History and Actuality of Anarcha-Feminism: Lessons from Spain

Article excerpt

Anarcha-feminism is, ultimately, a tautology. Anarchism seeks the liberation of all human beings from all kinds of oppression and a world without hierarchies, where people freely organise and self-manage all aspects of life and society on the basis of horizontality, equality, solidarity and mutual aid. Consequently, such a struggle necessarily entails working to change hierarchical relationships between the sexes, that is, anarchism is a specific type of feminism. Anarcha-feminism, understood in this way, raises several questions: Does anarcha-feminism really exist? Does the term have anything to contribute to anarchism? How can it be useful for us today? What can be improved?

In what follows I will argue that there has long been an anarcha-feminist movement. In particular, I will discuss the contribution to this movement of Mujeres Libres (Free Women), an anarcha-feminist group active during the Spanish civil war, from 1936-1939. Although many anarchists, including Mujeres Libres, rejected a feminist label because feminism was understood to be an ideology of the bourgeoisie, (1) and although I do not call myself an Anarcha-feminist because I purport that anarchism is what best describes my feminism, I argue that anarcha-feminism is useful as both a term and in practice in both anarchist and feminist movements. With regards to the former, anarcha-feminism can serve to 'mainstream' gender and feminist struggle, thereby making anarchist practice more consistent with anarchist theory. With regards to the latter, anarcha-feminism can contribute to other feminist critiques of and struggles against gender oppression.

Spain offers a good case study of the history and current relevance of anarcha-feminism. Spain has seen three periods of intense gender consciousness-raising both in the Spanish male-dominated anarchist movement and the broader public. In the first period, the late nineteenth century, anarchists developed a critique of patriarchy though this critique was often relegated to the peripheries of anarchist movement. The second period, which spanned the early twentieth century, can be considered the cradle and climax of anarcha-feminist movement. This is when Mujeres Libres were active. Finally, the third period, the post-dictatorship period until today, reveals a pattern within anarchist movement of disregarding the importance of fighting gender oppression here and now. This pattern points to the continuing importance of anarcha-feminism.

In the first two periods, anarchists referred to the 'woman question' whereas today they speak of gender oppression and patriarchy. (2) Although language has changed over time, these three periods share three themes: a critique of the restriction of women's role in society to that of reproduction; a critique of women's second-class position both in mainstream society and in the anarchist movement; and, most importantly, a strategy of empowering women to participate fully in anarchist struggles. Mujeres Libres referred to this empowerment process as capacitacion something that I will return to later. (3)

Capacitacion was part of a process that I will call 'gender mainstreaming'. Mainstreaming literally means to incorporate something or someone into 'the dominant trend'. (4) This 'dominant trend' in anarchism is nothing close to conventional or conservative but rather the struggle against capitalism and the state. A struggle committed to end all forms of oppression, including racism, homophobia and patriarchy. Thus, in the context of anarchism, gender mainstreaming means to make the fight against gender oppression, to go hand in hand with the struggle against capitalism and the state. It may sound awkward to use the term 'gender mainstreaming' in this context, considering its use by liberals, reformists and conservatives in the halls of the United Nations (UN). (5) The term, however, was developed by feminist critiques of UN policies since the mid 1970s, demanding that gender oppression be more central in the making of UN policies and that women be empowered to participate in working against gender inequalities. …