to speak whenever, wherever and for however long they want.
Let’s be clear about this: marginalization is oppression, and there is real violence, real blood, and real dehumanizing, objectifying, terrorizing physical and sexual assaults in those words and the lived experiences that inhabit those words.
Marginalization is not getting nervous and uncomfortable because you may no longer be masters of the universe. To use that word to describe what the 1% is feeling right now is an affront and utter dismissal of the human injustices done daily to the 99% who have been silenced, enslaved, impoverished, deprived of basic human rights, and yes, marginalized for too many thousands of years. And it is an inappropriate and outrageous insult to the dignity and very existence of every person who endures real marginalization and oppression every single fucking day.
There will be many women in the Occupy Movement who will be angry with me for airing the dirty laundry, but they’ll be even angrier at me for the loud, aggressive and combative tone of this article. These men are part of the movement—they’re crucial to the movement—we should not be antagonizing them or creating divisions.
Sisters, the divisions were created the day you were born. If my tone is unladylike, it’s because I’m fucking angry and, as a woman and a human being, I have every right to be angry. These men, who use their privilege as a weapon against us in order to occupy what belongs to us all, are not as important to the movement as we are. It is not up to us to be conciliatory, to attempt to adapt to their privilege. It is their privilege and arrogance that divides and weakens the movement. Women—as the ultimate working class, as the class that is at the bottom of every culture, nation, race, and society across the globe and across history—are the Occupy Movement.
Either you’re part of this movement that is all about egalitarianism, co-governing, and a cooperative sharing of life’s bread and roses, or you are not. If you are more concerned with hearing your voice heard above all others, imposing your vision of a revolution—without input, creative development and consensual process by others who do not share your gender, race or privilege—and maintaining your position above all others at all costs to everyone but you, then this is not the movement for you.
If ever there was a movement that needed to be led by people who understand the connection between heart and mind, between the personal and the political, it is the Occupy Movement. If ever there was a people whose past history proves extraordinary power, strength and leadership in the face of crushing odds, it is women.
I ask sisters everywhere to recognize, cherish and activate your innate abilities to take charge of our world too long run by those with none of the skills, wisdom, heart or strength that we have. We may be marginalized by men, we may be assaulted, deprived of basic human and civil rights, paid less, impoverished more and universally despised, but ultimately it is we who make the decision whether or not to rise up and create the world we want for ourselves and our children.
One hundred years ago, immigrant women and girls who were at the bottom of society, who were paid less than $7.00 for a 56-hour work week, who spoke little or no English, whose lives were enslaved to poverty, stood up from their machines and said, “Enough.” On the hundredth anniversary of their historic and successful uprising, we can honor and carry on their spirit on International Women’s Day.
International Women’s Day, March 8, 2012, holds more meaning than ever before. If ever there was a time for women to rise up in one united, global general strike, this March 8th is the time. Women have borne the brunt of the global economic disaster, and women are continuing to bear the brunt of the political, economic, religious, social, and cultural wars. Across the globe, women are still at the bottom of society. As the New York-based Movement for Justice in El Barrio says, “Women around the world are rising up and saying, “Enough!” Their event will honor the women who “are organizing new movements from Chiapas to Egypt, from Greece to Spain, from South Africa to New York…They are ’indignadas,’ outraged by the staggering inequalities, the violence and deceit, the hatred of democracy, the flagrant corruption and utter disregard for life on this planet that characterize our society, our economy, our governments. They are struggling against this nightmarish status quo, and laying seeds for a new world in the process.”
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Mimi Yahn is a longtime feminist social justice activist, writer, social scientist, artist and musician