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(en) The Precarious Union of Anarchism and Feminism (Northeastern Anarchist #5)

From Mick <mickblack47@yahoo.com>
Date Thu, 31 Oct 2002 04:10:12 -0500 (EST)

      A - I N F O S  N E W S  S E R V I C E

The Precarious Union of Anarchism and Feminism: 
A Response to ?Re-defining Radical Feminism? 
by Red Sonja (NEFAC-Boston) 

Traci Harris? article 'Re-defining Radical Feminism' was published in
NEA#4 (http://www.illegalvoices.org), opening the discussion about
revolutionary feminism. My reply is an attempt to continue that
discussion. Harris' article solidly outlines three important facets of
this discussion, which I will address here: that it is our job to (1)
Redefine Patriarchy and Radical Feminism for revolutionaries; (2) Show how
forms of domination are connected; and (3) Redefine Radical Feminism in
practice. My main criticisms are that Harris' agenda boils down to a
multicultural liberalism and lacks a class-rooted analysis. Harris wants
to re-define revolutionary feminism to a strategy (already problematic) -
that of attacking white supremacy, all the while arguing for an analysis
which recognizes the interconnectedness of oppressions. Attacking white
supremacy is certainly a critical issue for revolutionaries, but what does
this say about women's oppression explicitly? 

Revolutionary feminism's strength has only come when it has an independent
analysis, autonomous demands, and a searing critique of every social,
economic, and cultural arrangement that exploits women. If anarchists are
to have a strong critique of hierarchy and domination, culminating in the
"triple oppressions" so often referred to, then a strategy of focusing on
issues where these issues intersect is a more relevant point of
revolutionary potential. 

In 'Re-defining Radical Feminism' patriarchy is defined by Carol Pateman
as "a political system of power based on a "social contract." Pateman also
equates the origin of women's subordination with the creation of this
"social contract" and the consolidation of government of men. This is
arguably not the case but the origin of patriarchy is not the issue in
this discussion. Certainly the bourgeois revolutions outline this
development with the creation of a civil society of men -- in both the
French and American revolutions women's exclusion is well known. Also, the
development of a public sphere / private sphere division is well known as
the entry point of women into a subordinate position, yet whether this was
created during the negotiation of the social contract Pateman assesses is
doubtful. But let's not rely on the 'Rousseauan' concept of the social
contract to describe a world-wide phenomenon of the exploitation of the
female sex. We cannot work under the assumption that there is some
universal and monolithic Patriarchy that affects social, economic and
cultural relations globally. Women are not a homogenous group and our
Western understanding of women's oppression cannot begin to describe other
people?s lives in the world. There are however grand paint strokes we can
make that in general women occupy the lowest social rung in the various
societies in the world, and feminists have grappled with this
contradiction for a number of decades now. 

Since its coinage by "second wave" feminists, the feminist movement has
been persistently plagued with the inadequacy of the term Patriarchy. It
has become even more unwieldy for those revolutionaries intent on smashing
it. A recent two-day conference on the subject held by revolutionary
anarchists had so much difficulty hammering out this concept that it
became impossible to reach any sort of conclusion about what to do about
this "patriarchy." The attempt to hone Patriarchy as a useful word to
describe what exactly is oppressing women has stretched from narrowly
defining it as a "reign of brothers" (like Pateman) to expanding it to a
"Capitalist-Patriarchy" (Mies), to Bell Hooks' "white supremacist,
capitalist, and patriarchal social hierarchy," to Sheila Rowbotham's
wholesale rejection of the term as misleading. I agree with Maria Mies
that though inadequate and often inaccurate (for it literally means "rule
of the fathers"), "patriarchy" denotes a continuity which has a historical
framework and so thankfully it is not a universal constant; and having
been embraced by feminists as a tool for describing women's position it is
useful enough to continue to tinker with it. 

Importantly 'Re-defining Radical Feminism' is a positive step in framing
Patriarchy in a way that makes sense to us, but I'd like to direct the
argument specifically towards revolutionary anarchists. Without getting
lost in labels, it is still important to clarify also the many
distinctions within feminism which most anarchists do not understand. We
can?t talk about redefining "radical feminism" without understanding its
own particular history, one which is distinct from anarchist or socialist
feminisms (though some lines are blurry). 

Most feminist works have outlined the differing perspectives on the
position of women in society: Conservative (i.e. sexual division of labor
is natural and women's subordinate role is summed up by "biology is
destiny"); Liberal (seeks equal status under current system or within the
"social contract"); Traditional Marxist; Radical; Multicultural; Global;
and Socialist. Traditional Marxism ignores the exploitation of women in
the private sphere, ultimately denying the existence of Patriarchy.
Radical Feminism developed in part as a response to the lack of a feminist
analysis in traditional Marxism and Socialism, and in contrast to Liberal
feminism's reformism. Radical feminists developed the analysis of
Patriarchy as the primary oppression in the world, and for the first time
advanced a critique of gender and sexuality as social forms which are
culturally constructed. They do not believe that women's oppression will
end with the abolition of class society as the traditional Marxists
argued. Rather, there is almost no class analysis - that all women,
despite race, class, ethnicity, etc., share the same oppression. Also
problematic for anarchists is the lack of a critique of the State. In fact
there were some radical feminists proposing a women-only government as the
cure-all for society. Their ideology also tends to rely on
biological-determinism notions - that women are by nature superior to men.
It is obvious that we would want to re-define "true" radical feminism if
we must use this term at all! "Revolutionary Feminism" is a more
appropriate term in this discussion 

Socialist feminism tries to bring together the best of Radical feminism
and a class analysis of women's exploitation, arguing that both class
stratification (i.e. capitalism) and patriarchy must be eliminated in
order for women to be truly free. Anarchist feminism, in its very small
ranks, stands near this perspective, but furthers the socialist critique
by pointing to the State (as a culmination of hierarchy and
authoritarianism) as a third "tier" of oppression. It is our job to trace
the exact nature of how Patriarchy, Capitalism, and the State interact to
cause the various oppressions we want to overthrow. In a broad sense
anarchist feminism is the critique of domination in all its forms, similar
to the analysis offered by "multicultural feminism," but with a clear
anti-capitalist and anti-statist position. In this way 'Re-defining
Radical Feminism' is emphasizing what is already that broad anarchist
position: that revolutionary praxis "must be focused on the eradication of

Solid examples of how different forms of domination are connected are
found in Harris' essay, quoting Bell Hooks, Angela Davis, and radical
abolitionist Angelina Grimke, and giving historical examples in the US
context. Anarchists often struggle to resolve our critiques of the "triple
oppressions" - race, class, sex - with our overarching critique of
domination "in all its forms" while explicitly pointing to Capitalism and
the State. In fact the discussion here should not be which direction for
the "radical feminist movement" (which should be closer toward anarchist
politics!) but how the anarchist movement has so far failed to update its
own praxis to offer something relevant to overcome these problems. 

'Re-defining Radical Feminism' seems to be coming from this direction yet
unearths a "hierarchy of oppressions" by pulling white supremacy out as
the "strategic" point of departure. There is a triple oppression and we
cannot view patriarchy and white supremacy as mere contradictions, or
secondary afterthought to the class analysis. They do function as
"divisive mechanisms of capital" yet are independent of that. Nor are
white supremacy, colonialism, and racism footnotes to women's oppression.
We have to consistently challenge this creeping idea among white leftists
or run the played out mistake of a doomed revolutionary analysis. But to
discard the class lens with which we view these oppressions is to imitate
multicultural liberalism which does no one any favors. "A class rooted
analysis is where I begin in all my work" says bell hooks. 

Valuable in 'Re-defining Radical Feminism' is its North American focus,
which is not often a popular perspective but revolutionaries here in North
America cannot import European or Third World examples to the unique
social conditions of the US. Harris' analysis of race and the struggle
against white supremacy as the lynch-pin to revolution flows from this
position, and rightly that is one crucial point of departure. Some white
anarchists, and other leftists have their heads in the sand hoping the
Black/White problem will solve itself without any real effort. Any
revolutionary struggle in the US requires true solidarity, principled
alliances, solid long term work on the part of white revolutionaries and
white anarchists to cross this divide, some of which is just beginning to
be built. The same can be said for white revolutionary feminists and this
is Harris' point, but she is also redefining revolutionary feminism to a
narrow "strategy," that of attacking white supremacy. Yes it should be
part and parcel of the feminist agenda . But to redefine the whole thrust
of revolutionary feminism towards attacking white supremacy doesn't say
very much about how women's oppression functions in society or more
importantly, how to overcome it. The revolution is not going to be split
open by only focusing on one oppression, just as 'true' radical feminism
would have you believe. There are many points of departure and one thing
that revolutionary feminists have at least learned is that the issue of
women's exploitation is the first to get left behind. 

In our attempt to re-visit revolutionary feminism and lessons that can be
learned for anarchists the most glaring necessity is to retain a class
analysis. Harris states: "Feminism can no longer be seen as a lifestyle
choice but it must be seen as a political commitment. Focusing on this
political commitment and resistance to domination will engage us in
revolutionary praxis and avoid the typical pitfall of resorting to narrow,
stereotyped perspectives of feminism." 'Re-defining Radical Feminism'
hopes to get feminism out of its lifestylist (i.e. cultural) rut, but the
lesson for Western feminism stuck in the cultural context, which is
expressed by emphasis on education, language, psychology (which liberal
anti-racism is also suffering from) is the lack of understanding of
economic production relations which will always trump any cultural
advances. We will not get feminism out of its perceived cultural rut by
broadening its goals to the extent that is has no coherent analysis of
women's particular oppression. The strength of the feminist movement, at
least the revolutionary end of it, has been its autonomy. The lesson is
there to learn from: men, even our supposed comrades, will not hand us our
dignity and freedom whenever we politely ask for it. A women's movement
which subsumes its demands for the greater good will be betrayed by the
promise of a united front in class, anti-colonial, or national struggles.
The plainest examples are the anti-colonial and revolutionary struggles
such as those in Algeria, Cuba, Vietnam, China and the Soviet Union. In
the case of a successful anti-colonial struggle or revolution, no matter
what gains women may have made in the space created by the waging of the
struggle, the force of the necessity to reorganize the economy expediently
will again push women to the exploited "subsidiary" sectors or are "sent
back to the family." Unless concrete change in the material production
relations occurs, even raised consciousness of sex relations will not
stand to the weight of economic realities. "Production" that unsavory
term, needs to be understood to include that work that takes place in the
private realm to include women in the family and what Rowbotham calls the
"production of self through sexuality." Only when that social division
between public and private and the sexual division of labor has been
contested, alongside the cultural and social consciousness necessary for
revolutionary change, will gains for women stick. 

In terms of concrete action, an alternate strategy might be to focus on an
issue in which the "triple oppressions" intersect in order to make these
connections apparent. Anti-poverty issues are clearly arenas in which sex
oppression and racism are pivotal, whether it is in housing, homelessness,
in the workplace, or around welfare. Recent marriage incentive laws for
women on welfare, restrictive codes on single women's behavior in housing
projects all expose Patriarchy in the grossest, most racist ways. As is
understanding why the fastest growing prisoner population is young girls -
usually Black, Latina, poor. This is a strategy which is revolutionary,
and feminist, for the 21st century. 


The Northeastern Anarchist #5 (Fall/Winter 2002): Magazine of the
Northeastern Federation of Anarcho-Communists (NEFAC) 

Single copies are $5ppd ($6 international). Subscriptions are $15ppd for
four issues ($18 international). For distribution, bundle orders are $3
per copy for three or more copies, and $2.50 per copy for ten or more.
Checks or money orders can be made out to 'Northeastern Anarchist' and
sent to: 

Northeastern Anarchist PO Box 230685 Boston, MA 02123, USA

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