A review of Free Women of Spain: Anarchism and the Struggle for the Emancipation of Women, Martha Ackelsberg
Okay, shoot me now because this book had been sitting on my shelves for at least a handful of years before I got around to reading it. I am bone-deep ashamed at my delay – replicating in my own dumb way the reactionary “why are you dividing the movement?” response of Argentine anarchist men to the founding of La Voz de la Mujer (The Voice of the Woman) in Buenos Aires in 1896, one of the world’s first durable feminist j0urnals. I am ashamed because this book is about far more than an “anarcho-feminist” view of the crux of the 20th Century in the fight to the death between the left and the right, the Spanish Revolution of 1936-1939, a battle that anticipated but was ultimately obliterated by World War II: it is by far the best study in English of one of the world’s most important revolutionary organisations – one that was run and staffed by uncompromising libertarian women.
Because anarchism is at its heart prefigurative politics, the anticipation of the ways of tomorrow in the practices of today, Akelsberg has more than adequately guaranteed the deserved place of the often-ignored outrider, yet clearly aligned, Free Women (ML) at the libertarian table of the organisational triumvirate of the National Confederation of Labour (CNT), its youth wing, the Iberian Libertarian Youth Federation (FIJL), and its political parallel organisation, the Iberian Anarchist Federation (FAI).
From now on, historians of the period need to talk about a quad of the CNT-FIJL-FAI-ML, for in Mujeres Libres, the Spanish Revolution arguably found its fullest articulation, not only as Ackelsberg displays, within the (somewhat unreciprocated) alignment of ML with its anarchist, syndicalist and youth organisational fellows, but because it took an independent line within the broader anti-fascist front – yet was far more progressive than the “feminine” wings of the republican, Communist, Poumist, peasant and other organisations involved in the resistance to Franco. And she shows that ML outdid them all in greasing the wheels of the intersection between the revolutionary forces and the proletarian masses.
Ackelsberg, after introducing us to lively ML veterans, performs a coup de main that few leftist historians have managed so succinctly – a clear overview of the development of one of the most complex and ideologically disputed dirty wars of the 20th Century. For this alone, her book deserves kudos aplenty, and as a historian it took my breath away. Out of this background, however, flows one of the most erudite discussions of the intersection that has intrigued me for the past decade: the way in which the anarchist ethic managed to transmit from a militant minority to become the practice of mass organisations of the oppressed classes.
This articulation has been suggested and explored in new works by Chris Ealham on Barcelona, Geoffroy de Laforcade on Buenos Aires, and others, but this book makes it clear: that the linkages between both formal (movement) organisations such as the CNT and the FIJL’s Catalan-language corollary in Catalonia, the Libertarian Youth (JJLL), were hugely dependent on somewhat informal (class) organisations, from rationalist schools for children and after-hours ateneos for adults, to prisoner-support groups, street markets and other innovations of the class. Ackelsberg demonstrates that these social linkages between the syndicalists and society arose well before the Revolution, but matured during the conflict into what became the preserve largely of Mujeres Libres, which peaked at 30,000 members in 1937. It was, truly, a *social* revolution.
As Aklelsberg shows, ML’s achievements in the liberated zone, but in Catalonia and Castille in particular, were remarkable, and can be divided into the fields of: syndicalism (ML “work sections” in factories dealing in metallurgy, mechanics, textiles and other skills); education (ML primary and secondary schools on the rationalist model, ataneos and libraries for adults, vocational colleges for metalworkers, drivers and other skills, and fully-fledged universities such as the Autonomous University of Barcelona); social work (refugee assistance, nursing and the stillborn project to rehabilitate prostitutes); and the military struggle (shooting training in Barcelona; rearguard support such as tailoring uniforms; frontline support such as providing food, medicine and morale; and the provision of nurses within republican hospitals and the CNT-FAI guerrilla columns).
In just about all of these fields, the fighting corps of Mujeres Libres exercised in real life a revolutionary praxis for women (and men – because their foundational inspiration arose from the sexism *within* the ranks of anarchist men which they demanded to transform rather than abandon), that was far in the vanguard of the traditional subservient gender roles consigned to women in the Revolution by the Communists, Poumists, Catalan separatists and others.
If this seems all rather obscure to todays’ reader, Ackelsberg grounds the 1930s debates in the necessities of today’s feminism and so locates “anarcho-feminism” – an innovation that her veteran ML interviewees see, somewhat rightly, as a post-modernist nonsense in that it divides working class compañeras from compañeros – within a truly revolutionary praxis. Her heroines – now assuredly ours – were the ones who, as with Juana Rouco Buela, Virginia Bolten and others in Argentina in the 1890s-1910s, successfully battled the sexism of their own comrades to envisage, and build, a new word in their hearts and on the streets.