I remember the days of meaningful silence in women-only spaces. The days when women held back to give others a chance. I remember the days when “leaders” and “feminist celebrities” were an anathema to a feminist movement intent on building a world free from patriarchal ways.
I remember workshops without leaders or “facilitators“, spontaneous direct actions following passionate discussions about injustices done to women. I remember jubilant responses to the police when they asked us “Who’s in charge here?” and we chanted “Nobody! We have no leaders” and left them scratching their heads, wondering what they should do next.
It all seems a long distance away from today’s unquestioning, all-pervasive “celebrity culture”. Individual women are now held up as representatives of feminism and they don’t demur. Panels of feminist “experts” are formed where the only type of interaction between women are questions for those “experts”. Rigid and inflexible agendas are ingrained before we get a chance to participate and we only set those agendas if we have written a book, are an academic or are, in other mainstream ways, notorious for our politics.
WHY DOES HOW WE ORGANISE MATTER?
The reasons for wanting to experiment with new ways of political organisation are as true today as they ever were. Hierarchy, leaders, “experts” create an illusion that feminism is a structured, non-dynamic movement led by individuals who have clear, singular goals. Within that framework, there are leaders and followers along the same lines as with patriarchal institutions. It is no coincidence that, currently, the resurgence of feminism is predominantly taking place among white, middle-class liberals who believe that “gender equality” can be given to “everyone” by changing laws and structures a little bit. New creative ways of thinking and acting cannot be born in sterile contexts.
The failure to be non-hierarchical, is particularly dangerous when liberal feminists invite men into feminist spaces. This liberal brand of organising fails to recognise, when it confidently asserts that “it’s important men are feminists too” that men are conditioned to have a sense of entitlement, to lead, to speak confidently, to silence women in subtle and overt ways, to use aggression to assert power .
There are numerous examples in today’s activism where men have taken advantage of naivety and grabbed leadership roles: marches where male stewards end up at the front, where they subvert a pro-woman feminist agenda into one which is unclear, vague and which champions men‘s “causes“, where their voices and their presence drown out those of women. By organising non-hierarchically, women are articulating that not just our goals, but how we arrive at our goals, is a political process.
The reluctance to self-consciously declare the movement non-hierarchical helps liberals maintain the status quo. It is, after all, their goal: to raise awareness about sexism among men, and enlist their help to bring about changes, such as new legislation, within existing structures and, miraculously, women will no longer be oppressed. Within that context, of course, having leaders and “celebrities” and “spokesmen” (sic) is unproblematic because patriarchal foundations remain intentionally untouched.
Radical feminists know better. Radical feminists know that men won’t hand over power willingly. And radical feminists knows that, when we have structures and hierarchy in mixed political organisation, men will grab the leading “important” positions whenever they can and that liberal feminists will encourage them to do so, delighted that, at last, some men seem to be taking feminism seriously enough to be “equally” involved. Suckers!
Even in the, nowadays rare, precious circumstances of women-only spaces, it’s vital that the tradition of non-hierarchical consensus-making is not lost. What the second wave movement conveyed was a feeling that any woman could be part of a collectively organised sisterhood fighting back against patriarchy.
The hetero-patriarchy divides women. It sets women in competition with each other for male approval. Radical feminism should be actively promoting ways of political organising which subverts competition, ego and “expert” status. By doing so, it will break down the very structures, dynamics and behaviour which has had women at logger-heads and prevented them from coming together to smash patriarchy.
Non-hierarchical organising achieves one goal vital for the success of radical feminism – it enables the movement to be organic, flexible and, above all, creates a space for women to come together and fight patriarchy without internalising its distractions.
IT’S NOT EASY
Few who have experienced non-hierarchical political organising would claim it’s easy. Sometimes, to use known ways of making something happen appears to be quicker and more effective. Conflict is cut short because people are given assigned roles and, if something goes wrong, everyone knows who to blame in the chain of command.
“Second wave feminism” (sic) is renowned for predominantly servicing white, middle-class women’s interests. The current, renewed interest in feminism has, as with many social movements, often centred around academia. White, middle class women have better access to academia than black, working-class women. Perpetuating those power dynamics in traditional patriarchal ways is easy. Very easy. By breaking them down, some black and working class women smash invisible barriers. It’s not the whole answer. It’s better, however, than unquestioningly perpetuating ways of organising which inherently disadvantages sections of women and works against radical feminists acting in collective resistance.
Jo Freemen’s “The Tyranny of Structurelessness” (http://www.jofreeman.com/joreen/tyranny.htm) is as relevant today as it was in the 1970s. It is true that, even if you organise something non-hierarchically, power gained in groups through having knowledge, skills, and experience remains. Above all, as Jo Freeman says, the danger of non-hierarchical organising is that there’s no accountability.
LET’S DO IT ANYWAY
It depends what our goals are as to how important accountability is. If we’re involved in unlawful activism then having no leaders can work in our favour. There are numerous problems to work through in order to successfully organise non-hierarchically, I’m not hiding that: some women end up doing everything, some work is believed to have more value than others, it’s virtually impossible to completely stamp out egotistic motivations and so on.
One thing I do know, we don’t solve any of these difficulties and barriers by reverting back to patriarchal ways of political organising. Patriarchal institutions and structures have got us to where we are now – systematically oppressed, as women, in every sphere of life, whether we work with men on the radical left or not. We should turn back the clock and re-embrace the excitement of not only forging new feminist ground but new ways of embarking on each journey.