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Funny Things Happen on Our Way to Revolution

By Gail Sullivan

Co-optation, that is the assimilation of something different into the mainstream, is a constant problem for any political movement. It is natural process in this society which maintains the status quo by turning radical demands and visions into acceptable, non-threatening changes (i.e. Black, Third World and Women’s Liberation struggles become limited to Affirmative Action programs to make them palatable. Co-optation is not always direct frontal assault, it happens not only as a result of external forces on us, but also as a result of our own choices, as they are influenced by the values with which we have been inculcated. This paper focuses on co-optation as it is apparent in the battered women’s movement, though much of what is addressed relates to other political movements, especially those involving services.

The battered women’s movement began with a two-pronged focus: a) to provide short-term escape and a supportive place to battered women, helping individuals to transform their lives and become independent and b) to change social and political conditions which foster violence against women. The movement began providing “services”, primarily advocacy, and support to help individual women because no such support existed among traditional service agencies. Battered women services were seen as radically different from those of traditional service agencies because they were on a peer basis, their purpose was empowerment rather than dependence, they included consciousness raising and they assumed violence against women is a result of women’s oppression rather than individual women’s inadequacy or masochism.

However, even such radical service delivery depends on utilizing the resources of the system which promotes battering, which can hardly be expected to alleviate it. This contradiction make our movement particularly susceptible to co-optation. One obvious example of a slow de-politicization process is that this movement named the problem it addresses as women-battering or woman abuse, but we are now dealing with “family violence” and even “spouse abuse”, all phrases which mask the reality of the situation.

In order to counteract the effects of co-optation on the battered women’s movement, we must have an overall analysis of battering and how to change it, including the role of providing radical services in this political movement. We must also have an understanding of the points in our work at which the system we are fighting intrudes it values, both as external forces and as internal ones.

The Problem Without

In trying to provide an alternative while working within the system, we are constantly swimming against a current of co-optation. We are consistently influenced to accept the dominant social values and attitudes. The following is an assessment of some of those systems.

The Criminal Justice System

People look to the criminal justice system ( including police, courts prisons, etc…) for a solution to the crime of woman-abuse and battering. Women’s programmes are pushed to work in this arena.

However, the criminal justice system is set up to protect the status quo, fundamental to which is male violence against women. We are therefore asking one arm of the patriarchal system to punish some of its members for behavior which is inherent in the social structure.

Laws are made by those in power to protect their own interests. Since wealthy white men are in power, the laws are made in their interests and against the interests of men and women of color and/or who are working class. It is therefore no surprise that women-abuse is not treated seriously, while crimes against property are, or that some Black, Latin, Aboriginal and poor men of any race go to prison for crimes against women, while white men, especially whose with money, are let off. We need to understand that under such a system, when men are punished for their behavior, it is not because the system is protecting women, but because to do so supports and reflects an aspect of the system such as racism and the isolation of Third World communities.

If we recognize the inherent contradiction of expecting the criminal justice system to solve the problem of violence against women, then we must be careful about the work we choose to do within this system. Battered women’s groups provide legal advocacy, some of which is aimed at convicting and perhaps incarcerating the violent men. Several things are co-optive about the focus on conviction. 1) This is the only way that women can have the crime against them recognized socially as wrongful behavior; 2) We accept the authority of the criminal justice system to determine who is right and who is wrong, and trust (?) their verdict of guilt; 3) We legitimize the oppression of poor and minority men through the criminal justice system, and 4) By pushing for incarceration we legitimatize the degradation and destruction of human beings in prisons as a method of rehabilitation (social control) .

Battered women’s groups have been involved in training police and the legal system in how to better meet the needs of battered women. While this can be useful, groups often lose sight of the long-range limitation, that although we can improve the attitudes and behaviors of some individuals, education will not change the underlying premise of that system, including men’s right to dominate women. Moreover, in becoming heavily involved in trying to improve this system, groups lose sight of other educational work, such as that with community and neighborhood groups, which might have also been involved in legislative work. While we have gained women some important immediate reforms, this process is incredibly draining and tends to consume more and more energy. If not on top of our purpose, we can become involved for the sake of legislative gains in themselves, burn out and lose our sense of overall priorities.

Funding Agencies

The values and purposes of funding agencies can have a co-optive effect on what work we do and how we do it.

First, funding happens in a context of acceptable reforms, nothing truly earth-shattering will be funded – both analysis and methods of solving a problem must be watered down or twisted around.

Second, both private and governmental funding sources are relatively fickle. An issue builds up credibility and importance, becomes fundable, then after a few years loses its place in the limelight to the next fundable issue. It is also possible that only certain aspects of an issue are considered significant. As a result, battered women’s shelters might not be fundable unless they serve only wives of alcoholic men, or sheltering women might not be fundable, but a child abuse program might be. This fact results in groups twisting themselves into pretzels, changing the focus of their work to meet funding possibilities and sometimes losing self-direction. And because funding tends to come on a year -by-year basis, that funding system mitigates against a long-term view of our work and the changes we need in our lives.

Third, the interests of funding sources may be contrary to our own. For instance, a reason for governmental funding of a rape crisis center, battered women’s shelters, etc. is to collect data and to provide information and funds to researchers in academia to “study” various problem. As a result, many programs begun on an informal peer support set-up now have a myriad of forms to fill out on women and children, services provided and the program itself. This enforces the traditional service model of the helper-client relationship, distancing staff from women in the shelter and making battered women feel powerless. It also means the collection of information which often invades women’s privacy and provides a pool of data from which destructive conclusions can be drawn. (For example, if mostly working class and poor women use shelters, researchers may conclude that battering is limited to lower income people.)

Fourth, though the premise and assumptions of funding agencies are contrary to our own, we must make ourselves fit into their mode. For instance, we see ourselves as providing radical services and support to battered women in the context of a movement to end violence, but have to explain our work in professionalistic terminology to make it acceptable to funding sources. Eventually this can influence the way we ourselves perceive battered women.

Federal Title XX funding for state social services, now replaced by block grants, and other contract funding have particularly co-optive effects on battered women’s programs. First, contract services with private non-profit organizations provide states with mechanisms to avoid dealing with unions representing public service employees. Because the non-profit organization are not part of the unions and are separate from each other and from public service employees, states can’t be held to any consistent wage rates and/or labor policies among workers doing similar work and being paid by state funds.

Second, in setting a “rate” per “service unit” delivered to a battered woman and her children, states intervene in the relationship between shelter/service group staff and battered women. It denigrates the peer support, empowerment model of battered women’s programs and negates the usefulness of battered women’s movement’s premise that the most important thing for abused women in supporting one another and providing their own advocacy. By emphasizing a one-to-one counseling /service model, it contradicts the battered women’s movements’s premise that the most important thing for abused women is to talk with other women who’ve shared the experience. All of these contradictions between our philosophy and that promoted by the contract billing system then adversely influence the way we work with battered women.

Social Service Agencies

Social Service Agencies also have a significant influence on battered women’s programs because shelter-service groups rely on social service agencies refer battered women, and because we need them to validate our legitimacy in the communities in which we work. First, groups are influenced by the therapeutic, psychological perspective operative in most social service agencies. This individualization of socially induced problems is contrary to the perspective espoused by shelter/service groups that battering is a result of women’s oppression. Support for battered women must promote their empowerment and solutions to battering need to be social and political in nature.

In order to be acceptable as legitimate “services”, battered women’s groups usually try to reinterpret their beliefs into traditional social services language. The problem is that we then can lose sight of the very real differences between what we believe and what they believe. In so doing, we lose our reason for existing at all . Yet if we don’t make ourselves acceptable, we face the possibility of ostracism, denial of funding and so forth. As shelters/service groups exist for a few years, they often become viewed as just another cog in the social-service network. While this makes the programs acceptable, it furthers the co-optation of groups which started with a radical perspective and mode of operation, whose intention was service as part of a broader political movement. Battered women’s groups need to maintain a clear sense of identification with battered women rather than with agencies.

Second, a part of legitimization and co-optation of any alternative service program is the process of standardization and regulation of the services and service groups, and the workers providing them. For example, shelter/service groups in Massachusetts will be adversely affected by the licensing and classification of social workers. Qualifications for working in shelters have thus far been largely determined on the basis of experience, empathy and philosophical approach. With licensing of social workers, shelters will probably be required to have at least a percentage of paid staff who fit the classifications. This will interfere with the goals of self-help and the emphasis of peer support, may put current staff out of work and will make it much harder for former battered women to become paid staff.

Moreover, there have already been and will continue to be efforts at including battered women’s groups along with halfway houses, in various regulations regarding licensing, zoning, health standards, etc... The inclusion of battered women’s shelters in such regulations will mean increased costs to meet the standards, and visits to shelters by various government agencies which invade women’s privacy and negates the vital confidentiality and security of shelters for battered women. Battered women’s groups effectiveness has depended on being different from traditional social services: all efforts at doing away with or denying those difference decreases their effectiveness.

Funding and Social Service Agencies Influence on Organizational Structure and Development

Many battered women’s groups began as cooperatives of collective organizations with shared decision-making by consensus and without directors. By countering the ususal hierarchy found in social services, they provide an empowering model for women using the programs and staffing them. However, operating non-hierarchically goes against the grain of every institution in this society, including the families and schools in which most of us were socialized. As a result, a collective /cooperative model takes a lot of energy and conscious thought and requires a willingness to fight against pressures to look and be the same as traditional agencies.

Battered women’s groups find it difficult to present a non-traditional model and defend its propriety to funding and social service agencies. As a response to outside pressure, some groups say someone on staff is the director, when she isn’t, and some decide to have a director while trying to maintain shared decision-making. Many groups create external boards of directors whose members are “pillars” of the community, rather than whose primary commitment is to the battered women’s group.

All of these compromises affect the reality of how the group operates. An in-name only director can often begin to assume more power in decision making than other staff because she is the contact for outside agencies and therefore has more information, especially about fund-raising efforts. An external board can completely redirect the organizations politics and work if it is not committed to the same principles, goals and objectives as the rest of the group and, because of their legal authority, can override the objections of the staff. Therefore, groups must consider carefully how important politically the structure and decision-making are in the organization, and must decide how much they are willing to risk and to fight to maintain their own direction.

Another way that funding and social service agencies provide a co-optive influence on battered women’s groups is the promotions of a bigger is better, quick -growth approach. Battered women’s groups began as small, grassroots, primarily volunteer programs. However, services are most respected if they are large, have sizeable staffs and are well funded. There is pressure to go after the big grants, LEAA money, CETA funds, etc. Many groups have done it. We can now see some of the destructive impact on the movement that this development method has had. When those funds have been cut, some group have not been able to survive. Crucial shelters for battered women have been forced to close their doors.

There have been other problems as well. By hiring five or ten staff all at once, groups have development far more quickly than their organization’s structure and supports can handle. The result is staff who don’t share the political views of those who began the programs, many internal conflicts among staff and, often, an inability to meet the needs for support and supervision of women who have joined the movement as paid staff. This pressure to grow quickly and in many directions at once makes battered women’s groups dependent on money which will not continue to exist, promotes hierarchy to cope with all of the changes and takes us away from the vision of a multi-faceted movement, of which services are just one part.

Homophobia and the Right Wing

One current tendency apparent among some battered women’s groups as well as other groups is to hide who we are, denying our demand for radical changes in women’s lives. This tendency is the result of the growth of the right wing and its vicious attacks on feminist politics and organizations. However, rather than moving to the right ourselves, we should see the virulent attacks on women’s’ reproductive freedom, women’s right to escape from violent men, the right to choose different finds of familial situations and the right to sexual preference as indicative of success on the part of the feminist movement. They show what we believe and to be very clear about what we will and will not compromise. To do less would compromise us out of existence.

A particular way this attack has affected battered women’s programs is to cause groups to hide the fact of lesbians’ participation and leadership in the battered women’s movement. When women’s organizations hide or deny the activity of lesbians, they feed the homophobia which is being stirred up by the right wing. To do so not only denies lesbians the right to a place in the women’s movement, but it also denies the right of all women to come together as women, in women’s interests. It is this which is so threatening to the established male order. Homophobia is therefore used as an attack on all women, regardless of sexual preference. We must fight for all of our rights to choose our own lifestyles, to do less allows those who oppose our freedom to whittle us away to nothing.

The Problem Within: lack of Clear Political Direction

There is often dislike for and a fear of analysis and overt political views, as well as coherent structure. This distance is rooted in the feminist critique of male dominated political organizations and their exclusion of women. However, battered women’s groups need to reclaim the power of developing a strong analysis and a strategy for ending our oppression. Without doing so, we open ourselves up to co-optation without a clear direction; we can’t say exactly how we differ from the mainstream and what it means to be a feminist, can’t tell new members of the movement what we are, don’t know what work furthers our visions and can’t tell when we are being assimilated. Further, without clear direction, we can’t recognize our real friends and allies, so that we make simplistic assumptions such as that every women will be supportive of our movement, which can take us far afield.

Lack of clear analysis and strategy isolates the battered women’s movement from closely related sister organizations such as those working on other aspects of violence against women, the rest of the women’s movement and those working on economic issues which affect women deeply. By focusing on a single issue, groups lose sight of the need for a common solution. The single-issue focus runs the great risk of coopting groups rendering our movement little more that a human-service network. Moreover, it doesn’t respond to the realities of battered women’s lives. Many of the issues addressed by various arms of the women’s movement affect battered women.

There is a lack of long-range thought and planning in the battered women’s movement. While there is a broad idea of ending violence we seldom have clear goals and objectives for moving us in that direction. This is indicative of women acting out of powerlessness and not taking ourselves and our work seriously. As a result, battered women’s groups are often crisis-oriented and get stuck in reformist work which does not further our long-range vision. This is evident not only in shelter/service groups, but in coalitions of battered women’s programs. While much legislative and other advocacy work can be done in such a way that it builds a grassroots movement, without clear goals and objectives it is often done as an end in itself, moving us no closer to our end goals.

More and More Services

Because we desire to support battered women as best we can, and are often frustrated with the response of existing social services, battered women’s programs can easily create more and more services. Shelter started out as safe places with some advocacy, lots of support and perhaps a little childcare available. Many shelters are now multi-service programs with full components of counseling, childcare, parenting support, legal advocacy and more. Though these are important services providing them requires greater and greater quantities of money, puts groups in the position of providing for more women rather than women doing for themselves with support and takes some of the burden off the establishment to provide services for women. It might be more politically effective to not try to provide for women’s every need and instead to work with battered women to demand of the existing system that it provide for their needs.

Service Rather Than Empowerment

The focus of service provision is co-optive in that it promotes the therapeutic view of social problems: seeing political /social problems as individual mental/emotional problems. This view is reflected in much of the language being incorporated into battered women’s programs, often quite unconsciously – battered women’s shelters are agencies, battered women are clients, primarily in need of counseling rather than support, etc. The over emphasis on service leads workers to taking power away from battered women, such as when a staffer who knows the ropes at welfare does all the talking on a woman’s behalf. This may well be because the only strokes available to staff are those one gets when succeeding at making the system work. However, by doing so, it denies the battered women the chance to learn to fend for herself and to get that ego gratification for herself. This creates a perception of staff as experts and battered women as incapable of taking control, contradicting the most basic premise of the movement.

Additionally, when services are the focal point they become bureaucratized in an effort to be more efficient and take care of more women and children in response to pressures from social services to prove our success. This created distance between staff and battered women, which further disempowers battered women.

Services Prevent Organizing

The emphasis on services conflicts with a strategy of organizing a movement to end violence against women. It is in the interests of those in power to keep us providing services for very low wages, supporting individual women through their crisis and helping them get the most crumbs they can, rather than having battered women’s groups organize those same women into groups to take action in their own interests, to demonstrate at welfare and housing offices, state capitols, etc. We need to be very clear that having us stuck in a mode of being overwhelmed by providing services is very much in the interests of the established order. It is designed to keep us, year after year, patching up the wounds, but not stopping the war on women. In fact, the burnout and exhaustion of movement workers, and the constant turnover of good organizers is probably a result of the over-emphasis on services.

By allowing ourselves to be caught in trying to meet battered women’s every need in the face of increasing opposition, we allow ourselves to be exhausted by women’s oppression without the creative, positive relief that comes from women fighting together for what they need. Services are not enough, and perhaps are not even the top priority for battered women’s groups in the coming period. If we are concerned that future women should not be battered we must do more that bandage some of today’s victims.

Organizing can have many external fronts, such as getting the support of other women’s and progressive organizations for the work we are doing – organizing former battered women’s task forces for mutual aid and action, etc. It can also be focused within the shelter/service group, such as through consciousness-raising groups, the involvement of the group in other political activities, etc.

Battered women’s groups do not do much political consciousness-raising and don’t really involve battered women in political activity in the movement. Perhaps because we do not want to “shove politics down women’s throats”, because of time constraints, and because of the emphasis on service provision, this work gets pushed aside. Yet it is a political view of battering which sets apart battered women’s shelter/service groups from traditional social services, and battered women themselves should be able to share in such a view.

Moreover, battering is not isolated from other aspects of women’s experiences, and women benefit from being able to understand their experiences in a political way, in which what happens to them is a result of their oppression and they have much in common with other women. New volunteers would also benefit from consciousness-raising sessions, seeing the ways that they, too are oppressed. Consciousness-raising groups can provide an equalizer between women of different experiences and provide women who are new to the movement an opportunity to share in the wealth of experience of the women’s movement. Without such efforts, battered women and new volunteers are done a disservice, as they are not being given access to the movement.

Careers / Careerism

There is an inherent tension between the right of women to earn a decent wage and to have decent working conditions and the fact that private and government funding agencies cannot be expected to provide support for the social changes we intend to create. This tension creates a strong potential for co-optation and growing conservatism.

First, when the very survival of those making political and policy decisions for an organization depend on the stability of funding and a good relationship with the funding agency, it is difficult for individuals to take stands against agencies and risk losing money. This can mean both the liberalization of the group’s work and that funding agencies, through staff needs, have a lot of influence over the choices groups make.

Second, women’s need for survival and desire for jobs which feel satisfying, combined with the growing legitimacy of battered women’s shelters have created the vision of careers in the battered women’s movement. While this is understandable, it is also problematic if the development of individual careers grows in importance, it can conflict with the organization’s and the movement’s development. For example, the need to not be dependent on large grants in a shrinking economy is in conflict with women’s needs for good wages. When the livelihood of activists is dependent upon providing services, then career concerns, the need to prove oneself useful and the desire to continue one’s job all promote the emphasis on services rather than organizing and supporting battered women in working for themselves.

Third, when most of the staff of a shelter are white and middle class and most of the women using the program are working class and/or Third World, the career-oriented view of this work perpetuates the racism and classism of the social service system within our own movement.

Women in the movement need to think seriously about the issue around careerism – both pro and con – and determine what is best for the development of a movement to end woman-abuse.

The Conservative Influence of Fund-raising

Fund-raisers, because they are in the direct line of fire from funding and community agencies, are in an extremely important and vulnerable position with regard to the maintenance of a group’s integrity. First, Fund-raisers are responsible for relations with may outside agencies: in this role they bear a lot of pressure for the group to assimilate into the mainstream, to talk, look and act similarly to social service agencies. Fund-raisers have the difficult job of translating our work into language acceptable to funding and social service agencies. Fund-raisers are also likely to encounter a great deal of homophobia, both covert and direct. All of these are potentially co-optive influences on Fund-raisers, which can then be felt by the group as a whole.

Another major concern regarding co-optation is that Fund-raisers can become overly protective of their organizations, to the extent that they are competitive and territorial within the movement. The reason for protectiveness among Fund-raisers is that they are often put into a position of feeling responsible for the overall well-being and stability of their organizations. In groups especially collective and cooperative ones, where there is not clear delineation for the overview and survival of the group, the responsibility of the fund-raiser can be hellish.

The fund-raiser often ends up either setting direction herself or fighting with other members and burnout, but it can lead to an overly strong sense of identification with the groups interests. This paves the way for defensiveness of one’s group and competition with other groups in the movement. When Fund-raisers lose sight of the overall picture of the movement in favor of their groups immediate well-being, they fall prey to the enemy. Particularly now, as money becomes tighter, attacks against us increase and traditional , even anti-feminist agencies create services for battered women, the potential for in-fighting escalates, and its danger is all the greater. It is important that everyone, particularly Fund-raisers, keep the perspective of the interests of the whole movement and our shared goals in mind.


Co-optation results in battered women’s groups looking to the patriarchal legal system for solutions which we know it can’t provide, and expecting those whose interests is in the status quo to provide financial support for work which is designed to change it.

Co-optation results in organizations losing their political perspective, goals and a view of the broad picture of the movement, which most easily happens when these things were not well defined to begin with. It results in women who have initiated and given vision to the movement leaving it, many times burned out, sometimes resentful and/or having been pushed out by internal conflicts.

Co-optation leads to grassroots feminist organizations becoming services in and of themselves, and extensions of the social services delivery system. This raises the question of whether it is then worth it for feminist organizations to provide services, when there may be little significant difference from traditional agencies.

Co-optation involves losing sight of the very real issues which divide women – race and class oppression and homophobia. Those issues can be reduced to hiring, and may not be dealt with in their entirety. In particular, because acceptance and legitimacy are defined by upper class white heterosexual men, there may be a tendency to have middle-class, white heterosexual women representing the movement, being in leadership positions, defining the direction of the organizations. We need to challenge this and support and encourage the diversity and differences of all women in the movement.

Ultimately, the result of co-optation is that we lose our ability to create the social changes necessary to our lives.

Battered women’s groups need to develop a clear political direction and need to be wiling to stand up for what we believe in and are – it is that which makes us most effective. The question of services versus other political activity is probably the most crucial question facing the movement today. We must begin to find some answers to it. It is not surprising that groups begun by and for women should be faced with this question. Women have always been trained to be servers, have been validated for endless compassion and selflessness. Though these are wonderful qualitites, they can get women stuck in a quagmire of endless service and can prevent women from taking actions which change the reality of our oppression.

Gail Sullivan is a former staff member of the Massachusetts Coalition of Battered Women Service Groups.

This article was published in Aegis : magazine on ending violence against women, a publication of the US Feminist Alliance Against Rape, spring 1982

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