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Thursday, October 14, 2010

Notes towards an (anarchist? feminist?) critique of (anarchism? feminism?) (2004)

by caitlin hewitt-white

Every feminist march I have ever attended has been corralled by cops.
And the organizers of these marches cooperate with them. Mind you, I am young,
don't get out much, and haven't been to a lot of feminist marches - but maybe
that's because in Guelph, feminist marches are rare. Take Back the Night and
December 6th memorials occur annually, of course constrained by cops, small
numbers, the fatigue of frontline workers and the hesitation of women who have
never been in such a space before. Few organizations take on International
Women's Day programming and limit themselves to small and do-able events.

One of the highlights of my uneventful feminist life was the World
March of Women in October 2000 (also contained by cops). More people showed
than at the FTAA protests at Quebec City. However, the march was held on
Parliament Hill on a Sunday, when not a politician, bureaucrat or business
person was in sight - and the organizers wondered why the March didn't get
enough coverage. Public, vocal, visible, collective forms of women's resistance
against oppression seem to generally happen three times a year at ritualistic
and symbolic marches that do nothing to threaten the very system that is
killing women through violence, poverty and exploitation.

Am I the only staunch feminist who finds dominant feminist organizing
boring and sometimes downright offensive? I feel that my community of fellow
activists can't compensate for this absence of connection with a vibrant
women's movement, because anti-capitalist activists are often (but not always)
plagued by an inability to account for how capitalism relies on sexism and
racism. In more concrete terms, there is not enough activist talk about how US
imperialism or the Tory war on the poor in Ontario affect the lives of women in
very specific but often unspoken ways.

There is a plethora of writing available in zines, online, and in
public and university libraries that examines the praxis of anarcha-feminism
and the history of women anarchists. This article is not concerned with
classical anarcha-feminism or with the Emma Goldman fetish - it is rather an
attempt to briefly critique the dominant women's movement as well as the
anarchist movement from the perspective of an activist involved in both. These
comments are cursory, general points of departure for what I hope will become a
longer article and an ongoing discussion with comrades.

From a divided movement to a homogenized institution?

The women’s movement of the 1960s and 1970s was rife with political
divisions. In the US, for instance, the liberal feminists of the National
Organization of Women focused on wining and dining with the likes of Jimmy
Carter in order to win the Equal Rights Amendment. These liberal state-o-phile
feminists butted heads with The Lavendar Menace, a NOW faction of militant
lesbians who were sick and tired of the blatant homophobia of straight
feminists. This is not to mention the anti-imperialist and anti-racist
tendency of the women's movement that some feminists tried to snuff out (and
still try to) with their insistence that the gender system is the one and only
class system women ought to bother fighting. Today, however, it seems as
though there is little political diversity and division within the feminist
organizations that have become veritable institutions. Or at least, if there
are divisions, I'm not convinced that most women who don't attend women's
studies classes or who don't work as paid professionals within feminist social
service agencies would know about them. I get the sense that there are so few
and far between options for feminist action that feminists are often expected -
by themselves and others - to rally behind whatever large-scale, visible
feminist project takes centre stage, regardless of whether or not we actually
agree with its political content. I wouldn't argue against solidarity, but I
also wouldn't argue against a vibrant political diversity that is honest about
differences amongst women and feminists.

The World March of Women, a global organization that coordinates
massive marches and lobbying efforts, promotes the demand to eliminate all
poverty and all violence against women and children. These demands could
potentially be carried out in ways that are empowering for women - more than
just signing a petition or learning about how to vote in the interests of
women. Read by an anarchist or socialist, the demand to eliminate poverty
could translate into revolution, in the long-term - or at least into direct
action casework around housing, disability, immigration and welfare in the
short-term. However, the World March of Women, which has garnered the support
of practically every major feminist organization many industrialized and newly
industrialising countries, envisions the elimination of poverty and violence as
a goal that is attainable through encouraging states to "harmonize" their legal
apparatuses through the signing of various United Nations conventions. This is
one example of how the prickly relationship between feminism and the state
poses a problem and a unique opportunity to anti-statist feminists.

Our State, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name…

Although exact dates and definitions are debatable, the "second wave"
of the women's movement in North America started with consciousness raising
groups in the early 1960s and ended with the sex wars of the early 1980s.
Somewhere in between, courageous women performed safe but illegal abortions on
each other, took battered women in to their homes, and set up haphazard,
grassroots rape crisis lines. Services that many women take for granted today
at one point never existed, and were started by over-worked but determined
women to take matters into our own hands and to begin the transformative work
of healing from and combating gendered violence.

This Do-It-Yourself
tradition, which began with underground feminist organizing, in some ways
continues today in the "third wave" of the women's movement, characterized by a
super-abundance of vibrators, strap-ons, and homemade riot grrrl zines and demo
tapes. Like it or not, the state has supported us through granting funding and
passing laws - though never completely on women's terms and sometimes not at
all. The state has at least partially supported women's struggles to establish
women's shelters, health centres, research programs, community centres,
somewhat better legal procedures for rape survivors, abused women, and single
mothers - and practically every other landmark in the course of women's recent

Part and parcel of the women's movement are the more formal efforts
within parliament and the courts to guarantee rights, as well as to guarantee
recourse to challenging abrogations of these rights. Concepts like "equal
rights" have formalized within the state, and as such may have brought about
small changes in popular consensus about some basic ethical issues - i.e.
discrimination is wrong. The problem with liberal successes in gaining rights
is that these rights are only conceptualized as inherent human rights as soon
as a state document deems it so. These documents only have power insofar as
the state can defend them by means of punishment and coercion, employed by the
military, police, prisons, and, in the case of the human rights code in Canada,
fines and compensation. To pose the question crudely, what does it mean for
women that "equality" is an issue of public concern mostly because the state
tells people it should be, and if they don't support it then they're fucked?
And what does it mean that the same state that slashes, freezes, or refuses to
create funding for social programs that are needed disproportionately by women
and the same state that brutalizes women and the communities they live in
every day - is the same state that also claims to uphold and defend our so-
called rights, and on which we depend for the funding of women's services?
Lobbying and other liberal political efforts made by the women’s movement have
increased public knowledge of women's oppression, and women’s access to public
funding and legal structures that can help us survive in the short-run. These
are important. But this comes at the cost of self-emancipation: freeing
ourselves by our own means and on our own terms.

One of the implications of the relationship between the women's
movement and the state is the condition of the shelter movement. I speak in
part from my limited experience with one particular women's organization that
runs a women's shelter, but I feel that my suspicions about the shelter
movement have been confirmed by other women I have spoken with and some reading
that I have done on this topic. Shelters for women and children leaving a
violent situation obviously need money to run - to pay staff, to maintain
buildings, to offer quality counseling and resources to their clients. The
state provides this funding, however funding has not kept up with population
and caseload growth especially in recent years under the Tory government in
Ontario. Shelters, like most other social service agencies, are cash-
strapped. I get the sense that frontline shelter workers are overworked and
deal with the same issues many workers face elsewhere: lack of workplace
democracy, poor working conditions, and the creation of part-time casual shift
work as a way to avoid offering permanent, unionized, full-time positions.
Most women's shelters started out with the same structure as grassroots
feminist action and consciousness-raising groups - a collective, mostly
consensus-based structure. (The legacy of the small-scale, non-hierarchical
group contributed to the skills and knowledge of consensus building that
activists today take for granted.) As the capacity of shelters grew during the
1980s and 1990s, the collective structures of many shelters (and feminist
organizations in general) were gradually replaced by hierarchical boards of
directors. Well-established feminist organizations are now characterized by a
mass of professional feminist workers (most with degrees in social work, and in
some organizations many are white and educated), boards of directors, and
executive directors. Feminist activism has become trapped in the livelihoods
of privileged professionals.

While the capacity of feminist organizations has grown because of state
funding in so far as their services reach more women than they previously did,
their dependency on the state has in other ways limited their capacity to grow
with grassroots women's struggles. Strapped for cash and preoccupied with
getting by and providing the bare essentials of service, many feminist
organizations seem to pay lip service to anti-oppression and accessibility.

Many shelters are not wheelchair accessible, can not provide service for women
with disabilities who need one-on-one care, only provide services in English,
and bar transgendered women from using their services. Furthermore, women with
addictions and "mental health issues" often are refused service, as are women
who need shelter because of poverty and, in the case of First Nations women,
continued colonialism. Racist economic violence by the state often does not
count as a form of abuse from which women may be fleeing. Collusion with the
state also takes on the form of working relationships with Family and
Children's Services (which has a legacy of stealing children from First Nations
and poor families) and the police. Within feminist organizations, there are
certainly debates about these relationships with state agencies, and I do not
think these relationships come from a place of malice or ignorance. At the
same time, given these limitations, I think that women can't always rely on
feminist organizations to organize actions and change the world on our behalf.
We have to start organizing our own marches, IWD events, and actions. Of
course we can work with feminist social service agencies, but ultimately we
need to take initiative and responsibility for our own liberation.


Unless the feminist pop culture magazine Bitch is truly the vanguard of
the women's movement (and unfortunately I don't think it is), the women’s
movement, as an organized collective force, rarely intervenes in the cultural
sphere to forward its anti-patriarchal messages. Instead, decisions about how
feminist messages are circulated in popular culture are made by marketing
experts in the fashion and entertainment industries, so that a sort
of “lifestyle feminism,” has captured the minds of this generation’s young

Some refer to this "lifestyle feminism" as "third wave feminism". The
latter term is an often disputed and sloppily defined signifier for a wide
range of cultural expressions, from the politically astute riot grrrl
D.I.Y. ‘zine and punk subcultures, to mainstream women’s music festivals like
the Lilith Fair. Cultural expressions in the latter category are often devoid
of any political demands, any outright identifications with what is still seen
as the dirty “f” word. The Body Shop saps out women's self-esteem and money
and justifies this with fundraising for women's shelters. Tampax claims in its
ads that the itty-bitty portable tampon that fits into the palm of your hand
is "the women's revolution" - because, of course women would not want the size
of their menstrual product to imply that their cunts are actually larger,
dirtier, and less "discreet" than a piece of three inch long cardboard.
Capitalism snatches, distorts, and sells any piece of resistance that it can.
The commodification of feminist culture has convinced many that feminism is
about making women feel good, no matter how this is accomplished. In common
sense, if feminism does not conjure homophobic images of "man-hating" dykes,
feminism connotes orgasms, greater consumer choice of lipsticks and menstrual
products, climbing the corporate ladder. The most positive meaning feminism
takes on in popular culture is that women can do whatever makes us feel good,
even if it involves feeling good on the backs of less privileged women.

The reality remains that the majority of women have not benefited from
the gains made by the women’s movement. While a few educated white women have
gained equal opportunity with men in some areas of education and employment,
many more white women and women of colour slog away at doing the world's
shitwork - as secretaries, nurses, pieceworkers, nurses, cleaners, cashiers,
restaurant servers, and as unpaid caregivers for children, the elderly, and the
sick. And of course economic, physical, and emotional violence continues to
silence, isolate, and kill women. Feminism could mean women working to end the
capitalist system that simultaneously relies on and recreates forms of sexism,
racism, and heterosexism. But for many women, especially younger women who
have no collective memory of the heyday of organized, collective women’s
struggles, feminism no longer exists - all our demands seem to have been met by
the state and corporations - and women’s self-determination lies in the
ideology of consumer choice.

Feminism, meet anarchism

Many anti-capitalist activists bred by anarchist principles of non-
hierarchical organizing and direct action tactics self-identify as feminists
and charge their political struggles with an analysis of how race, gender, and
sexuality play out within capitalism and within our own movements for justice.

References to anti-oppression have become a mainstay of recent anti-
globalization organizing. For instance, one of the organizing and political
principles upon which activists united for anti-G8 action in June of last year
was “a clear emphasis on anti-oppression organizing and education.” The
platform of the People’s Global Action network, which is regularly invoked
during massive anti-capitalist demonstrations and direct actions, states
that “We reject all forms and systems of domination and discrimination
including, but not limited to, patriarchy, racism, and religious fundamentalism
of all creeds. We embrace the full dignity of all human beings.” Anti-
globalization activists concerned with anti-oppression can learn from the
women’s movement what not to do in circulating anti-oppression theory in anti-
capitalist discourse. Specifically, the mainstream women’s movement often
relies upon statist definitions of oppression and thus also statist and
reformist avenues to so-called justice.

The little glimpses of feminism that I have seen within the current
anarchist movement look promising. When I refer to anarchists, I'm not only
referring to members of NEFAC or to people who are publicly known as
anarchists, but more importantly to all sorts of people who quietly plod away
at anti-poverty and community-based organizing who use anarchist methods of
organizing and who grapple, in unglamourous ways, with questions of revolution
and oppression. I see within the anarchist movement a critique of the
psychiatric industry and of prisons - which play a major role in the
institutionalization, medicalization and social control of women, especially of
women who resist. Many anarchists promote a critique of the binary gender
system, of the social control of queer people, and create an alternative
culture where sexuality is celebrated rather than censored - where sex trade
workers are supported in their struggles for dignity, not patronized - and
where the question of what constitutes empowering and liberating porn is an
interesting discussion, rather than a taboo topic. I also see at play within
the movement a radical reconceptualization of the human body that embraces
differences and goes far beyond merely respecting state-defined standards
of “access” and “mobility.” Further still, I see activists organizing against
all borders and deeply racialized and class-stratified notions and operations
of "citizenship". To discuss the anti-racist strategies and discourse within
this movement would take up a whole other article, but it is important to
recognize that many (but not all) activists somehow associated with anarchism
have a much more radical understanding of race and racism than is evidenced by
the public personae of many white-dominated feminist organizations whose anti-
racism ostensibly lies in their statements about being committed to diversity
and multiculturalism. Most anarchists I know don't have degrees in social work
or women's studies but through first-hand experience with community organizing
understand how brutal canada's "multiculturalism" really is - and most
importantly, they're willing to put their bodies on the line to do something
about it. Lastly, and perhaps most obviously, people who were introduced to
anarchism through the anti-globalization movement as well as seasoned
anarchists for the most part understand how capitalism, through colonialism and
imperialism, has created a world of relations of domination.

Understanding all of these forms of oppression, and how to struggle
against them in solidarity with the oppressed, are essential to developing a
feminism that is about the liberation of all women from oppressions such as
heterosexism, sexism, and racism. Anarchism, though rarely theorized, tries to
practice the critique and reorganization of power that the dominant women's
movement may theorize but has not consistently practiced. It would be of
benefit to the organized aspects of the women's movement to look to how an
anti- racist, queer-liberationist, anti-ableist feminism is (but also a lot of the
time is not) at the heart of anarchist practice.

Many anarchists also occupy themselves with developing economic and
political alternatives to being dependent on the state, mass culture, and the
capitalist system for survival. As I've already mentioned, the early second
wave and the third wave of the women's movement are just as D.I.Y. as any
dumpster-diving, patch-making, train-hopping anarchist kid. But often both
anarchist and feminist subcultural ventures remain nothing more than futile
attempts to remove the individual - or a cluster of individuals - from an
exploitative system that otherwise remains unscathed. Some anarchist
communities have started the difficult work of building counter-institutions,
communes and federations that would hopefully someday, in theory, make a state
that has already been weakened by class struggle even more redundant. It would
be interesting to see explicitly feminist communities and projects take on the
goal of contributing to a dual power, but as it stands, feminist projects
mostly remain either individualistically DIY or co-opted by the state.

Anarchism, meet feminism

The women's movement has a lot to learn from the anarchist movement,
but anarchists have a lot to learn from the women's movement too. It is
annoying that anarchists often don’t look outside of their own tight knit
subcultures for guidance around issues of privilege and oppression.
Discussions about sexism often start from scratch, with no reference to work
that women have already been doing to decades around male privilege and
violence. It would make sense that a community concerned about sexualized
violence, abuse, or women's poverty should look to the women's movement for
ideas and skills - but this is not happening. Anarchist communities cannot deal
effectively with cases of sexual assault, racism, homophobia, and gendered
divisions of labour within their communities. One example of this is how few
anarchists know how to support each other through times of crisis and trauma,
even though this skill could be gleaned from the feminist counseling tradition
within the women’s movement. It is not enough that anarchist organizers
include the words "anti-oppression" or "feminism" in their platforms - at a
community level, all activists ought to be engaging in discussions about, for
instance, what kind of feminism and what kind anti-racism they support. And
supporting the struggle of women means more than deferring to the judgment of a
couple vocal feminists within the community. And it means more than examining
power dynamics within an organization, though this is essential. I think
anarchist and feminist organizing, to really be effective in struggling against
all oppression, has to take on work that directly builds power for women and
that directly makes it difficult for the state, capital, and men in general to
continue the war on women.

The next step: direct action against patriarchy

Disrupting the business of patriarchy involves disrupting the business
of capitalism. It requires direct, vocal, concrete interventions into the
workings of everyday life - in short, it requires direct action. I think that
most anti-capitalist direct actions - because capitalism relies on and
recreates racism and sexism, and because capitalism organizes labour and
exploitation through racialization and gender - inherently have the potential
to be feminist actions. However, this shouldn't stop anarchists from targeting
corporations and state offices specifically because of, for instance, their
poor treatment of women workers or for their cuts to childcare. Nor should it
stop us from targeting individual known rapists and abusers who have refused to
change their violent behaviour. To explore the potential for the women's
movement and the anarchist movement to build solidarity based on a shared
commitment to direct action against patriarchy is an idealistic task that would
require, again, a whole other article. But I will say that I have desired on
so many occasions while marching with candles to the tune of bread and roses to
regroup in a small scale women-only affinity group and hash out a militant plan
of direct action. I want women to tell those who hold power that we are
serious, we aren't leaving the downtown core or parliament hill once the march
ends. Although we will probably always have a lot of healing to do from the
violence inflicted upon us everyday, we are no longer going to postpone
militancy until state funding rolls in or until the next annual general meeting
of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women. Whether from
frustration or boredom or from a larger militant strategy, I want us to find
ourselves ready to fight - loudly, and with passion.

from: http://web.archive.org/web/20070407192755/http://auto_sol.tao.ca/node/view/50

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