posted by Christa

—cross-posted from SDS Womyns Caucus Blog—

Robin Markle helped me immensely with this piece.  It wouldn’t be possible without her. This paper was a companion piece to my internship with SDS that I completed January 2009. Most of this research is qualitative, although there is some quantitative data. I’m not speaking in absolutes, but researched behavior and trends.

Note: Parts of this article are framed it as male/female. I am not promoting the gender binary by any means. The most common binary term I used was “women-centered organizing”…I used this rather than feminist or trans/women/genderqueer-centered organizing because

1) A lot of the groups the articles studied about aren’t feminist. A lot of the groups are moderate/conservative/non-partisan women’s groups but have similar aspects of organizing.

2) In that same vein, I didn’t use trans/women/genderqueer-centered organizing because a lot of these groups ARE Cis-normative and binary. A lot of these groups aren’t radical, they have problematic aspects to them, but they also organize in some really effective ways, which means we should study and learn from the things they do right and grow away from the things they do wrong.

Writing these articles is always complicated with gender and we are still trying to figure out the best way to go about it -sometimes we are talking about non-cis men while other times we are specifically talking about just women (which obviously includes trans women).  As we all know gender is incredibly complex (for instance, some gender variant folks that were assigned male at birth have certain kinds of privilege because they were socialized as male i.e. taking up space physically and vocally, having a certain level of confidence, etc. On the other hand, some trans men/masculine-presenting gender variant folks use tools of patriarchy)

I mainly phrase this as a gender issue because that is how the articles phrased it…and this is a feminist blog after all. Saul Alinsky worked with POC communities and working class communities -both of these communities have embraced aspects of his organizing styles. However, I do recognize that many of the negative aspects of Alinsky’s organizing model are more prevalent within white class privileged organizing circles.

Now…on to the real article!

Some of my first experiences in social justice organizing were with SDS. We profess to have a strong commitment to radical politics and a commitment to feminism, anti-racism, queer-positivity, etc. However, looking back over the last three years, I see how despite good intentions, our group actually perpetuated many of the oppressions we were attempting to fight, not just in our campaigns and work, but in the very way we organized. Just like any other area of life, theory and models of social justice organizing have often been conceived by straight white men, who assume that what is functional for them will be functional for all. These organizing models then drive out women, trans and genderqueer folk, queers, people of color, working-class people and others who do not fit the “perfect activist profile” that is expected in patriarchal organizations.

Personally, I find that after organizing with patriarchal straight men (many who claim to have a feminist framework) it is a breath of fresh air to organize with a group of women, gender variant and/or queer folks. During my time in college I also organized with The Alliance, the GLBTQ group on campus. This organization was by no means radical –it was organized hierarchically (I was the co-chair my junior year) and many of our campaigns were assimilationist in nature. However, in many ways I felt more appreciated, supported, and liked than I have in my organizing with SDS. I did not feel like I had to be “queer enough” or a “good activist.” I could be part of the social circle outside of meetings if I wanted, but it was also okay if I chose not to. It was fun, comfortable, and empowering.

How can groups that are fighting for some of the same things feel so different? Are oppressed folks, specifically women, gender variant and queer folks, more likely to use certain styles of organizing and leadership than people with privilege? These questions led me to investigate feminist and women-centered models of organizing and leadership. Women-centered organizing (which is not always feminist organizing) attempts to create a space where members are empowered, gain skills, feel personally transformed, and help to create a supportive community environment (not to mention having some wins along the way!)

Traditional vs. Women-centered Styles of Organizing

While traditional masculine styles of organization have existed for centuries, its existence in activist organizing is generally attributed to Saul Alinsky (Rules for Radicals, etc). Alinsky promoted an organizing style that professionalized activism, taking it out of the context of relationships and making it a full-time job. “Alinsky … argued that a career as a community organizer had to come before all else, including family, and to enforce this he would keep his trainees up all hours of the night at meetings and discussions.” (Stall and Stoecker, 735). I saw this attitude toward organizing first take full effect in SDS when we ran a campaign to prevent our school (Drew University) from choosing Sodexo as our food provider. We had been under the impression for months that the school would choose another provider, and when, at the last moment, Sodexho was chosen, we felt a great sense of urgency to stop the school from moving forward with a contract. Emergency meetings were held, sometimes more than one per day, and they dragged on for hours. People who did not attend or did not stay for the full time were seen as “not committed”. There was no room for members to have other priorities, such as schoolwork, jobs, relationships, or time for themselves. Those who put aside all other parts of their lives were held up as martyrs, and praised for their commitment. This type of organizing caused people who could or would not (because of jobs, etc) make these kind of sacrifices to be devalued in the group, and many folks didn’t stick around long. It was also unsustainable for the people who did attempt to make the commitment – in the long term it hurt their grades, relationships, health, and caused some to burn out and feel unable to participate in organizing.

Ends vs. Means

In contrast, in women-centered and/or feminist organizing, participation by all members (participatory democracy) is valued above urgency in achieving goals. Personal transformation through the process of participation in the movement is valued as much as the end goals the group is organizing toward. Grieve and Bingham remark on this difference, “Women have compelling accounts of becoming leaders; while the empowerment process is varied, the common thread women describe is an increased sense of self-worth and skills through a combination of personal development and community work. They see their personal development as connected to their communities. As a result, women tend to remain focused on the local community rather than viewing community development work as a rung on the career ladder or a path into other sectors.” I’ve heard some really fantastic organizers that worked with SDS say that SDS isn’t about leading the revolution, but training leaders that will go on to lead other groups to revolution.

Women-centered organizing is possibly different from Alinksy-type models because as marginalized people, gender variant folks and women have something to gain through the process of organizing, (self-empowerment, self-confidence) that less marginalized cis-male organizers may already possess. For cis-male organizers, the end goal of a campaign is more likely to be their main objective in organizing. Alinsky’s model operates on the assumption that people join movements because of self-interest and that in order to be a successful organization, members need to feel like they are directly benefiting from their work. Consequently, leaders focus on wins and view unachieved goals as losses. Crossley (2008), however, argues that people do not always need personal gain from their movement actions and points to the animal rights movement as evidence. Polletta and Jasper (2001) argue that a more viable explanation for why individuals act is collective identity and prior bonds: “a person whose life is intertwined with the group [through friendship, kinship, organizational membership, information support networks, or shared relationship with outsiders]…has a big stake in the group’s fate.  When collective action is urgent, the person is likely to contribute his or her share even if the impact of that share is not noticeable” (289)

Because of their experience with oppression, women (as well as a good portion of gender variant folks) have a unique social location to make change and build communication. They can quickly make connections between individual level and the community level, from social oppression to economic oppression, from the personal to the political. There are few barriers between personal life and their activist work, their justice struggles are just an extension of their roles as caretakers and/or mothers. This is directly related to the emphasis women-centered organizing places on local and community organizing. The focus is on daily life issues that affect their lives and community, such as tenant’s rights or education funding. These shorter-term struggles “allow women to immediately alter their community and gain a sense of control over their lives” (Stall and Stoecker 1998: 747). Their lives can lead directly into their organizing, and they can build community and empowerment through the process. Female assigned folks have been conditioned to place less value on themselves, which can undermine their pursuit of leadership positions. The empowerment process in women-centered organizing models is vital.

Building Leadership and Gaining Power

An emphasis on building leadership is a significant component of feminist organizing. In more patriarchal organizing models, there is a focus on designated (and limited) leaders. Alinsky believed that only certain people (read: white males) have leadership ability, intellect, skills, etc to make change and run organizations . The lines between the role of leader and other organizing staff are clearly drawn. In fact, Alinsky encouraged organizers not to live in the community they organize in order to stay more objective and view the situation more clearly. This analysis is clearly very different from women-centered organizing models which focus on organizing coming from the community, from the bottom-up. As women and gender variant folks empower themselves to lead, they embody a confidence that creates an atmosphere that inspires other members to bring out the leader within themselves as well. In Alinsky-type organizing, leadership is limited, condensing skills, experiences, and resources into a vanguard. In opposition, feminist organizing optimizes the number of leaders exponentially by creating an environment where members are constantly supporting and inspiring one another to new levels of self confidence and leadership.

Tactics Alinsky used, such as dramatic actions and visible conflict with power-holders, highlight the notion of taking back power. Stall and Stoecker (1998) highlight Alinsky’s view of power as “zero-sum.” There is a limited amount of power; for a group to gain power they must take it from someone else (power-holders). These tactics definitely have their time and place- but there are many parts of organizing that aren’t exciting and require committing to the long haul. Alinksy’s belief that teal power cannot be given, it must be taken may be directly related to his tendency towards designated leaders. There is only so much power possible so if everyone tries to become leaders it would make an organization weak. Unlike traditional leadership styles, woman-centered styles embrace the model of co-active power. Co-active power operates on the idea that power is not depletable; it can develop through collective action. Alinsky viewed power only as “power-over” whereas women-centered organizing also recognizes “power-with” (co-active power) as well as “power-within” (empowerment of members).

Emotions and Movement Culture

Movement culture plays a large role in whether an individual joins a movement and chooses to stay. Enmeshed in movement culture are the powerful emotions that individuals feel: outrage at injustice, loyalty to fellow activists, love for friends and comrades, and suspicion towards authority. In traditional organizing models, patriarchal fear of expressing emotions (at least those associated with the feminine) and an association of emotionality with weakness cause people to repress their emotions. The professionalization of activism in traditional models like Alinsky’s also discourages the expression or recognition of emotions in organizing, because the emotions are supposed to be confined to the private sphere, whereas an organization for social change is considered part of the public sphere. Alinsky’s organizing style is very focused on the public sphere and is dominated by men, which leads to an emotionless space. Jasper argues that emotions are purposely used by organizers to motivate people and frame events. Organizers try to alter the way people think about an issue by framing an event in a certain way to place blame, shine light on a problem, or stir up emotions. However, emotions relating to events in one’s personal life, such as grief, are pushed away and dismissed.

Women-centered organizing, in contrast, recognizes the importance of expressing emotions and forming emotional bonds in sustaining groups. Organizers can sustain a movement by building a collective identity and forming interpersonal relationships. People enjoy spending time with people that are involved in the movement and frequently close friendships and romantic relationships form. Being a part of a movement or organization makes individuals feel as if they are part of something much bigger. In my experience in SDS, these kinds of bonds were best cultivated in the northeast and national womyn’s caucuses (how surprising).

Movement culture can also be a major component of why people decide to leave organizations and/or activism. Activists have a tendency to isolate themselves from the rest of society. This creates a sense of community and solidarity. However, it can become stifling for members and prevent new folks from getting involved. Burnout is another major factor of why people leave. Activism is stressful and a huge time commitment and the pressure to relinquish one’s life to the movement is daunting. Emotional support, valuing difference and preventing members from martyring themselves for the cause are three major components to building a sustainable movement.

In this way, the process, the struggle, is part of the end goal. The leadership skills, empowerment, connections and relationships that members acquire is almost more important than the actual victory or loss. Traditional organized groups and women-centered groups define success very differently. Even if an organization doesn’t win a campaign is does not mean that the members have not gained skills, built relationships, and learned from mistakes. Even though most woman-centered organizations recognize the importance of systematic change, they also realize the value in individual change. Making change and being a part of something bigger can raise a member’s self-esteem and sense of self-worth. Organizing gives oppressed folks tools to change their lives.

I think in some ways SDS has moved toward a more feminist model of leadership, but we still have a ways to go.


(I used academic journals to find most of these, so if you don’t have access to them and want a copy let me know and I’ll try to send you a PDF or something).

Antrobus, Peggy. 2000. “Transformational Leadership: Advancing the Agenda for Gender Justice.” Gender and Development. 8(3):50-56.

Blackwell, Maylei. 2006. “Gendered Grassroots Leadership.” Pp 38-57 in Líderes Campesinas: grassroots gendered leadership, community organizing, and pedagogies of empowerment.

Crossley, Nick. 2008. “Social Networks and Student Activism: On the Politicising Effect of Campus Connections.” The Sociological Review. 56 (1): 18-38.

Gittell, Marilyn, Isolda Ortega-Bustamante, and Tracy Steffy. 2000. “Social Capital and Social Change: Women’s Community Activism.” Urban Affairs Review. 36(2):123-147.

Grieve, Margaret and Rose Bingham. 1999. Women as Catalysts for Social Change: A Study of Women-led Community Development Organizations.

Jasper, James M. 1998. “The Emotions of Protest: Affective and Reactive Emotions In and Around Social Movements.” Sociological Forum. 13(3):397-424.

Klatch, Rebecca E. 2004. “The Underside of Social Movements: The Effects of Destructive Affective Ties.” Qualitative Sociology. 27(4):487-509.

Loeb, Paul Rogat. 1994. “The World of the Activists: Communities of Concern” Pgs 207-230 in Generation at the Crossroads: Apathy and Action on the American Campus. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.

Martell, Diane and Nancy E. Avitabile. 1998. “Feminist Community Organizing on College Campus.” Affilia. 13(4): 393-410.

Mizrahi, Terry. 2007. “Women’s Ways of Organizing: Strengths and Struggles of Women Activists Over Time.” Affilia. 22(1):39-55.

Polletta, Francesca and James M. Jasper. 2001. “Collective Identity and Social Movements.” Annual Review of Sociology. 27: 283-305.

Rao, Aruna and David Kelleher. 2000. “Leadership for Social Transformation: some ideas and questions on institutions and feminist leadership.” Pp. 74-79 in Women and Leadership, edited by Caroline Sweetman. Eynsham, England: Information Press.

Stall, Susan and Randy Stoecker. 1998. “Community Organizing or Organizing Community? Gender and the Crafts of Empowerment.” Pp 729-756 in Gender & Society, 12 (6).