Wednesday, May 31, 2017
Replacing the Masculine View of Leadership as Authority with a Feminist View of Leadership as a Bridge
As a scholar of the U.S. women’s movement, I have spent some of my intellectual time puzzling out the role of leaders in feminism. A historical perspective tells us that there were women who emerged as leaders — an oft recited list includes names such as Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Gloria Steinem, and Betty Friedan. A historical view also tells us that women’s leadership is often contentious, in retreat and ignored.
In quick review of feminist history, we can see these dynamics. For women in the early years of 1960s’ and 1970s’ feminist activism assuming a visible position as a leader brought personal loss as participants “trashed” those they thought were stepping into the public spotlight. Indeed this history is filled with stories of feminists attacking each other as they worked to create social change. The temptation in reviewing this history is to assume that women and cooperative and productive leadership do not mix. ***
Then comes the early 21st century, a time when the U.S. women’s movement is declared dead repeatedly. In my book, Everywhere and Nowhere, I investigate the state of the movement and find that at the community level a vibrant and distinct feminism exists, complete with women assuming leadership positions. Yet, at the national level when people are queried as to who is a feminist leader most times they cannot go beyond answering “Gloria Steinem.” As a result, the temptation (and inclination) is to declare U.S. feminism as dead.
This quick journey through feminist history acknowledges that leadership is a complicated concept, easily misunderstood and that our tools to study leadership need refining. One way that we can work to better conceptualize leadership is to acknowledge the ways in which gender, in particular masculinity, have become wedded to the notion of the leader. Many of the characteristics of what a leader is are formed around a more masculinist notion of control and authority. Leaders in the Weberian sense are charismatic, authoritative or bureaucratically assigned. They are in control, in the forefront and are accepting and even welcoming of the chance to lead. When this type of leadership is not present, scholars can conclude that leadership is not present. But what if we examine leadership differently? What if the gendered nature of the concept of leader is examined and deconstructed? We do have hints of this in scholarship such as Belinda Robnett’s 1997 conceptualization of a “bridge leader” born out of her study of women in the civil rights movement. Whereas a masculinist view of leadership sees it as publicly visible and clearly in control, the bridge leader works out of the spotlight, making connections between groups and networks and acquiring needed resources.