Gender & Society

Blinded by Gender: The Study of Leadership Dilemmas and U.S. Feminism


By Jo Reger

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.

Fast forward to the 1990s with the rise of Riot Grrrl in the northwest. Inspired by feminist punk bands such as Bikini Kill and Bratmobile, grrrls rushed to start a grassroots movement that spread across the United States through homemade ‘zines and feminist-infused punk concerts. Yet, when the media caught on to this surge in activism, the women who had been the most articulate withdrew and rejected the role as leaders. The temptation in reviewing this period is that women retreat from leadership.

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.

In my study with Suzanne Staggenborg of National Organization for Women chapters, we found that leadership was often assumed because of need combined with opportunity, fostered by mentoring. Successful chapters formed leadership teams in which potential leaders, current leaders and former leaders stayed connected to each other offer guidance, support and advice. Leadership in this sense is a matrix in which the title of leader does not adequately address the way in which leadership is actually being done. Here leadership is not competitive or conflictual but supportive and long-lasting.

When leadership does become contentious, as it has at times in the history of the U.S. women’s movement, there are also gendered components to this dynamic worthy of study. In the 1960s and 1970s, radical feminists struggled with how to guide their groups without assuming individual control. Critiqued as a form of patriarchy, hierarchy of any sort was seen as a betrayal to feminist values. Women who were approached to speak for the movement or group by the media would find themselves trashed by others in the movement for being on an “ego trip.” Here is an example of the deliberate eradication of leadership in a movement. We can look at this as the source of the decline of radical feminism but what if we take a second look and explore the gains, momentum and successes that radical feminism experienced? Is it possible that an attempt to create a leaderless state led to the development of ideologies, identities and outcomes overlooked so far? Nancy Whittier takes on this question in her study of radical feminism.

So taking a look at feminist history through a gender lens allows social movement scholars to ask questions that dig deeper into the question of leadership. Considering the dissension and “trashing” of mid-20th century feminists we can ask: What are the conflicts that emerge between ideologies for social change and the necessities of leadership? Considering the retreat of leaders from the media spotlight in the 1990s, we can ask: How can public scrutiny serve as an instrument of social control for social movements? Considering the invisibility of 21st century feminism, we can ask: How can we capture the vibrancy of grassroots activism and leadership? And for all these moments, we need to ask: How have gendered assumptions blocked scholars from seeing important dynamics and dimensions of leadership?

* Originally posted on Mobilizing Ideas here. Cross-posted with permission. 

Jo Reger is professor of sociology and director of the Women and Gender Studies Program at Oakland University. Professor Reger is the current editor of Gender & Society and is a contributing editor of the Oxford Handbook of U.S. Women’s Social Movement Activism (2017), edited by Holly J. McCammon, Verta Taylor, Jo Reger, and Rachel L. Einwohner.