Community organizing has some roots in social work, and the field of social work has often been admonished for not focusing enough on practices addressing social justice, such as community organizing (Krings et al., 2019; Reisch & Andrews, 2001).
Unfortunately, there are indications that power-based organizing [both labor and community] has often been unwelcoming to women, [particularly concerning from a social work perspective, as the majority of social workers continue to be women]. This is borne out in the literature on labor and community organizing, which has regularly presented critiques of gender dynamics present in professional power-based organizing (Craddock, 2019; Hyde, 1986; Kennelly, 2014; Rooks, 2003, Krings et al., 2019; Stall & Stoeker, 1998).
This interpretive phenomenological study aims to examine the experiences of contemporary women in professional power-based organizing in Chicago. This constitutes a deep dive into a sample of ten individual women’s stories to take an in-depth interpretive look at their experience of professional power-based organizing.
Findings indicate that participants continue to face gendered struggles within their professional roles as organizers. Participants reported being encouraged to fall into essentialized gender roles that had them taking on office housework, supporting male colleagues’ leadership, and nurturing relationships co-workers, while paradoxically they were encouraged to “perform masculinity” when taking on a leadership role such as public speaking or leading a training.
Respondents also reported continued struggles with overwork, which had a significant deleterious effect on those providing care for dependents at home. The pace of the organizing work, the long hours, the sense of urgency, the focus on measurable outcomes, and lack of time for rest and reflection was described as harmful to most respondents but meant something more for those providing unpaid care work in their “free time” away from their organizing job. Seven of the ten participants had children and one was caring for ailing older parents, and each parent respondent reported struggles in the arena of balancing unpaid care obligations with the workaholic environment present at their organizing job. Finally, the reasons participants continue to organize, despite struggles faced, are explored. Reasons often reflected frustration with systemic oppression, and hopes for a better world.
This study uses feminist critical theory to contextualize these gender-based struggles, and how and why these same old battles on gender continue to recur over time. Two concepts from feminist critical theory, retraditionalization (coined by Lisa Atkins); and responsibilization (drawn mostly from Wendy Brown) are used to understand why gender subordination and gendered divisions of labor persist in our current milieu.