Gender and protest

'Family values'
'Family values'

Polite Ire argues that patriarchy cannot be challenged without taking on capitalism and the state - and vice versa.

Submitted by Joseph Kay on March 13, 2012

The necessity to challenge state and capitalism in order to challenge patriarchy means gender norms should be consciously recognised and confronted by those protesting against these structures.

Women are often represented within a protest as being passive and peaceful; any violence generally attributed to young men. This misrepresentation is more easily made due to the gender associations previously discussed. The gendered descriptions of protest as reported by the news is also reflected in how protests are later remembered, thus allowing them to be appropriated for political ends. This is evident in the treatment of the suffragette movement, cited by politicians as evidence of the success of peaceful protest, ignoring how the fight was won by campaign tactics that included window breaking, attacking MPs, arson, and suicide. Militancy was openly called for:

“There is something that Governments care for far more than human life, and that is the security of property, and so it is through property that we shall strike the enemy. Be militant each in your own way. I incite this meeting to rebellion.” (Emmeline Pankhurst)

The suffragettes then were far from peaceful. Yet it is easy for Ed Miliband (and many others) to claim that it was, and this is in part due to the expectations of the listeners: women are “more likely” to act peacefully. This is evident in Miliband’s other example, that of the Civil Rights movement in the US. While Martin Luther King’s peaceful methods are extolled, the campaign of Malcolm X, which rejected non-violence, is an obvious omission. While the suffragettes were also split into non-violent (the NUWSS) and violent groups (the WSPU, led by Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst), the ability of modern politicians to claim them all as peaceful – despite the most famous advocating violence – can in part be attributed to our socialised expectations of how women act. Indeed in the UK ‘suffragette’ was used primarily to describe the militant WSPU, ‘suffragist’ being used for the peaceful NUWSS. When politicians today call for peaceful marches and negotiations, using the suffragettes as an example, they are playing on our socialised gender roles in an attempt to stop us from acting. This is quite contrary to the suffragettes, who called for “Deeds Not Words”.

The misrepresentation of women’s actions is therefore problematic for protest movements, fictionalising events in order to conform to gender binaries. Where actions themselves are not altered, women are often rendered invisible, men assumed to make up the majority of protestors. This is particularly of note in public sector strike action; while 60% of public sector workers are women, the stereotypical picket line, and therefore the stereotypical worker, is predominantly male. When politicians and newspapers argue against industrial action they are assisted by this stereotype, for example in calling on women as mothers to speak out against teachers strikes – a call that ignores the role of women as workers, indeed mothers as workers, and gives greater importance to a day’s education than to parents ability to provide food and shelter for their children. The targeting of women as mothers is also evident in election campaigns, with women often shown with children, or explicitly asked to vote for the benefit of their children’s futures. No such plea is made to men as fathers; it appears that men should act based on rational, political and/or economic grounds, and women for emotional reasons.

The problems of patriarchy, rape culture, and socialised gender norms have all been evident within the Occupy Movement, the issue made stark after the rape at Occupy Glasgow on 26 October 2011. The initial statement made by the Occupy camp was widely criticised for distancing the protestors from the victim, both by citing the woman’s homelessness and their attempts to provide food and shelter, and by downplaying the seriousness of the attack by labelling it a ‘sexual assault’ as opposed to a gang rape. This statement was later retracted. However, the Occupy camp continued to have problems, their facebook page suspending comments after users continued to marginalise and blame the victim, in comments such as:

‘Anyone who criticised the Occupy Glasgow Movement for last nights [sic] events should try and work with the homeless in the city centre’

In order to address the concerns arising from the rape and the subsequent response, a women’s working group was proposed and set up. However, the lack of recognition of women’s vulnerability and marginalisation created divisions on this issue. A number of protestors, while advocating gender equality, refused to accept the idea of a women’s group, labelling it divisive. Arguments such as ‘too many divisions, we’re all the one species’ and ‘Don’t do it alone – men and women together – no more walls – break the barriers down!’ were numerous, and demonstrate a failure to consciously challenge patriarchal norms. However, there were also more antagonistic comments, accusing those who called for a pro-active approach for women of being

‘… millitant [sic] feminists… like joke characters… hysterical… [and] determined to bring down this protest’

Comments such as this show how stereotypical gender norms are prevalent within the Occupy movement (and within protest movements more generally), and provides an example of how an explicit statement of intent to challenge oppression does not necessarily lead to a conscious challenge against patriarchy. In ‘structureless’ groups, such as the Occupy camps, socialised gender norms ensure that, by cult of personality, men will hold more of the unofficial ‘leadership’ roles. As a result of this, women’s groups are required in order to allow women a safe environment in which to speak of issues that make them vulnerable under patriarchy. The point of such a women’s group is to help create the conditions in which such groups are no longer necessary.

The gender norms prevalent in society at large thus also affect the makeup of political movements and groups. In order to challenge these gender norms groups must do so as part of the struggle, or else any gains made will be done with patriarchal norms and structures still in place. Inequality must be consciously recognised, and consciously challenged; any political group must seek to act in accordance to the principles they wish to see enacted in society at large. However, doing so may require compromises along the way: the creation of true gender equality may require a period in which women’s groups are active; allowing women the confidence to speak without being marginalised until such a time as the norms have been challenged sufficiently for such groups to no longer be required.


In parts one and two we saw how binary gender norms and roles are created by socialisation, having an effect upon how we experience our everyday lives, the chances we have in gaining particular jobs, and the way in which we might expect others to react should we challenge these expected behaviours. These socialised gender norms are a foundation of patriarchy, a structure that also allows the enduring existence of rape culture. This section also questioned the theory that rape is a result of biology, arguing that rape culture is born out of the socialised division of masculine and feminine qualities. It was argued that in order to end rape culture we must challenge the binary gender norms our society produces and supports.

In parts three and four it has been argued that politics is a masculine sphere because the state structure requires the repression of ‘feminine’ attributes; the state system is thus culpable for the socialised gender norms discussed in part one. This is also a reason why women remain underrepresented – and yet their representation will not help challenge patriarchy, as politics itself remains masculine, and feminine qualities in a politician (of either sex) will remain a weakness. Therefore for patriarchy to be challenged, for rape culture to be abolished, requires a radical changing of our societal structures, going as far as that of the international state system. This creates a challenge for protest and political groups who seek to challenge current political systems. It has been argued that patriarchy must be challenged within the everyday functioning of a protest group, consciously recognising the issues of gender and seeking to overcome such power imbalances and attempting to replace divided gender norms into more complete human norms.

Michael Kimmel The Gendered Society
Cynthia Enloe Bananas, Beaches and Bases
Niccolò Machiavelli The Prince
Cordelia Fine Delusions of Gender
V. Spike Peterson (ed) Gendered States
Angela Y. Davis Women, Race and Class



12 years 4 months ago

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Submitted by Malva on March 14, 2012

These Polite Ire articles are fantastic. Please upload more if there are any.

General Strike

12 years 4 months ago

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Submitted by General Strike on March 14, 2012

The way black bloc is often presented in terms of gender I think is especially interesting. Far from being a manifestation of hypermasculinity, as Chris Hedges and others tell us, black block and similar tactics are a manifestation of a transcendence of gender. The anonymity vis a vis personal identity "blocking-up" offers extends to gender identity. Black bloc is an attack on gender, not a reinforcement of it. Those who criticise it as being otherwise reveal their own sexist prejudices. Yes, believe it or not, women do riot. Organised feminism has its roots in rioting and vandalism. Before women were engaged in wider political processes, they rioted and these riots acted to transform woman from abstract universal to conscious actor, a force to be both recognised and reckoned with.


12 years 4 months ago

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Submitted by lickspit on March 16, 2012

Until women have equality in all spheres, men will never be free.