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Empowering The Feminist Voice At Occupy–Confronting The Silencing Of Mic Check And Other Misogynies In The Occupy Movement

November 16, 2011

Listening to people yell, “Mic Check!” at Occupy locations throughout the country, it is hard not to observe that those with the loudest voices are the ones who really get heard with this system, and those voices usually are male baritones.  Talking to women here in Washington and also reading reports from elsewhere, it is clear that many women find this system of having to yell at the top of your lungs to be one that is an uncomfortable way to communicate and participate.  Some women report being harassed when they speak, and even of mics being grabbed from them.

We are constantly told it is a system of consensus but was everyone really consulted about how communications would work?  It seems unlikely. While many of us want to work on communicating about issues such as reproductive rights and unequal pay (that have long been on the feminist agenda) and why they are so important to true change,  it is hard to do so when the communications system itself is intimidating.

The other day I listened to (mostly) young men at Occupy DC say that they wanted us to tell them when we found something they said to be offensive so that they could learn and change how they are interacting with women.  It was good that they were attending a session on sexism, but hello?  How many decades have we been pointing this out–YOU SHOULD KNOW THIS ALREADY!  And yes, I’m shouting, I am just flabbergasted and utterly depressed that we are still having this discussion in progressive, revolutionary circles.

It isn’t rocket science even if every movie, ad and video game tells you this behavior is cool, it isn’t. What it is is a manifestation of the system you claim to want to change. Don’t ask us to keep pointing out your misogynist behavior, you really should be able to figure it out yourselves, take responsibility for it and stop it because you know what, you are wasting precious time and energy and keeping us from discussing what feminism brings to a movement that aims to address economic inequities, starting with the most obvious point that women get paid less than men, so those inequities hit us the hardest. There is a lot more to it than that, but that is pretty easy to grasp, so let’s start there and insist that this very basic truth is a crucial issue that must be addressed if we are to achieve real change.

Listen also to Jon Stewart’s interview of Nobel Peace Prize winner, Liberian activist Leymah Gbowee on The Daily Show. Towards the end of the first segment, Stewart compliments her for being “charming and vivacious” despite what she has gone through. Had she been a man, I think we can assume he would not have used those descriptors.  Effectively what he was saying was that oh yeah sure, you led a peace movement that ended a civil war at great risk to yourself and won a Nobel Peace Prize, but hey, you’re still a woman so by gosh I must objectify you.

But no amount of sexist cutesy drivel on Stewart’s part can detract from Gbowee’s powerful words. Especially if you are not familiar with her story and even if you are, listen to her talk about what they found it necessary to do and her call to those of of in the U.S. for action.

It is time for women to be heard in the Occupy movement and to do so we need to move beyond the mic check system that effectively drowns us out and not waste time pointing out blatant, obvious and clearly offensive behavior.  That is not why we are at Occupy.

What Gbowee and the women of Liberia did, sitting, meditating and going on strike offers us a different model. To sit down and not participate in the systems that oppress us, be they in Occupy camps or elsewhere. We need to be clear that we will communicate what we need to communicate on our own terms and in a way that is comfortable and empowering to us.


I am writing this as police move in to try to shut down Occupy in numerous locations.  We know what many of us have suspected, that DHS and federal law enforcement is involved in this.  Tomorrow, November 17th is a national day of action.  It would be wise to use this as an opportunity to channel what Gbowee modeled for us in Liberia and to think of the words of Ghandi.

Note:  This post was originally posted on the Feminist Peace Network and you can see the video of the interview with Leymah Gbowee there.  For some reason I was not able to get those videos to post properly on this site.

21 Comments leave one →
  1. Kim Rivers permalink
    November 16, 2011 8:12 pm

    So what can we do tangibly? How can we use our voices in ways to be heard that does not rely on volume as it were? I am a woman with a loud voice and could easily drown out a crowd of males, but can’t be at all the Occupy gatherings as much as I wish. I am not surprised this “mic check” was developed and whether unconscious or not, it favours men’s voices. In the short term women can physically learn to speak loud, but it takes practice, but that is only a temporary solution to an already flawed system, sound familiar?

    • November 16, 2011 8:48 pm

      If you haven’t, I urge you to follow the link to listen to the interview with Leymah Gbowee. She talks about how they sat down and meditated and did things on their own terms. I think some creativity might be useful–a sign that says we don’t want to shout about this so we wrote this sign. Insist on better sound systems. Show up at GA with duct tape over your mouths to highlight silencing.

  2. November 16, 2011 9:44 pm

    I was at an Occupy event today in the UK where the role of men in Feminism was being discussed. Nothing has changed. Young men were talking about how they needed to move away from viewing women either as ‘whores’ or ‘good women’. Granted they were acknowledging the need to redefine women but one wonders what it will take to move their way of thinking on.

  3. Jan Bacon permalink
    November 16, 2011 10:34 pm

    I’m a grandma, and I have used mic check to be heard, to look for someone, to pass on messages… better sound systems only work when the city allows you to have power to run them… mic check is a terrific idea

  4. November 17, 2011 1:43 am

    this is an important piece and I will try to circulate it at other OWS and Code Pink sites. The point is that the women who are actually on the sites have to name the problem the way that is being named in this piece. the duct tape is a great idea, and yes, there must be other imaginative ways- using signs– what else- that can stretch our imaginations.
    I also want to point out that confronting and educating are two different things. Men *should* be confronted– and that is in itself “educational” but– of a more politically potent sort of “education”…

  5. November 17, 2011 3:57 am

    Thank you for this. I think you are absolutely right, Gbowee and the women in Liberia are wonderful role models. Too often women (especially in the US) get bogged down with questions of what is “proper,” or how we should present/package our message so that the other side will not only listen but so it has the greatest impact. What we forget in the process is the strength and fire that lies within our own voices when we speak from within and that we possess great power – power to stop violence, power to inspire movements toward peace, power to foment revolution, this is one of the things that inspired me about Gbowee and the movement in Liberia. Unfortunately, speaking from our center “from the heart” as they say, is one of the hardest-bravest things any human (man or woman) can do, and the more we are weighed down by sexism, racism, and the like, the further we get from our authentic voice – this is why meditation is important, it helps us tap into that source. If you get a chance watch “Pray the Devil Back to Hell,” it will inspire and change. Again, thank you for the piece and all of the wonderful coverage. Good luck and keep it coming!

  6. November 17, 2011 6:37 am

    We all live steeped in an archaic cultural mindset which still condones rewarding men with higher salaries than women for equal work, and we are living in a time of global warring with no end in sight to the many ongoing armed conflicts. So it is no wonder that our behavior in these public fora can reflect attitudes of violence, bigotry, age-ism and sexist attitudes and that the GA is prone to favoring forceful, loud aggressive voices over quieter, humbler expressions. I know there were gentle-natured men who also felt intimidated and ignored by their louder brothers at the GA’s I attended, and I for one (I’m a woman) had the personal experience of being rudely silenced, having my “mic” removed repeatedly mid sentence, by an aggressive female facilitator who just did not respect what I had to say in my quiet little voice or my right to say it…It’s so important for us to become increasingly aware of the oppressive attitudes we all unconsciously perpetuate as we forge new horizontal processes for participatory democracy together. I too noticed several instances of power disparity during my brief stay at Occupy Boston, some of it due to sexism, some of it coming out of other kinds of exclusivity. It’s important to note that while we are all the 99% there are clearly different levels of empowerment and different senses of entitlement among us. We have to first, make sure everyone is aware of, and agrees, that these disparities exist, then together, with love and common sense and for the future’s sake, we need to dismantle the dreary paradigms of inequality.

  7. November 17, 2011 7:53 am

    as someone who has a loud voice and an ear that doesn’t work, i don’t understand what is wrong with a microphone (most are battery powered & don’t need electricity) or a megaphone.

    is the idea that 100 voices repeating (to various decibel levels) what one voice says is louder, clearer, or somehow more equal then everyone’s voice amplified exactly the same thru a megaphone or mike?

    and then what about the time when facing a group of angry white pro-war males (see my blog) and was called a ‘bitch’ and the only ally standing in earshot called ‘mic check’ many times to protest this act of violence and not one other voice would join in?

    just because we attempt other methods for ‘distributing’ and sharing power, doesn’t mean power is actually being shared or distributed unless those methods are built on anti-sexist, anti-racist, etc., understandings and commitments.

    • November 17, 2011 3:15 pm

      yes, there is a fetishization almost of the mic check. it should be varied with other techniques. But the deeper issue is (mostly white) male dominance of course. Until that is faced, we’re going nowhere.

  8. SheilaG permalink
    November 19, 2011 12:13 pm

    What we used to do back in the day in college classes where male professors made sexist comments… we brought whistles to class, and every time the man said “girl” or made a demeaning “nice” comment about women, we literally blew the whistle.

    In a theology class, every time the male professor used “he” as the pronoun for god, we blew our whistles. It took about a week for these men to stop the sexist words. No shouting needed, just 20 plus women with whistles, plus handing out leaflets explaining the use of the whistles.

    Women need to participate in large groups (100 plus), with whistles and stop watches to time male vs. female speech. Women interrupted by other men — whistles could blow loudly while he talked.

    It was amazing to see how nervous those male teachers were when the women came in with whistles around their necks. And we poured on the pressure by blowing them if the male made a “joke” to deal with the women standing up against sexism in the classroom. Interestingly enough, no other male students supported this action, and often confused sexist speech with freedom of speech. Heaven forbid that men would loose the power of freedom of speech to call women names, grab mics away from women, and threaten women with harm for speaking up against male supremacy.

    • November 19, 2011 12:27 pm

      Wow, you read my mind, I’ve been thinking whistles would be a good idea. In fact I like the idea so much I’m going to also highlight your comment in a post so everyone sees it!

  9. bemused1946 permalink
    November 21, 2011 11:13 am

    I agree with Jan Bacon. Those of us with softer voices need to have an “amplifier” or a “chorus” so that we can speak in soft tones to a group of three loud voiced people who will start the mic check. I plan on recruiting my three amplifiers before putting my name on the stack. I recommend that any women who want to be heard, recruit the young men speakers to be their voices. The young men want to be heard, what they need is content, different content, so they don’t keep repeating the same sexist drivel. The crones of the world, like me, can start this system by asking our grandsons or someone else’s grandsons to be our “amplifier
    “Amp for me, my boy and gain respect beyond your years as one who shares wisdom.”

  10. November 21, 2011 4:55 pm

    No matter if a “perfect” world were created, it would not be actually perfect if women were still second class beings and if violence (both physical and non-physical) were still being committed against women. Said another way: the root cause of all violence is misogyny no matter how it is expressed, no matter how it disguises itself, no matter who is feeling it, no matter if it is unconscious.
    Now, about voices and mic check. Without realizing the OWS movement is not less sexist/misogynistic than the movements of the 1950’s and 196’s were, I thought it was a good idea. But if even women are pushing women away, to silence them, then I am quite frankly ashamed of the OWS movement and cannot support it wholeheartedly—-especially if women are being raped.
    I remember being taught as a youth to make my voice deep to be heard. I did not learn! It is not the truth that one has to be louder. They, at mic check, must be allowing only the men they want to listen to!! In the peace movement days (1960’s into the ’70’s) I saw very clearly that the most articulate and most skilled in reciting facts and the most wealthy were the “leaders”. I also saw very clearly that the peace men were not good to women. And I did not like it. Please read or re-read Andrea Dworkin’s “Heartbreak”.
    It is extremely hard to undo one’s social conditioning. Children absorb literally everything in their environment. They grow up living accordingly. I have spent my life trying to overcome negative social conditioning messages about my character/personality/nature. It is not a matter of will power! So, when I encounter a woman who expects me to “put me in my place and keep me there” I know I have no chance with her. Or when I encounter a man who insists all “liberals” or all “Catholics” are “evil”, I know I have even less of a chance to communicate to him. And when I encounter Feminists, I know I am at home but I do not feel welcome because I am a man. I have reached out to certain Feminists, only one responded to me for asking her about women who demand dominance. She said: “you are right, they are wrong”.
    So, now, I am saying that to all of the Feminists: You are right, those fighting you are totally wrong.

  11. November 26, 2011 2:03 am

    This is a great post and we really need a new women’s movement! The last comment proves it (a man telling us ‘stop complaining, it’s not that bad…). Just like men who tell women, ‘Be glad you not Iranian, can you imagine what your life would be like?’. Men do not know what it’s like and the best way for them to become pro-feminist is to organize with other men and work on ending sexism, violence against women and rape.
    I’m tired of men who talk as if they’re pro-feminist and then dominate the meetings.

    I’m at Occupy Tucson in Tucson, Az and although most of our GA facilitators are women, there is still a heavy male domination in the camp, horrendous misogynist language and the camp is neither safe nor welcoming of women. There really are two tiers: the day people, great speakers and organizers, many are women, who go home at night. In the tents there are mostly men, some folks who are homeless, including homeless women. The first one I met and tried to help had all of her stuff stolen by a man and left with just the clothes on her back. The second one was with a violent man, he hit her, she hit back, someone called the police and they arrested them both. A male peacekeeper (all of them at Occupy Tucson are men) told me that “This couple was fighting each other’ , as if that’s ever the case in DV.

    If Occupy were a feminist movement, women would be leading it, no misogynist behavior would be tolerated, peacekeepers would be both male and female trained in how to support the woman in any violent or threatening situation.

    I, too, am tired of mic check’s and wonder what would happen if I stood up and talked about rape. Would the men echo my words? Or would they stop talking, for once, and listen?

    • bemused1946 permalink
      November 26, 2011 11:07 am

      I support your exploration of this issue. Perhaps “a room of one’s own” is necessary for the camps – a place where men are not welcome, but where women can come and go at will, to work and socialize with men when they behave themselves, or to be away from men (or their particular man) when men are behaving badly. Making men unwelcome is very easy to do, keep large stacks of tampons and pads by the front door.
      During the consciousness raising of the 2nd wave, women-only discussion groups produced the concepts that altered how women define themselves. At that time, I decided that it would be arrogant of me to define men since I did not appreciate having been defined by male culture. I naively believed that men were capable of redefining themselves and becoming partners of strong liberated women. I was wrong. It is time for women to define what men should be like and how they should behave whenever they are around women. (Women really don’t care how men behave when they are with other men, as long as it doesn’t impact the lives of women and children or life on the planet.
      This movement will die of boredom unless we hear divergent voices and creative consciousness raising ideas. Getting men to let go of their boring topics is the challenge. My suggestions for General Assemblies: 1. a “bull shit” pit, where speakers practice getting to the point of their suggestions, the more often a person speaks their truth the cleaner it becomes 2. affinity groups could pair up and critique each other pre-GA ,again with the goal of being able to say something of substance succinctly. 3. a “look at me” specific portion of the GA for people (men) to get the aware attention they crave even when they have no creative ideas to share. A time and place where they can say the mundane and sentimental “aren’t we great for being here” stuff where we don’t have to politely sit through boring and irrelevant and repetitive monologues. 4. A group of women who initiate the “shame” chant of women’s voices directed at the ego-rants of males hogging the mic-check with nothing to add to the conversation but their time-wasting posturing. When a man actually has something to contribute in a way acceptable to women, he should be allowed to speak, but when it is repetitive nonsense it should receive feminine censure.
      We need to remember that men are looking for approval. They get it from other men by being crude, rude and pushy. They have no idea that women are repelled by those behaviors. It is necessary for women in the occupy movement to make it generally understood that we are, and will be the final judges of what political, social and economic changes are acceptable to ourselves and for our children. Men can gain their glory by putting into practice what women deem the path forward.

  12. November 27, 2011 2:00 pm

    Excellent analysis of Occupy, bemused1946 ! The question for me is , are there enough women at the encampment I’m at to back me? If I’m the only woman who wants women-only space, and to stop men from hogging the meetings, I won’t be able to do it.

    Iget both elated at the meetings and disgusted. And the invisibility of the homeless women at the camp is something that one seems to care about but me.

  13. November 27, 2011 2:20 pm

    I have a huge, loud voice that can project over a crowd as well as if not better than any man’s. Rude? Women singing opera as forcefully as men are rude? Broadway belters are rude? They’re trained to use their voice just as women athletes train to kick ass, like soccer teams! I have voice & speech training and know how to use breath support. However, the last time I attended a rally, I BROUGHT MY MEGAPHONE–not expensive, not hard to use.

    Come on, women! This is chicken-shit, nit-picking! Find a full-throated woman! Actresses, singers and public speakers know how to project. You don’t have to be a man to have a powerful voice! Women opera singers sing over orchestras just like men do and orchestras are much harder to soar over than crowds at rallies!!!

    I love to stun crowds with my huge, powerful voice. People are dumbfounded when I do it and they listen up. Recruit big-voiced women! We exist.

  14. bemused1946 permalink
    November 27, 2011 5:21 pm

    I really like the whistle idea.

  15. bemused1946 permalink
    November 27, 2011 6:45 pm

    I am very concerned about immigration, both legal and illegal, and multi-culturalism as insidious methods of re-establishing a draconian form of patriarchy on American women. The women in the rest of the world, except a few European countries, continue to be brutalized under religious and cultural systems and rather than liberating those women we are now faced with trying to maintain the little shreds of liberty that we have managed to wrest from the masculine power brokers.
    Historically, women have had a couple of periods of actual freedom, but it has always disappeared within 2 generations. We are now at that fork in the road. Immigration rates were legally changed in the late 1990’s to permit several hundred percent more immigration than at any previous time in US history. The influx of macho males, typically more men than women immigrate, who are not being assimilated into the post women’s liberation culture has escalated. Recently, at a senior center, an immigrant man yelled at me that I had no right to express my opinion because he was a man and I was a woman. “Click”
    It is unacceptable that male immigrants believe they can continue to behave as they did in their donor countries. They argue they have a right to genitally mutilate their daughters, sponsor young girls to immigrate then force them into slave labor,prostitution and forced pregnancies or forced abortions, beat their wives and all the other large and small offenses their culture considers “just fine” but that we find appalling.
    I think we need to liberate all the women of the world before we can change the current world economic system, because the current system is male-centric. But first we need to secure the Blessings of Liberty for ourselves and for our daughters. Then the question is what does a female-centric economic system look like? And what does a world-wide female-centric economic system look like? Come on 3rd generation feminists, use you creative young minds to define what you want the world to look like and then let us women, all the women of the world support you in creating that world.
    Perhaps the reason so few women are at the occupy sites is that they are not representative of women’s views. Perhaps no women should participate until such a time as men create a safe and welcoming space for us to participate. A safe and welcoming space for the 85 year old and the 5 month old woman and child.


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