Revolutionary Women

Revolutionary Women

Appendix: Women and Anarchism

“[We] women must simply take our place without begging for it.”
– Louise Michel

At first sight, the compatibility of anarchism and women’s liberation seems clear. Anarchism proclaims itself against all hierarchies which would include the oppression of women.

Michael Bakunin, a founding figure of Anarchism, was to say: “Oppressed women! Your cause is indissolubly tied to the common cause of all the exploited workers — men and women!” and calls for the emancipation of women are included in the various programmes developed by Bakunin and his associates in the 1860s and 1870s. For instance, we can read in the Principles and Organisation of the International Brotherhood (1866) that:

“Woman, differing from man but not inferior to him, intelligent, industrious, and free like him, is declared his equal both in rights and in political and social functions and duties.” He was to note that “In the eyes of the law even the best educated, talented, intelligent woman is inferior to even the most ignorant man.”

Bakunin argued for the sexual freedom of women, remarking that the Law subjects women to “the absolute domination of the man” [1]. 
However, Bakunin himself was as much a peddler of outmoded views as others. At a dinner in Zurich, he noticed a woman drinking a glass of wine and remarked that he did not approve of women drinking. A discussion on women’s rights followed with Bakunin still maintaining that he did not like to see women drinking and smoking! This graphically illustrates the clash between theories of emancipation and the dead weight of antiquated ideas enshrined as custom and stereotype. Fortunately, women in the main from the Russian aristocracy and intelligentsia had begun to take an active and courageous part in revolutionary movements and were pioneers in emancipated behaviour.

While at least Bakunin had, in theory, enlightened views on the 
liberation of women, his precursor the Frenchman Pierre-Joseph Proudhon was deeply reactionary in this respect. He blustered that “Genius is virility of spirit and its accompanying powers of abstraction, generalisation, creation, and conception; the child, the eunuch, and the woman lack these gifts in equal measure.” Woman was created by nature merely as a organism for reproduction, and she was physically inferior to Man. Proudhon backed these views up with various pseudo-scientific theories. Outside of a reproductive role woman had no reason to exist and cost more to Man than he earns. Woman had only two roles open to her “housewife or harlot”. He went on to say that the killing of wives was justified for such things as “adultery, impudence, treason, drunkenness or debauchery, wastefulness or theft, and persistent insubordination.” Proudhon laced these fulminations with tirades against lechery and pederasty (Above quotes from La justice dans la revolution et dans l’église, 1858).

Proudhon’s views on women were to be strongly contested by Juliette Lambert (Adam) who replied with her book Idees Anti-
Proudhonniennes sur la femme, l’amour et le marriage, Anti-
Proudhonist ideas on Woman , Love and Marriage (1858), who castigated “men like Proudhon, who want to return us to patriarchy by imprisoning women in the family”, by Jenny d’Héricourt who stated that Proudhon saw Woman as a “a perpetual invalid, who should be shut up in a gynoceum in company with a dairy maid” (La Femme Affranchie, 1860) and by Joseph Déjacque, who had far more revolutionary and advanced views than Proudhon. As Déjacque remarked in 1882:

“Is it possible, great publicist, that under your lion’s skin so much of the ass may be found? […] Father Proudhon, shall I say it? When you talk of women you appear like a college boy who talks very loudly and in a high key, at random and with impertinence, in order to appear learned, as you do to your callow hearers, and who like you knows not the first thing of the matter he is talking about […] Listen, Master Proudhon! Before you talk of woman, study her; go to school. Stop calling yourself an anarchist, or be an anarchist clear through. Talk to us, if you wish to, of the unknown and the known, of God who is evil, of property which is robbery; but when you talk of man do not make him an autocratic divinity, for I will answer you that man is evil. Attribute not to him a stock of intelligence which belongs to him only by right of conquest, by the commerce of love, by usury on the capital that comes entirely from woman and is the product of the soul within her. Dare not to attribute to him that which he has derived from another or I will answer you in your own words: “Property is robbery” […] Raise your voice, on the contrary, against the exploitation of woman by man” [2]. As the anarchist Elisée Reclus was to later say disapprovingly about Proudhon “….his words on women are still for all of us those which weigh most heavily.”

Women were to enter the anarchist movement precisely because they were attracted by these new liberating ideas of emancipation and equality. Everywhere they were forced to fight against the hidebound attitudes and prejudices of their male comrades. Nevertheless they persisted. Emma Goldman, Voltairine de Cleyre, Louise Michel, and Lucy Parsons are the names that come to mind if one thinks of 
anarchist women but there were many others just as determined, devoted and courageous. This pamphlet makes an attempt to illuminate the lives of these lesser known women anarchists (and precisely because they have received so much attention elsewhere is the reason for biographies of Goldman et al not to be included here).

The great French anarchist and Communard Louise Michel was to say:

“The first thing that must change is the relationship between the sexes. Humanity has two parts, men and women, and we ought to be walking hand in hand; instead there is antagonism, and it will last as long as the ‘stronger’ half controls, or thinks it controls, the ‘weaker’ half.” [3]

While a modern understanding of gender contradicts the idea of there being two essential genders, the core of this idea that we must fight against systems of oppression based upon gendered traits holds true.

When women in the anarchist movement began to organise independently, as in Argentina and Spain, they met with opposition from some of their male counterparts. In Argentina, anarchist women organised around the newspaper ‘La Voz de la Mujer’ (Woman’s Voice). To quote ‘No God, No Boss, No Husband’ [4]: “La Voz de la Mujer 
described itself as “dedicated to the advancement of Communist Anarchism.” Its central theme was that of the multiple nature of women’s oppression. An editorial asserted, “We believe that in present-day society nothing and nobody has a more wretched situation than unfortunate women.” Women, they said, were doubly oppressed – by bourgeois society and by men”. This was greeted enthusiastically in some quarters of the Argentinean movement. However, an article in ‘La Voz de La Mujer’ indicated fierce opposition too:

“When we women, unworthy and ignorant as we are, took the initiative and published La Voz de la Mujer, we should have known, Oh modem rogues, how you would respond with your old mechanistic philosophy to our initiative. You should have realized that we stupid women have initiative and that is the product of thought. You know – we also think … The first number of La Voz de la Mujer appeared and of course, all hell broke loose: ‘Emancipate women? For what?’ ‘Emancipate women? Not on your nelly!’ … ‘Let our emancipation come first, and then, when we men are emancipated and free, we shall see about yours.” [5].

The emergence in Spain of the libertarian women’s organisation Mujeres Libres during the Revolution and Civil War brought similar controversies. As Martha A. Ackelsberg noted in ‘Separate and equal: Mujeres Libres and anarchist strategy for women’s emancipation’ [6]:

“While committed to the creation of an egalitarian society, Spanish anarchists exhibited a complex attitude toward the subordination of women. Some argued that women’s subordination stemmed from the division of labour by sex, from women’s “domestication” and consequent exclusion from the paid labour force. To overcome it, women would have to join the labour force as workers, along with men, and struggle in unions to improve the position of all workers. Others insisted that women’s subordination was the result of broad cultural phenomena, and reflected a devaluation of women and their activities mediated through institutions such as family and church. That devaluation would end, along with those institutions, with the establishment of anarchist society.

But the subordination of women was at best a peripheral concern of the anarchist movement as a whole. Most anarchists refused to recognise the specificity of women’s subordination, and few men were willing to give up the power over women they had enjoyed for so long. As the national secretary of the CNT wrote in 1935, in response to a series of articles on the women’s issue: “We know it is more pleasant to give orders than to obey…. Between the woman and the man the same thing occurs. The male feels more satisfied having a servant to make his food, wash his clothes…. That is reality. And, in the face of that, to ask that men cede [their privileges] is to dream.”

The attitude of Saturnino Carod, a leader of an anarchist column on the Aragon front, sums up the attitudes of many male anarchists to the question of women’s liberation in a society deeply infused with attitudes of machismo and male superiority. He was to say: “Despite everything that is said about the liberation of women, one must take into account woman’s social role, particularly as mother, and protect her from the sort of work that requires great strength. It was not right that a single woman who needed to earn her living had to work the land like a man…” [7]

Today we are still faced with many problems that have to be overcome. Recent revelations within the authoritarian left have revealed a culture that is predisposed to the cover-up of rape and abuse against women and a subsequent closing of ranks by the leadership and a large part of the party membership. We should not be so smug as to think that similar problems do not exist within the anarchist movement and that women do not face problems of sexual harassment, belittling from male comrades, not being taken seriously, and so on. If we are to construct a relevant anarchist movement then we must take up the call for women’s liberation. This means not just around the question of collective child care, the need for socialised crèches both within the movement and in society as a whole, birth control and contraception, for the rights of bodily autonomy the whole question of unwaged work, the need to transform housework, the struggle around equal pay, but also against the objectification and role stereotyping of women in advertising and the media, against sexual harassment in the street, at work and in the home, for open access to medical aids to transition; all told, the struggle against structural misogyny and its intersecting forms such as transmisogyny and misogynoir.

These are concrete struggles that must be seriously addressed within our movement.

Without such developments any attempt at social revolution will be inadequate and ignored by women looking for a radical break with this corrupt, oppressive and hierarchical system.


[1] Quoted in Dolgoff, Bakunin on Anarchy,
1980 edition, p.396
[2] On The Human Being, Male and Female, 1857
[3] Memoirs of Louise Michel
[4] group
[5] See the biography of Virginia Bolten in this pamphlet for
more information
[7] Interviewed in The Blood of Spain, Ronald Fraser,
1979, p.364