When Women Occupied Congress

“It was a great moment. But we lost it.”

How could the largest gathering of women in America since the suffragettes be summed up with such a harsh appraisal? Yet that’s how an organizer of the Jeannette Rankin Brigade protest of 1968 recalled it.

A fusion of the anti-war and emerging feminist movements, the Jeannette Rankin Brigade was a coalition of women’s groups who came to Washington, DC to protest the Vietnam War on January 15, the first day of the Congressional session. Among the 5,000 women in attendance was 88-year-old Jeannette Rankin herself, the first US congresswoman and devotee of Gandhi’s principles of nonviolence.

If one of the protest’s leaders characterized a historic mobilization as a failure, do the events of the Jeannette Rankin Brigade offer any lessons to modern activists? This is a timely question, since another mass movement will soon converge in Washington to confront Congress on its opening day 2012. This time it’s Occupy Congress, or J17.

The January 17 event will be the first major protest on a national level attempted in the US by the Occupy movement. Focusing less on wealth inequality than Occupy Wall Street, J17 will protest corruption, bribery and deadlock in Congress.

Looking back at 1968, you can see that some things haven’t changed. The unresponsiveness of Congress and the media circus have only been super-sized over four decades. Shulamith Firestone describes the pragmatic viewpoint of the organizers of the Rankin Brigade:

From the beginning we felt that this kind of action, though well-meant was ultimately futile. It is naïve to believe that women who are not politically seen, heard, or represented in this country could change the course of a war by simply appealing to the better natures of congressmen. …So that we came as a group not of appeal to Congress, but to appeal to women not to appeal to congress. Rather we believed that such a massive gathering should be used to devise ways to build up real political strength.

Occupy Congress knows better than to appeal to “the better natures of congressmen.” Sheer numbers might have to impress on the political establishment the strength of the movement by building up currency in public opinion.

Unfortunately, coverage by a capricious, biased media can dominate perception. What’s more, disagreement over media tactics and a certain amount of disorganization thwarted the Rankin Brigade. When they conducted a mock funeral of the “Traditional Woman” at Arlington Cemetery–complete with faux corpse adorned with blonde wig and curlers, S & H Green Stamps, and garters, accompanied by a drum corps with kazoo–it was too much for the moderate elements. Five hundred women split off from the convention.

The more radical reformers didn’t shy away from media manipulation and agitprop, yet a minority felt that catering to mass media was only reinforcing their hegemony. They resisted having a spokeswoman and established rules about talking to reporters, all to prevent a “cult of personality.” The superficial media in turn took its usual route of seeking out human interest stories and latching on to the most sensationalized bits. Even the “Left” media undermined them with overt sexism. The cover of short-lived but popular Ramparts magazine featured a headless woman’s torso with “Jeannette Rankin for President” pinned to its breast. (Patricia Bradley, Mass Media and the Strategy of American Feminism, 1963-1975; 57)

Firestone describes the women as “fully aware of their impotence.” Her conclusion is unexpected:

We learned the value of spontaneity, of quick and appropriate political action, the value of learning to size up a situation and act on it at once, the importance of unrehearsed speaking ability. For I think one good guiding speech at the crisis point which illustrated the real causes underlying the massive discontent and impotence felt in that room then, would have been worth ten dummies and three months of careful and elaborate planning.

If she’s making the case for unifying and charismatic leaders, it’s something that Occupy has scrupulously avoided. The women’s movement is an imperfect analogy for Occupy, but many of the challenges it faced still apply. Occupy has factions favoring radical political solutions and anarchism, moderates who prefer less aggressive approaches, and everything in between. The allergy to spokespersons for Occupy is infamous–nobody “speaks” for Occupy, it wants no charismatic leader as its face. “Branding” and “messaging” are questionable strategies for a movement that doesn’t want to reinforce hegemonic, corporate media, yet lack of them can make it incomprehensible to mainstream media and vulnerable to the same pitfalls as before–superficial human interest stories and sensationalism. Not manipulating the MSM is often to be manipulated by them. Occupy’s solution has often been to bypass it altogether.

On January 17, Occupy Congress will bring thousands of activists to the National Mall to confront a Congress who may or may not care if it’s Occupied. It’s likely to succeed in strength of numbers and media attention. One of its main challenges however will be to unify its diverse elements for a few days both in common cause and strategy, and hopefully in doing so, it won’t “lose its moment.”

Bringing so many Occupiers together could at least take the temperature of the movement:

We found out where women, even the so-called “women radicals” were really at. We confirmed our worst suspicions, that the job ahead, of developing even a minimal consciousness among women will be staggering, but we also confirmed our belief that a real women’s movement in this country will come, if only out of the sheer urgent and immediate necessity for one.

For Occupy, developing even a minimal consciousness in the American public is indeed staggering. There could be no more urgent and immediate necessity.

5 thoughts on “When Women Occupied Congress

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