A history of fighting for women's freedom


The libertarian socialist (anarcho-syndicalist) movement long fought against women's oppression. And many prominent figures in the women's movement were anarcho-syndicalists. This article gives some examples, but many more could be found.

BAKUNIN

Mikhail Bakunin, the founder of anarcho-syndicalism, was a fighter for women's freedom. "In the eyes of the law", Bakunin noted, "even the best educated, talented, intelligent woman is inferior to even the most ignorant man".

For the poor underprivileged women, said Bakunin, there is the threat of "hunger and cold", and the threat of sexual assault and prostitution.

Even within the family, women are too often the "slaves of their husbands", and their children are "deprived of a decent education, condemned to a brutish life of servitude and degradation". Instead of this, "equal rights must belong to both men and women" (Bakunin). Women must be economically independent, "free to forge their own way of life".

This requires united workers struggle against the bosses. As Bakunin put it: "Oppressed women! Your cause is indissolubly tied to the common cause of all the exploited workers --- men and women! "

LUCY PARSONS

Lucy Parsons, the Black woman anarcho-syndicalist militant, fought for the rights of workers, Blacks and women in the USA.

In her speech to the founding conference of the revolutionary trade union- the Industrial Workers of the World - in 1905 Lucy Parsons paid close attention to the oppression of working class women. She noted how that oppression was used by the bosses to reduce the wages of the entire working class: "We, the women of this country, have no ballot even if we wished to use it ... but we have our labour ... Whenever wages are to be reduced, the capitalist class uses women to reduce them."

At a time when the left tended to ignore the plight of prostitutes, Lucy Parsons told the conference that she also spoke for "my sisters whom I can see in the night when I go out in Chicago".

EMMA GOLDMAN

Emma Goldman was another US anarcho-syndicalist militant. She was born in a Jewish ghetto in Russia, and left for the USA in the 1880s where she was textile worker

Working in the factories as a seamstress, she became a militant agitator and speaker after the hanging of comrades in Chicago in 1886.

Emma was repeatedly imprisoned: for calling on the unemployed to organise to demand bread; for distributing information on birth control; and for organising against World War One.

She was deported in 1919 and was active in both the Russian (1917-21) and Spanish Revolutions (1936-7).

Emma Goldman believed in revolutionary trade unionism. Emma Goldman stood for the rights of women.

She rejected male domination in the family and called for equality between men and women. She opposed capitalism, which reduces women to cheap labour and sex objects.

Emma criticised the middle-class reformist feminists of her time for being detached from the economic realities of working class women.

ARGENTINE

In Argentine, women anarcho-syndicalists set up the revolutionary The Voice of the Woman newspaper in the 1890s. This was one of the "first ... instances in Latin America of the fusion of feminist ideas with a revolutionary and working- class orientation and differs from the feminism found elsewhere in Latin America ... which centred on educated middle- class women and ... reflected their specific concerns".

The same study continues: "The distinctiveness of The Voice of the Woman as an Anarchist paper lay in its recognition of the specificity of women's oppression. It called on women to mobilise against their oppression both as women and as workers" (Maxine Molyneux, Latin American Perspectives, 13 (1), 1986).

CHINA

In China, the anarcho-syndicalist movement pioneered a distinct anarchist position on women's liberation. In contrast to the Chinese nationalists, who wanted women's liberation only as a way of "building the nation", women comrades like He Zhen argued for class struggle and the right of women to determine their own lives.

He Zhen linked women's rights to the call for a complete social revolution; she knew the "the oppression of women to be linked to modern class divisions and economic exploitation as well as traditional culture" (Peter Zarrow, The Journal of Asian Studies, 47(4), 1988).

SPANISH REVOLUTION

In Spain in 1936, the working class organised a revolution for libertarian socialism (anarcho-syndicalism). Workers seized the land and factories and organised a workers army.

Women also made gains. Women played a full part in the revolutionary struggle. Women were everywhere - Women were active in the workers collectives, and workers army where they fought alongside the men as equals. Women were taking up the fight against the sexist attitudes of the past which have no place in any real revolution.

The anarcho-syndicalist women's organisation, Mujeres Libres (Free Women) had 30,000 members. Mujeres Libres organised working-class women. It stood for class struggle. It worked closely with the anarcho-syndicalist youth and trade unions.

Before the revolution, Mujeres Libres had organised women workers and distributed information on contraception. During the revolution abortion was legalised in the revolutionary zone. Centres were opened for women, including unmarried mothers and prostitutes.

Although the revolution was lost, we can learn a clear lesson- when people begin to throw off the old ideas and start creating a new society their views on many things change. Women's freedom becomes a real possibility. This is our fighting tradition- women's liberation through workers revolution!


Part of the African anarchism web page

For the latest news subscribe to anarchy_africa