Exploring anarcha-feminism: consciousness-raising in the anarchist movement
The sixth and final part in a series looking at anarchism as it relates to feminism, gender equality, and patriarchy.
I began this series by referring to a video and statement by the anarcha-feminist group No Pretence, who were “pissed off by the patriarchy which is (still) evident within the anarchist movement.”
When I came across the video, my main realisation at the time was that I hadn’t “written a single article on women’s rights, feminism, or gender politics.” Specifically, although I had touched upon some issues that related specifically to women, I had as yet “offered nothing from a broader anarcha-feminist perspective.”
In writing this series, I won’t say that “I’ve done that,” because that implies a completeness. My intention isn’t simply to write about anarcha-feminism once and then forget about it. It’s to explore it, to understand it, so that I can build it into my philosophy and my perspective. It’s a learning curve, and the end of this series doesn’t mean the end of my interest in the history and politics of the anarcha-feminist movement.
Which is why I want to close by returning to the subject which is most contentious in this area: “manarchism.” What is it? Is it a serious phenomenon within the broader anarchist movement? And if so how do we deal with it?
One element of the problem that No Pretence point out is the under-representation of women in the anarchist movement.
There a variety of reasons for this, many boiling down to the (usually) subtle sexism and patriarchy of our society. They may not be as acute today, for example it is now not uncommon for men to take the primary role in caring for children, but they still exist and will continue to exist as long as sexism and patriarchy do.
As Eileen O’Carroll explains, this is part of the reason that the anarchist movement is so male-centric;
Many men in the anarchist movement were and are, gender blind. That is they do not realise that their own way of seeing the world is coloured by their own gender and aren’t aware of or interested in understanding other perspectives. While we all naturally make sense of the world from the point of view of our own experiences, we also need to be able to realise that our experiences aren’t universal.
But clearly, with women out of the picture, that isn’t likely to happen. If an organisation or movement takes on the demographic make-up of a boys’ club, then it is likely that (if inadvertently) they will soon be acting like one.
This only exacerbates under-representation, with some women declaring “you want to know why I don’t go to your fucking meetings anymore!”
Integral to the solution, O’Carroll says, is men being willing to accept this reality and try to move beyond it. “Where those other voices are in the minority, we need to actively go out and seek those alternative perspectives.” We need to “try as revolutionaries to look beyond our own world-view (and of course this doesn’t apply just to gender, it holds true for race, nationality, and all the other aspects of culture).”
The example she gives of this in action is the Mujeres Libres during the Spanish Revolution;
In the pages of their papers and at their meetings, Mujeres Libres gave voice to women’s experiences.
Mujeres Libres also worked to challenge restrictive gender roles. It is generally true that you cannot do what you haven’t dreamt. If a woman never imagines herself taking part in an anarchist organisation, if she doesn’t see a role for herself within that organisation, it is very unlikely that she will ever feel motivated to join one.
As a women’s only group, Mujeres Libres automatically gave to women a space where they knew, by virtue of their gender, that they were welcomed and needed. From that starting point, the women involved undertook work that was more usually done by men; they organised meetings, they spoke at meetings, they travelled around the country.
Mujeres Libres also had the advantage that they were working in revolutionary times, and so the fight for women’s liberation became part and parcel of the new society that was being built. Today’s anarchists operate in less optimistic times and, though for women things are a lot freer than they were in 1930s Spain, the problem of how to create revolutionary organisations which reflect the full diversity of society have yet to be solved.
Some groups are making in-roads to addressing this, and the anarchist movement as a whole is not as overtly sexist as it once was.
The Anarchist Federation in Britain has a women’s caucus, which actively supports events like April’s anarcha-feminist weekend.
In Barcelona, this year’s CNT centenary celebrations included an Anarcha-Feminist conference, acknowledging that patriarchy, “along with capitalism, inhibits the freedom of many living beings and is destroying the planet.” It sought “to visualize the vital role that women play in the anarchist movement, to reflect on the connection between anarchism and feminism, to challenge traditional gender roles, female and male, on which patriarchy are based.”
These may seem like cursory, even tokenistic gestures, but the point is not to turn anarcha-feminism into a separate movement. Anarcha-feminism is a perspective and, alongside antifascism, anti-racism, and queer-anarchism, integral to a movement serious about genuine liberty and equality.
But part of that is constantly challenging sexism and bigotry – unintentional or otherwise – when it occurs, especially amongst ourselves.
Key to this is conciousness-raising amongst activists. After all, as the old cliché would have it, “admitting that there’s a problem is half the battle.”
Kathie Sarachild explains the basic principle of consciousness-raising;
To be able to understand what feminist consciousness-raising is all about, it is important to remember that it began as a program among women who all considered themselves radicals.
Our aim in forming a women’s liberation group was to start a mass movement of women to put an end to the barriers of segregation and discrimination based on sex. We knew radical thinking and radical action would be necessary to do this. We also believed it necessary to form Women’s Liberation groups which excluded men from their meetings.
In order to have a radical approach, to get to the root, it seemed logical that we had to study the situation of women, not just take random action. How best to do this came up in the women’s liberation group I was in — New York Radical Women, one of the first in the country — shortly after the group had formed. We were planning our first public action and wandered into a discussion about what to do next. One woman in the group, Ann Forer, spoke up: “I think we have a lot more to do just in the area of raising our consciousness,” she said. “Raising consciousness?” I wondered what she meant by that. I’d never heard it applied to women before.
“I’ve only begun thinking about women as an oppressed group,” she continued, “and each day, I’m still learning more about it — my consciousness gets higher.”
Now I didn’t consider that I had just started thinking about the oppression of women. In fact, I thought of myself as having done lots of thinking about it for quite a while, and lots of reading too. But then Ann went on to give an example of something she’d noticed that turned out to be a deeper way of seeing it for me, too.
“I think a lot about being attractive,” Ann said. “People don’t find the real self of a woman attractive.” And then she went on to give some examples. And I just sat there listening to her describe all the false ways women have to act: playing dumb, always being agreeable, always being nice, not to mention what we had to do to our bodies, with the clothes and shoes we wore, the diets we had to go through, going blind not wearing glasses, all because men didn’t find our real selves, our human freedom, our basic humanity “attractive.” And I realized I still could learn a lot about how to understand and describe the particular oppression of women in ways that could reach other women in the way this had just reached me. The whole group was moved as I was, and we decided on the spot that what we needed — in the words Ann used — was to “raise our consciousness some more.”
The same principle applies to men in the anarchist movement.
We, of course, consider ourselves radical. But it is hard to know what this means in relation to an issue we don’t suffer ourselves. I know that I faced this problem, which is why I began writing this series in the first place, but so do many others. But it’s not an easy thing to admit.
But, as with most things, it is better to let people disagree – whilst engaging them in the dialogue – than to shout them down as worthless, disgusting, sexist pigs.
In the latter case, all you’re doing is reinforcing that person’s belief and resolve. They go away with a stereotype in their head – in the case of feminism, perhaps the angry, man-hating bitch – and the personal experience to back it up.
In the former case, we can’t guarantee that people will change their minds. But, simply by engaging in the debate and disagreeing, they’re thinking about it. They’re faced with questions and ideas that challenge their worldview, and have to search for the answers. If they can’t find one, or the one they find is unconvincing, then they take a step towards thinking differently.
That is what consciousness raising is all about.