The Tyranny of Structurelessness

The original cover of The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan, 1963.
The original cover of The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan, 1963. The book that resulted in many new policy decisions.

In the late 1960’s in the United States, one of the significant characteristics in the woman’s movement was the rejection of all governance structures as inherently autocratic and oppressive. Small groups of women inspired by the New York Radical Feminists and the civil rights movement began meeting in homes and church basements in consciousness-raising groups. Their objective was to share their experience and feelings outside the roles assigned to them in the family. To share as persons, not mothers, wives, sex partners, or caregivers.

These groups functioned with full-group consensus in which each woman had an equal voice. There were no leaders; all roles were rotated. Discussion was conducted in rounds, with each woman given a chance to speak. The bonding and harmony that resulted was profound and changed the lives of many women. The power that resulted was attributed, in part, to avoiding structure and leadership, and a belief that this would ensure equal power in society as a whole.

Jo Freeman in 2004at a signing of Bereley in the 1960s.
Jo Freeman in 2004 at a signing of Berkeley in the 1960s.

As bonding, the community of consent, and the sharing of leadership were transferred to action groups, however, power struggles and conflicting aims prevented effective action. Full-group consensus became burdensome when attempting to obtain individual member consent on political issues. Respecting the values of individual members was no longer practical. The conflicts within and between groups became fierce. The conflict previously directed toward autocratic structures, closed decision-making, and control by elites was internalized.

In the face of using its newly discovered power, the women’s movement found itself not only to be helpless but to be undemocratic.

As early as 1971, Jo Freeman in “The Tyranny of Structurelessness,” an article that was widely published internationally, identified the cause of conflicts in the women’s movement as its failure to accept that effective leadership and formal governance structures were essential to successful group action.

Sociocracy: Structuring Equality

During this period in The Netherlands, Gerard Endenburg was confronting the same questions. How do you avoid autocratic structures and still accomplish your goals? How do you engage everyone in a group as equals and still move forward effectively?

Endenburg had been educated in the Children’s Community Workshop in the Netherlands where an environment of enthusiasm and cooperation was expected. Everyone’s opinions were considered and the focus was on learning, not deflected by power struggles. Both teachers and students formed a community of equals in which decisions were made by consensus. Everyone respected and cared for each other. Endenburg wanted to replicate this in the workplace.

Unlike the women’s movement, rejecting structure and eliminating management roles was never an option in his complex electrical engineering company. projects  had to be highly organized.

Endenburg was facing the same problems that women’s movement was confronting. How to design an organization that could produce and accomplish goals and while preserving the personal in  harmony of a consensus community. Like Endenburg’s school, the women’s groups had the commitment and harmony but were not accomplishing their social and economic aims. Endenburg Electric was accomplishing its aims but less effectively than if it had been able to function in harmony.

Endenburg went on to develop the sociocratic circle-organization method and the women’s movement largely fell apart. Why?

Of course, there are many reasons and many would disagree that it did not achieve its goals, and it certainly did change society. Analyzing some of its basic premises, however, is revealing because these premises are the same ones that lead to weak organizations and obstruct building a truly democratic society.

The Concept of Equality vs Power

The sincere desire to have non-hierarchical organizations, no matter the size, grew out of the fear that when women had power they would just replicate the same dominant-submissive relationships that existed in male-dominated organizations. Power-over, rather than power-with relationships. If they were to create a better society, it must be done completely differently.

One way in which autocratic power was avoided in the early women’s movement was rotating roles to each member regardless of their skills or interests, or even their commitment to the group’s aims. A woman could show up for a meeting and be assigned a key role. Not to do so would be distrusting her, and lead her to distrust herself. All women were believed to be capable of developing all skills. Not only capable but obligated. It was considered necessary for women to compete with men for equal control of society.

Rejecting strong leaders and governance structures denied both the existence and necessity of building power. Denying power-over became failure to understand power-with.

The Tyranny of Structurelessness

As early as 1971, Jo Freeman in “The Tyranny of Structurelessness,” an article that was widely published internationally, identified as the cause of conflicts in the women’s movement as its failure to accept that effective leadership and formal governance structures were essential to successful group action.

Freeman identified the condition of  “structurelessness” as a concept that had become an end rather than the means to an end. Groups were celebrating structurelessness as if it alone would result in building strong women with the skills and self-confidence to create a new society. Consciousness-raising groups were conducive to women understanding themselves and each other and to creating strong bonds. In the face of action, however, these skills left them at best helpless, and at worst in deep conflict. Many groups became tyrannies:

Contrary to what we would like to believe, there is no such thing as a structureless group. Any group of people of whatever nature that comes together for any length of time for any purpose will inevitably structure itself in some fashion. The structure may be flexible; it may vary over time; it may evenly or unevenly distribute tasks, power and resources over the members of the group. But it will be formed regardless of the abilities, personalities, or intentions of the people involved. The very fact that we are individuals, with different talents, predispositions, and backgrounds makes this inevitable.

The unacknowledged nature of informal structures means they are slippery shadows. They can’t be measured, evaluated, or improved. The group could not take power because any formal control over an individual member would be oppressive. Unwittingly perhaps, the lack of recognition of the power individuals were exerting, left women confused about what was supposed to be happening and what was actually happening. Individuals could take power because there was no structure to stop them:

For everyone to have the opportunity to be involved in a given group and to participate in its activities the structure must be explicit, not implicit. The rules of decision-making must be open and available to everyone, and this can happen only if they are formalized. …  We cannot decide whether to have a structured or structureless group, only whether or not to have a formally structured one.

There Are No Leaderless Groups

Once a group becomes a group it forms habits and behavioral norms and expectations. A theoretically structureless group will have a covert structure. Some members will be included in this structure and others will be excluded. This creates an elite that cannot be confronted because it has no name. It is casual and personal. To confront it is to be impolite or making a personal attack.

Very seldom does a small group of people get together and deliberately try to take over a larger group for its own ends. Elites are nothing more, and nothing less, than groups of friends who also happen to participate in the same political activities. It is the coincidence of [being friends and sharing political activities] which creates elites in any group and makes them so difficult to break.

These friendship groups function as networks of communication outside any regular channels for such communication that may have been set up by a group. If no channels are set up, they function as the only networks of communication. Because people are friends, because they usually share the same values and orientations, because they talk to each other socially and consult with each other when common decisions have to be made, the people involved in these networks have more power in the group than those who don’t. And it is a rare group that does not establish some informal networks of communication through the friends that are made in it.

Ironically, it was this same kind of informal elite groups that women were confronting in attempting to gain equality. The old boy networks that no one publicly acknowledged. The golf clubs where business was conducted denied membership to women. Job qualifications that covertly expected attendance at elite schools women were not allowed to attend.

Identifying the Wrong Devil

It wasn’t a recognized structure that excluded women, it was the unacknowledged, covert structure of elite groups. Women had identified the wrong devil. It was the unspoken exclusion women couldn’t fight.

Because elites are informal does not mean they are invisible. At any small group meeting anyone with a sharp eye and an acute ear can tell who is influencing whom. The members of a friendship group will relate more to each other than to other people. They listen more attentively, and interrupt less; they repeat each other’s points and give in amiably; they tend to ignore or grapple with the “outs” whose approval is not necessary for making a decision. But it is necessary for the “outs” to stay on good terms with the “ins.” … Once one knows with whom it is important to check before a decision is made, and whose approval is the stamp of acceptance, one knows who is running things.

Informal structures of relationships based on background, social status, marital status, age, education, etc., always exist. They are only unfair when they govern others as if they had permission to do so. Their exercise of power easily became capricious as the women’s movement because politically active.

The informal structure of decision-making will be much like a sorority—one in which people listen to others because they like them and not because they say significant things. As long as the movement does not do significant things this does not much matter. Informal structures have no obligation to be responsible to the group at large. Their power was not given to them; it cannot be taken away. As long as friendship groups are the main means of organizational activity, elitism becomes institutionalized.

Freeman predicted that the movement would direct power inwardly and not outwardly toward social change. Many women’s groups formed their own elite. There were no formal leaders, only stars who became accepted in the media as leaders. People like Betty Friedan who was credited in the media as starting the women’s movement. But she was unable to create or lead an organization that led to effective change. As a journalist, Gloria Steinem popularized feminism and became its public face.

Women and Unstructured Groups

It was also true, however, that women had experienced unstructured groups that did work very well. For generations women had worked in family, religious, and community groups where there was little structure but great accomplishment. For these groups to be successful, Freemen identified four necessary conditions:

1. It is task oriented.
Its function is very narrow and very specific, like putting on a conference or putting out a newspaper. It is the task that basically structures the group. The task determines what needs to be done and when it needs to be done. It provides a guide by which people can judge their actions and make plans for future activity.

2. It is relatively small and homogeneous.
Homogeneity is necessary to ensure that participants have a “common language” for interaction. People from widely different backgrounds may provide richness to a consciousness-raising group where each can learn from the others’ experience, but too great a diversity among members of a task-oriented group means only that they continually misunderstand each other.

3. There is a high degree of communication.
Information must be passed on to everyone, opinions checked, work divided up, and participation assured in the relevant decisions. This is only possible if the group is small and people practically live together for the most crucial phases of the task.

4. There is a low degree of skill specialization.
Not everyone has to be able to do everything, but everything must be able to be done by more than one person. Thus no one is indispensable. To a certain extent, people become interchangeable parts.

It is not accidental that this list of conditions was also the one assumed by women to be the best and most comfortable way to function in all groups. Many women functioned exclusively in the family or social organizations. In the 1950s and early 1960s, “girls” were used to a high degree of togetherness and spent time in coffee klatches and afternoon bridge clubs discussing the issues related to their family or social activities. Social tasks were known tasks with no written agreements required. They had been done innumerable times over generations—bake sales, parties, church socials.

This is not to suggest that all women in the women’s movement were formerly housewives who had never worked outside the home, but women did share an internalized set of expectations formed by the media, schools, and family about how a woman should act. That made these four conditions familiar and comfortable. These groups, operating under these conditions, represented the best group experiences women had had. They were groups in which women could function as equals. It was to be expected that they would believe these conditions would produce the same results if they were made dominant in society.

Beyond Togetherness

While small groups of 5-15 women function well under theses conditions, the women’s movement was large and more diverse than women were accustomed to organizing. The tasks were not well-defined and while the vision of a new world and the mission of changing women’s lives were fairly clear, the aims were not. There was little agreement on exactly what needed to be done and how to do it. Of action in defined tasks, Freeman says:

When a group is involved in a task, people learn to get along with others as they are and to subsume personal dislikes for the sake of the larger goal. There are limits placed on the compulsion to remold every person in our image of what they should be. The end of consciousness-raising leaves people with no place to go, and the lack of structure leaves them with no way of getting there.

For many women consciousness-raising groups became support groups that continued for years without attempting to become action groups. Many women joined or rejoined political organizations that were structured and effective. These mainstream groups had also changed in response to the feminist “outing” of the rules that institutionalized discrimination against women.

Functioning as Equals

With the newly found self-confidence and understanding that the women’s movement provided, women were now more able to function as equals and to form their own network of influence and support. However, because these women also shared common values, ideas, and political orientations, they too become informal, unplanned, unselected, and unresponsive elite groups whether they intend to be so or not.

The new difference was they functioned in mainstream organizations. Firstly, they were no longer sororities with interests confined to being good girls and good wives and mothers. Secondly, they wanted to convert others to their political and feminist ideals and openly confronted conflicting ideas and practices. The old elites never confronted differences because it would have required them to expose the informal structure that dominated society covertly. It ruled by excluding and ignoring. Invitations to join were covert and controlled.

In the movement, however, even though national organizations were more structured and did bring about effective action at the national level, there has been no sustained organization with strong local chapters enforcing women’s rights.

Forty Years Later

It is now 40 years later and women still earn less than men who do the same jobs and have less education. Women are allowed to attend elite schools and do so in greater numbers but can expect less well-paying jobs when they graduate. Women still have to fight for equal insurance benefits, seemingly trivial fights that make huge differences in their lives. The obituaries in the New York Times are still overwhelmingly only of men. Even in death, women’s accomplishments are not recognized. Their professions given less respect. A football star warrants more space than a female Olympic athlete unless she marries a famous man. Then the obituary includes his credentials.

With the exception of some very successful organizations like NOW, NARAL and EMILY’s List, women’s power is largely still diffuse and unfocused. Women need to understand and exercise power in the most effective place, at the local level. Refusing to harness power does not abolish power. All it does is give the power to someone else and relinquished the right to say how that power will be exercised.

Principles of Democratic Structure

There were many ideas for equitably distributing power during the various phases of the women’s movement, all accepted by some and rejected by others. None made their way into the Senate or local governments. While the composition of governing bodies has changed women are still a very small minority. The search for a structure that is both effective and truly democratic continues (although one sometimes wonders who is leading the search).

Freeman outlined the principles she felt were essential to democratic structuring and would also be politically effective:
1. Delegation of specific authority to specific individuals for specific tasks by democratic procedures.
Letting people assume jobs or tasks only by default means they are not dependably done. If people are selected to do a task, preferably after expressing an interest or willingness to do it, they have made a commitment which cannot so easily be ignored.

2. Requiring all those to whom authority has been delegated to be responsible to those who selected them.
This is how the group has control over people in positions of authority. Individuals may exercise power, but it is the group that has ultimate say over how the power is exercised.

3. Distribution of authority among as many people as is reasonably possible.
This prevents monopoly of power and requires those in positions of authority to consult with many others in the process of exercising it. It also gives many people the opportunity to have responsibility for specific tasks and thereby to learn different skills.

4. Rotation of tasks among individuals.
Responsibilities which are held too long by one person, formally or informally, come to be seen as that person’s “property” and are not easily relinquished or controlled by the group. Conversely, if tasks are rotated too frequently the individual does not have time to learn her job well and acquire the sense of satisfaction of doing a good job.

5. Allocation of tasks along rational criteria.
Selecting someone for a position because they are liked by the group or giving them hard work because they are disliked serves neither the group nor the person in the long run. Ability, interest, and responsibility have got to be the major concerns in such selection. People should be given an opportunity to learn skills they do not have, but this is best done through some sort of “apprenticeship” program rather than the “sink or swim” method. Having a responsibility one can’t handle well is demoralizing. Conversely, being blacklisted from doing what one can do well does not encourage one to develop one’s skills. Women have been punished for being competent throughout most of human history; the movement does not need to repeat this process.

6. Diffusion of information to everyone as frequently as possible.
Information is power. Access to information enhances one’s power. When an informal network spreads new ideas and information among themselves outside the group, they are already engaged in the process of forming an opinion—without the group participating. The more one knows about how things work and what is happening, the more politically effective one can be.

7. Equal access to resources needed by the group.
This is not always perfectly possible, but should be striven for. A member who maintains a monopoly over a needed resource (like a printing press owned by a husband, or a darkroom) can unduly influence the use of that resource. Skills and information are also resources. Members’ skills can be equitably available only when members are willing to teach what they know to others.

The conditions of women at the time this was written is revealed in the examples. The resources belonged to the husband. And women were (and still are though less so) excluded because they are too competent.

When these principles are applied, they insure that whatever structures are developed by different movement groups will be controlled by and responsible to the group. The group of people in positions of authority will be diffuse, flexible, open, and temporary. They will not be in such an easy position to institutionalize their power because ultimate decisions will be made by the group at large, The group will have the power to determine who shall exercise authority within it.

A Deeper Democracy Ensured

The path that Endenburg took to a deeper democracy began on a different foot. He was moving from an existing organization with a viable well-defined aim and the resources to achieve that aim. He was improving an organization, not building one. He was also an electrical engineer and had studied cybernetics, the science of communications and control, which analyzed power. He knew how to create powerful systems, and that was his goal: creating power. He understood that power must flow and be distributed equally in order to keep a system at optimum functioning.

The principles of the sociocratic circle-organization method that Endenburg developed and that is now applied world-wide are strikingly similar to those Freeman defined as necessary for the women’s movement to survive and be effective as well as democratic.

1. Delegation of specific authority to specific individuals for specific tasks by democratic procedures.
Tasks are assigned by teams after open discussion of the requirements of the job and of the abilities of those nominated to meet these requirements. The consent of all members is required. People may self-nominate explaining why, but volunteers are neither solicited or allowed to automatically assume a task. This process often identifies people who might not volunteer or have been considered by the leadership.

2. Requiring all those to whom authority has been delegated to be responsible to those who selected them.
The team has full authority to remove anyone from a task if they are not meeting the requirements of the task or if the task changes. Performance is evaluated on a regular basis or when a team believes it is necessary.

3. Distribution of authority among as many people as is reasonably possible.
All members of teams are expected to develop leadership abilities and to take equal responsibility for the success of the team. The team leader who directs daily operations is selected by the team and functions according to the policies set by the team. The leader’s job performance is reviewed on the same schedule as other members of the team.

4. Rotation of tasks among individuals.
The team controls task assignments and defines both responsibilities and the means for measuring success when the task is assigned. It can rotate tasks if it believes that this will build a stronger team.

5. Allocation of tasks along rational criteria.
Teams have clearly defined aims and performance expectations that include objective measurements. Tasks are defined in accordance with achieving these aims. The task requirements and means of measurement are written and kept in the team logbook which is available to all members of the team.

6. Diffusion of information to everyone as frequently as possible.
Transparency is fundamental. Since each member of a team is responsible for the teams success and participates as an equal member, it is essential that they have full information in order to make responsible decisions.

7. Equal access to resources needed by the group.
Transparency of all records provides access to information resources. Other resources are allocated by the team with the consent of all members.

If the woman’s movement had had an understanding of power and how to control it rather than believing that structure and the power it creates was the enemy, we might today have even stronger women and more universal equality and democracy in our workplaces, neighborhoods, and governments. As 51% of the population, the numbers were not lacking as they were in true minority groups seeking the rights promised by our democracy.

My hope is that this will be read not as a what might have been but as an analysis of what went wrong that will lead to a new surge in the women’s movement for a deeper democracy offering truly equal rights.

The earliest version of “The Tyranny of Structurelessness” was given as a talk at a conference organized by the Southern Female Rights Union held in Beulah, Mississippi in May 1970. It was published in several women’s movement publications in 1972, including The Second Wave, Vol. 2, No. 1, under the name Joreen. Different versions were published in the Berkeley Journal of Sociology, Vol. 17, 1972-73, pp. 151-165, and Ms. Magazine, July 1973, pp. 76-78, 86-89, by Jo Freeman. It has been translated and circulated internationally in many versions. The version posted at is blended from the three publications authorized by the author.

The full article is posted at Accessed 24 June 2010.

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Related Publication: We the People: Consenting to a Deeper Democracy

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