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Infighting and Innovation: Lessons from the Women's Movement

Long associated with women’s rights, The National Organization for Women offers some key lessons for education reform advocates, ranging from its success in empowering innovative local chapters to its challenges in appealing to a younger, more diverse audience. As part of the AdvocacyLabs initiative, 50CAN CEO Marc Porter Magee talks with Kelsy Kretschmer, an assistant professor in the School of Public Policy at Oregon State University and author of the 2019 book Fighting for Now: Diversity and Discord in the National Organization for Women.

Porter Magee: One of the things we spend a lot of time thinking about at 50CAN is how to maximize local autonomy while bringing people together into an organization that will last. There’s always a tension between centralization and local autonomy.

Kretschmer: Yeah, I am in the uncomfortable position of defending bureaucracy and defending the idea that activists should spend time on organizational infrastructure that contributes to sustainability. There is this belief that if you spend time on infrastructure building, it will take away energy from activism.

In the National Organization for Women, the founders largely came from hierarchical industry and government organizations, and that's the kind of organization they created because it is what they knew. But they also gave people at the local level enormous freedom to do whatever they wanted to do. As long as they weren't violating the organization’s basic platforms, they could take on any project they wanted.

I found that activists at the local level of NOW ended up being interesting and creative and contentious. Existing inside of a larger bureaucratic structure meant their local group didn't fall apart as soon as original members moved on. They were able to continue having a presence in rural and conservative places because they were paired with this larger national bureaucracy.

Nobody wants to defend bureaucracy, but it really did matter. It mattered for the local activists that they could still do whatever activism they wanted to do at the local level. But they didn't have to start from scratch every single time.

Could you highlight one or two things you think NOW got right and one or two things that they're still working on?

One thing that they got really right was to say, “We are going to aggregate resources at the national level, and we're going to really make a push to have a national presence and to put pressure on elites and politicians at the national level,” while also saying to local members, “You can do whatever you want.”

That freedom ended up generating a ton of new ideas. Many of the local leaders ended up as national leaders. Over time, that meant that really good, creative ideas that were generated at the local level could move up the chain, and then the national leaders could help institute those ideas in new places. For example, one local chapter successfully established a domestic violence shelter, and then other local chapters took that model and brought it to their own communities. So that sort of unbridled freedom at the local level was really a boon to the whole organization over time.

The one big thing that they got wrong initially was that it was not clear how local leaders could influence the national organization, other than by revolting. There wasn't a very clear democratic structure set up at first and, as a result, the organization faced a schism, and several groups ended up breaking away in the first 10 years because they didn't have a more elaborated structure.

There’s this idea in the field that insurrection is the thing written on the tombstones of most social movements, and advocacy leaders live in fear of that. You bring together people who are passionate, and it's easy for them to turn on each other if the lines of communication aren’t open, because everyone feels this so deeply. You're making the case for structure and clarity as a way to stave that off.

Well, factionalism, infighting and conflict are probably inevitable. There's just no way to avoid it because as you said: People are passionate, they come with very strong ideas, and very strong attachments to particular ways of doing things. The bigger the organization gets, the more diverse it gets. The new people don't know each other in the same way, and bring their own priorities. Conflict boils over into factionalism. It's just going to happen.

Building an infrastructure does help channel some of that fighting. But it’s not a terrible thing if splits do happen. One organization cannot meet every need for the whole movement. If you have an overabundance of vitality, passion and resources, maybe it's better to split into two separate organizations and then work together as partners where it makes sense. That was one of the happier things to discover while researching for the book.

I tracked down roughly 25 schisms inside NOW over the years. And the vast majority of those groups thrived and continue to work with NOW after having broken away. Catholics for Choice, for example, was founded by NOW members who thought the broader movement needed a feminist group that was explicitly Catholic. They continue to work with NOW quite happily when an occasion calls for cooperation. Women’s Equity Action League (WEAL) split very early when its founders felt the movement needed a group to represent more conservative women. WEAL founders said very explicitly that they couldn’t stay a part of NOW, but they envisioned a robust partnership going forward.

So rather than letting things get poisonous and fighting to the death, sometimes it's better to just say, “We all want the same things. We disagree about how to get there. So let’s split amicably and do it in a way that will allow us to continue to work together.” Hoping that you're going to avoid conflict completely is probably futile.

You advance the idea that peaceful and quiet organizations aren’t the most innovative, that organizations have to be prepared to argue their way to innovation.

I wish I could take credit for that idea. Carol Mueller wrote about how creativity is generated through conflict in movement organizations. Amin Ghaziani also wrote a great book touching on similar ideas. Fighting about the best way forward helps you interrogate the ideas, and it forces people to defend them and think through, “Okay. My critics are saying that X, Y, and Z is going to happen if we do this. How will we handle that? How will we deal with it?”

Advocates benefit from having to fight through ideas and challenging each other about whether the idea on the table is good. Fighting is always painful, but if you can survive it, you have a much clearer idea of what people are passionate about, and then the way forward is clearer.

I always feel nervous about making that argument. Because in the middle of the fight it feels like a disaster. It feels like this can't work out because all we're doing is fighting. But it is also clear that when nobody is fighting for anything, when they’re just sort of showing up at meetings and then going home, that it’s probably a good indication that there's not a lot of vitality.

It seems that how things get done, who gets it done, which organization gets it done are secondary to the mission. 

A good example is that even after advocates split off from NOW, they still show up at NOW’s events. They might show up wearing their new organization’s attire, but they make it very clear that they support NOW and are on the same team as NOW. Ultimately, the broader mission of the whole movement is what matters. And they all are still moving in that same direction.

Your book looks back through many years of developments, but you also situate it by talking about Trump’s election and what that means for the issues of NOW and its members. 

When someone from the opposing ideology is in power it's generally good for a social movement’s mobilization. There are a lot more people wanting to join feminist organizations now because they feel like the stakes are much higher than when Obama or the Democrats were in power. So it's not that surprising that you see in the months since Trump was elected, the largest feminist mobilization, that was also the largest mobilization of any kind, in U.S. history.

The trend is clear, which is as long as Trump is in power, feminist groups are going to have no trouble mobilizing people. Then after the initial wave of mobilizations, we'll probably see the same kind of splitting and pulling apart as people want to respond in different ways.

We’ve seen new kinds of feminist groups spring up in the Trump era like the National Women’s March. How do they compare to NOW and other more traditional feminist organizations?

These new organizations are very different in structure than the ones that emerged in 1960s. For example, if you try to join the National Women's March as a member, you can't. You can give them money, but you have no voting rights. You have no ability to elect a representative to serve on the board. You can’t have much say in what they do.

Last year there was a bombshell article reporting that two (now former) Women’s March leaders said anti-Semitic things, and there was a lot of anger from local affiliates who had a stake in the larger reputation of the group but no power to vote those leaders out. They couldn't send a delegate and get their own slate of leaders on the ballot. Their only choices were to accept the reputation of the National Women's March as anti-Semitic and still be a part of it, anyway—or split away.

The organizers clearly have the energy and the loyalty to build a really long-lasting organization, but so far they haven't built any membership infrastructure. And I think that they're in jeopardy of just sort of fading away because they've given people so few options for participation.  Even if they are loyal to the mission, splitting away is preferable to just accepting the organization’s problems.

When you think about the next generation of advocacy leaders, what are the two or three things you hope that those new leaders would take away from your book?

I think that the research is fairly clear that younger women are going to be much more progressive in their politics. NOW has always been concerned about younger women. But it's also clear they have not done a good job of actually letting those young women drive the agenda.

Instead, it's still driven by Baby Boomer women, who feel a lot of ownership in the organization but aren't really good at making room for younger women. I would like to see those older organizations like NOW really let savvy, young activists take the lead. And I haven't really seen that yet.

There have always been contingents of NOW that cared about women of color. It just wasn't what got the most attention. Going forward, the campaigns that will be the most successful will be the ones that really explicitly put women of color and women of color's interests at the forefront.

I really do hope that this next generation spends the time to build some infrastructure, as well. Long-term advocacy is hard work, and while showing up to a protest is exciting, making the time to build the infrastructure is what will ensure that an organization can outlast the first wave of passion that people have and stay around long enough to make a real difference.

[Read More: The Science of Advocacy: A Little Opposition Is A Good Thing]