The Golden Barley School

an anarchist, a communist & a feminist walk into a bar…

Casting Spells: on structural sexism in ‘the movement’


This is a speech from a panel discussion by by the Feminist Discussion Circle at the Sydney Anarchist Bookfair. The panel was called “Casting Spells: a feminist discussion of contemporary forms of exploitation” and had four presentations: austerity, women and revolt; current attacks on women’s services; the dangerous journey of a Middle Eastern feminist; and this one. An audio recording of the panel will be uploaded somewhere soon. [Trigger warning for mention of sexual violence.]

Ok, so my part of the panel is on structural sexism in “the movement”. As the opening speaker said, I’m not here to give The Answer but to ask some question, and maybe reframe some of the questions we already ask.

I don’t normally get too worried about public speaking, but I have to admit: this one has made me nervous. But I didn’t want for us to have a panel discussion that saw sexism only as abstract and political, as something that only comes from bad capitalists or, you know, college boys – as something that only happens outside this room.

One of the key tenets of feminism is that the personal is political. The political is personal. The nexus between our lives and broader politics is crucial, I think – but it’s also very difficult. We have an analysis of sexism as a broad social force, but it’s also something that happens in our lives: and, for those of us for whom political work is part of our lives, it’s an issue there too.

So, over and over, when I’m in anarcha-feminist meetings or feminist reading groups, or just with friends, we have these same conversations about specific incidents, about specific individuals, and about the patterns.

I’m not going to give you a list here, because that would frankly be boring.

When this gets raised more generally as a problem, of course people want to do something about it. If we’re meant to be part of a movement that wants to end hierarchies and discrimination, of course we don’t want to see them in our scenes. So it’s like, ‘right! Let’s do it!’.

The first step that gets suggested is generally to focus on individual behaviours. That’s not a terrible first step. Arguably, all we have is our individual behaviours. The problem is that in practice this often gets reduced to a question of manners. The idea is that people, men, just have to use the right words and phrasing, make sure everyone has a chance to speak, etc.

There are problems though, leaving aside even the question of how much reality ever lives up to the ideals. A common critique is that these practices just create a new set of norms that are enforced in ways that can be exclusionary – but, more importantly, that are fairly superficial. I’m sure we can all think of someone we might have met who says all the right things but clearly, really, doesn’t actually give a shit about you.

It seems obvious to me that we can’t create perfect zones outside of social forces. I’d argue that ‘we’, whoever that is, need to take the time to understand these social forces and how to escape and undo them – not just think that we can hide from them.

This is a matter of work and thought. Which is not to say that we should all withdraw and ‘work on our shit’ until we’re perfect: we need a dynamic process of engagement and reflection.

As the first speaker said, one major way gender divisions function is as a division of labour. It’s worth thinking about that in our groups. Who does the housekeeping work? Who does intellectual work? Who does care work? For example, who cleans up? Who cooks? Who makes the speeches and writes the articles? Who takes responsibility for trying to sort out the inevitable interpersonal dramas and mediate conflict?

Now I know this is when many of you are thinking ‘but I do [whatever] all the time’, or ‘so and so often does the cooking’ or whatever. Obviously there isn’t some neat clean split. I’m not describing some parody of the 50s. As individuals we move through different roles. We have diverse experiences of gender and diverse gender identities. And we have different positions within other structures, depending on our race, our class position etc.

However, in my experience, across a lot of situations, there are broad patterns.

This can be hard to acknowledge. We’re all individuals, we’re not robots programmed by social forces. And anarchism, I’d argue, brings with is a particular ideal of a liberated individual, and perhaps an illusion that we can become that just by thinking ourselves so. We make choices as individuals and we like to believe that everyone’s free to make the same choices. But that’s a very liberal world view. We’re not robots but we’re also not all atomised individuals.

So if “we” don’t believe that “men” are naturally leaders and “women” are naturally at home in the kitchen, it can actually be shocking to realise, for example, that you’re at a radical conference with good gender balance: but 80% of the people preparing food are women and 80% of the people presenting workshops are men.

Now those are both necessary jobs: but what gets recognised as a contribution to the movement, and what’s just seen as the stuff that needs to get done?

What qualities to we idealise? Personally, I’d find it far less terrifying to jump in to a de-arrest situation than to try to sit down with someone in a collective having issues and sort that shit out – but that’s not what our stories of bravery are about!

There are elements of what we might call internalised misogyny at play here – that exist more broadly, of course, but play out in particular ways in radical scenes, in the question of what gets valued: toughness, hardness, particular kinds of anger above other emotional responses….

And all of this is leaving aside even more practical issues that become more obvious to me as I get older: in particular, who has childcare responsibilities? And how does that effect their ability to participate in what we see as political work?

The other thing I want to say is that what’s broken my spirit more than anything else – more than failed projects or collectives falling apart or police or arrests or evictions or helping friends go through lengthy, draining legal processes –  has been the heartbreak of trying to help deal with the consequences of sexual assault by “anarchists” or “comrades” or “radicals.”[1]

This is heartbreak at our collective failure. That, despite so much important work that people have done – most of all, the work that survivors have done and their bravery in making these situations, often at such cost to them, a public issue – that despite this work we don’t seem any closer to having mechanisms that can bring ‘justice’ or ‘healing’ or ‘accountability’. Hell, or ‘vengeance’. Let alone prevention. Instead, it seems that the betrayals keep piling up.

I have a lot to say about these issue, but clearly this big meeting isn’t the environment for the difficult, dangerous discussions we do need to keep having. The one thing I do want to say is that I support the argument that Rebecca Winters made in her recent article, and that others have made: that we start with the minimal political position that we believe survivors.

These situations have been for me the starkest and most difficult illustration of the way that we experience gender relations as simultaneously as concrete and abstract. There’s no thing called sexism that we can attack. There’s only an accumulation of individual experiences, individual actions and the people, the men, who carry them out.[2]

This is why I return to that nexus, between the personal and the political as a point of tension. If you’ll excuse me being metaphoric, a point of tension can also be a weak spot in a mechanism. So maybe it’s precisely the difficulty that makes this point where the personal and the political meet – that is, our lives – the point from which maybe we can break things, maybe we can make a break from the forces that we produce and that produce us as these gendered categories.

[1] Edited to add: It was Ld0g who gave me the language of heartbreak, in her article On ‘community’ – “Being so unable to deal with these issues while we profess to be anarchists and radicals who are awaiting the coming ‘social war’ is something that daily breaks my heart.”

[2] This is drawn from M. Sandovsky, ‘Letters to L: Visions and Paranoia’, in LIES Journal.

2 thoughts on “Casting Spells: on structural sexism in ‘the movement’

  1. Pingback: Women, Austerity and Revolt | The Golden Barley School

  2. Pingback: Casting Spells: Structural sexism and the ‘movement’ | Feminist Discussion Circle

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