Consensus is a group process by which people determine their own ideas and actions. It is the most democratic of all forms of decision-making for it negotiates conflict without the use of force.
As long as there have been people talking to one another there has been consensus. In what is now known as the United States, the earliest documented consensus process was by the Haudenosaunee in the 12th century. By the 16th century a league formed of the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, and Seneca nations. This is often cited as the Iroquois League or Confederacy. They used a council system with elders, who acted as delegates or “spokes” of the different nations and came to consensus on matters concerning the Great Lakes region. In times of war elder women had the ability to veto over the other elders.
Meanwhile, in Europe, the Anabaptists were mounting opposition to the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church. By the 16th century there were many heretical sects the most prominent of which were the Quakers, who became known for their “rule of sitting down.” Rather than rely on priests or ministers they would sit in circles and listen to one another. It was thru this practice that they achieved divine revelation.
Modern American Quakers claim to be inspired by both by the Iroquois and their own history of the Anabaptists. Throughout the 19th 20th century Quakers played an important role in U.S. social movements from abolition to women’s rights to every anti-war movement.
In the early 1960s Quakers acted in solidarity with the civil rights movement and trained many of its early members in consensus including the founders of SNCC (Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee), which emerged out of the youth division of the NAACP. SNCC went on and organized the freedom rides and lunch counter sit-ins using consensus.
The women’s liberation movement took inspiration from the Quakers in response to the top-down and patriarchal structures of the anti-war movement and adopted a consensus process. Consciousness-raising groups, modeled after the Quaker “listening” circles, were central to feminist practice.