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"Occupy" and Feminism Equal New Solidarity: Frances Fox Piven Speaks

by Cindy Cooper

November 3, 2011

"I think there may be a new page that we've come to the United States," author, activist and professor Frances Fox Piven told an audience in New York City about the Occupy Wall Street protests in New York. "Not just that there's a big movement out there and it may grow bigger," said Piven, "but I think that this movement poses a challenge to feminism as it has developed."

Piven's half-century of work on poverty, workers, social policy and progressive movements was front and center when she was honored with the Sue Rosenberg Zalk Award by The Feminist Press on October 24, 2011. A distinguished professor of political science and sociology at The Graduate Center of the City University of New York, Piven has been a particular target of attack by right-wing commentator Glenn Beck, who singled her out as a central enemy -- even the key enemy -- of conservative causes.

None of this has stopped Piven. She refused to buckle under the assault of Beck and his verbally offensive followers, spoke back, and continued her work, even releasing a new book, Who's Afraid of Frances Fox Piven? The Essential Writings of the Professor Glenn Beck Loves to Hate.

In fact, Piven suggested earlier this year that economic stresses might just result in the eruption of a mass protest movement, a near-presaging of Occupy Wall Street. In a column that she wrote,
Mobilizing the Jobless
, in The Nation in January 2011, Piven recounted the levels of unemployment and economic conditions faced by many.

"Where," she asked, "are the angry crowds, the demonstrations, sit-ins and unruly mobs? After all, the injustice is apparent. Working people are losing their homes and their pensions while robber-baron CEOs report renewed profits and windfall bonuses." Piven answered her own question by warning that the time may be coming. "Protests by the unemployed led by young workers and by students who face a future of joblessness just might become large enough, disruptive enough, to have an impact in Washington. There is no science that predicts eruptions of protest movements. Who, indeed, predicted the strike movement that began in the U.S. in 1934, the civil rights demonstrations that spread across the South in the early 1960s? We should hope for another American social movement from the bottom."

The "Occupy" movement that emerged in September appears to have fulfilled her prophesy. Accepting her award from The Feminist Press, Piven, who has spoken at the Occupy Wall Street site in New York, offered an eyewitness appraisal of how "Occupy" fits into the history of feminism and social movements in the U.S.

Piven said:

"I think that feminism -- 20th century feminism and before that 19th century feminism -- these have been among the great movements of the modern era, along with the black freedom movement, the gay and lesbian movement, and so on. But these have been fantastic movements, eruptions of people, eruptions of us, to assert our worth, our humanity, our equality, our potential, and to do so in a way that changes identity politics.

"What did we say in the early phases of these movements? We said that our situation was particular; our grievances were particular; our oppressors were particular. And we wanted to name them, and we wanted to assert our own aspirations and our own potential. And that's what the African-American movement did, and that's what the gay and lesbian movement did, and that's what the Latino movement did. And that was worthwhile -- because it gave us room; it gave us pride; it gave us ambition.

"But now I think we are at a different and more advanced stage in the development of our movement, where we want to identify not only our particularity, but we want to identify our commonality -- which both coexist, right? And we want to reach out to people in other movements because we want to join what seems to be a great movement that is rolling across the planet, a movement of people who are all different. We are, all of us, different. But [this is] a movement of people who recognize a common enemy, an underspring of corporate and financial capitalism. And [it is] a movement of people who recognize comrades, solidarity, people like them, even if they look different, they dress differently, they have different specific memories, visions and hopes.

"But there is a sense in which we are all one, at least at this moment in history. We will divide again, that's true. The gist of what I am saying is that this movement that has emerged in the United States we call it Occupy Wall Street is the hope of our time.

"We should join it as feminists. But we should also join it as working people, because we are working people. We should also join it, linking arms with the poor women who have been so hurt by recent developments in the United States and whose safety net is being battered. We should also join it knowing that we are all people of color. And we should join it knowing that this is the greatest solidarity movement of our era."

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Cindy Cooper is a journalist in New York and managing editor of On The Issues Magazine. She is the co-author, with Elizabeth Holtzman, of the upcoming Cheating Justice: How Bush and Cheney Broke the Rule of Law, Plotted to Avoid Prosecution -- and What We Can Do About It (Beacon Press, February 2012).

Also see "The Populist Movement Reborn, At Last, In Occupy" by Rosalyn Baxandall in this edition of On The Issues Magazine.

See "Unfurling the Progressive Banner" by Leslie Cagan in this edition of On The Issues Magazine.


Peg Rapp posted: 2011-11-08 14:31:05

I absolutely agree that the inclusiveness of the 99% movement is so important and wonderful because it allows us both our individual differences as well as our commonalities. My difficulty with Piven's comment is that it ignores that, out of all the movements that have come together, we seem to have forgotten to "Remember the Ladies" as Abigail Adams noted during the American Revolution. It was clear from the beginning of OWS that both racism and sexism were, at first, underepresented in the discussion. At least in New York, there have been efforts made to address racism and these efforts continue. The efforts to address sexism, however, has been mainly dealt with in terms of "gender" as in sex-role channeling which deals with some of the problems, but has mainly developed awareness around LBGT issues or issues of including and listening to women in the process. The underlying issues of women, as reproducers and mothers and the inequalities that results in are not actually articulated much. Angela Davis also spoke at OWS Wall Street recently and she listed all the major "oppressed" groups including racism, LBGT, ablism, class -- the only one she did not mention in the introductory list was gender, women or sexism. She did, later in the speech mention gender inequality so it seems like it was just an "oversight." But it is an "oversight" that occurs with increasing regularity. So it is up to us as women and feminists, as we join in the 99% movement and reconnect with ourselves as workers and people of color, to remember -- and to remind others-- to reconnect to the issues of women (not just gender) as part of the mix.

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