May Day, Haymarket and some awesome women

May Day is all about the workers. So, if you’re a worker or unemployed, give yourself a pat on the back for not being the oppressor, at least in terms of class. Yay, us.

The history of the day comes from the Haymarket massacre. Workers in Chicago were striking, demanding an eight hour day. Someone threw a bomb at the police, and the police did their aggressive dispersal thing. In the aftermath, seven anarchists were sentenced to murder at the hands of the state for something they were later pardoned for, once it was far too late.

Oh, and a lot of workers in the world still don’t have that eight hour day, and end up working longer hours, often unpaid.

A positive outcome of Haymarket, though, was it turned some awesome, smart women on to anarchism. So let’s give a round of applause for two of my sisters across time, Voltairine de Cleyre and Emma Goldman.

de Cleyre had her faith in the state’s justice system ripped away when she saw what happened to the Haymarket anarchists. You can read her journey into anarchism here. Goldman’s experience was similar. Watching the state kill innocent people, it seems, can turn quite a few people onto anarchism.

Both Goldman and de Cleyre went on to think very good things, and I’m going to take a moment to link to my favourite works of each of them. Obviously, they also said some dodgy things at various points in their lives, but frankly, it’s the positive legacy which has stood the test of time. The more problematic gets buried under the sands of time, after all.

From Goldman, I can’t stress enough how much I love her essay on women’s suffrage. She had a radical critique of the women’s suffrage movement while it was happening, emphasising how little would get done by simply inviting women into an arrangement which was thoroughly broken. She  also criticises the movement for throwing other women, particularly sex workers, under the bus. She concludes that the key to women’s liberation is not the ballot box, but:

First, by asserting herself as a personality, and not as a sex commodity. Second, by refusing the right to anyone over her body; by refusing to bear children, unless she wants them; by refusing to be a servant to God, the State, society, the husband, the family, etc.; by making her life simpler, but deeper and richer. That is, by trying to learn the meaning and substance of life in all its complexities, by freeing herself from the fear of public opinion and public condemnation. Only that, and not the ballot, will set woman free, will make her a force hitherto unknown in the world, a force for real love, for peace, for harmony; a force of divine fire, of life giving; a creator of free men and women.

From de Cleyre, I adore “Sex Slavery“, an exploration of moral standards and obscenity. She makes a wonderful and witty observation:

What would you think of the meanness of a man who would put a skirt upon his horse and compel it to walk or run with such a thing impeding its limbs? Why, the “Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals” would arrest him, take the beast from him, and he would be sent to a lunatic asylum for treatment on the score of an impure mind. And yet, gentlemen, you expect your wives, the creatures you say you respect and love, to wear the longest skirts and the highest necked clothing, in order to conceal the obscene human body. There is no society for the prevention of cruelty to women.

And of course, no discussion of de Cleyre is complete without a link to “Direct Action“, which is one of the finest calls to arms I’ve ever had the privilege of reading.

I’ll finish, now, with another quote from Goldman, from her autobiography about anarchism and joy. It is so pertinent to every social movement, and we would all do well to find the joy in liberation struggles.

I did not believe that a Cause which stood for a beautiful ideal, for anarchism, for release and freedom from conventions and prejudice, should demand denial of life and joy. I insisted that our Cause could not expect me to behave as a nun and that the movement should not be turned into a cloister. If it meant that, I did not want it. “I want freedom, the right to self-expression, everybody’s right to beautiful, radiant things.”

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