Patriarchy is a form of social organization that produces what we commonly recognize as sexism. But it goes well beyond individual or systemic prejudice against women. It is, first of all, the false division of all people into two rigid categories (male and female) that are asserted to be both natural and moral. (Many perfectly healthy people do not fit into either of these physiological categories, and many non-Western cultures recognized — and still do, if they haven’t been destroyed — more than two sexes and genders.) Patriarchy goes on to define clear roles (economic, social, emotional, political) for men and women, and it asserts (falsely) that these roles are natural and moral. Under patriarchy, people who do not fit into or who reject these gender roles are neutralized with violence and ostracism. They are made to seem and feel ugly, dirty, scary, contemptible, worthless. Patriarchy is harmful to everybody, and it is reproduced by everyone who lives within it. True to its name, it puts men in a dominant position and women in a submissive position. Activities and characteristics that are traditionally associated with “power,” or, at least privilege, mostly belong to men. Patriarchy gives both the ability and the right to use violence almost exclusively to men.
With gender, as with race, nonviolence is an inherently privileged position. Nonviolence assumes that instead of defending ourselves against violence, we can suffer violence patiently until enough of society can be mobilized to oppose it peacefully (or that we can expect to “transform” any aggression that threatens us individually). Most proponents of nonviolence will present it as not merely a narrow political practice but a philosophy that deserves to penetrate the very social fabric and root out violence in all its manifestations. But pacifists seem not to have given the violence of patriarchy its due consideration. After all, in wars, in social revolutions, and in daily life, women and transgender people are the primary recipients of violence in patriarchal society.
If we take this philosophy out of the impersonal political arena and put it in a more real context, nonviolence implies that it is immoral for a woman to fight off an attacker or study self-defense. Nonviolence implies that it is better for an abused wife to move out than to mobilize a group of women to beat up and kick out her abusive husband. Nonviolence implies that it is better for someone to be raped than to pull the mechanical pencil out of her pocket and plunge it into her assailant’s jugular (because doing so would supposedly contribute to some cycle of violence and encourage future rapes). Pacifism simply does not resonate in people’s everyday realities, unless those people live in some extravagant bubble of tranquility from which all forms of civilization’s pandemic reactive violence have been pushed out by the systemic and less visible violence of police and military forces.
From another angle, nonviolence seems well-suited to dealing with patriarchy. After all, the abolition of patriarchy in particular requires forms of resistance that emphasize healing and reconciliation. The Western concept of justice, based on law and punishment, is patriarchal through and through. Early legal codes defined women as property, and laws were written for male property owners, who had been socialized not to deal with emotions; “wrongs” were addressed through punishment rather than reconciliation.
Furthermore, patriarchy is not upheld by a powerful elite who must be forcibly defeated, but by everyone.
Because the distribution of power within patriarchy is much more diffused than within the state or capitalism (for example, a male general who also sits on the advisory board of a major corporation holds significant power within the state and capitalism, but does not derive much more power specifically from patriarchy than any other male, except perhaps as a role model of manliness), fighting against power holders or those most responsible plays a much smaller role. Instead, people must build a culture that allows everyone to self-identify in terms of gender and that supports us as we build healthy relationships and heal from generations of violence and trauma. This is perfectly compatible with self-defense training for women and transgender people and attacks on economic, cultural, and political institutions that exemplify patriarchy or are responsible for an especially brutal form of it. Killing a cop who rapes homeless transgender people and prostitutes, burning down the office of a magazine that consciously markets a beauty standard that leads to anorexia and bulimia, kidnapping the president of a company that conducts women-trafficking—none of these actions prevent the building of a healthy culture. Rather, certain powerful people who consciously profit from patriarchy actively prevent a healthy culture from emerging. Valuing healthy relationships is complemented by militantly opposing institutions that propagate exploitive and violent relationships, and striking out against the most egregious and probably incorrigible examples of patriarchy is one way to educate others about the need for an alternative. Most of the work needed to overcome patriarchy will probably be peaceful, focused on healing and building alternatives. But a pacifist practice that forbids the use of any other tactics leaves no option for people who need to protect themselves from violence now.
In the case of rape and other forms of violence against women, nonviolence implies the same lessons that patriarchy has taught for millennia. It glorifies passivity, “turning the other cheek,” and “dignified suffering” among the oppressed. In one of the most lucid texts defining the preservation and implementation of patriarchy — the Old Testament — story upon commandment upon parable upon law counsel women to suffer injustice patiently and pray for the divine Authority to intervene. (This prescription is remarkably similar to pacifists’ faith in the corporate media to disseminate images of dignified suffering and motivate the “decision-making authority” to implement justice). Because patriarchy clearly prescribes a one-sided male violence, women would be disrupting this power dynamic, not reinforcing it, by relearning their propensity for violence. To reiterate, women reclaiming the ability and right to use force would not by itself end patriarchy, but it is a necessary condition for gender liberation, as well as a useful form of empowerment and protection in the short term.
Pacifists and reformist feminists have often charged that it is militant activists who are sexist. In many specific cases, the accusation has been valid. But the criticism is frequently broadened to suggest that the use of violent activism itself is sexist, masculine, or otherwise privileged. As Laina Tanglewood explains, “Some recent ‘feminist’ critiques of anarchism have condemned militancy as being sexist and non-inclusive to women....This idea is actually the sexist one.” Another anarchist points out, “In fact, the masculinization of violence, with its unstated sexist concomitant, the feminization of passivity, really owes more to the presumptions of those whose notion of change does not include revolution or the annihilation of the State.”
Likewise, whose notion of freedom does not include women’s being able to defend themselves? Responding to the presumption that women can only be protected by larger social structures, activist Sue Daniels reminds us, “A woman can fight off a male attacker by herself....It is absolutely not a question of who is physically stronger — it is a question of training.” “The Will to Win! Women and Self-Defense,” an anonymously authored pamphlet, adds the following:
It is ridiculous that there are so many counseling and support organizations for women who have been raped, attacked, and abused but hardly any that work to prepare and prevent these things from happening. We must refuse to be victims and reject the idea that we should submit to our assailants to keep from arousing further violence. In reality, submitting to our assailants will only contribute to future violence against others.
The entire idea that violence is masculine, or that revolutionary activism necessarily excludes women, queers, and trans people is, like other premises of nonviolence, based on historical whitewashing. Ignored are the Nigerian women occupying and sabotaging petroleum facilities; the women martyrs of the Palestinian intifada; the queer and transgender warriors of the Stonewall Rebellion; the innumerable thousands of women who fought for the Vietcong; women leaders of Native resistance to European and US genocide; Mujeres Creando (Women Creating), a group of anarcha-feminists in Bolivia; and British suffragettes who rioted and fought against cops. Forgotten are the women from the rank and file to the highest levels of leadership among the Black Panther Party, the Zapatistas, the Weather Underground, and other militant groups. The idea that fighting back somehow excludes women is absurd. Not even the history of the pacified white “First World” bears it up because even the most effective patriarchy imaginable could never prevent all transgender people and all women from militantly fighting against oppression.
Advocates of nonviolence who make a limited exception for self defense because they recognize how wrong it is to say that oppressed people cannot or should not protect themselves have no viable strategies for dealing with systemic violence. Is it self-defense to fight off an abusive husband, but not to blow up a dioxin-emitting factory that is making your breast milk toxic? What about a more concerted campaign to destroy the corporation that owns the factory and is responsible for releasing the pollutants? Is it self-defense to kill the general who sends out the soldiers who rape women in a war zone? Or must pacifists remain on the defensive, only fighting individual attacks and submitting themselves to the inevitability of such attacks until nonviolent tactics somehow convert the general or close down the factory, at some uncertain point in the future?
Aside from protecting the patriarchy from militant opposition, nonviolence also helps preserve patriarchal dynamics within the movement. One of the major premises of current anti-oppression activism (born out of the joint desire to promote healthier, more empowered movements and to avoid the infighting which stemmed largely from neglected oppressive dynamics that crippled the previous generation’s liberation struggles) is that oppressive social hierarchies exist and replicate themselves in the behavior of all subjects and must be overcome internally as well as externally. But pacifism thrives on avoiding self-criticism. Many are familiar with the partially justified stereotype of self-congratulatory, self-celebratory nonviolent activists who “embody the change [they] wish to see in the world” to such a degree that in their minds, they embody everything right and beautiful. A follower in one pacifist organization exclaimed, in response to criticisms of privilege, that the group’s white, male leader could not possibly have white privilege and male privilege because he was such a good person, as though white supremacy and patriarchy were entirely voluntary associations. In such a context, how easily could a predominantly male leadership that is understood to embody the nonviolent ideal as a result of their participation in an impressive number of hunger strikes and sit-ins be called out for oppressive behavior, transphobia, or sexual abuse?
The pacifist avoidance of self-criticism is functional, not just typical. When your strategy’s victory comes from “captur[ing] and maintain[ing] the moral high ground,” it is necessary to portray yourself as moral and your enemy as immoral. Uncovering bigotries and oppressive dynamics among group leaders and members is simply counterproductive to your chosen strategy. How many people know that Martin Luther King jr. treated Ella Baker (who is largely responsible for building the foundation of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference [SCLC] while King was still inexperienced as an organizer) like his secretary; laughed in the faces of several women in the organization when they suggested that power and leadership should be shared; said that women’s natural role was motherhood, and that they, unfortunately, were “forced” into the positions of “teacher” and “leader”; and removed Bayard Rustin from his organization because Rustin was gay? But then, why would these facts be widely available when making an icon of King entailed covering up any such faults and portraying him as a saint? For revolutionary activists, however, victory comes from building power and out-strategizing the state. Such a path requires constant assessment and self-criticism.
It is often preexisting sexist assumptions that paint militant groups as more sexist than they actually are. For example, women were effectively excluded from leadership positions in King’s SCLC, whereas women (for example, Elaine Brown) at times held the top positions in the Black Panther Party (BPP). Yet it is the BPP, and not the SCLC, that is held up as the paragon of machismo. Kathleen Cleaver rebuts, “In 1970, the Black Panther Party took a formal position on the liberation of women. Did the US Congress ever make any statement on the liberation of women?” Frankye Malika Adams, another Panther, said, “Women ran the BPP pretty much. I don’t know how it got to be a male’s party or thought of as being a male’s party.” In resurrecting a truer history of the Black Panther Party, Mumia Abu-Jamal documents what was, in some ways, “a woman’s party.”
Nonetheless, sexism persisted among the Panthers, as it persists within any revolutionary milieu, and any other segment of a patriarchal society today. Patriarchy cannot be destroyed overnight, but it can be gradually overcome by groups that work to destroy it. Activists must recognize patriarchy as a primary enemy and open spaces within revolutionary movements for women, queer people, and transgender people to be creative forces in directing, assessing, and reformulating the struggle (while also supporting men’s efforts to understand and counter our own socialization). An honest evaluation shows that no matter our intentions, more work remains to be done to free control of the movement from the hands of men and to find healthy, restorative ways to deal with abusive patterns in relationships, social or romantic, among members of the movement.
Whether militant or pacifist, nearly every tactical or strategic discussion I have participated in was attended and dominated overwhelmingly by men. Rather than claim that women and transgender people are somehow unable to participate in a broad spectrum of tactical options (or even discuss them), we would do well to recall the voices of those who have fought-violently, defiantly, effectively — as revolutionaries. To that end:
Mujeres Creando is an anarcha-feminist group in Bolivia. Its members have engaged in graffiti campaigns and anti-poverty campaigns. They protect protesters from police violence at demonstrations. In their most dramatic action, they armed themselves with Molotov cocktails and sticks of dynamite and helped a group of indigenous farmers take over a bank to demand forgiveness of the debt that was starving the farmers and their families. In an interview, Julieta Paredes, a founding member, explains the group’s origins.
Mujeres Creando is a “craziness” started by three women [Julieta Paredes, Maria Galindo, and Monica Mendoza] from the arrogant, homophobic, and totalitarian Left of Bolivia of the ’80s ....The difference between us and those who talk about the overthrow of capitalism is that all their proposals for a new society come from the patriarchy of the Left. As feminists in Mujeres Creando we want revolution, a real change of the system....I’ve said it and I’ll say it again that we’re not anarchists by Bakunin or the CNT, but rather by our grandmothers, and that’s a beautiful school of anarchism.
Sylvia Rivera, a Puerto Rican drag queen, talked about her participation in the 1969 Stonewall Rebellion, sparked after police raided the Stonewall Bar in New York City’s Greenwich Village to harass the queer and trans patrons.
We were not taking any more of this shit. We had done so much for other movements. It was time.
It was street gay people from the Village out front — homeless people who lived in the park in Sheridan Square outside the bar — and then drag queens behind them and everybody behind us....
I’m glad I was in the Stonewall Riot. I remember when someone threw a Molotov cocktail, I thought: “My god, the revolution is here. The revolution is finally here!”
I always believed that we would have a fight back. I just knew that we would fight back. I just didn’t know it would be that night. I am proud of myself as being there that night. If I had lost that moment, I would have been kind of hurt because that’s when I saw the world change for me and my people.
Of course, we still got a long way ahead of us.
Ann Hansen is a Canadian revolutionary who served seven years in prison for her involvement in the 1980s with the underground groups Direct Action and the Wimmin’s Fire Brigade, which (among other actions) bombed the factory of Litton Systems (a manufacturer of cruise-missile components) and firebombed a chain of pornography shops that sold videos depicting rapes. According to Hansen:
There are many different forms of direct action, some more effective than others at different points in history, but in conjunction with other forms of protest, direct action can make the movement for change more effective by opening avenues of resistance that are not easily co-opted or controlled by the state. Unfortunately, people within the movement weaken their own actions by failing to understand and support the diverse tactics available.... We have become pacified.
Russian-born Emma Goldman — America’s most famous anarchist, participant in the attempted assassination of steel boss Henry Clay Frick in 1892, supporter of the Russian Revolution, and one of the earliest critics of the Leninist government — writes of women’s emancipation, “History tells us that every oppressed class gained true liberation from its masters through its own efforts. It is necessary that woman learn that lesson, that she realize that her freedom will reach as far as her power to achieve freedom reaches.”
Mollie Steimer was another Russian-American immigrant anarchist. From a young age, Steimer worked with Frayhayt, a Yiddish-language anarchist paper from New York. Its masthead proclaimed: “The only just war is the social revolution.” From 1918 onwards, Steimer was arrested and imprisoned repeatedly for speaking out against the First World War or in support of the Russian Revolution, which, at that time, before the Leninist consolidation and purges, had a significant anarchist component. At one trial she declared, “To the fulfillment of this idea [anarchism], I will devote all my energy, and, if necessary, render my life for it.” Steimer was deported to Russia and then jailed by the Soviets for supporting anarchist prisoners there.
Anna Mae Pictou-Aquash was a Mi’kmaq woman and American Indian Movement (AIM) activist. After teaching, counseling Native youth, and “working with Boston’s African American and Native American communities,” she joined AIM and was involved in the 71-day occupation of Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Reservation in 1973. In 1975, at the height of a period of brutal state repression during which at least 60 AIM members and supporters were murdered by paramilitaries equipped by the FBI, Pictou-Aquash was present at a shoot-out in which two FBI agents were killed. In November 1975, she was declared a fugitive for avoiding court appearances on explosives charges. In February 1976, she was found dead, shot in the back of the head; the state coroner listed the cause of death as “exposure.” After her death, it was learned that the FBI had threatened her life for not selling out other AIM activists. During her life, Pictou-Aquash was an outspoken activist and revolutionary.
These white people think this country belongs to them — they do not realize that they are only in charge right now because there are more of them than there are of us. The whole country changed with only a handful of raggedy-ass pilgrims that came over here in the 1500s. It can take a handful of raggedy-ass Indians to do the same, and I intend to be one of those raggedy-ass Indians.
Rote Zora (RZ) was a German urban guerrilla group of anti-imperialist feminists. Together with the allied Revolutionary Cells, they carried out more than two hundred attacks, mostly bombings, during the 1970s and 80s. They targeted pornographers; corporations using sweatshops; government buildings; companies trading women as wives, sex slaves, and domestic workers; drug companies; and more. In an anonymous interview, Rote Zora members explained that: “the women of RZ started in 1974 with the bombing of the Supreme Court in Karlsruhe because we all wanted the total abolishment of ’218’ (the abortion law).” Asked whether violence such as their bombings harms the movement, the members replied:
Zora 1: To harm the movement — you talk about the installation of repression. The actions don’t harm the movement! It’s the opposite, they should and can support the movement directly. Our attack on the women traders, for example, helped to expose their business to the public light, to threaten them, and they now know they have to anticipate the resistance of women if they go on with their business. These “gentlemen” know they have to anticipate resistance. We call this a strengthening of our movement.
Zora 2: For a long time the strategy of counter-revolution has begun to split the radical wing from the rest of the movement by any means and isolate them to weaken the whole movement. In the ’70s we had the experience of what it means when sectors of the Left adopt the propaganda of the state, when they start to present those who struggle uncompromisingly as responsible for state persecution, destruction, and repression. They not only confuse cause with effect, but also justify implicitly state terror. Therefore, they weaken their own position. They narrow the frame of their protest and their resistance ....
The interview went on to ask the following question.
How can non-autonomous, non-radical women understand what you want? Armed actions do have a “scare away” effect.
Zora 2: Maybe it is scary if everyday reality is questioned. Women who get it pounded into their heads from the time they are little girls that they are victims get insecure if they are confronted with the fact that women are neither victims nor peaceful. This is a provocation. Those women who experience their powerlessness with rage can identify with our actions. As every act of violence against one woman creates an atmosphere of threat against all women, our actions contribute — even if they aim only against the individual responsible — to the development of an atmosphere of “Resistance is possible!”
There is, however, a great deal of feminist literature that denies the empowering (and historically important) effects of militant struggle on women’s and other movements, offering instead a pacifist feminism. Pacifist feminists point to the sexism and machismo of certain militant liberation organizations, which we should all acknowledge and address. Arguing against nonviolence and in favor of a diversity of tactics should not at all imply a satisfaction with the strategies or cultures of past militant groups (for example, the macho posturing of the Weather Underground or the anti-feminism of the Red Brigades). But taking these criticisms seriously should not prevent us from pointing out the hypocrisy of feminists who gladly decry sexist behavior by militants but cover it up when it is committed by pacifists — for example, relishing the tale that Gandhi learned nonviolence from his wife without mentioning the disturbingly patriarchal aspects of their relationship.
Some feminists go further than specific criticisms and attempt to forge a metaphysical link between feminism and nonviolence: this is the “feminization of passivity” mentioned earlier. In an article published in the Berkeley journal Peace Power, Carol Flinders cites a study by UCLA scientists asserting that women are hormonally programmed to respond to danger not with the fight-or-flight mechanism, which is ascribed to men, but with a “tend or befriend” mechanism. When threatened, according to these scientists, women will “quiet the children, feed everyone, defuse the tension, and connect with other females.” This sort of pop science has long been a favored tool to reconstitute the patriarchy by supposedly proving the existence of natural differences between men and women, and people are all too willing to forget basic mathematic principles in order to surrender to such a well-ordered world. Namely, arbitrarily dividing humanity into two sets (male and female) based on a very limited number of characteristics will invariably produce different averages for each set. People who do not know that an average does not express, but obscures, the diversity within a set happily declare these two sets to be natural categories and continue to make people feel like they are unnatural and abnormal if they do not fall close to the average of their set (God forbid they fall closer to the average of the other set).
But Flinders is not content to pause there, with the implicitly transphobic and gender-essentializing UCLA study. She goes on to delve into “our remote, pre-human past. Among chimpanzees, our nearest relations, males patrol the territory within which the females and infants feed....Females are rarely out on those frontlines; they’re more typically engaged in direct care of their offspring.” Flinders asserts that this shows “it’s never been particularly adaptive for women to engage in direct combat” and “women tend to come at [nonviolence] from a somewhat different direction and even live it out rather differently.” Flinders is committing another scientific blunder, and has taken on a remarkably sexist tone. Firstly, the evolutionary determinism she is using is neither scrupulous nor proven — its popularity comes from its utility in creating an alibi for oppressive historical social structures. Even within this dubious framework, Flinders is flawed in her assumptions. Humans did not evolve from chimpanzees; rather, both species evolved from the same predecessor. Chimpanzees are every bit as modern as humans, and both species have had the opportunity to evolve behavioral adaptations that diverge from the common ancestor. We are not bound to the gender divisions of chimps any more than they are bound to our propensity for developing immense vocabularies to obscure the truth of the world around us. Secondly, along the same path that has brought her to assert a female tendency toward nonviolence, Flinders has run into the assertion that women’s natural role is comforting children and feeding everybody — away from the frontlines. Flinders has boldly, albeit accidentally, demonstrated that the same belief system that says women are peaceful also says women’s role is to cook and raise children. The name of that belief system is patriarchy.
Another article by a feminist academic waxes essentialist right off the bat. In the second paragraph of “Feminism and Nonviolence: A Relational Model,” Patrizia Longo writes:
Years of research...suggest that despite the potential problems involved, women consistently participate in nonviolent action. However, women choose nonviolence not because they wish to improve themselves through additional suffering, but because the strategy fits their values and resources.
In constraining women to nonviolence, it seems that pacifist feminists must also constrain our definition of women’s “values and resources,” thus defining which traits are essentially feminine, locking women into a role that is falsely named natural, and shutting out people who do not fit that role.
It is hard to tell how many feminists today accept the premises of essentialism, but it seems that a large number of rank-and-file feminists do not accept the idea that feminism and nonviolence are or must be inherently linked. On one discussion board, dozens of self-identified feminists responded to the question, Is there a link between nonviolence and feminism? A majority of respondents, some pacifist, many not, expressed the belief that feminists do not need to support nonviolence. One message summed it up:
There is still a substantial strain in feminism that links women with nonviolence. But there are also a lot of feminists out there, myself included, who don’t want to see ourselves automatically linked to one stance (that is, nonviolence) merely because of our genitalia or our feminism