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To Get to the Other Side

A journey through Europe and its anarchist movements

Lucia Sanchez Saornil

One day I became disillusioned and upset when I found out that members of a squat I respected had denied the request of an anarcha-feminist group to host their self-defense class at that squat.  The squatters said that because the group was for women only, it was sexist.  One of them even said feminists hated men and just wanted power for themselves.  I was shocked to hear from the mouths of anarchists arguments that in the US I had associated exclusively with right wing radio hacks, but with my poor Spanish I couldn’t express myself strongly enough.  It didn’t help that one of the squatters kept interrupting me, though in this case it was hard to say if his behavior was typically masculine or typically Mediterranean.  Later, after thinking it out a lot I was able to share my feelings with one of these squatters.  In my opinion, just because radical men suddenly realized that patriarchy was wrong and binary gender needed to be abolished did not mean that five thousand years of history, conditioning, and abuse could be eliminated.  Nor was a society-wide power structure the same as an individual’s opinions, so the rare feminist who actually did hate all men bore little resemblance to a misogynistic man whose prejudices were backed up by social institutions.  The one can deny people resources, safety, and health; the other cannot.  By forming a women-only self-defense group, these feminists were not depriving men of power—a couple men could very easily start their own group, and society already offered men more opportunities to learn self-defense.  Rather, they were utilizing the anarchist principle of voluntary association to create a safe space where they could undergo the training necessary to overcome one of the many inequalities patriarchy had created: the capacity for violence and self-defense, in which men are encouraged  and women are discouraged.  I also pointed out that I had seem some martial arts groups organized by squatters in Barcelona that were nearly all men.  The feminists had an explicit gender policy and they had created a comfortable space for certain people, whereas the other groups being gender-blind had ignored the issue entirely, allowing the sexism from surrounding society to creep in and make the space apparently unwelcoming to women.  Seen in the broader context, the feminist group was doing the work necessary to overcome the continuing legacy of patriarchy, and it would be absurd to suggest that if they continued with similar work they would eventually create an oppressively matriarchal society.  The guy I talked with was very receptive to these criticisms, and I felt a lot better that I had tried again to express myself.

The incident really contrasted with my experience of the anarchist movement in the US.  There, anarchism largely owed its rebirth to radical feminist and queer movements.  Most anarchists I knew in the States had thought a whole lot more about gender issues, and also about race—few clung to a conservative or liberal analysis or seriously used phrases like “reverse racism” or “reverse sexism.”  On the other hand, people here seemed to be much better at arguing and criticizing without moralistically crucifying anyone, as often happens in the States.  There wasn’t a culture of thin skins and victimization.  On the downside this meant there was less support for the idea of safe spaces, but to its credit the radical culture lacked the patronizing idea of the fragile oppressed person who needed to be protected.  The common assumption was, if you wanted to improve your condition, you fought for it.

Sometime after this conversation I finally found an occasion to leaf through the book, Free Women of Spain, and read with some interest about sexism in the Spanish anarchist movement during the much romanticized Civil War.  One particular anarchist who fought for women’s equality during the revolution piqued my curiosity: Lucia Sanchez Saornil.  She was born on 13 December, 1895, in Madrid, and later became a telephone operator and member of the CNT anarchist labor union.  She was also General Secretary of Solidaridad Internacional Antifascista, and just before the revolution broke out she helped to found Mujeres Libres, a women’s liberation group that published a newspaper and situated itself within the anarchist movement.  The male leadership tried to convince her and the other founders, including Mercedes Comaposada of Barcelona, to limit their efforts to a women’s column in the CNT newspaper, but fortunately they launched their own project to give their perspective more attention and autonomy.  Sanchez, who was also a poet and an out lesbian, was probably the most radical and outspoken of the founders.  She rejected the arguments of male anarchists that sexism would wither away after the revolution, or that it would be divisive and dangerous to talk about women’s liberation while the fascists were at the gate.  Mujeres Libres helped mobilize tens of thousands of women to fight the fascists and further the anarchist revolution.  They organized schools, childcare programs, and women-only social groups to help women gain skills and confidence that would allow them to participate as equals in the movement.  They set up shooting ranges to help train women who wanted to join the militias, delivered food to the front, supported women in the militias, and combated sexist attitudes.  The group explained their position in words that had striking relevance to the problem I found in today’s anarchist movement in Spain: “It is necessary to work, to struggle, together because if we don’t we’ll never have a social revolution. But we needed our own organization to struggle for ourselves.”