Women and the 99%

There’s been a fair amount of coverage recently regarding the demographics of Occupy Wall Street.  The surveys reflect what can be gleaned from a quick glance around Zuccotti Park: the Occupiers are mostly male, and mostly white.  One of the many criticisms of the movement is its failure to adequately include the voices of women and people of color.  Even South Park took a jab at the Occupiers’ grandiose assertion that they are “the 99%.”  OWS’s internal difficulties—from problematic self-policing to struggling to resolve flawed organizational structures and minimal success making the movement less monochromatic—illustrate how the group’s inclusive message is sharply diminished by practical realities.

I’m less concerned with the racial and gender makeup of the crowd than I am with the movement’s capacity to resonate broadly with Americans—especially women (the group hurt most by the economic downturn).  A common complaint of the Occupy movement seems to be the impact of the disproportionate political power wielded by a minuscule fraction of wealthy Americans. The way I see it, the focused attack on women’s access to reproductive health care is a perfect illustration of this phenomenon.  Here’s why:

In March of this year, 58% of the House voted yes on H.R.3 (misleadingly named the “No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act”) which aimed at expanding the Hyde Amendment’s prohibition of federal funds paying for abortion by, among other measures, denying tax credits to companies that offer health plans with abortion coverage and preventing medical cost tax deductions and federal subsidies for anyone with insurance that covers abortions. Several of the organizations that lobbied for the bill are backed by the conservative billionaire DeVos family (of the Amway fortune). In addition to lobbying for the bills through their various foundations, the DeVos family has donated generously to Republicans who voted in favor of the H.R.3.

The problem does not end with the DeVos family’s ability to purchase legislation that imposes their fundamentalist Christian ideologies upon the entire nation. The DeVos family belongs to a small group of unfathomably wealthy conservative families brought together by billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch.  The Koch brothers support many of the same organizations and politicians as the DeVos family (fun fact: over half of the yes votes on H.R.3 came from representatives who were funded directly by the Koch brothers). In September of this year, Mother Jones exposed the Koch brothers’ million-dollar donor club: twice a year, conservative billionaires convene at a Koch-sponsored retreat to discuss how to push their conservative values (big business, “family values,” and government small enough to fit inside a uterus) through the elected branches of government.

The reach of this plutocracy penetrates each level of democracy.  Not only can these individuals afford to lobby Congress and fund politicians through coordinated, largely secret efforts; the think-tanks they fund are highly effective propaganda machines. The Koch-backed Heritage Foundation and DeVos-supported Family Research Council (which was founded by Betsy DeVos’s brother, Blackwater-billionaire Erik Prince) support bogus studies on the benefits of abstinence-only education, stoke fears of public schools’ hidden gay agenda, and sponsor crisis pregnancy centers that mislead and manipulate women. These organizations and others, like the DeVos-supported Concerned Women of America, also support the aggressive war on women taking place in the states.

Most disconcertingly, the Koch brothers and their million-dollar donor club have the ear of our judiciary. The Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United, in addition to ensuring that the political landscape will be flooded with corporate funds, reveals how much Koch and other conservative plutocrats influence the highest court.

Several of the amicus briefs filed in support of overturning campaign finance restrictions came from organizations funded by members of the million-dollar donor club. One of these organizations, the Institute for Justice, is cited in Justice Kennedy’s opinion for the Court. Even more troubling is the fact that two members of the five-justice majority in Citizens United—Justices Scalia and Thomas—participated in Koch events in the past. Justice Scalia spoke at an event sponsored by Charles Koch in 2007, and Justice Thomas participated in a similar event in January of 2008—just two weeks after the D.C. District Court ruled against Citizens United.  Both justices’ expenses were paid for by the Federalist Society, which has received millions of dollars in donations between the DeVos and Koch families.

The dangers of this plutocracy wielding any sort of influence over the judiciary are particularly salient in the fight for reproductive justice.  Amidst the onslaught of anti-choice legislation sweeping the country, the Supreme Court’s holding in Roe v. Wade is seen as the last safeguard of women’s constitutional rights to reproductive choice and bodily integrity.  These rights are further imperiled by the potential for a handful of extremely wealthy conservative ideologues like the DeVos family to influence the Supreme Court.

That a small group of extremely wealthy political activists can successfully launch a nationwide war on women is merely a symptom of the broader problem that the Occupy movement seeks to address. The fallout from decades of insufficient financial regulation is a consequence of the same institutional flaws that permit a disproportionate concentration of power in the hands of a very small, very wealthy, group of Americans.   If the Occupiers at Zuccotti Park included in their protest the very specific impact of “the 1%”* on women, perhaps their message would reach more of the 99%.

* Of course, the small group of individuals behind the war on women are only a tiny fraction of the 1%.

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