Mujeres Libres: A genealogy of anarchist feminism

National Congress of the Federation of Mujeres Libres 1937. Fundación Anselmo Lorenzo

Celebrating March 8, International Women’s Day …

Mujeres Libres was born from a genealogy that came from the First International, but it fully flourished at a time of social revolution and civil war. Marginalised from the social revolution modeled and monopolised by men, they were able to build a revolution “in their own way”, in the rear.

Our purpose in this text is to talk about the activists of Mujeres Libres (magazine and organisation) and their mission. It is moving to learn how these women, mostly workers, created feminist and anarchist spaces, how they took advantage of the circumstances of the Civil War and how they launched a “revolution of existence” forgotten by all. We want to make them visible, show how they suffered sexism from their own colleagues and how the experience of revolution and war changed their lives.

The activists of Mujeres Libres understood anarchism from a personal perspective (with a burning desire for autonomy, to be agents of their own lives), but also from a social, worker and feminist perspective, based on the fight against domination and the aspiration to an autonomous society that creates its own rules. From this conviction, they considered relevant the creation of autonomous, anti-authoritarian and participatory community projects in areas such as education, cultural activity, the media, health, sexuality, social welfare and production. That is to say, they thought about transformation from the perspective of embodied well-being and discomfort, and not only from production.

They also considered it relevant to develop mutual aid contexts in which to cultivate anarchist values, encourage criticism of existing hierarchical systems to expand spaces of freedom in daily life and, at the same time, demystify, subvert and oppose them if necessary.

In the magazine Mujeres Libres, from a team of forty authors, eight women signed most of the articles: the three editors (Lucía Sánchez, Amparo Poch and Mercedes Comaposada), Carmen Conde, Lola Iturbe, Áurea Cuadrado, Pilar Grangel and Etta Federn. From among the most committed of these women to the magazine, there is an aspect worth mentioning: half had had no access to higher education (Iturbe, Cuadrado, Sánchez and Comaposada), the other half had university degrees, predominantly teaching. This situation created an interesting alliance between women with an academic education and others who were self-taught workers, who early on forged links between themselves, developing networks of mutual support, solidarity, emancipation, which they never forgot and which they were always grateful for. This solidarity network allowed working women to become literate, read, broaden their horizons, change jobs, have their own initiative, in short, break the patriarchal chain of secular submission and emancipate themselves from male tutelage.

In addition to the presence of working class women in the magazine’s team, it must be added that those who mostly supported the publication itself and joined the organisation were of humble social origin and with hardly any academic training. As Concha Liaño pointed out (Varias Autoras, Mujeres Libres. Luchadoras Libertarias, pp. 58): “(…) we were mostly women from villages, workers. Our intellectual level, except for four or five militants, was not very high in terms of academic preparation itself, but with respect to our common sense, innate intelligence, fair criteria when judging, forgive me for my immodesty, in this, we were insurmountable”.

Both the magazine and the Mujeres Libres organisation clearly rejected any written collaboration from men. The exclusion of men was animated by a feminism based on gender differences and the existence of a feminine nature, different from the masculine, which, it was held, should set the standards in the magazine and in the organisation. They thought that if men intervened, they would end up imposing their way of understanding the women’s struggle. This fear stemmed from their personal experience and the difficulties they encountered in integrating the organisations of the Movimiento Libertario (ML), not as mere passive comrades, but as people with opinions and criteria. This integration was not easy, since the ML considered that the privileged place from which to create conflict and make the revolution was the commodified and masculinised field of production: wage labour was what conferred class identity and articulated the subject of struggle. (Amaia Pérez Orozco, Subversión feminista de la economía, p. 52). The presence of women was difficult at times, denied at others; and their demands were undervalued or considered the mere claims of women.

The activists faced, therefore, a real incarnated challenge, a contest that was inscribed in the body. It is difficult to understand the scope of the offenses and vexations suffered to make this forceful and drastic decision not to accept men, despite their offers. To get closer to the sexism they suffered, we have to be guided by intuitions from the unspoken or what was said, many years later, in the private correspondence between them.

In 1993, Sara Berenguer Laosa (1919-2010) and Concha Liaño Gil (1916-2014), members of Mujeres Libres, entered into a correspondence to try to reconstruct the memories of the years lived during the Civil War and collect them in a book. They had not seen each other since 1939, when they left Spain over the French border, on their way to exile. They were both in their twenties. Concha lived in Paparo (Venezuela) and Sara in Montady (France). They were both in their seventies and a lifetime had passed since they separated. Their letters show the joy of getting back in touch with each other, followed by the flow of memories, and talk of their economic and health problems, all of which they speak of with confidence.

It is in the intimate context of trust in these letters that Concha, one of the founders of the Agrupación de Barcelona in September 1936, tells Sara (August 1, 1993):

“The truth, Sara, is that we were double Quixotes: our comrades fought for the liberation of the proletariat without realising, without wanting to realise that we, the female gender, were as human beings in the same defenceless situation with respect to the male gender. My rants to the organised Mujeres Libres groups were inspired by this premise: no confrontation with [the] opposite sex; to help them understand the injustice that was being done to women… to those who fought for the emancipation of the proletariat.”

In other words, they had to be made to understand what was right in front of their noses and that they did not see, that is, trying to avoid open confrontation. But the problem was not only social; it was also personal, as Concha comments again in the same letter:

“It is the eternal problem (…) we are good comrades for the fight. Experience has shown me that “in the house”, as a “wife”, men aspire, even the most liberal, [to] another kind of woman… naturally, with the necessary exceptions. I have had this problem since my first boyfriend (…) I remember very well how the “comrades” before the war behaved with “their wives”.”

Concha explains with crystal clarity how the “comrades” did not consider the fight against sexism to be relevant and how at home they behaved like vulgar husbands making use of their masculine privileges. If the women comrades wanted an egalitarian relationship in the ML and at home, most of the men did not consider them to be ideal partners.

These women systematically remained silent in public, beyond some minority voices, to avoid confrontation with their “comrades.” This silence was maintained and resurfaced in 1993, when Sara Berenguer wrote a paper on Mujeres Libres and the revolution and sent it to Soledad Estorach (another member of Mujeres Libres) to get her opinion. This is what Sara writes to Concha (October 27, 1993):

“[Soledad Estorach] changed her tone. Sole did not want certain of the comrades’ actions to be discussed or commented on, “poor guys”. She wanted to vindicate them, when, in short, we all know that, although there have been noble, others have been rude and rough with their own women comrades.”

These are scraps, pieces, fragments, remnants of something much larger and which needs to be filled out to recompose how valuable an unparalleled feminist experience like that of Mujeres Libres was and the obstacles they encountered. The Civil War was an unprecedented experience of freedom and responsibility for anarchist and libertarian women. They built a class feminism based on the great novelty that women had to live alone, go out alone and assume family responsibilities alone, something that had always been considered impossible and dangerous.

Anarchist and libertarian women were very soon expelled from the front as militia and placed in the rear. They did not miss the opportunity and were able to undertake a revolution that transformed life, bodies and words, in short, that changed existence. This “revolution of life” was possible because the Civil War fostered a “momentum” (as J. Rancière calls it in Momentos políticos, p. 141), that is, a stage of “displacement of the equilibria and the establishment of another course of time. … A reconfiguration of the universe of possibles”. The “feminine revolution” was carried out by women, deeply rooted in reality, going beyond salaried work (along the lines of focusing on social provisioning processes, whether or not they went through the markets) and the subject of the struggle, and all of this with little presence of ideology.

Theirs was a revolution without epic qualities, without heroism, silent, inconspicuous, without the spectacular, which made it possible for simple “half-illiterate” workers (letter from Concha to Sara, November 27, 2007) to demonstrate their ability to manage life and become problem solvers and preservers of existence in everyday life. In that management of life was the enormous subversive and revolutionary significance of their efforts in the rear. This was a revolution in which they invented their own incarnated politics, weaving links between them, generating friendships and physical proximity. These ties constituted a balm of cordiality and concord within the group to face the much more difficult task of survival in times of war.

The protagonists of Mujeres Libres passionately lived a time in which a part of society was held together by the cement of solidarity, without the dead weight of power and authority. It is not easy to get closer to that atmosphere of magical energy, of shared joy, to that sensation that the world lived until then was quickly becoming a historical relic, a long nightmare left behind. The promise of a new beginning that had no limits other than those of the imagination was difficult for our protagonists to forget, despite the context of war and confrontations on their own side. This is how Concha Liaño recalled it: “My “chronological” clock stopped when I left for France. If it weren’t for those memories that are the backdrop of my life, I don’t know what would have become of me.” And even more surprising if possible: “I think we were privileged, despite the defeat: at least we had a stage in which we knew what we lived for” (letter from Concha to Sara, August 1, 1993).

This was “their revolution of life”, a long-term transformation that began to change ways of life, personal relationships, work, “care” and an endless number of other aspects, paying attention to the small, to the quiet, to the intimate, to the breath of each body. These women glimpsed other possible worlds and, despite the defeat, they never forgot it. To recover those threads of memory, that genealogy of a feminist, anarchist and proletarian revolution, should be a necessary task for women and for current feminist movements.

(Source: Laura Vicente, “Mujeres Libres. Genealogía del feminismo anarquista”, El Salto Diario, 04/03/2022)

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