Monday, October 31, 2011

Occupy Wall Street and Feminism

As the Occupy Wall Street movement continues to gain traction both in New York City and around the country, one question keeps popping up: is this a feminist movement? After all, in its energy, audacity, and sense of limitless possibility, OWS is reminiscent of the feminist movement some forty years ago.

On the Ms. Blog, Daphne Muller argues that OWS is indeed a feminist fight. “I realized that Occupy Wall Street is galvanizing because the ire is feminist, anti-colonialist, anti-racist and anti-patriarchal,” she writes, adding that Code Pink was very visible at the New York protest site that she visited. But while she praises the diversity on display at Liberty Plaza, Muller does acknowledge that men have dominated both intra-movement discussions and mainstream media representation.

In The Nation, Sarah Seltzer writes about female OWS protestors that have witnessed “offensive behavior” during the protests, but also makes the point that such behavior is the exception, not the rule. Indeed, there seems to be a sense that many of the participants are eager to create a social movement “done right,” as opposed to the male-dominated movements of the 1960s. “I was in SDS—we had all these ego-tripping superstars,” one female protestor recalls, going on to say that at OWS, “there’s really a big effort to avoid domination.”

Part of this may be due to the participation of working-class people, and people of color, from the beginning of the movement. But equal credit goes to OWS’s lack of a defined leader; rather, decisions are made by consensus, and there is a complex system at work to ensure that women and minority voices are given equal consideration. While the cynic in me wonders if this big-tent approach will suffer the same setbacks that the Democratic Party has encountered in recent years, this commitment to equality is impressive, and the fact that it has been largely successful is heartening.

Occupy Wall Street may have begun as a bank-focused protest, but during the past six weeks it has grown to encompass other progressive concerns, including employment, community, the environment, gender equality, and social justice – in short, many of the same issues that the feminist movement has focused on. And like the feminist movement, OWS is also addressing reproductive rights – although OWS is addressing this issue through economic concerns, rather than a focus on women themselves.

From subsidized family planning services, to women that choose abortion because they can’t afford a child, to what kind of contraception women can afford, economics affect family planning choices in multiple ways. Too often, they only serve to limit these choices, pushing the cost of more reliable methods of birth control above what many low-income women can afford; curtailing access to abortion clinics in rural communities; and forcing families to choose between having a child and having financial security. It’s an interconnected system, and this reality is too often overlooked not only by media coverage of reproductive rights issues but by many activists themselves.

So perhaps Occupy Wall Street is actually the perfect movement to grapple with this thorny aspect of reproductive rights – and, by extension, feminism – simply because that is not its primary concern. By not focusing squarely on abortion, or access, or even women’s health and rights, but choosing instead to cast a wider net on all sorts of social justice problems, OWS has proven successful at not only attracting a diverse audience but also creating a national dialogue around economic inequality. And in the end, this may do more for reproductive rights than ever expected.

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