Following on from Exploring anarcha-feminism, the second in a series looking at anarchism as it relates to feminism, gender equality, and patriarchy.
In her 1897 essay, The Status of Women, Past, Present and Future, American feminist Susan B Anthony proclaimed that “suffrage is the pivotal right.” This meant, in essence, that “there never will be complete equality until women themselves help to make laws and elect lawmakers.” British suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst went further in the speech Freedom or Death, declaring the movement for suffrage “the subject of revolution and civil war” and the “hardest of all fights” which, in victory, would make it “easier for women all over the world to win their fight when their time comes.”
Now, that fight has largely been won. Of countries which have parliamentary democracy, the United Arab Emirates, in 2006, and the Falkland Islands, in 2009, were the latest to grant women the vote. Only in Saudi Arabia and the Vatican do women remain without the right to vote. In the former, the issue of voting is but one minor element of a brutal system of sexual apartheid enforced by political and religious leaders.
The question is what difference has the right to vote made in the countries where it has been won, and what difference can it make in the countries where it remains out of reach? For anarcha-feminists, the answer is “not much.” In broader terms, anarchists are critical of voting and the electoral process because it serves as a distraction, funneling energy away from more effective activities such as organising, picketing, and direct action. This is because, although in itself voting requires no effort, it comes with the baggage of a myth that marking an “x” on a piece of paper can affect change. People can vote and assuage themselves of guilt for not partaking in any further action with the conviction that they have done all that they need to. More than that, political campaigns which encourage people to vote in one direction or another (or at all) require a huge amount of energy and resources which could be put to better use.
In the feminist movement, and the campaign for gender equality, this critique is given considerable weight by the legacy of the suffragettes. Not only did it draw energy and resources from much more vital issues but, in its relentless propaganda focus on how “pivotal” suffrage is, it has helped cement the untruth that stifles the feminist movement today: that the battle for equality has been won.
Contemporary critiques of suffragism
Emma Goldman is considered one of the founders of the anarcha-feminist movement. Unlike many feminists of the time who threw their lot in with the campaign for women’s suffrage, she was scornful of it. In her essay, Woman Suffrage, she wrote;
Our modern fetich is universal suffrage. Those who have not yet achieved that goal fight bloody revolutions to obtain it, and those who have enjoyed its reign bring heavy sacrifice to the altar of this omnipotent deity. Woe to the heretic who dare question that divinity!
Woman, even more than man, is a fetich worshipper, and though her idols may change, she is ever on her knees, ever holding up her hands, ever blind to the fact that her god has feet of clay. Thus woman has been the greatest supporter of all deities from time immemorial. Thus, too, she has had to pay the price that only gods can exact,–her freedom, her heart’s blood, her very life.
She then goes on to list the fetishes and idols which woman worships though they do untold damage to her. Particularly perceptive is her comment on women and war;
The insatiable monster, war, robs woman of all that is dear and precious to her. It exacts her brothers, lovers, sons, and in return gives her a life of loneliness and despair. Yet the greatest supporter and worshiper of war is woman. She it is who instills the love of conquest and power into her children; she it is who whispers the glories of war into the ears of her little ones, and who rocks her baby to sleep with the tunes of trumpets and the noise of guns. It is woman, too, who crowns the victor on his return from the battlefield. Yes, it is woman who pays the highest price to that insatiable monster, war.
Pankhurst, of course, persuaded her Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) to halt all militant suffrage activities until fighting on the European mainland ended. In exchange for the release of all WSPU prisoners, she and her fellow suffragettes urged men to enlist in the fight against the “German Peril.” As her daughter Christabel wrote, “This was national militancy. As Suffragists we could not be pacifists at any price.” This at the time that, alongside Alexander Berkman, organised the No Conscription League which declared that “we oppose conscription because we are internationalists, antimilitarists, and opposed to all wars waged by capitalistic governments.” She was arrested for her organising efforts, charged with conspiracy to “induce persons not to register” under the Espionage Act, and released from jail in 1919 only to be deported to Russian during the Wilsonian Red Scare.
It was true, then, that the suffragettes were amongst those who surrendered to the altar of war and patriotism. But for Goldman the critique went beyond that. “It may be said that because woman recognizes the awful toll she is made to pay to the Church, State, and the home, she wants suffrage to set herself free.” However, whilst this “may be true of the few; the majority of suffragists repudiate utterly such blasphemy.” Quite the opposite, “they insist always that it is woman suffrage which will make her a better Christian and homekeeper, a staunch citizen of the State” and so “suffrage is only a means of strengthening the omnipotence of the very Gods that woman has served from time immemorial.”
Not only was this true at the time of Goldman and Pankhurst, but it remains true today. With suffrage won, the issue may be seen as one of the past. But as long as it remains fetishised as the “pivotal right,” the fact that the struggle is far from over remains largely unrecognised.
The legacy of suffrage
Goldman’s view on womens’ struggle was not one that ended in the equity of circumstances with men in the present. She would accept nothing less than equality within the framework of full and genuine equality. As she wrote, “I demand the independence of woman, her right to support herself; to live for herself; to love whomever she pleases, or as many as she pleases. I demand freedom for both sexes, freedom of action, freedom in love and freedom in motherhood.” This offers us the basic principle for a practical anarchist assessment of the suffrage movement. Has it brought about any such freedom?
In the West, there is a signficant degree of this freedom. Women are no longer frowned upon or scorned by society for not fulfilling the traditional roles of wife, mother, and home-maker. Monogamy and marriage are no longer enforced by law. Overall, there is greater freedom from traditional patriarchy and social convention. However, one could credibly argue that this has been the result not of suffragism but of the broader feminist movements that took off particularly in the 1960s. Further, the shortcomings of such equality within a statist and class-based society suggest that Goldman’s vision is far from realised. Especially in the recent resurgence of the unattainable ultra-feminine ideal for women (and, conversely, hyper-masculinity for men), a topic I will return to.
Also worth noting is that the ability of women to elect and be elected culminated, in Britain, with the rise to power of Margaret Thatcher. Though her anti-working class politics and repressive implementation of them were, of course, nothing to do with her gender, her reign demonstrates amply the fact that, as voting cannot accomplish significant positive change, equity in voting will do nothing to alter that fact. Quite clearly, the idea that “suffrage is the pivotal right” from which all freedom and equality comes is a fallacy, as having “women themselves help to make laws and elect lawmakers” has no more effect on the political system than men do.
But, if this is to be more than a purely academic exercise, what can be gained from this?
The answer to that is experience. History is an invaluable lesson, if only we are willing to learn it. In the case of feminism, it tells us that womens’ liberation, channelled through the medium of suffrage and electoralism, becomes a satire of itself steeped in reaction.
Emmeline Pankhurst called a halt to the struggle for equality in the name of a bloody and futile war. Feminism and militancy gave way to nationalism and cooperation with the sate. A bitter anti-Communism led her to declare her allegiance to the British Empire, saying, “some talk about the Empire and Imperialism as if it were something to decry and something to be ashamed of. [I]t is a great thing to be the inheritors of an Empire like ours … great in territory, great in potential wealth. … If we can only realise and use that potential wealth we can destroy thereby poverty, we can remove and destroy ignorance….” Such a declaration made her later membership of the Conservative Party unsurprising.
We can see a similar tendency towards reaction and diversionary politics in modern feminist activities. One particularly vivid recent example was Global Women’s Strike calling attention to the fact that International Women’s Day 2003 “Justice for Women, Women’s Aid, Eaves Housing for Women, POLLY and Lilith will be picketing Spearmint Rhino, a lap-dancing club,” whilst “the US and UK governments defy the majority of people in the world and get ready to kill and displace millions in Iraq, mainly women and children.” The sex industry and the role it plays towards women in society is, of course, a whole other debate. However, the lesson offered by the differences between Goldman and Pankhurst highlights the differences between the mainstream feminist movement, watching as the rights of women stagnate and begin to slide backwards, and anarcha-feminism, ever calling for a more radical perspective.
What remains is to learn that lesson and to act upon it.