Women Organising // Review

By Brown, Helen | Resources for Feminist Research, Spring/Summer 1994 | Go to article overview

Women Organising // Review


Brown, Helen, Resources for Feminist Research


Within mainstream organizational theory, non-hierarchical organizations have been regarded as natural or spontaneous occurrences. Even within anarchist discussions, non-hierarchical organizing has been romanticized. Starting from the view that there are critical lessons to be learned from exploring the process of constructing non-hierarchical organizations by autonomous women's groups, Women Organising is a book that challenges these perspectives. This text fills an enormous gap in feminist theorizing and analyzing the very practices and experiences which are critical to the women's movement. There are many lessons to be learned in the work that goes on, broadly speaking, in the women's movement. As someone who has been involved for over a decade in various feminist organizing processes, this book reminded me that rarely do we have time to document, analyze or critically reflect on our own practice.

In Women Organising, Helen Brown criticizes the approach found in the dominant mainstream literature regarding non-hierarchical organizations because it removes any sense of the problematic of social organizing based on collectivist democratic principles. In her study of a women's centre in which she was an active participant, she found that non-hierarchical forms of organizing involve a constant process of negotiation and struggle. Brown presents a thorough overview of the organizational theory literature and outlines why she has used negotiated order theory as her theoretical framework. Negotiated order theory is a quasi-general theory which suggests that organizing must be examined as a situated social action in which "negotiation is the crucial central process through which meaning is tentatively and reflexively created" (p. 167). The author suggests that research must be done on the process of organizing and leadership behaviour rather than on organizations or leaders per se. The data examined include first hand accounts of women organizing and two case studies of organizing activities of two women's centres.

In the beginning of the book, Brown examines the development of the women's movement in Britain and the difficulty that women have faced in implementing the principle of non-hierarchical organization and equal participation. Other struggles outlined include how to enact the value of equality in social relationships while dealing with differences between individuals. A critical struggle emerges in the process of developing relatively equal levels of commitment from women who must juggle and balance many other demands in their lives. Another issue outlined in the review of women's organizing in Britain is how collectivist-democratic organizations operate in a capitalist-bureaucratic context, particularly when receiving funding from a state body which often does not recognize such non-hierarchical organizations as legitimate.

Chapter 3 reviews the main themes in the organizational theory literature and the literature which has examined social movements. Brown argues that most studies of social movements have focussed on political effectiveness, not the characteristic forms of organizing. Within the organizational theory literature, many aspects of organizational behaviour remain unexplicated, and a managerial bias and market-oriented approach do not capture a full sense of what is involved.

The three chapters in the middle of the text are the most intriguing, outlining in great detail the beginnings, crises and transformations that took place at the Greystone Women's Centre. …

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