Organizing While Female: Feminist Lessons Gleaned From The Activist Trenches

Graphic by Erin Patrick

I’m an accidental community organizer — by this I mean that I didn’t study poli-sci in school, I didn’t intern for a PAC or elected official. I simply jumped in with both feet when a crisis rocked my community, one that involved the mishandling of a standard agreement between law enforcement and school district, resulting in the illegal policing of children. With the support of smart, committed partners, I shaped what began as a garrulous Facebook group into a legit non-profit, with articulated action issues and regular education and advocacy events. I’ve learned a lot about community organizing through my accidental start and part of what I’ve learned is that whether I want to or not, I bring my gender with me to this work. Five feminist lessons stand out as things I wish I knew when I began, takeaways I’d love to share with another woman just starting out in community organizing.

Be ready to insist upon your leadership space. This motto is critical to me, and one I find I have to repeat to myself often. From an early age, women are saddled with the idea that their role is ancillary. I’ve learned that if I don’t monitor air time at meetings, male voices inevitability drown out female voices, including my own. I was once unpleasantly tasked with telling a male friend who identifies as a feminist to vacate the literal seat I occupy at the head of the table as President. I’ve had to navigate around a male member of the local press who wanted to do a story on my group but would only interview our male secretary, not me or my female VP. Without surveillance, mansplaining disrupts, credit for women’s work is siphoned off and boy’s club culture permeates. There’s no need to feel ashamed for leading if you’re doing it right and lifting up often discounted voices in the process, but more on that in point five.

Be ready to be baited into talking about feelings.  Having feelings in public as a female leader is a minefield. Get angry and you are shrill, a shrew. Stay stoically composed and you run the risk of being called cold, walled off, unfeeling. Once, during unsuccessful negotiations with a male elected leader, a friend suggested that maybe I should “turn on the waterworks a bit,” that being sad and vulnerable might soften his heart and his stance on the issue. I didn’t squeeze out any theatrical tears because that’s not the way women win, by playing into tired tropes. We can simultaneously be composed and emotive. I meditate often, getting myself into the right headspace before events and meetings. When conflicts turn personal, I remain mindful of the talisman I keep in my pocket, my grandmother’s brooch, a touchstone keepsake from a strong woman.

Be ready to be judged by your outward appearance. In the midst of my community organizing, I weathered a tremendous family crisis — the near death of my sister — and lost a lot of weight from the stress. It shocked me how the shift from being what retailers label a “medium” to an “extra small” also shifted responses to my advocacy. More men were willing to listen, a clear example of thin privilege and the pernicious influence of  conventional beauty standards. I feel most pulled together in skirts and dresses; the female friend with whom I do a lot of community organizing wears ties to be taken more seriously. Both of our presentations of self are legitimate though for better or worse both had to be crafted and considered as women in the public eye.

Be ready to be called bad mom, bad wife and the other all purpose “b word”; don’t buy in. It surprises me each time I’m at a political meeting or event and someone asks me, “Where are your kids?” There’s always the strong temptation to respond, “Oh I forgot I had those!” or “I guess the cat’s watching them,” but I’ve learned to smile and answer tersely: “With their dad.” Once when discussing a possible bid for local office, a man turned and asked my husband if I had his approval for that. Every time someone commends my husband for letting me be so involved in activism, I wonder if I’m similarly praised for letting him engage in the independent activities that feed his mind and spirit. And if you’re overtly fighting for a cause and won’t back down, you will be called a bitch by someone at some point. Best to keep in mind Tina Fey’s take: “bitches get shit done.”

Be ready to lift up other women and often marginalized voices. Who is marginalized in your community depends on how it operates, but it likely reflects those most often rendered voiceless in society as a whole. My biggest thrill in organizing is watching those who feel fearful or illegitimate suddenly find their voice, often in full force. Women in leadership roles should use their status to dismantle patriarchal and paternalistic power systems. It may be a tough row to hoe, but it’s a chance to build something new and better together. Intersectionality should also be on the mind of white women in leadership roles. Sometimes leadership means standing beside or behind another woman. Real power is transparent and lifts up many voices, many women, in the process.   

Kate Delany