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Thursday, September 23, 2010

There is only so much sexism an anarchist can take (2009)

Tracey Fletcher

When I saw that the Anarchist Movement Conference 2009 is being promoted with the image of a woman, I couldn’t help thinking of the irony. As with national states, the female body is again used as the symbol of some desired unity. However, what that image has made me think of is the persistence and entrenchment of sexist practices among anarchists, an important contributing factor to their actual lack of unity.

Some time ago I joined a few long-term active anarchists during a specific campaign, a couple of them probably now involved in the organisation of this conference. My experience left me wondering how much some of those active in the anarchist movement have actually learnt from years of feminist thought and experience. These are just a few examples: I was constantly talked to and reminded of my lack of experience, without anyone ever questioning what my experience actually was and whether I might have something to teach them too. I was just approached for some humorous comment but never to have a serious adult conversation. When with my partner, a man, some of them would only address him while I was left in the background wondering if I had suddenly become invisible – even though I was the one doing the politics with them. On a couple of painful occasions, I was even shouted at after making some naïve comments (I knew he would have never dared to do the same to another man). And then, of course, their class essentialism: they never realised that I don’t actually need to come from a working class background to know how it feels to be discriminated against, ignored, talked down, patronised and treated like a little child with no mind of her own. I know it just too well. I had to giggle to myself when one of my co-campaigners accused another group of just paying lip service to anti-authoritarianism. It seems the connection between patriarchy and authority had been completely lost on him (an otherwise rather intelligent person).

Probably my middle-classness and university education, as well as years of self—reflection after coming into contact with feminist theory, meant my self-esteem came out from this experience with just a few bruises. I just wonder how many women from less privilege backgrounds have been left to believe in their own inferiority after having their opinions dismissed and their hard work appropriated without recognition by men who call themselves anarchists. The low self-esteem that results from it means these women, their abilities and passion, are lost to the anti-authoritarian movement, some of it, I’m afraid, anti-authoritarian just in name. There is a lesson I learnt some time ago that could be perfectly applicable to this situation: you don’t suddenly stop being racist just because you’ve decided to. It has taken me years of active learning and self-reflection to reduce the racism engrained in me. A great deal of it involved identifying and deconstructing the category of ‘whiteness’. I don’t see that active learning and self-reflection is actually happening among men who consider themselves prominent in the anarchist movement. The will is just not there (and I’m talking racism as well as sexism here). Contemporary feminist analysis seems to have identified the reason why sexism is still so engrained among most men: ‘masculinity’, what it means, how it is expressed and how it relates to the category of ‘feminity’, is almost never on the table for discussion among men. They are just too busy talking about capitalism or the end of it. In the meantime, women like myself who have a strong desire to be politically active, find themselves questioning whether there is any hope for positive change when people who are supposed to be caring, compassionate and respectful insist on treating others as some kind of second class type of human being.
Tracey Fletcher

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