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All Power to the Imagination

Friday, March 13, 2015 12:47
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Various. Quiet Rumours: An Anarcha-Feminist Reader (AK Press/Dark Star 2002)

The people involved with Dark Star Collective sought to provide an introductory anthology to the ideas of anarcha-feminism after numerous visitors to their bookstand wondered if they had anything on the subject. Anarcha-feminism is the radical synthesis of feminism and anarchism, or the idea that destroying the patriarchy and the state are one in the same thing. After gathering multiple pamphlets together, including a six pamphlet collection of the same name by the anarcha-feminist group Black Bear, Quiet Rumours was assembled and published. Seeing as this is an anthology of multiple pamphlets, it is not to be read as a theoretical piece; as stated by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz in the introduction of the anthology, this collection “is only a sampling that should lead readers to other foremothers of anarcha-feminism” (pg. 9). So it is important for those who are familiar with either anarchist or feminist ideas to know that this collection is not going to delve into the metaphysics of becoming “other-ed” or the sociology of hierarchy. Instead, it is meant to encourage readers to look more into anarcha-feminist authors and through them delve deeper into these ideas.

With all of that aside, this anthology does a great job providing those curious of the anarcha-feminist milieu with different approaches to this synthetic idea. For starters, the authors of the pamphlets come from different anarchisms, providing readers with approaches to anarcha-feminism and woman’s liberation from individualist, situationist (a philosophy which focuses on the “here and now” instead of static, repeated mantra), syndicalist and communist backgrounds. This balance is best exemplified by the inclusion of the essays: “Feminism as Anarchism” by Lynn Farrow and “Socialism, Anarchism, and Feminism” by Carol Ehrlich. Farrow introduces us to an approach to feminism that is more individualist and situationist in flavor, who critiques Marxist feminist approaches by saying “[Marxist feminist]’s ideas invalidate all forms of individualism in the same way the [organized] left and [organized] right have historically co-opted women from working in their own interests” (pg. 17). Ehrlich on the other hand finds ideas like radical feminism “far more compatible with one type of anarchism than it is with socialism. That type is social anarchism …, not the individualist or anarcho-capitalist varieties” (pg. 43). This is then balanced by the inclusion of Voltairine de Cleyre, which brings up “[her] personal conviction is that both forms of society … would, in the absence of government, be tried in various localities … Liberty and experiment alone can determine the best forms of society. Therefore I no longer label myself otherwise than as ‘anarchist’ simply” (pg.38). The reader is left to make up her own mind; the anthology does not try to tell her what is right, but that there are a multitude of ways approaching anarcha-feminism.

Another thing Quiet Rumours does well is the actual selection of pamphlets. The selections can be best divided up into three parts: essays and pamphlets covering second-wave era feminism and its relationship to anarchism, essays from proto- and current anarcha-feminists, and discussions and interviews with present, international anarcha-feminist collectives. The pamphlets discussing second-wave era feminism strive to show radical feminists of the period and just how close their ideas resemble anarchism as well as critiques of current leftist leanings toward centralization of feminist structures. Second-wave feminism focused on social inequalities found in areas such as sexuality and the workplace, which makes a comfortable relationship with anarchists easy due to anarchist involvement in labor and free-love movements. The essays from proto-anarcha-feminists show readers the foremothers of the ideas and their importance to anarchist philosophy and activism. These essays are represented by Voltairine de Cleyre, Emma Goldman, and Charlotte Wilson. The last section covers interviews and statements from Rote Zora of Germany and Mujeres Creando of Bolivia, which are two anarcha-feminist collectives responsible for important actions in their respective home countries. The diversity of different authors and backgrounds allow for those new to anarcha-feminist ideas to become inspired and to become active in learning more about them. It creates depth and touches upon the history, philosophy, and current activism surrounding the core of anarcha-feminism.

Where Quiet Rumours truly shines is in its critiques of the mainstream radical Left and how they have either downplayed feminism or pushed for a more rigid structure for the feminist movement. Right in the onset of the anthology, the reader finds reasons to be dissatisfied with the Marxist-Leninist approach to feminism in “Anarcha-Feminism: Two Statements”. As anarcha-feminists, they,

do not believe that rejection of Marxist-Leninist analysis and strategy is by definition political naiveté … The nature of groups concerned with “building” movements is : 1) to water down the “more extreme” dreams into ‘realistic’ demands, and 2) to eventually become an organ of tyranny itself. No thanks! (pg. 12)

This eventually leads into a discussion of how feminists should organize and whether consciousness raising groups hold any weight for woman’s liberation. Two important essays on this subject are “The Tyranny of Structurelessness” by Jo Freeman AKA Joreen, and “The Tyranny of Tyranny” by Cathy Levine. This discussion asks us to consider how “unstructured” or horizontal groups can create informal structures and elites and how we should combat such things from being created.

The discussion begins with Joreen’s “The Tyranny of Structurelessness” where she argues groups are never without some sort of structure. Whether or not that structure is rigid or flexible, it does not matter; if there is a group and it involves connecting and communicating, a structure exists. The choice for Joreen then is, “[not] whether to have a structured or structureless group, only whether or not to have a formally structured one” (pg.55).  Why is it important to Joreen that we make this choice? For two reasons: because structureless groups tend to create informal elites which causes power and control to be left unchecked, and that she wants the woman’s liberation movement to have some sort of national direction with a central plan or it will, otherwise, be left ineffective.

It is not hard to see why a structureless group can have the ability to create informal elites. People communicate and connect to other people differently creating friendly or unfriendly relationships. Even in formal groups, there will be people who get along with each other better than others. However, for Joreen, a formal group has some sort of check over such phenomenon. Informal groups don’t have that check, and then, it is argued, run the risk of being dominated by, what is known in left-wing market anarchist circles as, “social capitalism” — the way or need for people build influence or “social capital” in a group and effect the direction of it. (It should be pointed out the “social capitalism” can also a problem for formal or structured groups.) Joreen points this out to us:

At any small group meeting anyone with a sharp eye and an acute ear can tell who is influencing whom. The members of a friendship group will relate more to each other than to other people. They listen more attentively, and interrupt less; they repeat each other’s points and give in amiably; they tend to ignore or grapple with the “outs” whose approval is not necessary for making a decision. (pg. 56)

But is making a central, homogenous woman’s movement really the way for women to get what they want and avoid elitism? Anarcha-feminists retort no. In “The Tyranny of Tyranny”, Cathy Levine replies that Joreen leaves out an important way for building a movement, and that is one “based on small groups in voluntary association” (pg. 63). In her retort to Joreen’s call for a centralized movement, Levine recalls the history of the male Left movement, explaining that,

The male movement taught us that “movement” people are supposed to devote 24 hours a day to the Cause, which is consistent with female socialization towards self-sacrifice. Whatever the source of our selflessness however, we tend to plunge ourselves head-first into organizational activities, neglecting personal development, until one day we find we do not know what we are doing and for whose benefit, and we hate ourselves as much as before the movement. (pg. 64)

Simulating the male Left and building a centralized movement would be worse for the woman’s movement because it would become another hierarchical organization just like patriarchy. A centralized woman’s movement will only reflect the problems faced in the male Left movement, which is why women left them in the first place. While small, informal groups may not be perfect, it allows for women to make friendships and work on personal development instead of sacrificing a good chunk of time toward the Cause. Levine also points out that the preference for smaller groups comes from “a reaction against the over-structured, hierarchical organization of society in general, and male Left groups in particular” (pg.65). The small group is a way to fight against elitism because it helps “to recognize stylistic differences, and then to appreciate and work with them; rather than trying to either ignore or annihilate differences in personal style …” (pg. 66). Whatever way Joreen wants to critique the small, informal group, the anarcha-feminist responds that the small group will be able to effectively do more than a centralized movement ever could.

Although this anthology has plenty of great material, there are some points which need to be addressed. One point is that there could have been more inclusion of past anarcha-feminist authors. Voltairine de Cleyre and Emma Goldman are great, but it is easier to access their works because they are the most popular of past female anarchists. This could have been a chance to introduce other important anarcha-feminist authors, especially to newcomers who might not be able to access works from other writers such Lucy Parsons or Sarah Ames. This is actually why inclusion of Charlotte Wilson is exemplary because readers, such as myself, were not even aware of her importance to anarchism nor likely to run into her work in the future. Since the people of Dark Star Collective were only working with pamphlets they have, it is understandable why others may not have been included.

Another point is that feminist theory was not touched upon as much as anarchist theory. Of course, this harks back to the introduction of the anthology telling us that Quiet Rumours is only meant to give us a taste of anarchist feminism. Even with that “warning” aside, it would have been great to include at least use one essay specifically on feminist theory. This isn’t to say that feminist theory wasn’t touched upon; the essays by Peggy Kornegger, Carol Ehrlich, and Alice Nutter briefly talk about it, but not enough to give the reader a fair understanding of it. Plus, there isn’t any discussion of queer or Trans theory which is important for any focus on feminist ideas.

Even with these setbacks, Quiet Rumours gives readers a great taste of anarcha-feminism and why it is important. Anarcha-feminism asks many questions for the anarchist and feminist. For anarchists, anarcha-feminism asks us to consider how far power and hierarchy reaches into our lives and if we can truly be rid of the state-capitalist system, if we push back gender liberation to be dealt with at a later time. For feminists, anarcha-feminism asks us to consider how far are we willing to go to end male oppression, if we don’t abolish the institutions that reflect and support it? Feminists, insofar as they are brought up on the Left, are skeptical of anarchism, but as Cathy Levine puts it, “like masturbation, anarchism is something we have been brought up to fear, irrationally and unquestioningly, because not to fear it might lead us to probe it, learn it and like it” (pg.66).

Quiet Rumours is a great way to introduce anarchists or feminists to the ideas of anarcha-feminism. Certainly, it is not supposed to be a theoretical powerhouse, but it accomplishes its task of introducing the reader to anarcha-feminist ideas and important anarcha-feminist groups and people. If one is already knowledgeable about feminism, anarchism and anarchist-feminism, they may not need to pick up a copy. However, it is still a great anthology, and a highly recommended read for those who would like to know more about anarcha-feminism. All power to the imagination!

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