Free Women of Spain : Anarchism and the struggle for the emancipation of women by Martha Ackelsberg [Review]

Once again we give thanks to the good people at AK Press for re-issuing a title that actually adds to our understanding of both anarchism and the Spanish civil war / social revolution, whilst raising issues that are still of contemporary relevance to both anarchism and the struggle for women’s liberation.

The core of this book is a history of the Mujeres Libres group of anarchist women who, in mid 1930’s Spain, set up an explicitly libertarian journal and, subsequently, organisation, which was directed at women and which addressed the three-fold oppression in women in being kept in ignorance, enslavement as a women and enslavement as a worker.

However it is important to realise that these women, although they argued for (and took) organisational autonomy with regard to the mainstream libertarian movement (the CNT anarcho-syndicalist union; FAI anarchists and FIJL libertarian youth) on an individual basis they came from and were mostly militants within those organisations as well. They therefore were social revolutionaries, but revolutionaries who saw that existing revolutionary organisations, for all their rhetoric, were failing to properly represent women’s aspirations and were even, in some cases reproducing attitudes towards women (even fellow militants) that were at best patronising and worst abusive. However, because of their class basis of their political orientation, they were not interested in what they described as middle class “feminism” which they saw as merely advocating women’s right to take their place in the hierarchies of an unequal society, which, in itself, would do nothing to liberate the majority of women (or men).

The groundwork for the organisation was set up for a small team of activists who started with a journal “Mujeres Libres” which was written by women, for women, from a libertarian perspective (but which assiduously avoided the “a” word for fear of putting-off non-political women. But they did not become a formally constituted organisation until after the start of the civil war in 1936, and even then were never considered to have equal status with the other three main constituent parts of the libertarian movement.

The uprising against the generals’ uprising was in part the opportunity to bring about a social revolution in those parts of Spain that were not initially lost to the Francoist forces and where anarchists (and in some places socialists) had sufficient strength to collectivise production in both rural and urban areas. The women from Mujeres Libres threw themselves into the struggle, even, in some cases taking up arms and fighting at the front, but mainly they devoted their energies to other activities. This activity can be summarised as being a dual strategy of: capacitation and captacion.

The former can be seen as preparation of women for revolutionary engagement, by a combination of what was later to be called “consciousness raising” and empowerment. In practice this encompassed activities such as tackling illiteracy (still at ridiculously high levels due to the malign influence of the Catholic church); to prepare for entry into the workforce using training and apprenticeship schemes; to educate women regarding child raising practices and contraception and so forth with an aim of enabling them to (in Ackelsberg’s words “experience themselves as competent historical actors.” This gave rise to numerous educational initiatives and publications.

The latter term, captacion, related to bringing women into the libertarian movement, both to strengthen the position of women within the movement, but also prevent the incorporation of the more financially endowed socialist and communist parties from recruiting them. This point needs emphasising. Not only was there a social revolution going on, with workers and peasants taking control of the means of production, with the expropriation of former landlords and factory owners and, at the same time, a long drawn-out and bloody civil war against the forces of reaction; but also there was an internal counter-revolution being waged against the gains that the anarchists had made at the start of the struggle, primarily by the Stalinist Communist Party, which was effectively bank-rolling the republican government, at the price of destroying the very thing that made the struggle worthwhile, the social revolution.

In the circumstances, when millions were literally fighting for their lives and for their freedom, it may seem bizarre for a section of the working class, albeit a substantial section, was involved in what might be seen as a diversionary exercise. Indeed there were calls for their activity to wait until the war was won, and there is no doubt that in certain areas the Mujeres Libres did tone down their activities, but overall they stuck to the tasks that they had set themselves, and one can argue that it was necessary to do so, as without the active support of the mass of women (many of whom had never actively participated in unions or politics), the revolution would be lost. There is even an argument that can be put forward that the education, training and empowerment that the Mujeres Libres were involved in were worthwhile activities in their right irrespective of the situation.

As we all know, in the end their efforts along with those of the rest of the libertarian movement was insufficient to either sustain the social revolution or win the war. And with the exile of the movement’s activists the story effectively ends as far as the organisational form “Mujeres Libres” is concerned. However, the book only exists in the form that it does, because so many of the participants in the Mujeres Libres were still around and willing to speak about it in the 1980’s to Martha Ackelsberg. And they are testimony to the long-term effect of being in a social revolution had on their lives.

The book however is not a simple exercise in the recovery of a lost history. The author is as equally concerned with the relevance, if any, of the work that the Mujeres Libres undertook to the post-1968 generations of women and especially those calling themselves feminists. This is both threaded through the historical chapters as well as having a whole section devoted to itself, the conclusion entitled “Community and the Empowerment of Women”. Here Ackelsberg, amongst many other points, devotes some space distinguishing notions of difference from those of diversity. For her difference has implications of hierarchy, all axes of difference imply that one end is dominant / preferred / assumed whatever.

For myself, a properly libertarian politics instead should deploy notions of diversity instead, which respects those (even temporary identifications which people employ for various reasons) aspects of people that are different but which are not in relationships of hierarchy. The point is also made that “real” communities require a greater sense of equality and non-exploitative relationships that is currently the case. One of the problems of contemporary feminisms and social revolutionary movements is that they have split between reformist “equalities of opportunity” (and revolutionary transformations built on some form of universalism (with implications of a white male heterosexist norm) which deny the specificity of particular forms of oppression, domination, exploitation and so forth.

Anyway, back to the book. This is pretty much required reading for anyone interested in Spain 1936-39 and for anyone with any interest in sexual, workplace and community politics. The specific situation the women of Mujeres Libres found themselves will not necessarily be replicated in other countries and other times but there is enough commonality in their experiences and enough relevance in Ackelsberg’s commentary to make this a worthwhile read. The tone may occasionally be a tad too academic for some but it rarely intrudes for long. Ackelsberg takes great care to situate the story within the story of Spanish history and within developments in anarchist theory and practice. Those unfamiliar with Spanish terminology will find the glossary useful but if you need a map - well there are such things as atlases you could try.

The description of the woman’s activities in the fields, factories, workshops and schools is quite fascinating. For what was a small group compared to the main CNT union, they achieved quite a lot in the short time they were active in Spain, although very little survived the victory of the Francoist forces in the Spring of 1939, and in a way, the knowledge that one is reading about what might be seen as a failure (glorious enough as it was) does lead to a certain depressing feel to reading about it. That said there is a wonderful example of libertarian humour with the reproduction / translation of the text “Proposal for the Creation of a Wedding Factory”. The main additions to the original 1989 edition are a new preface and an interview with Geert Dhondt conducted in 2004 around the theme of lessons of the book.

There’s very little I could quibble about with this book. One might have liked a full bibliography to supplement the 34 pages of notes, but it’s not essential. I would have liked to have known more about the Mujeres Libres activists after their exile in 1939. The paper and the organisation seem to have died with the defeat of the libertarian movement. Yet the women remained libertarian activists (or least committed to the cause long after that defeat, in some cases some 50 or 60 years.) Can one assume that their experiences in Mujeres Libres were in part responsible for that? I’d like to think so.

Pretty much essential reading I’d say.


Richard Alexander

Ackelsberg, Martha A. “Free Women of Spain. Anarchism and the struggle for the emancipation of women.” 2005, AK Press, Edinburgh, Scotland and Oakland CA USA. Pbk, 286pp, illus, notes, index. ISBN 1-902593-96-0. $20.00 (Rev of 1st edn. published in 1991, Indiana University Press.)