Anarcho–feminism: Patriarchy, Power and Emancipation
by Beth Smith
‘Feminism doesn’t mean female corporate power or a woman President; it means no corporate power and no Presidents.’[i]
Anarchism fundamentally involves a belief that all power-relations based upon illegitimate hierarchy should be abolished.[ii] The most significant hierarchies for anarchists have traditionally been relations of capital, the state, and religion, although patriarchal relations are much more central to anarcho-feminist analysis. Anarchists place emphasis on the individual, but situate the individual within a collectivity, believing that participatory, horizontal forms of organization best enable the individual expression of all participants.[iii] There is nothing inherent to anarchism which does not support a revolutionary, feminist emancipation. However, the anarcho-feminist project is important because feminist concerns have not always been addressed by anarchists in practice.[iv] This concern continues to this day, with a recent anarchist conference in London seeing a stage-invasion by a group of anarcho-feminists calling for increased self-reflexivity about sexism, homophobia and racism within the movement.[v]
A growing awareness of the classed and racialised nature of much mainstream feminist theory has led to an increasing focus on how to incorporate or include ‘difference’ within feminism. However, these debates have often struggled to find a constructive approach that sits between the two extremes of structural reductionism and some post-modern depoliticisation.[vi] Ang argues that often the desire to include ‘difference’ within feminism represents an attempt merely to ‘resolve’ difference by absorbing other feminisms without changing the fundamental structures of feminist theory leaving questions of the compatibility of different feminisms essentially unaddressed.[vii] At the other extreme, certain post-modern analyses that emphasise difference and fragmented identities can hinder attempts to formulate a structural analysis of why different women are affected in different ways. However, an anarcho-feminist analysis of power proves useful when negotiating a path between these two extremes. Anarchists believe that societies and groups should be organized at the most local level possible, an approach compatible with a deep sensitivity to the importance of context specific experiences and knowledge. However, a focus on illegitimate hierarchies provides a point of solidarity and commonality between different groups of women, and different groups of people who are exploited by such hierarchies. Mohanty believes that solidarity can be developed through a focus on ‘common differences’ and focuses on links between the local and the global. She uses the concept of ‘epistemic privilege’ to argue that by looking ‘upward’ through the power-relations that exist we can develop an ‘inclusive viewing of systemic power’.[viii] ‘We know what a boot looks like when seen from underneath, we know the philosophy of boots…’.[ix]
Many feminist organizations already practice their feminism on broadly anarchistic terms; Farrow argues that, ‘Feminism practices what anarchism preaches’.[x] Many have rejected what they perceive to be masculinist forms of organization, those based on competition and hierarchy, instead creating non-hierarchical groups. However, it is important to make these connections much more explicit in order to enable the extension of such an analysis of hierarchy to external structures such as the state and capitalism. Kornegger argues that making the anarchism-feminism link might ‘springboard women out of reformism’, prevent feminists getting trapped in ‘ye olde male political rut’ and is vital if revolution is to happen.[xi]
Emma Goldman’s analysis of women’s oppression and her visions of their emancipation suggest some directions that a revolutionary anarcho-feminist analysis and practice could consider. Goldman believed in relationships based upon freedom. She believed in a free love that needed no sanction from the state.[xii] There is some ambiguity, however, over the extent to which she agreed with anarcho-feminists who claimed that jealousy and emotional possessiveness in relationships signified a ‘claim to private property’.[xiii] She did, however, believe that a woman’s supposed desire to mother large numbers of children had been greatly exaggerated by men, and instead sought emancipation in terms of ‘free motherhood’.[xiv] Goldman’s conception of women’s emancipation lends itself to a belief in diversity because she did not prescribe what such emancipation should look like. She believed that freedom from patriarchal restraints would lead to the discovery and development of new forms of sexual self-expression.[xv] Marso writes,
‘Reframing the struggle for women’s (and indeed, human) emancipation in terms that spoke to our needs for freedom, Goldman was able to put forward the absolute necessity of freeing women on their own terms without having to sacrifice love or varieties of sexual expression, and without reference to male-defined and state-centred notions of equality as the measure by which to judge progress.’.[xvi]
Emma Goldman is able to combine a theory of patriarchy with an open, women-led view of female emancipation.
Anarcho-feminism is important for both anarchism and feminism. As long as patriarchal practices exist within the anarchist movement, an explicit emphasis on the importance of feminism remains vital. For feminism, an anarchist analysis enables an understanding of power-relations and hierarchies that provides both a powerful critique of patriarchy and a strong impetus to action.
[i] Kornegger, P., (2002) ‘Anarchism: the Feminist Connection.’ in Dark Star Collective Quiet Rumours: An Anarcha-feminist Reader. Edinburgh, AK Press, 21 – 31.
[iv] Jose, J., (2003) “‘Nowhere At Home”: Not Even in Theory.’ Paper at Australasian Political Studies Association Conference, University of Tasmania, Hobart.
[v] Hukku, C., (2009) ‘Some thoughts on Anarcha-Feminism.’ Shift Magazine 7.
http://shiftmag.co.uk/?p=319 (Accessed October 26, 2009).
[vi] I do not seek to ‘straw-man’ either position here, just to suggest the two extremes to which theorists may tend towards to a lesser or greater extent.
[vii] Ang, I., (1995) ‘I’m a feminist but… ‘Other’ women and postnational feminism,’ in B Caine and R Pringle (Eds) Transitions: New Australian Feminisms. Sydney, NSW: Allen and Unwin, 57 – 73.
[viii] Mohanty, C. T., (2003) ‘‘Under Western Eyes’ Revisited: Feminist Solidarity Through Anti-Capitalist Struggles.’ Signs, 28:2, P. 511.
[ix] Atwood, 1974 in Kornegger, 2002
[x] Farrow, L., ‘Feminism as Anarchism.’ in Dark Star Collective Quiet Rumours: An Anarcha-feminist Reader. Edinburgh, AK Press, 15 – 20.
[xi] Kornegger, 2002, p. 27
[xii] Jose, J., (2003)
[xiii] Marso, L (2002) ‘Emma Goldman on the Politics of Marriage, Love, Sexuality, and the Feminine.’ Paper at American Political Studies Assocation, Boston, MA.
[xiv] Goldman, 1975 in Marso, 2002
[xv] Marso, 2002
[xvi] Ibid, p. 24
I think this is a great article, I feel that the role feminists have in the anarchist movement is often underestimated by male groups, it’s always worth remembering that it was women that initiated the events that lead to the Paris commune and countless other revolutionary moments. I think it’s something that can be conveniently forgotten at times by some sections of the movement.
22 Mar 2010, 14:46
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