Socialist feminists have worked to ensure their ideas are at the centre of the new struggles around the world – emphasising, for example, the economic dimension of abortion access and the crucial role of unions in fighting sexual violence. But often there has been less awareness of the history of feminist organising, and its lessons for how to turn explosions of radical energy into lasting organisations. Jo Freeman’s classic 1973 essay, The Tyranny of Structurelessness, argues that struggles that claim to be founded on “structurelessness” and “leaderlessness” can generate pernicious and unaccountable forms of authority.
This is a lightly edited excerpt of Freeman’s 1973 essay, which has recently been republished in full by Jacobin.
During the years in which the women’s liberation movement has been taking shape, a great emphasis has been placed on what are called leaderless, structureless groups as the main – if not sole – organisational form of the movement. The source of this idea was a natural reaction against the over-structured society in which most of us found ourselves, and the inevitable control this gave others over our lives, and the continual elitism of the left and similar groups among those who were supposedly fighting this over-structuredness.
The idea of “structurelessness”, however, has moved from a healthy counter to those tendencies to becoming a goddess in its own right. The idea is as little examined as the term is much used, but it has become an intrinsic and unquestioned part of women’s liberation ideology. For the early development of the movement this did not much matter. It early defined its main goal, and its main method as consciousness-raising, and the “structureless” rap group was an excellent means to this end. The looseness and informality of it encouraged participation in discussion, and its often supportive atmosphere elicited personal insight. If nothing more concrete than personal insight ever resulted from these groups, that did not much matter, because their purpose did not really extend beyond this.
The basic problems didn’t appear until individual rap groups exhausted the virtues of consciousness-raising and decided they wanted to do something more specific. At this point they usually floundered because most groups were unwilling to change their structure when they changed their tasks. Women had thoroughly accepted the idea of “structurelessness” without realising the limitations of its uses. People would try to use the “structureless” group and the informal conference for purposes for which they were unsuitable out of a blind belief that no other means could possibly be anything but oppressive.
If the movement is to grow beyond these elementary stages of development, it will have to disabuse itself of some of its prejudices about organisation and structure. There is nothing inherently bad about either of these. They can be and often are misused, but to reject them out of hand because they are misused is to deny ourselves the necessary tools to further development. We need to understand why “structurelessness” does not work.
Formal and informal structures
Contrary to what we would like to believe, there is no such thing as a structureless group. Any group of people of whatever nature that comes together for any length of time for any purpose will inevitably structure itself in some fashion. The structure may be flexible; it may vary over time; it may evenly or unevenly distribute tasks, power and resources over the members of the group. But it will be formed regardless of the abilities, personalities or intentions of the people involved. The very fact that we are individuals, with different talents, predispositions and backgrounds makes this inevitable. Only if we refused to relate or interact on any basis whatsoever could we approximate structurelessness – and that is not the nature of a human group.
This means that to strive for a structureless group is as useful, and as deceptive, as to aim at an “objective” news story, “value-free” social science or a “free” economy. A “laissez faire” group is about as realistic as a “laissez faire” society; the idea becomes a smoke screen for the strong or the lucky to establish unquestioned hegemony over others. This hegemony can be so easily established because the idea of “structurelessness” does not prevent the formation of informal structures, only formal ones. Similarly, “laissez faire” philosophy did not prevent the economically powerful from establishing control over wages, prices and distribution of goods; it only prevented the government from doing so.
Thus, structurelessness becomes a way of masking power, and within the women’s movement is usually most strongly advocated by those who are the most powerful (whether they are conscious of their power or not). As long as the structure of the group is informal, the rules of how decisions are made are known only to a few and awareness of power is limited to those who know the rules. Those who do not know the rules and are not chosen for initiation must remain in confusion or suffer from paranoid delusions that something is happening of which they are not quite aware.
For everyone to have the opportunity to be involved in a given group and to participate in its activities, the structure must be explicit, not implicit. The rules of decision-making must be open and available to everyone, and this can happen only if they are formalised. This is not to say that formalisation of a structure of a group will destroy the informal structure. It usually doesn’t. But it does hinder the informal structure from having predominant control and make available some means of attacking it if the people involved are not at least responsible to the needs of the group at large. “Structurelessness” is organisationally impossible. We cannot decide whether to have a structured or structureless group, only whether or not to have a formally structured one. Therefore, the word will not be used any longer except to refer to the idea it represents.
“Unstructured” will refer to those groups which have not been deliberately structured in a particular manner. “Structured” will refer to those which have. A structured group always has formal structure, and may also have an informal, or covert, structure. It is this informal structure, particularly in unstructured groups, which forms the basis for elites.
The nature of elitism
“Elitist” is probably the most abused word in the women’s liberation movement. It is used as frequently, and for the same reasons, as “pinko” was used in the 1950s. It is rarely used correctly. Within the movement it commonly refers to individuals, though the personal characteristics and activities of those to whom it is directed may differ widely: an individual, as an individual, can never be an elitist, because the only proper application of the term “elite” is to groups. Any individual, regardless of how well-known that person may be, can never be an elite.
Correctly, an elite refers to a small group of people who have power over a larger group of which they are part, usually without direct responsibility to that larger group, and often without their knowledge or consent. A person becomes an elitist by being part of, or advocating the rule by, such a small group, whether or not that individual is well known or not known at all. Notoriety is not a definition of an elitist. The most insidious elites are usually run by people not known to the larger public at all. Intelligent elitists are usually smart enough not to allow themselves to become well known; when they become known, they are watched, and the mask over their power is no longer firmly lodged.
Elites are not conspiracies. Very seldom does a small group of people get together and deliberately try to take over a larger group for its own ends. Elites are nothing more, and nothing less, than groups of friends who also happen to participate in the same political activities. They would probably maintain their friendship whether or not they were involved in political activities; they would probably be involved in political activities whether or not they maintained their friendships. It is the coincidence of these two phenomena which creates elites in any group and makes them so difficult to break.
These friendship groups function as networks of communication outside any regular channels for such communication that may have been set up by a group. If no channels are set up, they function as the only networks of communication. Because people are friends, because they usually share the same values and orientations, because they talk to each other socially and consult with each other when common decisions have to be made, the people involved in these networks have more power in the group than those who don’t. And it is a rare group that does not establish some informal networks of communication through the friends that are made in it.
Some groups, depending on their size, may have more than one such informal communications network. Networks may even overlap. When only one such network exists, it is the elite of an otherwise unstructured group, whether the participants in it want to be elitists or not. If it is the only such network in a structured group, it may or may not be an elite depending on its composition and the nature of the formal structure.
If there are two or more such networks of friends, they may compete for power within the group, thus forming factions, or one may deliberately opt out of the competition, leaving the other as the elite. In a structured group, two or more such friendship networks usually compete with each other for formal power. This is often the healthiest situation, as the other members are in a position to arbitrate between the two competitors for power and thus to make demands on those to whom they give their temporary allegiance.
The inevitably elitist and exclusive nature of informal communication networks of friends is neither a new phenomenon characteristic of the women’s movement nor a phenomenon new to women. Such informal relationships have excluded women for centuries from participating in integrated groups of which they were a part. In any profession or organisation, these networks have created the “locker room” mentality and the “old school” ties which have effectively prevented women as a group (as well as some men individually) from having equal access to the sources of power or social reward.
Much of the energy of past women’s movements has been directed to having the structures of decision-making and the selection processes formalised so that the exclusion of women could be confronted directly. As we well know, these efforts have not prevented the informal male-only networks from discriminating against women, but they have made it more difficult.
Because elites are informal does not mean they are invisible. At any small group meeting, anyone with a sharp eye and an acute ear can tell who is influencing whom. The members of a friendship group will relate more to each other than to other people. They listen more attentively, and interrupt less; they repeat each others’ points and give in amiably; they tend to ignore or grapple with the “outs” whose approval is not necessary for making a decision. But it is necessary for the “outs” to stay on good terms with the “ins”. Of course, the lines are not as sharp as I have drawn them. They are nuances of interaction, not prewritten scripts. But they are discernible, and they do have their effect. Once one knows with whom it is important to check before a decision is made, and whose approval is the stamp of acceptance, one knows who is running things.
Since movement groups have made no concrete decisions about who shall exercise power within them, many different criteria are used around the country. Most criteria are along the lines of traditional female characteristics. For instance, in the early days of the movement, marriage was usually a prerequisite for participation in the informal elite. As women have been traditionally taught, married women relate primarily to each other, and look upon single women as too threatening to have as close friends.
In many cities, this criterion was further refined to include only those women married to New Left men. This standard had more than tradition behind it, however, because New Left men often had access to resources needed by the movement – such as mailing lists, printing presses, contacts and information – and women were used to getting what they needed through men rather than independently.
As the movement has changed through time, marriage has become a less universal criterion for effective participation, but all informal elites establish standards by which only women who possess certain material or personal characteristics may join. They frequently include: middle-class background (despite all the rhetoric about relating to the working class); being married; not being married but living with someone; being or pretending to be a lesbian; being between the ages of 20 and 30; being college educated or at least having some college background; being “hip”; not being too “hip”; holding a certain political line or identification as a “radical”; having children or at least liking them; not having children; having certain “feminine” personality characteristics such as being “nice”; dressing right (whether in the traditional style or the anti-traditional style); etc.
There are also some characteristics which will almost always tag one as a “deviant” who should not be related to. They include: being too old; working full time, particularly if one is actively committed to a “career”; not being “nice”; and being avowedly single (ie, neither actively heterosexual nor homosexual).
Other criteria could be included, but they all have common themes. The characteristic prerequisite for participating in the informal elites of the movement, and thus for exercising power, concern one’s background, personality or allocation of time. They do not include one’s competence, dedication to feminism, talents or potential contribution to the movement. The former are the criteria one usually uses in determining one’s friends. The latter are what any movement or organisation has to use if it is going to be politically effective.
The criteria of participation may differ from group to group, but the means of becoming a member of the informal elite if one meets those criteria are pretty much the same. The only main difference depends on whether one is in a group from the beginning or joins it after it has begun. If involved from the beginning, it is important to have as many of one’s personal friends as possible also join. If no one knows anyone else very well, then one must deliberately form friendships with a select number and establish the informal interaction patterns crucial to the creation of an informal structure.
Once the informal patterns are formed, they act to maintain themselves, and one of the most successful tactics of maintenance is to continuously recruit new people who “fit in”. One joins such an elite much the same way one pledges a sorority. If perceived as a potential addition, one is “rushed” by the members of the informal structure and eventually either dropped or initiated. If the sorority is not politically aware enough to actively engage in this process itself, it can be started by the outsider pretty much the same way one joins any private club. Find a sponsor, ie, pick some member of the elite who appears to be well respected within it and actively cultivate that person’s friendship. Eventually, she will most likely bring you into the inner circle.
All of these procedures take time. So if one works full time or has a similar major commitment, it is usually impossible to join simply because there are not enough hours left to go to all the meetings and cultivate the personal relationships necessary to have a voice in the decision-making. That is why formal structures of decision-making are a boon to the overworked person. Having an established process for decision-making ensures that everyone can participate in it to some extent.
Although this dissection of the process of elite formation within small groups has been critical in perspective, it is not made in the belief that these informal structures are inevitably bad – merely inevitable. All groups create informal structures as a result of interaction patterns among the members of the group. Such informal structures can do very useful things. But only unstructured groups are totally governed by them. When informal elites are combined with a myth of “structurelessness”, there can be no attempt to put limits on the use of power. It becomes capricious.
This has two potentially negative consequences of which we should be aware. The first is that the informal structure of decision-making will be much like a sorority – one in which people listen to others because they like them and not because they say significant things. As long as the movement does not do significant things, this does not much matter. But if its development is not to be arrested at this preliminary stage, it will have to alter this trend.
The second is that informal structures have no obligation to be responsible to the group at large. Their power was not given to them; it cannot be taken away. Their influence is not based on what they do for the group; therefore they cannot be directly influenced by the group. This does not necessarily make informal structures irresponsible. Those who are concerned with maintaining their influence will usually try to be responsible. The group simply cannot compel such responsibility; it is dependent on the interests of the elite.