Sisterhood in application (Part three)

by Guest Blogger

Guest post by Féministe radicale francophone 

Part III: Structuring our resistance

Part I is here, Part II is here.

This is the final part of the series on sisterhood in application. After looking at the consequences of trauma induced by male violence on our groups and how masculinist abuse operates in women-only feminist spaces, in this part I will look at group structure and how certain kinds of structures may favour effective political work and healthy relations in feminist activism. By group structure, I mean not only the structure of relations between the women within a group, but also the way actions are constructed: the kind of priorities established, the way in which objectives are pursued, goals articulated, the strategies or means chosen for their implementation.

Again, this is drawn mostly from my experience in women-only feminist group activism (some of them more or less feminist), from discussions with radical feminists and reading their works, from seeing failures and successes and trying to figure out how and why things went wrong or well. What I will say here are fairly basic understandings of group dynamics, but they are things I would have liked to have seen as I was entering feminist activism. I have uncovered very little articles or books that capitalise on our knowledge and wisdom in feminist group structure, despite the fact that this is greatly needed as we are constantly alienated or excluded from public activity, organisations, collective projects, informal learning processes or mentoring. As a result many women are left with a generalised “group illiteracy” syndrome that saps our ability to organise resistance effectively. Our lack of written production on this topic might also be that many prolific radical feminist writers may not be the ones who focus most of their activity on collective activism, and those who do may have less time or skills to write about their experiences. Or, it could be something else.

Once we have the theory, we understand how patriarchy works and how men oppress us, concerted action must be organised in some way or another for our political power to become real. Feminism has to be real for us. Whichever action we choose, whether we focus on feminist justice, activism, writing, speeches, art, healing (etc.): if we are committed to the liberation of women, our actions should strive to make freedom and justice for us every day closer to reality, push away the putrid, daily violations of men, release men’s suffocating grip over us, shatter their deadly institutions, punish and shame the criminals.

This article will be presented in the form of a list of questions one can ask oneself when taking part in feminist activist groups or when creating a group oneself. They look at different aspects of group structure that I have perceived as essential in many ways – for minimal amount of healthy functioning, for it to be radical feminist in substance and practice, women-centred, safe, politically effective, outreaching, transformative, structured… The list is by no means exhaustive, and only indicative of the many different possibilities that may be best suited for any given feminist group. The reason why I use the words “feminist group” instead of “radical feminist group” is that these considerations may be applicable to any feminist women who wish to set the actions of their women-only group under radical feminist scrutiny, whether the group is only slightly feminist or radical feminist: the structural problems that occur in both types of groups are often very similar. In other words, I try to develop radical feminist criteria for measuring the practice of feminism, as opposed to measuring only the theory or ontology – therefore the criteria adhere to and depart from a radical feminist philosophy. Hereunder are the following questions and points that I found helpful when evaluating the effectiveness of collective feminist enterprises. I exclude individual actions from my analysis.

1. Respect

  • Does the action respect the amount of time we can afford to give, valorise the work we produce, our skills and capacities, and fill us with positive energy?

  • Does the action produce a dignifying and respectful image of women, and refuse to reproduce a pornifying, humiliating or patriarchal image?

  • Are women treated with dignity and respect within and without the group, even our female opponents?

  • Are women’s experiences and issues understood, listened to or criticised with empathy?

Cohesion in a group does not naturally spring up merely because we are together and have the same opinions about the world. Just as one-to-one relationships need to be nurtured for them to go well, so do group relations, especially larger groups. Creating even a minimal common understanding of what is respect and disrespect to our selves, needs, and work for instance is necessary for us to get along together. Under patriarchy, respect means anything other than being respected as women. We are expected to be silently obedient, to defer to men or ply to innumerable and double-binding politeness rules, that seem invented only to restrict our mental and physical activity as women. This is not what is meant here. Respect in the context of feminist groups includes respect for others as well as respect for one’s self. It could define as the following: refusal to enter in intentional harming or vampirism of other women, consideration of one’s needs, boundaries and health and empathy for the needs of our sisters (including capacity to refuse unrealistic demands), consideration of our and other’s work, commitment to working in conditions that are respectful of our time and abilities, and commitment to criticise behaviour or actions rather than the person.

In general, actions that are disrespectful to our time and work (I.e. exploitation or stealth of our work, demanding unrealistic commitments with little or no reward, poor or awful working conditions, unfair distribution of tasks or power…) or disrespectful to ourselves and other women (harassment, insults, trashing, contempt, identity-baiting, etc.) are more likely to be destructive and ineffective in creating change, either for us or for other women. The level of respect for women in a group is a good indicator for judging its level of feminism or woman-centredness. The groups that I encountered in which I was least respected were those that were most male-identified, although claiming to feminist.

2. Safety

  • Does the context in which the action takes place allow us to express ourselves safely, with care and trust for each other?

  • Is there an absence of fear of being harshly judged, bashed, despised, intimidated excluded or silenced (etc.) within the group?

  • Does the action or process ensure a maximum possible level of emotional and physical safety both from external and internal threat?

  • Is the group capable of measuring the level of risk of any given action and does it refuse to engage in actions or activities that are reckless, destructive of self or sacrificial?

  • Does the group protect its members from contact with abusive persons?

  • When working with female victims of male violence, is ensuring the victim’s security from the male abuser the foremost priority of the group?

As said in the previous article, preserving ourselves and our sisters is fundamental for the survival and growth of our movement. It is both a necessary means and end towards our liberation. If I feel emotionally (or physically – more rarely) unsafe in a group, if I observe that relationships are messy, unstable and explosive, this is an immediate warning sign that I should not be there or not take part in the activity. I must be able to trust that they will never trash, insult me or my work, even if we fall apart or disagree.

3. Woman centredness

  • Are every steps of the process done by women and for women?

  • Within the parameters and outreach possibilities of the action, are women’s basic needs, experiences and realities taken into account?

  • Is there a dedication to reach as many women as possible?

  • Does the action depart from the consciousness of our reality, from our perspective?

  • Does the action centre on our primary emergencies as women?

Actions that do not respond to our and other women’s emergencies, needs and experiences under patriarchy are likely to maintain if not increase men’s control over us, even if the women may be sincere about their commitment to feminism. This point especially applies for less-feminist groups whose members have internalised male-centred perspectives of oppression and refuse to see certain forms of sexual violence and their reproductive consequences as central to male power over us.

4. Refusal to attack women / focus on giving positive example / on attacking male power

  • In what way does the action directly remove or reduce men’s power over us?

  • Does the action always name the agent – men – even when highlighting internalised misogyny of some women?

  • Does the action primarily focus on naming, denouncing, attacking male violence, male institutions, punishing (violent) men, or remembering female victims of male violence?

  • If the action focuses primarily on women, do the women of the group refuse to libel, blame or attack individual women in public, and instead focus on promoting positive and dignifying models of womanhood, sisterhood or lesbianism?

  • Does the group refuse to spend most of its time, work and energy on criticising other women?

Something that I find striking is that the moments in which we attack the enemy’s power directly, where we hit him in the eye and seriously damage him are rare – these are big moments in our story, such as the 70’s liberation movement, the Minneapolis civil rights ordinance… By facing the enemy’s power I mean the big rape industries, the big male military, economic, religious and state institutions, but also male criminals, abusers, rapists. Men and their institutions are so hard to attack, socially, physically, psychologically, linguistically or institutionally, and because of this, it’s easy to feel completely powerless and hopeless. How many times, as feminists, do we punish, shame or even lock up male criminals every year, with our own hands, as a group? I have never had the opportunity to do it myself yet, although I am looking forward to when it will happen. Regularly measuring the effectiveness of our actions according to how much male power over women has been removed is a good way not to lose focus of the enemy.

Second, I have noticed that groups which spend most of their time attacking, criticising or blaming women lose a great deal of precious potential in attacking male power, or fail to have significant effect on the outside world: either on men (harming their dominant status) or on women (empowerment in any form). Focusing too much on criticism of women is unproductive, energy-sucking and stifles creativity – while critical thought of work or behaviour of others is necessary to build our own powerful mind and action, staying stuck in criticism of other women robs us away from the time and energy we need to develop our own creativity and positive actions. Mary Daly suggested to use other’s works as springboards whenever we could and to focus mostly on the positive things that we could learn from them.

CM: When feminists criticize your work, where do you think they’re the most wrongheaded?

MD: Maybe they focus too much on criticizing. You know, it seems to me that if you spend a lot of time criticizing rather than creating, that suggests a lack. I do have critiques of de Beauvoir, there are a lot of ways in which I think she’s wrong. And I’ve written about it, but I don’t spend a lot of pages on that; I respect her for what she’s done. So I think a lot of that [focus on criticism] is just leaning on me, or on any village guru — and that’s not what I ever want to be — leaning on me instead of branching out. My intention, say, in writing Gyn/Ecology was to — truly for it to be a springboard, say for example the Second Passage … And instead,You didn’t do it perfectly, there’s something wrong with what you did about the African genital mutilation, oh go to hell. It’s just a springboard! You carry on, when you have specific knowledge.1

5. Positive transformation of our lives

  • What has the action done for us and for women, concretely?

  • How has it benefited women within and without the group, and increased our power in the world (thereby decreasing men’s power)?

  • Have women’s lives been saved?

  • How efficient is the action in improving living conditions of women?

  • What has the action done to transform our lives and the lives of other women positively in a way that increases our understanding, integrity, freedom and safety from male violence and occupation?

I have found these questions a very good test for judging whether we’re in the right direction or not, and maybe one of the most important things to ask when evaluating the effectiveness of a group dedicated to women’s liberation from men.

6. Workcentredness

  • Is work at the centre of the links and relationships between the women in the group?

  • Are different tasks and membership assigned according to competences, rigour, availability, talents and dedication to the movement?

  • Is there an ethic of work?

Political effectiveness requires lots of work; this means that in order to be politically effective, the activities and relationships of the group should be primarily at the service of effective work. As Jo Freeman says, groups should be “task oriented”:

The task determines what needs to be done and when it needs to be done. It provides a guide by which people can judge their actions and make plans for future activity.” And “When a group has no specific task… the people in it turn their energies in controlling others in the group. This is not done so much out of a malicious desire to manipulate others (though sometimes it is) as out of a lack of anything better to do with their talents. Able people with time on their hands and a need to justify their coming together put their efforts into personal control, and spend their time criticizing the personalities of the other members in the group. Infighting and personal power games rule the day. When a group is involved in a task, people learn to get along with others as they are and to subsume personal dislikes for the sake of the larger goal. There are limits placed on the compulsion to remold every person in our image of what they should be.2

This is true especially when rage or despair drive our willingness to act; it becomes all the more important not to let us project our emotions on ourselves or on other women in the group. Focusing our time and energy on tasks and well-structured work helps to channel this rage so to transform it in something positive, in something politically effective at least. I have learnt to refuse to take part in a feminist activist group or activity if I observe that little or no effective work is done, or if my contribution will not lead me or the group anywhere further than it is now: this has saved me a great deal of unnecessary stress. Limiting interactions to work or project interactions limits the risk of getting involved in endless and unproductive criticising or in-fighting.

7. Clear political objectives

  • Is the group capable of clearly affirming goals and establishing priorities?

  • Can the group define its feminist ethical/moral positions and firmly stand by them?

  • Can the group discern opposing / antifeminist perspectives to its own, and refuse to include these ideologies in their agenda, even when demanded in the name of “tolerance” or “inclusion”?

  • Is the group capable of filtering out or refusing to let in those women who oppose the group’s political aims and ethical stances, and thereby threaten the integrity of the group?

Groups that do not start out with clear political objectives and that do not define clearly what ethical stance its members have to adhere to in order to be granted the right to participate, are more likely to be infiltrated by antifeminists or MRAs.

8. Strategy

  • Have the group members determined and agreed on the means for achieving the chosen goals and tasks?

  • Are the means and strategies adapted to the group’s chosen objectives and individual capacities of the group members?

  • Is there an agreement on how to judge the effectiveness of actions?

9. Structure

  • Is there an explicit structure or order to the group adhered to by the members?

  • Is the structure adapted to the objectives and means of the group?

  • Is the structure of the group at the service of good political or work efficiency?

  • Do the group members agree on a common way of functioning?

  • Does the group leave room for the exercise of leadership and development of individual ability to achieve our own potential?

  • Does the structure allow for mutual responsibility, power-checking and transparency?

The ideology of structurelessness is a vicious poison to our movement. Ironically, those who I saw most attached to the ideology, first learnt it in male leftist anticapitalist groups that were highly structured and organised, and then applied it in feminist activism once they entered feminism. When I asked where the feminist activists read this from, they would cite a male name or male-identified group – warning! – male-identified analysis of oppression has never benefited us. Also, I observed that the ideology of structurelessness men pretended to apply never seemed to perturb their ability to coalesce, while its effects on women’s collectives are terrible. The principles mostly only applied to debating techniques anyway, not going any further than addressing speech turns, yet feminists were pressured into making these principles The Golden Rules encompassing all group decision-making processes and all forms of action organising. This led me to conclude that it was designed to destroy only women’s resistance to men.

The fact is, collectivism does not prevent strong and vertical structures to happen, or of women monopolising power, information or resources at the expense of others. If they take place informally, it makes it all the more difficult to challenge.

Thus structurelessness becomes a way of masking power, and within the women’s movement is usually most strongly advocated by those who are the most powerful (whether they are conscious of their power or not). As long as the structure of the group is informal, the rules of how decisions are made are known only to a few and awareness of power is limited to those who know the rules.3

Further, the “we must all have equal power on everything” ideology means that women focus most of their time on debating about internal decision-making processes rather than taking actual decisions. It proves to be a highly inefficient way of working. Janice Raymond says,

As many critics have noted, collectivism prompts women to pursue internal goals – what we might call domestic affairs – at the expense of necessary and needed external tasks, tasks that reach outward toward a wider group. Dynamics of group processing, ways of interrelating within the group, and problems of communication among group members are dealt with and sometimes are dragged out interminably… False life is not real power. Within the enclave of such a group, women may be under the illusion that they are challenging the structures of patriarchal power. Yet no power emerges from a group that silences its best and brightest voices for a false sense of group equality.”4

2Jo Freeman, « The Tyranny of structurelessness », http://www.jofreeman.com/joreen/tyranny.htm

3Jo Freeman, « The Tyranny of structurelessness », http://www.jofreeman.com/joreen/tyranny.htm

4Janice Raymond, A passion for friends, pp. 196-197

5 Responses to “Sisterhood in application (Part three)”

  1. This is an excellent and valuable series. Thank you for the work of writing it. Here are a few thoughts it prompted in me.

    Because of women’s oppression, dissatisfactions with others may tend to go underground, criticising other women behind their backs, for instance. For many women, it has not been safe to disagree and many women have not learned the skills to do this.

    Having agreed-upon processes for dealing with differences and conflicts might be helpful in establishing safety. Also having guidelines for what to do with dissatisfactions could be helpful. For instance, “never say anything behind another woman’s back that you would not be willing to say to her face” is one I heard back along the way. In practice this might mean a first step of consulting with other women to clarify what is going on and how it is affecting you. However, this is done with the end goal of speaking with the other woman about the difficulty you are having with her/her ideas, etc. That means the women in the group with whom one consults are not put in a position of choosing sides, but rather in helping solve a problem in a constructive way.

    Also, sometimes when there is an apparent absence of any conflict it is that the group is engaging in “groupthink.” This may mean that group members are not thinking about problems critically, even suppressing such thinking because they want harmony. But differences can often reveal important perspectives that lead to much greater effectiveness.

  2. Merci beaucoup, FRF, this is well-thought out and thorough. I am learning some of these principles much later in life than I should have. They work with any kind of women’s group – in our case, these principles would be helpful to our women’s band – because the same forces are at work whenever women congregate for any unapproved purpose, which is to say, any purpose not focused on serving men.

  3. Reblogged this on Women's liberation without borders. and commented:
    Excellent. Lisez les 3 séries, fondamentales !

  4. I have loved this article series. Just because women aren’t as bad as men, doesn’t mean we can’t strive to treat one another even *better.* Why set the bar so low for ourselves?

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