By our comrades in Miami Autonomy & Solidarity.
Why Women Should Join Political Organizations
In Miami Autonomy and Solidarity, we have discussions with people that might identify with the “left” in general to see where our political agreement lies; as well as to learn from each other with the goal of reaching enough unity to become members of MAS.
While these discussions have helped us engage with a lot of different people, and have lead to new membership there is a noticeable hole in our group- a severe lack of women members. MAS has prioritized recruiting more women and we have had many continuous discussions with women from different backgrounds, yet none have joined.
For example, one of our members had been meeting regularly with a young woman involved in various social movements here in Miami but had reached a certain point where the discussion stopped. Recently I was speaking with this young woman and she expressed to me that the person she had been meeting with didn’t understand her because she was a woman and he could not see her perspective. Unfortunately, someone that could have over time become a potential member was lost.
Is it because this man could not “understand” her that she did not join? Would it have been different if the discussions had been with me? Though it may have helped a little, I think that the problem is much larger than just identity. It is an issue that I have seen in too many political/revolutionary organizations, and that continues to be a problem as well as a source of frustration for many of these groups; particularly the women who are members of them, but also for those outside of them that may have some ties to these groups.
“Why are there not more women in revolutionary groups?” This is a question that I often ask myself, and one that pushes itself into my consciousness during times like the Class Struggle Anarchist Conference where a woman utilizing the conference space randomly asked me if there was a men’s conference happening that weekend. In the following sections, I will discuss briefly why I think that there is a lack of women in revolutionary groups; as well as why women should join these groups, and why there’s a need for groups to make a serious effort to recruit women.
Until I joined MAS, I had never joined a political organization. Like many women, much of the images and histories of many groups on the Left, or that identified as revolutionary, disillusioned me. I had read and seen the silencing and exclusion of women, a class reductionist mentality, groups that did not engage in social movements but instead focused on tactics like the black bloc and big manifestations, and of course—machismo. These are typical discussions and critiques that have been said many times, and there have been more developed analysis and critiques that I feel do not need to be elaborated here. Besides some of the stereotypes I had of revolutionary groups, I also felt that I did not belong or fit in. I felt like there was nothing for me to get out of it, and for the practical reason that no one ever talked to me about joining either.
Yet, while there are groups that are still hanging on to some of these subculture and insular activities, there has been a shift within some of these groups to focus on organizing and participate in social movements; as well as a recognition of previous behavior towards women, and in many cases a change in how women are treated and respected in a group. So as a woman, I decided to make a choice: I could either continue to work for a non-profit, or be involved with one in some capacity, as an individual, and never see any fundamental change happen, or I could try and put some of my pre-conceived notions about revolutionary groups aside and join a group; making it something that I would want to be part of, that other women would want to be part of, and that hopefully will one day lead to revolution.
I know so many women that have so much to contribute – their ideas, organizing experience, parenting experience, etc.– and have talked with them about many of their frustrations with nonprofits or with individual activism, and yet they continue to work alone. If we continue like this and don’t come together around a common ideological framework then there will never be an end to patriarchy or oppression.
Women throughout the world are living in some of the most severe circumstances–from being the lowest paid workers, often having two jobs, and facing institutional and personal violence, and yet though there are many feminist and women’s organizations that are doing good work to improve the conditions of women, without a fundamental change in society, one where working class women are not exploited by both capitalism and by the state, these will merely be reforms that will only improve the lives of some women and will not guarantee an end to the exploitation of all women.
As bell hooks writes in Talking Back, Talking Black, “Feminism, as a liberation struggle, must exist apart from and as part of the larger struggle to eradicate domination in all its forms. We must understand that patriarchal domination shares an ideological foundation with racism and other forms of group oppression, that there is no hope it can be eradicated while these systems remain intact.” If we don’t work towards ending wage exploitation, we will find that the world will look the same as it does now, with rich women exploiting us and making decisions over our own lives.
Hooks also writes about “learning how to be in solidarity, how to struggle with one another” as part of building a feminist movement. A revolutionary organization is a place where anti-capitalist women can come together and debate ideas, organize together and advance the struggle for a just society. It’s also a place where women can struggle with male comrades around their own sexist beliefs, while also working with them as equals and learning from each other.
Another reason to join a political organization is for the opportunity to grow both personally and politically, by which I mean developing leadership and organizing skills, as well as developing ideas and theory. For me, joining MAS has pushed me out of my comfort zone many times and forced me to grow in ways that working in a nonprofit never could. First of all, it is extremely hard to function as part of a group. There is a steep learning curve for learning how to deal with different personalities, how to express ideas and be respectful of other people’s ideas even when you don’t agree with them, and also learning to be accountable to others. One can say that this is no different from joining an affinity group or a workplace committee or other campaign, but I think that joining a political organization involves much more commitment. Affinity groups and neighborhood committees usually end after a campaign or action, but joining a political group means that you are committing to it for the long haul, obviously growing and changing over time, but working towards one goal.
Another positive aspect of joining MAS has been getting the chance to engage more on a theoretical and ideological level. Before I joined I had not read much theory and felt intimidated; knowing that this a common concern for many women, but in MAS we have a bimonthly reading groups where we read different essays or books, regardless of whether a group member has read it before. Members are also encouraged to bring up topics that they want to learn more about or feel are interesting. It was harder for me at first to engage in the discussion, but with time, it has become easier and I am glad that I have participated. It is only by challenging our comfort zones that we can grow. What is most important to highlight is that no one is an “expert” in all things revolutionary, and no matter the level of theoretical development or organizing experience everyone has something to contribute to the group.
While there is also a certain amount of individual responsibility on women to join groups, it is also important for groups to create the environment that will make women feel welcome and respected. This means prioritizing the recruitment of women, whether it’s by identifying women that are interested or who would be good members, collaborating in events with women/feminist organizations, as well as having a public presence to be able to engage with more women. It also means strategic organizing in mass movements with women, in order to help develop women leaders as well as possible recruits.
If there are new women members in the group, just like any new member, it is important to have someone check in with them and make sure they are not falling through the cracks; as well as make sure that the other women in the group are providing support for new members.
What I am writing is not something new, but I feel that the participation of women in revolutionary organizations is still minimal. As such, I feel a responsibility to urge women who are feeling stuck, alone, and are serious about being part of a larger movement of abolishing all forms of oppression to consider joining a political group. Our voices are often excluded and not heard, and only by inserting ourselves into the discussion will things change. As cliché as it may sound, we must include the fight against patriarchy in our struggle to end capitalism and state control and we can’t do it alone. Women have a lot to contribute, and by being part of a group or even creating a space within a group, we can help push this forward.
29 thoughts on “Women & Revolutionary Organization”
Used to be part of a group. I was part of several socialist groups. Leaving the last was hard but in the end I hope something new will be created. The organization was called Labors Militant Voice. I would say in terms of working class organizing within unions and direct action they have been the most effective. But the group made some fatal political mistakes and as far as I know the group has dissolved.
The mistake firstly was not having a political program written out. We were small and established political agreement through informal discussion. The group voted its leadership in but in terms of coming events decisions made through emails. As a consequence the same people who had the energy to write were the de factor leadership. The theoretical direction was lead by them the documents the group put out were organized by them. It was even to a pount when members of the group would say “the group said this or that” when actually they meant two people. It went fine for the most part until there was a political disagreement. The disagreement this time was a around race and class.
I raised the issue of how socialists should deal with rfeeling racially attacked-especially if that other person is of color. I am a Black woman. This person is Latina. the underlying issue of Black and Latina relations ad well as how revolutionaries should deal with their own oppression is important for militants who face special oppression. The groups response was to generally tell me I was wrong for confronting this woman and because another comrade felt offended for being called on for not confrontating this woman.
Members of the group agreed to have a topic on racism. The first if its kind by the group. So although the group attemptef to deal the issue because the group didn’t have an official position it took the group by surprise. It took me by surprise that we didn’t agree. My position: that the role of the group should first be to condemn racism and then discuss how comrades should handle it individually. I also believe the race question should be addressed as a changing dynamic. For example the racism pol experience on a daily basis is not by the same group that racially controls the means of production.
At the discussion I lead on racism the other comrades would not comment on the issues I raised but engaged about their personal hatred of racism. One comrade with great difficulty conceeded that is wasn’t wrong to confront people’s racism immediately. Wow!
It was difficult for me to continue to engage racial issues or feel comfortable discussing those issues. I mean what’s a socialist group that won’t defend you against racism? Not only that but chastise you for bringing it up!?
Even at that point I didn’t break with the group. The group lead the most militant section of the March 4th movement to defend public education. We were principled fighters and stopped the union bureaucracy from undermining the independent struggle by organizing rank and file members. what bhappened was the group because it didn’t have a stated program the leadership was controlled by a de factor leadership of white men who founded the group who have a class reductionist position on race the group did not grow. The group turned inward on the most active branch. Los Angeles. There were personal tension between me and another Latina member. These tensions grew worse when she took a position that workers who say racist remarks on the job should not be confronted at their jobs. Militants should ‘know better’. The de facto leaders decided the branch of three should be divided into two.
My mother who joined the group after being around for years was battling cancer. I told the group I would slightly withdraw to help take care of by mother. They said they understood but when I was not on the conference call when I and the other comrade were going to be told where we could and could not organize (basically with half of the March 4 militants and at CSULA where the other member attends school ). Comrades denounced us a boycotting.
When I went to a party hosted by another political group in the Bay without telling Bay Area branch members I was their one member resiegned for us. Thus same member a week prior and a few days before the vote sent me a personal email accusing me of being “domineering personalality” and of manipulating one comrade (my male partner) against the other LA member I had tensions with. So sexist is the accusation! Political women who recruit men are often accused of manipulation. This coming from a comrade who often interrupts women and tried unsuccessfully to do that to me a conversation prior to his email.
When this comrade tried to resiegn for me and the other member of the LA branch I said on our list he was micromanaging. Rather than simply respond he mentioned how he thought of sending my mother and member of the group flowers. Of course he didn’t know (and she didn’t want other LMV members to know because she was disgusted with the group by that point) that her doctor gave her 6 months to live. This way May of this year.
Alice Hayes my mother and comrade passed. I am still so hurt by her death. The despicable nature with which members of Labors Militant Voice have acted during this time makes it hard not to be consumed with bitterness. That comrades would exploit that to force other members to order members to not organize at one place. “Comrades” attacked me personally and setup a whole other listserve so I could not read emails. People who I looked to for mentors were consciously isolating me from other members of the group. SHAME ON YOU!
Before my mother passed I was asked by community organizers to run for South Central Neighborhood Council as part of a slate. I ran openly as a socialist and we had a pro-immigrant anti-police brutality anti-ICE platform. I am not aware of any group who has done this in recent LA history. NONE OF THE LMV COMRADES wrote anything publically in support. Accept if course after we won.! Even the member in LA who heard about it not only didn’t vote she told members of other organizations she was didn’t support it and really organized a beach party canceled to be in solidarity with the election on the same day. Such are the ways of petty left sectarianism.
Sorry to go on and on. I’m still pissed. What is important to learn from this is the need to be clear about your political perspective and have a written program, make sure this program deals with complexity of racism and sexism in society and in the group on a regular basis and lastly organize in communities where you want to recruit. Listen and speak to the issues. If Marxism flows from every day life we need to conform our politics to reflect the interest of working people. For example a leaflet at the welfare office weekly. More women will talk with you. Sorry for the diatribe. Thanks for reading. VENCEREMOS!
Thanks to MAS for sharing such a dope and concise piece.
I resonate whole heartedly with what Julia is saying on the comment: to make sure that organizations deal wholeheartedly with the COMPLEXITIES of racism and sexism in society and in the group. Racism and sexism are not just manifestos, politics and programs. They play out also in everyday life and how people are treated as poc, as women, as queers, as gender bending men, etc etc. I want to ask all left revolutionary groups who talk about recruiting women and woc: what are you doing to KEEP women and women of color in the revolutionary organizations? What are these groups doing to maintain a strong feminist and anti-racist culture? Or is it just assumed that groups have these cultures just cos we talk about smashing white supremacy and patriarchy?
It’s not enough to tell women we need to join cos we have to see past identity politics. Collectively, revolutionary organizations also need an INTERNAL CULTURE of supporting anti-racism and anti-patriarchy, things that DONT make it on a flyer, DONT make it on a political statement, but in a well facilitated culture, ethos and knowledge about the lives and expeirneces of women and poc.
I have been thinking about this alot and would like to know how other multigender revolutionary organizations think about this question.
(This is the same person who’s posted on GF before under the name “JK”)
The MAS piece says:
” Hooks also writes about “learning how to be in solidarity, how to struggle with one another” as part of building a feminist movement. A revolutionary organization is a place where anti-capitalist women can come together and debate ideas, organize together and advance the struggle for a just society. It’s also a place where women can struggle with male comrades around their own sexist beliefs, while also working with them as equals and learning from each other.”
I think this gets at the kind of internal culture that’s important not just for recruiting and retaining women and transfolks, but for having an organization that’s sustainable in the long term. It seems pretty obvious, but it’s worth saying that it’s really important for organizers to build solidarity with each other! This means, among other things, a willingness to accept constructive criticism without getting immediately defensive. This is hard to do, but it’s essential. It also means valuing the caring work that is essential to maintaining a functional group. Revolutionaries don’t just need to develop our skills at debating Marx, we also need to learn how to treat ourselves and each other well, how to support each other. “Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement” is a continued source of inspiration for me on this last point.
All too many political organizations implode over this stuff. In the end, having the most awesome revolutionary program isn’t going to do much good if internal sexism and racism keep you from building a movement or from being able to organize sustainably.
This resonated with me, “This means, among other things, a willingness to accept constructive criticism without getting immediately defensive. ”
Whether it is white men, middle class people, men of color, straight men etc. I have not figured out why so many people who join revolutionary groups cannot handle (constructive) criticism. Should this problem be looked at from a psychological perspective, how do we politicize this problem, understand it socially etc.
I think part of the problem is that when a lot of folks join a revolutionary group they forget that we are all carrying racism, patriarchy etc from this society and to a degree bringing it in to the organization. So perhaps being clearer that joining a rev organization does not end the process of working on things internally. Most of the progressive left I have been around though turn this broad problem into a situation where they are permanently on the hunt for internal patriarchy and racism. This is one of the basis for privilege politics which I am against. But that does not leave us anywhere other then what not to do.
There is something about self-improvement on political terms which can still be reclaimed without falling into privilege politics or navel gazing.
Another problem is the fear that raising any issues of sexism will split the group/ cause huge crisis.
I have not seen any organization figure out the way forward on this so far.
“Most of the progressive left I have been around though turn this broad problem into a situation where they are permanently on the hunt for internal patriarchy and racism. This is one of the basis for privilege politics which I am against. But that does not leave us anywhere other then what not to do.”
I agree, and along similar lines I think it’s important not to do the opposite of what JOMO is talking about — making a group anti-patriarchy *only* in dealing with its internal culture, while not having anti-patriarchal external organizing. This means something more significant than just having the phrase “anti-patriarchy” on a flyer. For example, a group that’s active in the movement against university privatization could take up child care as a serious demand or campaign. This might give members a better sense of what being anti-patriarchy is all about, and might help open the door for the sorts of conversations needed for more internal work.
I really appreciated the article, and thanks julia for sharing her experiences and thoughts. On the topic of why women (and other oppressed folks) don’t join or don’t stay in revolutionary organization, i think the issues are as much about the organizational political program as about the interpersonal relationships. For instance, a newly female member may hear a male leader making a sexist/heterosexist comment in the meeting but hesitated to confront (and no other members address the issue immediately), she may feel angry, isolated, stupid, or thought she was just being overly sensitive, and later became silent, compromised, or stopped getting involved as much. If this pattern continued, consequently, she would be seen a less important member, not a leader, and thought herself was not leader either. And by the time it would be too late for the group to judge why this woman can’t just “get over herself” or overcome all her weaknesses.
What i was trying to say is that, it could start from a very small issue, and if the organization does not have the policy or culture to prevent or resolve it, we can lose women, easily. Like what JOMO pointed out, supporting women’s liberation is not just about writing it on the fliers, or adding it to the end of our speech, but to actively paying attention to the everyday organizational and interpersonal dynamics. To notice who seems uncomfortable, confused, isolated, silent, or angry, and ask them why? We should pay as much attention to the women who speak but also the women who don’t speak, and the ones who joined and the ones who don’t join.
Also, like what julia pointed out, if the organization does not have consistent intention and priority to talk about racism, sexism, heterosexism, etc, and only has one special topic day/week to discuss these things, it becomes very awkward, uncomfortable, and nonproductive, and often lead to unresolvable disagreements and tensions.
i look forward to hearing other folks’ thoughts on this issue.
Good discussion, and thanks for posting. Fray brings up a crucial point, which is understanding how we build an anti-sexist and anti-racist practice that moves beyond the present activist practice to one that really challenges systemic oppression. Dolores has done a great deal to think hard and challenge our practices, and try to show a way forward.
It should be thought about that with all the work done on gender, there is so little work (or at least practice) on how we develop and retain women organizers. Dolores gives us some good reasons why this is so.
the example that Dolores raised at the beginning of this essay is important for discussion, and is related to the point initially raised by JOMO: creating a feminist culture in a group.
i’m very sympathetic to women who have a hard time joining a group through the contact of a dude who’s already a member of the group.
it can’t simply be written off as an issue of identity politics. identity is hella important, although it’s important to note that politics can’t be reduced to identity.
what i mean is that women have gendered and patriarchal experiences with men that may make them hesitant to join a group. that sort of suspicion is a result their experience of gender oppression, and their reflections on these experiences. this suspicion is to be expected result of living in a patriarchal society.
we’ve taken this very seriously in our organizing here in TX. as JOMO mentioned, we’ve discussed that anti-patriarchy is not just a program or a line, it needs to be a part of the life of the organization. one of the ways we’ve developed this is similar to what Dolores describes: we have institutions such as collective study for all of our members, and encourage all of our members to have as many political experiences as possible in the group; from public speaking, writing flyers, developing meeting agendas, facilitating meetings, helping teach newer members the ropes, and passing on the history and lessons of our group.
we have many discussions about the body politics of a group, and the need to develop women leadership.
i think because of these things we’ve succeeded in building a majority women group here in TX. it’s not a revolutionary organization, but i have no doubt any one of the women in our local group could handle themselves against any other revolutionary on the Left.
CLR James talked about “Americanizing Bolshevism” and his practical argument of this was his defense of all-Black organization that not only address specifically Black concerns, but that embody the cultural experience of Black America. while there’s no one text or aspect of Black culture that can sum this up, books like DuBois’s “The Souls of Black Folks” are important insights into that experience.
similarly, books like “This Bridge Called My Back” express something that is intangible but is the beginnings of an important articulation of the experience of women of color that cannot be reduced to program, line or political economy.
i’m not sure my thoughts on this are completely clear.
Thanks for posting this up and kicking this discussion off and thanks Julia for sharing your experience (good to hear from you btw, its been like 2 years! and sorry to hear about your mom and how things went with LMV). With LMV it sounds like some major issues around informal leadership and lack of serious discussion of race and gender that made folks not went to address the issues that arose. Its not a totally uncommon feature of what issues many left and movement groups suffer from. Weren’t some of the folks in Advance the Struggle part of this grouping? Do they have any insights into this and what contributed to these dynamics?
What I liked most about this piece is as Dolores says- what she is saying is not something new but I’ve seen anybody put allot of these down somewhere. I’ve heard comments along these lines from a number of women and woc organizers and comrades that I’ve worked with over the years. Especially the aspects of being disillusioned from political groups by fronting and machismo and being overly heady theory spaces minus on-the-ground praxis, being intimidated by not being familiar with left political theory (this I’ve heard allot) and feeling isolated and marginalized within larger mass movements both politically and by race/gender dynamics (this being a close second).
As far as practices that contribute to working against these tendencies and promote positive develop for women as members and leaders within political orgs—I think other folks are on point and this comes from our experience in Amanecer as well that internal dynamics are key and feminist praxis has to be seen as something that starts in the group, not just slogans on flyers and statements as said above. Collectively focused leadership and collective study I think are key aspects of that. Some things that have been helpful are gender caucuses at our conferences and occasionally by phone conference where folks can have a space to check in about things and dynamics.
One thing that I’ve thought about is how political development mostly happens on the left— individuals who self-initiate study either through networking with more experienced radicals and (now becoming more and more popular) readings that folks find over the internet (which sometimes includes blogs and forums which are open, but usually have pretty poor dynamics). This means most of the left develops through a process of spontaneous and informal osmosis. The problem with this is that this is a pretty gendered process—the people who turn to doing this and who gets informally mentored are usually men. On the other hand many sharp women I’ve met developed through some type of collective study and more formal processes of political development and mentorship…. Point being that the better the left gets at developing more structured spaces for political development and leadership building, then the better I think we will be at overcoming the dynamics Dolores speaks to.
I agree 100% with how the absence of formal political development/training structures have very gendered impacts. I know myself and many political women have been intimidated in the past by informal male mentors precisely because access to knowledge seemed to be tied too closely to personal relationships/friendships. This is not to say that informal mentoring does not happen, or that it is bad! I think it is a wonderful way to build a sense of community and mentorship REQUIRES informality and flexibility to be effective! However, in my experience, the informality and depth of relationship can thrive and not be mistaken for favortism, or “hitting on”, when there also exists a more formal structure of leadership development that everyone has access to. I hope this makes sense.
I believe 100% too that there is a need to think about women;s leadership, how to support, how to take people’s concerns seriously etc. But I think having a feminist/anti-patriarchal culture in an organization goes further and deeper than thinking about who is on the bull horn at rallies, or who speaks in study groups etc. Again, this shit IS important and multi-gender rev orgs need to move forward in this direction. But it is not enough because patriarchy is a lived experience for people of all genders, particularly women! and there needs to be a sense that there is a rev organization is a space to BEGIN to move toward new social relations. I am not saying we need to be utopian, but people stay in struggle BECAUSE they see it not simply as politics and program and if anything, multigender rev org need to show that they understand the social relations that patriarchy has institutionalized and begin to think about what needs to change, even when we are aware that patriarchy as a whole cannot be overthrown on its own.
What I have noticed sometimes is that leftists are able to talk a lot about patriarchy as a political program, and some of us are able to brainstorm structures for making leadership and involvement more egalitarian etc, but I dont think there has been enough attempt to actually understand the life and experiences that women go through on a daily basis. Understanding the institutionalized ways that patriarchy has shaped the lives and fears of women in everyday life is important because it makes our politics richer, and it gives us a direction for the struggle — that it is not just about fighting the bosses, but it is also about the next generation of young girls being able to grow up without the fear of rape or domestic violence and all its invasive, intensely painful distortions on women’s sense of self. the bosses might disappear in the revolution we pursue, but men won’t. we can’t externalize or purge this form of gendered oppression, and for many women, we need to be able to know that this form of transformation is important also in revolutionary organization and movements.
i dont fight for a revolution where bosses exist to exploit workers. similarly, i dont fight for a revolution where domestic violence and rape can still happen.
i know everyone will agree to this. but what are we doing about it in our everyday lives in organizations we are a part of, as a commitment to maintaining anti-patriarchal culture, without immediately getting defensive to ptove that we are not patriarchal?
how many of us in multigender revolutionary organizations understand the politics and dynamics of domestic violence and rape? why is that kind of activism still so gendered?
i am not in any way saying that rape, or DV is only experienced by women. i know people of all genders experience this shit. Patriarchy is a system that affects all of us. however, i think surviving DV and rape is also different from politicizing it and taking the next step to organize around and against it. the latter is still predominantly women.
has DV work or anti-rape work been taken up by the revolutionary left? i mean it not in terms of just having “gender time” like we see “race time” happening. I mean an integrated analysis of DV and rape that also permeates our understandings of race, class, imperialism etc, and our everyday relationships. Or have we allowed the liberal feminist orgs and identity politics group to monopolize that work, and alongside that, any conversations around this form of gendered oppression? If so, why?
I have more questions than I have answers for.
I am raising these issues in a constructive manner. If groups or individuals have thoughts/experiences on this stuff, and how they or their organizations have worked to integrate anti-patriarchy in their everyday organizational lives, please email or respond.
Thanks Julia for sharing your experiences with LMV. I agree with folks that one of the key problems Julia’s story illustrates is the danger of what feminist theorist Jo Freeman called “the tyranny of structurelessness.” Without formal structures that can elect leaders, hold them accountable, and create a critical pedagogy/teaching process between mentors and mentees you end up with informal leadership structures where individuals have unaccountable power. In a patriarchal society that prepares men to assume these kind of leadership roles better than it prepares women, this can stifle women’s development as revolutionary militants and leaders. In every group there are leaders and we might as well recognize them so we can hold them accountable; those who ARE mentoring should learn from the folks they’re mentoring and those who are newer to the group should have room to critique the teaching of their mentors directly so the group can stay dynamic. Over time this will hopefully counteract the patriarchal dynamic of the capitalist educational system and will lead to a solid crew of revolutionary women leaders and teachers. Then women coming around will see that the group is a place they can grow and develop.
Ironically in LMV the tyranny of structurelssness seemed to be tied to an authoritarian centralism where the leadership tried to micromanage what was going on in the LA branch in an unfair way. This shows that unity needs to be built through consistent healthy debate and internal struggle, not mechanisms imposed by the leadership. The same thing is true of the broader class struggle – Julia, your attempt to confront a fellow worker over that workers’ racism is part of the working class growing stronger by overcoming it’s internal contradictions. It is healthy and necessary. This process is not neat or tidy and at times it can and should get heated. You can’t subordinate those conflicts in the name of “Black and White unite and fight”, “Brown and Black unite and fight” or “men and women unite and fight.” I tried to make that point to one of the leaders of LMV once and he was very dismissive and suggested this point is just “liberalism”.
In terms of domestic violence and sexualized violence, I agree this is something the Left needs to take up and it’s related to avoiding the tyranny of structurelessnes. A lot of groups break up because of unhealthy sexual relationships between members, bad breakups, or, in worst case scenarios, sexual assault or sexualized violence that is not dealt with justly. COINTELPRO and other forces of disruption can play off these dynamics to destabilize militant groups. The Left needs to think about how to pro-actively deal with these kinds of situations BEFORE they happen, not just in times of crisis.
One of the key things is to make sure that women in the group who have male partners in the group have access to mentoring and support beyond their male partners. This is especially true if you have a situation where a man in the group is in a sexual relationship with a woman who is just coming around the group for the first time. If this newer woman has access to several mentors of different genders not just her partner then if something goes wrong with her relationship with her partner she wont’ feel she will be cut out from the group or denied access to the support she needs to grow politically. This can make it easier to have healthy relationships and can be a safeguard in case domestic violence or sexual harassment situations develop. It is important to practice this even if the male partner is authentically anti-patriarchal and is not an abuser or perpetrator of sexualized violence; it creates a healthy preventative culture and fosters a sense of collective responsibility where all women and men in the group need to take responsibility for developing the leadership of women who are coming around the group for the first time. In reality, this needs to be done for anyone who is sexual with a current member of the group, not just women in heterosexual relationships, but it is especially important with women in heterosexual relationships because of the history of sexual harassment and sexualized violence and the power dynamics of patriarchy these reinforce in society at large. This also not to say that domestic violence can’t ever happen among queer folks or with a woman doing it against a man, that happens too and we would need to deal with it.
In Democracy Insurgent we wrote a sexualized violence protocol that laid all of this out, among other points. I agree with Jomo and others though that putting these kinds of things into practice requires more than just good structures and a good, anti-patriarchal / feminist political program. It also requires an understanding of how women experience patriarchy on a day to day basis. People in the group of all genders need to understand this. Moreover, there is not one singular way women experience patriarchy, and there often needs to be dialogue AMONG women militants about this so that one person does not impose her experience on another. I think we can facilitate that understanding by creating a healthy social culture where folks are nurturing and supportive of each other. We can’t just be a collection of individuals who come together to do political projects; we need to be a team with a sense that we all have to take responsibility for the caring work that sustains each other emotionally so we can go into battle the next day together. We can also facilitate that by encouraging folks to read biographies of women militants who had to struggle with patriarchy in their daily lives in order to do the work they did.
I know these suggestions are limited. Do folks have other suggestions for how to facilitate this? What has worked in your experiences?
Finally, Unity and Struggle has a strong critique of privilege politics, which is the idea that all men are inherently sexist and all women are inherently anti-sexist (or, alternatively that all white folks are inherently racist, etc.) I think a lot of Leftist men are defensive about being called out for patriarchy because they are used to Left scenes where privilege politics dominate. They think that if they own up to one sexist action they did then they will be branded as inherently, essentially sexist and will never be allowed to change. That doesn’t in any way justify their defensiveness and they need to deal with their shit and stop getting so defensive because it disrupts attempts to build anti-patriarchal groups. But at the same we need to remember to criticize men for patriarchal behaviors and encourage them to change precisely because we think they CAN change. In other words we respect their self-activity and freedom but with that self-activity comes responsibility. They don’t need to be brainwashed or reeducated or removed from our social circles, they just need to deal with their shit and take responsibility for it. As a revolutionary man I don’t want to go around saying I’m an exception to the rule, the good man, the one who isn’t like the rest, etc. – that’s some egoistic bullshit. What I’m trying to do every man can and should do, and I still have a lot to learn.
Also, we are all about calling out folks who opportunistically race or gender bait people to shut down radical arguments (especially if these folks are bureaucrats, cops, politicians, mangers, etc who bait men or white folks for struggling against the patriarchal and white supremacist system these rulers help manage). We say privilege politics is patronizing to women and people of color because it puts all of the agency for changing patriarchy and white supremacy on individual white men “seeing the light” instead of on collective struggle lead by women and people of color. But we can make a much stronger case against privilege politics and opportunism when we successfully model an alternative to privilege politics in our own practice. Privilege politics exists partly because the Left was unable to deal with race and gender oppression inside their groups so opportunistic privlege politics folks stepped in to deal with it in flawed ways like holding expensive seminars on white male privilege where people pay hundreds of dollars just to become more confused and difficult to be around. We need to deal with power dynamics in healthy ways that strengthen our groups and that will make privilege politics and those who peddle it increasingly irrelevant. The kinds of questions we are discussing here help us do that better. Unfortunately not enough has been written up about this publicly so I really appreciate Delores and MAS for taking the lead on that.
P.S. – One factual clarification – Adam, none of the Advance the Struggle folks were even in LMV. From what I understand they worked in coalition to fight the budget cuts but have political differences, including over how to fight patriarchy and white supremacy. AS folks can speak to this better than I can though.
sorry , just saw a typo, I meant none of the AS folks were EVER not EVEN in LMV .
This has been a great discussion. I think JOMO raises some really important questions that I hope folks in the Seattle organizing “milieu” (which I’m a part of) will take up.
Mamos, I agree with your post overall, and I share a lot of your criticisms of privilege politics, along with those that BaoYunChen raised in the “No Excuses” piece. But I don’t think you’re accurately characterizing them in some respects, at least not groups I’ve been a part of in the past. In particular, I never heard anyone in these groups claim that all women are inherently anti-sexist — in fact, a lot of women focused quite a lot on unlearning internalized sexism. Also, I’d interpret the meaning of saying that a man or a white person is always going to be sexist or racist in a different way than you say. Rather than saying that this is some essential, unchangeable part of someone’s character, it is recognizing that, as long as we live in a patriarchal, white supremacist world, someone who is struggling to unlearn that — no matter who they are — is on an unbeaten, uphill path. This doesn’t mean that they can’t change. I take it more as a counterargument to the tendency to try to create walled in anti-patriarchal utopias without engaging in the outside world. So I think this is still a useful concept for revolutionary groups.
I’m bringing this stuff up because I hope it will be helpful to groups that are making connections with women and people of color who may be part of the privilege politics scene right now but are also interested in militant or revolutionary organizing.
I hear you Fray, thanks for those corrections. I think there are variations of privilege politics, not just one line. I have heard folks say that all women are anti-sexist but I’ve also heard folks focus on undoing internalized patriarchy. I also think undoing internalized patriarchy is important, even if we might disagree with how it’s done in privilege politics scenes.
You write: “as long as we live in a patriarchal, white supremacist world, someone who is struggling to unlearn that — no matter who they are — is on an unbeaten, uphill path.” I agree strongly with that. Recognizing the difficulties is important because it shows that we can’t just change as individuals, we need to collectively fight to change the system that makes this shit so difficult. That means that men should work with women and transfolks to fight patriarchal institutions and not just “deal with our shit” in isolation. There needs to be a dynamic integration between internal and interpersonal work around these dynamics and collective struggle against the institutions that create and reinforce these dynamics. Men have reasons to participate in this kind of feminist struggle: 1) solidarity with women and transfolks and 2) because patriarchy also oppresses us and prevents us from being who we want and need to be.
I also agree when you emphasize the difficulties men have in being anti-patriarchal as ” a counterargument to the tendency to try to create walled in anti-patriarchal utopias without engaging in the outside world.”
I also came out of privelge poltics scenes before I became a revolutionary and one of the things that used to bother me was hearing men say they know they are sexist and know they can never change that so they are “doing work” to “get in touch with their inner sexist and understand it.” I thought that was the biggest cop-out and a huge evasion of their responsibility to change their behavior. In our circles we reject that eternal guilt as part of our rejection of privilege politics. But the danger of doing that is that men can end up being unwilling to admit that certain aspects of their behavior might have patriarchal effects in an organization because we don’t want to come off as one of those guys perpetually wallowing in the shit of the patriarchal world – we want to decisively break from that world. We see patriarchy as something that needs to be fought militantly, not patiently discussed or “worked on” like those guys with privilege politics always say. So men might worry that if something they did has patriarchal effects that they might now be “the enemy” that needs to be smashed. Hence folks get defensive if they are criticized.
It’s true that the institutions of patriarchy need to be fought militantly but we also can’t pretend that our circle or our organization is somehow walled off from those institutions and immune from their corrosive effects. While I think we generally are on the right track towards building an anti-patriarchal organization that doesn’t mean the broader society doesn’t break in and affect our behaviors from time to time. When that happens it does need to be dealt with in a patient and critical way. In other words revolutionary feminism can’t just be a matter of “friends and enemies” where you’re either an anti-patriarchal militant on our team or a patriarch who we need to smash…. while drawing lines like that is useful for overall struggle and something that privilege politics scenes don’t do enough of, it’s not that useful for critiquing specific behaviors or interpersonal dynamics that might creep up from time to time in our own organizations. What we need is a more dialectical (meaning multi-sided and complex) approach. Our organizations are a product of the patriarchal society; we are also part of the tendency of everyday people to try and break out of the shell of that old society but that is an unfinished process, hence the need for revolution and revolutionary organization in the first place!
This is my first time commenting on GF. This is a great article and the discussion is perhaps even better; there is a lot of nuance to people’s perspective in the desire to actively deal with internal dynamics and actively confront incidents in a clear and accountable way when they do come up. My contribution to this would be to say that groups not only need to look at internal dynamics, but the way in which systems of oppression are spatialized in group work – this can be as basic as making sure there is wheelchair access or available childcare and as complex as examining the ways in which the group presents itself (where it locates meetings, the language used in propaganda, which struggles it chooses to participate in or set up as priorities, who is out representing the group in public, etc.) to root out patterns of whiteness, middle-class consciousness, heterosexism, and patriarchy (obviously applying this to internal dynamics as well).
An example of something with this in mind is that myself and my partner will be starting up a study group soon, and we will intentionally wait a few meetings to invite certain men (who are friends of ours) who have a tendency to dominate or reinforce certain patriarchal patterns of informal male leadership. The group will probably be around 75-80% women at first, and in this way we will work to intentionally cultivate a radical feminist internal CULTURE which is strong enough to handle and call out men (myself included) who unintentionally reinforce gender norms and privilege patriarchal forms of organization and struggle. The experience will hopefully be helpful to the men who join, as sometimes all it takes is an opportunity to work within this sort of culture to become more aware of the dynamics – and they can then bring this to other groups they may work with.
“Our organizations are a product of the patriarchal society; we are also part of the tendency of everyday people to try and break out of the shell of that old society but that is an unfinished process, hence the need for revolution and revolutionary organization in the first place!”
Well said Mamos. I have to be quick so I can’t say much more… But it looks like I stand corrected on one or more A/S folks being members of LMV, I think I crossed some of my connections because it was so many years ago. But thanks for calling that out and apologies for any confusion.
There are a lot of great contributions on this thread! One point I want to build off of relates to the question of mentorship. A few things have already been laid out with regard to mentoring new women who may join/be part of a revolutionary organization: that there should be multi-gendered mentoring so a woman’s contact is with others and not just her partner; that it should be both informal and formal with political development/training structures in place alongside interpersonal mentoring; etc. I want to second and add to Jomo’s point that mentoring needs to be flexible.
Women ourselves have to define what being a militant looks like for us. I could see this being interpreted in three potentially negative ways – i.e. that men have nothing positive to contribute towards defining women’s leadership/militancy; that women and men are militants in inherently different ways; or that important things male militants do are “masculinized” and therefore supposedly not something women should know how to do.
I’ve seen the latter a lot, and in its worst form it is a cop out for women to avoid developing ourselves in ways that society typically does not encourage us to. There is definitely a need for women to reclaim certain aspects of being a revolutionary as multi-gendered because they are things we’ve done historically but today somehow get cast as “men’s work” (i.e. I recently was in a conversation debating whether armed struggle is inherently masculine and therefore patriarchal, which ignores a long and vibrant history of women fighters who have picked up arms to defend strikes, to fend off sexual violence, to fight in national liberation struggles, etc.).
But I don’t mean this point in an overly-subjective way. The definition of being a militant should still meet whatever membership standards or responsibilities laid out by the revolutionary organization we are part of. Plus there are certain common themes/skills that many militants have exhibited historically which are worth replicating or sharing today (hence the importance of reading biographies of past fighters). But I’ve seen enough cases where revolutionary organizations try to force women militants to play a role we don’t want to play and/or are not ready for yet and then you end up with disillusioned women who leave the group or women whose confidence is destroyed by not being able to fully play that role.
The roots of this “forcing” in some parts of the left come from the fact that almost everyone will acknowledge that there needs to be women leadership in struggles/organizations, but then many will not put the work in to develop that leadership in healthy, fulfilling and sustainable ways. Instead they either force women into those positions before they’re ready and don’t give them any support to grow into it or they project a woman as a leader publicly while privately they carry on as if she’s not one.
But if our mentoring of women is rooted in a sense of replicating the content of militancy with flexibility towards the form in which women (and men) may express that then I think that helps us avoid some of the above pitfalls and gives women more space to come into, stay in and make important contributions to the theory and practice of revolutionary organization.
One other thing: I also wanna second Jomo’s point that revolutionary organizations as a whole, as well as the structures revolutionaries build in our organizations that attempt to attract and develop women militants have to be informed by experiences of how patriarchy functions.
To give one example. An experience I’ve had with a male mentor who was very patriarchal was that his actions and particularly the negative way in which he would talk about other women members in the organization contributed to a lack of trust between myself and other women members. This weakened our ability to challenge his patriarchy because we weren’t having honest and open conversations where we might share and reflect on our experiences with him and recognize that the fucked up dynamics in our relationships with him were not individual problems but part of a larger organizational/political problem.
That having happened, I would say now an important measure for testing the strength of an organizational structure that attempts to develop women militants would be to see the extent to which it maintains open lines of communication and nurtures trust between women, and between women and other members. To what extent does it develop independent relationships between women that are not centered around or through a male member?
Wow! Great discussion! There are so many great points on this thread that are really useful in thinking of our revolutionary organizations. I don’t have anything to add at this time; but hope that we take some of the insight from this thread back to our groups to try to implement it (or improve the implementation of it) in our praxis. So I just want to echo the whole idea that the best argument against both class reductionism and liberal identity politics is a coherent, developed and PRACTICED revolutionary class-based alternative praxis rooted in external, internal and interpersonal anti-patriarchy, anti-racism and general anti-oppression/ egalitarianism, etc. Hopefully this dialogue will continue to advance as our praxis advances on the group. Thanks comrades for all of the insight and ideas so far!
I’d like to add a couple of ideas to this vibrant discussion.
I think that building inter-generational comradeship can be helpful in learning how to build healthy group dynamics. Someone above mentioned reading biographies and it made me a little sad to think that so many terrific militants drop away after a certain age and no longer stick around to personally greet new generations of militants, who are left reading books about them!
I don’t have any hard proof of this but I bet one of the reasons they aren’t around is that care-taking responsibilities like raising children or caring for their elders became a more central aspect of their lives. Often in our society, these responsibilities are taken up by women.
This has left a void within militant circles that can be quickly filled by elder men, giving a disproportionate amount of tone-setting room to people who have not done much care-taking work and therefore can have a distorted understanding of the role of that work in a capitalist society.
Many of us women militants “of a certain age” (40+) de-mobilize for years at a time to tend to our families’ needs. I am not knocking this as a bad thing! The years I spent raising children and struggling to keep my family fed and clothed were central to my political development even if it didn’t outwardly look very interesting. When my children grew old enough and I was ready to engage politically in a more overt way again I found that I was stronger, more confident, more radical in my thinking, more furious, and less willing to take any shit.
My good luck to go back to school just as people were organizing around budget cuts led me to find and connect with some of the most impressive young militants I could have imagined. I have learned so much from studying and organizing alongside them! I look at what I can offer to them in exchange for what they are teaching me and I think it has something to do with what we can do to sustain life-long political activity.
Many older militants lose touch and connection because unhealthy group dynamics can drive deep wedges between comrades. I think it can be helpful for older comrades to share their experiences in how NOT to treat each other, because guaranteed, older comrades have seen the gamut of messed-up shit in our day.
It has taken me a lot of years of trial and error to learn some useful things about how to respect the life around me and I’m still learning how to be accountable and how to act with integrity in my relationships. I think that my care-taking years taught me a lot about how to treat people.
This comment is a little disjointed but I think it could be healthy for groups struggling with the questions raised in this discussion to confer a little with older comrades that you meet who aren’t authoritarian, who don’t pull rank, but who genuinely meet you as comrades, but also might have some really deep insights on what it takes to stick around and stay viable for the long haul.
And please don’t assume by appearances that just because we’re older we’re gonna pull rank!
Thanks to all for a good discussion, especially Huli’s last comment. Striving for an intergenerational movement is so necessary. Older organizers and younger ones have so much to offer and learn from each other. Any efforts to bridge that gap I feel should be applauded and encouraged. At the same token I am personally tired of many of the old school long-time 70s radical dudes who are still stomping around Seattle. They have a long, rich legacy to share with us… but damn.
I second so much of what you all have written, my extra 2 pennies is as follows:
“We can’t just be a collection of individuals who come together to do political projects; we need to be a team with a sense that we all have to take responsibility for the caring work that sustains each other emotionally so we can go into battle the next day together.”
YES. In addition, it’s not a new point by any means if course, but we also need to all take responsibility for raising our children! And if there aren’t any of “our children” around, we need to ask why that is!
Like Huli mentioned, how many women have had to step back from organizing to bring up their children and the next generation? Imagine what past movements would have looked like if mothers had help with some childcare and had their involvement actively encouraged by everybody else.
Sorry to beat a deadhorse for the people who know me, but I am very much inspired by the work of Childcare Collectives across the US. Providing free and quality childcare to right-on groups is a powerful tool to support the involvement of working-class, immigrant and parents of color. What sort of Left movement is going to leave it to parents to individually pay babysitters or work out arrangements with family and friends? Does the price of admission into our organizing include not having kids?
Talking with somebody in the Bay Area Childcare Collective a while back, it was striking to hear that even among their core members and volunteers, they struggled some with turn-over… Folks with all the right-on analysis and etc. eventually wanting to go on or go back to the “real” organizing over sexy issues. I can’t think of much more that is real or “sexy” than building relationships with families in your town across lines of race, class and nationality. It makes me wonder to what degree we all have a bit of the “star-of-the-leftist-movement” narrative running in our heads.
I feel it’s not my place to delve into it, as I am not involved, but I know people in Seattle have faced the need for childcare while organizing with janitors at UW. I think it’d be valuable for somebody to share that experience here.
On top of this, what options are open for 80’s babies who have kids now or are going to eventually? I feel like we are on track to repeating what Huli’s and other generations have done.
So much more to say of course. I will think things over a bit and try to come up with some worthy answers or thoughts to JOMO’s questions.
(Please don’t let this derail the prior discussion and comments!)
Excellent points Huli and David.
What activists sometimes forget is that the “big-issue” struggles like anti-budget cuts, anti- police brutality, etc. require a lot of caring work. No leader is worth his or her salt if she isn’t doing caring work for the people in his/ her organization. And you can’t really do that caring work unless you’re building relationships with folks’ families and loved ones. When folks have kids, helping out with childcare and figuring out ways to help folks involve their kids in the movement in healthy ways is a key part of this.
With the custodian organizing, the key custodian militants who are in and around IWSJ have brought their kids and other family members to events and have invited other members of the group who don’t have kids to their own kids birthday parties and other family events. We’ve also cooked for each other, done potlucks, etc. This community building has been key and it keeps us all going in difficult times like the one we’re going through now.
Most of the key rank and file custodians who are in/around IWSJ are men. There are other key rank and file women leaders who we have organized with in the past but it’s been more difficult for them to remain part of the struggle when the struggle has declined like it has now due to police repression and managerial divide and conquer tactics. These women militants came out and took the lead when actions heated up and withdrew when things got slower. Part of this is the pressures of second jobs and childcare responsibilities . We have repeatedly offered to do support them with childcare so they can come out to meetings but they haven’t accepted this support. It could be that we are young workers without experiences raising our own kids and are not professional childcare workers so folks don’t see us as having the necessary childcare skills. After all, childcare is skilled labor and you need to be good at it to do it well. It could be we don’t know each other well enough for them to trust us with their kids (which is a catch 22 becuase we won’t get to know each other better unless they have the time to meet up). It could be that folks live all over the city and in the distant suburbs becuase gentrificaiton in Seattle makes it near impossible for workers to live near their workplace. It wouldn’t work for folks family schedules to do childcare near the meetings and many of us are broke and don’t have cars where we could go to their houses. Folks live in all different places and we wouldn’t have enough people to go to all the different neighborhoods and because folks are spread out we can’t just move the meetings to a convenient place near their homes. This is an objective problem with the breakdown of working class neighborhoods/ communities over the past 15 -35 years in the city and we can’t simply blame ourselves as organizers for it because we don’t have the resources to overcome this very material problem. We’ll only develop those resources if we build organizations and start winning some victories against the bosses and rulers, and if more people join and help us do that.
I see two ways out of this dilemma 1) if folks can build independent childcare collectives that involve professional childcare workers who are able to culturally connect with the workers and integrate the childcare into support networks in working class ethnic communities, then workers might trust these collectives with their kids, 2) we can demand childcare resources from the employer, as Fray suggested. These are not mutually exclusive and could complement each other.
While Leftists do need to proactively try to set up mutual child-care support, I also think it’s unfair to just chalk up the lack of this to folks wanting to do “sexier” work or wanting to be star activists. A lot of the movement organizing we are prioritizing is stuff we need to do else we’ll all be out of jobs and won’t be able to provide for our own (future) families. It’s very personal and something we rightfully are invested in emotionally. This is especially true with the budget cuts work. If they cut education, jobs, and social services this deepens the crisis of reproduction of the working class, it means that we as working class people have to rely more and more on our own private resources (even if these are pooled collectively in childcare collectives) to care for our families, while these private resources are increasingly taken away from us.
Even those of us who are part of the so-called “skilled” upper tiers of the working class and are relatively privileged are looking at a wholesale bosses’ attack on our unions and our jobs and are asking whether we’ll end up on the streets in 10 years if things keep going the way they’re going. My parents are teachers and my mom stayed home to raise my sister and I and we barely scraped by growing up on one special education alternative school teachers’ salary – we rented out a converted machine shop with open sewerage running in the basement and what I thought was a sandbox I used to play in turned out to be a place where our landlord dumped toxic fluids. Every level of the working class has an interest in fighting back against what could become a generalized attack on our ability to reproduce the next generation. Under a patriarchal society women of color will face these pressures the hardest, which is why fighting the budget cuts is an anti-racist and anti-patriarchal struggle, as Rebelde from Advance the Struggle argued : http://advancethestruggle.wordpress.com/2010/09/08/to-the-budget-cut-movement-no-more-ignoring-state-violence/. In terms of intergenerational organizing there is also the pressures young workers are going to face to care for our parents, aunties, uncles, etc. , especially if they cut their pensions or cut social security.
So yeah, I’m 100% for building childcare collectives and building networks among militants where we care for each others’ kids. At the same time though we can’t rely only on this. The bosses are systematically attacking our class’s ability to raise children – and they are especially targeting workers of color and queer workers’ ability to do this. Unless we fight back against this in a public way, childcare collectives will just become a less-severe form of privatization, where we pool our meagre private resources collectively instead of trying to survive individually. That’s better than suffering in private but hell, we shouldn’t’ be suffering at all, we should be demanding things like wages for housework, publicly financed childcare that is done by and run by working class parents democratically, etc. This is key not only for building the new society but for surviving in our own generation and successfully raising the next generation.
One more thought…. as education workers in the anti-budget cuts struggle, some of us are also wrapped up in this crisis of reproduction. Parenting is not only an issue of childcare, it continues when youth become adolescents. I work with youth who dropped out of high school and one of the biggest challenges a lot of them face is lack of family support. Many of their parents work long shifts at electronic factories, airport baggage handling, the port, etc. Many are working two or more jobs. A lot of them want to be part of their kids’ education process but don’t have time. The pro-charter school/ pro-standardized testing corporate education “reform” movement asks teachers to be superheroes who can compensate for this lack of parent involvement by sheer willpower. We are expected to deal with the general breakdown to working class family life within the 4 walls of the classroom on our own using “professional” skills. We can’t do this alone without the parents though, and a lot of the parents want to have a say in what their kids are learning and how we’re teaching. They should; teachers should be accountable to parents and students, not corporate interests. I’ve repeatedly welcomed parents to come in to the classroom and co-teach with me, or at least to provide support to their kids who are going through rough times. A lot of them want to but can’t get the time off. Imagine if we could build an organization that parents could join to demand time off from their employers to help their kids with their education? What would it look like if teachers backed up and supported parents with these demands, and in turn parents supported teachers’ demands for small class sizes where we can do the one on one caring work necessary to support their kids when they are going through crises? Our teacher’s unions probably won’t take up this kind of work so as rank and file workers we will need to build it on our own.
Ah, I wish I didn’t type my comment in such a strident tone. I was having fun getting on my high horse. I hear you Mamos and do not actually want you and others to stop the awesome work you all are doing to only provide childcare to others. It’s not the be-all and end-all by any means.
I also agree with you on demanding childcare from bosses!
it’s all good David. I just realized my own comment also came off as overly defensive and that you probably didn’t mean to say folks should stop organizing other struggles to do only childcare… I was just about to clarify that when I saw your comment.
A friend of mine who is a long time militant in Detroit put it well… he said a lot of time Leftists focus so much on the “big picture” struggles that they have little time left for helping people around them with everyday struggles (like raising kids). But sometime folks overreact to that and say we should focus only on the everyday struggles and not the big picture. My friend said we gotta do both, we shouldn’t be separating them or setting them against each other. I agree strongly and it sounds like you and I are on the same page about that. I’m looking forward to living that out in practice with you and others in Seattle.
Also, I was just thinking how it’s kind of messed up that we’re talking about the women custodian militants without them in the conversation. This whole discussion would be a lot clearer and more fruitful if we could hear their own thoughts on childcare and its relationship to the struggle. This is something we should think about.
I want to jump in here once again and point out something that might be missing from the discussion about childcare.
In my experience, sometimes the last thing families want is to leave their children with a caretaker and go to an organizing meeting. Sometimes what we want is just time with our families – which is a big issue for working class people who never seem to have enough of it!
I’m not sure how to incorporate this thought into an idea for revolutionary organizations’ internal dynamics, because even being welcoming to kids in our organizing spaces misses the point a little. I think it’s important to remember that families engage in a range of activities together that often prioritize the needs of the children, and believe me, I know how bored a kid can get being dragged to an organizing meeting – it often doesn’t really feel like quality time with the family!
On the other hand, I think that learning how to respect the balance people need in their lives between political work and personal and family time can be a helpful way to open up our organizing spaces to people at various stages of life. Mamos’s reflection on the experience of going to people’s kids’ birthday parties gets at something important: maybe we need not always be focussed on getting people to come to our space, maybe we need to build relationships where some of our time is spent in our comrades’ family spaces, participating in family activities. One of my revolutionary intentions, frankly, is that families and friends can spend more time together. This is one of the aspects of our lives that has always been under attack by capitalism, hasn’t it?
None of this is to suggest that providing childcare isn’t crucial for people who want it. There are times when it really does make the difference. But great childcare doesn’t take into account the fact that taking care of children isn’t just a burden for families and a problematic obstacle for political development, it’s also a great joy and a central part of peoples’ lives. And, in fact, it CAN contribute to peoples’ political development. Maybe part of the problem we’re facing as women revolutionaries is that the ways in which our politics have become seasoned by care-taking work is often unseen or disrespected.
I think something that relates to this in a way is the politics around welfare – and the attack on women’s option to raise their children instead of leaving them in a childcare center while they work at a shitty job. It is important to capital to decrease the time we spend nurturing our families because we’re not producing any profit when we’re with our kids. The fight for fewer hours at work is as much about having time to spend with our families as it is about not exhausting our bodies.
I’ll be the first to acknowledge that care-taking can be difficult and exhausting as often as at is joyful and enriching, but I feel compelled to point out that care-taking is not a PROBLEM that must be solved by childcare. Rather I hope that we can think about ways to see this aspect of all of our lives as a site that increases, rather than impedes, our revolutionary potential.
I’ve been encouraged to participate in discussion on this blog. Since this is my first post, I’ll introduce myself. I’m Scott Myers, I’m 27, and my political work at the moment consists of the Worker’s Self-Education Project here in Seattle.
“Talking with somebody in the Bay Area Childcare Collective a while back, it was striking to hear that even among their core members and volunteers, they struggled some with turn-over… Folks with all the right-on analysis and etc. eventually wanting to go on or go back to the “real” organizing over sexy issues. I can’t think of much more that is real or ‘sexy’ than building relationships with families in your town across lines of race, class and nationality. It makes me wonder to what degree we all have a bit of the ‘star-of-the-leftist-movement’ narrative running in our heads.”
I think this comment strikes right at the heart of the matter. Nothing is easier than to blame internalized ‘patriarchy’ for the failure of revolutionary organizations to attract and retain women (or worse, to go on misguided witch hunts to root it out). But here David has given us a more nuanced explanation of the psychological forces that often motivate people in revolutionary organizations.
The spirit of capitalism pervades our psyches, and the mere embracing of revolutionary ideology doesn’t instantly wipe us clean. In a society that dehumanizes us, that reduces us to *means* of producing surplus-value, i.e. that reduces us to the status of ‘nobodies’, the natural reaction is overcompensate in our attempts to become ‘somebodies’. Rather than doing the difficult work of developing democratic relationships to administer our collective resources, we seek badly-needed love and attention by trying to become ‘stars-of-the-leftist-movement’. I’ve seen this time and again in radical organizations, and leaders have even admitted to me that their political activity enhances their ‘street cred’.
Of course if we fail to transcend this psychological condition we will not be able to break down gender (or racial) disparities. If everyone is clawing and competing for admiration and attention, they are going to use whatever means are at their disposal to come out on top, foul or fair. On the surface these may seem like individuals are ‘reproducing the structures of patriarchy’ (or ‘racism’), but at heart they are really a cry out to be treated as a human being. This is the ultimate perversity of capitalism, that it subverts our strivings to devote ourselves to things that matter in the larger world into personal and social antagonisms.
To overcome this, I think an organization has to recognize that capitalism has rendered all of us, to a greater or lesser extent, *crippled*. Besides the general ways that capitalism cripples us (or, if you prefer, *oppresses* us), there are specific ways that it does so, i.e. along sexual, racial, or other lines. A revolutionary group must successfully create space for all of us, imperfect as we are, to develop and learn how to work together to co-operatively manage our own collective resources. This requires patience and practice as individuals grow up, and learn to give up some of their narcissistic delusions of grandeur.
I’ve never seen a group that achieved this, or even came close. Perhaps this is why our groups can’t seem to grow beyond small sects and into mass movements?
“So yeah, I’m 100% for building childcare collectives and building networks among militants where we care for each others’ kids. At the same time though we can’t rely only on this. The bosses are systematically attacking our class’s ability to raise children – and they are especially targeting workers of color and queer workers’ ability to do this. Unless we fight back against this in a public way, *childcare collectives will just become a less-severe form of privatization*, where we pool our meagre private resources collectively instead of trying to survive individually.” (Star(*) emphasis mine)
I agree that we must fight back in a public way, if only to slow down the tide of capitalist-imposed ‘austerity’ as much as possible. But given the extent to which globalization has destroyed the former strength of our movement, it doesn’t seem likely that we will have the power to *reverse* the tide. It seems like privatization is inevitable, it is only a matter of how long we can hold out.
As brutal and potentially deadly as this may be for many workers, as a class I think it is a good thing overall. (Since I am at the moment a recipient of food benefits, which are steadily being reduced, I do not say this lightly). The time is coming when workers will no longer be able to effectively demand aid from the state as little chicks demand worms from their mother.
In Critique of the Gotha Programme, Marx wrote: “…as far as the present co-operative societies are concerned, they are of value *only* insofar as they are the independent creations of the workers and not protégés either of the governments or of the bourgeois.” I think we ought to extend this line of thinking to social services as well.
The bureaucratic administration of benefits by the capitalist state infantilizes workers. The steady removal of these benefits forces workers back onto their own resources. Since capitalism has largely destroyed all the traditional familial, religious, and ethnic ‘safety nets’ of the working class, and replaced them with market and state, we are forced to look to one another to survive. In place of the old despotic, patriarchal safety net, we must consciously build a democratic, liberatory one. Is this not the kind of ‘self-activity’ of the working class that everyone is always clamoring about? It seems to me that the very act of pooling our resources (however meager these may be), and working out means of administering our needs democratically, represents a level of ‘self-activity’ superior to a hundred anti-austerity protests.
Childcare is only one small part of this self-administration of the needs of our class. Beside other basic needs like food, clothing, and shelter, etc, we must build educational and informational institutions that are independent of the mass media and bourgeois education system, not-for-profit worker-co-operatives, credit unions, unemployment and immigrant councils, etc.
It seems to me that it is only on the basis of *actually building* such institutions that we will be able to effectively fight and demand more resources from the state. Beyond this, I believe that the working out of democratic self-management of these resources in the community will be the only real basis for extending such worker-self-management into the workplace, i.e. for a new and radical union movement
This is Peter from La Semilla Childcare Collective of Austin, TX. I’d like to comment on a specific piece real quick.
“It could be that we are young workers without experiences raising our own kids and are not professional childcare workers so folks don’t see us as having the necessary childcare skills. After all, childcare is skilled labor and you need to be good at it to do it well. It could be we don’t know each other well enough for them to trust us with their kids…
I see two ways out of this dilemma 1) if folks can build independent childcare collectives that involve professional childcare workers who are able to culturally connect with the workers and integrate the childcare into support networks in working class ethnic communities, then workers might trust these collectives with their kids, 2) we can demand childcare resources from the employer, as Fray suggested. These are not mutually exclusive and could complement each other.”
In Austin, our collective grew out of a direct request by a group of radical mamas. Our collective was small, at three members for the first 6 months (two out of them were professional childcare workers), and grew to five members for the second year (of whom 1 had youth work and babysitting experience, and me, a professional childcare worker). I have three points that could be helpful in figuring out the best way to organize childcare for your work.
The first is about building trust, the Mamas of Color Rising, helped us out a lot in this respect. firstly by working with us to build a model, helping set expectations (of us, of them, of the kids) and by building relationships with all of the care givers so its not just a bunch of anonymous folks, pleading them to trust us with their kids. Also, having done a lot of close work with them gained us trust with other organizations that we have since begun working with.
Second, while there are benefits to using professional childcare workers, it is important to keep a few things in mind. We appreciate regularity and notice, while many of us are equipped to do childcare on the fly for young folks we dont know (and parents we dont know), this allows us to plan our time with kids and to build relationships if were not just encountering a new group of kids at every meeting. We’ll do it for free, but money is nice, if youve got the resources (or maybe we wont do it for free, weve all got our own standards). Acknowledge burn out and encourage folks who dont know the ropes to work with us and learn. We do this work for long hours and little pay allready, remember we might have just gotten off of another job, or that this is our weekend. Involve childcare providers in other political work, dont make us feel like were just babysitting.
Thirdly, Multiple childcare collectives! childcare committees! an explosion of different models done by different people! revolving childcare duties! children at meetings! Dont let a few people in town be the only ones doing this work, Please?