Anarchism and the Women’s Liberation Movement

This brief discussion paper, on the relevance of anarchist ideas to feminist organising, was written by Lynn Alderson for a workshop at a conference on Feminism and Anarchism, held in London on May 28-29th 1977. The paper was then published in Catcall, a non-sectarian feminist discussion paper produced by and for woman in the Women’s Liberation Movement.  For this 2023 republication, Lynn  has added an afterword,  reflecting on and contextualising the original article.

Lynn Alderson, 1977, Anarchism and the Women’s Liberation Movement, from Catcall, Issue 6, July 1977, pp.5-6. London, Catcall Collective.
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Key Words: anarcha-feminism, anarchism, feminism, history, organization, nineteenseventies, women’s liberation movement

detail from title page of original article, showing womens symbol with fist holding the letter A for anarchism.

(Image from original article)

Because the Women’s Liberation Movement is under a certain amount of attack at the moment, and its structure and political theory are being reassessed/defined, I believe it’s important to look at the principles upon which it has been operating, many of which I would define as anarchistic, as opposed to socialist, the differences having important implications though, obviously, there are areas in which the two overlap considerably.

1) Structure.  The emphasis on non-hierarchical and leaderless forms of organization, based on direct representation and a rejection of one policy, membership, etc. has been a very important theme in an attempt to get away from the power positions inherent in hierarchical structures which prevail in patriarchal society. Although there is a need to see the informal structures which then occur, I do not believe that that is sufficient reason to revert to ‘open leadership’, but that to continue in the direction we have already taken and seek new ways of avoiding such structures is a more positive and creative alternative. This leads to the loose forms of cooperatives which have been explored to some extent — the notion of collectivity containing individual and group responsibility as an alternative to authoritarian, capitalistic ways of doing things.

2) The principle that the Personal is Political and that political theory must also have relevance to life-styles, sexuality, etc. has been important to many feminists in the light of the often ‘personal’ nature of the power exercised by men over women and the complex nature of that power.

Consciousness raising groups have been one of the most effective ways of analyzing and changing the way we relate to people and connecting the individual response to the wider social causes. Any political organization which ignores the relevance and quality of ‘everyday’ life and experience I would consider to be promoting alienation and not getting to the roots of power structures, which in terms of feminism is the oppression of women by men (and not just a by-product of capitalism).

3) Participation and Self-help.  In order to change the situation of powerlessness that many women feel, the principle of participation as a means to an end and also as a valid part of the ‘process’ in itself (consciousness changing etc.) has been a way of gaining control over our lives in all spheres. Knowledge is power and when you can do something yourself, it demystifies the expert and leaves you less at the mercy of those in power. I think this has been important in our recognizing that women can (and now often do) do all kinds of things previously considered to be out of our range or capabilities. Self-confidence and a belief in one’s own validity being essential base for action and developing autonomous power. Sharing skills, not using them to oppress.

4) Autonomy.  The reassessment of our social and personal relationships in the light of trying to build a strong, independent individual, having some measure of control over one’s life and actions (given that we are also socially created beings), has been important in combating the dependent and feeble image of femininity which cripples most of us in all areas of our lives. The recognition that the individual has needs, rights, power and responsibility (and that her perceptions are valid) — is very threatening to those in authority who depend on our powerlessness and consent. Although we can also recognize that working together increases our effectiveness and strength in certain ways, I think it must be based upon the conscious, potent individual, or coercion, manipulation and the oppression of the few by the many (or by the few) will result.

The WLM has always fought shy of centralization as yet another rejection of bureaucracy, and to facilitate all the other objectives. I think it also increases our strength and allows for a wider scope of activities and ideologies, arising out of the needs of those who are confronting different forms of oppression in the situations in which they find themselves.

It seems to me important that we leave that kind of space for things to develop, however tempting it may be to dismiss the WLM as politically ineffective and to seek the security of blue-print programmes and unifying campaigns. Perhaps we need to define more clearly what our aims and principles are and to assess their implications in terms of organization and action, but I would contend that those I have outlined above are worth struggling for, and that to sacrifice them for greater ‘recruitment potential’ or alleged effectiveness would involve a complete change of direction, rather than a consolidation of and building upon what we already have achieved. I am also concerned that we recognize that there is more than one theory of revolution and stop endlessly trying to fit feminism into Marxism or vice versa, when anarchism has and is contributing considerably to the theoretical basis of women’s liberation. I would hope that we can go on from there to working out more feminist revolutionary theory and leave all these labels behind.


Afterword, August 2023.

It’s interesting to me, from the vantage point of 46 years later, that those of us involved in the Women’s Liberation Movement were so willing to engage in debate about the structure of our movement, to go into workshops which consciously considered how we might best create a political theory which was feminist, truly radical and not a copy of those we saw as created by men and fatally flawed by a male-centred orientation. In 1977 we were still trying to assert that all areas of life, from cultural to sexual, were necessary subjects of political thinking, expressed by the phrase ‘the personal is political’. Of course the dominant radical political ideology of the time, which we were largely reacting to, was socialist and Marxist. Many women left such groups as IS (International Socialists) and the IMG (International Marxist Group) having been met with the ‘after the revolution’ attitude that dismissed women’s oppression as secondary and irrelevant to ‘real revolution’ of the class-based kind, as well as appalling sexist treatment in groups and unions. My own experience was also of the same sexist attitudes in anarchist groups and the emerging Gay Liberation Movement which, although it brought sexuality into the political arena, did so again within a male-dominated and oriented environment. Many of these women helped to form and shape the WLM.

The concept of autonomy was key to our feminist thinking. It related to the personal in seeking to liberate women as individuals from the dependency of traditionally constructed femininity, to achieve agency and control in our lives which were also hampered by our status as second-class citizens and baked-in sexism across all levels of social and legal existence. But it also referred to the need for an autonomous women’s movement. Autonomy, crucially, from the male view of the world. And it’s here that this paper was arguing for the looser structures associated with anarchism, the emphasis on keeping power in the hands of the collective rather than hierarchical structures and which reflected the ways of working we had already developed as women’s liberationists.

Consciousness raising groups were built on the notion that all women had a contribution to make, that our experience as women made us the experts in our oppression and that bringing us together was a source of power and radical action. The paper wasn’t a plea to ‘read more Bakunin’, which was one woman’s heart-felt cry at an earlier anarcha-feminist meeting, but to resist the traditional ways of political organisation, the ‘great man’ style of political theory-making, the integration into existing political parties and movements without radically changing them, and, as our self-help organisations began to seek funding, to consider the relationship with the state and loss of control which ensued as a result.

Our growing analysis of power was different as we exposed the power that was exercised over us in all its varied and extensive forms, and from which radical feminism (still the only political theory created by women, for women) evolved as part of that awareness.  Feminism did not fit neatly with any existing political theory and was free to both critique and to draw on them all.

Lynn Alderson