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Mixing it

So, we've heard the horror stories: mixed activism—with the men gallivanting about taking heroic action and the women staying on site, or choosing alternative forms of protest. Does mixed activism have to end up replicating patriarchal norms? Two activists from Trident Ploughshares discuss their experience.

David
On the face of it, and for most of the time, men and women have been able to work well together in the TP campaign, but I am far from sure why this is so. I recall the early discussions about a related issue —the extent to which we should have a rigorous approach to decision-making-by-consensus. We have opted for a more easy-going style on that one, on the ground of pragmatism, but we get quite uneasy about it from time to time in spite of regular checking out with our members, the Pledgers. We are open to the criticism that our pragmatic way leaves some oppression or discrimination hidden and un-tackled and the same could well be true for gender equality.

We could be falling into the single-issue trap in which a campaign is so sharply focused that it does not take the necessary effort to make sure that its methodology reflects the wider ethical concerns of which Trident is one manifestation. For an observer with this in mind there might be suspicious indicators, such as the fact that we don't talk much about gender equality issues in the campaign context, or the fact that we have not embedded explicit preventative measures into our meeting processes. In short, we seem to operate most of the time “gender-blind”. Does this worry you?

Angie
Not too much because at the moment there is a preponderance of women active in the campaign. Of 13 people in the Core Group, only 4 are men and of the 175 Pledgers over 100 are women. Interestingly there are five all-women affinity groups but only one all-male affinity group (and that one is from Sweden which is more gender aware and does encourage men's groups). More importantly there seems to be a good “feminist” structure of pragmatism based on consensus decision-making, of listening carefully to the many different opinions and voices, of consulting widely, of facilitating a process. Embedded within the campaign is a recognition that the means have to be consistent with the end.

In any case I personally want to live in a gender-blind society where women and men are equally respected and listened to and sensitive to each other's needs. But maybe I am not worrying because so far it has not been a problem because I feel at ease with so many women filling the main organisational and support roles in the campaign. I would probably feel very differently if the balance was more equal and there were more men organising the support work. I would fear that it would all become much more directive and hierarchical. How does it feel to be one of the few men so active in the campaign's organisational work?

David
I think it has been particularly easy for me in that I am very much a latecomer to the active end of the peace movement and have had to start from a very basic level and learn from folk who have more experience and something of a track record. And in the peace movement—let's face it —they will usually be women. Also in my work as an education adviser and local government officer most of my significant colleagues were women, so I was used to that. I think that the practical feminism on show in the campaign is a confident and relaxed variety and can balance a strong adherence to principles with a considerable tolerance for foibles. This makes for the most comfortable working environment I have ever known—an environment in which it is easy to take criticism, to find a good niche for your contribution and to be stretched to do as good work as you can.

I have not come across any anti-men stuff—beyond a little jokey stereotyping here and there. That doesn't bother me, because it does not affect my own sense of equality, but maybe I should challenge it more on behalf of younger men?

Angie
No. Younger men are quite able to challenge things for themselves. It is better that any person adversely affected by sexism should do that for themselves, not only to find their own power but to make sure it is done in an open manner and not in an underhand or hidden way, through others. If younger men have any particular problem then they should be encouraged to tackle it openly, say at one of the Pledgers meetings or raise it on our email discussion list. It would be sad if we got too uptight about any jokes whatsoever, it could become very dull and pc. The important thing is whether everyone within the campaign can say what they want to say, express themselves fully, and be empowered without taking rights away from anyone else.

One of the things that has made this more possible in this campaign has been the age range. Having older people as well as younger people makes for a great deal of flexibility, understanding and stability. This, along with the preponderance of women, has made working in the campaign a pleasure.

David
I was thinking about it today when reading the newspaper accounts of our banner-drop in the Scottish Parliament. One of the journalists used the phrase: “… mainly middle-aged women.” when telling the story. I bridled a bit at that description but then realised it was at least statistically accurate, however prejudiced and dismissive its overtones.

The point is I was just thinking about “us”, not clocking the particular sex/age balance of this particular group of TP activists. That's possible because these particular people are not easy to fit into the stereotypes of age, gender or whatever. They are constantly breaking the “rules” of convention on how a young person/ middle aged woman/man/disabled person is supposed to behave—very much personalities (not to say characters) before they are types. I guess there are two sides to this. On one hand the determination of people not to be pigeonholed and on the other an environment that makes that easier.

Angie
Well, the structure of TP has helped. There's the common commitment to a set of nonviolence ground- rules—the same foundation for us all. Within this framework each small affinity group can autonomously decide what they are going to do and how and when. They can also decide on their style of working and create their own culture. This means that in a way we devolve down to each affinity group the group processes—which if left to deal with in an unwieldy large group might lead to tensions and problems we could not handle adequately.

Our Handbook stresses that in our affinity groups we should be aware of unhealthy undercurrents, of undealt-with feelings, of various forms of oppression (sexism, racism, ageism, etc) and deal with them there. Our Core Group (made up of people from various affinity groups) is structured so that it also has a similar affinity group ethos.

We have specifically rejected the model of organisation that elects a number of representatives of every affinity group to go into an executive or organising group. Instead we have admitted that our Core Group must work like an affinity group, that everyone must get on with everyone else and be able to work by consensus.

Any problems with the way in which the Core Group is run can be raised on the e-mail discussion list or through Pledgers meetings, and are usually sorted out in a very flexible and friendly manner. I think this way of organising is quite alien to many men who find it a bit woolly because it is hard to describe. It does mean that things evolve out of the process and along the way. Actually I wonder if this is more British than feminist—a kind of muddling through?

David
I think woolly is the wrong term, more ad hoc and improvised. I speak here as someone who has found his natural vagueness challenged very sharply in the campaign. It's probably impossible to say what the exact source of the culture is. Though at the very least we have experienced a way of doing things that gives more space than usual to pragmatism, willingness to grapple with problems, to be lateral in finding solutions, inclusiveness, and honesty about where we are emotionally, “feminist” virtues, I suppose. Mind you, one of the reasons the structure works okay is that the commitment of people in the campaign is so strong that the focus is on the work itself, rather than on the set-up—which is seen as a wineskin that is holding the juice—at least for the time being. It might not continue to do so but if it fails I hope we would be able to carry forward the positive lessons.

Angie
Reading this through I am aware that an audience might read it very differently if your passages had been attributed to me and mine to you. Just shows how deep seated sexism really is, maybe we should leave the sections unmarked and leave it to the reader to guess who is female and who is male?

Trident Ploughshares is a campaign to disarm the British Trident nuclear weapon system in a nonviolent, open, peaceful and accountable manner. They act "to uphold international humanitarian law and to expose the illegality and immorality of the Trident system". Since the beginning of practical disarmament work in August 1998 there have been over 1,200 arrests: 700 of whom have been women and 500 men
Trident Ploughshares, 42-46 Bethel Street, Norwich, Norfolk NR2 1NR, Britain (email tp2000@gn.apc.org; http://www.tridentploughshares.org).

Topics: Gender | Activism