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LOCAL Commentary :: Gender and Sexuality

Book Review: Free Women of Spain

Book review of Martha Ackelsberg's "Free Women of Spain, Anarchism and the Struggle for the Emancipation of Women" from AK Press, 2005. Originally published by Indiana University Press, 1991.
In the preface to Free Women of Spain, Martha Ackelsberg writes that she originally published this book, subtitled "Anarchism and the Struggle for the Emancipation of Women" to reclaim the history and "make available the experiences of a remarkable group of women and the movement of which they were a part." By the end of the book, she has thoroughly accomplished this goal.

Through her in-depth examination of the anarchist movement in Spain in the early 20th century, she certainly gives a detailed view of Spanish anarchist thought, history, and struggle, and of Spanish history in the late 19th and early 20th century. But it is in the second half of the book, when we finally read about the “Mujeres Libres? themselves (often in their own words) that the book grabs you and pulls you into its extraordinary story. It is the tale of a group of determined and courageous young women who challenged the patriarchy of the anarchist community in the midst of the Spanish Civil War on the eve of World War II.

The Mujeres Libres was an all-women's anarchist association that organized and acted for the liberation of women at a time when women were paid less, heard less, and respected less than their male counterparts--even women anarchists and women union members. The story of each woman's own development, her experiences of oppression at home and in the anarchist and communist communities, and her determination to include women in the vision of a free society are quite compelling. Many credit their education and social awakening to the "ateneos" or neighborhood centers started by anarchist groups. Their struggle to gain both independence from and the support of other leftist groups is instructive for oppressed groups within today's social justice movements.

Most impressive to me was their action campaign. In addition to a newsletter (which carefully avoided using the word anarchist), they provided childcare for women wanting to attend organizing meetings, developed literacy programs, and created apprenticeships and consciousness raising groups for working class women to empower "a critical consciousness" and "collective confrontation with structures of authority."

They geared themselves towards working class women, hoping to become "a community of empowerment." They argued tirelessly for the emancipation of women socially, economically, politically and sexually.

One surprise note is that none of these women ever--at the time of Mujeres Libres, or 50 years later when interviewed--considered themselves to be "feminists." Still, the struggles of the Mujeres Libres often parallels that of the US feminists, and Ackelsberg uses these similarities to draw some interesting conclusions about women's organizing.

I learned a lot from this book. I learned a lot about Spanish anarchist history, and I appreciate the education, even if I sometimes felt as if I were reading a PhD. dissertation. I also learned about some wonderful, independent anarchist women, and for this new collection of s/heroes I am very grateful. If you're into anarchist theory and history, read this book. If you're into stories of anarchist women, read the introduction and look for the parts about the Mujeres Libres themselves. Free women are always an inspiration.

[Sue Frankel-Streit is a mother, nonviolent activist and member of the Little Flower Catholic Worker Community in Louisa, VA. The community attempts to provide an alternative example of intentional living which enables members to confront structures of violence. Through direct action, simple living, sustainable building, gardening, anarchist childrearing and radical scripture study, they hope to embody a community of resistance and liberation. For more information, e-mail littleflowercw(at)wildmail.com]

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