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.

For an absurd contrast to these facts, last week a year-old Maybelline ad campaign for "Baby Lips" lip gloss resurfaced online. In a display of tone-deafness as to what it would take to make women protest, it shows models taking to the streets demanding softer lips, confronting cops with kisses and parading around with a banner reading "no more basic lip balm!" over the Brooklyn Bridge. Liberal bloggers immediately dubbed it L'Oreal's attempt to co-opt Occupy, until the upload date on YouTube was noted. To me it was more like an ironic half-right foreshadowing; the majority of the Occupy protesters are not the target market for lip gloss.

There have been a couple of alleged rapes reported in encampments. One was in Occupy Baltimore during the first week of their encampment. Police said the victim's claim lacked credibility and dismissed it. Another was at Occupy Philadelphia and is still being investigated by police. One protester was arrested in New York for rape. There's this volatile mix of those waiting to pounce on anything to discredit Occupy and an open public space where female protesters are sleeping that absolutely anyone can wander into. There have been no reports of men being raped at Occupations.

Sadly, many responses have been much like the ones in the wake of correspondent Lara Logan's sexual assault in Tahrir Square while covering their revolution: Yes, it's tragic and awful, but you know you're vulnerable so why are you out there?

Why are they out there? Why sleep in tents and risk being confronted by police only to be slighted by fellow revolutionaries at the same time? It's simple: these women believe the country is broken and they see the Occupy movement as a the solution.

What is Occupy's solution to its gender disparity problem? Occupy LA has a code of conduct and a zero tolerance policy for any violence or assault. Of course, it also lacks the ability to keep people out of the public space the camp is in. Occupy D.C., a more stable camp because it has not been raided, is able to work out intricate documents like a Declaration of Occupation (leaked last week), has set up a women's tent. At first the idea was resisted because the men felt that inequality meant special treatment for one gender and equality meant equal treatment. Then the group consensus came around. Women needed a safe place. Some women have said its purpose is for "group menstruation." (Shades of The Red Tent.) "There's a legitimate reason and then there are fucking hippies," said one male Occupier who's proud of the new development. But it's really an effort by the women there to make women feel more at ease at McPherson Square. Men there also have agreed to self-police other men and remind them sexist language makes women uncomfortable. Will that bring the numbers of female Occupiers up? Like everything else with Occupy, it's all too soon to tell.

Back in LA, Whitaker tells me about a movie she worked on, Zombie Apocalypse: Redemption. She also played several background roles in it. "It's good, have you seen it?" I tell her I regret having missed it. After our interview, I see her on Countdown with Keith Olbermann talking about an attempt to occupy Bank of America Plaza in downtown LA, which is owned by Brookfield Office Properties, the owners of Zuccotti Park in Manhattan. It brought to mind something she said to me before I left. Her moniker "that white bitch who gets everything she wants" struck me as demeaning and belittling -- yet she sees as a challenge and almost a compliment.

She smiled coyly and informed me, "You know they're right ... I do get everything I want."

Image credit: Nathan Armes/Reuters