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Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Anarcha-feminism: growing stronger (1978)

Fridely, Mary, Off Our Backs 8.7 (Jul 31, 1978): 20.

As a self-defined anarcha-feminist, used to women not understanding, much less supporting, my philosophy, I was looking forward to the first anarcha-feminist conference, organized by Tiamat, an anarcha-feminist collective, and held in Ithaca, New York June 9-11. The theme of the conference was "AnarchaFeminism: Growing Stronger", which I'm sure it did if only because there were 85 women attending and 85 practicing anarcha-feminists are better than one.

The setting was a conference center in the Catskill Mts. outside Ithaca and for the two days the sun, meadows, hiking trails, and brooks vied with workshops for one's attention, and often won. For it seemed that there was an inability on the part of the women present to share their ideas, actions, and experiences in a way that would generate interest and/or creative responses. Especially disheartening given that a principle firmly grounded in anarchism is that of spontaneity, in both actions and emotions.

what is feminism? anarchism?
Since I'm filling the first paragraph with two misused and misunderstood ideas -- feminism and anarchism -- I will define both, using principles outlined during the conference. The guidelines for feminism mentioned were: 1) nuclear family is the base for all power relationships; 2) small leaderless groups with a project orientation; 3) a commitment to social and economic values being changed; 4) sharing skills and knowledge; 5) a recognition of patriarchy as a dominant force; 6) collective work. Anarchism has as its goals: 1) a redefinition and redistribution of power; 2) dissolution of authority based on power differences -- i.e., all hierarchical structures; 3) spontaneity; 4) principles of self-management; 5) rotation of tasks; 6) direct action; 7) the personal as political. The two merge on several points and the patriarchy is generally recognized as the primary power structure over women's lives.

Women at the conference knew their theory, which was exciting because I appreciate the need for a strong theoretical base for any political philosophy. However, it soon became clear that theorizing was as far as most women were going. I am becoming increasingly impatient with conferences which do not promote action over abstraction and am particularly disturbed that an anarchist-based conference was not more action-oriented.

In keeping with this, the workshop on Anarcha-Feminist Theory was well-attended. Other workshops scheduled were Anarcha-Feminism & Unions, Self-liberation as Social Change, The Ecology Movement and Anarcha-Feminism, Future Vision, Socialist-Feminism and Anarcha-Feminism, Living with Children, Economics, Anarcha-Feminism and Third-World Revolutions, Strategy, Racism, Class, Education and Alternative Health. There were also informal workshops and caucuses held by various special interest groups. Few of the topics were explored as fully as they need to be, primarily because of time, workshop size and lack of any real confrontation or questioning on the part of participants. 

anarcha-feminist theory
Most of the theory workshop involved women defining what anarcha-feminism was to them, and how they had integrated it into their lives. Some women used anarchism to "explore the positive side of struggle". One woman said she would be connected to anarchism "as long as it was a place to be a rebel". Another viewed anarchism as "action" with feminism being "what led to that action". It seemed that most women, even though they saw anarcha-feminism as a revolutionary force, used it primarily to redefine their personal environment, which leaves unanswered the question of how anarcha-feminism applies to the day-to-day struggles of all women. The question of privilege was raised and the concern is a very real one. All but one of the women at the conference were white and most were middle-class. A lack of class consciousness was apparent in most workshops. Sometimes I was uncomfortably aware that being at the conference seemed too much like being part of an exclusive club, not only because most "members" were white but because they spoke largely of personal oppression, all defined within a middle-class framework. Any movement which claims to be revolutionary but does not incorporate the struggles of poor, working class, Black, and Third World women into its philosophy is not revolutionary -- it is no better than the Democratic party. 

In the workshops on racism and class women talked about their personal experiences with racism (or perpetuating racism) and classism and examined the situation in the communities in which they lived. Both are commendable, particularly when held in a guilt-free, supportive environment, but I was frustrated by the lack of practical application of this awareness in other workshops. 

An interesting example of this lack of awareness occurred when the theory workshop split over the issue of violence and the use of violence by women. Most women relied on the traditional anarchistic justification for non-violent action -- that is, the means are the end, which means if you use violence as a means to revolution, you will create a violent movement. There was an often-voiced belief that "our strength is in our gentleness". Because other women disagreed with this analysis and wanted to explore the uses of violence in direct action, another group formed. Ideas expressed ranged from using violence only when it would bring women together, making people aware of issues through violence, how violence is defined, separating violence and militancy, the role the media plays in deciding what actions you do, and the impact of "non-violent" actions such as hunger strikes, or the value of pie-throwing as a means of drawing attention to an issue. While there was more concrete discussion in this session, few of the ideas or actions related specifically to women. In fact, most of the latter half of the workshop was spent discussing the strategy for the upcoming anti-nuclear activity at Seabrook, New Hampshire. We didn't discuss actions we could be doing now around women's issues, nor did we explore ideas for organizing large groups of women from various racial and class backgrounds to work together around an issue. 

When violence was discussed, it was often in the context of "when we begin using violence, this is what it will be", which ignores the fact that for most poor and working class women, threatened daily with physical abuse on the job and in the home, fighting back is a reality. Forty percent of the women in the Cook County Jail (IL) are in because they killed husbands who had been beating them. This is women's violence, too often overlooked when middle-class women engage in theoretical discussions about whether or not women should be violent. If we are going to seriously begin to define how violence can be incorporated into our movement, we begin by analyzing how women are violent now and build from that. It is not a theoretical issue and cannot exist in a middle-class vacuum. 

Another interesting omission was the lack of support or acknowledgment of Rita D. Brown, a working class lesbian anarcha-feminist, currently imprisoned in the Federal Women's Prison in Alderson, West Virginia for her participation in a bank robbery as a member of the George Jackson Brigade. (See oob may and june 1978 for articles on her.) She is another victim of the obvious interest in the anti-nuclear activity which dominated the group. I resented time at a workshop which should have been used to devise strategies and tactics to bring women together being used to discuss involvement in a movement becoming both conservative and elitist in its strategy and goals.
To have so many women activists involved in a movement which, while certainly important, is no more important than the vast number of issues which speak directly to women's lives and which need the energy and commitment of such women, is frustrating. Feminism to me means a strong identification with all women and a belief in a woman-led revolution. The feminism in anarcha-feminism seems in danger of getting lost. This loss is perhaps the major contributor to my overall disappointment with the conference. 

It appears that women are entering into coalitions not necessarily out of the belief that these coalitions can create change, but because we've lost faith that women working together can bring about the necessary changes in society. I don't disagree with coalitions, I just think we're choosing the wrong ones in which to be active. When are we going to seriously consider a grass-roots women's movement which would be a coalition of the truly oppressed -- poor, working class, Black, Third World, and middle class women? These women will lead the revolution; we need only follow.

 It is hard to criticize: 1) something you care about and 2) something others obviously worked hard for. For me, anarcha-feminism is a revolutionary force because it is a commitment to those who are historically powerless -- women -- and a means by which all women will have a voice in the economic and political structure of this society. I want to continue working with other women to create the means which will bring about this desired end. 

The conference in Ithaca was disappointing because the hoped for exchange of ideas and plan for action did not happen as expected. Perhaps it was too much to expect for a first time. Tiamat put a lot of care and attention into the conference planning and the two days were well-organized, with space allowed for informal activities not on the original schedule. Women attending were expected to work and the response was positive -- women took more responsibility for themselves in a communal setting than I've ever seen at any type of gathering. Information on anarcha-feminism (not much) as well as on other political activities was available. The food was excellent and I will confess to being quite healthily tanned. 

Much of the criticism of the conference I heard was similar to mine -- the lack of enthusiasm on the part of women attending, little or no Black, Third World, or working class participation, the lack of a strong focus on women, etc. Therefore I assume the next conference will incorporate the feedback and produce a more exciting event. I wonder, however, if the nature of anarchism is antithetical to being confined to a conference setting -- which makes me think that anarcha-feminists might have to become more creative if we are to communicate with each other and strengthen our ties with other women. But then that, it seems, is what it's all about.
Copyright Off Our Backs, Inc. Jul 31, 1978

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