Versions of Freedom: Multiple Connections; Anarchisms and Feminisms, Michelle Fraser

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Author: Michelle Fraser, in Versions of Freedom, 1996, Visions of Freedom Collective (eds)
Originally Published: 1996
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Michelle Fraser

This paper is an attempt to bring together anarchist and feminist ideas in a way which reflects the potential that each set of political ideas/methods/values have to complement one another. This is no mean feat, as both feminism and anarchism are broad categories of political thought and action. A wide range of individuals who often differ in positions on many basic issues are attracted to these movements. Feminism since the 1970’s has taken a number of different paths in its approach to social change, these approaches vary in terms of revolutionary potential. Although no-one would doubt that anarchism is revolutionary in nature, it is not necessarily a unified political theory. There are a variety of different types of anarchism such as anarcho-syndicalism anarchist-communism and eco-anarchism. These names usually reflect the differences in strategies and priorities that each style of anarchism takes in a similar way to the labels which feminism has developed. The major categories that have been used to define different forms of feminism to date are; radical, liberal (which I do not intend to discuss) and socialist feminism. More recently post structural feminism has emerged as an approach to feminism which has the potential to influence all of these categories. It is arguably a very useful form of feminism when aligned with an anarchist lifestyle. What I intend to do is highlight some of the ways in which self defined anarcha-feminists have so far approached the project of integrating their own forms of anarchism and feminism. I will also contribute some ideas about how current feminist theory and practice can contribute to the anarchist vision.

One point I would like to emphasise in discussing the above feminist categories is that they can be misleading. It is useful to know what each of these names generally represent and how they contribute to social change, but most feminists do not sit wholly in one category or another. Many feminists, particularly those influenced by anarchism are eclectic, taking some ideas from each of these feminisms. This is why you can get a group of women together who all see themselves as both anarchists and feminists and yet they disagree significantly over many basic issues.

My first step in this task is to offer a brief overview of what anarchism is likely to represent to those attracted to its principles. One of the main contentions of anarchism is its objection to the power currently exercised through conventional politics. It rejects any higher form of rule, authority or government than that which proceeds directly from the governed themselves.

“anarchism is the doctrine which contends that the government is the source of most our social troubles and that there are viable alternative forms of social organisation.” (Woodcock 1977, p.11)

In practice, anarchism places value upon creating social structures that reject hierarchies and foster both individuality and collectivity. It also favours a range of other social features, such as egalitarianism, voluntarism, decentralism and mutual aid. As I have already contended, there are differing forms of anarchism, which can reflect differences in modes of association , such as the difference between anarcho-syndicalism and its basis in urban settings and the trade-union movement and eco-anarchism, which advocates small-scale, decentralised communities and cooperation and harmony with nature. Anarchism as a political theory is unusual in its ability to encompass both `post modernist’ propensities and many values of liberal individualism (Pepper 1994, pp. 154-155). These features of anarchism reflect its diversity as a political movement and potential complexity. Anarchism’s strength is particularly as a theory of organisation as well as a range of utopian visions and ideals about how society could be in the future. The attention that practicing anarchists pay to living their politics through lifestyles such as squatting , communal living, using alternative trading systems and activism is paralleled in some feminist circles, and is embodied in the phrase “The personal is political”.

“The personal is political” is the most well known slogan of the feminist movement, and is one of the founding assumptions of contemporary feminist theory and practice. The basis of this slogan is that much of what women experience as oppression is constituted in her personal experience of human relationships. It goes beyond the values of a liberal society, which assert that women may become “equal” to men through legislative change and equal participation in the public sphere (which is what liberal feminism aims to achieve). This slogan has also been taken up by other radical movements and bears much relevance to how anarchist people choose to live their lives. The well-known anarchist Emma Goldman was writing about women’s emancipation from an anarchist perspective in the early twentieth century, long before this slogan was taken up, yet much of what she was saying reflected this concern. She states in her article on Woman Suffrage that women are misled to demand equal rights in American society, as freedom and equality in a state system is an illusion (1969 version, p.p.196-198). Her argument is ultimately that women need to develop their freedom and independence themselves, rather than relying on the state system. As this was long before there was any notion of “consciousness raising” and women sharing their experiences to identify common oppression, she was unable to provide the “nitty-gritty” of how this was to be done. Her contribution lies in the recognition that women cannot gain true emancipation simply by joining an oppressive system. This viewpoint was taken up again in the 1970’s by radical and socialist feminists.

Radical feminism has been identified as a feminist approach that critiques society in terms of anarchist ideals (Kornegger, 1975,p.32). It focuses on patriarchy as the most oppressive feature of society. All other inequalities can be seen in terms of men’s desire to control women. The nature of patriarchy is to define women as the `other’ and all qualities categorised as feminine and the way in which women experience the world are denigrated as second-rate to men. Social institutions are regarded as having been created by men to foster their interests. Seen in these terms, all relationships in society and social institutions must be radically altered to realise the true liberation of women. Social hierarchy and authoritarianism are rejected as male forms of control and oppression. Radical feminists have consequently developed strategies to create alternatives. Women are urged to create new structures and forms of organisation which permit women to work together in non-exploitative ways.

This form of feminism has been strongly linked to anarchism as it critiques many of the same social structures and institutions and offers a similar approach to radical social change. Peggy Kornegger has made these links in her article “Anarchism: the feminist connection”. She believes that women frequently speak and act as “intuitive” anarchists, women’s impulses toward collective work and small, leaderless groups are anarchistic, but in most cases have not been called by that name (1971, p.33). From an explicitly anarchist position she suggests that women can lead the way to revolution

It is women who now hold the key to new conceptions of revolution, women who realise that revolution can no longer mean the seizure of power or the domination of one group over another – under any circumstances, for any length of time. It is domination itself that must be abolished …The presence of hierarchy and authoritarian mind-set threatens our human and planetary existence. Global liberation and libertarian politics have become necessary, not just utopian pipe dreams. (1975 p.31).

Kornegger is particularly concerned with using anarchist tactics and methods in the ongoing struggle for revolution. She outlines three important areas/strategies for change;
1) educational (sharing of ideas and experiences),
2) economic/political, the realm of direct action and “purposeful illegality” and
3) personal/political, which is vitally connected to the previous two strategies and may take the organisational form of the anarchist affinity group.

This approach is very successful in bringing together feminism and anarchism to the enhancement of one other, approaching both the realms of visions and process.
Some aspects of radical feminist politics, which flourished in the 1970’s , have become unfashionable due to newer feminist influences and theories. Despite this current re-assessment of radical feminism among women of all feminist colours ( including many anarchist women) it has contributed much to radical social movements generally and anarchism in particular.

Current criticisms of radical feminism are mainly concerning two assumptions of this style of feminism. The first is that it assumes that there is an “essential” femininity that is repressed under patriarchy and can only be reclaimed through the empowerment of women involving complete separation from male culture. The second criticism is that this form of feminism prioritizes gender over other forms of social oppression such as race, class, sexual preference and assumes that all women are unified in their priorities and ultimately, visions. Many women have rejected this type of feminism because they have found it too proscriptive and simplistic. Anarchist women currently tend to be more diverse in their feminist politics. Most would still be committed to the forms of organisation and tactics that were put forward by women like Kornegger in the 1970’s, but many are now influenced by ideas which have been called “socialist feminism” and “post structural feminism”.

Anarchists are often suspicious of socialism. This is because socialists tend to believe that the state can be used as a tool to create an egalitarian, utopian society, which is of course, rejected by anarchists. On the other hand, socialism is a term which has been used in relation to anarchism, for example the term “libertarian socialist”. Socialist feminism is useful to anarchists in that it provides a strong critique of gender relationships which has at its basis the assumption that gender is socially constructed. This theory focuses on radical social change as a solution to current gender inequalities. Anarchists would tend to agree with this proposition although they would not agree with the solutions that socialism proposes. The other important feature of this type of feminism, is that it does not prioritise gender inequalities over race and class inequalities. It sees all of these forms of oppression as equally valid and moves away from the radical feminist belief that all oppression is created through patriarchy (although patriarchy is still considered a vital issue). Feminism has tended to move more in this direction as it has been criticised by women of colour for being racist and prioritising white women’s issues over those of black women. Strong connections can be made between these understandings in feminism and anarchist thought. Recently there have been attempts by anarchists to develop theoretical models which pay attention to the complex dynamics of race, sex class and authority (and many other forms of oppression) , with the intention of creating strategies for social change. Liberating Theory (1986) is one attempt by female and male anarchists to do this. It makes a strong point very early on that “…activist theory must help its advocates overcome their own oppressive socialisation’s.” (p. 5 1986) It is this emphasis on socialisation and the individual’s responsibility to look at themselves as well as society that is prominent in both of these approaches.

Anarchist individualism is often regarded (by anarchists) as differing from conventional `liberal” individualism in that it recognises the importance of taking responsibility for one’s actions. Anarchist women are demanding that the men within this movement examine their own behaviour and actions and how it contributes to male privilege in their own social situation. Feminism has provided a clearer understanding of the ways in which women are systematically oppressed by men. There are many examples of how anarchist men continue to disregard their own advantages and the ways in which they dominate events. At the recent conference in Sydney (1995) there was much dissatisfaction with the attitudes of men towards the concerns of women attending. Women often feel trivialised in these situations and men often choose not to take responsibility for the subtle ways in which women are silenced or ignored. Despite the popularity of the only workshop that dealt with feminism (60+ people attended), women left the conference angry and frustrated. This is not an isolated incident. In a recent report of an anarchist conference in London in Bad Attitude (Issue 7, 1995) “Manarchy in the UK” the writer says

“the overall experience I and many other women had was that much of the organisation and many of the male participants were gender blind. Dismantling patriarchy is one of the revolutionary issues, surely? “

The problem continues to be that gender relations are such that women experience oppression within all social movements which include male participants. Explanations as to why this continues to be the case have been offered to some extent by the previously mentioned feminist approaches. Currently there are important developments in feminism which are dealing more and more with the intricacies of gender relations, power and notions of “human nature” which anarchism can learn a great deal from. Post structural feminism is largely a consequence of the broader philosophical movement called post structuralism (also called post modernism) . This approach to feminism is the result of a combination of forces, the first being the “identity crisis” which feminism has suffered in recent years due to the growing awareness of the range of differing and often contradictory needs and identities which have been expressed by women. There is a strong history of feminists of very different political positions coming together on single issue campaigns which are seen as central to most women’s experience. An example of this situation is in the area of reproductive rights where access to abortion has long been regarded as a key issue. This focus on abortion as the most important issue for all women has been criticised by black women and lesbians as both racist and hetero sexist. This is because it is regarded as privileging the concerns of some (white and heterosexual) women over others. Black women and lesbians may in fact be more concerned with changing social policies which discriminate against their choice to have children. Thus white women may want access to abortion , black women may want to end sterilisation programs imposed upon them (through racist social engineering) and lesbians may want access to sperm clinics (which are often only accessible to middle-class, “nuclear” families). The result of these conflicts is that feminists are now asking the question, what is a woman? It seems that fighting for anything under the banner ” women” has become outmoded.

The second significant area of influence for post structural feminism is the area of French theory, which includes Foucault and his theories of power and subjectivity. His ideas have been influential to feminism as they are particularly useful in explaining power relations between men and women and other non-institutionalised (ie. non-state) power imbalances. Power is regarded as positive and negative in that it exists in all human exchanges and is not in itself a possession, it is also seen to be very hidden in these exchanges. His theory has also been used to examine how our subjectivities are constructed; it looks at how we rebel and how we comply to social forces and examines how change comes about.

Post structural feminism is also influenced by semiotics, particularly de Saussure’s theory of the sign, which identifies two components of the sign : signifier (sound or written image) and signified (meaning). The two components are related to each other in an arbitrary way and the meaning of the sign is not fixed but rather relational. Each sign derives its meaning from its difference from other signs in the language chain. The signifier `whore’ for example does not have an intrinsic meaning except through its difference to other signifiers of womanhood, such as `virgin’ and `mother’. Language is also understood as being constituted through competing discourses (which are competing ways of giving meaning to the world) and of organising social institutions and processes. An example of this is the way in which the actions of a political activist can be labelled by the powerful legal discourse as `criminal’, with all the negative connotations attached while at the same time being regarded as committed, noble or just by the activist’s peers. The terms `terrorist’ and `freedom fighter’ have very different connotations but may be used for the same person. These principles are important because they make language a social phenomenon and a site of political struggle (Weedon 1987, p. 23). Feminist post structuralism takes the further step in its use of post structural theories of language, subjectivity , social processes and institutions, in its commitment to understanding existing power relations and to identify areas and strategies for change.

This feminist approach (and in fact post structuralism generally) also challenges some deeply held anarchist beliefs about human nature. It is a move away from the liberal -humanist belief (which is the philosophy which has had the most influence over our current social and political institutions), that people are intrinsically rational and unified beings who are non-contradictory in nature and in control of the meaning of their lives. Anarchism is a philosophy which tends to regard people as having certain intrinsic qualities, such as cooperation, for example Alexander Berkman in The ABC of Anarchy (1929). It also sometimes makes the mistake of assuming that we have common understandings and shared values. Post structuralism rejects humanism, and any notion of `human nature’ because it sees subjectivity as constructed through language and discourse . Foucault has suggested that we are all a blank surface to be inscribed (1974). Very recently Grosz (1994 ) has theorised subjectivity as a mobius strip, where mind and body, nature and culture (and so on) all run into each other. Another objection to humanism is its tendency to homogenise human experience, goals and visions. One persons utopia may be very different from another’s.
In other words, anarchists have also been influenced by a very dominant western discourse on what it means to be human, which may in actuality subvert our attempts to change (ourselves and society). Post structural feminism gives post structuralism the political edge to `deconstruct’ anarchism by making explicit some of the problematic assumptions of anarchist theory. It is also concerned with the centrality of individual experience and action in a way which can be very useful to anarchists because it does explore the intricacies of power relationships and it does have the theoretical potential to challenge and subvert current power relationships in all forms. The two disadvantages of this form of feminism for feminists and anarchists alike is that it discards our precarious humanist beliefs and as it is very academic (and arguably elitist) in nature, it is often inaccessible to those who have not been educated in its language.

This review of feminist theory and anarchism has tried to offer an exploration of a critical area of philosophical theory for those who believe in radical social change. Anarchists can sometimes be hostile to certain forms of knowledge, on the grounds that they are `elitist’. I believe that knowledge is power and the problem of elitism is more a mechanism which our hegemonic power structure uses very effectively to limit knowledge to a privileged few. This is why I have attempted to present these theories in a straightforward manner. Feminism has a lot to offer the anarchist lifestyle (and vice versa) and it is important to maintain an open mind to these ideas as they can enable all of us to broaden our perspective and offer us greater possibilities for activism and social change. It is also important to share this knowledge and to pass on information (a well recognised anarchist principle) as much as possible. This is one way of subverting or challenging the barriers (or power imbalances) implicit in current forms of language. Finally, I have wanted to show that an understanding of feminism ( in all its variety) contributes an essential component to living an anarchist lifestyle, just as I believe that anarchism offers many feminists the radical edge they are looking for in their lifestyles and visions.

References :
Albert, M. Cagen, L. et. al., 1986, Liberating Theory Boston : South End Press.
Bad Attitude: Radical Women’s Newspaper, Issue 7 Feb/Mar/Apr 1995.
Berkman, A. 1929, The ABC of Anarchy, Vanguard Press.
Foucault, 1974, History of Sexuality vol. 1, Harmondsworth: Penguin.
Goldman, E. 1969, Anarchism and Other Essays New York : Dover.
Grosz, E. 1994 , Volatile Bodies, Sydney : Allen and Unwin.
Kornegger, P. 1975, “Anarchism : The Feminist Connection”, From Quiet Rumors.
Quiet Rumors: An Anarcha – Feminist Anthology, Dark Star : London.
Pepper, D. 1993, Eco – Socialism – From Deep Ecology to Social Justice, Routledge : 1993.
Weedon, C. 1987 Feminist Practice and Post structural Theory Oxford : Blackwell.
Woodcock, G. (ed) 1977 The Anarchist Reader London : Fontana.