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Activist Burnout Part II: Gender.


This piece has been, if anything, harder to write than the last, as it is introspective: I’m talking about things we do to one another that make people drop out or cause people to expend all of their energy deflecting personal attack, and fighting for internal change – distracting from whatever ideal it was we joined the movement to oppose.

I can only write as a white, cis-female, relatively middle class and highly educated, activist. I have tried my hardest to be properly intersectional – if I need helping out with anything, please call me on it.

Gloss for those unfamiliar with the term: to be “cis-gendered” means to broadly identify with the gender that you were assigned at birth.

I’m not a sociologist or an anthropologist, so I don’t have any statistics to offer in support of what I’m saying. I have to ask you to believe me. If you don’t believe me: perhaps you should hold that in mind as you read this article.

I’d be willing to bet that more women, trans* and genderqueer people experience more acute, or at least faster-acting or simply MORE, activist burnout than cis-gendered men within the movement. It is certainly my experience and the experience of many of my sisters that our own burnout has been exacerbated by explicitly gendered factors within leftwing organising of all stripes. Broadly, I would identify those factors as they appear to me into the following categories: “”everyday sexism:  recreating and endemicising pre-existing inequalities; “repetitive strain”: fighting the same fight time and again; rape; rape apology. I have kept the final two categories distinct for reasons that I hope to make clear. I have tried to structure this analysis systematically so that you can see how, from my perspective, each of the more basic flaws and the kinds of things we let roll, lead to the more obviously catastrophic and heartbreaking consequences further down the list.

 Everyday Sexism.

A fundamental part of this conversation is about hierarchy: any kind of hierarchy is liable to replicate power dynamics as they already exist in wider society. That’s an assertion it’s really hard to back up, but I think it’s worth looking at the composition of central and executive committees, and any committees with a particular degree of power, in hierarchical leftwing organisations. My experience is that even in the organisations which make a real effort to have prominent female full-time activists, there are less of them than there are men; trans* people are almost invisible, especially in the longer-standing organisations and people of colour are also pretty few and far between compared to the actual racial composition of the country.

This isn’t the space to explain exactly how those power structures work: what I want to talk about is how this relates to burnout. It is the experience of women and trans* people in the movement that:

  1. They are nearly invisible in the “higher” levels of some forms of organisation.
  2. It is manifestly the case in all forms of organisation besides spaces that exclude cis-male participation that there will be a tendency for men to talk over women and that women’s voices will be de-prioritised.
  3. In practical situations, men assume people of other genders to be less capable than them.
  4. Those who are effective activists are often revered and fetishised rather than respected and treated as equals.
  5. They’re STILL treated differently according to what they look like.
  6. They spend as much of their time calling out people and groups for sexism and misogyny as they do organising for whatever the banner aim of the organisation was.

I haven’t given examples for all of these – but if you need them, ask the women and people of other genders around you in your home movement. Pretty sure you’ll find evidence quickly enough.

Repetetive Strain.

I have written previously about how exhausting it is, to constantly fight losing battles. It is true that battles within the movement can sometimes be won and that our ways of organising do move forwards. It is nevertheless the case that I, personally, as one individual, have been involved in feminist interventions into the organising structures of: Climate Camp groups; Trotskyist groups; Student and anti-cuts groups; Occupations and Occupy groups; if I enumerate every campaign or event that I’ve needed to intervene into, I lose count somewhere after ten. That’s way, WAY too many. And I’ve been out of commission for a while and I’m pretty green by most standards ANYWAY.

And even after all of these interventions, there are still times when many of us feel that our voices can’t be heard, that our skills aren’t valuable, that we’re ignored because of what we look like – and that what we look like is the only reason that people are listening to us.

I’ve found it really interesting looking over blogs about Occupy in the UK how few theoretical discussions are led by women, and how many of the articles by women are about gender. And how many of the articles about gender are in fact about rape, and how many of the conversations about rape in women’s writing are picked up on by their male comrades.

Thing is, you see, they’re not.

If we don’t think you’re listening, we stop talking.

If we don’t think you care about us and about whether we’re safe, we will not put ourselves at risk by coming near you.

Rape within Leftwing Communities.

Imagine the man you’d been going out with and struggling beside for more than a decade, and had started a family with, turned out to be a cop.

Imagine if engines of the state believed it was okay to rape you because of your political beliefs.

Imagine holding political beliefs that meant the state thought it was okay to rape you – in pursuit of other people, more important than you!

Imagine trusting people intimately in spaces that were built around those political beliefs.

Here I abandon this trope because I will not ask you to imagine what happened to women at Occupy camps. It can be terribly triggering to be in any way reminded of rape or sexual assault. If your aggressor wears a mask, that mask may well become a trigger. And if everyone around you is wearing that mask all of the time? How long are you going to stay around that movement for? And if accounts of what happened to you and other women like you (I’ve heard stories of women being raped in very nearly every Occupy camp I’ve heard about) aren’t even part of the criticism of that tactic, that way of organising, if the criticism is “this lacks momentum” or “this is not permanent” rather than “this space is not safe for women” – how much energy are you going to put into rescuing it?

We don’t just burn out from exhaustion. We also burn out in anger, fear and despair.

I return here to power structures: in the SWP, Martin Smith, who had already in previous years faced allegations of violence, which I believe, received APPLAUSE at a public conference for obfuscating what had happened and in actuality saying that he wasn’t going to let puny rape allegations stand in the way of his continuing to be prominent in the organisation and part of key decision-making processes.

We also burn out in disappointment and humiliation.

There are other stories I can’t tell because they’re not public knowledge and I haven’t asked the survivors’ permission to talk about them. Just know that there are more stories.

Rape Apology.

Don’t tell us that things that have happened within the movement are not symptomatic of the movement. They obviously are. Don’t try to pretend that your form of organisation is exempt, because it’s horizontal or whatever. It’s obviously not. Don’t try to blame individuals. Especially don’t try to blame individuals if the group didn’t try to do anything about it. Don’t say you never heard about it – why was that? Why couldn’t the survivor speak out?

Any tactic or mode of organising has failed if a member of the group using that tactic is raped or sexually assaulted by her comrade and it is time to re-structure; to think not only about means of reporting and addressing such violations after the event, but also organising in such a way that people are at less risk. Maybe ask us, the vulnerable members of your group, what we think might be best.

Listen to us more.

You haven’t excused the police tactic, right? And you’re freaked out about the presence of agents provocateurs making everybody and especially women more vulnerable? I don’t know what we do about that aspect of it, yet. But I know that other things we are doing as a movement are making women similarly vulnerable – and we ought to not only talk, but to act, on that.

Love us better. You need us.

The next instalment in this series will address some state – policy and policing – tactics that have contributed to increased burnout levels among activists recently and that I think we ought to take into consideration when we’re taking stock and designing methods of organisation.

I still hope to get to a little Positive Visualisation eventually.

Thanks for sticking with me here. Again, this is just hard to talk about in any way that doesn’t sound like an attack. It’s not meant as an attack: it’s an approach and an appeal.

Love, Reckless. X X X X X X X

About Robin Wild

My name's Robin. I'm 30, I'm gender queer, and I'm getting married.

3 responses »

  1. Thank you for this second part to your series. As a cis-man I have a lot to learn, and this post is helping me. I hope that when I re-enter the activist scene I can help to prevent burn-out because of these causes.
    I’m looking forward to further posts.

  2. Pingback: Traduction: De l’épuisement militant. Partie 2: Le Genre | Notes de lectures anarcha-féministes

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