Today, there seems to be a virtually unquestioning embrace of the concept of “leadership” within (radical) feminist circles.
This blog post will set out why I critique the concept of “leadership” as a method of organisation which is fundamentally incompatible with feminism. I will criticise not just the use of the word by (radical) feminists, but also the patriarchal practice behind it, even if the rhetoric of “sisterhood” is used to promote it.
THE PAST AND NON-HIERARCHICAL POLITICAL ACTION
I admit to having many a rose-coloured trip down memory lane as I remember workshops without facilitators at feminist conferences, direct actions without a clear plan before we get there, and when the police came to talk to us, their being told there was no spokesMAN and their confusion as they scrabbled about not knowing how to relate to a phenomenon outside their rigid world order.
Back then, our feminist worlds were not only full of theory about patriarchal injustices. They were buzzing with the excitement of ideas. If we believed in women’s liberation – what did that mean for women? How can women be free? There was a sense that we were pioneers, taking new steps in foreign lands.
As part of our consciousness-raising, we examined our experiences of being socialised as females and realised how deeply embedded that socialisation went into our very psyche. How quick we were to give way, to believe others could do it better; do it with more confidence and with more flare. We’d believe we’d be better sitting quietly in the background, helping out. Until, that is, we discovered feminism and feminists who were trying to lead lives and politically collectively organise in very different ways.
Structures, groups, networks and political activism were carried out on the basis that any of us can do anything if we had the skills, confidence and knowledge to do it. Enshrined in our activism was a desire to share knowledge, skills, experience without the movement losing it at a collectively- held level. We needed a fluid and flexible movement to be sustainable. We knew this was best achieved by having collective knowledge, rather than knowledge (skills and experience) left in the minds and hearts of a few individuals and so, potentially, lost if those women moved on. Such projects were not easy, there were many mistakes along the way. Many of us learned from them, wrote about them, analysed them in the privacy of our own safe spaces and tried to do better next time.
“Leaders” and “celebrities” were shied away from in favour of the principle that no woman has reached her potential under patriarchy but, within feminism, we would collectively work hard to enable all women to do so.
THE CONCEPT OF “LEADERSHIP “
Some radical feminists say they use the word “leader” in a non-patriarchal way – they merely mean “role model”, for example. They mean they are inspired by one woman’s decision to do something political. If that’s what they mean, why are they using such a patriarchal word, with very clear patriarchal connotations, such as “leader” “competitiveness” “followers” and “directives”? It’s true that even patriarchal academic books refer to the concept of “leaders” differently, now, as meaning anyone, no matter what their “official” status within society is. But I don’t think that they have anyone fooled by doing so, have they? Let’s look at Eton, for example, it has spawned 19 prime ministers and numerous other positions of patriarchal “leadership” http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/election_2010/8622933.stm . It is not a coincidence that a school which costs £30,000 per year has bred and moulded so many capitalist-patriarchal leaders, instilling male supremacist values in them so that they, in turn, can perpetuate them within wider society. “Eton – the training ground for our future leaders rulers – instinctively understands the nature of power” http://stumblingandmumbling.typepad.com/stumbling_and_mumbling/2013/05/what-eton-knows.html (Eton, the historic institution for rich boys, understands that men who are “leaders”, perpetuate, mirror and uphold the institutions and structures of hetero-capitalist-patriarchy).
WHAT PATRIARCHAL LEADERSHIP MEANS
For very important reasons, the well-known patriarchal quote states “Behind every successful man is a great woman” (and the feminist cat-friendly version: “Behind every successful woman is a rather talented cat”). It’s a quote which confirms that patriarchal societies assign supporting roles to women and “leading” roles to men. Herstorically, over centuries, women have only been able to glimpse “power” and fame vacuously through her associations with a male. He was the leader and she was “behind him”. Even though many women throughout history performed patriarchal games better than the men they were “behind“, they could only ever hope to play the supporting role. In a patriarchal world, “leaders” surround themselves with supporters and fans. Women are traditionally socialised to be the care-givers, the quiet, unpaid “unsung heroines” in the domestic sphere while the male “leaders” publically and visibly win wars or rebellions. The traditional work of women is invisible, “behind-the-scenes” and will never be viewed as being so important it should be given the label “leadership” . All of this is a world which perpetuates inherent structural inequalities and keeps the goal of women’s liberation at a distance. In other words, the concept of patriarchal “leadership” is inherently flawed, misleading and down-plays women’s work. It has no place in a movement which, to succeed in its goals, needs collective action leading to radical social change.
WHY BLENDING CONCEPTS OF “LEADERSHIP” WITH FEMINIST GOALS DOESN’T WORK
If feminists who say non-patriarchal leadership is possible, are right, why does the very use of the term, and naming of individual feminist “leaders”, automatically wipe out the work and contributions of those who surround that individual? In a feminist world, women work together on collective action and all contributions, great and small, bring us closer to our goals. When we uncritically use the concept of “leadership”, we fail to acknowledge that the movement we are in has fundamentally different goals to that of patriarchy.
I hear that, at the end of a recent radical feminist event, someone thanked two women as “the main organisers”. Not only was there a question mark over whether “main organisers” existed, and, if they did, who they were (and what definition was being used), there was also one over whether individual women needed to be singled out at all; especially in such a way as to rewrite our herstory about how activism happens among us. There was silence for the woman who spent hours and hours creating some of the most powerful and memorable graphics of recent radical feminist herstory, silence for the woman who spent hours and hours of her time making technical changes, silence for the many women who, whilst limited, practically, in the planning of the event, threw in as many ideas and supportive suggestions as they could to help shape collective decisions. When we artificially create “leaders” in our movement, we devalue the collective contributions of those around them. It is a false, patriarchal idea that one person, alone, in isolation, has made something communal happen. Patriarchy is littered with lies about women, and the roles we play. I oppose the perpetuation of that phenomenon within the (radical) feminist movement in the name of political organisation.
At its very worst, we claim “leaders” in those who bully and/or manipulate their way into such positions, often throwing in red-herring reversals against those who challenge their motivation, as they go. Some laugh when they hear this and say “what possible “power” could someone have within a marginalised, small, impoverished movement?” There is the “power” of credibility, of being asked to speak and represent the movement, of having work circulated, of meeting other “influential leaders” in the movement and so on. We perpetuate patriarchal modes of behaviour, consciously or unconsciously, when we enable this trend within our movement. If we focus on promoting women’s feminist work, find out how to support it and join in with it, we’re less likely to get distracted by a feminist version of a soap opera with leading sheroes at the helm. It is not feminist and it will not help us reach collective goals.
An example of enabling feminist work to speak for itself while the individual behind the project is unseen is “The Invisible Men” project (WARNING:GRAPHIC CONTENT) http://the-invisible-men.tumblr.com/ The spotlight is firmly on men who buy women and what they say as they do so and not, as is usually the case, on the “choices” of the class of women who are prostituted, objectified, sold and abused. By focusing our political attention on what men do to women, and not on individual women, we further the radical feminist goal of dismantling patriarchy.
FEMINIST THEORY AND THE CONCEPT OF LEADERSHIP IS INCOMPATIBLE
By uncritically accepting the concept of “leaders” as a “good thing” we buy into an ideology which male supremacy has promoted so successfully that it is almost embedded within our psyche. We already know, however, that the world looks different through a feminist lens. The concept of “leadership” is driven by an ideology that we are “born” with certain characteristics or traits (men, of course, are more inclined to be “natural” leaders than women, middle-class women more than working class, white women more than black women and so on). Hetero-capitalist-patriarchy would have us believe it has nothing to do with being schooled for the role and nothing to do with, consciously or unconsciously, perpetuating ideas about “natural” inequalities between groups of people and nothing to do with structural power and the role “leaders” play in maintaining the status quo (while often using a rhetoric of social change). Radical feminists have written at length about how patriarchy upholds male supremacy through structural oppression. The concept and role of “leadership” is a plank in that structure. It takes a social movement to bring about successful social change; collective action, not the compelling words, or even actions, of a “leader” (or two).
Although not exclusively so, it tends to particularly be working class women and black women’s contributions which are seen as “lesser” and not worthy of the label “leader”, but of “follower” and “helper”. In part, that’s because white, middle class women are more comfortable with taking on “leadership” roles; even though they are women, they are socialised with a sense of class entitlement whilst working class women’s work is unseen and devalued under patriarchy. Unless we consciously unpick the power structures of capitalist-patriarchy, we perpetuate them in our very own movement so that, in the end, it is they, not our external ideological opponents, which defeat us. By actively and consciously taking collective action as opposed to uncritically mirroring concepts of patriarchal “leadership” we can start to do this.
VALUING THE WORK OF ALL WOMEN
It IS important to value the work of individuals but not at the expense of other women’s work which may have been carried out with less fanfare. All women’s work within feminism needs to be noticed and valued – it is, after all, a patriarchal idea that much of women’s work goes unnoticed and unpaid. It is vital that a radical feminist movement does not perpetuate such behaviour by only valuing the work of those who are most visible. We are activists because we believe in what we do and because we are working for other sisters. When other motivations begin to dominate, it is a sign that all is not well within the movement, or pockets of the movement.
In part, I blame the internet for this obsession with individuals and individualism and egotism with its structure of rewards for those individuals. In my blog post “Making the Internet Work for radical feminism” https://sisterhoodispowerful.wordpress.com/2012/11/03/making-the-internet-work-for-radical-feminism/ I discuss how we might get round some of these pitfalls but it is not enough. The real culprit is the fabric of patriarchy and our failure to take action in ways which are sufficiently different. We can actively break down the influences of internalised patriarchy through how we work together and by discouraging the promotion of “leadership” as a positive way forward for the feminist movement.
If we are to work towards the common goal of women’s liberation, then each of us needs to be the best activist we can be. If that is to be achieved, it is vital that the same women do not carry out the same roles, over and over, without making way for others. It is crucial that some women don’t “lead” the movement by articulating what it is for the rest of us. If we maintain collective ground we can ensure the theoretical boundaries of radical feminism are firmly held. It is also important we recognise the difference between theory, activism and feminist ethics. There seems to be a terrible muddle between all three during these emerging, contemporary, sparks of a radical feminist movement. For a sustainable movement, they will be teased apart, named, discussed and practiced.
Every woman has to believe she has something of value to contribute if she is to participate in collective action. It may take time, it may take experience, it may take building our self-esteem and confidence first. It is by emphasizing how we collaborate and how we work well together that we will achieve feminist goals, not how we value, celebrate and promote the concept of “leaders” and the individual (often self-proclaimed) “leaders” themselves, which is a divisive and competitive way forward.
WORKING TOWARDS COLLECTIVE GOALS – THE WAY FORWARD
My favourite “all time highlights”, in both this period of radical feminism, and the last, has been when a group of us have achieved something together. When we have supported each other, laughed together, cried together, improved our collective work by feeding back to each other constructively, equally, in good faith, without anyone weighing up how much input we each have had, like pieces of gold, and without any one (or two) individuals constantly seeking to have ultimate control through a variety of overt or hidden, subtle means. This is (radical) feminist collective action. It is achievable and it is a memorable experience.
No one, definitely not me, is saying that collective working is easy. No one is saying it’s not “uneven” at times, with, inevitably, some women doing more political work than others. We can support and encourage each other to share out roles more evenly, to have equal access to information/shared resources, to work on what we’ll do when we disagree, to describe how we’ll learn new skills within the group or agree that different women will focus on different elements of the organisation of our shared activity and that each contribution is equally valued. If we don’t do this, women get burned out and/or resentful towards those who push themselves, or are pushed, into the limelight/the firing line. We each have a responsibility to ask ourselves: “why am *I* (not) doing this?”
Our movement cannot be sustained unless we each instil in ourselves, and each other, the confidence to take forward our work, together, supportively.
(Reminder: I do not publish anti-radical feminist posts nor posts which reveal the details of specific internal splits/divisions. This is a public space, unashamedly promoting the theory, practice and ethics of radical feminism. Throughout what I have written, I have frequently put “radical“ in brackets because I believe it is mostly radical feminists who will find this debate of significance but, if feminism itself still has the goal of women‘s liberation, then the content of this blog post is of relevance to other feminisms too).