For Organisers: Gendered Labour within Leftwing Spaces

Riley Brooke
7 min readJan 3, 2017

For the purposes of this article, “patriarchy” will refer to the social system that, among many other things:

  • Defines the types of labour coded as ‘masculine’ and as ‘feminine’;
  • Privileges masculinity over femininity;
  • Grants those who are male [and cisgender] greater political power, social privilege, assumed intelligence, assumed moral authority, and more; and
  • Presents inequality between genders as natural or individualistically chosen rather than socially constituted.

The patriarchy will not and cannot be defeated under capitalism*. Yet, despite what many cis men who engage in leftwing political organising would have you believe, dismantling capitalism will not automatically lead to an egalitarian utopia in which gender equality has been realised. Dismantling patriarchy takes work; consistent, hard work, as well as a realisation that this work must be done alongside — not after — the work of dismantling capitalism. Far too many patriarchal societal patterns are played out within leftwing organising spaces — “progressive” spaces supposedly committed to the cause of dismantling patriarchy.

Inequality in Administrative Labour

In broader society, people who are not cis-men are more likely to be given and to take on administrative work. Leftwing organising spaces are not immune to this trend, often to the detriment of the capacity for non cis-men in those spaces to be fully able to contribute politically. By ‘administrative work’, I mean creating agendas, taking minutes, consulting around meeting times and places, contacting individuals to remind them of outstanding tasks and of meeting times, days and places, maintaining files and databases, and the plethora of other “non-political busywork” that political organising generates. Those who have never been expected to carry out this type of work — generally cisgender men — may not understand the immense labour that is sunk into purely administrative work, often by non cis-men, and therefore rarely take the initiative to begin this work. This means that the work either does not happen, or those who recognise the work — disproportionately non cis-men — take it on themselves. If these people try to delegate, due to gendered stereotypes, they may open themselves up to being labeled as controlling, authoritarian, bossy or needlessly perfectionist.

There is a common trend that within most political groupings with formalised roles, secretary roles — with ‘apolitical’ administrative work — are generally filled by people who are not cis-men, while positions like convenor — with greater political significance and influence — are more likely to be held by cis men. This trend is mirrored in the informal labour patterns that arise in political spaces in which there are not formalised roles, although this trend may be dangerously obscured by the lack of formalised division of labour.

Cisgender men in leftwing organising spaces need to be far more aware of the administrative labour that goes into maintenance of these spaces, and as such should be more willing to take initiative on this work. This does not mean asking those who more often take on this work to “give me a discrete task”, or waiting until it is clear that there is already an administrative gap that needs filling. This means thinking ahead and taking on ‘boring’ organisational tasks without being asked, even if this is to the detriment of one’s time and capacity to carry out exciting political work. This organisational work will need to be done eventually, by someone, and chances are, that someone will be a non cis-male.

Inequality in Domestic and Emotional Labour

Much has been written about the gendered split of domestic and emotional labour. Again, this inequality manifests time and time again in leftwing organising spaces. Non cis-men are predominantly those who take on the ‘softer’ and often invisible work of making these organising spaces accessible, safe and comfortable.

Examples of this work include, but are by no means limited to:

  • Crafting messages to new or shy members that are longer, more inviting and more open-ended than is strictly politically and functionally necessary, to allow for greater depth of communication, longer conversations and more questions.
  • Checking in regularly on the emotional well-being of comrades, especially during times of stress.
  • Bringing food to meetings, events and actions.
  • Calming down comrades — often men — who express anger, frustration or stress in aggressive and unsafe ways.

These tasks are generally not viewed as labour that is integral or even important to political organising, but all of these and more undoubtedly function to the long-term benefit of leftwing political projects. Meetings, events and actions at which there are snacks and which happen in cleaner, tidier and more comfortable environments are more productive and go for longer; more political work is done as a result. The emotional labour of spending longer engaging with new, inactive or shy members can create more comfortable, confident future political organisers; more political work is done as a result. The emotional labour of checking in on the emotional and/or physical health of comrades can help to stave off burnout; more political work gets done as a result. The emotional labour of talking down comrades — often men — from aggressive expressions of frustration is integral to keeping political spaces safe, particularly for comrades with trauma histories; more political work gets done as a result.

The type of labour outlined here overwhelmingly is not carried out by cis-men, and is all too often not viewed as labour, and instead as superfluous to political organising. This work is often viewed as work that individuals — overwhelmingly non cis-men — carry out because they simply want to, rather than out of any necessity. This is a simplistic analysis: we want to do this work because we are overwhelmingly socialised to care more about the emotional well-being of comrades and recognize investing labour into this as an integral and necessary part of political organising.

What cis men must realise is that emotional and domestic labour can be hugely energy intensive labour, and can take away from the capacity of those doing this intensive labour to do other more explicitly “political” work.

Inequality in Political Confidence and Power

The patriarchy socialises people of all genders to believe that those we code as masculine have greater intelligence, knowledge, and moral authority. This leads to trends in which cis men are more likely to present their own opinions as fact, speak with condescension, and use needlessly over-academic and inaccessible language for the purpose of self-aggrandisement. Meanwhile people who are not cis-men are more likely to second-guess their own knowledge, intelligence and political opinions. Both of these factors are mutually reinforcing and can lead cis-men to take the lead on political direction and decisions.

This, combined with the tendency for non cis-men to take on greater administrative and emotional labour — invisible labour — can lead to situations in which the most visible, most praised, most trusted members of a political organising space or movement tend overwhelmingly to be cis men, regardless of the volume of labour carried out by non cis-men. Constant visibility of cis-men in leadership roles even in leftwing organising spaces and movements can then reinforce underlying patriarchal assumptions of cis-men’s superior intelligence, knowledge and moral authority.

Being ‘Not Sexist’ as a Political Identity for Left-Wing Men

In an ideal world, the topics covered in this article would be easy to bring up in productive conversations within organising spaces. We should be able to talk openly and critically about the ways in which the patriarchy negatively impacts patterns of labour in our organising spaces, and cis men should respond positively and work to combat patriarchal patterns. However, leftwing cis men consistently and notoriously fail to see their own complicity in upholding the patriarchy**. Leftwing cis men are aware on a theoretical level that sexism is bad and is to be avoided for leftists. This means, though, that when leftwing cis men have their own complicity in sexist patterns pointed out to them, this can serve to violate their self identity as “good leftists”. Rather than taking on-board constructive criticism around gendered labour patterns and other symptoms of the patriarchy and working to change behaviours accordingly, these people can become combative; it is not just a sole behaviour being pointed out as “bad”, it is their entire self-identify as “good feminist” and by proxy “good leftist” that is being called into question. A combative response is not one that always arises, however the legitimate worry of a combative response is often enough to deter those who would otherwise initiate a necessary conversation about particular sexist behavioural patterns.

In order for leftwing organising spaces to function optimally in the struggle to dismantle capitalism, cis men need to recognise their complicity in patriarchal patterns, take seriously the concerns of non cis-men around unequal gendered division of labour in these spaces, and engage productively in conversations around combating the patriarchy wherever it emerges.

*The assertion that the patriarchy will not and cannot be defeated under capitalism could be, and has been, expanded upon and argued around extensively, but this is not the point of this piece. If you’re interested in learning more in this area, please click here, here or here.

**This article expands on the recurring phenomenon of leftwing men’s failure to acknowledge their own misogyny.

***I acknowledge that this article can be critiqued for its oversimplification of gender and that there are a multitude of further specific factors that impact trans people. I further acknowledge that other factors not engaged with in this article such as race, sexuality and disability of course also impact the types and amount of labour people engage in in leftwing organising spaces.

With thanks to comrades Vanamali Hermans and Monique Newberry for their thoughtful and constructive advice, comments and input.