Free Women of Spain
Anarchism and the Struggle for the Emancipation of Woman
Published in Social Anarchism #19, 1994
I've just finished reading a most delightful book. Martha Ackelsberg's work, Free Women of Spain combines three of my favorite topics; anarchism, feminism and history. Those, coupled with a dynamic writing style and consistent references to contemporary political issues in the United States, makes this one of the best books I've read in a long time. Ackelsberg traces the background which gave rise to this movement of anarchist women in Spain in the 1930's and then clearly analyzes the strengths and weaknesses of their activities. Based on extensive archival work, in depth interviews with the participants and a vast knowledge of Spain at the time, Ackelsberg brings to life a piece of history that we have only known of vaguely. The book sets the stage thoroughly, painting for us the social, political and cultural contexts which gave rise to an exciting manifestation of the anarchist vision. This vision was created by and for working women.
The book is well written and is peppered with snapshots and political posters of the time. It does ample justice to the words of the women themselves, so that we get a sense of the incredible growth that came as a result of their participation. Because she has a deep and full understanding of historical anarchism and a personal knowledge of current feminist discussions and theory, her book is a delightful weave of yesterday as applied to today. Hers is an intelligent discussion based on years of research and participation in the movement. She has done her work with a political scientist's trained analysis.
Best of all, Ackelsberg has finally done something which has been long in coming; she infuses current anarchist writing with a gender consciousness. She looks at anarchism from a feminist orientation, from a woman's perspective, and tells us how anarchist women dealt with the inherent sexism in the anarchist movement. She tells us how anarchist women lived their feminism in relationships, community, work and education.
Ackelsberg asks questions that have relevance to contemporary political dialogue and the current issues facing anarchists today. For one, she wonders if equal relationships are even possible in disempowering situations. She helps us see how the issues with which they were dealing are still part of our political agenda. There is a full discussion of the anarchists involvement in direct action. In Spain direct action existed in the form of storefront cultural centers and in the day to day issues of people who need to learn to take control of their lives. She likens their activities of "propaganda of the deed" to our contemporary examples of food coops, self help collectives, squats and equity housing programs.
Ackelsberg uses a style that I find highly readable. By weaving life stories within a social-historical context we see real people dealing with real issues in real life. She puts the people together with the themes so that we see the theory come alive. A good case in point is the story of Mercedes Comaposada, who tells her life story in the context of the political agitation that was dominating the era. She tells us of one woman's struggle to deal with the sexism of anarchist organizers. In this section Ackelsberg also explains how the incipient movement of women first emerged. Spontaneous groups of women met a socially recognized need by forming groups, much like we did in the US women's movement in the 1970's. By telling their story we see how movements for social change develop cyclical patterns. We see that there is much to be learned from these foremothers, in terms of how to organize and empower women.
Many of the issues with which these women were dealing were also prevalent in the US at that time. Similar efforts to educate women workers were going on in the labor movement as well as in socialist and anarchist circles in the 20's and 30's. Many of the US anarchist women were debating how to raise their children. Interestingly in one interview Ackelsberg quotes an anarchist woman, Enriqueta (Fernandez) Rovira who suggests that perhaps the children were raised too permissively. I too have interviewed older anarchist women who have said much the same to me about their own childrearing techniques. One argued that as a result of her own permissiveness she now had a "bourgeois capitalist son and overindulged grandchildren." Certainly this an interesting area for those concerned with progressive ideas about child rearing and education theories to further explore.
There was just one area of difference or problem that I had with Ackelsberg's work. In one section she states that Bakunin insisted that all women were equal to men and ought to be treated as such (p.64). My own reading of Bakunin and investigation into his personal relationships reveal that his ideology and life style did not match (so what else is new?). I remember being appalled that all the anarchist forefathers (Kropotkin, Bakunin and Proudhon) espoused in- equality in gender relations and, in fact, all lived out the inequality in their personal lives. I would have liked to know how Ackelsberg came to her assessment of Bakunin.
I particularly liked the way Ackelsberg tied what was happening in Spain to what was going on in the US, Britain and Europe at the time. In her concluding chapter she takes us on a journey of relevance. She helps us see that women who speak out, who act differently from what is (was) expected, no matter where they are in the world, are seen as "disorderly". She also explains the current post modernist debate in clear English, without rhetoric. She helps us see where anarchism may fit into the debate by the literary deconstructionists and makes what happened in Spain relevant to that discussion. By giving us a model of an independent, but a nonseparatist, strategy for dealing with diversity, she shows us that we can move beyond individualism and gender specific analyses. She argues that in Spain the women in Mujeres Libres did not choose between their gender and their class or racial- ethnic groups. Instead they were involved in developing what today would be called a "politics of diversity", in which a woman's perspective was valued while race, class and ethnicity was also taken into consideration. This final chapter is her best, thought provoking and challenging. It is in this area that I think anarchists might extend their thinking and analysis.
That caveat aside, I would highly recommend the Ackelsberg book. I am so pleased that we have this to add to our growing collection of anarchist feminist-historical works. The field is growing, there are now a few more anarchist-feminist historians. The analysis is being extended and the dialogues are beginning. She has begun to place anarchist history in the context of the deconstructionist debate. It is somewhat of a first. I am so glad that Martha Ackelsberg is one of those engaged in the study and I look forward to further discussion with her. There is a lot yet to be explored in this field of anarchist-feminist history.
Free Women of Spain: Anarchism and the Struggle for the Emancipation of Women by Martha A. Ackelsberg. 256 pp. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1991. $14.95 pb.
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