Roberts Rules of Order: Masculine? Phallic? Feminist alternatives? What?

Roberts Rules of Order, the standard parliamentary procedure of meetings throughout the western world and many governments, does indeed suffer from a bit of toxic masculinity. I always sensed this when learning and using these rules of order – from a union military general named Bob. But I couldn’t put my finger on it, or penetrate it, rather.

Until (1) learning about the most popular alternative, which was written by a woman named Alice Sturgis, and until (2) reading a 1986 article entitled “Martha’s Rules”: An Alternative to Robert’s Rules of Order” by Anne Minahan (University of Wisconsin-Madison). Let’s start with (2).

Not suprisingly, Martha’s alternative was born out of cooperative economics (home coops in this case) instead of, well, the innards of the British Empire–the ultimate sausage fest of genocidal, white supremacist tea-drinking yellow-teethed bandits. There are two major features that distinguish Martha’s Rules from Bobby’s Bobber: (1) instead of “yes,” “no,” and “abstain” for proposals/motions, the options are “I like it,” “I can live with it,” “I’m uncomfortable with it”; (2) “test votes” or “straw votes” are a mandatory part of the process, as where Robert’s Rules explicitly forbids them altogether. This makes sense. I’ve noticed at many meetings (some with just women and myself), where the question is often “so how do we feel about this?” and “are we comfortable with?” and “where are we sitting now?” etc. This is a normal and generally important process of communicating, revisiting, and generating ideas and moving people towards a consensus – because it sees the group as an organic whole instead of just individuals all voting independently. With Robert’s Rules, nobody cares about any of this except your two 10-min max speeches on the floor…and when you want to “act,” well, you just stand up in front of everyone, pop out proposals from your pants and say “I MOVE!” And then hopefully someone “seconds” and then you do back and forth debate. One is obviously more collaborative, the other more forward and combative. (One more feminine, the other more masculine perhaps).

I’m not the first to make these observations (see here). Bobby’s got some background. Robert’s dad was the first president of Morehouse College, the famous HBCU (the largest all-men’s liberal arts college in the United States). His dad also chose to free 26 slaves by shutting down the family plantation and becoming a Baptist preacher in Ohio instead (lesser of two evils I guess). The dysfunctions of Baptist church meetings (which I’m all too familiar with given my upbringing) spurred Robert to make the first draft of his rules.

Alice Sturgis wasn’t really a left-wing cooperator from Wisconsin, and also not an old white guy who shot people in American civil wars. She was a pro parliamentarian though, the head of the women’s athletic club, and a Red Cross worker in the first World War. Her 1950 Code not only fixed the archaisms of Robert’s Rules, but removed some of the harsh motions and strictness in various areas. It became the second most used framework and was particularly favored by labor unions. The American Parliamentarian Institute updated her work until 2012 with the AIP Standard Code, which I spend all last week reading. (A 2024 update is coming soon! FUN!) Fascinating, enjoyable (as far as such rules go), and I understand why the American Bar Association, Dental Association, Medical Association, and several municipal governments have adopted it as their official rules. It’s probably 85% overlap with Robert’s Rules. It doesn’t either require or forbid test votes. It allows people who make motions to vote against them if they want (Bobby doesn’t allow that). I think it also allows suspension of rules more flexibility and makes it easier to transition into more informal discussion if desirable. Best of all, the AIP Standard Code is actually produced and maintained by the American Parliamentary Institute, which is diverse and democratic organization. Robert’s Rules of Order are dynastic, still controlled by his family/ancestors (in the proper western manner I guess?), which make up the major influences of what is now called the Roberts Rules Society.

I have yet to read other rules that may have less gender-coding within them perhaps, like Lochrie’s Meeting Procedures (230 pages, 2003), Democratic Rules of Order (104 pages, 2009), etc. And I also realize there is not a one-size fits all; the shorter ones (Martha’s, Democratic Rules) are great for most small meetings of small orgs but would break down for larger and more professional orgs that need a bit more decisiveness and complexity. The AIP Standard Code is going to have the ability to work for both small orgs and bigger companies and municipal governments, as the Code specifically adds rule compression and simplification for small orgs and committees.

Whatever the case, these things are quite important, as they show the real functions of democracy, the mechanics of group decision-making and consensus, and provide an important framework for any group who doesn’t want to get plowed under by some idiot who can’t stop talking or thinks he knows everything.