CARASA: Once More on Organizational Questions



To prepare for CARASA's decision on organizational form, I wrote a second paper in November, 1977, drawing on my experience in other women’s liberation groups.

  1. Are we to be a centralized organization or a federation of committees?

              Two views of steering committee have been coming forward, which stem from different conceptions of the whole organzation and how it should do its work.

          One sees steering committee as a leading body, in which every member has responsibilities delegated by the whole organization (though they may be elected through committees). Steering committee would be responsible for making many decisions, initiatlng new work, actively soliciting advice from the broad membership, and doing its best to give political leadership as a collective body.

          The other sees steering committee as a loose collection of administrators, each of whom should be chosen by a committee. This view is based on seeing the organization more as a collection of independent committees with a loose relationship to each other than as a coherent whole. In this view, steering committee reps would be mainly responsible to represent the views of their own committee rather than the whole, and all important decisions would be made in the Thursday night meetings.

          Either view if carried to an extreme presents problems. However, I believe that the first is the direction we must move in at this time, and that the second would consolidate the primitiveness and tendencies to small-group mentality that already hold up our work. I do not think that over-centralization and dictatorship-by-leaders have ever been the main problem in the women's movement in the 60's and 70's. The overwhelming problems have been disorganization, lack of unity, small groupism—and the elitism that inevitably results from lack of real elected leadership that is responsible to the membership. I would like to give two examples from my experience.

          One is Bread & Roses, an early sort of socialist-feminist organization that I helped start in Boston in 1969. Because of the anarchist ideas and fear of leadership that were prevalent in the movement at that time, B&R never had any elected leadership or a steering committee, despite the fact that it had at least 200 members—if it was possible to be members of something that there was no way to really join. The only way to work consistently in B&R was to be part of a "collective," which functioned as a study group, consciousness raising group, and/or committee; and to come to the equivalent of our Thursday night meetings, where all the business of the organization was conducted.

          Since there was no elected leadership, but leadership always exists if anything is to get done, the organization was actually run in a very elitist way by people in a couple of collectives who did much of the work and initiated most of the programs. This leadership was both overburdened and quite unresponsive to the members, because there was no organized way to be responsive.

          Under the influence of anarchist ideas, B&R also made it a principle that the minority was not to be bound by the decisions of the majority— in other words, no majority rule. The- main effect of this rule was that the majority did not feel bound by its own decisions either—the organization did not take its work sufficiently seriously. Some important programs got lots of backup from the membership, while others, equally important, got almost none. And no one wanted to work in the office.

          The other organization that had some problems we should avoid was the Chicago Women's Liberation Union. This was much better organized and less anarchistic than Bread & Roses. But it was organized like a federation of committees. Each committee sent a delegate to the steering committee, and the delegates functioned more as representatives of that committee's views and interests than as people responsible for the whole organization. The effect was that, even when the CWLU really endorsed working on something like daycare, it could still end up with nobody doing it, if there were no committee which took it up. A committee could decide it didn't want to work on something (like a demonstration) that was the program of the whole organization; and it could even secede. Because the only real way to be active in the CWLU was to be in a committee, and the committees tended to perpetuate themselves as is, the CWLU existed for many years with an active membership of 30-40 and an inactive one in the hundreds. It found it hard to grow and expand.

          Only an organization with a strong center, as well as active committees, can initiate ambitious programs and reach out without being in danger of disintegrating every time it does something big. Only an organization with different levels of work and a means of orienting many new members can grow. Only an organization with local chapters can be citywide in more than name—these groups were both based in the local equivalents of the Village. And the only way to have leadership that functions responsibly is to have it be responsible to and for the whole organization and work collectively, rather than be an aggregation of people who represent sectional interests, like the House of Representatives.

2) Leadership

          Leadership should be conceived of as mainly political rather than administrative work. Even though steering committee members do some administration (deciding who should do what, how to get things organized, etc.), most of this is really political. Therefore, the main qualification for anybody on steering committee is good politics.

           Everyone on steering committee should have the following qualifications:
          1) They should have clear views which they can express comprehensibly and struggle for in a principled way. These should be views which most of us agree with in general.

          2) They should be good at uniting with people who have differing opinions and getting them to see the unity they have. They should not be divisive.

          3) They should be responsible and reliable, dedicated and hardworking, not in leadership for personal gain or thanks.

          4) They should be objective, open to criticism, accessible, and have a democratic style of work.

         Steering committee as a whole should represent the different qualities of the membership. It should combine people who are oldtimers with people who are young; people of different nationalities and backgrounds; people who have different political tendencies, like radical feminism and Marxism. But the most important qualification is politics.

3) How should leadership be nominated, etc.?

          Most of us seen to agree that we should have 2 people elected at large, a chair and a vice-chair, to be elected at the conference.

          People differ about whether we should also elect any at-large representatives to steering committee at the conference, or whether all th rest should be chosen by committees. Since our committee structure is in flux, this is an especially tough question.
           People also differ on whether steering committee should make nominations for the chair and vice-chair (and at-large reps, if any), or whether these should be made only from the floor, to avoid the danger of "stacking" the vote.

          I think that, as steering committee has more of an overview of people's work than anybody else, it would be irresponsible on its part to refrain from making nominations. But also that committees should exert themselves to make nominations and there should be more than one person running for anything.

4) Committees, chapters and Thursday night meetings

          We are always going to have different levels of participation—people who want to be very active, people who want to be somewhat active, people who want to be on the mailing list and do things now and then, and new members who need orientation. We will have some people who want to concentrate on outreach and organizing, and others who don't. Our structure should accommodate all of these people.

          As we do more outreach among non-movement people and people in working-class communities, it will become imperative to have local chapters, and other forms of participation besides Thursday meetings citywide. Many more people will join CARASA if they can do it in their own neighborhood. Although this form of organization is still in the future, we should provide for its development in our structure.

           The minimum number of committees it seems we need, as far as areas of work that we are doing or must do, seems to be:

         1) Steering committee
         2) Press & communications
         3) Research
         4) Fundraising
         5) National outreach, including statewide
         6) Coalition work, including liaison with other organizations
         7) Legislative work, including working in legislative coalitions
         8) Work on sterilization abuse
         9) Work on abortions re referral, health & hospitals research, etc.
       10) Community outreach (sub-committees for each community)
       11) Student outreach
       12) Internal organization, including new members & mailings

          There is overlap between some of these at present (6,7,8) and it may be that they should not all be separate committees. But each committee that exists should elect a representative to steering committee, with an alternate.

          Neighborhood chapters as they develop should elect a rep.

          The internal membership committee should develop a method of orientation. The bottom line would be a couple of phone numbers for new members to call. We should have a form letter for new members listing committees, phone contacts, etc. We might wish to hold special meetings for new members.

          The Thursday meetings should increasingly become educational and for discussion and mobilizing for events, rather than places where much business is conducted. Though it may appear to be most democratic to conduct all our business at these meetings, this is an illusion, because anyone who walks in can vote and business does not always get a well-developed discussion in such a big meeting. Since many active members don't come, the votes do not necessarily reflect the wishes of the membership. Therefore these meetings should give advice—which should be listened to—but decision making should take place largely in committees and steering committee. If there is a decision of such importance that it must be decided by the whole membership, a mailing should be sent out well ahead of time saying what it is and that there will be a vote, and all should feel obliged to show up.