Debra Miles graduated as a social worker in 1980 and has worked with a variety of organisations including many various women’s services in Queensland and the Northern Territory since that time. She is presently the Director of The Centre for Women’s Studies at James Cook University, North Queensland Australia.
Volume 24, May 2011
For over forty years feminist women have come together in women-only, social service organisations to support, empower, and advocate for women who are disadvantaged and oppressed by partners, families, other mainstream organisations and wider social structures. Women working in these organisations have attempted to model alternative ways of structuring and managing such organisations and of providing social welfare services. They have pursued these alternative goals by exploring different ways of working with each other and with the women who use the services. This paper explores some of the issues that have arisen for feminist women in their attempts to pursue these goals. It focuses particularly on the emotional and relational aspects of work in feminist organisations highlighting women’s understanding of their relationships with other women as important dynamics in their organisational experiences. The analysis draws on research with women who work in feminist social welfare organisations providing a range of social welfare services to women and their children who need assistance and support because of violence, homelessness, poverty and /or other forms of exclusion and oppression. The voices of women workers are used to highlight the complexities and intricacies of organisational practice that both mar and enhance feminist women’s relationships with each other.
In specifying the nature of feminist social welfare services, the definition provided by Wendy Weeks (1994) in her analysis of Australian women's services attempts to reflect both the ideal and the reality of the organisations involved in this project. Weeks describes feminist services as those
run by and for women, who organise their work according to feminist or women-centred principles of practice. They are typically small organisations, either 'community-based' or autonomous units under the umbrella of a larger non-government organisation. Their work focuses on public education and action towards social change as well as providing a range of services or activities for women participants or service users (1994, p. 2-3).
Weeks goes on to identify three elements which are used to differentiate feminist services from mainstream welfare services. Firstly, and primarily these organisations provide services to individual women and to groups of women as their highest priority. Such services attempt to address women's general health and welfare concerns in areas such as sexual assault, violence against women, accommodation, financial support, and family and child concerns. Secondly, feminist organisations providing social welfare services to women are also involved in social action aimed at changing the conditions in which women live and the structures that inhibit their opportunities and life choices. Such action often focuses on policy and legislative reform. Thirdly, feminist services provide education in the community about women and women’s disadvantage with the specific goal of challenging the misconceptions and negative attitudes about women (Weeks, 1994).
The impact of these explicitly feminist social services on the welfare sector and the women's movement has been significant (Weeks, 1994; Philips, 2008). They have effectively modeled alternative structures, leadership styles and service delivery and they have forced mainstream human services to take women and women's concerns seriously (Egan & Hoatson, 1999). However, as many authors (Broom, 1991; Hoatson & Egan, 2001; Weeks, 2001; Phillips, 2008) have identified, the gains made by and for women in the 1970s and 1980s were fragile and always in danger of erosion, if not complete disintegration. This fragility has been confirmed in the last fifteen years as many of the unique features and much of the robust vitality of the Australian women's movement, as exemplified through the existence of a feminist services sector and a strong ‘femocracy’, have been either abolished or enfeebled (Summers, 2003). The consequences and impact of political decision-making about the funding for and the scrutiny of organisations providing services to women are significant. For some organisations it has meant a complete loss of funding, for others it has led to forced mergers with non-feminist organisations and yet other services have identified a stifling and suppression of women-centered values and practices which were a feature of feminist organisations in the 1970s and 1980s. Ruth Phillips (2008) recently identified that
While there is clearly a strong presence of feminist practice in support for women in the field of domestic violence and sexual assault services, this has been largely silenced by an anti-feminist sentiment prevalent in governmental, political and wider public discourses... (59).
This paper discusses research with women who work in this organisational and political environment and seeks to analyse some relational aspects of that working experience.
A range of literature is relevant to discussions about women’s relationships with each other and to the analysis of the emotive aspects of working in feminist organisations. This brief review considers some of the analytical accounts of emotion, relationship and power in social movements as well as literature about organisational leadership and conflict within feminist organisations.
In the traditional accounts of social movements, the emotional/relational dimensions of collective action and protest were inadequately considered. Emotion for example, was either defined as irrationality or completely ignored (for example, Pakulski (1991) and della Porta & Diani (1999)). A variety of social movement concepts such as identity, injustice, and motivation were discussed as if they were entirely cognitive; their often highly charged emotional and relational components were seen to hardly matter (Hercus, 2005). Explorations of the second wave women’s movement as a social movement phenomenon, however, led scholars to identify the ways in which emotion was nurtured and shared within the movement (Jasper, 2003). In particular, reciprocal emotions concerned with participants' ongoing feelings towards each other were identified as significant. Women discussing and reporting their experiences of being part of the women’s movement used words and phrases filled with emotion and descriptions of relationship and connection. For example, Taylor writes:
I have found that women who carried the torch during the darker periods of feminism's history have often been motivated not only by a deep sense of at gender angerinjustice but by the joy of participation, the love and friendship of other women, and pride at having maintained their feminist convictions in the face of strong opposition ( 1995, p. 224, my emphasis added ).
So emotions and their contribution to the building of solidarity between women play a significant role in the formation and sustainability of feminist organisations and contribute extensively to organisational culture, identity and tactics (Guenther, 2009). However, Cheryl Hyde's (1994) research paradoxically revealed that the intensity of the women’s emotional attachments to “the cause” was paralleled by a strong sense of betrayal if the organisational relationships failed to nurture and provide all that was promised. Hyde rightly cautions against a naively optimistic understanding of the role of emotion in organisations and highlights the potential for unrealistic expectations to result in dysfunctional organisational relationships.
The literature that explores the nature of women’s organisational experiences in terms of expectations and disappointment also provides some insight into the nature of women’s relationships with each other and the difficulties they confront in attempting to live the promises embodied in the concept of ‘sisterhood’ (Taylor, 2009). Stephanie Riger (1994) for example identified that women often have expectations of unconditional nurturing and sympathy from other women and if these are not met significant emotions and feelings arise. She comments on these expectations in the following way:
…a female leader unwittingly arouses expectations that she will be the perfect mother who provides selflessness, total acceptance, self-abnegation, lack of aggression and criticism, and nurturance. When she does not live up to this ideal, irrational and intense anger and criticism may befall her (p. 293).
Even with the recognition of the potential for improbable expectations such as those described above, many feminist organisations have been unable to prevent the rise of debilitating internal conflict. Vidler (1998) suggests that this inability to manage conflict is related closely to women's inability to acknowledge and accept personal and institutional power. She states:
women will deny the presence of power in their relationships due to inexperience with managing power and will often interpret the having of power to always mean 'power over' the other with the inherent implications of one misusing power or of victimizing the other woman (Vidler, 1998, p. 22).
Similarly Eva Cox (1996) claims:
Sensing and owning our own power are not experiences many women share or find familiar. Instead we are often socialised to share pain and develop forms of resistance to perceived male power…. Thus, for the majority of women, the concept of power is both alienating and alien (p. 57).
This brief analysis of some relevant literature identifies that the issues of emotion, relationships and power are potentially important considerations in the development and sustainability of feminist social service organisations. This paper continues now to describe research which explored these issues with women working in feminist organisations.
The research discussed in this article is informed by a feminist paradigm which begins with questions that are embedded in women's everyday lives and places women's knowledges, as they emerge from women's situated experiences in the foreground of discussion and accounts (Smith, 1974). This “feminist standpoint” epistemology recognises the intrinsic value of examining the lives of women and the ways in which their lives are shaped by the ideological and material conditions of male dominance (De Vault, 2004). It is acknowledged that research taking a “feminist standpoint” has been criticised as accounting only those experiences that fit for only certain women – usually white, middle class, heterosexual women (for example, Anderson & Collins (2006)). However, an alternative view claims that “feminist standpoint” paradigms which require feminist researchers to start inquiry from women's everyday experience is a way of pointing us “to material sites where people live their lives, so that anyone's experience, however various, could become a beginning-place [for] inquiry” (Smith, 1992, 90).
This study follows a predominantly qualitative methodology and data was collected via semi-structured interviews with thirty women all of whom worked in one of three different feminist social service organisations. Each of the organisations met the definition of a feminist organisation according to the definition provided by Weeks (1994) and also self-identified as “feminist”. One organisation provided sexual assault counselling services, one organisation was a domestic violence refuge and outreach service and the third organisation provided crisis, short and medium term accommodation to young women who were homeless. Participants were identified through my personal contacts with these organisations and ranged in age from twenty-three years to sixty-three years with most women being between twenty-five and forty-five years of age. The women worked in one of the three organisations in a variety of roles – counsellor, coordinator, collective member, refuge support worker, board of management member, volunteer or youth worker and all but one agreed they would describe themselves as ‘feminist’. Only eight of the thirty women interviewed did not describe themselves as Anglo –Australians, and two of those agreed their background was Anglo, as one was from Scotland and one from New Zealand. Other cultures represented included Indigenous, Chinese, South American, Maori and East Timorese.
Each of the women participated in semi-structured interviews of about two hours duration during which time they were asked to describe their organisational experience. The use of interviews in this study reflects the notion that women are experts of their own experiences and so are best able, in their own words, to report on how they experience events and conditions. The practice of these interviews was informed by Oakley's (1981) critique of the traditional interview and aimed to be non- exploitative, mutual and reciprocal. Women were prompted to discuss their entry into the organisation, their expectations, the nature of their work and their own work practices. In particular women were asked to highlight what they valued and what they would change in terms of their organisational experiences.
Many, though not all, of the women I interviewed were women known to me as colleagues and I occupied a role within each of the organisations which was not limited to that of outside/objective researcher (if such a role is possible or even desirable). My role was different in each of the organisations and included that of collective member, management group member, university liaison person and invited speaker. Within some research frameworks, including some used by feminist researchers, this could be viewed as a violation of the conventional expectation that a researcher be detached, objective and value neutral. However, this research proceeds from the assumption of many feminist researchers (Naples, 2003; Ramazanoglu & Holland, 2002; Stanley & Wise, 1990, 1993) that objective knowledge (i.e. that which is free from bias, subjectivity or the personal) does not exist. Feminist research has a significant contribution to make in presenting valid knowledge, (i.e. knowledge that tells better stories about women's experiences) by specifying connections between ideas, multiple realities, and diverse experiences. The use of reflective strategies and enhanced reflexivity on the part of the researcher contributes to determining and highlighting the complexity of relationships between the researcher and the researched. The knowledge that results from these relationships is complex and situated within the historical and geographical context (Ramazanoglu & Holland, 2002). As this paper moves now to explore the ideas, concerns and issues of the women participants, the epistemological cautions inherent in the discussions above are pertinent.
The women who participated in this project all knew that the organisation they worked for identified as a feminist organisation prior to beginning their involvement. For some this was the attraction, for others they pursued their initial contact despite some hesitation about feminist organisations. Women spoke of their expectation that working in a feminist organisation would feel different from other places where they had worked. Comments such as those below suggest that the women expected to enjoy working with other women and to be treated well by other women.
…I really expected that it would be a respectful sort of environment; it would be pro-women.
…I suppose I had expectations about the way people might behave towards each other …better…closer.
…there would be warmth, and that sense of sisterhood would be very strong and that everything would be done with that - as sort of sitting underneath.
Consistently, among the women who talked about expectations prior to their involvement, was the theme of respectfulness. Some women used terms like ‘being nice’ or ‘supportive’. In general, though, they were referring to similar attributes – nurturing, caring, politeness and friendliness. For some, the concept of respectfulness referred to the absence of conflict though most acknowledged that, even if this had been their expectation, it was naïve and, more realistically, they hoped that any conflict would be dealt with in ways that did not hurt them or others personally. The comments above provide some evidence that women do expect a different emotional connection with other women and especially with feminist women. Questions remain about whether such expectations, fostered as they are by the organisations themselves, are ever able to be fulfilled consistently. The following sections consider these expectations, concerns and outcomes in more detail.
The women I spoke with confirmed that the experience of working in a feminist organisation is indeed an emotional one, as well as an intellectual and ideological one. The most common emotional experience described was in the context of the relationships the women developed with each other. Often these relationships were described in positive terms, as one of the “pleasures of protest” (Taylor, 1995, p. 124). For most women, it was their relationships with other women which helped them endure the difficult times. These were experiences unlike other work or volunteer experiences. These were relationships which they worked hard to foster because the women recognised their importance.
We make each other cups of tea, if we're making one, we ask if anybody else would like one, we take a genuine interest in one another's private life - we know enough about one another to know who's got kids and who hasn't - all that sort of stuff. And I think - I think we just have a genuine regard and interest in other women. A genuine respect for them and their lives. And the fact that we all struggle just to get through the day and some of us are okay and some of us aren't, but we just get there, you know. And that if we support one another, then it'll be a whole lot better than if we don’t.
The first thing that springs to mind is just the rapport with women…I mean it’s a conscious and unconscious thing, you know…we all like being liked…so going out of my way to do that especially when there are new women around…I want to have that connection with other women,…for me that is particularly important.
I enjoy working with other women. I've worked with men on some other committees and it's not as - it's not the same experience at all....It's the most amazing experience I've had, being on this board.…You know, it's - we get things done, we make decisions…we have lots of laughs…and I find there's compassion….I think women value people.
These are women whose organisational relationships are personal and caring; these women are friends with the women they work with. Women are drawn to these spaces for emotional and relational reasons: their desire to change the current state of affairs for women is combined with a desire to do so with other women in an environment that is supportive, understanding and kind; to share the experience of change with women they can call friends. Most importantly, they want to work together to create places where women are valued as women, where women feel nurtured, supported and able to fully engage in their work within the organisation. My discussions with the women who participated in this research revealed that they used a number of important emotional and relational strategies to achieve these goals.
I discuss elsewhere (Miles, 2005) the nature of the hard and demanding activist work women working in feminist social welfare organisations are engaged in. However, alongside these challenges, women described the opportunities provided by the feminist organisation they worked in, to express their creativity and to pit their skills and resourcefulness against the establishment. They saw this encouragement of creativity as a distinct strategy aimed at making the challenging work bearable.
So being able to be creative in your work and your relationships. That's very important. I think it's what makes work interesting for me. I'm not just ticking off something in a diary. It makes it creative, you use a lot of your initiative and it makes it new. I find that so challenging…I can try things and see how they go – it makes me realise I am good at what I do.
This is a place where you are encouraged to explore and expand your own self and your own horizons and you’ re encouraged to be resourceful if you want to be and you get help if you want it
These challenging opportunities allowed women to experience themselves as successful and competent, creatively meeting obstacles front on in their struggle to achieve changes for individual women using the service and for women in general.
Closely related to this strategy is the commitment of all of the women in each of the organisations to the personal and professional growth of each woman who was a part of the organisation. These commitments were apparent to the women in different ways, including through the provision of opportunities for women to learn different and useful skills through their organisational experience and the creation of an environment that encouraged growth and celebrated women’s advancement.
I think it's probably been successful simply because it's encouraging women - and actively promoting and encouraging women. And also - involving themselves in the building of that woman to become the best person that they can be… they're part of the organisation, they're helping the organisation to grow,…the workers feel happy. So there - I guess that- there's more of a want to help and more of a want to actually remain in touch as well… you hear, somebody who used to be here a couple of years ago, everybody will know what they're doing now, and that they'll be happy to hear that they've got a fantastic job somewhere else, but they're still a part of that - family…So there's a lot of encouragement if someone's wanting to move on for, say, personal reasons. They're actually given networks to move on to something worthwhile… and lots of support type of stuff as well.
Thus, these were organisations that not only devoted themselves to the women who used the services in times of crisis but which also had a clear mandate for the care and development of women who worked in the organisations.
The most common element in the establishment of a nurturing, supportive culture in these organisations was the way women related to each other demonstrating their respect and care for one another and for the women who used the services. These were not relationships women experienced or were able to create in other workplaces and they involved themselves in these interactions with great purpose.
I've had women compliment me on my beautiful skin, and say - ‘you're like a sunburst', now I mean what a wonderful thing to say to someone. And - because life is full of shit- so yes, without fail, every morning I will say ‘good morning’ to my co-workers, ask them how they are, if they're looking particularly gorgeous that day, I'll let them know, if I'm concerned about their wellbeing, I'll ask
Working with the other women that work here, I guess is the thing I like best. And the thing I work hardest on, because without them, what is it? I think they’re – beyond description really. They really care for the women and the kids that come here but also for each other. That is one of things I like best, watching workers grow and seeing them share that growth with the others…That’s excellent.
The women I work with are women who want to work with other women and who value women and who stood up for women…I am happy to be in an organisation like that because, yes, I knew that was not only going to be a job, it was special with these women.
Many, many more examples could be provided about this aspect of women’s experiences. The respect for their fellow workers and for the women and children who used the services permeated many of our discussions. In spite of the many difficulties and flaws in the processes used, women consistently identified the nature of their relationships with other women as the overwhelming positive feature of their organisational experience. This sentiment is perhaps best described in the following comment:
I remember feeling thrilled every day; waking up and thinking, how lucky I am, I get to work with women for women and I get paid for it – that is wonderful! … I suppose the excitement has worn off over the years, but I never, never, never lose the sense of how privileged I am to work with really smart, dedicated women, doing this work - work that makes a difference. And - I just love it.
These strong positive sentiments are reflected in the literature as significant elements of women’s relationships and friendships with each other. For example, Orbach and Eichenbaum wrote in 1994:
What distinguishes women’s friendships is the easy reciprocity that envelopes the relationship, allowing so many things to be safely discussed and felt. Such is the positive, nurturing side of women’s relationships. Women co-operate and support each other and give each other enormous pleasure ( p. 18).
Despite these strong positive sentiments, recent literature has scrutinised women’s and girls’ friendships (Park, 2009) identifying that women often create idyllic notions of women to women relationships that are virtually impossible to sustain. Judith Taylor (2009) identified an intense counterpoint in feminist women’s relationships with each other that has the potential to generate deep feelings of betrayal, hurt and pain. Acknowledging, and somehow being able to understand and work with these equally powerful negative feelings is a challenge that has confronted not only individual women but also feminist groups and organisations for four decades (Miles, 2010; Taylor, 2009). The following sections discuss the emotional expressions of this disappointment and conflict that impact so significantly on women’s experiences as workers in feminist services.
Many of the women who participated in this project spoke of being disappointed that their experience did not live up to their initial expectations. A number of women spoke of their own painful relationships within the organisation, of insulting comments made by other women or related stories of women who had been treated badly. For example, one participant shared:
I think it’s been, like, a huge learning experience and it's something that I guess I've largely benefited from, but it's been really painful. And that could be because of individual personalities… But for me to come to an organisation that portrayed itself as being feminist with a philosophy of looking after women, when the fact is it's been - it's a really dangerous place for me.
Other women spoke of their growing realization that there was not necessarily anything special about working with women.
There are issues within women's organisations about [when we assume] because we're all women, we're all working for the same goal, we all do the right thing. You just can't trust that - you know, most women do, most of the time, but you have to take into account that some women won’t.
Just because women are doing it, doesn't mean it's good. What feminism means is - you've got a chance to do some really good stuff but just because they're all women, doesn't mean that it's all beautiful.
These comments reveal a real regret that those original expectations women had of feminist women, feminist organisations and even feminism itself remain at times unfulfilled and even dashed. This was particularly the case for women who had experienced working in organisations which were structured as collectives or at least operated with a relatively flat formal authority structure. Ironically, these were often the same women who spoke glowingly of the relationships that worked well.
The potential for conflict and dispute in working relationships in feminist organisations was not apparently anticipated by the women involved or, in fact, by the organisation. The capacity of either individual women or organisational structures to deal with this prospect appears limited despite perceptible insight into the naïve nature of their expectations of feminist organisations. Rather than explore strategies to address the issues systemically women appear immobilised by their disillusionment and choose instead to leave the organisation. Further exploration of this disenchantment reveals complex and ambivalent experiences with organisational conflict and power, which contrasts strongly with some of the theoretical claims of how women can and should deal with such notions.
Feminist organisations and groups have been at the forefront in encouraging women to challenge traditional stereotypes that essentialise the nature of women. They have encouraged women to pursue separate, individual endeavours if they choose and to express anger and dissatisfaction if such emotions are appropriate. In fact, this redefinition of feeling expression rules for women is a distinct goal of the feminist movement and feminist organisations (Guenther 2009). Despite these stated goals of the feminist movement, anger, hurt and frustration are still not emotions expressed easily by most women including those involved in this research. Research by Thomas, Smucker and Droppleman (1998a) has examined women's anger experience and determined that the most common consequence of both the expression and internalisation of anger for women is powerlessness. Women feel powerless when they hold their anger inside and feel equally powerless when it bursts from them as the culmination of built up emotion.
Similarly, women in this project talked about internal interpersonal conflict in organisations being dealt with by ‘maintaining that nice, warm, fuzzy, everyone's ok, sort of thing’ but described themselves as ‘cringing inside’ when confronting arguments and anger within the organisation. As many feminist women and organisations have reported it is these incongruent experiences of relationships in women-centred organisations that has ripped many apart and contributed to the relinquishing of a commitment to alternative, less hierarchical, collective organisational approaches (Miles 2010; Phillips 2008). As discussed previously, Cox (1996) claims this inability to deal with conflict is a direct result of feminism’s ambivalent relationship with power.
The experiences of these women suggest that feminist organisations have not been as successful in communicating the possibilities of intense disappointment and in assisting with how to deal with these possibilities as they have been in highlighting the possibility of enormous pleasure associated with working with other women. To do so, however, requires women in feminist organisations to recognise and appreciate the ways in which power is displayed and used in feminist organisations. These organisations were committed to working toward increasing women’s personal and collective power, however, women’s inherent power, the possible misuse of that power and what that might mean for individuals and the organisational processes, were difficult topics. At times the empowering spaces women intended to create inadvertently became sites of tension and contradiction.
Eva Cox (1996) has claimed that many feminists consider power antithetical to feminism and this has led to a dearth of discussion about power, leadership and authority in feminist literature and theory. However, the concept of power was, in general, a compelling and frequently broached topic for the women in this study. There was agreement among the women that despite attempts to create and maintain flat structures, equitable processes and consensual/consultative decision-making, certain women were more powerful than others.
I mean, knowledge is power. Therefore some workers do have more power because they have the knowledge, they have loads more information than the part-time and casual workers. They have access to all the processes, like all the meetings, the staff meetings, the case management meetings, that the casuals and the part time staff don’t necessarily have because most of them have other work and other commitments, so they can’t be there for those other things.
I don't think you can ever not have power differences. And power differences may be partly personality - you get personalities that are stronger than others - maybe stronger is not the right word - perhaps more vocal maybe - there's some - you always have people who are vocal and articulate… they're very impressive. So sometimes you think 'I can't think of anything to argue against that’…some people will have a bit more power in that way.
Women recognised that issues about power were present and affected the functioning of the organisation and the experience of each woman. Some of the power structures identified by the women were clear and obvious, like the power inherent in the role of ‘President’ and ‘Coordinator’ in a hierarchically structured organisation. Other influences on who had power and who was less powerful related to characteristics which were not always formally recognised like length of service, a full time presence in the work place, and charisma. When these characteristics were not acknowledged as potential sources of power then, for some women, issues arose.
…the thing was that the leadership mantle had fallen on my shoulders and it was like I wanted to share it with people but I didn't feel people were actually taking the responsibility to pick it up…and things like saying 'you have too much power', but in the next breath ' what do you think of this?’ And ‘we won't do anything until we hear your views.’ 'But you've got really strong views so you're really bad’…but that was about me having been there a long time…that in itself wasn't a problem but what was a problem was not acknowledging that.
In a similar vein, Eva Cox (1996) suggests that power is most often thought of as ‘power over’ and, therefore, women are likely to link its acquisition with repressive acts and oppression. Women are unlikely to consider power as a positive entity, something to be sought and used for social change or valued as an organisational resource. Some of the feminist literature (Freeman, 1974; Kohli, 1993) has concentrated on the destructive potential of an individual with power especially within the context of a collective. Many of the women in this research had also considered this possibility.
I found in collectives because there's no given power to a particular individual, … if you want something to happen in your organisation then you actually have to think about ways of taking that power but you've got to do it subtly and you've got to manipulate to be able to do it…. I find that much more destructive than ' hold on, I have expertise in that area, I’ll do it’.
The comments reported here suggest that women do consider the concept of power ambivalently and have difficulty recognising the potential strengths of women with power. The women talked primarily about strategies for limiting the personal power of individuals, generally seeing individually powerful women as something to be avoided, unless that power was legitimated by the organisational structure.
It was with people who were seeking power for themselves in the organisation and doing it by pretending they were being empowering and feminist and all that but in fact they were just abusive.
There was little overt discussion within the organisations about what feminist power might look like and how it might contribute to the organisation. Clearly, there is room for the women in feminist organisations to engage with some of the debates about women and power and consider these discussions in the light of their own organisational experiences, aspirations and vision. Despite theoretical debates about sources of power and concepts of ‘power with’ rather than ‘power over’, this research suggests that women’s practical experience does not incorporate such understandings and that power is a topic rarely discussed or raised in feminist organisations like these. Instead, assumptions are made that feminist women know instinctively how to handle power. Given the literature discussed above that suggests women are not familiar with power and its use, such assumptions create impossible situations for women.
This paper has discussed the outcomes of a research project which explored the ways in which women influenced their own experience within organisations, challenging the notion that women were passive recipients of organisational policy and directives. Instead, this study proceeded from the position that women are active in identifying the positive factors of organisational life and innovative in harnessing these factors to facilitate the development of a nurturing, positive environment. In sharing their thoughts and experiences about working in a feminist organisation women spoke consistently about their relationships with other women. They discussed the ways in which they fostered and tended these relationships; they spoke of specific ways they felt connected to other women and the ways they tried to develop and maintain these connections. These relationships were mostly positive and warm so they provided women with the motivation and inspiration for where and how they worked. The women afforded each other support and encouragement to pursue social action and engage in community debate, and gathered around each other to provide sanctuary if necessary. They cared for each other’s emotional well being and self esteem. While the specific actions were different for different women, the almost universal strategy used by these women to create a positive organisational experience for themselves was their attention to the intricacies of their relationships with each other. The similarities in the way women discussed these experiences suggest that this strategy may speak to the experience of women even beyond this research project.
Nevertheless, these features are not without contradiction and counterpoint. Negotiating and even understanding the nature of power, expressing negative emotions and identifying unrealistic expectations remain fundamental tasks for feminist women in feminist organisations. The real challenge is to address issues such as these while concurrently developing strategies for promoting the interpersonal and organisational relationships that sustain feminist women in their work.
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