Burnham: The Absence of a Gender Justice Framework in Social Justice Organizing

stargirlTwo things are happening with this post. First, I’m playing with a new program – Embedit – that lets me embed marked up files. (See below. It’s ugly but it works.)

Second, I’d really like to generate some interaction on this topic of Gender Justice in Social Justice Organizing.

With a few decades logged now in the faith-based social justice scene, I’ve noticed that gender justice has fallen by the wayside as a core component of faith-based social justice work. There’s been a resurgence of misogyny – especially in conservative Christian rhetoric (which has seeped into popular cutlure). There’s been a resurgence of the teaching  called “complementarianism” (as opposed to egalitarianism) among many mainstream evangelical churches. (As one blogger puts it: “Complementarianism is a complicated series of intellectual gymnastics justifying the assignment of authority to men on the grounds that authority is but one among many roles played by human beings.”) And my beloved Catholic church still can’t accept that Mary Magdelene was the first apostle and should be the model for women in the priesthood.

Many of the younger folks I meet really have little-to-no gender justice analysis – and find no need for any. But as the young women get a little older and begin to encounter patriarchal power resistance, then they are totally confused about what they are experiencing.

I found Linda Burnham’s paper – while inadequate on the faith perspective – to be insightful and challenging. What do you think? (See some of her key quotes at bottom.)


“I have observed, over many decades of activism, that it is possible today to consider oneself a committed social justice organizer or human rights advocate yet have no functional understanding of how sexism operates.”

“I have witnessed the frustrations of women who are working in the context of mixed-gender organizations, networks or coalitions. Too often their efforts to introduce gender issues are resisted or undermined, or, despite their interest in incorporating a gender lens, they can’t figure out where to begin.”

“Staff and leadership development are rarely conceptualized or implemented in gender sensitive ways.”

“The presence of women in leadership is no guarantee that a gender justice framework will be in play.”

“For the purpose of this project, my working definition of a social justice organization is one whose social change work is based on the presumptions that:
(1) Problems of inequality, injustice and discrimination are not primarily individual and attitudinal but are based, more fundamentally, on structural, systemic and institutional inequities.
(2) Visions and strategies for change have to target the structures, systems and institutions that sustain and reproduce these inequities.
(3) This means directly challenging the power(s) that is vested in the status quo.
(4) A core strategy for doing so is to empower, mobilize and organize grassroots constituencies, implementing a bottom-up theory of change.”

“Several of those interviewed felt either that gender was rarely, if ever, incorporated in their organization’s work; or that it was incorporated in unsophisticated, unskillful ways; or that it was only brought up for consideration in relation to potential sources of funding.”

Interviewee: Gender is generally not incorporated. We have a highly developed race analysis and training for members and staff in race analysis. It’s constantly integrated into our framework and analysis of issues, not just a matter of strategy and tactics. But this level of analysis doesn’t exist in terms of gender.

“Two respondents mentioned that gender had come up in terms of funding strategy. When organizations approached women’s foundation they would emphasize the inclusion of women in a particular programmatic initiative, while having no functional analysis of gender, no gender-specific programming, and no gender-specific measures of evaluation. In other words, gender was used as a “funding hook” without any organizational commitment to developing consistent gender politics.

Interviewee: When women operate in an arena where there are women and men, women don’t control the discourse; we’re the add-on. At the same time, women-only spaces are marginalized. Gender is still regarded as a special interest; it’s dismissed into the gender ghetto.

Interviewee: We’ve made it to the first stage: There’s more women’s leadership and a rhetorical commitment to gender equality and against patriarchy. But, we haven’t figured out how to navigate the second stage. How do we lead on gender issues in multi-gender, multi-racial formations?

Interviewee: In the older generation, there was a lot more identification with feminism, along with a critique of mainstream feminism. No one really identifies as a feminist anymore. Some people think there’s already a level of equity and there’s no need to struggle over it anymore.

Interviewee: My generation has a set of cultural politics with no structural analysis, either on race or gender.There’s nowhere for folks 20-35ish to get that. It’s all about culture and identity and the oppression Olympics. Cultural and representational issues become a stand-in for structural analysis. We have to identify interventions that match the scale and nature of the problems.

“Male dominance was expressed by men calling the shots,bypassing the process and speaking on behalf of everybody. When women raised objections to this behavior they were in turn criticized for being out of touch with their own ethnic culture.”

Interviewee: When people don’t handle it [bad gender dynamics and practices], it backfires into the organization and we have no analytical handle or tools to figure out how to deal with it. As with race, if you don’t handle it, it will handle you.

“The absence of a gender justice lens means that the leadership of women and women of color is not identified as an explicit goal; those organizations that are using a gender lens are marginalized; and the case for gender sensitive organizing has to be made over and over again, with little momentum gained.”

“Two of those interviewed spoke to age as a complicating factor in addressing gender dynamics. Specifically, as young women they had encountered situations in which older men used their extended experience and status as quasi elders as a cover for undermining the work of younger women or shielding themselves from criticisms of sexism. One activist tagged this as “patriarchy 2.0,” i.e., not a blatant violation of gender practice, but a way to maintain their status and take up space while undermining the women who were doing the work. In this dynamic, younger men were paralyzed. They saw it, raised it to the women, but said nothing to the group or to the older men. They were complicit in sexism because they valued their strategic relationships with the older men and didn’t want to be on their shit list. It was confusing and silencing.”

Wow! Let me know what you think by sending me your comments.

Our New Organizer-in-Chief

I caught indy journalist and Democracy Now! host Amy Goodman at D.C.’s Green Festival yesterday. She reminded the still-deliriously happy crowd that the work of rebuilding democracy is just beginning.

Democracy Now!'s Amy Goodman
Democracy Now's Amy Goodman

Calling Obama our new “Organizer-in-Chief,” Goodman said the election was won by a combination of community organizing and unprecedented fund raising. But the jury’s still out, she said, on the lessons learned.

The answer is in who gets listened to in the new administration. Will it be the big dollar donors who find an ear? Or will it be a new day for community organizations and the people they represent?

Goodman made the point that Obama will need organizers pushing from the outside – both in times when community leaders genuinely disagree with him, but also for the added power it gives the president when he knows millions are ready to take him to task should he wander astray.

And to prove her point, Goodman lifted up two women as models for the kind of leadership that we now need:

Rosa Parks. Contrary to the watered-down history that portrays her as a tired seamstress too exhausted to give her bus seat to a white man, Parks was a trained community organizer – trained, in fact, at the Highlander Center with Myles Horton. Goodman called her a “first-class troublemaker” and pointed out that it was Rosa who sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott that launched Dr. King into leadership of the civil rights movement.

Mamie Till. The mother of 14-year-old Emmett Till, who was lynched during a summer vacation to in Mississippi in 1955, Mamie Till made the strategic choice for an open casket at Emmett’s funeral. Because of a mother’s courage, photos in newspapers around the world showed the brutality of racism.

Our new Organizer-in-Chief needs a few “first-class troublemakers” like Rosa Parks and Mamie Till to lead from the grassroots. Tuesday’s victory was huge and necessary, but this campaign was won, not solely by Barack Obama, but by an electrified citizenry committed to change. To move this from a historic “moment” to a historic “era” will take ongoing commitment by that same citizenry..