This article first appeared in imminent rebellion 13, and is based on a talk I gave at the Wellington Anarchist Bookfair in 2014. I’m republishing it here for International Working Women’s Day.
Anarchism is basically a movement against state power, but at its most powerful it is a movement against all forms of power and domination. Feminism is a movement for women’s liberation, but it is at its most powerful when it is a movement for liberation from all forms of domination. So bringing anarchism and feminism together is an obvious combination.
What feminism brings to anarchism is a move away from a narrow focus on class and state power, and an analysis of the ways oppression is gendered. What anarchism brings to feminism is a move away from trying to use the apparatus of the state to liberate women, and an analysis of how state power upholds patriarchy.
This means that we need to have an understanding of structural oppression and of the ways that people’s lives are shaped by economic and political circumstances. It also means understanding that people have agency, and that individuals will make the choices that are best for them, out of the limited options available. So we have to respect people’s autonomy.
Putting theory into practice
One example of this is sex work: this is an issue that has long divided the feminist movement. On one hand there are feminists who view sex workers as victims, who believe that no one would freely choose to work in the sex industry, and who support criminalisation of sex workers (for their own good). On the other hand there are feminists who think that sex work is liberating and empowering, because it allows women to make an income from their sexuality.
I think both these views are flawed. Having to exchange your labour for money isn’t liberating: it’s economic oppression. This is true for sex workers just as much as baristas, mechanics, nurses, librarians, editors, and anyone else who relies on selling their labour in order to stay alive. I know many sex workers who love their job. But even when you love your job there are days that you don’t want to work and you have to anyway, so that you can pay your rent. I also know sex workers who hate their job but continue to do it because it’s the best option available to them in a society that hasn’t given them a lot of options.
The important point here is that people’s choices aren’t made in a vacuum—they’re a response to circumstances. This doesn’t mean that you should disrespect their choices. It certainly doesn’t mean that you can liberate them by ignoring their choices and legislating for the state to force them to make the choices that you think they should be making. Women’s liberation will not be granted by the state and giving the state more power over women is dangerous. Laws that give police more power over women are dangerous. Think of all the women who have been raped by police officers, do we really want to give cops more power over any woman? The solution is not to give the state power over sex workers, it’s to give workers power, by supporting sex workers’ unions and organisations.
That’s one example of how we put anarcha-feminist theory into action. In fact, for the most part anarcha-feminism has existed more as practice than as theory. There isn’t a huge body of published work on anarcha-feminism, which in some ways I think is a shame. It’s mostly existed at a grassroots level of people organising on the ground, taking inspiration from a variety of feminist, anarchist, communist, and anti-colonial sources.
Anarchist feminist organising
At the turn of this century there were a lot of women anarchists in Wellington who were organising against free trade, against the war on terror and the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, against coal mining in Happy Valley, against releasing genetically-modified organisms into the ecosystem, against low wages and exploitation of workers. What we found was that the groups we worked in were really sexist. This manifested in a bunch of ways. Sometimes it was subtle: men did most of the talking in meetings, men made the decisions, issues that affected women were ignored and weren’t seen as political issues. Other times it was overt: anarchist men who committed rape and relationship abuse were being defended by their comrades, and women who were raped and abused weren’t supported.
In response to that, we started up an anarcha-feminist group. Most of us didn’t know a lot about feminist history or theory. We were learning as we went. We spent a lot of our meetings talking about our own lives. We talked about experiences that we had in common and experiences that we didn’t have in common. Sharing our experiences with each other helped us connect the dots and understand the ways that our personal hardships were political in nature, and were caused by living in a patriarchal society.
When we started our group we decided that our meetings would only be open to women. At the time it was important to us to have a space without men, where we felt safe speaking our minds—and where we were allowed time to speak our minds without being talked over. In retrospect having women-only meetings wasn’t a good idea. It meant that we had to police who was and wasn’t welcome, which excluded a lot of people, especially trans women and genderqueer folks. It also meant that we had a tendency to homogenise women’s experiences and assume that we all had particular things in common. We often ended up ignoring the ways that racism, colonisation, class, heterosexism, transphobia and disability shape women’s lives.
When we started talking about what issues we should organise around, I think we made the mistake of taking a really narrow view of what constituted a feminist issue. We talked about rape, domestic violence, abortion, sexuality, diets, beauty standards—these are all really important issues and they’re often dismissed because they’re seen as ‘women’s issues’. But what I’ve come to realise is that every political issue is a feminist issue. Poverty is a feminist issue, war is a feminist issue, prisons are a feminist issue, colonialism is a feminist issue, benefit cuts are a feminist issue, workers’ rights are a feminist issue. Part of the reason that I’m not involved in a feminist group at the moment is that I don’t feel like I need to work in an explicitly feminist organisation: I bring my feminist practice to all the political work that I do.
In spite of our mistakes, all that fighting to make women heard did have an effect. The anarchist movement in Wellington has changed, there are more women active, there are more women being listened to, and issues that affect women are treated as political issues. This has alienated some men from anarchism—the ones that didn’t like their power being challenged.
Nowadays I see the same pattern being repeated. Anarchist activity is dominated by Pākehā. There’s a lot of racism, both explicit and implicit, to the point where a lot of Māori and other people of colour are fed up and don’t want anything to do with anarchism. A big part of that is that for some people anarchism has become synonymous with a kind of class-reductionist politics that ignores the relationship between class and sexism, racism, transphobia, disability and homophobia.
Pākehā anarchists have a tendency to be Eurocentric: they take ideas developed by people like Bakunin and Kropotkin in Europe and try to apply them to Aotearoa. These are useful ideas, but there is a different context here. The New Zealand state exists as a direct result of colonisation, and if we want to dismantle the state then we need to put decolonisation at the centre of our anarchist practice.
Don’t ban bossy, ban bosses
In the last couple of years feminism has made a comeback. Being a feminist is no longer taboo—Miley Cyrus, Beyoncé, Tina Fey, Sheryl Sandberg, National’s Jo Goodhew and NZ First’s Tracey Martin are all self-professed feminists. Being a feminist has been reduced to an individual identity and a brand, rather than a political movement and a set of ethics. Instead of mass grassroots organising we get viral Youtube videos and Facebook memes.
One of the most prominent—and grating—examples of this type of feminism is Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In book and NGO. Lean in encourages women to achieve their goals by learning to overcome their fears and have confidence in themselves. This brand (and it literally is a brand) of feminism has no room for collective struggle or for recognising structural oppression. Instead of naming and abolishing the many barriers to women’s freedom, Lean In places the blame for women’s suffering on Women—we just need to overcome our fears and learn self-confidence. In this way, feminism is reduced to an individualist aspiration for individual success.
Lean In’s main contribution to the feminist movement is Ban Bossy. The campaign aims to encourage girls to take leadership positions by banning words like ‘bossy’ and ‘know-it-all’. There are countless reasons to criticise Ban Bossy. It fails to acknowledge the ways that girls’ experiences are shaped by class, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, disability, and assigned sex. It emphasises individual achievement over collective liberation. It assumes that the solution to sexism is putting more women in positions of power, instead of abolishing power inequality and constructing horizontal models of social organisation.
It’s also incredibly inane—functioning as an advertising campaign, not a social movement. It transforms women’s liberation into a commodity you purchase, rather than collectively fight for— like everything else in a capitalist economy. In fact the Ban Bossy online shop sells branded T-shirts, tote bags, mugs and even iPhone cases.
There’s nothing new about feminist ideas being co-opted and used to uphold capitalism. At best it’s brought us nothing, at worst it’s created the illusion that sexism no longer exists, because women can exploit the working class as efficiently as men. This is why it’s so important to articulate a feminist politics that aims for liberation from all oppression.
Smashing patriarchy on Teh Interwebz
New forms of media have made it easier to spread feminist and radical ideas. Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter, Youtube and Instagram allow people to share ideas, dialogue, and orchestrate mass activist campaigns without relying on conventional media to give them a platform. It’s been a double-edged sword. We risk having feminism reduced to a fad—a youth subculture defined by a love of cupcakes, winged eyeliner and Beyoncé instead of a political movement based on shared principles.
But the rise of online feminism has also meant that feminist ideas can flow from the periphery to the centre, or from periphery to periphery, without commercial publishers acting as gatekeepers. Some of the most useful and exciting feminist commentary is coming from bloggers like Budour Hassan in Palestine, Sara Salem in Egypt and Razan Ghazawi in Syria—and in a world where Arab women are consistently portrayed as passive victims of their own culture, these women’s voices are hella relevant. Likwise the group blog Tits and Sass provides a perspective on sex work from the people whose perspective matters the most—sex workers.
When Cece McDonald was incarcerated for defending herself and her friends from a racist and transphobic attacker, the website Support Cece featured updates from her support team and blog posts written by McDonald in prison. The website didn’t just build solidarity with a political prisoner—it also served to link her struggle with a broader struggle against racism, transmisogyny, and the prison-industrial-complex.
Here in Aotearoa Kim McBreen’s He Hōaka is an amazing resource on decolonisation, gender and sexuality. The group blog Mellow Yellow publishes feminist perspectives on racism and migrant identity. Capitalism Bad, Tree Pretty covers everything from labour struggles to rape culture to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but I particularly recommend it for Maia’s articulate discussion of the politics of human bodies.
Tangles, assemblages and intersections
In 1989 Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term ‘intersectionality’ to illustrate that different types of oppression don’t exist in isolation, they intersect with each other.
Since then it’s become a bit of a feminist buzzword—people throw it around a lot, but don’t always stop to think about what it means in practice.
I actually don’t think that intersectionality is a very good model for understanding oppression, because it suggests that different types of oppression exist on separate axes that occasionally intersect. The reality is that they are deeply intertwined. Class is racialised, racism is gendered, and so on. Jasbir Puar suggests that we need to understand these as assemblages rather than intersections. I tend to think of them as entanglements: identities, experiences, material circumstances, interpersonal and structural oppressions get tangled together. If we want to undermine oppression, we have to start by mapping these tangles so we can understand the relationship between different types of oppression.
Where to from here?
What attracted me to anarcha-feminism as a teenager was this idea that all oppression is connected. Instead of arguing over which is more important, fighting capitalism or fighting sexism or fighting colonialism, we need to be fighting all of them simultaneously. That’s the theoretical basis of it anyway. In practice people don’t always do that. Feminists can be incredibly racist, transmisogynist and ableist. It’s important to acknowledge that. It’s important to listen to people when they challenge you on the way your political organising is throwing them under the bus. We can only get better if we’re willing to be honest about our fuck ups.
I’m trying to think of what I want for the future of anarcha-feminist organising: I think the most important thing is that we prioritise the needs of the people who have the least power in this society. All anarchists need to focus on decolonisation and fighting racism. We all need to organise in ways that are welcoming and inclusive to people who aren’t Pākehā—and not make it the responsibility of Māori and other people of colour. We need to prioritise making spaces safe for trans women and other trans people—without making it the responsibility of trans anarchists. We need to make feminist spaces accessible, to organise in ways that don’t disable people. And we need to do this everywhere all of the time.