Exploring anarcha-feminism: women and class struggle
Part five in a series looking at anarchism as it relates to feminism, gender equality, and patriarchy.
In the Guardian a couple of months back, Carrie Hamilton said that “there is not a feminist on the planet who isn’t outraged at sexual and domestic violence, as well as the overwhelming evidence of the complicity of governments, police forces and justice systems in perpetuating this violence and protecting its perpetrators.”
However, she added, “this serious problem cannot be understood, or challenged, in isolation from other forms of violence and oppression, such as racism, restrictive labour and migration laws, and poverty.” Unfortunately, the “favourite topics” of a lot of feminist groups today “seem to be lap-dance clubs, pornography, lads’ magazines and the sex industry in general,” as “part of a growing trend in middle-class feminism.” But these “are not the most important issues for the majority of women;”
Why should a sex worker be a symbol of sexism any more than a competent professional woman denied promotion in favour of a younger male colleague? Or a teenage girl who doesn’t get the education she deserves because her family are too poor to play the postcode lottery or pay tuition fees? Or a migrant woman whose children are locked in a detention centre?
Hamilton cites Libby Brooks’ observation that modern feminists are “predominantly white, middle class and university educated,” and the call by Lindsey German and Nina Power for “a women’s liberation which is connected to a wider movement for human emancipation and for working people to control the wealth they produce.” All three of these articles are attempts to address the stagnation of feminism in recent years, and all three keep coming back to the issue of class.
A working class perspective on feminism
It is more than the fact that solving gender inequality doesn’t solve class inequality. Other inequalities become sharper, more corrosive when viewed through the prism of class.
For example, the 1894 Local Government Act gave propertied women the right to vote twenty-four years before the Representation of the People Act 1918 gave the vote to all women over thirty, and thirty-four years before women as a whole were put on equal terms to men with a voting age of 21.
In an article for the North Eastern Federation of Anarchist Communists (NEFAC), “bell hooks” makes this point;
Betty Friedan’s The Feminist Mystique identified “the problem that has no name” as the dissatisfaction females felt about being confined and subordinated in the home as housewives. While this issue was presented as a crisis for women, it really was only a crisis for a small group of well-educated white women. While they were complaining about the dangers of confinement in the home a huge majority of women in the nation were in the workforce. And many of these working women, who put in long hours for low wages while still doing all the work in the domestic household would have seen the right to stay home as “freedom”.
It was not gender discrimination or sexist oppression that kept privileged women of all races from working outside the home, it was the fact that the jobs that would have been available to them would have been the same low-paying unskilled labor open to all working women. Elite groups of highly educated females stayed at home rather than do the type of work large numbers of lower-middle class and working class women were doing. Occasionally, a few of these women defied convention and worked outside the home performing tasks way below their educational skills and facing resistance from husbands and family. It was this resistance that turned the issue of their working outside the home into an issue of gender discrimination and made opposing patriarchy and seeking equal rights with men of their class the political platform that chose feminism rather than class struggle.
Thus, “only privileged women had the luxury to imagine working outside the home would actually provide them with an income which would enable them to be economically self-sufficient,” and”working class women already knew that the wages they received would not liberate them.” That is why “the vision of a politically based sisterhood where all females would unite together to fight patriarchy could not emerge until the issue of class was confronted.”
But, in the mainstream feminist movement, it wasn’t. Ultimately, “collusion with the existing social structure was the price of “women’s liberation.”" This meant that “class power proved to be more important than feminism,” and “middle- and lower-middle class women who were suddenly compelled by the ethos of feminism to enter the workforce did not feel liberated once they faced the hard truth that working outside the home did not mean work in the home would be equally shared with male partners.”
The clear fact is that there is no hope for the genuine emancipation of women in a class society.
But this does not mean that one should simply assume gender equality as the end result of class struggle. It is a fallacy to think that that other inequalities (race, gender, sexuality, religion, age, etc) are subsets of class inequality. The overlap, even the fact that class makes the other discriminations starker and more prominent, doesn’t mean that prejudice and inequality do not exist beyond the boundaries of class. Indeed, just as a white, middle class and university educated perspective dominates the feminist movement, conversely a white, male perspective has made itself central to class struggle.
In both cases, the monopoly needs to be broken. As Voltairine de Clayre once said, “you can have no free, or just, or equal society, nor anything approaching it, so long as womanhood is bought, sold, housed, clothed, fed, and protected, as a chattel.”
Fighting for equality, not presuming it
The problem isn’t that the working class are actively discriminatory. We’re not. The idea that sexism and racism are born on run-down council estates is the product of snobbery, particularly evident within the liberal brand of antifascism, with no foundation.
However, this does not mean that it doesn’t exist. As one example, class can provide a financial barrier to women trying to escape domestic abuse. As the Leeway women’s shelter puts it, “any woman can experience domestic abuse regardless of race, ethnic or religious group, class, disability or lifestyle.” However, “the barriers that a woman faces to escape may be different depending on her social group.” Thus, working class men are no more likely to be abusive than those in the ruling class or higher earning workers, but the class factor itself will impact upon the victims.
This may vindicate the idea that a classless society will solve most of the problems of discrimination. But it doesn’t address that issue in the here and now. As I’ve said a thousand times before, we are not just struggling for some distant, utopic tomorrow. The welfare of people in the present is primary as we push towards a better future. As such, challenging other forms of discrimination and inequality has to go hand-in-hand with fighting the class system and capitalism.
In the words of anarcha-feminist group No Pretence, “we are all oppressed by the class system, but there is nobody ‘out there’ who isn’t also oppressed by white supremacy, imperialism, heterosexism, patriarchy, ableism, ageism,” and “pretending these systems … can be subsumed into capitalist oppression … just silences those people most oppressed by them, and allows for the continuing domination of these systems over our lives.”
This is particularly important within the organisations we use to fight for equality. Many mainstream trade unions now have equality networks because, even in industries and workplaces dominated by women or ethnic minorities, they are drastically under-represented within the leadership. Going back further, we find a time when unions barred those same groups from even being members, abandoning a significant chunk of the working class. Clearly, we cannot expect equality to come naturally when it is a product of struggle even within organisations of workers.
It was never just the mainstream unions, either.
The Mujeres Libres (Free Women) of Spain emerged as a way “to empower women to make of them individuals capable of contributing to the structuring of the future society, individuals who have learned to be self- determining, not to follow blindly the dictates of any organisation.”
They recognised that although “it’s necessary to work, to struggle, together because if we don’t we’ll never have a social revolution,” they also “needed our own organisation to struggle for ourselves.” In facing the twin oppression of sexism and Spain’s peasant society, they “set up literacy programmes, technically oriented classes, and classes in social studies.” They “ran a lying-in hospital, which provided birth and post-natal care for women, as well as classes on child and maternal health, birth control and sexuality.” And they “helped to establish rural collectives” with the anarchists of the CNT and FAI.
But their challenge to sexism and patriarchy occurred within the revolutionary movement as well as alongside it;
In order to gain mutual support, they created networks of women anarchists. Attending meetings with one another, they checked out reports of sexist behaviour and worked out how to deal with it. Flying day-care centres were set up in efforts to involve more women in union activities.
This demonstrated an awareness of the discrimination, both direct and indirect, that can plague even a struggle to reorder society, must be addressed proactively.
If we are to challenge the issue described above, of the lack of class perspective in feminism and of feminist perspective in class struggle, then this is what we need. Networks of women anarchists already exist. As do networks of women trade unionists. The question is how we ensure that they are instrumental in the struggle for a better world rather than more of the same tokenism and division disguised as tolerance that we see within capitalist “diversity.”
The answer to that question has to be answered through trial, error, and experience. There is no blueprint, though the Mujeres Libres certainly offer an inspiring model.
But one thing that is needed is a realisation, perhaps even acceptance. Of the fact that equality is only a given in a genuinely free society. Before that, and even within the structures of those groups struggling for that society, it needs to be fought for. Without compromise.