What We Want. An Anarcha-feminist Perspective on Feminism
by Jennifer Sauer
During the Spring of 1998, I studied in Malta, a small, 246 sq. km limestone island south of Italy. Around 358,000 people live well compacted within the crowded streets of limestone buildings built on top of one another. Malta is a small place with what many Maltese people call a small mind. According to Mary Grace, a feminist in the leftist group Graffiti, change is the last item on most Maltese lists, because of its 2,000 years of colonial history (8). The Maltese people are use to accepting, so change seems to be feared rather then revered. The importance of my stay in Malta has had a lot to do with this mentality of acceptance. I have been ìtesting outî the ideas of freedom and specifically focusing on the ideas of anarchism within the framework of feminist consciousness. Anarcha-feminism, which began with Emma Goldman in the beginning of this century, is a growing tendency as well as an ideology and praxis with many young feminist activists today. While not all of these women and men would call themselves anarcha-feminists, their ideas and praxis work well within the framework of anarcha-feminism. I am choosing to use the word anarcha-feminism, as opposed to simply anarchism, because I want to focus on the feminist aspect of anarchism that has been growing in the United States and in England ever since the late sixties (407, 4). Ideally I believe that anarchism encompasses feminism, but not all anarchists choose to put this concept into praxis. This is one of the main reasons why anarchist women decided to develop a deeper consciousness of what anarchism should encompass hence the category, anarcha-feminism. While this may seem exclusionary, it was created as a way to emphasise the need for a more gender egalitarian philosophy of anarchism (410, 4).
The push for womyn to "take no shit!" has been happening in more anarchist and leftist-activist circles. This ephifany had its toll after interviewing three activist groups, travelling to Athens, Istanbul, and Rome, and perusing other international activist groups on the Internet. While my research is completely subjective, for I have not interviewed everyone in the world, there is objectivity in my premises that humanity essentially desires to be free.
The groups I interviewed represent many of the beliefs that are basic in anarcha-feminism. While these groups do not represent all of the United States and Maltese population, they do reflect the universality of freedom. I have interviewed two groups from the U.S.A- a 15-year-old young woman in the Memphis, TN Riot Grrl group and a 23-year-old in the Memphis, TN Womanís Action Coalition. I also interviewed three women in the Maltese leftist group, Graffiti- Mary Grace, age 20, Alexia, age 16, and Miriam, age 20. What these women have to offer is a deepening of what feminism has come to mean in the age of corporate, liberal feminism. Their ideas are what anarcha-feminism strives to spark in everyone, a hope for a total egalitarian world that is based on people and not stratified by gender, class, sexuality, or race. While the term anarchism, and even feminism for that matter, may seem like an impossible feat, I urge the reader to ask themselves what exactly freedom means to them? What rights do you, as an individual, have and deserve? What is your worth and value at school, work, and in your intimate relationships? These questions tap into the very root of what is possible for humanity when we no longer fear ourselves. My hope is that the information presented here will inspire the reader, rather then scare the reader away from the possibility of a deeper level of freedom for all of humanity.
Before I examine the anarchist tendencies that the interviewees are thinking and creating in their society, a brief description of the history and meaning of anarchism and anarcha-feminism is in order. While I have come across these terms in many circles of my life, I realise that, for the most part, anarchism has been a well kept secret from the rest of the world and that there are still many misconceptions to uncover. So, I urge you to keep an open mind here, sit back, and enjoy. Maybe think about the slogan found during the Paris rebellion of 1968, where the students helped to initiate a general strike. "Never work. Under the paving stones, the beach. I take my desires for reality, because I believe in the reality of my desires"(538, 4).
Anarchism itself has been around as an ideology since William Godwin made a clear statement of what anarchism means. "Every man ought to rest upon his own centre, and consult his own understanding. Every man ought to feel his own independence, that he can assert the principles of justice and truth without being obliged treacherously to adapt them to the peculiarities of his situation and the errors of others"(217, 4). He promoted federations to organise society, as well as freedom of speech and gender equality. Although Godwin clarified anarchy, the core of anarchism can be found in the eastern philosophy, Taoism. A strange mix on the surface, they are actually quite compatible. The main belief in Taoism is the natural law of things, which is understood when one follows The Way, or The Tao (53, 4). It is similar to anarchism in this respect, because anarchism assumes that you have natural law already within you. External forces, like the state or religion, are not necessary. This can be proven in historical examples of large-scale forms of anarchism, like the Paris Commune in 1871 or in 1936 with the hundreds of collectives created before and during the Spanish Civil War (11, 6). Anarchy is about trusting the nature within each of us to coexist with one another without the need of a hierophant.
In order for us to have our needs met, there must be a high level of co-operation, because no one can survive alone in this world. Anarchism works as a dual relationship of satisfying the individual needs, but all the while keeping these needs in check with the greater whole of society. In this sense, both the individual and society can evolve to a greater level of development.
While the anarchist philosophy has always been against oppression, it has not always been against patriarchy. Pierre-Joseph Proudon, the first self-declared anarchist, once said that, "The complete being is the man. The woman is a diminutive of man"(256, 4). So, It was not until the early part of this century when feminism and anarchism began to ideologically mesh.
Emma Goldman is the main woman responsible for this breakthrough in anarchist philosophy. In 1911 she wrote about the objectification of women in a capitalistic society in The Traffic of Women (54 ,1). Goldman was able to see a direct relationship of the oppression of women within a society that bases its power on the oppression of the ìlowerî classes and races. Because Goldman never doubted that she was capable of being independent and continually affirmed her autonomy to her male comrades and the rest of the world, she is considered to be the founder of anarcha-feminism (9). She was able to see the contradictions of her male comrades who could speak of equality, but would not carry out the ideas in action. In 1936, Red Emma spoke about the man and women relations in the Spanish Revolution, "Despite the impressive rhetoric, most frequently male anarchists retreated to cultural orthodoxy in the personal relationships of women. The vast majority of Spanish comrades continued to expect their own ìcompanionsî to provide emotionally supportive and submissive relationships ìnecessaryî for the activism of males" (7). While the Spanish anarchists had organised factories, schools, an army, and agriculture themselves during the war against the fascist Franco, the men still, for the most part, viewed women as auxiliary. Goldman realised that for this to change women would have to demand more from their comrades, starting with demanding more for themselves. The "true emancipation that begins is in the women's soul"(51, 1). Women must realise their worth and fight for it if there ever is going to be any freedom. Goldman opposed state marriage, because she believed that no love could possibly be ordained from an oppressive institution. She was also the first feminist to openly support homosexuality (53, 1). Goldman called for freedom to be lived and fought for now and not just for after the revolution. Her famous quote, "If I canít dance, I don't want to be part of your revolution" (409, 4), resonates with her yearning to live freedom for today and not just for tomorrow. While Emma Goldman is considered to be the originator of anarcha-feminism, many other historical womyn anarchists have contributed to the philosophy and praxis. Womyn like Lucy Parsons, who influenced more womyn to become involved in the working-class struggle, Voltarine de Cleyre, who contributed to the importance of direct action, and also Louise Michel, who helped to organise a practical form of anarchism within the Paris Commune in 1871 (9). For the sake of length, I am focusing on the importance of Emma Goldman in the development of anarcha-feminism, even though these women have greatly contributed to the movement.
In the 1970's a new breakthrough in the ideals of freedom was being experienced by womyn and men through the womynís liberation movement in the United States and in England. Womyn began to find their history through revolutionary heroines and even revolutionary holidays, like International Womenísí Day. This was the start of the actual manifestation of anarcha-feminist groups (556, 9).
Anarchism and feminism turned became a perfect match for the womyn's liberationists. Peggy Kornegger, an anarcha-feminist theoretician, saw that feminism did relate to anarchism through the "emphasis on the small group as a basic organisational unit, on the personal and political, on anti-authoritarianism and on spontaneous direct action which was essentially anarchism"(7).
Currently anarcha-feminism has made a deeper dent in leftist circles, because more young women have seen the need for their issues to be addressed. I am not saying that this form of feminism is soon to replace large liberal feminist groups like NOW, but I do think that more young women are interested in the holistic ideology of anarcha-feminism and the emphasises on creating free spaces for women now. Young women in the states have created their own workshops on health, anarcha-feminist groups, self-defence courses, and safe safes away from domestic abuse (9). In places like France, England, Iraq, Egypt, Turkey, Belgium, Canada, and Malta, there are women who are demanding more from their society. When I was in Rome, I met some womyn who had recently started an anarcha-feminist group. They saw the need for it, because they saw how womyn were the worst victims of capitalism. In the current French manifesto- Manifestte Anarcho Feministe- these French feminists have taken the first steps towards revolution, by defining what it is they want. "Anarcha-feminism means womenís independence and freedom on an equal footing with men. A social organisation and a social life where no one is superior or inferior to anyone and everybody are co-ordinate, women as well as men. This goes on all levels of social life, also the private sphere... Anarcha-feminism implies that women themselves decide and take care of their own matters, individually in personal matters, and together with other women in matters which concern several women. In matters which concern both sexes essentially and concretely, women and men shall decide on an equal footing" (3).
It is important for feminist of all philosophies to think through exactly what it is we want from each other and from our society. Feminism has been in a lull for the past ten years, because it has been open to every idea, even though some may contradict each other. This is why it is important that we know what it is we are opposed to and what it is we ultimately want. The women I interviewed have been thinking through these ideas of freedom in order to reach a point from which freedom can prosper. Ultimately, they believe that they have what it takes to control their own lives, but it is a matter of having the individual and collective consciousness and putting those ideas into praxis. They are continually questioning the patriarchal state as well as everyday life.
One such movement that has been mulling over the ideas of freedom and praxis is Riot Grrl. While they do not organise under the banner of anarcha-feminism, there are many declared anarchists within the group and many anarcha-feminist traits that are found within the movement. Their anarchism lies in the use of direct action, non-hierarchal structure, their grassroots nature, promotion of individuality, empowerment of womyn and co-operation.
RXG has sprouted from within the punk scene in the early 1990ís and has since spread to other parts of the United States, Canada, England, and more. In the early part of this decade many young girls were getting together to discuss issues on what the political punk scene had not validated. There is a relationship with the 1970's leftist groups having been invalidating women activistsí contribution to social movements and with the RXG's invalidation of the punk scene. Their complaints within the political and non-political punk scene were based on the desire to create a New World where their development was included. Lori Waskevitch, a New York anarcha-feminist, describes how she first got into RXG, "I got into groups like Bikini Kill and Bratmobile, and was introduced to the idea of RXG ñ A type of feminism for young grrls who were refusing to take shit"(9). Riot Grrl partly came about when grrls wanted to see more womyn in bands and on the dance floor. The more grrls that started punk bands, the bigger riot grrl got. What happened with the riot grrl bands became more than just music, it became a movement for young grrls to find their strength in. When I was 17, I was involved in a Riot Grrl group in Northern Pennsylvania. We discussed issues like rape, body image, gender roles, and sexuality. We also did direct actions, like postering walls and having open discussions. Once we went to the mall dressed up as the typical female, (I was barefoot and pregnant), and passed out literature on redefining what it means to be male and female. We were kicked out of the mall, but some seeds of possibilities were dropped in the discussions we had. I realise the impact our influence had in this small town when I see that some of these womyn are still active today and that the people of the town have not forgotten about us.
Although Riot Grrl reached a low point, because of excessive backlash from the general punk scene, internal turmoil, and some Riot Grrls themselves allowing the MTV media to commodify their image into a ìnineties thingî, Riot Grrl still thrives. There are yearly conventions, thousands of personal zines (do-it-yourself magazines), and international RXG groups. The grass roots nature of RXG is what has kept it alive. The revolution that these young womyn are trying to create continues. Because RXG has never had a rulebook on how things must be done to create a revolution, every womyn is capable of contributing towards revolution.
One of the things that have kept RXG together is their exchange of ideas and emotions through zines. A zine is something that is accessible to everyone and can be created by anyone who puts the time and energy into it. All you need is pen, paper, glue, pictures, and the use of a copier machine. Often many of the RXG zines would include empowering messages to grrls to have a healthy and grrl-positive view of them selves. They promote each otherís zines and have created an intricate network of zones around the world. Currently they are trying to improve the network through better organisation. In a world, which uses the media to tell young girls that beauty is skin deep, to be obsessed with their appearance, and to constantly think about the male gaze, the RXG zines have become an important outlet for grrls to find and share their voices. In the zine, Hands-Off, issue #5, Heather Lynn talks about revolution in her terms through her daily fight for freedom- "Trust my instincts and not believe the voice in my head that says I am paranoid or mistaken or irrational dance party. Fucken everywhere. Dancing is revolution. Learn to ignore inhibitions. Don't assume they are telling you the whole truth. Don't assume they will lie. Don't assume anything" (12, 2). Lynn mixes politics with the personal, which is a realistic view of how young women can change their world. It is realistic, because it starts with the self and it is only the self that can ultimately make the demands for justice.
I interviewed Kim, a 15 year old young feminist who is currently involved in Memphis RXG. While her ideals are anarchistic, she believes that humanity has a long way to go before we can develop into a civilised society. She believes that for it to happen, people need to create autonomous zones for people to develop, like with RXG. When I asked her what she thought society needed, a revolution or reform, she exclaimed, "Revolution! When people talk about changing a law to benefit women, I wonder why we even need laws. You can't achieve women's autonomy by making it mandatory" (5). On the topic of liberal feminism, Kim agreed with it as far as making equality legal, but she wanted more from society. "I want to be able to walk down the street wearing whatever I want and not be harassed. I want to stop hearing stories of women being raped" (5). Although Kim has never been active in an anarchist organisation, she still considers herself an anarchist. She exhibits the natural relationship between feminism and anarchy that Peggy Kornegger had found. "Yes, I consider myself an anarchist. I think an anarchist should have their wants and needs fulfilled with as little exploitation of the earth, other people, and animals as possible" (5). While Kim sees the possibilities Riot Grrl opens up for humanity to be more egalitarian, she also sees that everyday can be a struggle for women. "The fact that there are so many girls and women who belittle other grrls, have eating disorders, cut themselves, hide and punish their bodies, etc., just shows that the world is harmful to girls" (5).
The freedom that Kim fights for in the United States is also fought for in the small island of Malta. The universality of freedom, which most anarchists consider it a part of human nature, is alive in the Maltese leftist group, Graffiti. While Malta finally won its freedom in 1964, Mary Grace, a member of Graffitti, explained to me how colonial the attitude is in Malta. The people seem to resist change, rather then use it to end environmental degradation on the island, governmental corruption, religious influence in government and to end sexism in the workplace, religion, and home (8). The organisation of Graffiti strives to make radical changes within their country for these problems to be eradicated. While the group has no clear outline of what they would like to see in Malta, there is a dimension from within the group that strives to make equality a reality. I am referring to the anarcha-feminist tendencies that these womyn exude. Three members of the group, Alexia, but mostly Miriam and Mary Grace, have provided an active feminist dimension to Graffiti. They have urged their male comrades to fight along side them for equality. They have fought for issues like legalising divorce in Malta, changing the treatment of womyn as objects in a capitalistic society, and discussing the realm of pornography as a womynís issue vs. a free speech issue.
When I asked them if they were not in Graffiti, would feminist issues be discussed and acted on, both Miriam and Mary Grace felt they wouldn't. I later asked them if there was a revolution today, would they be given the pots and pans to cook for their male comrades or would there be active and equal participation in this ìnew society". Mary Grace stated, "That wouldn't be a revolution"(8). Miriam immediately chimed in, "While that is not how it is supposed to be, that is how it would be" (8). Both agreed that the men in the group do not completely understand the form of oppression womyn have to deal with on a daily basis. They explained how there are times when the men expect them to cook the food for outings or even talk over them during political discussions. What has kept the womyn going is their constant reaffirmation to the men that they are not to be treated as second class citizens. It has become better since the group first began four years ago. There is more of a feminist slant to the group now and it is the only group in Malta with such a stand on womynsí rights. While not all the people in Graffiti are thorough about what exactly it is they mean by equality, the actions these womyn are taking within the group to demand that their voice be heard is a revolutionary one. Once the ideas have been let out the cage, it is only time that can allow it to grow and flourish. The seed has been dropped and the gestation period has already begun.
The last group I chose to interview is the Woman's Action Coalition from Memphis, TN. I have been within the group, off and on, for about 5 years now. The reason I have chosen to end with this group is because WAC has gone through a slow, evolutionary process of becoming more de-centralised and co-operative. Incidentally, the last zine issue the group printed was about anarchism. The group itself has 10 active members, 2 of which are men. While the group has always maintained a non-hierarchal position in structure, it has been known to push work off to any one person willing to do it all. It has also gone through bats of informal leaders, where no one was happy with the situation, but few took the initiative to change it. As WAC lost members, it gained younger members, as well as one older woman who had been involved in the women's liberation movement since the 70's. As the group began to gain new members, they focused on how the group could be organised on the basis of equality and yet still get things done. While WAC is presently in no position of perfection, it has developed a clearer purpose and a mission statement. In this statement, WAC clarifies not only what they are against, but also what they are for. While they say they are against capitalism and all forms of oppression, they also explain that they want reproductive freedom, environmental justice, and a world based on "human needs and not profit"(10).
The importance of WAC is not only their ideology, but also their creative and impressionable direct action tactics. (It should be noted that there was a Memphis WAC prior to 5 years ago, but the de-centralised nature of WAC that is known today is very different from the academic WAC that existed before it.) WAC has used such tactics as postering, pamphlet drives, lectures, speaking in classrooms, and open discussions. WAC also has done theatrical direct actions where members would dress up as birds and bees to promote safe sex. They also did a silent action where members wore all black with veils and held signs that shed light into the horror of domestic violence and date rape.
WAC is still struggling with too much to do and not enough people to do it all. They are still developing into, what I consider, and an anarcha-feminist group. At least half of the members are already self-declared anarchists and the rest agree with many of the principles that anarchsim has to offer. The anarchist principles that WAC originally started with 5 years ago are starting to manifest itself in their organisational structure and in their actions. While more always needs to be done, WAC has become more responsible for their ideas of feminism and more realistic in what it is they can achieve as a direct action group. What is important with the growth of WAC is the commitment that the members have had to the ideals of freedom. They have not given up and as they are working towards a more anarchistic style of organisation, they are coming to understand how freedom can be brought into the light within a capitalistic society.
In order for the ideals of feminism to continue, long after the first womyn's Convention in Seneca Falls, long after Emma Goldman declared that womyn are not the sexual property of the state or men, and long after the current theoretician, bell hooks, declared that white liberal feminism is exclusive, we must realise the relationship that capitalism has with oppression. We must create pockets of freedom to discount the archaic attitude that competition is the only way people can relate to one another. We must realise that humanity will not develop into a just civilisation without the faith in each individualís freedom. In my life I have seen that anarcha-feminism can and does create these pockets of freedom throughout the world. They can be found in communal houses or communities, free schools, direct action groups fighting for freedom, communal gardens, political theatre, zines, home-schooling, and anywhere else in the world where people have listened and acted on their instinct to be free. Based on co-operation and individual freedom, people are creating examples of which we as a society can be.
As an anarchist, my faith is with the people. I have no dogma to give and I do not think that anarcha-feminism provides the world with the magical key to end all oppression. What it does do is exemplify the possibilities of freedom and attempts to live them out. While I do believe that anarchism today needs to improve its theories into praxis, I do see men and womyn actively working on the sexism, racism, environmental degradation, homophobia, and classism that has plagued society for far too long. Instead of sitting around theorising about what the future could be, anarchists are also trying to create it.
Mainstream feminism has left too many people out in the cold by maintaining that working in governments and corporations achieves equality. This has caused a major split within feminism with the Black, Chicano, working class, radical and other minority feminists who have been sidetracked by liberal feminists. As more of these feminists organise and connect the relationship of oppression with class, gender, race, sexuality, and environmental degradation, the closer womyn and men will develop towards liberation. I will end this short introducation to anarcha-feminism with some intriguing words Mary Grace wrote when I asked her about what revolution means to her. Her words remind me of the passion for freedom that has been within anarcha-feminism since Emma Goldman first spoke of the hope of a new, free world. "Fighting for a new worldÖfor the emergence of a new human being. Towards the anihilation of injustice, suffering and atrophy of humanity within capitalism. Where peace is the result of justice, not repression"(8).
Indeed, the human passion to be free has been with us since the beginning. It will be with us forever onward. What matters does not just know that this drive exists, but what we now chose to do with the creative urge inside each of us. Our world is lost without the decreed of the individual as a powerful and creative source for change.
Feminist Theory, (Unfortunately I do not have the printing information on this book, because my professor left before I could get it. But, I sware I read the book.
Lynn, Heather. Hands Off #5 (Olympia, WA: Heather Lynn, 1998.)
Manifeste Anarchofeministe. (Internet: HYPERLINK http://www.powertech.no/anarchy/maf.html. )
4. Marshall, Peter. Demanding the Impossible (London: Fontana Press, 1993)
Mitchell, Kim. Interview via email. (April, 1998.)
News and Letters newspaper. March 1998)
Ruby, Flick. Anarcha-Feminism (internet: HYPERLINK http://www.spunk.org/library/anarchfem/sp01066.txt )
Vella, Mary Grace, Scembri, Miriam, and Vassallo, Alexia. Interview on April 27, 1998.
Waskevitch, Lori. Interview via email. (April, 1998)