Anarcha-Feminism and the Newer “Woman Question”
by stacy, aka sallydarity
sallydarity [at] yahoo [dot] com
Gone are the days when anarcha-feminists nurtured visions of revolution brought on by a unity of women. While the following quote can be found in a nineteen-seventies classic “Anarchism and the Feminist Connection,” “The development of sisterhood is a unique threat, for it is directed against the basic social and psychic model of hierarchy and domination...” it has become clear that sisterhood alone is not a threat to hierarchy and domination. The logical conclusion of any type of feminism should not be to simply seek equality between each woman to her race/class male counterpart, leaving other inequalities in place. More explicit in anarcha-feminism is that a focus on gender oppression is not at the expense of attention to other systems of power. While some of this is addressed by intersectionality, I am also interested in further questioning this concept of sisterhood, or more specifically, expanding what I will call the newer “woman question:” are we to continue to orient around an identity called “woman,” or should we instead oppose the power structures that have created this category to oppress us?
While many agree that anarchism opposes all hierarchy and oppression and therefore is against sexism and such, still necessary is a tendency in which gendered concerns are central. I propose that anarcha-feminism has two main and related principles specific to its emphasis on feminism: Everyone should have freedom from all that is coercive about gender (or gender stratum, see below), and everyone should have bodily autonomy--freedom from bodily harm, and the freedom to do, or not do, what they want with their bodies.
Rather than referring to patriarchy, I address coercion related to gender because gender oppression works in multi-dimensional and complex ways. Individuals may have a variety of experiences based on their body parts and functions, what gender they’re perceived to be (gender attribution), their gender presentation, their sexuality, and/or how well they conform to their imposed gender box- either based on their gender assignment or their gender inclination. Now of course this oppression is structured in this way primarily because of the gendered order in which men are deemed superior and women inferior, while enforcing this order maintains its strength.
The principle relating to bodily autonomy is multi-dimensional as well. It relates primarily though not always to a gendered manifestation of oppression. Not only does it refer to sexuality, consent, reproductive freedom, etc., but also to an ideal society in which we can make truly free choices, e.g. we should have the freedom to get liposuction, but we would ideally be free of any pressure to do so. Of course on a practical level the latter principle is incredibly complex as it relates to power dynamics, what justice looks like, and issues around technology, etc. The principle of bodily autonomy requires a bit more consideration of balancing individual freedom with collective freedom, as is important in the context of heated debates about such things as sex work, which I will not be addressing here. This balance should also apply to the debate on the ways defining “woman” impacts others’ freedom. These working principles ought to inform these debates.
Although I am not arguing that we must abandon concepts that refer to the real effects of gender oppression, I argue that the above working principles are preferable to identity politics. Identity politics tend to prioritize one particular type of oppression and harden the boundaries around the identity related to that oppression most often in the interest of gaining equal representation and participation in the system. As many have argued, this creates alliances where they shouldn’t be (e.g. cross-class), marginalizes intersections and complexities of identities, reinforces the identities and perhaps therefore the oppression, and strengthens loyalty to the system when assimilation is a strategy. The type of power sought to balance out inequalities is often not questioned.
Anarcha-feminism--or perhaps it is a queer anarcha-feminism--is not identity politics as long as its aim is to destroy the gender categories rather than perpetuate them. I argue that we can center the above principles, and oppose gender oppression without getting caught up in boundaries of identity. The point is to oppose and acknowledge the power structures and their very real effects, but to not create or reinforce our identities around our oppressions.
Anarcha-feminism and Gender: new ideas
As safer spaces and separatism have been discussed as responses to sexism and sexual violence, it has become clear that these issues are not so clear-cut. We know that abuse can occur between two women for example. We know that women’s groups or spaces are not necessarily free from hierarchy simply because they are free of men (as discussed by various feminists of color, as well as Jo Freeman’s “The Tyranny of Structurelessness”). Spaces created by feminists to be safer or simply to allow better focus on gender oppression, have increasingly encountered the difficulty with where, if anywhere, to draw a line between the gender categories. More importantly are the implications of drawing that line if it means excluding trans people and ignoring our common struggles. The Michigan Women’s Music Festival has been a classic contemporary example of the controversy around spaces only for “womyn-born-womyn.” This became a topic in zines and online forums, something I encountered on a radical cheer listserv around 2001. At this point, whether because of the increased visibility and presence of trans people in anarchist and feminist spaces, an influence of queer theory, or for other reasons, it is more common in these spaces over the past few years in the U.S. and some other countries for trans people to be included now more than ever, even though some involvement by trans folks in anarcha-feminism in the 1970’s has been documented. Currently it is simply assumed in most cases, along with the expectation of respecting one’s gender pronouns, that women’s spaces are for women- in which trans women are included, or there are spaces for women and all trans folks, although the process of defining these can be problematic as well.
In terms of theory, anarchist feminists have not until more recently addressed the gender binary as such. They have addressed gender roles and biological determinism, but have not criticized the concept of the sexes as binary, mutually-exclusive political/social categories whose meanings have been made significant over time. This is changing.
One need not read Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble to understand the concerns with politically orienting around the identity of woman, although her influence cannot be denied. Among the questions raised by Butler we might gain from asking: “Is the construction of the category of women as a coherent and stable subject an unwitting regulation and reification of gender relations? And is not such a reification precisely contrary to feminist aims?... The identity of the feminist subject ought not to be the foundation of feminist politics, if the formation of the subject takes place within a field of power regularly buried through the assertion of that foundation.”
Within feminism, “women” sometimes refers to those whose sex is female, although confusion can somewhat be allayed by using the term “woman” to refer to gender, while “female” refers to sex. However, distinguishing gender from sex tends to establish sex as an actuality on which the construct is based. I believe it is about time we incorporate into our understanding the ways in which sex is gendered. In the absence of anarcha-feminist theory about the origins of gender oppression, I pull some ideas together from various perspectives. Although I have qualms about the approach and am not interested in limiting analysis to materialism, I find it useful to understand construction of gender categories to an extent from that of French Materialist Feminists Christine Delphy, Monique Wittig and Collette Guillaumin. Although Delphy acknowledges that there’s only so much we can know, she writes,
“For most people… anatomical sex (and its physical implications) creates, or at least permits, gender—the technical division of labour. This in turn creates, or at least permits, the domination of one group by another. We believe, however, that it is oppression which creates gender; that logically the hierarchy of the division of labour is prior to the technical division of labour and created the latter, i.e. created sex roles, which we call gender. Gender in its turn created anatomical sex, in the sense that the hierarchical division of humanity into two transforms an anatomical difference (which is in itself devoid of social implications) into a relevant distinction for social practice. Social practice, and social practice alone, transforms a physical fact (which is in itself devoid of meaning, like all physical facts) into a category of thought.”
Delphy and others suggested that the concept of woman only exists within a power relationship. Sex differences are not natural but naturalized. This diverges greatly from theories that maintain sex as a given. Some theorize that sex led to gender roles and/or that gender/sex oppression was the first form of hierarchy. But if we don’t take sex as a natural category, as a given, but instead a naturalized category, we can understand gender oppression and all that comes with it in a different light, and as something much more unstable.
Feminists understand gender as a social construct. But perceiving sex-as-gendered is a step beyond that, and has implications for how we should orient politically around an identity such as woman or female. Some may find it hard to argue with tangible differences; sex being considered the biological/anatomical/hormonal/genetic difference between humans, generally primarily corresponding to reproduction of the species. Yet rarely is it acknowledged that these do not always align (e.g. genetics and anatomy may not “match”) nor fall in only one of two categories. Examination of non-Western cultures and the rest of the animal kingdom also reveals many exceptions to Western thought’s dualistic concepts. While the reality of a general organization into two categories of different bodies and their reproductive function can be acknowledged, I believe that the significance and polarization of these differences is gendered; the categories naturalized out of political interests. For this reason, I often include sex with gender as a social construct--writing it as sex/gender, even though I see gender and sex as referring to different aspects of gender.
Whether the first form of hierarchy had anything to do with gender, that naturalization of gender hierarchy has had a cascade effect. Andrea Smith wrote, “…Heteropatriarchy is essential for the building of US empire. Patriarchy is the logic that naturalizes social hierarchy. Just as men are supposed to naturally dominate women on the basis of biology, so too should the social elites of a society naturally rule everyone else through the nation-state form of governance that is constructed through domination, violence and control.” In a speech, she said, “This is why in the history of Indian genocide the first task that colonizers took on was to integrate patriarchy into native communities. The primary tool used by colonists is sexual violence. What sexual violence does for colonialism and white supremacy is render women of color inherently rape-able, our lands inherently invadable, and our resources inherently extractable.”
In a sense, we can see this logic of conquest in the history of the construction of gender that was occurring during the witch hunts that essentially spelled out the defeat of women (European women, and then nearly all women through colonization/imperialism), as Silvia Federici describes in Caliban and the Witch. To summarize what I got out of the book, the witch hunts played a significant role in naturalizing gender/sex hierarchy by reinforcing divisions along lines of sex; functioned as counter-insurgency measures by breaking down solidarity along those lines among serfs/proletariat (in the transition to capitalism); justified exploitation (unpaid work in the home); increased dependence of women on men; and sought to control reproduction to increase the workforce by enforcing monogamy/marriage, heterosexuality, anti-abortion/birth control (accusations of causing infertility, infant death, impotence, etc.), and burning of queer folks (“faggots”/kindling). Women’s bodies were to some degree the new commons (for men) as enclosures increased. As such, women continued to lose bodily autonomy, and in the process were further coerced into specific gender roles (roles varied based on race and class). Although not the beginning nor the end of the naturalization process of gender oppression, this served as a sort of conquest over women, trans, queer people, and European peasantry in general (and then far beyond) as part of the transition to capitalism. It is inextricable from colonization of the “new world,” as well as the construction of whiteness.
In this context, we can see how important eradicating gender oppression is. If it is the case that without hierarchy bodily differences would have no meaning, then we would not want to reinforce these categories, but destroy them. Before we discuss this, I want to point out the implications of not specifying what we mean by “gender.”
Upon reflection, there appears to be a contradiction in seeking the destruction or abolition of gender, meanwhile building a culture of respecting everyone’s gender, pronouns, etc. Indeed, there are some radical feminists who advocate the former but, not seeing a place for trans people’s liberation (and in fact often finding it a threat), oppose the latter. I have determined that the problem lies in the ways in which gender is defined and understood. To many radical and materialist feminists, gender is only a relationship of power, therefore it must be destroyed. However, the concept of gender was borrowed by feminists from a psychologist who, in the late 1960’s, wrote about the phenomenon of transsexuals feeling “trapped in the wrong body.” Not to imply that one meaning is unrelated to the other, but it would seem that “gender” came to refer to different concepts while not seeming to.
Perceiving gender as only related to power as the French Materialist Feminists and other radical feminists do can and has lead to some transphobic bias. For this reason, I would like to propose two different terms for gender as a way to make sense of the vastly different concepts of gender. Gender stratum refers to the binary hierarchically-defined socially constructed categories- that which is coercive and related to power. Sex, being gendered, would be included by this term, as are gender assignment (or designation), gender roles, and to some degree gender attribution, some of the terms that Kate Bornstein has used to identify the multiple aspects of gender. Gender inclination is another term for what is generally referred to as gender identity but since identity is in question, I prefer this different term. I believe gender inclination would have different meaning in the absence of gender stratum, but I believe it is something distinct enough that it should not be lumped in with the other concept. Although the “trapped in the wrong body” concept has its problems, it shows that from its first use in relation to people (as opposed to language), the term “gender” did not necessarily have anything to do with power other than the fact that the concept comes from a gendered order of which the power-based naturalization process was concealed. After all, there are various ways of defining one’s gender which may be multi-layered, non-binary, and/or shifting through time. This is not to mention, as I discuss elsewhere, that the concepts “masculinity” and “femininity” have different meanings and can be understood to be separate from power relationships.
Using these terms, we can talk about the destruction or abolition of gender stratum, and promote the freedom of people to live out their gender inclination and have it respected. This is important when it comes to determining solutions for the problem of gender stratum- such proposals being androgyny, a proliferation of genders, and/or a negation of gender. But there is a potential for these to be coercive if the target of destruction is not specifically gender stratum. A truly liberatory position on gender/sex requires self-determination of gender inclination. Everyone’s experiences and sense of identity should be incorporated into an idea of what gender means.
More than just theory
Anarcha-feminism, in seeking an end to all domination with an emphasis on freedom of bodily autonomy and freedom from gender stratum demands a newer “woman question.” While some of this may seem rather theoretical, it can and should inform the way we approach gender oppression. We must fight for each person to be able to be who they are and to be able to participate equally in struggle, in decision-making, etc.. Using the working principles of bodily autonomy and freedom from gender stratum is a way to address gendered (but not always gendered) oppression without reinforcing boundaries around imposed categories and other problems of identity politics.
While I do not see a lot of utility in putting too much of an emphasis on language alone, it makes more sense to address issues within each context and use language that reflects the situation. For example, when referring to an issue that directly relates to pregnancy, one may refer to “people who are, will be, or were capable of becoming pregnant” rather than “women,” because of course not all women can or do get pregnant, and not only people who identify as women can or do get pregnant. Of course, as many women of color and others have discussed, assuming that something like pregnancy or having a uterus creates unity or “sisterhood” among those who share that, is inaccurate, essentialist, if not at times racist in practice. Rather than the typical white middle-class-centered approach of mainstream feminism, the working principles I discuss also allow for an approach to a wide range of factors relating to such things as pregnancy- one’s age, race, or citizenship/immigration status, whether one lives or works in areas where they’re exposed to toxic chemicals (which is more likely in poor communities of color) which affects fertility and survival of the fetus or child, whether one lives in the context of war, whether one is on welfare, whether one is living as their assigned or designated sex, whether they’re partnered and with whom and how. All of this factors into whether someone is encouraged or discouraged from having a child, and whether they are even capable of choosing one way or the other, not to mention the actual experiences--sometimes trauma--of birth, sterilization, abortion, or taking birth control, depending on the context. In the face of this, the standard feminist demand for access to birth control and abortion falls flat. Of course what I’m getting at is not that fertility, pregnancy, and reproduction are the prime example around which bodily autonomy revolves, but that we can see how those which aren’t automatically considered feminist issues, such as the health problems related to exposure to toxins also have to do with bodily autonomy whether they affect fertility or not. While approaching issues this way seems much more difficult than the simplicity provided by identity politics, using the working principles discussed above allows for us to see the ways that capitalism, the state, and the very real effects of the social constructs of race and gender intersect or share similarities.
Beyond drawing together similar struggles based on these working principles, it is necessary to recognize the significance of this construct called “woman” that was created in many ways as a cage.
Plainly, as long as we understand sex as two natural categories, there remains little to no room for intesex, transgender, and all other people who don’t fit neatly into those categories. And while feminists have found it useful to call gender what it is, a social construct, gender is considered to generally correlate with sex, and as long as the sex is seen as one of two mutually exclusive rigid categories and the legit counterpart to gender the construct, we may never be released from the confines of gender.
Now, to what extent is increased freedom in terms of gender transgression and sexuality accommodated because of the shifting needs of capitalism and the state rather than the struggles of feminists, queers, and trans people over the years? And to what extent are the efforts of the latter on the part of predominantly white and middle-class people? These questions should be considered as we move forward.
“What about teh menz?” is a relevant question in the following context. The gender roles assigned to men are important for maintaining a culture of domination. For any anarchist to believe that we could live free of hierarchy requires the belief that there isn’t anything intrinsic in men that makes them the natural oppressor. This differs from some other feminisms which refer to essentialized male ways of being or thinking which are seemingly incorrigible. Anarchists and others such as prison-abolitionists believe that there is nothing natural to one group or another (such as men of color) that makes them more inclined to violence, otherwise state-based forms of “justice” may seem necessary and justified. bell hooks argues that it might be counterproductive to refer to men having privilege--that not being able to be in touch with one’s emotions and not being able to have equal relationships (something that has been imposed, not natural) is not liberatory, therefore men must also see the struggle against gender oppression as theirs as well. It is not that they don’t benefit, but the benefits come with costs even while it is significant that they are able to ignore the costs. This is not to say that we should have sympathy with men who choose to continue to play out the role of domination. However, the rejection on the part of many women of color of separatism and misandry (not to imply that there is a consensus on this) speaks to a need for other understandings of possibility.
The belief that men are natural oppressors also legitimizes women’s participation in domination (e.g. white supremacy). On the flipside, militant resistance to the state and capital is in some cases characterized as belonging to man the oppressor, and therefore condemned, even if a woman participates in it.
Anarcha-feminism is a specific type of feminism and a specific type of anarchism that is critical of power relationships, particularly those that are gendered. Take or leave the term “feminism” with all its baggage and relationship to identity politics. It seems useful however to use a term that points to gender oppression as something that anarchism doesn’t tend to address in practice. We are in a new position, compared to the anarcha-feminists like Peggy Kornegger before us, to move beyond the idea that sex is a given- that it’s women against men. What is necessary now for anarcha-feminism is the destruction of gender stratum while recognizing the real and complex effects of the gender construct, along with the opposition to state and capitalism.
Originally published in Quiet Rumours: An Anarcha-Feminist Reader, 3rd Edition, AK Press, 2012
 Mary Daly quoted in Peggy Kornegger, “Anarchism and the Feminist Connection.” (1975) From anarchalibrary.blogspot.com/2010/09/anarchism-feminist-connection-1975.html (accessed February 6, 2012). Somehow Daly did not see transphobia as incompatible with hierarchy and domination. In “Politicizing Gender: Moving toward revolutionary gender politics”, Carolyn writes, “In Gyn/Ecology, Mary Daly reasons that transsexuals want to destroy the burgeoning women's community, stating, ‘their whole presence becomes a member invading women's presence and dividing us once more from each other.’ Daly also supported Janice Raymond’s anti-trans book “Transsexual Empire” http://anarchalibrary.blogspot.com/2010/09/politicizing-gender-moving-toward.html
 I would note that “bisexual” often denotes a binary, and thus does not necessarily upset gender, but pointing to the recuperative nature of the power structure, Paula Rust wrote, “Thus lesbianism was initially constructed as a challenge to gender. But once ‘woman’ was reconstructed to include ‘lesbian’, lesbians became part of the prevailing gender structure. In effect, lesbianism was co-opted into gender and ceased to be a challenge to it. Furthermore, the rise of cultural feminism reified rather than challenged gender, maximized rather than minimized the differences between women and men, and created a concept of lesbianism that was dependent on the preservation of gender… Given lesbians’ initial challenge to gender, one might expect bisexuals’ efforts to break down gender to be well received among lesbians. But because of the change in the relationship of lesbianism to gender..., bisexuals’ contemporary challenge to gender is also a threat to lesbianism.” Paula Rust, “Bisexual Politics,” reprinted in Judith Lorber, Gender Inequality, Feminist Theories and Politics, (Roxbury Publishing Co., 1998), 93-94.
 See also the following essays printed in Pink and Black Attack: “Identity, Politics, and Anti-politics: A critical perspective” (2010) http://anarchalibrary.blogspot.com/2011/09/identity-politics-and-anti-politics.html , “No Gods No Sponsors: Pride and the problem of assimilation” (2009) http://anarchalibrary.blogspot.com/2011/09/no-gods-no-sponsors-pride-and-problem.html
 On the Edge of All Dichotomies: Anarch@-Feminist Thought, Process and Action, 1970-1983 (2009) http://wesscholar.wesleyan.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1355&context=etd_hon_theses 80-81. see also http://anarchalibrary.blogspot.com/2010/09/on-edge-of-all-dichotomies-anarch.html
 See “Politicizing Gender: Moving toward revolutionary gender politics” (circa 1993) http://anarchalibrary.blogspot.com/2010/09/politicizing-gender-moving-toward.html, “The Anarchy of Queer (2006)” http://anarchalibrary.blogspot.com/2010/10/anarchy-of-queer-2006-zine.html, “Strengthening Anarchism's Gender Analysis” (2009) http://anarchalibrary.blogspot.com/2010/10/strengthening-anarchisms-gender.html, “Thoughts on Developing Anarchist Queer Theory” (2010) http://anarchalibrary.blogspot.com/2011/03/thoughts-on-developing-anarchist-queer.html, “Towards An Insurrectionary Transfeminism” (2010) http://anarchalibrary.blogspot.com/2010/10/towards-insurrectionary-transfeminism.html
 Judith Butler. Gender Trouble. (1990): 6
 See Namascar Shaktini, On Monique Wittig. (2005), Christine Delphy. Close to Home. (1984), Wittig, Monique. “One is Not Born a Woman” (1981) printed in The Straight Mind (1992), 6. http://zinelibrary.info/one-not-born-woman-monique-wittig, Delphy, Christine. “Rethinking Sex and Gender.” (1993), Stevi Jackson. Christine Delphy. (1996), Guillaumin, Colette (1995). Racism, sexism, power, and ideology.
 Christine Delphy. Close to Home. (1984): 1
 See Bruce Bagemihl. Biological Exuberance. (1999). and Joan Roughgarden. Evolution’s Rainbow. (2004)
 “By heteropatriarchy, I mean the way our society is fundamentally based on male dominance—dominance inherently built on a gender binary system that presumes heterosexuality as a social norm.” Andrea Smith, “Dismantling Hierarchy, Queering Society”, Tiqqun Magazine (July/August 2010). From www.tikkun.org/article.php/july2010smith (accessed February 6, 2012)
 Andrea Smith, “Indigenous Feminism without Apology.” (2006) http://www.awid.org/eng/Issues-and-Analysis/Library/Indigenous-feminism-without-apology-Decentering-white-feminism.
 US Social Forum 2007, Liberating Gender and Sexuality Plenary, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x5crWlrksZs (accessed January 28, 2012).
 Silvia Federici. Caliban and the Witch. (2004)
 I examine this more thoroughly in “When Feminism is Revolting” (2012) http://anarchalibrary.blogspot.com/2012/02/when-feminism-is-revolting-initial.html
 “In hir book, My Gender Workbook, Kate Bornstein characterizes gender's components as fourfold: gender assignment, gender role, gender identity, and gender attribution. Gender assignment is what the doctor calls you at birth, so it can be written off as a description of sex (Bornstein reserves the word sex for sex acts so as to circumvent Essentialist argumentation). Gender role is described as what culture thinks your niche should be, while gender identity is totally subjective. Gender attribution refers to how another person might interpret your gender cues.” Stephe Feldmen, “Components of Gender,” http://androgyne.0catch.com/components.htm (accessed January 28, 2012). I find Bornstein’s terms useful, but not adequate for dealing with issues of power.
 “When Feminism is Revolting” (2012) http://anarchalibrary.blogspot.com/2012/02/when-feminism-is-revolting-initial.html
 For example, bell hooks distinguishes “patriarchal masculinity” from other forms of masculinity. See also “When Feminism is Revolting” (2012) http://anarchalibrary.blogspot.com/2012/02/when-feminism-is-revolting-initial.html
 See Emi Koyama, “Transfeminist Manifesto.” (2000) From eminism.org/readings/pdf-rdg/tfmanifesto.pdf (accessed February 6, 2012); Michelle O’Brien, “Trans Liberation and Feminism: Self-Determination, Healthcare, and Revolutionary Struggle.” (2003) From anarchalibrary.blogspot.com/2010/09/trans-liberation-and-feminism-self.html (accessed February 6, 2012); and Carolyn, “Politicizing Gender: Moving toward Revolutionary Gender Politics.” From www.spunk.org/texts/pubs/lr/sp001714/gender.html (accessed February 6, 2012).
 "What about teh menz" is written in internet slang popularized by lolcats memes which are often grammatically incorrect. this has become a feminist trope used to bring to light the constant intrusions of men bringing men's problems when feminism is being discussed. Noah Brand and Ozy Frantz writes, "persistent conversation-derailers have succeeded in making a bad name for themselves, and given rise to the “what about teh menz?” trope as a boilerplate dismissal of these tired distractions from the addressing of women’s issues that is the raison d’être of most feminist communities." http://goodmenproject.com/featured-content/what-about-the-men-chapter-1-introduction-and-principles/
 bell hooks, Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center. (1984): 73-75.
 I discuss this further in “Gender Sabotage.” Queering Anarchism. Forthcoming from AK Press.