by Lee Lakeman
SECTION 1. INTRODUCTION
Most women, I believe are aware that men don’t treat us fairly and that the world’s power holders keep men in a position of greater status than women. Most women know that from birth, they have faced limits on their lives which have nothing to do with their talent, skill, or determination. I think most women in most places in the world are in constant reaction to that knowledge.
Women live in resistance to men’s oppression, but resistance is not always effective. Sometimes it is not even very self conscious. Feminist organising it seems to me, is partly the work of being aware of oneself in resistance and increasingly aware of others. It concerns facing the nature and extent of the oppression of women. Becoming ever more committed and effective as part of women’s resistance to that oppression.
By Feminist Process we mean additions to good democratic practice which best suit organising women toward justice and equality for all. These practices enrich and explain rather than replace democratic organisation.
We have learned quite a lot in this twenty years which might be useful to new DAWN groups. I have decided that I could best contribute to this project by isolating just a few points.
SECTION 2. ONGOING DEVELOPMENT OF A GROUP
Women’s groups are always in some stage of growth. They mature, they shrink, they expand, they divide, they multiply, they can behave adolescently. New membership and new ideas can constantly regenerate them. I find it helpful to think of the group as changing, delicate and in need of constant cultivation. If it doesn’t get that care and attention, it will not automatically thrive.
Consciousness raising may be the most important tool of modern feminism. Since the sixties and seventies, women have gathered in small groups (5-30) to tell each other about each of their lives. By doing so we see that many events and experiences are not happening to us just because we are Sally or because we are tall or because we ate too much or because we are behaving in a particular way. If we are curious and diligent and serious we will see similarity in the way the world treats us and positions us because we are women.
Giving voice to those similarities can relieve us of inappropriate burdens of guilt or of a sense of failure. Hearing how many other women have married men who abuse their wives and children comes as a horror and a relief. We know that the abuse of battering husbands often begins with the first pregnancy or the school entry of her last child. We can stop spending so much time wondering what we individually did to provoke his violence. We can probably see that it is any change in our status in relation to him that could set off his violent struggle for more power.
Most women’s groups are still well served by CR techniques. This telling of personal incidents to find common and therefore political realities is part of our regular activity. It is part of how we listen to each other. We are always listening for the common threads. Once found they name and analyse them. They can discuss and consider strategies.
There are of course pitfalls to avoid. For some while rape crisis centres got embroiled in a discussion of whether workers should always be women who had been raped or whether they should be women who if raped had properly healed or “dealt with” the attack. Both positions had something to say but in the end neither is quite on. In feminist theory, rape and the fear of rape control all women. Every one of us has been subject to the attack since childhood and none of us can effectively deal with our vulnerability to rape as though it is not part of our past and future. Obviously being a woman, having lived and grown up as a woman is enough.
Separatism is closely linked with a CR group. Equality seeking women like many other groups have often chosen to organize apart from those who gather privilege at our expense, apart from those who gain from women’s oppression. Just as women are always in resistance to our exploitation so are we in one way or another, aware of it. When men enter a room of women, we behave differently. Sometimes that behaviour is motivated by fear of men or by ambition to have what men have. Sometimes by anger. Men have separated us from the human group to which we belong and insisted on treating us differently and unfairly. Sometimes we insist on the right to gather those set apart by men to organize our resistance to men. We call this insistence on working only with those who share the same oppression separatism. It is legal, ethical and often politically wise. In new Dawn groups it might mean you would refuse membership to able-bodied women to be members. In women’s groups it means we do not invite men to be members.
Personal / political. Besides actual CR groups we can bring personal information into meetings through ‘opening rounds’ or sharing time or special topic evenings. And I would advise that every meeting begins with a report to each other of our state of mind and state of well being and that each member is encouraged to share the important changes in her life as part of the meeting. And that each member makes it her business to see to the personal well being of each member using collective resources but also to see to the group well being by noticing and dealing with situations where the group is getting over loaded or depleted or otherwise threatened.
Since we are so prepared to use the personal lives and stories of our members as a source of political reconnaissance information, we also do well to honour the political information and activity of our members as deeply personal. I think we are wise to believe that women in our groups do the best they can most of the time. When we are in a struggle with each other, we are wise to exercise our understanding of each other and of our understanding of personal strengths and weaknesses. We strengthen the group by taking responsibility to teach each other techniques and attitudes and facts and procedures that might be helpful. We need to correct each other. However, most of all we need to encourage and sustain each other. Development of respectful and egalitarian relations within the group must be one priority. Dissuade personal cliques and dependencies. In my mind these are all political activities to which the group should commit time and energy. Part of regular meetings and regular processes. This nurturing of each other and the group gives longer life to feminist organizations than to most others. It is not a wimpy life style option of women. It is part of our political strength and perseverance for the long struggle ahead.
Encourage warmth and mutual aid between members without confusing the advocacy group with a community that exists for the well being of only or primarily its own members. Any women’s group worth its salt exists for the advancement of all women. While it should not sacrifice its own membership, it should not always put its membership first. Sometimes we must insist that the movement come to our aid and there are times to come to the aid of others. Our clarity and honesty about out personal and political commitment to each other and demands of each other will help the group decide on membership criteria. Work load and fun times will be easier to plan. Private personal responsibilities and collective collaborative responsibilities. What the group must discuss and what would be better left in the quiet.
Basis of Unity
The group needs to pick a direction. Will it be primarily a service group of helpful women which identifies and tries to help disabled women in need of assistance? Will it be a small group of “successful” disabled women who publicly advise other disabled women how to ‘make it’ and who will speak for disabled women at large? Will it be a group of women who study the problems of disabled women and publish your results? What do you hope the group will have in common besides being disabled? Who will not be allowed in the group? Who will you especially try to woo and encourage to join? What must women be willing to do to be a member of the group? How much time each week need she commit?
Service group vs vanguard group vs study group vs consciousness raising group vs affinity group? Each of these has a logical structure and process that matches the group purpose.
In my opinion although a feminist activist group has to be all of the above at various times it is best practice to know and agree what your main purpose is. At our best, I think of my group as a little (on purpose less than thirty) group of individuals who have decided to coome together to multiply our effectiveness and to sustain each other in the struggle. My group’s first priority is to operate an anti-rape centre with a shelter and phone line for abused women. So when taking care of each other interferes with that goal we have gone to far. We either have members who need to get their needs met somewhere else or they need to leave the group. Although it rarely comes to that, it is important that we all know from the outset what we are trying to do.
In our group we rotate and divide up various jobs but we have decided that we will all do some of the same basic work of our organization. We take turns answering the phone and running the shelter. That way we have a common kind of work to think about and talk about together. And we all have a piece of the work that is vital. When we don’t like each other much or when we are tired of the group we always do our crisis shifts. It is fundamental. It is the basis of membership. In twenty years no one has been silly or angry or self absorbed enough to abandon the line or the house.
We treat collective meetings with almost the same seriousness. And since everyone knows how hard it is to keep doing that, we have a constantly growing respect and trust for each other. And that is before any of us do anything exceptional. I think any activist group would be wise to design a little regular commitment about which you could think and talk and which you agree to never drop. It should be a very clear bottom line kind of work which everyone shares.
A final distinguishing mark of most feminist groups is that all members are responsible for the development of theory as well as a fair share of work and that each is expected to be developing her thoughts about how to organize for social change by constantly reflecting on what can be observed and learned and what has been done. We expect each other to read, listen, learn. To teach evaluate and adjust. There is no intellectual vanguard. We all are expected to follow whoever has the best idea and to lead when it is us who has the idea.
SECTION 3. ACHIEVING AS A WOMEN’S GROUP
We group for a reason. We want to increase our effectiveness to resist the oppression of women for ourselves and for other women. Because it will take all of us to establish freedom none of us ought to consider ourself free until we are all free.
Gathering other women increases our strength in obvious ways but in subtle ways too. We have more intelligence (in the sense of CR). Generally, the more women we gather the more labour, intelligence and contacts at the disposal of the group.
One limit to that emerges as soon as the group is too large for personal contact to be regular and meaningful. Distrust will weaken the bonds within the group and everyone will shift to a bit more of a ‘cool’ connection. They will stop offering everything they have to the group project. The only solution we have found to this is to break down most of the time into smaller working committees of the main group. The small group then becomes the place where others really know you and where you and your contribution all more fully understood.
Diversity of membership
We have to plan and work to get the membership we want in our groups. Is it important to your aims that you have a range of women as members? Do you want young women for their energy and long term work possibilities or do you want older women for what they have learned? Are you trying to attract one of everything or just trying to prove you are open to all women with disabilities? Often women’s groups have resolved these questions by aiming to reflect the population. Sometimes it is necessary to have a critical mass larger than the population, of one group of women in order to make themselves heard and understood in the larger group. For instance women of colour find it easier and more comfortable to be in larger percentage than they are in Canadian population. It reduces the likelihood of racism and increases their ability to fight racism when it occurs. In such cases you might aim at the percentage of the world population. But even then sometimes the critical mass is that number that makes the diversity work for everyone. These are decisions to make based on what will make you effective fighters for social change, not on guilt or sympathy or idealism.
It is also important to live well with the imperfections of your group. Regularly ask yourself who is missing in your group and ask yourself how that might be pushing you toward mistakes. Try and find allies outside your group who will help push you in the right direction. For instance if you are trying to discuss “accommodation” and what employers should be asked to do and you do not have any women in the group who hold fulltime jobs, maybe you could ask a local union representative to discuss the issue with you.
Certainly no one of our groups expects to achieve very much alone. It is in our work joined to the work of other groups that the real transformative power lies. Our groups must set aside time and energy and sometimes money for that alliance work. Reading newsletters and flyers, having guest speakers, participating in campaigns and coalitions teaches us and strengthens us. It puts us in the position to call for support on our actions and initiatives and help us understand what kind of call to action might work in our community. For my group we give priority to demands or calls for organizing from women’s groups and second from anti-poverty groups. To whom will you be a willing ally? From whom will you try to win alliance? What will the terms and conditions of those alliances be?
Evaluation and planning are important if not vital steps to effective action. Women especially find it difficult to keep measuring ourselves and each other in our effectiveness. But without that we can waste a lot of time and energy. We can settle for feeling better instead of achieving better conditions for ourselves and others. In my group we mock “points for pain” We admit that we all fall into this kind of martyred counting sometimes but we don’t value it. You know the kind of evaluating that says “we all work too hard” or we failed to do a job because “we care so much that we are all burned out”.
Instead we try very hard to quantify in our plans for the day month or year. We say or write down what we are expecting ourselves to achieve and then we measure as cooly as we can whether or not we have achieved that goal and we account for the difference. Out of that process comes encouragement for what we did well, correction of what didn’t work and new plans for the next day, month or year. There are two difficult parts for us: daring to believe we can change things like the number of callers we will get or the number of speaking engagements we will be asked to do and secondly daring to take credit for what we did.
But even more evaluation must happen on a daily basis. Each of us as group members takes responsibility for thinking. About what we think will generate social change. About what will keep the group together. About what we should be doing as joint work. Then each of us works and observes the impact of that work and then each of us has to think again. Were our original ideas correct or helpful or does something have to change. There is no end to this process of moving back and forth between action and reflection. That makes each of us stronger m ore able to think and lead the group and more able to participate in all collective processes because we have opinions and notions and ideas and worries and pride of our own.
In the end it is the opinion of the group members that matters but we also solicit the criticism and praise of allies in order to supplement our internal notions. And when we are criticised or praised by other than allies we think hard about what it might mean. Sometimes this is the opposite of what is actually said. We think about our basis of unity and to whom we planned to be accountable and we examine once again whether we are doing what we think best. None of this is a waste of time. We just get stronger and more sure of ourselves. Or we change.
SECTION 4. GOVERNANCE OF A FEMINIST ORGANISATION
Collectivity It is very common for women to organize ourselves into affinity groups with collective structures. By that we mean groups of likeminded women who come together voluntarily and who maintain a structure in which each is equal to the others. Usually there is no election of officers although women will take turns being chair of a meeting or facilitator of a learning process or coordinator of an action.
Our attachment to collectivity is not only because women are trained as children to cooperate and so find it fairly easy. But since equality is what we are after, collectivity becomes a practice for the future. Others argue that collectivity keeps the group strong by making sure every member could lead it and that every leader is replaceable. While leadership is not quite that easy to order up, it is possible to keep the group more leaderful that it might be as a hierarchy.
In a collective, women often choose turns for being the official chairperson of the meeting with some responsibility to set dates and propose an agenda and gather up the membership and perhaps to propose problem solving methods to try or innovative processes to try in order to have a successful decision making meeting.
Women might choose a facilitator for an evaluation session for instance and she would propose to the group how they might evaluate this time or where and with whom they might have meaningful dialogue as part of that process. Similarly an action coordinator might gather up a draft for a poster, a suggested strategy for getting media attention or for gathering up allies for a demonstration. These ideas would be put to the group for discussion and modification and then she might have a mandate to proceed.
Authority is not leadership
We need leaders with ideas and the ability to convince people of the value of their ideas and we also need women to exercise authority in certain situations knowing they have the agreement of the group to do so.
We find that often the two things get too mixed up. The chairperson for instance is meant to keep order in the meeting but hopefully she can cooperate with whoever has some good ideas to discuss. Often we find whoever has ideas to offer can get a little “out of order’ talking a lot, feelings a lot and needs a good chairperson to limit her to arguing hard for what she wants. A good chair person helps get the others talking and thinking and feeling without shutting down the excitement of the leader. Because leaders, of course are not always right and we all need to consider whether and when to follow.
Authority comes from the group. The group should decide what the rules are and how authority is to exercised. For instance is the chairperson meant to talk in the meeting to express her own opinion or is she to stay quiet for that meeting or to ‘pass the chair’ to someone else during an item that involves her. When someone is facilitator or coordinator how much power do they have to make decisions and how do they report back to the collective about the moves they have made or want to make? Who evaluates that work and when by what standard. These things should all be decided ahead. Women find it particularly difficult to take authority appropriately and feel confident about it.
Leadership is both proceeding on an idea and gathering followers. While it is a bit more difficult to do just by making up our mind to do so, it is not magic. We can each decide to practice putting ideas forward and convincing others and we can practice struggling with a problem till we come up with an idea. Leaders are not genius. Often their ideas are reapplied from another situation or learned in books or borrowed from less determined activists. We can all improve ourselves as leaders. And in a feminist process we agree to do so.
Consensus is a process of making decisions that is common in collectives. In the method of counting votes and determining who has the majority there is often a winner and a loser when there could have been more victory for all. In a consensus model women try to convince each other and compromise until everyone is satisfied that a reasonable decision has been made. Consensus decision making requires maturity and generosity on the part of the woman or women who are in the minority to not hold up the rest of the group needlessly and from the majority to value the intelligent contribution of the minority so much that time and compromise are well spent in accommodating that minority. In my group, we sometimes agree to vote on unimportant decisions but if someone thinks an issue important and she says so then we will work to consensus.