Sexism in a Militant Environment

International Working Women's Day marchers. Philadelphia, 8 March 2017.

We denounce the double day of the workers who, once they return home, take on household chores, but in the militant context, talk about a “double struggle”. The fight against patriarchy requires twice as much energy as other struggles because it requires fighting not only on the social front but also within political groups themselves.

Indeed, who in organizations glues labels on envelopes? Sweeps the meeting rooms? Mostly women. Who coordinates the demonstrations? Speaks up in meetings? Mostly men.

In the libertarian groups of France, the anti-sexist theme is certainly taken into account, but in an unsatisfactory way. If some groups mobilize for 8 March or against initiatives to ban abortion, one may wonder what the real place of the anti-patriarchal struggle is in libertarian groups in France.

Let us be under no illusions: libertarians reproduce gender and sexual domination… like everyone else. Except that, when claiming to fight domination, it would be good to look at the ones you maintain. Not paying attention to it is the best way to reinforce this phenomenon.

The anarchist movement has not often raised feminism to the top of its list of major concerns. The same goes for homophobia because many anarchists long considered homosexuality a “bourgeois perversion”.

The idea of sexual liberation, on the other hand, has been recovered and emptied of its anti-patriarchal meaning. For most activists, in 1936 as in 1970, it meant above all the sexual availability of feminists to male desires.

Invisible Women

Gender issues are rarely integrated into anti-capitalist or anti-racist discourses and struggles. Starting from the good old sexist principle that the male prevails over the female, we defend the unemployed without taking into account that they are mainly unemployed women and that women are twice as exploited as their colleagues in the world of work.

With support for undocumented migrants, we find the same failings: women are invisible, while their situation is always worse than that of men. The absence of this theme is sometimes justified by the fact that gender is part of a bourgeois theory advocating interclassism, while it is an essential analytical tool to understand inequalities between men and women, between heterosexuals and others.

The invisibility of patriarchal oppression, particularly of women, stems in particular from a compartmentalised vision of struggles. As if the problems faced by women could be reduced to a single space for struggle. The gender issue is a cross-cutting one! Believing, like many others, that this theme is reserved for women (women who, in the best of cases, are “supported in their struggle”) makes it possible to avoid participating in the fight against patriarchy.

The title “Women’s Commission”, used by some libertarian groups, such as social-democratic parties, reveals the implicit disengagement of men. The Free Mujeres movement during the Spanish War is a unique example of the massive struggle of anarchist women.

But it should not be forgotten that this group of proletarian feminists, gathering up to 20,000 women, encountered much resistance from men on the same side. The latter, who thought that the workers were stealing their place from the men, did not accept that the Free Mujeres criticized the glorification of motherhood.

Did You Say “Non-Hierarchy of Struggles”?

Another, more subtle way of not integrating feminism into ongoing struggles is, paradoxically, to include the patriarchal theme “naturally” in the class struggle. For some, it is enough to claim anarchism to be automatically feminist.

To consider patriarchy as an avatar or a consequence of capitalism is to refuse to accept the specificity of this gender-based system. It is very useful to think that by leading a class struggle, we are fighting against all forms of domination. Capitalism does not total up all forms of oppression (that would be very simple).

The struggle against patriarchy is a struggle in its own right. And if the effects of patriarchy and capitalism are reinforced and interpenetrated, it must be admitted that they are two autonomous systems (some patriarchal societies are built on an economy that is not capitalist). And that there are therefore two struggles (at least) to be fought in parallel.

Among libertarian women activists, few denounce these deficiencies. Probably because, like all other women, they have internalised the invisibility of patriarchy.

There are more men than women in anarchist groups. The fact that women are not very involved in politics is a social phenomenon, but the violent and warlike image of the anarchist black flag is probably a factor. Does it really make sense to maintain such virile folklore?

In addition, for many women, it is difficult to identify themselves as part of the women’s group. Believing that our social reality is identical to that of men allows us to blend into the group of activists in the name of group cohesion.

This is understandable. Women who try to point out these oppressive issues internally are labelled “feminist”, which for many means “chronic pain in the ass”.

This disregard for the question of patriarchy reflects the difficulty of facing the myths on which many political groups are based, such as: “the question of power does not exist within the group”, “there is no domination between activists”, etc. It is time to recognise that an activist group does not operate in isolation.

Gender? Not Familiar

It is a pity that the analyses of some libertarians are limited to the status of women without taking into account the social construction of gender. Most libertarians fail to overcome the essentialist theories that our behaviours are based on biological differences, differences that seem to explain (but do not justify) male domination.

However, nature alone cannot produce the categories of men and women as they exist. We are not born men or women, we become one or the other. From childhood, family, school and society, in general, have taught us different roles depending on our biological sex. Girls are taught the values of gentleness, understanding, submission and passivity. Boys are taught those of violence, courage, self-assertion.

Taking into account this conditioning, which shapes each of us, makes it possible to go beyond the thesis of a biological determinism and “naturally” female and male qualities. The construction of gender, which the feminist milieu has largely appropriated, including among the reformists, does not succeed in making its place among some libertarians.

Indeed, it is easier to unite on the basis of a common external enemy (religions and fachos that flout women’s rights, and the bosses who exploit them) than to question oneself individually to try to see the power relations that exist within libertarian organizations.

Thus, the majority of libertarian groups not only do not question the foundations of patriarchy but maintain it.

Sexuality is Political

This gap in libertarian thinking on feminism leads, in addition to discrimination against women, to a negation of lesbians, gays, bi and trans (LGBT).

Do they exist in libertarian circles? Of course, as everywhere in society. Nevertheless, we are entitled to ask the question because they are so invisible.

Under the guise of respect for individual freedom, it is declared that the private is not political and a taboo is imposed on discussions about sexuality, whatever it may be. We refuse to consider that sexuality is culturally constructed, an essential fact resulting from the struggles of the 1970s.

Refusing to talk about the stakes of certain sexual behaviours is a form of modesty that sometimes borders on puritanism. Some people say that everyone does what they want in bed, but it is better not to talk about it because it has nothing to do with politics. Yet, bawdy songs, sexist jokes and lesbo-gay-bi-transphobic jokes are still common among some anarchists, thus reinforcing the heterocentrism that prevails.

Some sexual behaviours are denied and the prevailing lesbo-gay-bi-transphobia, which is based on heterosexuality, is maintained. Asserting oneself as a lesbian, trans, bi or gay in a libertarian organization is still a courageous act (just like in the workplace or in the family) that many dare not do.

What we observe today is therefore not new. Feminist movements, lesbian, gay, queer and lesbian struggles have made things happen, but we must continue to question them. It is not enough to want to destroy capitalism and patriarchy through the bosses and the moral order but to try to change behaviour here and now.

Nothing will change without the mobilisation of women, lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transgender people. Nothing will change without the implementation of effective tools, in particular, the creation of non-mixed groups of women and men that are spaces for political reflection on relations of domination, especially between men and women, heterosexuals and LGBT people.

Adapted from Du sexisme en milieu militant. Photograph courtesy of Joe Piette. Published under a Creative Commons license.