The Occupy Movement's Woman Problem

Women may be the 51%, but the Occupy camps and General Assemblies look as gender-imbalanced as Congress


"I'm called 'that white bitch who gets everything she wants' at the GA's," says Elise Whitaker, 21, adopting a bit of a defiant posture. She's been at Occupy LA since the second day of the encampment. A now former-assistant director for indie films, Whitaker is good looking in a vaguely familiar, probably-an-actor kind of way. She looks like just the type who moves to Los Angeles every day to "follow their dreams," but she's sleeping in a tent at City Hall. She tells me she has figured out what she wants to do with her life: activism. This is it for her. She loves this stuff.

It's early November and helicopters are hovering over our heads as the Los Angeles Police Department arrests a guy who is thought to have attempted to light a woman's hair on fire at the camp. He was kicked out and has been causing problems ever since. Nearly 20 police officers are gathered at the corner of the park. This interrupts my conversation with Whitaker and delays her next interview with a YouTube channel called Insight Out News.

During the very first week of the Occupation in LA I noticed that the gender breakdown in its General Assembly (GA) and various committee meetings was roughly the same as the within the U.S. Congress. In other words, about one-fifth of those who were participating in the (small d) democratic part of this Occupy encampment were women. It was the same with the people who slept in the camp.

This is pretty consistent throughout the movement in general.

Thus far I've visited eight Occupations in the U.S. and Canada, four on the West coast and four on the East: Toronto, New York City, Baltimore, DC, Los Angeles, San Francisco, the University of California at Berkeley and Oakland.

The only GA that had anywhere near gender parity was the largest one there's been yet -- the GA on the day of the general strike at U.C. Berkeley. The largest GAs will only turn out 500 people max; Zuccotti Park is a tiny granite slab in lower Manhattan and can't fit many more than that. But the Mario Savio Steps at Sproul Hall at Berkeley held more than 4,000 students and activists -- and half of them appeared to be female. (Go Bears!)

This is not an expose of the Occupy movement's outlook toward women or to suggest attitudes within it are radically different from those found elsewhere. I was also screamed at and called "bitch" at Occupy LA, but frankly I'm called worse in my fan mail on a daily basis. Yet as this movement has been in the media at a near constant rate for now two months, the story telling about it has not evolved. There's either the agenda "journalism" whose practitioners show up to paint the protesters as violent or stupid or its equally useless counterpart, a virtual livestream of reporting on every detail, no matter how trivial. Everything else is crime reporting: How many arrests? Who's pepper sprayed? Who's died? No wonder we still hear the question: "What do they want?"

This movement is complex -- how the members define themselves, how important the tents are (or are not) and what they're doing is still being worked out in marathon meetings and through endless committee votes. This process of identity-formation is made only more complicated by police raids, and by the tear gas and pepper spray that gave greeted protest in some cities. Occupiers all viscerally sense the problem: extreme economic inequality. They all cite a lack of fairness -- a lack of opportunity. They also agree that the status quo is failing.

But when it comes to women, Occupy is really a microcosm of the greater culture at large. This should give comfort to those who find Occupy's dynamics puzzling -- and greatly embarrass those in the movement who see themselves as revolutionaries. America's gender conflict fault-lines are making a familiar reappearance inside Occupy, with results both predictable and novel.

I'm not the only one to notice the Occupy gender gap. This issue is talked about at GAs, I'm told, a lot. Nearly every night at Occupy LA, the question comes up: "What can we do to get more women out here?"

Of course there are women out there -- and they are in the line of fire. Brandy Sippel, three-months pregnant, was clipped by a car during a protest with Occupy D.C. The driver sent three others to the hospital that night and was released by police. At a press conference the next day, the Metropolitan Police Department implied she and the other victims were "drunk diving" on cars. Another pregnant woman was pepper sprayed by police at Occupy Seattle. The police said pepper spray wasn't harmful or they wouldn't be using it. Susie Cagle, a journalist covering Occupy Oakland, says that when she was arrested during a raid by police, there were a higher percentage of women arrested on the roster than who were normally at the camp.

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Tina Dupuy is a syndicated op-ed columnist at Cagle Cartoons.

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