Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Sexism in Occupy: An Analysis

  "This is no simple reform... It really is a revolution. Sex and race, because they are easy and visible differences, have been the primary ways of organizing human beings into superior and inferior groups and into the cheap labor on which this system still depends."-  Gloria Steinem, from "Address to the Women of America."  Quoted at the end of V for Vendetta.

First, let me emphasize that this is based on my own observations and experiences which are mainly limited to Occupy Atlanta. I do not pretend to encompass the experiences of women in Occupy as a whole, or even in Occupy Atlanta; there's far too much ground to cover, for one thing. My perspective is necessarily different from some other people's; but based on conversations with others, I am definitely not alone in my perceptions.

 I do think that what I have to say is applicable; not only to Atlanta, or to Occupy, but to how sexism and patriarchy function in general. It's sometimes disheartening, but should not be surprising, that the dysfunctions of society are often most visible in situations where people are working hardest to make change. That's partially because we have higher expectations of people who see one part of the problem to see all the other parts (which may not necessarily be the case). It's also because in most of society, those dysfunctions seem "normal."

 Secondly, let me make it clear that sexism, racism, homophobia, ableism, and similar "isms" are matters of pattern. They are not (only) personal moral flaws; they are collective social evils. What someone meant by a particular remark or action is less important than the picture that emerges when we look at the pattern as a whole; that they didn't mean it that way, or that women do it too, or that the same thing happens to men sometimes, does not contradict the fact that the particular incident is part of a sexist worldview and power imbalance embedded in our culture at large and internalized by individuals which also manifests whenever we try to get together and do anything. An individual act might or might not be classifiable as sexist (or racist, etc.); the overall pattern IS.

 This incidentally is why the Supreme Court ruling in the Lily Ledbetter case was so wrong-headed and stupid; they ruled that in order to have a case, she would have had to have filed within ninety days of the first, original incident of being paid less than a man for the same work. Aside from the fact that she didn't know until nearly twenty years later that she was being paid significantly less than her male colleagues, in order to prove discrimination in court you have to show that there is a pattern of behavior. That is, by ruling that a filing has to occur within ninety days of the first incident, the Supreme Court effectively made it impossible to prove gender discrimination at all. A singular incident does not make a pattern; out of context, it may not seem sexist at all. But what matters is the context.

That said, I can put the sexism I have either observed or experienced personally into three main categories:

1. Bullying. 
  • Assault.  At least two incidents of apparent attempted rape (crawling into a woman's tent or into bed with her at the Peachtree and Pine headquarters), and another notable incident where a woman was grabbed by another Occupier right in front of someone who completely failed to react or help her fight him off.
  • Attempts at physical intimidation.  This includes someone getting up in my face at General Assemblies and yelling at me and other people, once while I was trying to facilitate.  It also includes circling around the group in order to stand close behind me, using greater physical size to loom over me, or otherwise getting into my personal space.  It also includes overt threats of violence.
  • Name-calling and other forms of verbal abuse and harassment.  Being called out by name repeatedly in GAs (which was supposed to be against the rules) and online; also campaigns of character assassination.  One particular individual is a constant source of rumors and made-up accusations, some of which are quite serious, and which are nearly always aimed at women.  I was told by one person (because I objected to his behavior) that I obviously had a mental problem and that he felt sorry for me.  This is both ableist in the worst sense (using a disability as an insult) AND misogynist (calling women crazy has a long anti-feminist history; several early women's rights activists were locked up in asylums. Also, see a dictionary under "Hysteria, etymology of"). 
  • Interrupting, talking over, or shouting down women trying to speak at the General Assembly or elsewhere.  This was an ongoing issue; some individuals do it nearly constantly.  It was brought up numerous times by several different women, but the group as a whole did not seem to take it seriously and did not address the problem in any consistent way.
  • Objectification.  This includes both inappropriate overtly sexual comments and more subtle "you're so pretty" type "compliments" which functioned either as a distraction from the serious point the woman was making, or an attempt to excuse bad behavior and/or deflect women's reactions to it.  It may be hard for some people to wrap their heads around why I group this with bullying, but consider that in a discussion of someone's constant and egregious harassment of me, I was told "he said he wouldn't mind dating you," offered seriously as "proof" that he actually liked me. (And that I therefore shouldn't be angry at him for harassing me.)
2. Dismissing women's perceptions, experiences, knowledge, and words (aka "gaslighting,"  "mansplaining," etc.)
  • Some of these were related to ageism. Older women are not listened to and given the same credence as older men, with regard to our previous activism/political experience or in general.  Or a woman's word is disputed because it contradicts the popular and largely fabricated narrative about a division between "older liberals" and "young radicals."  One person got very angry when I said I had worked with Food Not Bombs in the past, and not only called me a liar to my face but apparently went around telling everyone else that I must be lying because (apparently) none of the current FNB volunteers had seen me there.  Never mind that the time I was referring to was a decade ago, and the people who were involved then DO remember me.
  • Others had to do with women's reportage/complaints about bullying incidents; those usually took the form of "are you sure that's what he meant?" or "He seems like a nice guy to me" or well-meaning white knighting ("Let me talk to him!").  These can seem harmless at the time because a reasonable person does not wish to rush to judgment. The problem is what I call Schrodinger's Misogynist.  That is, men all too often do not take even dangerously threatening behavior seriously until it happens to them or another man; they take the reasonable-sounding-to-them position of "well, maybe it happened, maybe it didn't; I don't know, I wasn't there" regardless of how many women say the same exact thing.   And since the very nature of misogyny is that it is directed at women, the necessary preponderance of evidence required for a consensus that someone is a problem is never reached.   The incident I mentioned of a man crawling into bed with a woman did not result in him being immediately expelled from Peachtree and Pine; that happened, but much later and because of other behavior on his part, which was not affected by the Schrodinger's Misogynist quantum indeterminability field.
3. Attempts at asserting a power hierarchy, with men above women as a matter of course.
  • Numerous men took it upon themselves to attempt to boss me around and tell me what I ought to be doing, or to belittle what I was doing, had done, or was proposing we do.  Quite often, the same idea suggested by a man would meet approval and zero flak.  Committees where women had visibly strong voices, including Legal, Media, Arts and Literature, and on occasion Accounting, came under frequent attack.
  • Inside the Media Committee when it existed, there was more than one man who tried to exert editorial control over what I wrote or sent out, but who vocally resented it if I attempted to exert any say-so over what they were doing at all.  In more than one instance, they became belligerent because I insisted that they follow the same editorial process that we were all supposed to follow.  No less than three of those men decided to go "over my head" to the General Assembly with an issue that was definitely within the Media Committee's area of responsibility.
  • From both inside and outside the Media Committee, I was often treated like a secretary...the person who was supposed to keep track of everyone's contact information, schedule meetings, and post things to the website, generally by people who were perfectly capable of doing those things themselves but who had more "important" things to do and so relegated the boring, routine tasks to me or other women.  In some cases, people refused to even learn how to post to the website because they "didn't like to" but thought it was perfectly fine to ask someone else to do it.
  • I was also told to make coffee.*  For real. 
I hope it's evident from the examples I gave that this behavior came from a wide variety of people, of all ages, races, and political flavors; in some cases it came from women as well as men.  As my explanations about internalized patterns at the beginning imply, that doesn't mean it wasn't sexist; if it fits the pattern, it is part of the problem.

Here's what I've noticed:  1 and 2 reinforce each other, and support #3.  That is, intimidation serves to put women constantly on the defensive, raise their anxiety levels, and lessen their participation overall. I stuck it out for a long time but some women simply walked the first time someone got up in their face and plenty more left Occupy Atlanta as each woman's individual tolerance was reached.  Fewer and fewer women participate at all.  Gaslighting and other forms of dismissal undermine any attempt by women to fight the bullying or to assert a truly equal voice.   All of this is in service to a shadow hierarchy of men over women; in a supposedly "leaderless" movement, women are far more often attacked for stepping up and taking initiative instead of following men.  Men as a group are not subject to the same degree of hostility.  I have seen some of the same tactics applied to individual men, but less frequently and when it happens it's for much the same reason:  he is perceived to have "too much power" and therefore must be disempowered, belittled, and "put in his place."  The difference is that while the group has little tolerance for one man holding "too much" power for too long, it has no tolerance for women doing so at all.  Recently one woman, having attended the one year anniversary of Occupy Wall Street in New York, initiated making plans to have a similar anniversary celebration/action for Occupy Atlanta.  Even though she invited everyone's participation and was as inclusive as possible, she was immediately mocked for presuming to think of herself as a "leader."  Clearly, if you are a woman, in some people's eyes any power is too much.

"We are all leaders, or none of us are leaders."  - the Occupy Atlanta General Assembly Pledge, long  since abandoned.

That is a bitter pill to swallow in a movement based on the ideal of empowerment for all, just as being shouted down, or put down, or dismissed by other Occupiers is felt by me and other women as a uniquely painful betrayal.  This is not what we signed up for.  It's exactly what we were trying to get away from, in fact.  If we want to be put down, betrayed, belittled, dismissed, have our safety and well-being be considered a matter of no import, and have our organizational work taken for granted while decisions that affect us are made with minimal input from us, we could go join any existing institution or organization you care to name, including Congress.  Most of them would treat us better than this; not a few of them get more done. This problem isn't unique to Occupy, of course; it's not even an indictment of Occupy, except in the sense that we should expect and get a whole lot better than this.  But this is the way the world is.  All you have to do is look at how Hillary Clinton and Elizabeth Warren (and Sarah Palin for that matter) get portrayed in the media, compared with male political figures.  I personally have experienced all of the misogyny I have discussed here in other contexts, and worse.  It should be news to no one that Occupy is a mirror.  But if it ever hopes to be what it aspires to, it must do more than merely reflect the sexism, racism, ableism, homophobia and other manifestations of arbitrary power which infest the society at large.  To attempt to fight injustice while perpetrating it, to build a society around principles of shared power while exerting power over others, is a logical impossibility.  "The master's tools will never dismantle the master's house."  - Audre Lorde 

Occupy must do better than it has.  I think it can do better, and in Occupy Atlanta changes are already afoot.  A women's caucus has formed, and also a feminist group for men; there was a workshop on addressing sexism in activist movements tonight which was apparently well-received.  What happens next, I don't know. But in much the same way that Occupy is a mirror, if Occupy can dealt with these problems, it's a little more hopeful that the rest of the world can too.

Mary Wollstonecraft, author of "A Vindication of the Rights of Woman,"
published 1792. Not an actual quote.

*I have nothing but appreciation for all of the people who made and served food for us, including a plentiful supply of coffee, who in some cases saved food for me because I couldn't make it during the scheduled "dinner hour."  However, there is a vast difference between doing that work because you volunteered to, and being told to do it by someone who thinks his time is more valuable than yours.  It was a blatant attempt at putting me in my "place" which insulted both me and the work.


  1. Thank you for this! I and other women experienced many of the same issues at Occupy Minneapolis. Love the "Schrodinger's Misogynist" description. You are a great writer! funny, pithy, and observant. check out my blog too if you want:

  2. Thank you :) I have friends in Minneapolis, and might come up for a visit next summer. It'll be interesting to see where the various Occupy groups go from here...