The True Meaning of Freedom:

Anarcha-Feminism’s Significance

James Gravatt







We are all born into unique situations. As a direct result of this, we all have different experiences that shape us into individual identities. Each identity is just as valid as the next, and they make up one of the most important, if not the most important, aspect of our lived experiences. Some political economies are much better at facilitating and validating these identities, being founded in equality in every sense, while others, being rooted in inequity, deny individuals their freedoms. Capitalism is one such oppressive system, whereas the system providing the most freedoms is anarchism, in particular, anarcha-feminism.

The United States, like most other large nations, operates in a system of democratic capitalism. Democracy “may be defined as a political system in which governments are established by majority votes cast in regular, uncoerced elections” (Younkins). Focusing specifically on the United States, there exists a system of federalist, representative democracy in which both state governments and the national government have authority over an area in which citizens elect representatives and other leaders to make broader decisions for the entire constituency. The idea is that, if the majority is happy, society as a whole will be able to progress and thrive. Since it is a pluralist society, the citizenry are also free to organize into interest groups around particular topics, and all these groups share some degree of influence in the decision making process for both the state and national governments.

Capitalism is the system in which individuals, in control of private property, have the freedom to start up a business endeavor, employing workers to utilize said private property to produce a good or service, and selling that finished product to whomever wishes to purchase it. According to the individualist perspective of social responsibility within a capitalist system, corporations

“do not derive their power from society, owe nothing to the community, and need only pay taxes and adhere to government regulations. In other words, management is accountable for the sole task of employing the stockholders' capital in the most profitable manner for the stockholders' benefit. Specialization of effort and promotion of group interests (e.g., stockholders, employees, creditors, etc.) are viewed as the best organizing mechanisms for society. When each group legally pursues its own self-interest the result is the greater good of society” (Younkins).

This means that when corporations, as the central organizational unit within capitalism, strive to do things like increase the returns on the investments of their stockholders and increase the level of productivity of their employees, the corporations are moving in a direction that advances the desires of all parties involved in the process. If everyone’s desires are fulfilled, society at large is progressing. If all corporations are included in this reasoning, then most people would be served by this pursuit of self-advancement.

                Now, there are many aspects of both representative democracy and capitalism that can be called into question on the grounds of contradicting their own claims to “freedom.” For instance, both representative democracy and capitalism are instituted in hierarchies, and hierarchies are steeped in the idea that party A is able to make decisions for party B, without any say from party B and regardless of whether or not party B actually wishes to participate in those decisions.

But that is just a general explanation of a hierarchy. There are a few particular hierarchical relationships that are unique to capitalism and representative democracy that are particularly egregious. Capitalism is the “economic relationship between the exploiter and the exploited… [A limited few have] the power and right to live by exploiting the labour of someone else, the right to exploit the labour of those who possess neither property nor capital and who thus are forced to sell their productive power to the lucky owners of both” (Maximoff, 183). This claim comes from the idea that laborers are separated from the product of their labor by their bosses. This separation is even a foundation of capitalism that is interpreted in a contradictory way by capitalists. While adherents of capitalism argue that individuals should be entitled to the fruits of their labor, it explicitly denies them this when the capitalist class takes these fruits and distributes them unevenly- giving only a portion of their value to the workers in the form of a wage, and leaving the final product to the capitalist who may have done no more than supply the workers with their wages, having no direct involvement in the production of the finished good. Clearly, workers are left with less value than the product of their labor, and are left to use their wages to purchase the very goods they have just produced, only at prices reflecting a sum of not only their wages, but also the portion taken by the capitalist, as well as, in most instances, a profit. Clearly, capitalism is a system in which a privileged minority has free reign over what happens to the majority that makes up the working force.

                A common response to the above arguments is that workers are free to leave any boss who they find exploitative in exchange for another, less exploitative one. If all workers did this, they would be more likely to obtain a fairer wage, and have more ownership of the finished products they make. This argument fails to take into account the true notion of freedom. Switching from one boss to another is not what should happen. “Freedom is not the opportunity to pick a master, it is to have autonomy over yourself” (McKay, 170). Under any sort of capitalist boss, workers are forced into accepting less than the value of their services (which should be equivalent to the value of the goods produced, if not the goods themselves) as wages.

                Representative democracy, too, has roots in inequity. Even representative democracy is a form of a repressive state. Under this system, individuals are elected into power by a majority vote. These elected people then work to represent the interests of that majority which elected them. But what about those who fall into the minority? They are left to be subject to the rule of the few who are elected. “As the state is the delegation of power into the hands of the few, it is obviously based on hierarchy. This delegation of power results in the elected people becoming isolated from the mass of people who elected them and outside of their control” (McKay, 140). Eventually, the exclusive minority of leaders elected serve themselves and others in power to maintain their spots on the top of the hierarchy. It is in this way that capitalism and the state serve to support one another. The state is in control of economic policies, so the representatives constantly create and enforce laws that favor the capitalist class. The capitalists, in turn, support those in government by aiding in their prolonged rule through monetary donations, endorsements, and so on. It’s a vicious, cyclical hierarchy that only serves to reinforce itself at the expense of all others.

                These critiques of the state and of capitalism all point to one solution to the issues presented by these systems: anarchism. In its most basic sense, anarchism is the “desire to free society of all political and social coercive institutions which stand in the way of the development of a free humanity” (Rocker, 9). By getting rid of the “political and social coercive institutions,” anarchists do not merely mean the elimination of governments, as is most people might think. Rather, those who subscribe to anarchist thought believe that the world should be rid of all forms of hierarchy, exemplified in the above arguments against the state and against capitalism.

                Keeping with the true ideals behind the freedoms offered by anarchistic philosophy, “it is likely that any anarchist society will see a diverse number of economic systems co-existing in different areas, depending on what people in those areas want” (McKay). So, there is no one system offered as the be-all-end-all in an anarchist society. Not every community will be the same, so it follows that not every community will be operating within the same framework. The only principles guaranteed are “decentralisation, self-management, socialisation, voluntary association, and free federation” (McKay). Power will be in the hands of the people themselves, rather than elected (or unelected) officers. Workers will have complete ownership of the things they work to produce. The needs of society will be served, rather than the needs of the few who can help themselves. People will be able to associate themselves with any group they desire, or avoid membership in groups they disagree with. And groups formed will be able to join together to fulfill needs they cannot fulfill on their own.

                Take a look at the major anarchist thinkers: Max Stirner, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Michael Bakunin, Peter Kropotkin, Emma Goldman, Alexander Berkman, Errico Malatesta, Benjamin Tucker, and Noam Chomsky make up a pretty comprehensive list of the most influential, followed, and respected voices in anarchist movements. Now, take a step back and analyze the similarities of all of these individuals. One of the biggest problems with the current powers that be is shared with a critique of the anarchist movement as it has evolved thus far. Looking at all of these anarchists, as well as a majority of people in governments around the world, we can see that there are a few dominating identities. With the exception of Emma Goldman, all these major anarchists are male. All of them are white. Presumably, most are heterosexual. All are adults.

                These realizations are brought to light by the anarcha-feminist movement. There are a lot of very striking similarities between feminist and anarchist theory: “Both sets of theories view social and economic inequality as rooted in institutionalized power arrangements; both stress the necessity of changing those arrangements as a precondition for liberation; and both work for the realization of personal autonomy and freedom within a context of community” (Erlich).

What exactly are the “institutionalized power arrangements” that are the main focus of feminism? Feminist thought originally brought into light the existing patriarchy, exposing it as a hierarchy based on sex. As one anarcha-feminist put it, one “will find that the priest who damns you is a man; that the legislator who oppresses you is a man, that the husband who reduces you to an object is a man; that the libertine who harasses you is a man; that the capitalist who enriches himself with your ill-paid work and the speculator who calmly pockets the price of your body, are men” (Moya, qtd. in McKay). If one takes the time to look at the existing power structure in the world, this statement will be seen as true.

Just because the majority of the aforementioned anarchists fall into privileged identities is not to say that they have been against feminist struggles. Quite the contrary- most, if not all, are completely behind the elimination of patriarchy in theory. However, theory does not always carry over into practice.

“Anarcha-feminism reminds us of the importance of treating women equally with men while, at the same time, respecting women's differences from men… Too often many male anarchists assume that, because they are (in theory) opposed to sexism, they are not sexist in practice. Such an assumption is false. Anarcha-feminism brings the question of consistency between theory and practice to the front of social activism and reminds us all that we must fight not only external constraints but also internal ones” (McKay, 71).

Existing identity-based power structures are difficult to recognize through no fault of those who are privileged. They have been raised into such a position, and know nothing outside of it through lived experiences. It takes time to see that there is not just one story lived in the world; that the way people are perceived plays a lot into almost every aspect of their lives.

In keeping with the necessity of allowing people their own freedom of expression, modern anarcha-feminists recognize that there are numerous identities that intersect, creating a unique human experience for each individual. These identities include, but are not limited to: gender, sex, class, ethnicity, ability, etc. Though each of these comes with its own struggles and benefits, distinct from one another, gender provides a good basic analysis of how institutionalized power structures play into modern oppressions, and why anarcha-feminism provides the best solution.

It is important to analyze how gender plays into anarchist ideals. We are socialized to believe that all people fall into one of two gender categories: male and female. Traits and behaviors that are traditionally associated with masculinity are usually the traits that are held in higher esteem, whereas the traits and behaviors seen as feminine are downplayed as unimportant or  useless. “Authoritarian traits and values, for example, domination, exploitation, aggressiveness, competitiveness, desensitisation etc., are highly valued in hierarchical civilisations and are traditionally referred to as ‘masculine.’ In contrast, non-authoritarian traits and values such as co-operation, sharing, compassion, sensitivity, warmth, etc., are traditionally regarded as ‘feminine’ and are devalued” (McKay, 70).

Another thing to keep in mind when analyzing the social hierarchies targeted by anarcha-feminists is the fact that many people’s lived experiences show that this interpretation of gender is not entirely correct. Male and female are just the two primary genders (genders being behavior patterns), which line up with the two primary sexes (sexes being biologically determined). While a lot of people might be perfectly fine within these traditional gender structures, not all people fit into the gender roles of “male” and “female.” “We don’t want to pick between two different cages, even if one has more room than the other… Binary gender is a powerful column that helps to hold patriarchy up; without two simple categories to lump people into, it would be ridiculously hard to for one to dominate the other” (Strangers, 6). The belief that gender, and even sex, is an either-or absolute dichotomy is a very common oversight. Because gender is simply the behaviors and identity that most line up with how one feels in the moment, it is entirely possible for a person to identify within a fourth or seventy fourth gender, and for gender fluidity to allow them to back and forth as they see necessary for them. Transgendered and genderqueer individuals are among the forefront in dismantling the hierarchy presented by the gender binary, thus working toward the eradication of patriarchy.

Again, focusing feminist perspectives on gender theory in applications to anarchism is a very basic start to moving toward a society rooted in the true ideals of freedom. In a further application of this deconstruction of the gender binary, it is not a difficult leap to see that the family as a unit goes contrary to true anarchist ideals. “The nuclear family [is] the basis for all authoritarian systems. The lesson the child learns, from father to teacher to boss to God, is to OBEY the great anonymous voice of Authority. To graduate from childhood to adulthood is to become a full-fledged automaton, incapable of questioning or even thinking clearly” (Kornegger, 26). The nuclear family is almost a micro-version of a state system. There is the head of the household, usually the male, who is the primary (if not only) breadwinner for the family, promoting their dependency on him. His word is final, just as the head of state. The woman of the house is traditionally in charge of maintaining household cleanliness and preparing meals while watching over the children while the man is at work. Children are made to go to school and perform their useful functions at home, or risk falling under repercussions. By the time they have grown up, the knowledge of how to be a useful cog in society is well-ingrained.

Marriage, itself, poses a challenge to the elimination of gender-based hierarchy. In most places in the world, marriage is officially recognized by the state as a legal union between one man and one woman. “Marriage reproduces both patriarchy and the bifurcated gender roles that characterize it,” because there is only recognition of “husband and wife” (Cahill and Tobias, 84). The patriarchy that inherently exists in the nuclear family means that “women cannot decide to enter marriages as ‘free’ and ‘equal’ individuals” (Cahill and Tobias, 85). There is a system of learned and socially reinforced gender behaviors that tend to force women into a role of dependency.

“Marriage is often an economic arrangement purely, furnishing the woman with a life-long insurance policy and the man with a perpetuator of his kind or a pretty toy. That is, marriage, or the training thereto, prepares the woman for the life of a parasite, a dependent, helpless servant, while it furnishes the man the right of a chattel mortgage over a human life” (Goldman, 43).

Additionally, this approach to marriage fails to recognize the variation in both sexuality and gender. Indeed, as same-sex couples and other queer-identified couples enter into two-person relationships, one tends to take on the role of the ‘masculine’ partner while the other adopts the ‘feminine’ role. State-sanctioned marriage only serves to reinforce this. “Marriage by lesbians and gay men would be unlikely to undermine stereotypical gender roles and would merely serve to valorize the institution of traditional marriage” (Cahill and Tobias, 85). Further still, extending marriage benefits would only serve to further invalidate further the lived experiences of those who do not identify within the gender binary by completely ignoring their self-expression of their existence.

The solution for this particular case is simple: eliminate the state recognition of relationships. The mere fact that an arbitrarily declared entity of ‘authority’ recognizes the conclusion to which a couple has clearly already arrived does not serve to validate the relationship any more than it was already valid. Instead of relying on this sort of recognition, couples should enter into private contract between the two, if any sort of contract is to be drawn up at all. The family structure should be much more fluid, recognizing the development of each member as essential for growth, as well as resisting the inherent hierarchies based on things such as gender, age, ability, or any other personal identity.

The systems of representative democratic capitalism in which we currently operate are clearly not serving the interests of any but those in power. These hierarchies serve to reinforce themselves, further exacerbating the discrepancy of power. Anarchist theory provides the only framework for society that is truly founded on the principles of freedom. Feminism points out that hierarchies pervade more than just the political economy, but have seeped into every aspect of our lives. It is for this reason that the anarcha-feminist perspective is correct in its assertion that coercive power must first be fought on an individual and social level. Each and every person alive has many identities intersecting to shape the way they live their lives. Everybody should have the freedom to operate within and through their identity, and the feminist influence of anarchism provides the best way for people to wake up and see this.



Works Cited:

Antliff, Allan, Only A Beginning: An Anarchist Anthology. Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press, 2004. Print

Cahill, Sean, and Sarah Tobias. Policy Issues Affecting Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Families. University of Michigan Press, 2007. Print. Ehrlich, Howard. "Toward a General Theory of Anarchafeminism ." nothingness library. Web.

Goldman, Emma. Red Emma Speaks. 1st ed. New York: Random House, 1972. Print.

Kornegger, Peggy. Quiet Rumors: An Anarcha-Feminist Reader, Anarchism: The Feminist Connection. Edinburgh: AK Press, 2002. Print.

Maximoff, G.P. Political Philosophy Of Bakunin: Scientific Anarchism. Free Press, 1964. Print.

McKay, Iain. An Anarchist FAQ. 1-2. Oakland: AK Press, 2008. Print.

Rocker, Rudolf. Anarcho-syndicalism: Theory & Practice, An Introduction

To A Subject Which The Spanish War Has Brought Into Overwhelming Prominence. New York: Gordon Press, 1938. Print.

Younkins, Edward. "The Conceptual Foundations of Democratic Capitalism." Social Critic.

(1998). Web. <>.