Revitalizing Feminist Bureaucracies?

By Kelsy Kretschmer

In the run up to the first Women’s March, co-chair Bob Bland told Vogue that the group’s structure was “an organic, grassroots effort that prides itself on being inclusive, intersectional, and nonhierarchical,” with “a horizontal approach to leadership.” In another profile March organizers asserted that their “diffuse, decentralized structure will ensure [participants] aren’t answering to one leader” in the hope that the “movement will outlast any particular demonstration.” Implicit in these statements is the notion that other kinds of structures would ultimately ossify and fail. The first march broke records as the largest single day protest event in the nation’s history—a success by any measure.  Even as they planned and carried out this splashy, newsworthy, national event, organizers insisted it would stay a grassroots movement.

Most historical accounts of American feminism categorize its organizations in two broad branches – one side populated with grassroots collectives that prioritize equality and shared responsibilities among members, and the other side heavy with formalized, hierarchical bureaucracies, exemplified best by the National Organization for Women (NOW) (Feree and Hess 1985). In this astounding moment of feminist resurgence, the new generation of leaders has embraced the former organizational style in the belief that it is the key to longevity. Their enthusiasm for flat structures is not surprising; feminists have been moving in this direction for a long time (Henry 2005; Reger 2007; Staggenborg and Taylor 2005). Given these preferences for flatter, looser structures and the effectiveness of viral campaigns that don’t rely on elaborate organizational infrastructure, like the #metoo movement, we might have expected the continued decline of bureaucratic feminism.

Following that first smashing success, local Women’s March communities spent the rest of 2017 wrestling with hard questions about what exactly united them. Was it enough to have shown up for the Women’s March, or did membership also require showing up for other social justice movements? Who counted as a leader? What did those leaders owe to participants? As I have written before, the Portland Women’s March community fractured around issues of race, and it has so far struggled to find a way forward. Its leadership committee decided not to march on the 2018 anniversary weekend, despite repeated and insistent requests from women who had attended the year before. Instead, they announced plans to hold an event in March for International Women’s Day. Across the nation, local Women’s March groups similarly struggled to establish a cohesive message that could bridge across the fault lines emerging over identity differences and tactical preferences. These challenges are not unique to the Women’s March; setting the boundaries in a movement community is always difficult, fraught work. Starting from scratch with a new group is even harder.

As grassroots feminist communities enjoy a booming, if turbulent, season, bureaucratic organizations are also growing again. Across the board, formalized feminist groups have seen spikes in their memberships and budgets as newly motivated women and men look for ways to resist institutionalized political and cultural misogyny. Importantly, new members are not just sending money to these groups; they are also joining and founding local affiliates. The National Organization for Women fielded dozens of new requests in 2017 to form local NOW chapters. In Oregon, my own small state, three of the six NOW chapters were formed last year, and a seventh is on the way in 2018. The League of Women’s Voters, an organization dating back to 1920, has also seen an increase in chapter founding. The anecdotal evidence suggests that the current groundswell of feminism created demand not just for small grassroots groups, but also for these long-standing, formalized and federated organizations.

Despite the previous downward trend for bureaucratic organizations, social movements and organizational scholars would have predicted their resurgence, given this political and cultural climate. Organizations persist, and when they are big and formalized, they are better able to weather the periodic downturns in their resource environments. American culture has not been particularly fertile for new feminist mobilization in the last two decades, but the movement’s bureaucratic groups were especially capable of enduring until a new rainstorm came along, creating better conditions for growth. Verta Taylor (1989) identified these kinds of groups as “abeyance structures,” where core activists hold the movement’s place, keeping it alive as they wait for another ripe cultural opportunity. That opportunity has finally arrived, as more women seek out ways to channel their anger. Some activists prefer to start from scratch, like the Women’s March, building new groups from the ground up. But local chapters of bureaucratic groups like NOW and the League of Women Voters offer lower costs to getting involved. In many communities, they are established, operating with a small core of dedicated activists, and ready for new and uninitiated members. Even where there are not existing chapters, the national and state administrators can provide a blue print and support to get one running. They tend to be broadly inclusive with minimal time commitments, which can be very inviting for new and less connected activists.

It’s easy to start thinking of these kinds of organizing – grassroots versus bureaucratic – as fundamentally different from each other. The rhetoric of Women’s March leaders about their own organizing preferences has reinforced these distinctions. But I think these styles overlap more than they oppose each other, especially in small communities where local chapters of national groups are sharing work with small grassroots collectives. For example, back in Oregon, a group of women “inspired by the upsurge in activism in our community and our nation” formed the Corvallis Changemakers . They describe themselves as “a grassroots group without formal incorporation or identity.” Its members continue to embrace this form, but the group has also folded into Corvallis’s brand new NOW chapter as its “affiliate.” It seems to have retained a distinct identity, occupying a place both within and apart from the rest of the chapter. With the Portland Women’s March group rain checking its 2018 march, Corvallis feminists, organizing an hour to the south, were handed greater space and greater pressure to pull off their own event. As a single force, NOW and the Changemakers planned and hosted the 2018 Corvallis Women’s March.

So, is this a new feminist movement? In some ways, of course it is new. The political and cultural context is unsettled in ways we have not experienced before, and it is driving new and different kinds of people into feminist activism. But in some very fundamental ways, the movement isn’t new. So much of its DNA is rooted in the efforts of the suffragists, is threaded through the second and third wave generations, and weaves into the current movement in surprisingly consistent patterns. From the large and formalized to the small and flat, feminist groups draw from the shared store of identities, ideologies, and organizational tools developed in past campaigns and mobilizations. They are even fighting over the same dilemmas that plagued previous generations, including how to organize, whether or not to engage in electoral politics, and how to connect with other movements. Feminist organizations are the infrastructure connecting contemporary efforts to those from the past. This promising new moment of feminism has arrived, at least in part, because feminist bureaucracies have been holding space for the movement, sheltering feminist communities during droughts of public support. The drought will probably return at some point, but the smart bet is that feminist bureaucracies will persist and flourish again.

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