What is Feminist Process?
Feminist process first emerged
as a set of practices in women-only groups where people began to recognize
that personal power dynamics were present even when men were absent.
Over time, these ideas spread into other movements, while feminists
borrowed ideas from other political traditions such as the popular education
movement in Latin America (see, for example how bell hooks uses Paolo
Freire in Teaching to Transgress) and the Quaker-influenced peace/non-violence
movements (especially, consensus decision-making).
Feminist ideas about organizational
process and culture were further enriched when women of color challenged
white feminists to confront their unexamined racism. Feminists
have contributed to and borrowed from the insights developed by consciousness-raising
projects confronting white supremacy and trainings about how to work
across race differences.
The practices that come out
of this history are not difficult or complex to describe, but they take
an effort to learn and to enact. This is because they are, in
some respects, very different from the modes of interaction that this
society values and because they require a kind of self-awareness and
self-consciousness that is neither taught nor encouraged in society
or in many of our political organizations. These norms for interaction
within an organization can start out feeling formulaic, too formal,
and not genuine. But over time, as people act on them, like any
other social practices, they come to feel more natural and personal.
The kind of self-awareness
and self-consciousness that feminist, anti-racist process calls for
concerns both thinking and feeling. Many leftists consider any
attention to feelings “apolitical,” a distraction from real work.
As the feminist phrase “the personal is political” encapsulates,
however, the reality is that institutionalized power relations of the
society shape our most personal interactions. Feminists have challenged
the dualistic opposition of public/private and intellect/emotion.
Feelings are always there and we bring them into any social interaction.
The more we are aware of our own and others’ feelings, the more capable
we are of having a productive intellectual interchange.
First, people on the upside
of power have to acknowledge and recognize the many ways in which white
privilege, middle-class privilege, heterosexual privilege, masculine
privilege, gender normativity, etc. operate. This, of course,
is complicated because almost everyone finds themselves in one way or
another on both the "upside" and the "downside"
of these relations. Second, we are called upon to acknowledge
and deal with the emotional consequences of recognizing privilege and
experiencing oppression. The left, because of the persistence
of the masculinist culture which defined most of its history, is particularly
resistant on this second point.
Let's indulge in some gross
generalities for a minute to define a "masculinist" culture
within capitalist society. Although mediated by race and class,
a masculinist culture discourages the expression of strong feelings
other than anger and hostility; values competitive striving more than
taking care of others; and defines masculine potency as the ability
to win in struggles with other men.
Women, of course, are perfectly
capable of adapting to these values and behaving according to their
terms; so we are not speaking here of men alone. Also, many men
find themselves at odds with masculinist culture. Further, feminine
culture has its own unique, and in some ways complementary distortions;
so we are not talking about some sort of female superiority. Indeed,
the very history of women's organizations demonstrates quite well that
they are also subject to the unacknowledged play of power, privilege
and aggression; unresolved and pernicious conflicts; and failures of
Feminist Process and the
Establishment of Norms
Feminist process, then, is an attempt to identify a set of norms that can be used in any organization regardless of its gender composition. Feminist process validates and brings into focus the emotional underpinnings of our intellectual and political relationships.
The goal of feminist process
is to open up more space for participation and to create a climate where
the least confident among us feels it is safe to speak up.
Comrades have expressed two
main concerns about feminist process. One is that the organization
will become too personalistic, or too internally focused, that
we will spend too much time on "navel-gazing" in trying to
"perfect" our relationships with each other. While this
is a reasonable concern, we think our organization is so far from such
outcomes that the likelihood of being de-politicized is minimal.
Furthermore, we would argue that in the long run Solidarity will
be far more effective politically as an organization if we can develop
social norms that allow us to address our interpersonal conflicts well,
rather than having anger, hurt, and frustration boil over into sarcasm,
blaming, snide remarks, and cliquishness.
Another concern that has been
expressed is that social norms are not only gendered but also linked
to class and racial/ethnic group cultures; therefore, in creating new
social norms we will unwittingly be imposing norms of the dominant,
white, middle-class culture. Again, this is a reasonable concern.
However, the social norms that are suggested by feminist process and
anti-racist dialogue have been successfully adopted and used by people
of many different races and ethnicities. They have also proven
to be a particularly successful foundation for creating and sustaining
multi-racial organizations. These experiences suggest that these
norms are not so much a reflection of white middle class culture as
they are a part of the contemporary political culture of anti-racist
and anarcho/socialist/radical feminist groups.
An Example: Norms for How
We Talk to Each Other
What does embracing feminist
process mean in concrete terms? One important example is how we talk
to each other, including how we interact one-on-one, as well as in branch
meetings, NC meetings, conventions and other bodies.
Our goal is to achieve respectful
dialogue where every person feels affirmed in the value of their ideas
and their contributions to the group. This means that we have to speak
in certain ways and we have to hear/listen in certain ways. Respectful
dialogue requires that even if we disagree with an idea or a behavior,
we are very careful to not speak in a way that demeans the other person
or their ideas. Respectful dialogue requires that we engage in
active listening--a technique that helps us to be less defensive in
responding to criticism or disagreement.
Respectful dialogue is especially
important to modulate the impact of strong emotions that we often experience
around conflicts--conflicts about ideas or conflicts about someone's
behavior. But even without sharp conflict, people's identities,
sense of worth and self, are often tied up with their ideas. So we should
be mindful of our responsibility to support each other and to engage
in arguments in ways that always acknowledge the value of one another's
points of view.
We should expect our leadership
(NC members, PC members, fraction convenors, branch execs, etc.) to
be exemplary in modeling respectful dialogue. This includes conforming
to certain norms, including, but not limited to the following:
Close, active listening requires
us to focus on the person speaking rather than on what we might have
to say and to reserve judgment until they have finished speaking and
we are sure that we understand their point of view.
In group discussions, active
listening requires minimally:
- No side conversations or note-passing
- Body language that indicates supportive attention (e.g., eye contact with the speaker)
- No body language that is derisive (sighs, eye-rolling, muttering under your breath, throw-away comments after the speaker is finished).
Respect the people chosen to facilitate the discussion.
Unless a facilitator asks for
your input, allow them to do their job. Do not interrupt, call
out, or otherwise undermine their authority. Facilitators should
regularly check-in with the group. That allows for a space where
those who want to suggest a different course of action can make that
Allow enough time for thorough discussion.
When planning meetings, realize
that a really good discussion will take a lot of time. It is better
to have fewer discussions where more people can participate. Having
enough time also helps to lower the emotional tone because people are
less likely to become frustrated. Invest in facilitation.
Identify clear goals for the discussion. Take time to summarize
where people are at. Check in about process during the discussion.
On the other hand,
Share the Air.
Those who talk a lot need to
take a step back to make more space for others. Discussions
can only take so much time; therefore, those who are more active speakers
in the group need to create room for others to participate.
If someone has already made
the point you were going to make, do not speak--even if they were not
as eloquent as you think you are.
Try listening to an entire
discussion before participating. See what happens.
Take responsibility for how everyone in the group experiences the discussion.
Many people define leadership
as the ability to articulate the ideas that will move the group forward.
As such, they are often focused on getting their own ideas out as much
as possible so that other people can have the benefit of hearing them.
There are, however, other models.
As Barbara Ransby points out in her biography of the civil rights leader,
Ella Baker, Baker conceptualized leadership as developing the capacity
of others to articulate their ideas and she did this by engaging in
a dialogue with them rather than telling them what she knew or thought.
Acknowledge your own social location and modify your participation accordingly.
Take responsibility for ensuring
that those who are on the "downside of power" (in one way
or another) are encouraged to speak.
Do not make attributions about people's motives.
This is generally a form of
name-calling passing as analysis. We cannot know the reasons that
a person expresses an idea or behaves in a certain way. Address
the behavior/idea only and be specific.
Make I statements.
There is no privileged place
of knowledge from which you speak, no matter how much you may know or
think you know. I think, I feel, from my experience, etc. are
all ways of framing your speech that opens up space for the next person
to engage in the dialogue.
When someone makes you angry, address the behavior, do not shame or blame others.
We all make mistakes and however
angry another's mistake makes you, you have a responsibility to deal
with them in as empathic a way as you can. For example, 'when
you said or did X….when X happened…I felt….thought…"
If possible, try to say what
would have worked better, suggesting alternatives or giving a specific
Do not be afraid to apologize or to ask for an apology.
Again, we will all make mistakes,
so we need to acknowledge them without trying to excuse or rationalize
our behavior--just saying you are sorry is good enough
And we need to accept other
people's apologies and then move on.
The Inter-Personal as Political:
Expanding Our Definition of Good Process
One fundamental political insight
of second wave feminism was that interpersonal relationships are a site
where power operates. This insight has opened up new thinking
about how organizations work, and, particularly how the social norms
and culture of an organization can reproduce oppressive social relations
or help people to challenge them. Solidarity has an honorable
tradition of institutionalizing democratic process. But we have
understood this goal too narrowly. For example, we have tended
to assume that if the rules allow for everyone to speak, then that is
sufficient to ensure that people will step forward. In response
to the clear tendency of men to speak more frequently than women, we've
said that before another man can speak, the chair must ask if any women
wish to speak.
What we have not analyzed is
whether the ways in which we talk to each other are also a barrier to
participation. Our practice indicates that many people in the
organization have assumed that the best way to encourage women to speak
is to train them to be tough--that is, able to interact with others
in a particular kind of masculine style. We have not considered
whether we ought to question that style of debate and think about how
it excludes not only women, but many other people from participation.
By paying attention to this
important dimension of how organizations work, feminist process has
the potential to help Solidarity grow. We think the social norms
proposed here will help us to:
- Work across our race/gender/sexuality/class differences in ways that are emotionally supportive and therefore more productive
- Be much more skilled at handling conflicts--over behavior as well as over ideas
- Create an organizational culture where every person feels that they have important ideas and something to offer the group