Feminism: Disarmed? Indulgent? Introverted?

Article by Iris Mills from the pamphlet "Against Separatism" by Joe Peacott. The article first appeared in Freedom in 1981. It is a transcript of Mills’ presentation at a debate at London’s Autonomy Centre on September 25 1981

libcom note: we disagree with much of this article and reproduce it for reference.

It has become normal for people in these debates to begin by criticizing the title of the debate - and I won't be the first to break this tradition.

What I take exception to in the title is the word 'disarmed' because I don't believe feminism was ever armed in the first place. It always was, is now, and will remain, ‘unarmed.’ The demands of the women's movement have never had revolutionary implications; they have never posed threats to either the state or capitalist society and therefore it is a mistake to think of it as a once revolutionary force now diluted by reformism.

It is precisely because of the women's movement rationale itself that it could never be revolutionary. Its professed aim has been to put women on an equal footing with men, to explain oppression in terms of sex instead of class. This analysis was wrong on both counts. By presupposing that men, as a sex, call all the shots and are more privileged in all respects, feminists risk losing sight of the fact that men in this society are themselves subject to discrimination and oppression based on class. The desire to be equal to men seems ridiculous to me, for who would want to be equal to slaves?

Of course many feminists recognize this and try to get round it by claiming that women's demands, if implemented, would revolutionize society. They say that once a deep and thorough-going realignment of the sexes takes place, once the psychological barriers which divide men from women are removed, society in its present form would be radically altered. Patriarchy, so the argument runs, is the source of oppression, preceding the development of classes and capitalism; and the consequence of its demise would be a free and equal society.

The second mistake is to treat ‘freedom’ as quantitative. Human freedom is not divisible, degrees of oppression are not real criteria with which to analyze society. It is immaterial whether patriarchy preceded class development. Oppression is based on class and I believe that the men and women of one class must unite and fight the men and women of the ruling class. To say, as Astrid Proll did, that she knew she could get justice because the judge hearing her case was a woman, is dangerous. It is dangerous because it promotes a myth - the myth of sisterhood. As if all women, despite their class, have something fundamentally in common, because they share the same kind of sex organs.

The myth of sisterhood works against revolutionaries in two ways. It separates men from women. You all know of ‘women only‘ meetings. Surely our concern is to bring people together not to erect still more barriers. The ‘woman is superior‘ syndrome is not something I am exaggerating for tonight - it is plainly visible in Spare Rib among the contributors who state that they hate their male children - at six months old! It's horrendous. The worst aspect of the ‘myth of sisterhood’ is that it leads directly to women's issues alone and undermines the solidarity so important to a revolutionary movement and neglects a class analysis. Thus women's demands have been channelled into projects like the First Women's National Bank of New York, which allows men to have accounts but not to become shareholders. The logic behind this seems to be that self-managed oppression and exploitation is better. It also indicates the identification of women's rights with women careerists and professionals. There is no demand for revolution - just a demand that within the framework of this economic and social system women get a fair deal. Big deal!

Of course it is true that within the women's movement there are those women who call themselves revolutionaries, whose rationale appears to be that they recognize that women will never achieve anything other than superficial equality unless society undergoes a revolutionary change. They say however that they prefer to work with women only, because they feel dominated among men. I can understand that to a point but no problem was ever solved by ignoring it. If some men are domineering toward women they should be confronted by the fact - it's no use going away and hoping that in your absence the man or men in question will come to their senses. Anyway some women feel dominated by other women - what do they do then? Form a sub-group of submissive women only?

Some women use the ‘degrees’ of oppression argument as an explanation for their work in the women's movement. The point of the argument being that you should work with the most oppressed. For example Kate Millet says that tn the United States white women are more oppressed than black males. I'm not sure how points are allocated but I suppose that a black working class unmarried mother who's a lesbian must get the highest score.

Demands for free abortion, better day care facilities and so on are important only in so far as they make life today that much easier - in much the same way as demands for prison reform in the way of more association, longer visits and the like, makes prison life a little easier. But these reforms should be left to the liberals; they don't come to grips with the basic problem in society. For women who feel themselves to be revolutionaries it is more important that they see past these reforms and concern themselves with more fundamental issues. When someone says ‘I'm an anarchist-feminist‘ to me that's like saying ‘I'm a vegetarian who doesn't eat meat.‘ To me anarchism stands for the individual liberation of each human being.

For the reasons I've given I don't believe feminism was ever ‘armed‘ in the sense that it ever provided a revolutionary challenge to the state. But is it also ‘introverted' and ‘indulgent’? Briefly then:

A glance at some of the feminist fiction around is, I think, a fair indication of the concerns of the women's movement. Pick, say, Marge Piercy‘s books, Woman on the Edge of Time and Vida. It seems Odd that feminists who are allegedly concerned with destroying the current sexual stereotypes are setting up new ones, and have books full of ‘beautiful’ people. Piercy‘s heroines are all very physically attractive to men. Moreover the men themselves conform to the same old model: handsome, strong and athletic. Indeed in Vida it is the slightly feminine man who betrays the heroine.

Also, for some ridiculous reason, cats play an important role — they supposedly represent the female image. Is that supposed to be soft and fluffy? While dogs are despised, the reason for which I haven't yet grasped, but apparently dogs are more masculine.

I think that this type of fiction which reflects feminist issues shows them to be introverted and indulgent in the same way as conferences on orgasm are. By all means talk about these things with your friends, male and female -- or with strangers if you will. But don't try to give them a political expression or use them as examples of political oppression of women by men.

Finally, I want to acknowledge some benefit from the feminist movement - simply that it has done something to change the nature of relationships between men and women; with developments in technology that give us effective contraception, for example, relationships were bound to evolve. But anarchists have to go further -- it is not possible to have ‘free’ relationships in an unfree society. We can work towards it, true, but we can never obtain it until we have a free society in which to develop properly. I maintain that human beings and human relationships cannot be free until the oppression of the state and capital is destroyed and a classless society is created.

Nothing less will do.

Posted By

Mair Waring
Mar 28 2021 19:15

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Mair Waring
Mar 28 2021 19:32

Taken from the Sparrows Nest:
https://www.thesparrowsnest.org.uk/

Mair Waring
Apr 6 2021 23:38

I feel like this is a totally unnecessary comment at the top of my post from the Libcom admins...

For what its worth I don't fully agree with the article either, but I think it has plenty of "nuance" in many regards. It makes some pretty good remarks on feminist fiction, separate organisations and the class collaborationism* that is rife within much of the feminist movement. I do think it is somewhat class reductionist, but find more writings on the matter have the opposite problem. I also think its overly critical of "reforms", which contradicts with how I view revolutionary politics (syndicalism). But I don't think any of this should matter: its clearly from the tradition this archive hails from: revolutionary class politics.

I don't know why you felt the need to specify a better article... If you don't like the article then just comment about it below. I will read the article tomorrow but it feels like a somewhat random one from a skim, that hardly has a nuanced view of how class and gender interact.

I understand sometimes there is a need to put this warning, especially if an article is outright offensive / derogatory or clearly contradicts with the politics of the website. However, an article that is perhaps a bit crude in its treatment of feminism, written by a woman in the 1980s (and uploaded by one for what its worth, not much imo), that doesn't demean anyone and clearly belongs to a revolutionary tradition is not that.

Given the admins are, understandably, busy I feel like this is a total waste of time, especially when pamphlets like SCUM are uploaded (something else I enjoyed reading) don't even have notes on it like this.

*"By presupposing that men, as a sex, call all the shots and are more privileged in all respects, feminists risk losing sight of the fact that men in this society are themselves subject to discrimination and oppression based on class. The desire to be equal to men seems ridiculous to me, for who would want to be equal to slaves?"
This quote is a fantastic bit of writing in my opinion, even if its perhaps downhill from there.

Steven.
Apr 7 2021 13:58
Mair Waring wrote:
I feel like this is a totally unnecessary comment at the top of my post from the Libcom admins...

Our general policy is that libcom is a library for all texts of interest to the workers' and libcom movements, but we try to include critical introductions on articles we disagree with. For example the Scum manifesto you mention does include a note right at the beginning: "We do not agree with its politics, or her actions but reproduce this text for reference."
In terms of your mention of another text, this is fair enough, so we have removed that.
But we think it's important to maintain the critical note, to make clear that we would not agree with much of the article. For example it specifically argues against women-only spaces (and by the same logic, presumably would also oppose other autonomous, self-organised spaces, such as those by LGBTQ people, Black people etc), whereas we think self-organisation is extremely important.
There are also numerous other assertions in the article which just don't stand up. For example the claim that the women's movement has never been revolutionary. Like all mass social movements it has contained different elements, some reformist, and some revolutionary. So that seems to be erasing the revolutionary components. Not to mention the key role played by women is self-organisation in many actual social revolutions, for example the French Revolution of 1789, and the Russian Revolution of 1917, which were both started by self-organised women's struggles.
And it just makes a bunch of other claims which are just weirdly untrue. For example it specifically mentions Woman on the Edge of Time, then claims that the protagonist is conventionally attractive, which is just completely wrong. In fact, the protagonist's issues with her own body image and appearance is a central aspect of her character.
That said, hope you do not take this as any criticism of your contribution. We think this is a great addition to the library, and appreciate your contributions. We just wouldn't want this text to be able to be cited by male anarchists to back up misogynist arguments against feminism, gender equality or women's self organisation.

Fozzie
Apr 7 2021 14:49

I think that's a useful clarification, Steven.

I agree that being critical of contributions here is crucial. An occasional editorial comment as well as the ability for users to discuss the contributions is one thing that sets Libcom apart from other online repositories of texts where there might be a catch all "we may or may not agree with everything here" disclaimer.

Of course, this may lead to disagreement. wink

But better to have that than everyone individually consuming texts in isolation.

Mair Waring
Apr 7 2021 17:34

Perhaps my first post was unnecessarily antagonistic, thanks for removing the linked article. I must have missed the one on SCUM. At the end of the day I feel you will keep the critical note now, and given there is some discussion below it is not the end of the world, but I would like to make a response anyway.

I would agree that it is silly to say that the woman's movement has never been revolutionary, but I think its worth acknowledging that she isn't saying women didn't play an important role in revolutions. I don't think her gripe is with the women of the paris commune or things like that, but more the women only groups of her time of writing. I get you said women in "self-organisation" but I don't feel like historically there were fewer options, and lets say if your husband organised in a union, a wives support the union group was clearly woman-only, but only incidentally I feel. Even where mobs of women protested, struck and rioted in Barcelona I feel it arose naturally out of a more gender segregated society. Whereas the womens groups of 1980s anarchism were largely consciously so.

With the book, fair enough I haven't read it, but I feel the broader point was accurate (and its possible to have body issues and be conventionally attractive). Anyways I think it was less important to the overall piece anyway.

What interests me more is this:
"But we think it's important to maintain the critical note, to make clear that we would not agree with much of the article. For example it specifically argues against women-only spaces (and by the same logic, presumably would also oppose other autonomous, self-organised spaces, such as those by LGBTQ people, Black people etc), whereas we think self-organisation is extremely important."

and

"We just wouldn't want this text to be able to be cited by male anarchists to back up misogynist arguments against feminism, gender equality or women's self organisation."

So in my mind, it is fine to call yourself a libertarian communist and disagree with feminism or women's (lgbt/black etc.) self-organisation.

Feminism is a term I feel is incredibly broad to the point of often meaning very little (much like socialism, communism or even anarchism sadly). Most of the feminist movement is clearly linked to liberal politics and which we should oppose. Over the years plenty of anarchist women have criticised feminism, especially the norm before WW2, and advocated for a women's movement built around class struggle and revolutionary politics. Later groups started calling themselves anarcha-feminists which, in some regards, can be viewed as the same idea. Tho often I feel this is a simplification, and many anarcha-feminists look book at ppl like Emma Goldman or Mujeres Libres and assume they'd call themselves (anarcha-) feminists, where actually I feel the original criticism still stand up to some degree. These days, in my view, most so called anarcha-feminists just seem to try and tack liberal or academic feminism onto anarchism. Either way I think its a totally valid to call yourself anti-feminist (fwiw I don't call myself that).

Self organisation is in my view a tactical question. Crucially, nowhere does Iris imply women should not be allowed to self organise. Rather she states she thinks it is fruitless:

"They say however that they prefer to work with women only, because they feel dominated among men. I can understand that to a point but no problem was ever solved by ignoring it. If some men are domineering toward women they should be confronted by the fact - it's no use going away and hoping that in your absence the man or men in question will come to their senses. Anyway some women feel dominated by other women - what do they do then? Form a sub-group of submissive women only?"

I think there is a number of good points here. The idea of a sub-group of submissive women reminds me of the Tyranny of Structurlessness and how the women's conscious raising groups often denounced women inside them of essentially being men. Also I agree with the idea of confronting problems head on.

In my mind women have come up with a number of responses to the issue of organisation. Mujeres Liberes, perhaps the most famous, saw a need to meet as women, but ultimately saw this as complementary to, or at least part of, a wider mixed-sex libertarian movement. Opinions in the group varied, but some saw it as a necessary evil or that it was to help facilitate participation in the CNT, implying they saw it as having a somewhat limited and perhaps even temporary. I guess this idea is not unlike a caucus of sorts. To the "right" of ML, a number of anarchists have argued to separatism. Either just in terms of organisation, seeking collaboration between men and women's groups, a bit like Rojava I guess (which clearly sees a need for women's groups and doesn't seem to view them as temporary). Others are outright separatist or hostile, SCUM might be an example of this. To the "left" of ML, a number of anarchist women criticised them in the CNT. Many also didn't participate and presumably didn't agree with the logic. Women had been around in the CNT for ages and while issues with participation were never overcome (nor did ML do this) certain women did make a lot of progress for themselves and in some textile unions made pretty significant gains around equal pay. Also there were cultural projects that addressed "women's issues" that were not only for/by women.

You can find this in other groups as well. Lorenzo Ervin has a view perhaps to the "right" of ML, seeking to establish a separate black union I believe. Whereas ML were always against the idea of a women's union, since struggle needing to involve all the workers. To his "left" stand all the black wobblies who decided to stick with the IWW and not advocate a black union (likely divided between those wanting caucuses / complimentary groups and those who did not). To his right stand the separatists.

These are all very legitimate tactical questions I feel (though perhaps not outright separatism). It's something quite different to be be adamant that a group should not be allowed to self organise. But for the left I feel this is only really an issue for cult-like groups. Otherwise its just a free debate, which in my view anyone regardless of their skin colour, gender or sexuality can take part in, over whether or not its a good idea. No one is denying the right to self-organise (perhaps in the most extreme case it could mean not as part of our group, but then thats just due to differing viewpoints).

It could be used by misogynists but then so could tonnes of stuff on our website by anti-working class people or fascists (like criticisms of the CNT or the soviet system or xy party are all invaluable, but could be used as a historical justification for counter revolution).. I think that's just the reality of having meaningful and reflective conversations.

So I don't personally feel like Iris should warrant a warning above her text for being opposed to feminism (a primarily bourgeois movement, just like environmentalism or even "the left") or for arguing against separate organising (which is a perfectly valid response to a debate with quite a few sides which people disagree on regardless of their identities). I also feel like it is somewhat unnecessary scrutiny for a speech in a debate (perhaps intentionally hyperbolic) and that factual errors are great but not really clarified by the note.

Anyways that is enough rambling from me lol

Steven.
Apr 8 2021 14:40
Mair Waring wrote:
Perhaps my first post was unnecessarily antagonistic, thanks for removing the linked article. I must have missed the one on SCUM.

no worries!

Quote:
Even where mobs of women protested, struck and rioted in Barcelona I feel it arose naturally out of a more gender segregated society. Whereas the womens groups of 1980s anarchism were largely consciously so.

Sure, but as you say revolutionary women in Barcelona and elsewhere (like anarchist women in China) also felt the need to organise autonomously, in part due to misogyny from their male comrades. This is a good thing.

Quote:
With the book, fair enough I haven't read it, but I feel the broader point was accurate (and its possible to have body issues and be conventionally attractive). Anyways I think it was less important to the overall piece anyway.

Of course it's possible to have those issues, but my point was that the protagonist of that book is deliberately "unattractive" by conventional standards. And yes it isn't a central point of the article, but it's indicative of a bunch of blanket statements the person makes which are just false.

Quote:

So in my mind, it is fine to call yourself a libertarian communist and disagree with feminism or women's (lgbt/black etc.) self-organisation.

Sure, people can call themselves that. But we disagree with completely, so we don't want our website to be used to advance those ideas which we think are reactionary. For example on Twitter these days you can see plenty of people who call themselves "libertarian communist" advancing colonialist ideas, and arguing that Indigenous people in the US, for example, demanding land back, is equivalent to white supremacist ethno nationalism, which is completely ridiculous (as if communal ownership of land in harmony with the earth is equivalent to fascism).

Quote:

Feminism is a term I feel is incredibly broad to the point of often meaning very little (much like socialism, communism or even anarchism sadly). Most of the feminist movement is clearly linked to liberal politics and which we should oppose. Over the years plenty of anarchist women have criticised feminism, especially the norm before WW2, and advocated for a women's movement built around class struggle and revolutionary politics.

The dictionary definition of feminism, which is understood by most people, is belief in equality of the sexes. So in our view you cannot be a libertarian communist and disagree with that. There are enough you can if you define it in a way differently to how most people, and the dictionary, defines it.
Historically, what was referred to as "feminism" was a more specific political movement generally associated with advancing voting rights, often just for middle and upper-class women. So this is what was often criticised by anarchist/revolutionary women in the early 20th century. Unfortunately a good number of male anarchists use these critiques, devoid of their context, nowadays as an argument against women's rights and women's struggles. This is what we do not want to encourage.

Quote:
Self organisation is in my view a tactical question. Crucially, nowhere does Iris imply women should not be allowed to self organise.

Personally I don't see this as the "crucial" issue. She doesn't say they "should not be allowed", she argues that:

OP wrote:
The myth of sisterhood works against revolutionaries in two ways. It separates men from women. You all know of ‘women only‘ meetings. Surely our concern is to bring people together not to erect still more barriers.

This is specifically the talking point of chauvinist "socialists" who argue that advocacy or self-organisation of issues from particularly oppressed groups are "divisive". She is saying that women holding meetings is erecting "barriers". This is nonsense, as is the equivalent argument about Black people etc. Just in practical terms it's important for different groups of workers to be able to meet and self-organise so that they have the space to discuss and strategise on issues which are specific to their group, which due to issues around numbers, and even practicalities like available meeting time can mean these issues would otherwise be ignored in say general union/workers meetings, which wouldn't have time to address all issues of relevance to all workers – like disabled access etc.

Quote:
Rather she states she thinks it is fruitless:

"They say however that they prefer to work with women only, because they feel dominated among men. I can understand that to a point but no problem was ever solved by ignoring it. If some men are domineering toward women they should be confronted by the fact - it's no use going away and hoping that in your absence the man or men in question will come to their senses. Anyway some women feel dominated by other women - what do they do then? Form a sub-group of submissive women only?"

I think there is a number of good points here. The idea of a sub-group of submissive women reminds me of the Tyranny of Structurlessness and how the women's conscious raising groups often denounced women inside them of essentially being men. Also I agree with the idea of confronting problems head on.

We don't say in the introduction that we disagree with all of this article. As you say, this is a valid point. But we completely disagree with the more overarching argument, that women-only spaces are inherently problematic or divisive.

Quote:
It could be used by misogynists but then so could tonnes of stuff on our website by anti-working class people or fascists (like criticisms of the CNT or the soviet system or xy party are all invaluable, but could be used as a historical justification for counter revolution).. I think that's just the reality of having meaningful and reflective conversations.

Yes, but from our perspective, as a libertarian communist website, it's crystal-clear that we would not be agreeing with fascists citing our website justifying their arguments. But it would not be at all clear if misogynist/racist/colonialist libertarian communists were citing it, that we did not agree with them. Also for younger people, people still finding their ideological footing, they may think that us hosting articles was a tacit endorsement of the contents of the articles, or they may think that the ideas espoused in them are inherent to libertarian communism. This is why our introductory notes are important to us, as Fozzie helpfully outlined.

Quote:
So I don't personally feel like Iris should warrant a warning above her text for being opposed to feminism (a primarily bourgeois movement, just like environmentalism or even "the left") or for arguing against separate organising (which is a perfectly valid response to a debate with quite a few sides which people disagree on regardless of their identities). I also feel like it is somewhat unnecessary scrutiny for a speech in a debate (perhaps intentionally hyperbolic) and that factual errors are great but not really clarified by the note.

Well, due to you starting a discussion (and posting the article in the first place), then I think we have at least laid out some of the issues in more detail in the comments!
The ‘woman is superior‘ syndrome is not something I am exaggerating for tonight - it is plainly visible in Spare Rib among the contributors who state that they hate their male children - at six months old! It's horrendous. The worst aspect of the ‘myth of sisterhood’ is that it leads directly to women's issues alone and undermines the solidarity so important to a revolutionary movement and neglects a class analysis

Spikymike
Apr 8 2021 16:04

This reminds me of the recent convoluted discussion amongst members of the spgb which however ended up with a vote agreeing that socialists can also be feminists even if it isn't compulsory! I think the view that 'feminism' in general use didn't mean much more than simply equality of the sexes carried the day. Doesn't in the end affect the critical attitude which they like also many libertarian communists have towards a larger part of the varied feminist political groups active today. We might aim (and I think should aim) for our specific libertarian communist political groups and our everyday class struggle organisation to be on a unitary class basis rather than simply a network of separate identity based groups but there is a long way to go to achieve that in practice. The process of achieving class unity in practice it seems to me has always involved at least some elements of at least temporary separate identity based self-organisation aimed at overcoming the historical barriers or weaknesses of class organisations arising out of the material conditions of capitalism.