Gender and Grassroots Leadership
Karen Brodkin Sacks
This article is about the different ways that men and women exercised leadership in a hospital union organizing drive. At one level the research stems from an effort to apply anthropological methods and concepts to the larger feminist scholarly enterprise of building theory from the observed and lived experiences of women. Like women's studies, ethnography is an experience in seeing with new eyes and trying to understand concepts and categories that are often at loggerheads with those conventionally applied. In some ways, too, interpretive anthropology joins radical, Black, and feminist scholarship in the wider critical discussion of objectivity and agency. 1 Both the anthropological and the feminist enterprises necessarily involve confrontation and dialogue between actors' and observers' systems of meaning and interpretation.
In what follows I look at political activism through women's eyes, more specifically, through the eyes of mostly Black working-class women. I ask what politics and leadership look like when these women's vision and voices are placed at the center of analysis. The results of this enterprise suggest a significant revision of our concepts of political process and leadership, at least when we are dealing with transformative politics at the grassroots level. Examining leadership in a grassroots movement through working-class Black women's eyes and actions shows leadership to be a collective and dynamic process, a complex set of relationships and negotiations rather than a mobilization of parallel but individual actors.
In this union drive, most of the workers were women, and most of the militancy, movement, and leadership came from Black workers. It was a situation in which workers were mobilized simultaneously on the basis of race, gen