Occupy and women’s rights

December 13, 2011

Leela Yellesetty explains why the Occupy movement must embrace women's rights.

WOMEN ARE a majority of the 99 percent.

We are still paid, on average, only 77 cents to a man's dollar (that number drops to 68 cents for African American women and 58 cents for Latinas). When one takes into account the impact of childbearing and the fact the women still bear the brunt of unpaid labor in the home, this figure slides further downwards. One study measuring the cumulative impact over 15 prime-earning years found that women actually make 38 cents for each dollar a man makes.

This should come as no surprise living in one of the only countries in the world--along with Swaziland and Papua New Guinea--which does not require employers to provide paid maternity leave.

Women are disproportionately impacted by the budget cuts that are shredding the social safety net. Nationally, about two-thirds of adult recipients of the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program are women. Women and people of color are also overrepresented in public-sector jobs, and therefore are particularly vulnerable to the onslaught of layoffs and pay cuts these budget cuts entail. According to the U.S. Labor Department, women lost 72 percent of 378,000 government posts cut between July 2009 and March 2010.

Seattle abortion rights activist join in an Occupy Seattle protest
Seattle abortion rights activist join in an Occupy Seattle protest

In my home state of Washington, women constitute 54 percent of individuals enrolled in the government's Medicare health care program. The governor's latest budget proposal includes $2 million in cuts to maternal and child health and $1.8 million to family planning--in addition to the complete elimination of the Basic Health Program, which provides coverage to the state's poorest residents--again, disproportionately women.

Meanwhile, the 1 percent here in Washington state continues to reap the benefits of generous tax loopholes and the most unfair tax structure in the country. We are home to four of the 23 richest people in the country: Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, Steve Ballmer and Paul Allen. There seems to be a gender imbalance on that end as well.

FOR ALL of these reasons and more, it is no surprise that large numbers of women are involved in, and leading, the Occupy movement both locally and nationally.

Yet this movement is not immune to the sexism that is pervasive in society as a whole. A case in point was the sexist "Hot Chicks of Occupy Wall Street" video I wrote about a few months back ("No place for sexism in Occupy"). There have also been reports of sexual harassment and assault at occupations. More generally, despite the many incredible examples of female leadership, the most vocal and visible leadership in Seattle, and I suspect elsewhere, continues to be disproportionately white and male.

Therefore, it's no surprise that as the Occupy movement has evolved, a debate has arisen around the question of gender equality and how it relates to the interests of the 99 percent.

The issue came to a head in Seattle around the question of reproductive rights. I am a part of the group Seattle Clinic Defense, which was founded earlier this year to defend clinics against the anti-choice bigots who regularly picket them.

We decided to put our recent action, a counter-picket to the "40 days for life" (in reality, 40 days of harassment) campaign by anti-choice activists, on the Occupy Seattle online events calendar. The calendar is open for any community groups to list their events--socialist groups, for instance, have posted a number of teach-ins and meetings, which have generated no controversy, even though not everyone in the movement considers themselves a socialist.

However, we quickly learned that when it came to reproductive rights, the same rules did not apply. The listing of the clinic defense action on the calendar almost immediately provoked a massive debate on the Occupy Seattle Facebook page. The main instigator was an out-and-out bigot, who clearly believed fetuses were a more important part of the 99 percent than living, breathing women.

But I think what most dismayed myself and other anti-sexist activists was the number of people who told us that while they personally supported us, they didn't really think these "divisive" side issues should be brought into the Occupy movement, which should be focused exclusively on corporate greed and the issues that unite the 99 percent.

I was thankful to find that I was not the only person who found this argument to be problematic, to say the least. As one commenter put it:

Reproductive rights are central to the economic equality of women. It's not a vague relationship--it's absolutely core to the ability of women to work, to plan, to control their lives. The assault on the availability of birth control, yearly exams, and yes, abortion, is a direct assault on poor women who rely on the free services Planned Parenthood provides. This is not a periphery issue to Occupy--unless women are periphery to Occupy. Banks are not the whole story, and it would be a huge mistake to allow yourself to be fooled into thinking they are.

I think she absolutely hits the nail on the head. Despite the increasing barriers thrown up to abortion access, from waiting periods and counseling to denying coverage under private insurance--over 80 such laws were passed this year, more than double the previous record--women continue to seek out abortions. One in three women will have one in their lifetime--hardly a rare occurrence.

According to a recent report by the Guttmacher Institute, demand is increasing disproportionately among poor women in the wake of the economic crisis. This should come as no surprise when the average cost of raising a child to age 18 (not including college) is estimated at $226,920, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

This statistic alone should make it crystal clear why the right to decide whether and when to have children is a fundamental precondition to women's equality in society. As a recent United Nations report stated unequivocally: "Criminal laws penalizing and restricting induced abortion are the paradigmatic examples of impermissible barriers to the realization of women's right to health and must be eliminated. These laws infringe women's dignity and autonomy by severely restricting decision-making by women in respect of their sexual and reproductive health."

THIS ARGUMENT may not be won within the Occupy movement overnight. The tenor of the debate and the defensiveness of even many of the pro-choice activists in the movement is testament to how much ground the right has gained on the issue of abortion in recent decades.

In this sense, it is absolutely true that abortion has become a divisive issue--and the 1 percent likes nothing better than to keep us divided. Abortion and other so-called "wedge issues" have been a key part of their strategy for keeping us fighting each other rather than them. But the only way to build true unity of the 99 percent is on the basis of championing the rights of the oppressed, not by ignoring them.

We want to convince men in the movement that upholding sexism is to their own detriment--because it is. Who benefits from the fact that the vast majority of the costs of nurturing and raising the next generation of workers falls on individual families? Answer: the 1 percent, who save on having to pay their workers child care or maternity leave, or taxes for public programs to provide these services.

As Joan Williams vividly illustrates this in her book Reshaping the Work-Family Debate:

Many Americans in nonprofessional jobs have crazy quilts of child care, with sometimes as many as five different child care arrangements--one for each day of the week. Or else they "tag team," where mom works one shift while dad works a different shift, with each parent caring for the kids while the other is at work. This is not an easy way to live: everyone ends up exhausted, and many parents rarely see each other awake. Moreover, if one parent is ordered to work mandatory overtime, the family has to choose between mom's job and dad's job, in a situation where they need both jobs to survive.

The 1 percent also benefits from wage inequality between men and women. This dynamic is illustrated clearly when you look at the wage trends since the 1970s. While the ratio between men's and women's wages has narrowed over this time period, this has been due primarily to men's wages falling, not to women's wages rising. In other words, the entry of a lower-paid female labor force has actually driven down wages for men as well--again, all for the benefit of the 1 percent.

So there is a strong case to be made that gender inequality is integral to overall economic inequality, and that fight against one can't be separated from the other. As a socialist, this is something I have been arguing this for years, but the exciting thing is this is no longer an abstract argument. We are actually on the ground making this happen.

The upshot of this debate was that a handful of people from Occupy Seattle came out to our clinic defense event, one of whom wanted to organize to raise awareness of these issues within Occupy Seattle. So the very next day, myself and other Seattle Clinic Defense members attended the founding meeting of the Gender Equality Caucus.

Our first step has been organizing teach-ins to educate people in the movement about why we need to connect the dots between gender equality and socioeconomic justice. We also recently mobilized to occupy the state Capitol in opposition to the latest round of budget cuts, and are speaking out to save the Seattle Central Community College Childcare Center, which is slated to be closed next week.

Starting in early January, we plan to hold teach-ins around the issue of reproductive justice, leading up to a big march on the anniversary of Roe v. Wade on January 22. This marks an important opportunity to unite the Occupy movement with the hundreds of young activists who turned out for the Walk for Choice and Slutwalk here last spring.

As our experience in Seattle shows, there is a need to challenge sexism among those who consider themselves part of the Occupy movement and to argue with fellow activists about why the movement should embrace the fight for gender equality. These arguments are worth it, as they create the basis for a stronger movement--one that sees the struggle against oppression as central to the liberation of the 99 percent.

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