Anna Davies-van Es* discusses the need for feminist political education to build feminist movements of the working class against the dual challenges of capitalism and patriarchy.

Feminist Political education as a tool for building feminist movements

A revolutionary project is about liberation for all. Struggles will not be successful unless all activists are able to contribute to the revolutionary process.

Feminism is about fighting patriarchy and a feminist vision of society benefits anyone interested in human liberation. Since patriarchy feeds capitalism, it is not possible to conceive of an anti-capitalist strategy which is not also anti patriarchal.

Patriarchy is constantly reinvented and we need new tools to understand the formation of patriarchy under neoliberalism. Within our organisations we must commit to developing a feminist consciousness that can inform our thinking and practice. Feminist political education for women and men is critical to mobilising for change.

Feminist political education starts from the basis that once women begin to share experiences with each other it becomes clear that our individual problems are not our fault or ours to suffer alone – rather they are political, collective problems to be placed at the centre of our agendas. Sharing our experiences enables us to understand that our oppressive situations are not our fault or in our heads and helps us better pinpoint who and what is causing us to suffer and better equips us to fight back collectively.

Feminist political education starts with where women are at – as mothers, children, sisters, partners, workers, as sexual beings, as well as activists and helps us understand our oppression. There is an explicit undertaking that the personal is political. It frames personal stories within the local, national and global context and reflects how our bodies are politicised – used for sex, for cheap labour and so on. (Extracts from ILRIG booklet on Feminism Today)

The methods and goals of feminist political education must be consistent with the objective of ending sexism. For example, using a methodology like ‘rotating chair’ – to have discussions where no one is ‘chair’ but that each person who speaks checks to see who wants to speak next and passes on the ‘chair’. The group is then self-disciplining on how much time one speaks for and who speaks.

This kind of education is more threatening than “gender training”or“training women leaders”– women start to think for themselves, create their own analysis and come up with their ideas on what actions to take which will undermine patriarchy. You have to prepare for and expect a backlash. Feminist political education prepares women to deal with this by strategising responses and emphasising the need to build a collective so that no one takes on the challenge or faces the backlash alone.

Feminist revival

There is a revival of women’s organising and discussion of feminism. More and more we find women attending activist spaces and engaging in discussions with other women in their communities. More experienced women activists are taking their struggle one step further – committing to feminist principles and forming networks for education. There is a consultative process around the creation of a South African Feminist Forum, a radical working class women’s network formed by grassroots activists; accompanied by a network of feminist political educators to support this work and a new organisation, Feminist Alternatives, whose role in some ways is to support these initiatives.

In Johannesburg, Remmoho – the women’s forum linked to the Anti-Privatisation Forum (APF) – in February 2009 took to the streets of Johannesburg wearing soiled panties on top of their clothes. They marched to Mayor Masondo’s office to link water privatisation with the specific impact on poor women. For Sikhula Sonke (SS), the way to do this is to understand that livelihood challenges and workplace issues cannot be separated. This means having a broader view to collective bargaining – including issues like evictions, crèches, alcoholism. One way they fight patriarchy specifically is that all the male members have to sign a code of conduct against domestic violence. This redefines what is considered ‘political’ for the organisation and puts it at the centre of its agenda. SS also understands that in the current context one has to organise people where they are. So they organise people where they live and on issues that affect their survival.

However SS admits that they have to a large extent copied union traditions in terms of decision-making and this puts power in the hands of the leadership, leaving ordinary members behind. Hence they realised the need for ongoing feminist political education.

These experiences demonstrate how women tend to start organising separately or to form new organisations when frustrated trying to get their issues raised. Whilst this might be a positive step and have benefits of women organising differently we need to start looking at how to influence broader movements.

Whilst progressive, non-patriarchal, non-sexist men have a positive role to play in the struggle for women’s human rights, women have to reclaim their spaces and re-politicise our movements with feminist politics. Gender is about men and women, and the UNEQUAL power relations between them.”

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