Radical media, politics and culture.

Pendleton Vandiver, "Feminism: A Male Anarchist's Perspective"

"Feminism: A Male Anarchist's Perspective"

Pendleton Vandiver

"I myself have never been able to find out what
feminism is: I only know that people call me a
feminist whenever I express sentiments that
differentiate me from a doormat" --Rebecca West, The Clarion, 1913

Most people in the current anarchist milieu -- female
or male -- would disagree, at least in principle, with
most of the following statements: there
are two immutable and natural categories under which
all humans are classified: male and female. A male
human being is a man, and a female human being is a
woman. Women are inherently inferior to men. Men are
smarter and stronger than women; women are more
emotional and delicate. Women exist for
the benefit of men. If a man demands sex from his
wife, it is her duty to oblige him, whether she wants
to or not. A man may force a woman to have sex
with him, as long as he has a very good reason for
making this demand. Humans are to be conceived of, in
the universal sense, as male ("man"), and only
referred to as female when one is speaking of
particular individuals. Women are a form of property.
To demand rights for women is tantamount to demanding
rights for animals and just as absurd.As ridiculous as most of these statements may seem,
every one of them has been considered obvious and
natural by most of the West at one point or
another, and many are still more the rule than the
exception to this day. If most of them seem a little
strange, jarring, or just plain wrong, that is not
because they contradict some vague notion of justice
or common sense that we have all been born with. To
the contrary, the change in attitude that allows
most of us to claim a more enlightened, seemingly
natural viewpoint, is actually the concrete result of
an ongoing struggle which has claimed many
reputations, relationships, and lives over the last
200 years and which, like all struggles for
liberation, has been discredited, slandered, and
marginalized since its inception. Although this
struggle has been, and still is, strategically diverse
and conceptually multifarious and hence hard to
define, it is not hard to name: I am, of course,
referring to feminism.

Feminism has changed our culture to the point where it
is at least a common idea that women are fully human.
If most people today claim to agree with this idea,
this is not because society is becoming more
benevolent, or evolving naturally into a more
egalitarian state of affairs. Those who hold
power do not simply decide to grant equal status to
those who do not; rather, they only yield power when
they are forced to. Women, like every other
oppressed group, have had to take everything they have
gotten, through an arduous process of struggle. To
deny this struggle is to perpetuate a myth similar to
that of the happy slave. Yet this is precisely what we
do when we speak of feminism as somehow perpetuating a
gender divide, or hindering our progress away from
identity politics. Feminism did not create the
conflict between genders: patriarchal society did.

It is important not to forget that the aforementioned
idea that women are fully human is not common sense
but absolutely, emphatically, a feminist notion. To
pay lip-service to women's liberation while denying
the historical struggle of women to achieve this for
themselves is paternalistic and insulting. Not only
has Western society overtly relegated women to a
subhuman role throughout its history, but, until
recently, most liberatory movements have as well. This
has often been partially unconscious, as a reflection
of the mores of the dominant culture. Just as often,
however, this has been fully conscious and intentional
(cf. Stokely Charmichael's famous quote that the "only
position" for women in the Student Nonviolent
Coordinating Commitee [SNCC] was "prone"). Either way,
people who purported to be working for the
emancipation of all humans were really just working
for the emancipation of "man," which until quite
recently, is exactly how it was usually phrased.

Women who complained about this state of affairs were
(and are) condescendingly told to wait until the more
important struggle was won before they demanded their
own liberation. This has been true of abolition, civil rights, the anti-war movement, the New Left, the
anti-nuke movement, radical environmentalism and,
obviously, anarchism. Women have been criticized for
pursuing feminist aims as if these were wrong-headed,
counterrevolutionary, or unimportant.

Anarchists did not simply wake up one morning with
more enlightened views of women, nor did patriarchy
suddenly reveal itself as "just another form of
domination." Feminist theory and practice brought to
light the oppression of women that often manifested
itself in otherwise revolutionary milieus. This is not
to say that all feminists were/are not anarchists, or
all anarchists were/are not feminists. But feminism is
often criticized within the anarchist milieu, from
several different angles. I will try to discuss
the most common criticisms I have heard voiced, both
publicly and privately, in anarchist circles.

It has been suggested that feminism is essentialist.
It has also been suggested that feminism, in keeping
with its essentialist views, is a philosophy that
asserts the superiority, in one way or another,
of women to men. Finally, the charge has been made
that feminism perpetuates gender categories, whereas
the revolutionary task is to move beyond gender
altogether. In other words, feminism is accused of
being a kind of identity politics that perpetuates
harmful and divisive societal roles that ultimately
oppress everyone.

The one thing that all of these allegations have in
common is that they posit a single, more or less
univocal entity named "feminism." However, anyone who
studies feminism soon learns that there has always
been a fair amount of diversity within feminist
theory, and this has never been more true than it is
now. No single set of ideas about sex and gender
represents feminism; rather, feminism is a loose
category that encompasses just about all forms of
thought and action which are explicitly concerned with
the liberation of women.

Although feminism has often been accused of
essentialism, the critique of essentialism is
particularly strong within feminism, and has been for
quite some time. Essentialism is the idea that there
is an unchanging substance or essence that constitutes
the true identity of people and things. In this
view, a woman is somehow truly, deep in her core,
identifiable as a woman; being a woman is not simply
the result of different attributes and behaviors.

This is seen as a politically backward stance by many,
because it implies that people are limited to certain
capabilities and behaviors that are somehow dictated
by their nature. When we examine the range of ideas
that has emerged from second wave (post-1963 or so)
feminism, however, a different picture comes into
focus. Probably the most famous quote from The Second
Simone de Beauvoir's seminal 1940s work, is the
following: "One is not born, but rather becomes, a
woman." The book goes on to argue that gender is a
social category, which individuals can reject.

The influence of The Second Sex was enormous, and
Beauvoir wasn't the only feminist to question the
naturalness of the category of gender. Many feminist
writers began to draw a distinction between sex and
gender, asserting that the former describes the
physical body, while the latter is a cultural
category. For instance, having a penis pertains to
sex, whereas how one dresses, and the social role one
fills, pertains to gender.

This is a distinction that some feminists still make,
but others have questioned the use of supposedly
pre-cultural categories like sex altogether. Colette
Guillamin has suggested that sex (as well as race) is
an arbitrary system of "marks" that has no natural
status at all, but simply serves the interests of
those who hold power. Although various physical
differences exist between people, it is politically
determined which ones are chosen as important or
definitive. Although people are divided into
supposedly natural categories on the basis of these
marks, there is nothing natural about any
category; categories are purely conceptual.

Building on the work of Beauvoir and Guillamin, among
others, Monique Wittig has argued that the feminist
goal is to eliminate sex and/or gender as a category
entirely. Like the proletariat in Marx's philosophy,
women are to constitute themselves as a class for the
sake of overthrowing the system that allows classes to
exist. One is not born a woman, except in the same
sense that one is born a proletarian: being a woman
denotes a social position, and certain social
practices, rather than an essence or true identity.

The ultimate political goal of a woman, for Wittig, is
to not be one. More recently, Judith Butler has
predicated an entire theory of gender based on the
radical rejection of essence. Of course, there have
been a number of feminists who, disturbed by what
they saw as an assimilationist tendency in feminism,
asserted a more positive notion of femininity that
was, at times, undoubtedly essentialist. Susan
Brownmiller, in her important book Against Our Wills,
suggested that men may be genetically predisposed to
rape, a notion that has been echoed by Andrea
Dworkin. Marxist feminists like Shulamith Firestone
sought the material basis of gender oppression in the
female reproductive role, and several feminist
theorists -- Nancy Chodorow, Sherry Ortner, and Juliet
Mitchell among others -- have examined the role of
motherhood in creating oppressive gender

"Woman-identified" feminists like Mary Daly embraced
certain traditional notions of femininity and sought
to give them a positive spin. Although
woman-identified feminists have, at times, taken
essentialist positions, this brand of feminism has
redressed some of the imbalances of that strain of
feminist thought that rejects femininity altogether as
a slave-identity. This has always been the dichotomy
that has troubled feminist thinkers: either to assert
a strong feminine identity and risk legitimizing
traditional roles and providing fodder to those who
employ the idea of a natural difference in order to
oppress women, or to reject the role and the identity
women have been given, and risk eliminating the very
ground of a feminist critique.

The task of contemporary feminism is to find a balance

between viewpoints that risk, on the one hand,
essentialism, and on the other the elimination of
women as the subject of political struggle altogether.
The goal of feminism, then, is the liberation of
women, but what that exactly means is open to dispute.
For some feminists, this means that women
and men will coexist equally; for others, that we will
no longer see people as women and men. Feminism
provides a rich panorama of views on gender problems.

One thing all feminists can agree on, though, is that
gender problems exist. Whether as a result of natural
differences or cultural construction, people are
oppressed on the basis of gender. To go beyond
gender, this situation needs to be redressed; gender
cannot simply be declared defunct. Feminism can
perhaps be best defined as the attempt to get
beyond the state of affairs where people are oppressed
because of gender. Thus, it is not possible to go
beyond gender without feminism; the charge that
feminism itself perpetuates gender categories is
patently absurd.

Since anarchy is opposed to all forms of domination,
anarchy without feminism is not anarchy at all. Since
anarchy declares itself opposed to all archy, all
rulership, true anarchy is by definition opposed to
patriarchy, i.e. it is, by definition, feminist. But
it is not enough to declare oneself opposed to all
domination; one needs to try to understand domination
in order to oppose it. Feminist authors should be read
by all anarchists who consider themselves opposed to
patriarchy. Feminist critiques are certainly just as
relevant as books about government oppression. Ward
Churchill's excellent Agents of Repression is
considered essential reading by many anarchists, even
though Churchill is not an anarchist.

Many feminist works, on the other hand, are neglected,
even by those who pay lip service to feminism. Yet,
while FBI repression is a real threat to anarchists,
the way we inhabit our gender-roles must be dealt with
every day of our lives. Thus, feminist literature is
more relevant to the daily fight against oppression
than much of the literature that anarchists read
regularly.If anarchism needs feminism, feminism
certainly needs anarchism as well. The failure of some
radical feminist theorists to address domination
beyond the narrow framework of women being victimized
by men has prevented them from developing an adequate
critique of oppression. As a prominent anarchist
writer has correctly pointed out, a political agenda
based on asking men to give up their privilege (as if
that were even possible) is absurd.

Feminists like Irigaray, MacKinnon and Dworkin
advocate legislative reforms, without criticizing the
oppressive nature of the state. Female separatism
(particularly as enunciated by Marilyn Frye) is a
practical, and perhaps necessary, strategy, but only
within the framework of a larger society that
is assumed to be stratified on the basis of gender.
Feminism is truly radical when it seeks to eliminate
the conditions that make gender oppression
inevitable. Anarchism and feminism clearly need one
another. It is all well and good to say that once the
primary source of oppression (whatever that is) is
removed, all other oppressions will wither away, but
what evidence is there for that? And how does that
keep us from oppressing one another now, while
we're waiting for this great revolution? Conversely,
it is important to recognize that the oppression of
women is not the only oppression. Arguments
about which forms of oppression are more important, or
more primary, are unresolvable and silly. The value,
and the danger, of anarchism is this; it seeks to
eliminate all forms of domination. This goal is
valuable because it does not lose sight of the forest
for the trees, getting caught up in distracting
reformist battles and forgetting its trajectory toward
total liberation. But it is also dangerous because
anarchism continually runs the risk of ignoring
real-life situations in favor of abstractions, and
underemphasizing or dismissing movements that seek to
address specific issues. Let's have an anarchist
feminism and a feminist anarchism!