Women and Leadership

Interviews with UT women leaders

By Kathy Mitchell
December 1990; pages 6-7, 13; Volume 2, No 3

This article represents an attempt to articulate the problems women face as leaders within largely non-hierarchical organizations of both women and men, and the writing process reflects the contradictory nature of this kind of role.

Leadership is like writing. As a woman I continue to refuse simple notions of progress and hierarchy, movement forward and upward toward some mythical ideal - the Great Man who outlines the Great Idea (usually in the Great Book) towards which the People will march inevitably (read: coercion).

Instead, the end of a sentence, a period, a decision, suggests not the possibility of closure for me but a necessary pause, a thinking place. The I that decides where a period should go is provisional as well. I am not where and what I was five years ago, or even a few minutes ago. The process over the years has been a group process.

The article began as a Roundtable for women to openly discuss leadership, formal and informal. After transcribing the tape nearly word for word, I interviewed two other women one at a time. I took all the comments as a whole, and wove them together myself. I at times dictatorially took them out of context, juxtaposing issues that seem to illuminate one another. I cut out most references to recognizable individuals, which meant cutting rather freely. I did not alter anyone's sentences. The end place, the period so to speak, is not better that the original discussions, but it is in a form that can appear in print under thirty pages. This writer neither nurtured nor castrated this text into being. She edited it.


Interviewees: Jenny Bowles, Sandy Soto, Purnima Bose, Kerry O'Brien, Renée Trevino and Toni Luckett.

J: There are two responses really to having a woman directing and a woman setting the agenda for things. One is that people don't take me seriously at all. I try to call the top dogs at the sports and recreation center to reserve space for self defense classes and they say you are not a sports club, you don't have a recreational base, sorry. And I appeal to the Dean of Student's office and within two days these people give me a call and say how can we help you. When I talked about doing self-defense classes for women, they said that is not a real sport, not a real issue, that's not real important. And then the other reaction, aside from not being taken seriously, is a very kind of aggressive response. Almost like a really strong response to someone who is gay or lesbian. That really insane irrational response, I've encountered that several times now.

P: One complaint that I have about is initially the way that people working in various left organizations respond to me at first or second meetings is to be very condescending because typically I have indian clothes on. "Oh, well what do you think".

J: What do you think little lady.

P: Right, and then when you speak and participate then that gets translated into another kind of racism or ethnicism, which is to want to elevate the woman of color to a role of leadership. It's really hard to negotiate those two poles. I don't know how to think my way through this, because a lot of times the debates that go on are really dumb and we need to move beyond them anyway and get to the action, so it's really easy to get sucked into that position of leadership.

K: Yes, that's exactly right. Going to meetings, I look around and know that nothing I can deal with is gonna be said if I don't step in and go "we need an agenda, these are my suggestions".

J: So we become control freaks.

K: Based on having been to a lot of meetings and knowing when the best time to introduce a topic is and how far to push it and when to get a vote and all that. People I hate do the same thing and it just destroys any kind of sincerity.

Then you also have the people who expect to see a leader where there may not really be one.

- Renée Trevino

KO: I guess power is the ability to affect change. And in a concrete practical sense at this university it's to have enough knowledge of a system to get something done. To have connections to people to get them onto your side to support you. To be able to use tools like copy machines, like the press. I don't think anyone is not a part of the system. If we can see ourselves on a continuum and say we've all bought into this thing a little bit. You may have a little more than me, but I haven't gone through the things that you have, that acknowledgement is something. You have to set your own agenda. It's hard to do because you are in the midst of all these agendas that are already set and so it's easier not to think.

R: Then you also have the people who expect to see a leader where there may not really be one; they are very anti-leadership, neo-anarchists. They don't want to play a role in making decisions and doing work but they want things to happen. A lot of the people who refuse to go to a meeting to help decide what the objectives of an event are going to be are the most critical of the organizers, of the action, and that's part of the reason I have such a hard time with the word leadership right now.

J: That's where I'm still learning. I guess I'm a very co-dependent leader. I don't want to say "this is my agenda, and I want you to do this particular aspect of it". I leave things really open at meetings. And it's ended up that the organization is very loose. I say, what do you guys want to do, and yea things get thrown out but people really expect other people to make decisions, people to be authoritarian.

T: So many people don't know what they want to do. They want to do something, but they don't have a clue what it is. You can try over and over to say what do y'all think and what do y'all want to do, and nothing gets accomplished. You cannot assume that every person will come with the same knowledge of an issue and be able to put in the same kind of thinking, and that you would be able to have a group consensus on a number of different points. When you look at it that way it seems silly to have that format. On the other hand, part of the process is that, when you go in with your plan of action that you have had for the past two days, you engage other people and make sure it's talked out, and it's not something that runs over someone but it's something that is given to someone as an option. Communication "why". There has to be growth and involvement in it.

R: Whether we like to admit it or not, we are in contact with a lot of people at different levels of capability. For example, a couple of people will be in charge of a night of phone banking. They will make sure the materials are together, that people stay on the phones, that people were motivated. We had nobody with that kind of experience. I was learning how to do this at the same time that I was helping other people to learn how to do it and walking through the whole process and making mistakes together.

J: But people always want to do their personal growing inside meetings. People want to identify their subject positions, and scrutinize, and ask questions about their subject positions at meetings to where we never get anything done because people have not done their work outside of the meetings. They expect for women and people of color to work on their racism and sexism and to do that work in the meeting. I had one man tell me "please educate me", and I told him I don't have time to educate you. And I gave him a poem by Audre Lourde. People want to take a time out from the meeting, totally slowing down the process of making agendas, carrying out the agenda and distributing work. Men in particular would rather take the time to be taken care of.

T: I feel like I embody the perfect group of oppressions for someone to be able to come and have themselves be validated. Redeemed and absolved from all of their sins.

P: That's part of the national coverage of you as well. You are the embodiment of political correctness.

T: As far as what I as an individual might want to do, if I walk into a campaign for Peace meeting it's a very different dynamic from when I am not there. Even on the left, if I come in wanting to do some work and say "Tell me what you want me to do", I can't do it within that group. I walk in and say three things and the majority of people are like "That's the best thing I heard since last week", and nobody is willing to question me. It's ridiculous. The only place where I can work is with the people I've always worked with who will say "no, fuck you, that's a stupid idea". It's a weird position to be in. I can't do the work I would like to do with various groups because my presence there is disturbing and anti-everything I believe about empowerment.

J: I guess part of what's disclosed is that people don't move from a solid center within themselves. A solid identity. These are my roots. This is where I move from. It's almost like clothes that people try on and off. Or these different things that people temporarily impose in themselves.

Somebody out there some day is going to be able to have it make sense to me that the taking time and the going slowly is actually beneficial, but right now I just don't see it.

- Kerry O'Brien

R: I don't like the traditional concept of leadership cause the traditional concept of leadership is that this person or these people make the decisions and they act, organize and everybody else just shows up. It allows the majority of people to go without any responsibility. It allows them to project any type of responsibility they might have onto the leadership. A way of absolving themselves.

K: Do you feel that happens anyway.

R: Oh yea.

K: So what does avoiding the word leadership do?

R: The word doesn't do anything. The idea of having a coordinator or coordinators is that decisions are made by active members, working members, people who are in working committees. So that's the active membership. Decisions in theory are supposed to be made by the group as a whole. Things are proposed. We discuss them. The decision is made there and responsibility is dispersed. As with any group there tends to be a group of about ten to fifteen people that at times will do most of the work and then a volunteer base of thirty to a hundred fifty. The core group also usually makes the decisions because the core group shows up for the planning sessions or meetings. We had to make a conscious effort to get away from a certain group of three to six people making all the decisions, because when you have three to six people making all the decisions you have three to six people doing all the work because you have no ownership by most of the members.

KO: But as you move farther and farther to the left to emphasize the collective, maybe it's getting less powerful or losing effectiveness. On the board we will try to have this discussion about feelings, try to get every one to speak and we will go on for two hours and we will have talked but we haven't gotten anywhere. Maybe I'm still to much in a male frame of mind, that I want us to just do something. And usually someone goes wait a minute, we don't necessarily have to decide this here and now. I don't know about that. In some ways I feel that the left just works and works and works until everyone is feeling good and happy about what's going on, meanwhile the right is putting out a lot of stuff. I hear a lot about inclusionary leadership behaviors and consensus building and things like that and I think those are good. Somebody out there some day is going to be able to have it make sense to me that the taking time and the going slowly is actually beneficial, but right now I just don't see it. And particularly in a university, which is sort of a time bomb, where you have four to five years before you get out. You have a limited time here and you want to do something.

S: I belong to about five different groups right now. MEChA doesn't have a hierarchy, they refuse to have a president, a secretary or whatever, so what happened at this MEChA at UT is that there were graduate students involved and there were undergraduate students involved. The graduate students happened to be the men and the undergraduates were the women. And so the men were talking about theory more, the men were bringing up possible projects more and the women were making the punch. When I'd bring it up they'd say that it was just that we're graduate students and we have more theory behind us. And so it was a real problem. Because although there was no leadership per se, there was leadership. It's difficult for undergraduate women to have a space to talk. And in Todos Unidos, Todos Unidos is a very new organization and we got together really quickly and didn't have any organizational structure for a while, until the summer when we selected a steering committee of four people, and it was a battle to get two of the four people women. It was really hard to do that because Todos Unidos is a coalition of different Chicano organizations and some of them are very very conservative, like the Hispanic Business Students, and they had just never heard this stuff before. Equal representation of women. It was really hard. It was a victory when they finally said yes, ok, we can have 50 percent women.

Women and Leadership

Sometimes it's the women who respond to you the most negatively, and that's really apparent in TU. Cause the women were the girl friends of these young men, who would take pictures of them while the men were speaking, who would fix the men's hair. The women wouldn't talk to the media, because it was the men that were talking to the media, and so the women would fix their boyfriend's hair. The men were the one's constantly getting the media attention and the women weren't. You remember that march to the capital, the men totally took it over.

T: That can happen so easily considering how sexist the press is in that they can easily focus on a man. You have to actively put a woman out there.

S: You've got to remind yourself not to get angry and the women. Chicana women? They've been socialized to look up to the men and take care of the men, and it's very hard to break away from that socialization. It took me a long time to quit being mad at them and to be mad at the men and to call the men on it all of the time. To say wait a minute, let your girlfriend speak. It gets old and I get tired of doing it. And I'm called Malinche all the time. But someone's go to do it.

K: Sometimes I feel that it's that "Someone's gotta do it" that gets me in the end, and don't know if it's a thought out position or if it's just the kind of thing we do as women. We all step in at the last minute and are the ones that get the fliers out and the ones that do the last minute phone calls and are the ones running around like mad. "Someone's gotta do it", knowing perfectly well that this half a dozen men in the organization just won't.

P: Or if they do it they will completely botch a simple project that they were given to begin with. Don't you think it really does play into that business of a strong maternal woman who is gonna take care of everything?

K: I don't know how to resist it. I get totally bound up in this mindset where I really care about this project and want to see it through, knowing perfectly well that if this project dies the world is not gonna end. I just do the work.

S: It takes so much energy to monitor the divisions of labor. To always be on top of thing and always be saying what's actually happening here. What are these dynamics; he's a graduate student, she's an undergraduate, whatever. You just want to give up. And you just want to go start a women's group. So we did. We started a Chicana support group, but then I felt weird because I was the only dyke in the group. And then I think about starting a Chicana Lesbian group, but then you have the class differences. I mean, and then it comes down to who is your community, who do you feel more comfortable with. Trying to find my community is always hard. At first it was definitely the Chicano community, men and women, straight and gay. That was when I was at University of Houston. That's the group I worked with. That was my community. Since I've been at UT it's changing. Sometimes it's women. Sometimes I don't want to have anything to do with white people. I won't work with them and I go through periods of anger. Sometimes I just want to be with lesbians. It's something I'm having a really hard time with right now, trying to figure out who my allies are and who I feel more comfortable with.

KO: The Program Council is made up almost entirely of women, which has been a very interesting dynamic. The women are all chairs of their respective committees usually of about thirty people. So the chairs are very capable and responsible. We have done a number of proposals together and the women always comment that they have felt very, comfortable in the group, that it's been an experience like never before where everyone is on equal ground and there were no gender politics going on and so they felt they had a voice to speak out and then had opportunities.

I've developed a sort of masculine style where I won't take any shit. I'm not going to let myself get trampled on by men or drowned out where my opinions are not respected, and so that which is usually an asset becomes a bit of baggage when working with women because it's hard to turn off. Sometimes I feel like I really intimidate them.

T: Community to me is a sense of home. A home base. And my home is Austin, so it's a lot of people in Austin. Now allies are people I can struggle with. That I can work with.

S: So your community are all your allies, but your allies are not necessarily your community.

T: yea. Yea there are some people that I can work with but they are not my home.

KO: You heard me yesterday call myself a part-time apologist. I've recognized my position and where I am most equipped to do work. Sometimes that requires, to use the Scott Henson rubric, an apologist's position. At the rally, for example, I wanted to say something that would speak to the Greeks directly. A lot of people have said they liked what I had to say, people I didn't think of. I went home last night and these people were calling me, and I said shit. What is this woman going to say. She's going to run me up one side and down the other about slamming fraternity men and her boyfriend, and I was dreading calling them. But they said it was great. That I had guts. A lot of people are getting somewhere. I made Orange Jackets, an honors service organization largely Greek. I think they have to listen to me because I am part of their group, and if they were to say "oh, she's just another one of those radicals". they can't because I'm one of them.

K: What I find is that when the theory, and this gets down to that intellectual leadership, you know coming in with the ideas, if it's women who are coming in with the ideas, getting men to follow through with the work is like pulling logs without a horse. You get no response right, lots of nodding and smiling. Men will come to a meeting and say, "we're all gonna work this time. All of us together, we're all gonna work." And then the meeting is over and the division of labor has been made and once again half a dozen things haven't been picked up by anyone, and it's all the things that would require following through on the ideas that have been put forward mostly by women.

What the fuck is "feminist process"?

- Jennifer Bowles

P: And it's more insidious than just having it be the MEChA kind of division of labor where the men are providing the intellectual leadership and the women are doing the grunt work, because it's the typical working women syndrome when you are not only inputting into the intellectual process but then you are doing the grunt work, so you are working two jobs ... seriously.

J: Well the one thing I've found out, men respond by telling me what I need to do with the program. Women respond with suggestions. The language is very interesting. A number of men come back with what I need to be educating men about, and what I need to be educating women about. That is the word they use. I tell them to their face that it is yen interesting the way they choose their language. On the other hand, women respond to my assertiveness. Women in the SA, the mainstream women in the SA, had a hard time with me in the beginning.

T: They had to assert their power the way they could. I don't think they wanted to see you go down, but this is the place where they assert themselves, and they exert their power in that way.

J: I know there is the stereotype of women cat fighting, but some of the most negative responses to the rape education seminars that I've had has come from women. So I can think of that, when I see how in the SA the women in particular come out.

S: The same thing with me. In the Chicano movement today, if there is a Chicano movement today, some of the people that come out against me when I'm vocal the most are the Chicanas. And I think a lot of it has to do with me being a dyke, but even before I came out it's been that way. These women are really male identified and the men know that. A lot of the men don't even have to be sexist, the women are there doing their work for them.

J: I think it fucks with the familiar. It hits way down at the core. I've been told what a woman should be. I remember debating in HS, and I would walk into a room, debate is a totally male dominated sport, and there would be one woman, and I remember the woman was the one I'd dog cause I learned that. I learned to move like a man.

K: Sometimes I feel like some of this dynamic affects the way I behave in meetings, because I find myself being more firm or even sharp with people. I would like a meeting where I could just say what I felt, right, and just say it and it would be out there along with what everybody else felt. Sometimes I feel like if I'm gonna be heard I'd better be mean.

S: And then you're like a castrating bitch.

J: I've never really worried about making a man angry, about putting him on the defensive, but I always have to sugar coat my words about three times over when there are women in the room. There's nothing worse than to have the woman who comes forth to say, "I'm a woman and I know everything and you're wrong."

S: Like the woman during our panel that was angry at us because she felt we were attacking men for being sexist.

J: Who comes forth and says No excuse me, I'm the real woman, you're not a real woman. I'm here to represent the real woman. Let me tell you what things are about.

P: Actually that kind of line has come, in our experience which is most recently in the Campaign for Peace in the Middle East, has come from the most sexist males in the room who keep talking about "feminist process." Which is something that I had never heard of before this meeting.

J: What the fuck is "feminist process."

K: You know, non-hierarchical consensus building.

P: Right. It seems to me that that betrays a real discomfort with assertive, independent minded articulate women.