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Thursday, September 23, 2010

Women and Anarchism (2004)


Anarchist movements are some of the most radical social movements today. These are the movements looking for a completely new society, one without capitalism, without leaders and based on direct democracy. Our movements model themselves on our ideal societies, with a non-hierarchical structure, and everyone being theoretically equal. I want to look at one of the inequalities, specifically those of women within these groups, based on my own experience in Ireland. These groups all share the same leaderless structure and consensus based decision-making process and ideologies, which are designed to be inclusive. But if women felt they were treated equally, there would be no such thing as anarcha-feminism. All anarchists should be feminists, as equality is part of anarchist ideology. But it is clear from the numbers of women in our organisations, in our community, that something is wrong. Women form their own groups as many feel they are not taken seriously and so-called “women’s issues” are not seen as political. At the Dublin Grassroots Gathering in 2004 there were gender circles, workshops with separate spaces for men, women, and transgender people to talk separately about gender issues, and there have been more of these discussions since. The same questions seem to come up again and again, such as why women don’t talk as much as men at meetings and why there are fewer women involved. Having these discussions is important but it is only one step towards solving the problem. Many, usually men, refuse to even take this first step; they see these discussions as side issues and don’t feel they are important. I would argue that they are important, not just for women, but for men too and certainly for the anarchist movement as a whole.
As happens within mainstream political parties, questions of why there are not more women involved are raised sporadically in libertarian groups, but not really addressed. We need to avoid replicating problems that exist in the current political system if we are to hope for a real alternative. Women are almost always a minority in anarchist groups, and the feeling of being in a “male” environment can be intimidating for women. For some it is not intimidating but in this male environment there is a need to behave in a masculine way to participate fully. I have never really found it hard to participate and express myself at meetings, but maybe having two brothers helped. But I have often felt that my views and priorities are not reflected in anarchist circles. I have grown to recognise that fewer women speak at meetings and that women’s issues are secondary, if addressed at all. Women are socialised into being less aggressive and competitive Character traits that are encouraged and valued in female children are not the traits that get you places in politics. Anarchist politics has not avoided this problem. Women take it upon themselves to form groups that prioritise issues neglected by the larger libertarian movement, or just to get their voices heard. One simple answer to why there are not many women involved is firstly, that politics, even radical politics do not respect and recognise so-called “women’s issues”, and secondly, that in these political groups, women themselves are not always respected and recognised.
Money, time and effort are finite resources and have to be allocated to specific projects. For example, issues tackled by the libertarian community include environmental issues, worker’s rights, anti racism movements, anti-war campaigns, opposition to the G8 summits among others, but rarely do large groups of libertarians mobilise for “women’s issues”. These decisions may be seen as gender neutral but in fact are simply supporting the priorities of a male dominated group without questioning. The pro-life groups in Dublin have large numbers of men involved but the pro-choice groups are made up almost solely of women. This would imply that more men can justify controlling women than actively fighting for their liberation. Large marches have been organised in the last few years to oppose racist attacks but none to oppose rape. Although there are many reasons for this, one is certainly the unease people feel about dealing with issues within the private sphere (the body, the home, friends, family). This is reinforced in Ireland by the law and the constitution pushing the idea of minimal interference in what goes on behind closed doors, often to the detriment of many people’s lives, especially women and children. The phrase “the personal is political” (which comes from the women’s movement in the 1960s) needs to be reapplied here as women take it upon themselves to form groups that prioritise issues neglected by the larger libertarian movement. It makes no sense that domestic violence and sexual violence are seen as “women’s issues” when the majority of this violence is carried out by men. It takes two to get pregnant, but who pushes the abortion issue? The private sphere is not limited to women only but many women’s subordination occurs within the private sphere. The problem with this is that issues which are seen as private are not seen as political. The Grassroots Gathering principles state specifically that women should receive equal recognition in order not to reproduce “feelings of disempowerment and alienation within our own network”. However, it seems to me that women are tolerated but not fully embraced within this and similar groups. There is little time given to discussion of gender and socialisation within many organisations, and there is a distinct reluctance to address the problems women experience.
Another problem is that anarchists feel we are enlightened and no longer carry racist, sexist or any other prejudice. In fact we all carry these prejudices from childhood, through social conditioning, and only by addressing them can we begin to deal with them. This is not about “feeling guilty”, this is about changing. We are brought up in a racist, sexist, homophobic world, how are we so special that we are not affected by it? Did we not all watch similar cartoons, listen to similar music, live in similar families to the unenlightened masses? Anarchist groups need to take some time to address these issues, to be self reflective. The idea that we look inwards too much has come up to silence these problems, I never know how to react because it seems so insane to me. It’s like a backlash against something that never happened in the first place. Anarchist groups rarely take the time for self examination, it is something that can and should be incorporated into everything we do. If women do not feel their opinions, their way of expressing themselves, their issues are valued in the same way as men's within anarchist groups there will continue to be less women involved. This is a major problem, not just for women but for anarchism. At gatherings someone will bring it up and there will be a sigh. “Why cant women just be more assertive?” Thus the blame is placed on women when these questions arise. But why can’t the decision-making process, the issues, the character traits that are valued, be those belonging to women, as well as those of men?
Often there is a macho culture around anarchism that many women, including myself, feel alienated from. At marches and demos, at meetings, at almost every event, it’s a matter of who can shout loudest, be most confrontational or angry, and who can be most aggressive. There is also the question of who can devote the most time to politics, and women are more likely to have family or care commitments (although this shouldn’t be the case, it is). These issues bring about disempowerment not only for women, but for many men who cannot or do not want to live up to this macho stereotype. Much of the learning involved in libertarian groups involves skill sharing which I think is a great way to learn. People teach from their experience and no one is seen as “expert”. This is a very equal and interactive way of learning and I think that events such as the Grassroots Gatherings, which focus mainly on these practical approaches, have a more gender-balanced attendance. Although many of the workshops, like the actions, have a male focus, there is room for women to put on our own workshops. However in actions where physical work is involved, women seem to be in the background. This is both because women cannot identify with the unnecessary machismo involved in some anarchist actions, and because they do not feel empowered to take part. Often male-dominated cliques can form within the main group. These cliques are sometimes based on knowledge (for example on who has read more political theory, who knows the secret location of the action), or on risk (who is more willing to risk arrest or danger). As women are socialised to be less competitive many have little interest in these games and feel left out of these cliques. To avoid these cliques we must address their existence and discuss ways to minimise their effect on the group.
Men within the libertarian community often connect capitalism with patriarchy; saying when capitalism falls patriarchy will follow. I have heard feminism referred to as a red herring, distracting from the “real issue” of class politics, but subordination of women predates capitalism and crosses all societies and classes worldwide, and is not intrinsically linked to capitalism. We can see for example, from reports from women during the Spanish civil war, that even in this time, (looked to by anarchists as an ideal time) women did not experience freedom, as women’s problems and oppression were not completely tied to the production of resources (Ackelsberg, Free Women of Spain). Workers controlled their production and organised into unions and worked co-operatively, but the male bias here is clear once we scratch the surface. One example is when work for textile industries done from home was banned in order to make it easier to unionise these women. They moved into factories and could no longer look after their children or the house as they worked. Women’s burdens were in fact increased as they took on the added work as wage earners and political activists on top housework, which was not shared. One woman is quoted as saying “inside their own homes, [men] forgot completely about women’s struggle.” Women had to set up their own group, Mujeres Libres to fight separately for women, for anarchism and yet against their fellow anarchists! The idea of freedom for workers and worker’s rights alone is problematic for women if work in the home continues to be undervalued as it is not seen as part of the economic system, and if it continues to be “women’s work”. Problems will always arise if we look at the world as though it were gender-blind and as though we are too.
I do think that there is a lot of love, care and solidarity within the libertarian community in Dublin, with people working closely together over long periods of time. However, in difficult times communities like these can split when there are problems within. I have been involved, most recently in a protest camp, in talking about “safer (or positive) spaces policies”. The workshops try to highlight possible problems with safety that could arise, such as sexual assaults, violence and conflict within communities. The aim is to show the need for policies to be in place before issues arise. I found that some men are very hostile to these and feel attacked as soon as sexual assault is mentioned. They are far less willing than women to show support for survivors of sexual assault. It is so hard to see rape myths surface in the mouths of those you believe to be willing to change the world. Many of those who feel the need to react do so with suggestions of violence. Once again people are reluctant to look at something considered “private” as being part of politics. Yet challenging how you have been socialised is one of the most political and radical things you can do. It is mainly through the formation of women's support groups that these issues are challenged within activist communities in the US and it seems it will be the same here. There are men however who believe that it is also up to men to tackle issues of men's violence and try to prevent it, so hopefully segregation along gender lines on this issue can be prevented.
In libertarian organisations each person has more power and influence over the actions of the group than in other groups with a more hierarchical structure, so people feel more empowered and able to express their views. However saying in a group’s principles that women should feel empowered to speak and contribute equally is not enough to make it actually happen. Peggy Kornegger states in her article Anarchism: The Feminist Connection, that “Anarchist men have been little better than males everywhere in their subjection of women”. She gives this as a reason for women to form their own groups and she calls for anarcha-feminist revolution. Kornegger and other anarcha-feminist writers of her time call on feminists to realise they are anarchists, they have the same beliefs but do not label them as anarchism. I think it is equally important to call on all anarchists to realise they should be feminists. Instead of feeling threatened by women having the same power in decision-making, men should see that this is essential for a libertarian socialist society. Paying lip service to the idea of empowering women is not enough, and unless these issues are discussed no progress will be made. Women often seek and find power through working together but this also needs to feed back into mixed groups, which takes effort from all involved. Power relations are not always drawn along gender lines and many men who do not meet the ideal of what masculinity is supposed to be are also sidelined. So we need to challenge all gender stereotypes and our own prejudices, by bringing them into the open, in order to achieve equality of power. Although a group may do everything it can to fight against outside inequalities it is also important for groups to look at their own, usually unconscious, behaviour and confront it.
Bibliography/ Suggested Reading:
Acklesberg, Martha A. Free Women in Spain. (1991) (Bloomington: Indiana University Press)
Baker et al. (2004) Equality: From Theory to Action. Hampshire: (Palgrave Macmillan)
Freeman, Jo. (1974) “The Tyranny of Structurelessness”. In Women in politics (1974) ed. Jane.L Jaquette (New York: Wiley)
Kornegger, Peggy (1975) “Anarchism, The Feminist Connection” in Quiet Rumours: An Anarcha-feminist reader (2002) Ed. Dark Star (San Francisco: AK Press)


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