Forgotten Women [Mujeres Libres video tour 1987]

Women’s oppression is a major obstacle to building class unity. Sexism, like racism, only benefits capitalism – workers fighting together, irrespective of sex or race, are a far greater threat than when isolated and divided. Thus women’s liberation is in the interests of both sexes.

Women are not only oppressed as workers but also as women. The statement that working class women do two thirds of the world’s work makes this clear. We don’t agree with all aspects of today’s feminist movement. Many of them see the root of women’s oppression as patriarchy but we argue that capitalism, not men, gains from and is responsible for it. Women’s oppression can’t be seen in isolation but in its overall context – that is, all oppression stems from capitalism. Only when capitalism is smashed can women be free. A women’s movement, instead of getting professional women into positions of power, should adopt a class analysis and support working class women who bear the brunt of capitalist attacks.

While we support struggles for reforms we say that real change comes only through class struggle. While there’s nothing wrong in conscience-raising and self-education on a mass scale this only occurs in struggle – in the miners’ strike miners and supporters saw who was on their side and who wasn’t, with links formed with “peace” women, lesbians and gays.

If women’s liberation can only be achieved by overthrowing capitalism, this alone won’t automatically secure it. In revolutionary times women will need to assert themselves as women. To defend their interests women will need to organise against sexist attitudes. If this means forming their own organisations then so be it.

In 1930’s Spain women in the CNT, needed to organise outside existing structures building Mujeres, Libres  (Free Women) with 27,000 members and 137 groups. It aimed to “empower” deciding the only way was to organise separately to address “women’s triple enslavement to ignorance, capital and men”. Many Spanish anarchists didn’t see women’s oppression as a separate issue assuming its end would follow an anarchist society, at best insisting women should fight from inside the existing structures. This short-sightedness & Mujeres Libres’ validity is shown by examining women’s position after the revolution:
1. In many areas wages were not equalised.
2. “They continued to think of women as assistants, accepted In a secondary place.” – Soledad Estorach.

Women’s struggles were not taken as seriously as they might have been.

Before the revolution Anarchists had schools and cultural centres, of special importance to women to combat high illiteracy among women giving them a chance to enrich themselves and meet men as equals. In this environment women could speak of their needs and experiences as women and unorganised workers which they could not do in the union structure.

Mujeres Libres were labelled as feminists but hardly knew its meaning and when they did, they identified it as a middle-class movement with aims irrelevant and contrary to their own. They argued women had to organise independently of men to overcome subordination, and struggle against male resistance to women’s freedom, insisting women’s involvement [in] anarchism[’s] movement must develop from their particular experience. Their struggles focussed on illiteracy, economic dependence, and ignorance on health/ childcare/ sexuality. With illiteracy, they had a massive literacy drive in towns and villages and set up institutes in Valencia and Barcelona with literacy, language, nursing, child-care, electricity, mechanics, economics and general education classes, and meetings. “It was almost like a school for activists… we didn’t exactly indoctrinate people but we did more than just technical training… we encouraged them to pay attention to the idea of becoming activists.”

Mujeres Libres saw economic dependence of women rooted in extreme sexual division of labour. Women had the lowest paid work and most oppressive conditions. They worked closely with the CNT, sponsoring training and apprenticeship programmes in factories. Eventually there were Mujeres Libres groups in most factories allowing women to talk about work-related concerns. In rural areas they sponsored agricultural training programmes for women and advocated child care facilities in localities and workplaces giving women the possibility of working and fought to equalise wages between women and men. There was no clear position on cultural subordination of women. Some criticised bourgeois morality and argued against defining women solely as mothers: “…the woman is an individual and she has worth even apart from being a mother, we wanted to get rid of the myth of the mother.” Most women in Mujeres Libres remained committed to monogamous relationships if not legal marriage.

Health was an area almost totally controlled by the Catholic Church. Mujeres Libres trained new nurses to replace nuns & developed substantial education and hygiene programmes for maternity and neighbourhood centres, which was of great importance to revolutionary Spain. When revolutionaries were under pressure to concentrate on the civil war with the aim of destroying all gains, Mujeres Libres’ commitment to social action reaffirmed the anarchist watchwords that the war and revolution are inseparable.

The advancement of women’s liberation can only be achieved through revolutionary activity. An anarchist society is the only society which can free women. Mujeres Libres gives us an example of the kind of areas where women must work. No freedom is ever achieved without fighting for it.

[Box: Mujeres Libres video tour]
The process of recording history is one controlled by men, so it’s not surprising that the roles of women in such events as the Spanish Revolution have been neglected and ignored. The video “de Toda la Vida” (“All Our Lives”) is a series of interviews with 4 of the founders of Mujeres Libres. It is an attempt to redress the balance and put women, especially anarchist/anarcho-syndicalist women, back into history. The Direct Action Movement has organised a tour with the video, visiting the following venues:

London: July 15th, 7.30pm – 4 Corners Club, Roman Rd, Bethnal Green. (East London DAM)
July 16th, 7.30pm – basement of St Matthew’s Meeting Place, opposite Lambeth Town Hall. (Brixton DAM)
Bradford: July 19th, 7.30pm – Metropole Pub, Town Centre.
Huddersfield: July 20th, 8pm – Hudawi Centre, Town Centre.
Nottingham: July 22nd, 7.30pm – International Community Centre, Mansfield Road.
Leeds: July 23rd, 8pm – Trades Club, Savile Mount.
Crewe: July 20th, 7.30pm – the Meredith Centre.
Liverpool: July 21st, 7pm – Liverpool Poly Students Union, Hague Building, Maryland Road.
Manchester: July 22nd, 7.30pm – Manchester Town Hall, Committee Room 5, creche in Room 7.
Bolton: July 23rd, 8pm – Bolton Socialist Club, 16 Wood Street, off Bradshaw Gate.
Burnley: July 24th, 7.30pm – Tudor Room, Burnley Mechanics Institute, Manchester Road. London: July 29th, 8.30pm – Stoke Newington Squatters Centre, 20 Northwold Road, Finsbury Park – Finsbury Park tube and 106 bus. (Tower Hamlets DAM and Brixton DAM)
July 30th, 7.30pm – Red Rose Club, Seven Sisters Road, Finsbury Park. (Central London DAM)
Bristol – July 30th, 7pm – Shepherds Hall, Old Market.
Newcastle: August 1st – details from Newcastle DAM, c/o Tyneside Free Press, 5 Charlotte Squ., Newcastle-upon-Tyne.

From: Direct Action No.41 (July/August 1987).