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Free Women of Spain: Anarchism and the Struggle for the Emancipation of Women

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Cowards don’t make history; and the women of Mujeres Libres (Free Women) were no cowards. Courageous enough to create revolutionary change in their daily lives, Mujeres Libres mobilized over 20,000 women into an organized network to strive for community, education, and equality for women -during the Spanish Revolution. Martha Ackelsberg writes a comprehensive study of Muje Cowards don’t make history; and the women of Mujeres Libres (Free Women) were no cowards. Courageous enough to create revolutionary change in their daily lives, Mujeres Libres mobilized over 20,000 women into an organized network to strive for community, education, and equality for women -during the Spanish Revolution. Martha Ackelsberg writes a comprehensive study of Mujeres Libres, intertwining interviews with the women themselves and analysis connecting them with modern feminist movements. Martha Ackelsberg is a professor of government and a member of the Women’s Studies Program Committee at Smith College, where she teaches courses in political theory, urban politics, political activism and feminist theory. She has contributed to a variety of anthologies on women’s political activism in the United States.


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Cowards don’t make history; and the women of Mujeres Libres (Free Women) were no cowards. Courageous enough to create revolutionary change in their daily lives, Mujeres Libres mobilized over 20,000 women into an organized network to strive for community, education, and equality for women -during the Spanish Revolution. Martha Ackelsberg writes a comprehensive study of Muje Cowards don’t make history; and the women of Mujeres Libres (Free Women) were no cowards. Courageous enough to create revolutionary change in their daily lives, Mujeres Libres mobilized over 20,000 women into an organized network to strive for community, education, and equality for women -during the Spanish Revolution. Martha Ackelsberg writes a comprehensive study of Mujeres Libres, intertwining interviews with the women themselves and analysis connecting them with modern feminist movements. Martha Ackelsberg is a professor of government and a member of the Women’s Studies Program Committee at Smith College, where she teaches courses in political theory, urban politics, political activism and feminist theory. She has contributed to a variety of anthologies on women’s political activism in the United States.

30 review for Free Women of Spain: Anarchism and the Struggle for the Emancipation of Women

  1. 5 out of 5

    Stian

    An extremely insightful book, which I think should be read by anyone interested in both the Spanish civil war and feminism. Martha Ackelsberg does a wonderful job here. There is a preface which includes conversations that the author had with women who were a part of Mujeres Libres; all very interesting. She then touches on the history of revolutionary left-wing thought in Spain and how it all came about in the first place. All this is done thoroughly, giving a decent understanding of what was go An extremely insightful book, which I think should be read by anyone interested in both the Spanish civil war and feminism. Martha Ackelsberg does a wonderful job here. There is a preface which includes conversations that the author had with women who were a part of Mujeres Libres; all very interesting. She then touches on the history of revolutionary left-wing thought in Spain and how it all came about in the first place. All this is done thoroughly, giving a decent understanding of what was going on. She then moves on to the founding of Mujeres Libres itself, and on to why it was necessary to have an organization like Mujeres Libres consisting only of women; and finally she touches on precisely what Mujeres Libres did. The final part of the book talks about how contemporary feminism can learn from not just Mujeres Libres but women in revolutionary Spain in general. All this with lots of notes at the back of the book. There is a nice interview with the author at the back of the book also, where she answers some questions, so instead of writing all this stuff myself I feel like someone more qualified can do it, namely the author herself: Who were the Free Women of Spain? "Mujeres Libres was the name of an organization, founded officially in the summer of 1937, although it had its beginnings in various towns and cities around Spain as early as 1934. The women who founded it were, for the most part, members of one or another of the anarchist-affiliated organizations then active in Spain. While the women were committed to the ideals of these organizations -- including their expressed commitment to the goal of gender equality -- they believed that women were not taken sufficiently seriously by many of the male members of these organizations. They (the founders of Mujeres Libres) believed that if a social revolution were, in fact, to be successful, women would have to be involved in it along with men; which meant that women would need to be a part of of the organizations "preparing" people to participate in the revolution. [...] Thus the women decided to establish a new organization that would work alongside the others, but would be devoted explicitly to overcoming what they referred to as the "triple enslavement of women" -- as workers, as women, and to ignorance." What kind of strategy did these revolutionary women have to accomplish their goals? "They had what we might call a "two-pronged" strategy of achieving women's emancipation through "capacitación" (loosely translated as "empowerement" or "coming to a sense of ones capacities") and "captación" (mobilizing women to join/participate in movement organizations.) The programs of capacitación were the center of their program. These included literacy classes at all levels, since they believed that the inability to read prevents people from being actively engaged in their societies, and that learning to read is a profoundly empowering process. In addition, they they developed programs of support for women who were working in factories, meeting with them in groups to help them become accustomed to hearing their own voices in public, so that they would be able to participate more effectively in union meetings. They had programs on maternal and child health and on child-care, as well as programs and classes about women's biology and sexuality. Together with union organizations, they developed job-training and apprenticeship programs, to train women to move into the paid labor force. And they also developed a kind of "speaker's bureau," training women to become comfortable speaking in public about their ideas." A comprehensive book, and a fascinating one. As I said in the beginning, I would recommend this to anyone interested in the Spanish civil war and feminism in general.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Michael Schmidt

    At the Movement/Society Interface. 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 t At the Movement/Society Interface. 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 relocates “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 world in their hearts and on the streets. Although ML co-founder Lucía Sánchez Saornil was a lesbian, and this aspect of sexuality was deliberately occluded by her and her compañeras even within the libertarian milieu (something that requires deeper study), this book is an invaluable resource not only for students of the Spanish Revolution, but also for contemporary feminists (including men), trying to devise a viable means for the sexes (in triplicate) to coexist and be mutually-supportive, with a revolutionary, game-changing end, being the liberation of all humanity.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Meg

    What I really appreciated about this book is that it did not take for granted either a full knowledge of the Civil War or of libertarian/anarchist politics, but instead sought to familiarize the reader with each while at the same time treating its subject as thoroughly as possible. And I think it did a great job at that. Acklesberg interviewed as many remaining women as she could find who participated in the women's libertarian group Mujeres Libres during the Spanish Civil War, to sup What I really appreciated about this book is that it did not take for granted either a full knowledge of the Civil War or of libertarian/anarchist politics, but instead sought to familiarize the reader with each while at the same time treating its subject as thoroughly as possible. And I think it did a great job at that. Acklesberg interviewed as many remaining women as she could find who participated in the women's libertarian group Mujeres Libres during the Spanish Civil War, to supplement what had been mostly fragmented documentary evidence about the group's purpose and strategy. She uses this not only to portray a fuller portrait of Mujeres Libres than previously available, but also to reflect on forms of political struggle that strive to incorporate diverse members in the pursuit of an egalitarian society with the effacement of that difference. Her overall suggestion seems to be that Mujeres Libres' strategy of organizing women through a separate group, autonomous yet closely connected, and with the explicit goal of always working for libertarian principles (not simply access for women to the social goods of the existing political order), is one that should be more carefully considered today as a means to address many of the ills existt in first ingworld liberal feminisms.

  4. 4 out of 5

    todd

    this book is pretty useful in exploring some of the dynamics, challenges, and approaches to gendered organizing. It is a little redundant at times, lacks some detail that would be desired, but a good thing to read for those interested in taking feminism beyond the self-referential activist/middle class circles its in presently.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Chuck

    I read this book many years ago and enjoyed it a great deal. It provides fascinating information about Spain's pre-WWII revolutionary movement and also extremely interesting insights into how militants of both sexes struggled to make sense of different forms of domination.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Deric

    This is a must read for any fan of anarchism, feminism, or the Spanish Civil War. Ackelsberg is an excellent scholar and fantastic theoretician.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Sugarpunksattack Mick

    Martha Ackelsberg's 'Free Women of Spain' is one of the best introductions to anarchism generally as well as the Spanish Civil war or Spanish Revolution. The book is academic in nature, but is extremely accessible because she articulates very clearly the definition of various terms that are being used in the ongoing debates throughout the book. The book gives a view of an organization that is often forgotten, yet is so important for many modern debates we still engage in: what is the role of the Martha Ackelsberg's 'Free Women of Spain' is one of the best introductions to anarchism generally as well as the Spanish Civil war or Spanish Revolution. The book is academic in nature, but is extremely accessible because she articulates very clearly the definition of various terms that are being used in the ongoing debates throughout the book. The book gives a view of an organization that is often forgotten, yet is so important for many modern debates we still engage in: what is the role of the state, why do marginalized/oppressed groups need separate organizations...cannot recommend enough.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Carmilla Voiez

    This is a great book about the Mujeres Libres or Free Women of Spain that looks critically at both libertarian movements centred only around class issues and feminism centred only around women’s liberation in a society in which very few are free. With interviews from the surviving founders and excerpts from articles taken from the Mujeres Libres magazine. It also looks at the surrounding politics of the period and the Spanish civil war.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Ronan

    Really enjoyed this book. I enjoyed the focus on Capacitacion, although the tales of shitty anarchist men was a tad depressing. I also thought that the distinctions between the politics of Mujeres Libres and the feminist movement were very interesting. Mujeres Libres developed their politics from the position of anarchist women within a revolutionary workers movement. Thus, they managed to skip many of the issues that would create divisions in the feminist movement of the 60s & 70s, e.g. rel Really enjoyed this book. I enjoyed the focus on Capacitacion, although the tales of shitty anarchist men was a tad depressing. I also thought that the distinctions between the politics of Mujeres Libres and the feminist movement were very interesting. Mujeres Libres developed their politics from the position of anarchist women within a revolutionary workers movement. Thus, they managed to skip many of the issues that would create divisions in the feminist movement of the 60s & 70s, e.g. relationship to political power, class hierarchies within the movement etc. From Acklesburg's analysis it seems that their biggest weakness was a failure to develop a position on sexuality, she writes that members were fine with gay people within the group and generally considered sexuality a private matter, although at the same time the dominant anarchist view was that homosexuality was a deviation although not one to be condemned. This would imply that homophobia and heterosexism probably did exist within the movement in some form or another and ought to have been challenged. Altogether a great book with much to take from it.

  10. 5 out of 5

    pippi

    it was a little boring and the author was really bent on considering the free women to be a feminist movement regardless if the free women themselves didn't want to associate themselves with the feminist community. so that was a little annoying.

  11. 5 out of 5

    James Tracy

    Bravo to AK Press for reprinting this important book. Insights in gender, class, and revolution are truly relevant today, 70 something years after the Spanish Revolution.

  12. 5 out of 5

    alex

  13. 4 out of 5

    Naty

  14. 4 out of 5

    Vivienne DiFiore

  15. 5 out of 5

    Phyllis A

  16. 4 out of 5

    Jess

  17. 4 out of 5

    Sann

  18. 4 out of 5

    Onjin

  19. 4 out of 5

    Kewpie

  20. 5 out of 5

    Vallan

  21. 5 out of 5

    Shane

  22. 4 out of 5

    Jose Maria

  23. 5 out of 5

    Marianna

  24. 5 out of 5

    Jonas

  25. 5 out of 5

    Matthew Hall

  26. 4 out of 5

    D.a.r.y.l.

  27. 5 out of 5

    C.B. Daring

  28. 5 out of 5

    Holi Bats

  29. 5 out of 5

    Henry

  30. 5 out of 5

    Simon

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