The First Feminist General Assembly, which took place in Washington Square Park in New York City the evening of Thursday, May 17, could mark a historical turning point. Emerging out of the Occupy Movement, the event brought together a cross-section of the hundreds of thousands of women already mobilized from a broad progressive spectrum.
On May Day, women filed into the streets by thousands around the world. Indeed, seen and unseen, woman has been on the front lines throughout the Arab Spring, the uprisings in Russia, in Spain and in London most recently, and within the Occupy movement since September 2011. She’s held countless signs in the marches and protests, walked miles, strategized for hours, written hundreds of emails, facilitated many meetings, moderated many discussions. Now, women have launched the 1st Feminist General Assembly.
Conservatives added fuel to the fire with the right’s so-called “war on women.” A populist feminist movement was ignited this spring when Rush Limbaugh’s vitriol more than backfired following a mock debate at the White House, when Limbaugh called Georgetown University student Sandra Fluke a “slut” and a “prostitute” for advocating health care coverage for contraception.
However, as Washington Post writer Rebecca Traister notes: “slut” is, “an epithet around which young feminists have been rallying for more than a year in ‘Slutwalk’ protests against victim-blaming. There was no insult that young women were better equipped to both brush off and to battle.” Rock the Slut Vote and One Million Vaginas are but two serious – though humorous – popular sites from Facebook, both launched in early March. “Take Back Your Vagina from invasive Conservative Politicians!” reads one, then lists every kind of woman imaginable under the sun who would share this concern.
But the gathering in Washington Square Park may be a litmus test – a test of whether we have overcome the fraught legacies of the very term “feminism.” Who feels included under this banner; who are the allies inside and outside of OWS who are committed to a fourth wave of feminism? Can a fourth wave of feminism move beyond identity politics and work towards coalition? Will other non-hierarchically led groups recognize and support the importance of women’s reasons for assembling?
The turning tide
For the past 20 years, “feminist” has been a less than popular term. During the second wave of feminism, tensions ran high about whether and how, for example, women of color were named, included, described and represented underneath the banner feminism.
The tensions within feminism were noted in the previous century, when Sojourner Truth challenged white women suffragists who excluded black women from their push: “And Ain’t I a Woman?” which was taken up later by scholar Denise Riley in her book Am I That Name?
Alice Walker coined the term “womanist”; bell hooks uses “white male capitalist patriarchy” to describe what she works against without necessarily invoking “feminism” per se. Those I’ve been interviewing use “male supremacy,” “patriarchy” and “white male privilege” more often than “feminism.” By the end of the 1980s, systematic conservative and liberal backlash had managed a PR spin painting our society as “post-feminist.”
Also, the women’s liberation movement evolved in part because of the sexism inherent in U.S. free speech, anti-war and civil rights social movements in which men who assumed leadership as visionaries and strategists too often assigned women to menial labour making copies of fliers and serving the revolutionaries coffee.
But the tide seems to have turned. Feminism’s re-emergence was spotted on the horizon by numerous long-term feminist organizers months ago. Kathy Miriam, a professor and feminist organizer who lives in Brooklyn, recognizes this as a “fluid, dynamic moment” in which anything is possible. As Miriam wrote in a blog post this fall:
“Can feminist solidarity reap the whirlwind and reinvent itself within new forms of social association too? … [T]he dynamism released by Occupy Wall Street [OWS] involves women – lots and lots of young women – who, like their male counter-parts are caught up in the momentum of movement-creating. This means that women are agitating, aroused anew as political actors on the stage of history. If there is any situation then, in which feminist ideas might stick and take root, this is it. Will Occupy Wall Street be open to re-orientation through the lens of feminist action and vision? Will feminism re-invent itself as a movement within the new political situation and its forcefield of political possibilities?”
During the early weeks of Occupy Wall Street, feminist manifestos were cropping up online. A single-entry WordPress blog – with no information as to its author(s) – dated October 15, 2010, said:
“As feminists we call for clarification of the fact that neoliberal capitalism is also patriarchal to the core. The poorest of the world’s poor are women who also do two thirds of the world’s work and own 1 per cent of the means of production. Women are the other 99 per cent – the vast majority of whom ‘hold up half the sky’ mostly on their under or un-paid backs.”
The same week in October saw the publication of “Radical Feminism Enters the 21st Century,” an insightful analysis by Vliet Tiptree. Now, one finds dozens of women caucuses affiliated with Occupy groups across North America: Occupy Patriarchy; Women Occupy, Women Occupying Wall Street and Global Women’s Strike to name a few.
Just this week, Traister’s Washington Post analysis, “How the ‘war on women’ quashed feminist stereotypes,” describes at length a new generation of young feminists. Young women are adopting “feminism” with a “cool and hip style.” If a fourth wave is emerging, says Traister, it is no longer associated only with caricatures of women as semi-monstrous man-haters with raggedly shaven legs:
“Thanks to Rush Limbaugh’s serious mis-step, almost overnight, youthful engagement zinged through mainstream popular culture; on ‘The View’ in May, 20-year-old actress Eden Sher recommended Jessica Valenti’s Full Frontal Feminism: A Young Woman’s Guide to Why Feminism Matters raving that the book ‘makes it absolutely impossible for anyone, but specifically young females, to not want to take action.’ Women’s rights activism enlivened even small towns such as Dunkerton, Iowa, where residents protested an appearance by Bradlee Dean, a conservative Christian preacher whose band had recently told a group of high school girls that they would ‘have mud on their wedding dresses if they weren’t virgins’; demonstrators included female students with signs that read: ‘This is what a feminist looks like.'”
A recent bit on “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” further evidences feminism possibly re-entering popular culture. Obama campaigns with “The Life of Julia,” a two-dimensional portrait of the “average American middle-class woman” potentially beset by the horrors of the Republicans and saved by Democrats’ policies, a figure that cries out for parody and has been getting lampooned right and left. Last week on “The Daily Show,” senior female correspondent Kristen Schaal sent up the Obama campaign depicting “The Life of Kristen”: “I was in the hospital giving birth … to a two pound fibroid – that’s a tumor that grows in your uterus, Jon, and they’re disgusting, mine was enormous because it went undetected because I didn’t have health insurance and women’s health care always takes a back seat to boner pills!”
Women’s interventions in Occupy
Making space for women and women of colour requires courage and energy. Occupy participant Manissa Maharawal, “a South Asian woman, has been one of Occupy Wall Street’s most eloquent and passionate defenders,” according to a March article in Counterpunch. Her impassioned story, “So Real It Hurts,” hit headlines on October 4, 2011, and has been widely read and commented upon; it is a warning, and a beacon of hope.
Curious to check out OWS, Maharawal began attending meetings despite her fears of encountering the usual white-male-dominated left. And though young white folks constitute the majority of the crowds and much of the horizontal helm, she found enough powerful energy, promise and people of color to inspire her to join. Through general assembly (GA) meetings and other events, Maharawal became connected and invested in the community and movement. At a GA in early October, participants were approving,”a document called the Declaration of the Occupation, and she felt language in the document erased oppression faced by people of color,” reported Counterpunch. “She did not want to have to block the proposal and face the angry stares of hundreds of people. However, says Maharawal, it’s something she had to do.” The article offers more of her perspective:
“‘What struck me then was that if I want Occupy to be something that’s around for a long time in my life … it needs from the very beginning to be a movement that’s taking these things on,’ she explained. ‘And that is thinking about not just corporate greed and financial institutions, but is thinking about how these things are connected to racism, to patriarchy, to oppression generally.'”
Ultimately, Maharawal and others who agreed with her succeeded in changing the language of the declaration.
Maharawal’s bold defense of inclusivity as a foundation of Occupy required courage, as well as investment of significant energy to “raise consciousness,” in the words popularized by earlier feminists, to educate those ignorant about structural social inequalities. As she wrote in Racialicious:
“There in that circle, on that street-corner we did a crash course on racism, white privilege, structural racism, oppression. We did a course on history and the declaration of independence and colonialism and slavery. It was hard. It was real. It hurt. But people listened. We had to fight for it. I’m going to say that again: we had to fight for it. But it felt worth it.”
“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.”
Her willing commitment to the long-haul sense of this movement and to process being as important as goals inspired activists and readers around the world.
As Maharawal aptly described to Counterpunch: “[T]his movement is about creating a real alternative to our current system, and, for her, that means fighting these systemic issues. ‘Why are we going to create a system that just re-creates all these oppressions? That recreates racism, that recreates oppression, that recreates gender hierarchy? Why would I want to be a part of that?'”
“Why are we going to create a system that just re-creates all these oppressions?” is the million-dollar question. Part of what distinguishes Occupy as a long-haul social movement is its analysis that fundamental structures are radically broken. Reform and repair is not the answer for many; rather, fixing the system is part of this movement calling for a radical change of society, culture and consciousness.
Making space for marginalized members of Occupy
The struggle to have women’s rights be part of the fundamental vision of Occupy may be paying off: child care as a human right is included in the currently circulated Global May Declaration, a document to be used at the international July 4 Occupy national convention in Philadelphia (an event, it must be noted, whose initial plans for engagement with the current model of government, among other concerns, has been a major point of contention).
But this victory has come only through ongoing struggles to ensure space and voice for women and other marginalized people in Occupy.
Why, some may ask, is an analysis of gender needed? If we’re fighting for the 99 percent, that covers women, doesn’t it?
“The concept of patriarchy,” explains Miriam, “goes farther than capitalism in explaining why it is that capitalism depends for its sustainability on the extraction of surplus value from women’s unpaid work – women’s unpaid and unvalued work is equal to 50 per cent of the world’s GDP and yet women only control 1 per cent of the means of production.”
In the aims and goals and vision of Occupy, women have persistently had to educate men and the public about basic human rights and needs. “Want more women here? Help support and ensure child care!” “Women have less cred when they don’t sleep at the camps? Deal with the reality of sexual harassment and rape.”
Dynamics around white male dominance, misogyny and sexism have been addressed in Occupy through the creation of safe spaces, debates around adopting “progressive stack” within the GAs and challenging the imperialist connotation of “occupation,” suggesting alternative terms such as “decolonization.”
One of the first visible instances of women’s distinctive needs and rights within Occupy was the call for what is often referred to in activist and advocacy circles, as well as elsewhere, as “safe spaces.” Safe spaces were created to counter women’s vulnerability in Occupy’s public spaces and camps. During the encampments, women experienced sexual harassment and even rape. (Concerns with violence against women extend now to police brutality and a new level of aggression toward women’s bodies. In a recent incident, a police officer reportedly broke a woman’s wrist while arresting her at a protest in New York City after she confronted an officer about grabbing her breast as police moved protesters out of Zuccotti Park.)
Another frequent clarion call is a style of dialogue and consensus-building known as “step up, step back.” Marginalized members are encouraged to step up in a conversation and dominant members (whose dominance may originate in social status or simply by virtue of personalities that take up enormous space) are asked to step back.
Some Occupy groups have adopted what is called a “progressive stack.” Take Occupy Montreal’s example:
“We urge that the Assembly recognize the concept of stepping back: that dominant voices and identities recognize privilege and power in the room and in themselves, and ‘step back’ from monopolizing a conversation in the interest of hearing a diversity of voices and experiences on the topic. We are not here to reproduce the same monopolization of voice and power as the ‘1%’, we are here to diversify spaces for radical inclusion, and to name centuries of privilege and exploitation of particular demographics of the population, including but not limited to: women, people of colour, members of the LGBTQ populations, non-status individuals, differently-abled persons, the very young and the very old…all these voices are regularly marginalised in our societies. In devising alternate modes of being and redistribution of power in the world, it is our duty and responsibility to listen and learn from prioritising these voices that are traditionally and systemically silenced in our dominant culture. Let us be accountable to our own declarations of values – let us put these principles into practice in order to devise alternate ways of being in the world.”
Overall, Occupy groups across North America that have adopted the progressive stack are few, with some Occupy groups, such as Occupy Phoenix, still debating its adoption. Some groups rely instead on the trust that a facilitator will be sensitive and take care with the order of speakers when taking down names.
Efforts at greater inclusion – challenging the “Occupy” term and calling for its replacement with”decolonization” and urging the adoption of progressive stack at GAs – have been met with support, as well as strong backlash. In such conflicts, one sees clearly how race and gender intersect, and how persistent the problem of white male dominance can be on the left. Unable to see the need to address systemic or structural racism and sexism, and instead operating as if we live already in a world where the playing field is level, some Occupy members accuse those trying to ensure equity of “playing the race card” and of “wasting another hour” on issues of gender and racial equality.
The exclusion of women and people of color in public panels about Occupy is defended by some as a necessary for unity. “At a recent panel discussion on the Occupy movement, a left-leaning professor from New York University speculated that identity politics – the prioritizing of issues of race and gender in movements for justice – could be a plot funded by the CIA to undermine activism,” Counterpunch reported.
The need for consciousness-raising becomes apparent through all manner of conflicts. In October, Steven Greenstreet posted a controversial video and a tumblr site of photos titled, “Hot Chicks of Occupy.” Subsequently retitled “Inspiring Women of Occupy Wall Street,” the comments and stormy reaction to critiques of Greenstreet’s video reflect the reality that the ranks of Occupy include many who have not yet thought through the deep violence of power or the violence of images within male-dominated culture.
Overcoming histories: Hope for a fourth wave
What are the similarities and differences between the conditions for the second wave of feminism and today? Resonant with United Sluts of America’s “Take Back Your Vagina from invasive Conservative Politicians!” campaign, the 1970s’ second wave of feminism was also rooted in fighting violence against women and for women’s reproductive rights. One difference may lie primarily in the extensive use of satire and humor within contemporary groups such as One Million Vaginas. Who said feminists don’t have a sense of humor?
Occupy is built on principles and processes familiar to those of second-wave of feminism – a leaderless movement built on horizontal decisionmaking. Consciousness-raising is being used today, as Maharawal’s story and many others reveal, showing similarities across generations of feminist organizing.
Is there hope that the last 20 years of learning about the intersections of race, class and gender will support coalition-building across differences? In comments on a recent Ms. Magazine article discussing what Occupy owes to the legacy of feminist consciousness-raising, these challenges are made clear:
“White women feminist groups like code pink are getting press and yet everywhere i look its women of color/ transnational women who are leading the POC committees of occupy/decolonize sites. 4 indigenous women led the resolution proposal at a recent general assembly to try to change the name to decolonize in Oakland. Stop white-washing our feminism.”
Another commenter responds:
“On November 25th, AF3IRM led a coalition of organizations in a women’s assembly at Foley Square, followed by a march to Zuccotti Park, to denounce Wall Street as violence against women. About 200 women participated, many of color, many transnational … AF3IRM chapters have been conducting teach-ins, marches, speak-outs at Occupy sites in Oakland, Los Angeles, Riverside, San Diego and other places. As these events have been led by transnational women of color, they have not received as much attention from either the media or the feminist world, it seems.”
Will difference be recognized for its richness, as a fund from which to draw, as Audre Lorde wrote in the 1980s? “Difference must be not merely tolerated, but seen as a fund of necessary polarities between which our creativity can spark like a dialectic…. Only within that interdependency of different strengths, acknowledged and equal, can the power to seek new ways of being in the world generate, as well as the courage and sustenance to act where there are no charters.”
Although the struggle is never finished, it is not always thankless – nor without victories, as Maharawal’s comments to Counterpunch attest: “Making these connections is difficult, it’s been like constant work in this movement… this stuff doesn’t feel like minutia, it feels fundamental to me”.
Today, a growing number of male allies express hope that indeed, women will take on the leadership. As Sea, a professor participating in Occupy Cafe, urges in a series of reflections on women’s knowledge and values: “How bad could it be if Occupy adopted a strong womanist stance? … Men need to get out of the way. Men need to beg women to take over,” he wrote in April.
“I’m not arguing that today, all men renouncing power would solve our problem. Achieving Occupy’s goals mustn’t be characterized so black and white. We need a complicated solution involving the USA’s dominance of democracy and science. Women’s newly found feminist and womanist knowledge along with the ancient knowledge preserved by some indigenes coincide. Occupy could set an agenda to use our dominance to teach this new knowledge.”
The last successful activist movement, arguably, was the AIDS Coalition to Unleash power (ACT UP). Women played a huge role in the ACT UP movement on behalf of accessible and affordable drug treatment for AIDS.
Might this model of alliances and affinity groups offer promise to unite for marginalized rights and avoid fractious splintering?
Will the young women catalyzed by conservative attacks on women’s health care and reproductive rights join forces with the women of Occupy, creating a critical mass to populate the meeting of the 1st Feminist General Assembly in New York City this week? Will constituents of decolonizing groups, people of color caucuses, see a space, under the banner of feminism, for coalition work?
bell hooks’ claim, “Feminism is for everybody” will be put to the test this week. Thursday’s gathering in Washington Square Park promises a glimpse of whether a fourth wave of feminism is on the horizon, and if so, what the faces of new feminisms may look like.
One thing is certain: a “1st” Feminist General Assembly implies, at minimum, more to come.
Megan Boler is Professor and Associate Chair of the Department of Theory and Policy Studies, at the Ontario Institute of Studies in Education at the University of Toronto.
This article was originally published in TruthOut and is reprinted here with permission.
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