What makes a brilliant women’s organisation?

Doctor Jane Grant gained her doctorate in 2001 with a study on the governance of women’s organisations over time. It was something she had practice in, helping to form and then run the National Alliance of Women’s Organisations for a decade from 1984.

Last year, she published In the Steps of Exceptional Women, a biography of the Fawcett Jane GrantSociety from 1866 – 2016. A good place to buy that online, of course, is the women’s worker co-operative News from Nowhere – or the Fawcett Society’s own online bookstore.

After a conversation on governance in social movements, Jane passed me a precious hard copy of her 2001 dissertation: Governance, Continuity and Change in the Organised Women’s Movement. An original is preserved in the Women’s Library, which is now at the LSE and which she helped to champion, along with others such as Mary Stott, celebrated journalist who was the first editor of the Guardian’s women’s page and a longstanding contributor to Co-operative News. There is also a summary online, for the Centre for Institutional Studies.

Governance is as important to formal organisations in the women’s movement as anywhere elsewhere. But there are some distinctive challenges, rooted in the values that lead those involved to organise in the first place.

In the cause of empowerment, there can be power disputes. In the cause of unity, there can be internal conflicts. For those committed, often intimately so at a personal level, the challenge of governance can be an acute one.

The context can make that more acute still. As with the the rest of the voluntary sector, women’s organisations have faced cuts and challenges of funding.

Recognising what she describes as “an illiteracy with power and difficulties in adapting structures in the face of new challenges”, governance in women’s organisations was something that Jane set out to study.

She took case studies of women’s organisations, eight traditional organisations from ‘first wave’ feminism, eight from the women’s movement in the 1970s and the Fawcett Society as a bridge between the two.

The traditional organisations were all membership based. Several, such as the Women’s Institute and Mothers’ Union still are. But all have been affected in more recent times by falling membership. One of these is the Co-operative Women’s Guild, which in England and Wales closed two years ago. In 1939, as I recounted in a recent blog post, it had a membership of 87,000. Writing in 2001, Jane described how its “once vibrant local branches” had dwindled to “Wednesday clubs for older ladies with little or no campaigning content.” 

The Co-operative Women’s Guild was a success story for a long period of time. Models of membership though have to be renewed for changing circumstances – not least women’s changing circumstances, competing activities and a general decline in volunteering.

Many of the traditional organisations, such as the Soroptimists, while open and generous in their culture, were hierarchical in their organizational structures and governance. The 1970s introduced a more collective style. They began from the world as it ought to be, one in which gender hierarchies had been extinguished, rather than the world as it was.

Rape Crisis centres from the time operated on an egalitarian and inclusive basis. That could bring its own problems, and over time a more hybrid approach developed. By 2001, organisations such as the East London Black Women’s Organisation, an extraordinary institution itself that had faced periodic threats of violence, had developed models that were “basically hierarchical in structure, but women-centred, universally admired for a highly participative and supportive governance and management which seems to bring out the best in all concerned.”

Leadership has been central to the tensions of governance. “The women’s movement has had an ambivalent relationship with power and leadership” Jane explains. “In traditional organisations, these concepts were recognized as important – with models of very powerful women – but sometimes abused. In feminist organisations built on a participatory-democratic model, power and leadership were often rendered invisible… There is now a growing understanding that power exists in all organisations and can be both used or abused.”

What happens when things go wrong? Siobhan Riordan writes that “sisters are not always nice to each other; their positions and status are not always equal; and their relationships are not always supportive.” The best organisations, Jane concluded were those that created institutional solutions to conflict, lessening the chance of becoming locked into personalized disputes. An example from the Girlguiding, is a set of protocols for behaviour between staff and volunteers, welcoming difference but recognising what to do that turns to conflict.

Core to her research was to understand the factors by which organisations in social movements can endure over time. The organised women’s movement shares many of the challenges of other voluntary organisations, such as funding, structures and accountability, but experiences some challenges in a distinctive and acute way, especially those, Jane concludes, “around structure, power, leadership, income and conflict.”

Adapting, and simplifying what she says, for the purpose of a blog post, these are the eight criteria that emerge for measuring the success and effectiveness of a women’s organisation and its governance over time:

  1. Does it have a purpose which women see as relevant and important?
  2. Does it make a difference in the real world?
  3. Does it have a diverse and involved membership?
  4. Is it well-governed, able to deal with conflict?
  5. Is it able to evolve and adapt with the times?
  6. Is it accountable?
  7. Does it encourage partnership?
  8. Does it have the financial health to plan ahead?

What makes a brilliant women’s organisation is putting these into practice. As Monique Leroux, President of the International Co-operative Alliance, says “wishing for diversity simply will not do the trick, any more than wishing for nice weather. It takes strong measures and firm commitment.”

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2 thoughts on “What makes a brilliant women’s organisation?

  1. Excellent article . As a governance geek and gender equality champion I support good governance based in shared culture and values. In truth if women come together with common purpose, and shared values; the behavioural solutions to good governance are easily arrived at. Shall we discuss ?

  2. Pingback: What makes a brilliant women’s organisation? | Pamela S Ball

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