Purity, perfection and feminist leadership

Leila Billing
8 min readSep 26, 2022


An image of a gold halo over angel wings on a white background
Image of a gold halo hovering over a pair of angel wings

Quite often these days, I am lucky enough to find myself in discussions with people talking about feminist leadership. We collectively explore what it is and what it might be able to offer us, our organisations, groups and collectives. These conversations flow with energy and animation; there is often hope that a different approach to leadership is possible. Sometimes, people are even brought to tears because they have been told for so long that leadership has to be first and foremost a transactional, extractive process. To hear other people validate the idea that a different leadership style — one rooted in care, accountability and non-hierarchical ways of working — is possible can be incredibly moving for those who have spent their careers trying to dodge, mitigate or heal from harmful leadership practices.

But this is not the full story.

When the conversation turns to how feminist leadership principles can be practically applied in a particular organisation, group or collective, a particular dynamic sometimes emerges. The conversation becomes charged. The aforementioned flow of energy and animation is ruptured.

Rupture: a breach, split, break or tear. A rupture can feel final. How do we repair a rupture?

In recent months, I’ve heard various iterations of the following statements:

Staff member: ‘The thing is, feminist leadership is already being practised so well across all departments in the organisation, except when it comes to our leaders. All of the staff have done so much work on feminist leadership — we can’t be called on to do anything more. It’s now up to senior leadership to get our culture to where it should be. They’re the ones with the work to do.’

Senior manager: ‘The reason why our organisational culture isn’t as it should be is that staff don’t step up to the plate. Leaders are already doing more than their part.’

The regularity with which I hear statements like this makes me uneasy — as does the level of conviction with which they are expressed. It takes me some days to pinpoint what it is about these ‘it’s not me it’s them’ statements that feels so jarring. They all connect to what the feminist philosopher Alexis Shotwell calls ‘purity politics’ — or the idea that all of us can default to positions of righteousness or a sense of our own innocence when we can’t admit our own complicity or implication in the status quo.

Purity = the state of not being mixed with anything else. To be pure is to be free from anything that contaminates, debases or pollutes. Who gets to be pure? Who demarcates the boundaries of the ‘pure’ state?

Starting with the self

Social activist and all-round revolutionary Grace Lee Boggs taught us a vital lesson about the role that internal accountability plays as a starting point for unleashing leadership for social justice. ‘We must transform ourselves to transform the world,’ she said. Alongside Srilatha Batliwala, whose work on feminist leadership has influenced so many people, she told us that accountability must start from the inside out, and that when we ‘other’ or externalise how oppressive systems are perpetuated without at the same time being willing to self-interrogate, we cannot achieve the kinds of change we seek to achieve.

In our globalised, interconnected world, in which so many intersecting systems of oppression are able to thrive, none of us is ‘pure’, ‘innocent’ or detached from the capacity to cause harm. The very hard truth is that there is no position any of us can claim outside of complicity or implication. Because of the interconnectedness of our world, we are all likely entangled — if not complicit — in the very systems we purport to be working to upend. And so we cleave to innocence — a space that is so seductive because it offers us safety and absolves us of any responsibility to interrogate ourselves.

If we are all entangled in harmful systems, then it does not mean we are all equally responsible for transforming them. The statement from the staff member given above is valid. They are right to say leaders play a critical role in shaping organisational culture, and that the positional power leaders hold gives them the ability to affect positive change in ways that more junior staff members cannot. Staff members are not as equally responsible as leaders for the problems at hand — but does this mean they are not implicated or should not play any role in creating change? Power relations are embedded in our everyday interactions; constantly being reproduced as we hold meetings, make decisions (no matter how small), or communicate with each other. Are we saying that our individual behaviours have zero impact on how an organisation functions or how culture is reproduced? Change needs to happen at multiple levels, from multiple sources.

As people entrench themselves in their positions of ‘it’s not us, it’s them’, I have also noticed a very low tolerance for when others don’t live up to the desired standards of ethical conduct. I am not talking here about incidents when serious harm has been caused, and when feet must be held to the fire. (I have written about the importance of feminist approaches to accountability in another post.) Instead, I am referring to small transgressions — for example, misspeaking in a meeting; forgetting to consult someone about a decision; not knowing as much about anti-oppression as other members of the group. Demands for perfect conduct may be even higher for those who are not part of dominant groups in any setting — for example, women of colour. Apologies for any transgressions may not be accepted. Group dynamics remain fraught. There is little attempt to understand why and how this mistake happened in the first place.

High stakes

Much is at stake here. We risk reproducing within our organisations and collectives the types of harmful practices that we externally seek to transform through our feminist work. We risk becoming unable to embrace complexity or nuance. We create environments where it feels even harder to show up to work as our full and exquisitely flawed selves — something all feminist leaders should surely be striving for. We start to internalise binary conceptions of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, ‘good’ and ‘bad’ and fall into the trap of dichotomous thinking — the transgressor becomes a ‘bad’ person who is unworthy of the moniker ‘feminist’.

We begin to replicate an impulse towards perfection — which itself has its roots in patriarchal logics. There are times when we require each other to perform for what is — let’s face it! — a patriarchal gaze that demands us to be perfect at all times. The ‘it’s not me it’s you’ standpoint is also blocking collective action — we pit ourselves against each other and focus our attention on individual perfection and policing those who don’t live up to the mark. For feminist leaders, trying to live our values in what the late great bell hooks called a ‘white supremacist capitalist patriarchy’ without making mistakes or stumbling is simply an impossible task. We are setting each other up to fail.

Why might this be happening?

Here I want to say that this impulse towards purity and demands for high standards of conduct come from a good place — the desire for a radically better world. I also believe that sometimes these dynamics emerge from a sense of collective grief — one friend who works for a large INGO told me: ‘Our senior leadership team promised us anti-racism and feminist leadership. We were told that power would be shifted away from the European hubs who currently make all the decisions. People are heartbroken. We won’t settle for the crumbs on the table any more from our leadership team. Our expectations for them have never been higher.’

Often, people have had to deal with inauthentic, performative apologies from leaders. It can be a bitter pill to be told to graciously swallow another mistake from your ‘superior’ when you already feel you have been enduring a lack of institutional accountability for so long.

Apology. An apology requires a process of repair. It cannot be a solo act. Repair happens in relationship with others. In what ways are we and our organisations prioritising outcomes, productivity or ‘efficiency’ over our relationships?

We should also acknowledge that, oftentimes, these behaviours come about as a response to the trauma or suffering so many of us working in non-profits experience as a result of the work we do. We may witness, be exposed to, or regularly involved in supporting people who have been through extreme forms of trauma and distress. Rachel Remen explains why this matters: ‘The expectation we can be immersed in suffering and loss daily, and not be touched by it is as unrealistic as expecting to be able to walk through water and expecting not to get wet.’

Laura Van Dernoot Lipsky has extensively studied the warning signs of trauma exposure and concludes that some of these indicators include:

· The conviction that there is absolutely nothing we can do to improve our own circumstances or wellbeing, and a sense that it is entirely up to others

· Inability to embrace complexity — because navigating grey areas becomes too draining or painful

· Becoming dogmatic and invested in ‘taking sides’

When we understand that the root causes of some of the behaviours we are seeing might have their roots in trauma exposure, we can forge a way forward.

Diagram from Trauma Stewardship: An Everyday Guide to Caring for Self while Caring for Others by Laura Van Dernoot Lipsky

Responding to purity politics and perfectionism

Many of us are working in organisations or as part of movements where there is no place to process our trauma, or where the spaces we do have access to do not feel safe — particularly for minoritised groups of people. We need leaders who are willing to build institutions and spaces that support healing and view it as an integral part of the work. We also need to realise that healing becomes very difficult without accountability or reparative measures when harm has been caused. However, we still see so many organisations imposing ‘recovery narratives’ upon staff — pushing them to ‘move on’ or ‘look to the future’ even though there has been no resolution or reparation for past wrongs.

In responding to small transgressions, we are often focused on how to critique what we feel went wrong. This is fair and right, but as the social movement historian Robin D.G. Kelly tells us: ‘we have to be critical of our own movements and critical of each other in a way that’s loving, because if you do criticism well, the most loving thing you can do is critique.’ But what if we also learned a lesson from the civil rights activist Ruby Sales, who reminded us that we need to be as laser-focused upon what we love, and what we are trying to create together, as what we are attempting to dismantle. If we responded to each other’s small transgressions in a way that foregrounded our vision for what we love, our responses might look very different. Widening our lens to focus on love, rather than just pain or suffering, may contribute to our collective healing.

Meanwhile, it is worth considering how creating avenues for regular self-reflection can be a way to counter tendencies towards purity politics. Reflective practice opens up spaces where we can interrogate what we think we already know, change our minds, explore self-accountability and consider the ways in which we might be complicit in reproducing harmful forms of power. It can also give us an opportunity to extend ourselves the compassion and care that we so need and deserve.

These ruptures can be repaired. The cost of not doing so is simply too high.

Leila Billing is co-founder of We Are Feminist Leaders. You can follow her on Twitter @leilabilling