Aditi Mitra: Feminist organizing in India, a study of women in NGOs


A Celebration of Women

is pleased to Celebrate a Woman Scholar named  Dr.Aditi Mitra.

This woman has devoted this study to the analysis of women’s empowerment movement for the Women of our World, in India.

We have decided to share her work with our Women in small doses; as her study is indepth and truly should be appreciated slowly. Part I of her work named: Feminist organizing in India, a study of women in  NGOs, will include the synopsis, introduction, literature review and Feminist structure of women’s NGOs — Motivations and complex opportunities for volunteers. The enlighenment that you will gain through this work, will both inspire and motivate you to Take Action; as it does expose the trials and tribulations that occur through the process of change in a society.

Please enjoy this presentation prepared in 3 segments, for you.




 Literature on the management structures of feminist organizations differs from other organizations because they are alternative organizations driven by commitment to ideology and an egalitarian structure. However, recent research suggests that there has been a change in thinking. Scholars argue that feminists should not take the position that there is only one “form of freedom.” Rather, the structures women adopt for their organizations should depend on the context. Despite these suggestive findings from the international feminist literature, there is not much documented on the structures of women’s non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and upper and middle class women who choose careers as volunteers and activists. This study examines the personal motivations and complex opportunities related to careers in feminist organizations. Using a feminist standpoint framework, a snowball sample of twenty-one women is interviewed.

The data reveals unique dynamics associated with careers in NGOs,

with a feminist mission and structure in India.





 Globalization and the subsequent policy agenda on NGOs have attracted diverse policy debates and an emergence of a large volume of literature (Sen, 1999).This paper uses Feminist Standpoint (FS) analysis (Harding, 1991 Sandra Harding, Whose science? Whose knowledge?, Cornell University Press, New York, Ithaca (1991).[Harding, 1991], [Collins, 1991], [Hartsock, 1998], [Naples, 2003] and [Smith, 2010]) to analyze how urban middle and upper class women working as volunteers and activists in non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in India negotiate a feminist mission and praxis in terms of their everyday lived experiences.

I will examine the personal motivations and opportunities that middle and upper class urban women experience in their daily lives as part-time or full-time volunteers (paid or non-paid) within feminist NGOs. I also look at whether feminist theory is potent enough to prompt feminists in India to adopt organizational structures and management styles that reflect their values and vision (Handy, Kassam, Feeney, & Ranade, 2006). Further, this paper endeavors to show that NGO structures guided by feminist principles and viewpoints of women, who work for them, do not always coincide.  

According to the feminist mission NGOs should be driven by a commitment to ideology and have an egalitarian structure ([Epstien et al., 1988], [Milofsky and Elion, 1988] and [Srinivasan and Davis, 1991]). However, in reality these ideals are hard to achieve due to power relations, structural hierarchies within organizations, socio-economic class, employment status, age-group, social network, education, gender-roles and domestic pressures. The combination of studying feminist theory and performing community-based research and how these circumstances affect NGOs is important to bridge this gap between theory and praxis (Demaske, 2003). These organizations guided by feminist principles rely on the development of feminist consciousness (Lerner, 1993) and voluntary local participation, nurtured by NGOs through decentralized internal management (Sanyal, 1997).

According to Weber’s (1968) organizational structure theory, optimum efficiency is reached in those bureaucratic forms of organization with a known chain of command and fixed hierarchical structures. This process of bureaucratization takes place when an organization becomes more complex with increase in number of staff, volunteers, donors and clients. However, feminists instead claim that bureaucratization ignores efficiencies that are inherent in more consensual organizations where members feel included and empowered regardless of their role in the organization (Mills, 1988).

This research positions women at the center of theorizing (Harris, 2002), by using the FS theory to understand the voices of marginalized groups. There is substantial research literature on women’s organizations and NGO volunteers in Europe and the United States (see [Rothschild, 1979], [Daniels, 1985], [Metzendorf and Cnaan, 1992], [Markham and Borjean, 1995], [Markham and Borjean, 1996] and [Plemper, 1996]; Donner, 1997; [Caputo, 1997] and [Dema, 2008]) but relatively scarce case studies on highly educated, middle and upper class women volunteers and activists from urban India. Because modern urban Indian women have been historically excluded from the field of Third World developmental studies, their personal motivations, organizational opportunities and frames of feminist discourse regarding the challenges they face as volunteers and activists in women’s NGOs have been often overlooked in international sociological scholarship. Thus, to explore ‘the patterns women create and the meanings women invent’ (Aptheker, 1989:39) in their day-to-day lived experiences that present challenges, opportunities and motivations for these women in the urban metropolis of Kolkata (formerly Calcutta) makes a compelling study.


One of the main goals of this research is to consider why urban Indian women from middle and upper classes with higher educational backgrounds and more social opportunities choose to work as volunteers and activists at non-profit NGOs. Coinciding with this goal, this paper will study the ability of these women to negotiate their life choices and understand feminist organizing and empowerment ([Kabeer, 1999] and [Kabeer, 2003]).



Literature review

In democratic India, NGOs are staffed by well-educated professionals (which include lawyers, journalists and university professors) and some are funded by international agencies. These organizations become a primary vehicle for women’s development and interaction with governmental institutions and the social environment. NGOs keep women’s issues on the political agenda and provide essential services for women in democratizing nations (Hawkesworth, 2001). They create a parallel power structure in the public sphere where the participation of women far outnumbers participation of men (Plemper, 1996). For example, a report in 2008 on the nonprofit sector’s labor force showed that three-quarters (75%) of those working in the sector are women (HR Council for the Nonprofit Sector, 2010).

Although some NGO activists may disagree, Weisgrau (1997:16) notes that there are prospects for professional careers in the institutionalized NGOs and development work similar to other industries. In fact, by working in NGOs women gain valuable professional skills and make strides in career building by working as paid or non-paid volunteers (Plemper, 1996).In spite of such gains, however, other related concerns arise — issues of social class standing, gender-role-expectations, domestic obligations, employment status, power relations and member selectivity ([Caputo, 1997], [Rai, 2002], [Kendall, 2002] and [Dema, 2008]).

These issues in organizations run by women for women further complicate the dynamics, and broaden the gap between feminist theory and praxis. Previous research indicates that society sees women’s social work and volunteerism, usually substituting for paid work, as a ‘traditional’ role for women (Metzendorf & Cnaan, 1992). This view can create ambivalence in the volunteers’ awareness of the lack of significance and value accorded to their social work (Daniels, 1985).  Along with these social limitations, there are problems with the structure and member selectivity issues of NGOs. Critics opine that the social processes they generate are reactionary in content, elitist in terms of the interest they represent, and insensitive to the interests of the poor and dispossessed and can function as a mask for the interest of the dominant classes (Fernando and Heston, 1997).

It is true that many upper class women have found a life-time occupation in volunteering and activism for women’s issues, but there are associated problems reflected in several typologies based on the roles of individual workers. Two main typologies (Metzendorf & Cnaan, 1992) are service volunteers (who provide services) and policy volunteers (who make decisions). Based on these categories, power relations within and without the organization can perpetuate social inequality and gender oppression. Moreover, privilege advantages of elite women can also lead them to exert social control over those in other classes, whom they help with their volunteer efforts or who serve in staff positions in the NGOs (Kendall, 2002).



Feminist structure of women’s NGOs — Motivations and complex opportunities for volunteers

A contradiction between feminist theory and praxis exists in the discussion on organizational structures of feminist NGOs. Research has shown that the management styles of such organizations, which are driven by a commitment to an egalitarian agenda, differ from non-NGOs ([Milofsky and Elion, 1988] and [Srinivasan and Davis, 1991]). They are expected to have a nonhierarchical environment in which volunteers and activists (paid and unpaid) are all equal. Proponents of this approach argue that such organizations are highly democratic in their daily operations (Srinivasan & Davis, 1991) and that the relationships among their members are personal and friendly (Epstien et al., 1988). Finally, they are expected to recruit staff and volunteers on the basis of personal contacts (social networks) and commitment to the organization’s mission, rather than professional experience or educational qualifications (Milofsky & Elion, 1988).

In contradiction to the aforementioned expectations, is the belief that feminist organizations can also be oligarchic by nature ([Bordt, 1997] and [Sanyal, 2006]), as decentralized governance presents problems for most donor-driven NGOs (Sanyal, 2006 Paromita Sanyal, Capacity building through partnership: Intermediary nongovernmental organizations as local and global actors, Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly 35 (1) (2006) March.Sanyal, 2006). Such NGOs must develop a professional organizational structure, staff and fiscal accountability necessary to manage grants by funding agencies. With such constraints they cannot afford the fluidity of a mass-based voluntary movement, so their agendas must be narrowly focused on realizable goals.

One consequence of external funding is a competitive atmosphere it creates among organizations that share common goals, leaving NGOs little legitimacy among the people ([Caldeira, 1998], [Lang, 1999], [Hawkesworth, 2001] and [Ghodsee, 2004]). Therefore, researchers encourage NGOs with a feminist mission to employ some hybrid form of governance, a mix of oligarchic and collectivism, instead of considering only one “form of freedom” ([Mansbridge, 1984], [Martin, 1990], [Iannello, 1992], [Ferree and Hess, 1994], [Gottfried and Weiss, 1994], [Bordt, 1997] and [Sanyal, 2006]). Such hybrid forms accommodate membership diversity in the face of membership selectivity.Organized community-based volunteerism had its origins in the provision of unpaid services by middle and upper-class women, as an extension of their maternal responsibilities to the needy and the “dispossessed” ([Lubove, 1975] and [McCarthy, 1989]:7). According to Jenner (1983), women structure their careers to have flexibility for life organized around a family. The notion that husbands are “breadwinners”, dictates that women should not pursue careers but instead invest their time in their families and freely contribute to the community, as was the custom historically ([Bolger, 1975] and [Karl, 1984]).

Schram and Dunsing (1981) also found that more educated women with husbands who have a negative attitude toward their paid employment, are more likely to volunteer. In such a situation, women find self-actualization through volunteerism and activism (Mitra & Van Delinder, 2007), which is a personal perspective and not a societal one (Metzendorf & Cnaan, 1992). Of these volunteers, Whaples and Bordelon (1983) found that about two-thirds also held full-time jobs, thus working as part-time volunteers only (Metzendorf & Cnaan, 1992). Daniels (1985) and Christiansen-Ruffman (1990) further argue that unpaid volunteerism perpetuates women’s poverty as it is exploitative and devalues their contribution. However, volunteerism is a path for women into the paid job market as it provides important human capital needed to find better (higher paying) jobs in the market ([Mueller, 1978] and [Janey et al., 1991]). Similar advancement can also occur within the NGO, when volunteering women can move into paid positions within the organization (Loeser, 1978)

…to be continued.





AUTHOR: Aditi Mitra,

 Dept. of Sociology, University of Colorado at Colorado Springs,
1420 Austin Bluffs Parkway, Colorado Springs, CO 80918, USA









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