Anarcha-Feminism: To Destroy Domination in All its Forms

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In Volume Two of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, I included some anarcha-feminist selections from the 1970s by Peggy Kornegger and Carol Ehrlich. I’ve posted more stuff on my blog, including Kytha Kurin’s 1980 article on anarcha-feminism from the Open Road anarchist newsjournal. Here I reproduce a brief excerpt from “To Destroy Domination in All Its Forms: Anarcha-Feminist Theory, Organization and Action 1970-1978,” by Julia Tanenbaum. The complete article is in the current issue of Perspectives on Anarchist Theory. Tanenbaum does an excellent job describing the emergence and development of anarcha-feminism in the US during the 1970s.

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To Destroy Domination in All its Forms

Anarcha-feminism was at first created and defined by women who saw radical feminism itself as anarchistic. In 1970, during the rapid growth of small leaderless consciousness raising (CR) groups around the country, and a corresponding theory of radical feminism that opposed domination, some feminists, usually after discovering anarchism through the writings of Emma Goldman, observed the “intuitive anarchism” of the women’s liberation movement. Radical feminism emphasized the personal as political, what we would now call prefigurative politics, and a dedication to ending hierarchy and domination, both in theory and practice.

CR groups functioned as the central organizational form of the radical feminist movement, and by extension the early anarcha-feminist movement.  Members shared their feelings and experiences and realized that their problems were political. The theories of patriarchy they developed explained what women initially saw as personal failures. Consciousness raising was not therapy, as liberal feminists and politicos frequently claimed; its purpose was social transformation not self-transformation.

Radical feminist and anarchist theory and practice share remarkable similarities. In a 1972 article critiquing Rita Mae Brown’s calls for a lesbian party, anarchist working-class lesbian feminist Su Katz described how her anarchism came “directly out of” her feminism, and meant decentralization, teaching women to take care of one another, and smashing power relations, all of which were feminist values. Radical feminism attributed domination to the nuclear family structure, which they claimed treats children and women as property and teaches them to obey authority in all aspects of life, and to patriarchal hierarchical thought patterns that encouraged relationships of dominance and submission.

To radical feminists and anarcha-feminists, the alternative to domination was sisterhood, which would replace hierarchy and the nuclear family with relationships based on autonomy and equality. A chant that appeared in a 1970 issue of a feminist newspaper read “We learn the joys of equality/Of relationships without dominance/Among sisters/We destroy domination in all its forms.” These relationships, structured around sisterhood, trust, and friendship, were of particular importance to the radical feminist vision of abolishing hierarchy. As radical feminist theologian Mary Daly wrote in 1973, “The development of sisterhood is a unique threat, for it is directed against the basic social and psychic model of hierarchy and domination.” Radical feminists opposed the “male domineering attitude” and “male hierarchical thought patterns,” and attempted to act as equals in relationships deeper than male friendships.

To feminists familiar with anarchism, the connections between both radical feminist and anarchist theory and practice were obvious. Anarchist feminism was essentially a step in self-conscious theoretical development, and anarcha-feminists believed that an explicit anarchist analysis, and knowledge of the history of anarchists who faced similar structural and theoretical obstacles, would help women overcome the coercion of elites and create groups structured to be accountable to their members but not hierarchical. They built an independent women’s movement and a feminist critique of anarchism, along with an anarchist critique of feminism.

To anarcha-feminists, the women’s movement represented a new potential for anarchist revolution, for a movement to confront forms of domination and hierarchy, personal and political. Unlike Goldman, Voltaraine De Cleyre, the members of Mujeres Libres, and countless other female anarchists concerned with the status of women in the 19th and early 20th century, they became feminists before they became anarchists. Anarcha-feminists eventually merged into the anti-nuclear movement by the end of 1978, but not before contributing to crucial movement debates among both anarchists and feminists, building egalitarian, leaderless, and empowering alternative institutions, and altering US anarchism in theory and practice…

Julia Tanenbaum

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Anarcha-Feminism

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Belatedly realizing that I should make a better effort to tie my posts into international dates, like Women’s Day, here is a section from the “Anarchist Current,” the Afterword to Volume Three of my anthology of anarchist writings, Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, in which I discuss anarchist critiques of patriarchy, hierarchy and domination that began to emerge in the 1960s and 70s. It’s a bit  out of order, but nothing wrong with that from an anarchist perspective (“I reject my own self-imposed order!”). I particularly like Carole Pateman’s critique of “libertarian” contractarianism, which ultimately results in an anarcho-capitalist dystopia of universal prostitution. Message to Benjamin Franks: please stop describing me as a liberal. You’ve misunderstood my essay on the “Anarchist Contract.” Take a look at the original, more ‘academic’ version, “The Role of Contract in Anarchist Ideology,” in For Anarchism (Routledge, 1989), ed. David Goodway. In both essays, I draw on Pateman’s critiques of liberal ideology, and no, neither “free agreement” nor “autonomy” are inherently “liberal” concepts.

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Patriarchy

In his discussion of the emergence of hierarchical societies which “gradually subverted the unity of society with the natural world,” Murray Bookchin noted the important role played by “the patriarchal family in which women were brought into universal subjugation to men” (Volume Three, Selection 26). Rossella Di Leo has suggested that hierarchical societies emerged from more egalitarian societies in which there were “asymmetries” of authority and prestige, with men holding the social positions to which the most prestige was attached (Volume Three, Selection 32). In contemporary society, Nicole Laurin-Frenette observes, “women of all classes, in all trades and professions, in all sectors of work and at all professional levels [continue] to be assigned tasks which are implicitly or explicitly defined and conceived as feminine. These tasks usually correspond to subordinate functions which entail unfavourable practical and symbolic conditions” (Volume Three, Selection 33).

Radical Feminism

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, a radical feminist movement emerged that shared many affinities with anarchism and the ecology movement. Peggy Kornegger argued that “feminists have been unconscious anarchists in both theory and practice for years” (Volume Two, Selection 78). Radical feminists regarded “the nuclear family as the basis for all authoritarian systems,” much as earlier anarchists had, from Otto Gross (Volume One, Selection 78), to Marie Louise Berneri (Volume Two, Selection 75) and Daniel Guérin (Volume Two, Selection 76). Radical feminists also rejected “the male domineering attitude toward the external world, allowing only subject/object relationships,” developing a critique of “male hierarchical thought patterns—in which rationality dominates sensuality, mind dominates intuition, and persistent splits and polarities (active/passive, child/adult, sane/insane, work/play, spontaneity/organization) alienate us from the mind-body experience as a Whole and from the Continuum of human experience,” echoing the much older critique of Daoist anarchists, such as Bao Jingyan (Volume One, Selection 1).

Kornegger noted that as “the second wave of feminism spread across the [U.S.] in the late 60s, the forms which women’s groups took frequently reflected an unspoken libertarian consciousness,” with women breaking off “into small, leaderless, consciousness-raising groups, which dealt with personal issues in our daily lives,” and which “bore a striking resemblance” to “anarchist affinity groups” (see Bookchin, Volume Two, Selection 62), with their “emphasis on the small group as a basic organizational unit, on the personal and political, on antiauthoritarianism, and on spontaneous direct action” (Volume Two, Selection 78).

As Carol Ehrlich notes, radical feminists and anarchist feminists “are concerned with a set of common issues: control over one’s body; alternatives to the nuclear family and to heterosexuality; new methods of child care that will liberate parents and children; economic self-determination; ending sex stereotyping in education, in the media, and in the workplace; the abolition of repressive laws; an end to male authority, ownership, and control over women; providing women with the means to develop skills and positive self-attitudes; an end to oppressive emotional relationships; and what the Situationists have called ‘the reinvention of everyday life’.” Despite the Situationists’ hostility toward anarchism, many anarchists in the 1960s and 70s were influenced by the Situationist critique of the “society of the spectacle,” in which “the stage is set, the action unfolds, we applaud when we think we are happy, we yawn when we think we are bored, but we cannot leave the show, because there is no world outside the theater for us to go to” (Volume Two, Selection 79).

Feminism

Some anarchist women were concerned that the more orthodox “feminist movement has, consciously or otherwise, helped motivate women to integrate with the dominant value system,” as Ariane Gransac put it, for “if validation through power makes for equality of the sexes, such equality can scarcely help but produce a more fulsome integration of women into the system of man’s/woman’s domination over his/her fellow-man/woman” (Volume Three, Selection 34). “Like the workers’ movement in the past, especially its trade union wing,” Nicole Laurin-Frenette observes, “the feminist movement is constantly obliged to negotiate with the State, because it alone seems able to impose respect for the principles defended by feminism on women’s direct and immediate opponents, namely men—husbands, fathers, fellow citizens, colleagues, employers, administrators, thinkers” (Volume Three, Selection 33). For anarchists the focus must remain on abolishing all forms of hierarchy and domination, which Carol Ehrlich has described as “the hardest task of all” (Volume Two, Selection 79). Yet, as Peggy Kornegger reminds us, we must not give up hope, that “vision of the future so beautiful and so powerful that it pulls us steadily forward” through “a continuum of thought and action, individuality and collectivity, spontaneity and organization, stretching from what is to what can be” (Volume Two, Selection 78).

The Sexual Contract

In criticizing the subordinate position of women, particularly in marriage, anarchist feminists often compared the position of married women to that of a prostitute (Emma Goldman, Volume One, Selection 70). More recently, Carole Pateman has developed a far-reaching feminist critique of the contractarian ideal of reducing all relationships to contractual relationships in which people exchange the “property” in their persons, with particular emphasis on prostitution, or contracts for sexual services, noting that: “The idea of property in the person has the merit of drawing attention to the importance of the body in social relations. Civil mastery, like the mastery of the slave-owner, is not exercised over mere biological entities that can be used like material (animal) property, nor exercised over purely rational entities. Masters are not interested in the disembodied fiction of labour power or services. They contract for the use of human embodied selves. Precisely because subordinates are embodied selves they can perform the required labour, be subject to discipline, give the recognition and offer the faithful service that makes a man a master” (Volume Three, Selection 35).

What distinguishes prostitution contracts from other contracts involving “property in the person” is that when “a man enters into the prostitution contract he is not interested in sexually indifferent, disembodied services; he contracts to buy sexual use of a woman for a given period… When women’s bodies are on sale as commodities in the capitalist market… men gain public acknowledgment as women’s sexual masters.” Pateman notes that “contracts about property in persons [normally] take the form of an exchange of obedience for protection,” but the “short-term prostitution contract cannot include the protection available in long-term relations.” Rather, the “prostitution contract mirrors the contractarian ideal” of “simultaneous exchange” of property or services, “a vision of unimpeded mutual use or universal prostitution” (Volume Three, Selection 35).

Robert Graham

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