Gruesome examples of women’s oppression like the Delhi gang rape or the Steubenville football team get lots of headlines and head-shaking. Far more common are sexual assaults of women by men close to the victim. The culture that enables this violence is built on the everyday slights, power plays, and insults that women experience constantly. Activist circles are not immune, and activist groups often promote patriarchal structures, rape culture, and the silencing of victims. What can your branch do to promote a healthier culture, discourage patriarchal behavior, hold perpetrators accountable, and support our fellow workers? Here are a few approaches your branch can take:
1. The small stuff matters. Find ways to disrupt implicit social power structures. Practice active facilitation: encourage all to speak and participate, not just those who volunteer. Engage in skill sharing with new people. Be aware and skeptical of experienced men isolating and taking individual new women “under their wing.” Step back from leadership and let new people step up and make mistakes. Be organized—disorganization and informality allow informal power structures and privilege to take over. Reverse gender roles. Be productive in meetings. Value and recognize non-public, non-heroic work. Value and recognize facilitative, bureaucratic and emotional work. Encourage a culture of honest, caring criticism: give it and receive it well.
2. Fighting patriarchy is not women’s work. Everyone must take on the labor, social risk, and emotional burden of confronting patriarchal behavior, from dominating meetings to divisions of labor to sexual assault. Take the lead from the most oppressed people in the group, but take your own initiative. Don’t take someone else’s lack of action as an excuse to do nothing. There is nothing “more important” to do first. Even if you weren’t the target, patriarchal oppression in your community is your business. Often targets of patriarchy don’t want to be a victim twice; once from the original incident and again for having friends betray them by not listening, not taking them seriously, and not acting.
3. Take complaints of patriarchal oppression seriously, from small things like condescension in meetings to sexual harassment and assault. Don’t argue with someone else’s experiences. Activists do not have a “right” to participate in organizing spaces, and everyone has the right to feel safe. Immediately suspend those accused of serious offenses pending investigation. Temporary suspension is not a punishment, but it protects community safety and is a first step in taking the matter seriously. Ensure survivor safety. Promote survivors’ rights over perpetrators rights’.
Finally, patriarchy and sexual violence are not always perpetrated by men against women. Framing patriarchy and sexual violence as solely an act committed by men against women glosses over the amplified oppression of women of color, new activists, queer folk, trans folk, non-English speakers, etc. Patriarchy intersects with racism, ableism, ageism, homophobia, classism, and many other forms of oppression, and special attention needs to be paid to fight these power structures simultaneously.