“Anarchism and Suffrage” by Kathy E. Ferguson

Emma Goldman, probably the best known anarchist feminist of the last century, is alleged to have said, “If voting could change things, they’d make it illegal.”  Contempt for the franchise permeates anarchism, so that anarchists who favor participating in state elections are both in the minority and on the defensive. This essay looks back to anarchist feminists in the late 19th – early 20th centuries to understand both the content and the context of their scorn for suffrage.  Commonly, the anarchist position is viewed from the point of view of suffrage; suffrage is obviously desirable, from this perspective, so anarchism appears as the odd, not-really-feminist position requiring explanation.  My goal is to reverse that lens and look at suffrage from an anarchist angle, placing the struggle for Votes for Women in the context of anarchist aspirations for radical social transformation. This essay also reconsiders the anarchist rejection of voting in contemporary times. A century after “The Great Reform,” I suggest we reformulate Goldman’s logic:  perhaps authorities try so hard to make voting illegal because it could actually change things.

Anarchist feminism during the suffrage movement

When Emma Goldman and her comrades were rejecting the suffrage movement in favor of revolutionary anarchism, the political landscape for their struggles was complex and changing. The suffrage movement overlapped with other movements, including socialism, trade unionism, free thought, and anarchism. In both the U.S. and England, the Left was divided over the relation of reform (slow change within the system) to revolution (radical transformation of the system itself). Anarchist women worked with suffrage reformers on specific campaigns, including fighting for birth control, organizing against World War I, and working to free political prisoners. They put aside their differences about the vote in order to create coalitions around other issues.

Suffrage, of course, was a large and diverse movement, not an existing right, for women. The decision that anarchist women faced, and unanimously answered in the negative, was whether they should work to acquire the vote, not simply whether they should cast a ballot. Anarchist women regularly admired the courage and fortitude of suffragists, whose remarkable activism included decades of speeches, publications, demonstrations, lobbying, civil disobedience, and direct action. Yet the anarchists found that energy misplaced.  English anarchist Rose Witcop expressed the common position: she wrote in the anarchist journal Voice of Labor that she admired suffragists’ bravery but denied that parliamentary reform could help working people. Goldman (1969: 206-207) agreed: “All honor to the heroism and sturdiness of the English suffragettes,” she proclaimed, yet she found that suffragists “show little sense of justice” toward the working class. Anarchist women took pains to distinguish themselves from patriarchal opponents of women’s suffrage. Goldman (1969: 198) wrote, “I am not opposed to woman suffrage on the conventional ground that she is not equal to it. I see neither physical, psychological, nor mental reasons why woman should not have the equal right to vote with man. But that cannot possible blind me to the absurd notion that woman will accomplish that wherein man has failed.”  Goldman (1969: 209) anticipated that she “shall probably be put down as an opponent of woman,” and indeed some contemporary commentators have concluded, as does Vivian Gornick (2011: 75) in her biography of Goldman, that “Emma Goldman was not a feminist: she was a sexual radical, which made her a supporter of birth control and a defender of sex without marriage but not a proponent of women’s rights as that term is generally understood.”  Women’s rights “as generally understood” are implicitly formulated from a pro-suffrage point of view, so critics of suffrage cannot be proper advocates for women.  Yet it is precisely the equation of women’s rights “as generally understood” with feminism that anarchist feminists challenge.  Goldman (1990, reel 11) saw herself as a better feminist, a more radical feminist, than the suffragists. In a letter from prison to her niece Stella Ballantine on April 3, 1919, Goldman characterized her own feminism as “a broader and deep[er] point [of view]” than the suffragists who fixated on the vote and neglected what anarchists called the social question. Her point was not that suffragists went too far but they did not go far enough.

Anarchist women were also quick to ridicule the claims by some suffragists that women would purify government and clean up its excesses, a task Goldman (1969: 198) joked would take “supernatural powers.” Anarchist women were generally incensed by notions that chastity and moral virtue were the realm of women, seeing purity as merely the flip side of vice and “bad women” as the needed patriarchal double of “good women.” British anarchist Dora Marsden (1914: 45) mocked “pure” women for being more fascinated with vice than the sinners themselves: “The vicious amuse themselves by imagining and thereafter ‘touching’; the ‘pure’ prolong the excitement by imagining and thereafter refraining. Fundamentally, there is nothing to choose between them.” Anarchists also scorned suffrage advocates for their superstitious belief in the currency of the liberal state: rights, laws, suffrage, representation. In her essay “The Political Equality of Women,” American anarchist Voltairine de Claire (2005: 241) derided those “wedded to the idol” of natural rights because they become blind to how power actually operates. In her essay “Woman Suffrage,” Goldman (1969: 197) similarly scoffed at suffragists for worshipping the vote as a fetish, an object of magical potency, when it is actually “an evil.”

Drawing upon British anarchist Paddy Vipon’s (2015) overview of anarchist objections to voting, I see four major and overlapping arguments framing anarchist women’s views of suffrage:

  1. The first principle and bottom line is that suffrage won’t work: it won’t achieve a free and just society.  Achieving the vote would be ineffective in changing the basic conditions of life for most people. Quoting Thoreau, Goldman (1969: 63) declared, “Even voting for the right thing is doing nothing for it.” Governmental democracy is merely a façade for the real power of the owning class. The only real leverage that working people have is their labor power: union organizing and the general strike are key to change, while suffrage is a diversion from the real struggle. In those states that had women’s suffrage (which included Idaho, Wyoming, Montana, and Colorado), changes in property laws benefited “a handful of propertied ladies,” but “of what avail is that right to the mass of women without property, the thousands of wage workers, who live from hand to mouth?” (1969: 206, 201). Universal suffrage is a malicious fraud because the majority of lawmakers are actually expressing and enforcing the interests of the capitalist class.
  • The limited effectiveness of suffrage is made more nefarious by the duplicity of the electoral process. The game is rigged. Chicago anarchist Lucy Parsons (2004: 97) insists that our duly elected representatives, surrounded with lobbyists and anchored to the interests of the wealthy, are actually “corruptionists playing their tricks.” Goldman (1969: 64) describes electoral politics as “wire-pulling, intriguing, flattering, lying, cheating; in fact, chicanery of every description.” People of integrity might resist corruption, Goldman argued (1969: 65)  but would still be “helpless to exert the slightest influence on behalf of labor.”  
  • The third point has to do with the legitimacy of government. Even if the election process were scrupulously honest, anarchists remain convinced that representative government is itself anti-democratic. Voltairine de Cleyre (2005: 174) contested the basic idea of representation:

A body of voters cannot give into your charge any rights but their own. By no possible jugglery of logic can they delegate the exercise of any function, which they themselves do not control. If any individual on earth has a right to delegate his powers to whomever he chooses, then every other individual has an equal right; and if each has an equal right, then none can choose an agent for another, without that other’s consent. Therefore, if the power of government resides in the whole people and out of that whole all but one elected you as their agent, you would still have no authority whatever to act for that one.

Only direct democracy is real democracy: workers should control their workplaces; students and teachers should control their schools; children and adults should have equal power and status in families. This argument addresses the unearned legitimacy of representative government itself. British anarchist Colon Ward (1987: 3) asked, succinctly, “If you want no government, what is the point of listening to the promises of a better government?” Parsons (2004: 96) concurred: “The principle of rulership is in itself wrong; no man has any right to rule another man.” Scottish anarchist Lily Gair Wilkinson (in Rothbotham 1976: 149) wrote in the London journal Freedom:: “ ‘Votes for Women!’ – there is a cracked and treble sound about that. The call for ‘votes’ can never be a call to freedom. For what is it to vote? To vote is to register assent to being ruled by one legislator or another.”  

Suffrage does the work of legitimization on a very personal level. Voting legitimizes the system of representative government by habituating us to the state. Even if we go into the voting booth skeptical about the system, the act of voting, the process of learning about the candidates and the issues, following the results, discussing them with others – these are not without consequence. They prepare us to tacitly accept the authority structures rather than to challenge them. Anarchists want to create a crisis of authority, so that people will create more participatory modes of social organization and more liberated understandings of personal identity. Voting undermines that creative urge by implicitly reassuring us that existing arrangements will suffice and in any case that there is no viable alternative. Goldman (1969: 197) commented that access to the ballot “has only helped to enslave people… it has but closed their eyes that they may not see how craftily they were made to submit.”

  • The fourth objection to suffrage, from an anarchist perspective, is the cost in time and attention needed to educate oneself about issues and cast a ballot. Anarchists have typically insisted that we should better spend our time on actions that hold greater promise to change the world. Suffrage struggles siphon precious political energy into dead-end campaigns.

This was one of the strongest concerns of the anarchist women 100 years ago, because most of them were full-time activists in the anarchist movement. Often, their denunciations of suffrage aim not just at the act of casting a ballot but at the more demanding process of devoting one’s political energies to that struggle. The suffrage movement was a competitor for activists’ limited resources.

Goldman’s (1970: 736-637) response to the New York City mayoral candidacy of her friend Morris Hillquit illustrates her position. She respected his socialist campaign as a rare anti-war voice in the “hysteria-crazed country” leading up to U.S. entry into World War I. Yet she “had no more faith in what Hillquit might achieve if elected mayor than anyone else in his place, though I did not doubt the sincerity of his intentions.” Urged by Hillquit’s brother to put aside her opposition to electoral politics and join their campaign, she concluded, “I had grown to like Morris too much to assist him to a political job. One might wish such a thing on one’s enemies, not on one’s friends.” While anarchist politics offered participants opportunities to reinvent themselves within self-governing communities, electoral politics drags good people down.

Revisiting voting today

Where does this leave us, today? Taking seriously anarchist convictions that voting in representative democracies is a crooked system that protects capitalism, robs us of our desire for true self government, and distracts us from more important struggles, what is left to say about anarchism and voting?

Given that last century’s anarchists were reacting to the suffrage movement rather than to a relatively settled state institution, contemporary questions about whether anarchists should vote are in a somewhat different context than earlier questions about whether anarchist women should work for the vote. The closest equivalent to the suffrage movement today in the U.S. are the movements to protect and expand access to voting. Campaigns against gerrymandering, voter suppression laws, disenfranchisement of ex-felons, and other efforts to suppress voting assume that voting is the basis of legitimacy and the right of every adult citizen or resident. These campaigns aim to secure the right to vote for those targeted for suppression, who are disproportionately youth and poor communities of color. The governing authorities are willing to go to great lengths to discourage voting by these communities, so it behooves anarchists to ask why. Perhaps their alarm should be our incentive.

The few anarchists who have defended voting have often done so on the grounds that it can offer a small step in the direction of needed change. Puerto Rican anarchist Luisa Capetillo, a contemporary of Goldman’s, worked for women’s suffrage, and Spanish anarchist Federica Montseny held office in the short-lived Spanish republic. On the contemporary scene, British anarchist Paddy Vipond (2015) calls voting “the easiest tool to utilize in the anarchist arsenal” in order to take “a small step in the right direction.”

Yet, what does it mean, politically, to take a step?  The step image suggests progression toward a shared goal, but with a smaller stride. Yet anarchists are virtually unanimous that anarchy is a practice that rises up out of grassroots self-organizing.  It cannot be created from the top, down. Anarchists give enormous energy to creating local, grassroots initiatives, including bookstores, cafes, publications, theaters, art venues, and autonomous communities, because anarchy emerges out of shared organizing.  Perhaps a better metaphor for voting is not a small step toward a distant radical goal but a posture of defense: defending ourselves against the worst options by voting for the less-bad options. This is more like opening up a new front, or recognizing a different face of political struggle, than it is like taking a step down a shared road. This defense of electoral participation was offered, perhaps surprisingly, by Michael Bakunin. While he is best known for his revolutionary militancy, Bakunin (1971: 218-219) wrote a letter to a friend in 1870, encouraging him to run for office. He wrote, “times have become so grave, the danger menacing the liberty of all countries so formidable, that all men of goodwill must step into the breach, and especially our friends, who must be in a position to exercise the greatest possible influence on events …” He turns to voting as a desperate effort to stave off the worst attacks on “the liberty of all countries.”

By this view, voting in state elections offers not a step toward anarchism but a chance at what contemporary anarchist Ryan Conrad (2016) calls “harm reduction”:  we want to stop the worst from happening. To expect this strategy to actually lead, even by a small increment, to an anarchist society is unreasonable. That’s not what voting in governmental elections is capable of doing, for exactly the reasons anarchists lay out. But if we see voting as minimizing the damage inflicted by the state, it becomes more like hiring a lawyer to defend oneself in court, or marrying to acquire a passport. Anarchists have regularly accepted (not without objection) both of these strategies: Goldman married British coal miner James Colton to get a British passport, and she regularly secured the services of her friend and lawyer Harry Weinberger in numerous court battles. Voters often moan that they are tired of selecting from the lesser of evils, but I am suggesting that, in light of anarchists’ trenchant critique of suffrage, choosing the lesser of evils is exactly what we should do.

Reflecting on the lessons she learned in her life, Goldman (1970: 957) stated in her autobiography that one cannot “remain on earth without making compromises.” Taking the anarchist view of suffrage seriously, I suggest, means accepting that we will never achieve a just society through the ballot box. It also means accepting that engaging electoral politics has risks: we risk legitimating the system through our participation; our own political identity can be jeopardized by entering electoral arenas; the time it takes to learn about candidates and issues may take away from other agendas. Goldman and most of her comrades found these limitations unacceptable. But 100 years later, I take more guidance from Goldman’s conclusion that compromise is unavoidable and Bakunin’s warning that, in grave times we need to work against the worst threats however we can. Even through voting.


Bakunin, Michael, Bakunin on Anarchy, trans. and ed. Sam Dolgoff (NY: Vintage Books, 1971).

Conrad, Ryan, “I’m an Anarchist and I Vote” Truthout (October 12, 2016) https://truthout.org/articles/i-m-an-anarchist-and-i-vote/

De Cleyre, Voltairine, Exquisite Rebel: The Essays of Voltairine de Cleyre, eds. Sharon Presley and Crispin Sartwell (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2005).

Goldman, Emma, Anarchism and Other Essays (Toronto, Canada: Dover Publications, 1969).

Goldman, Emma, Living My Life, Vol II (NY: Dover, 1970).

Goldman, Emma, to Stella Ballantine, April 3, 1919, in The Emma Goldman Papers: A Microfilm Edition, eds. Candace Falk with Ronald Zboray, et al, (Alexandria, VA: Chadwyck-Healey, 1990): reel 11.

Gornick, Vivian, Emma Goldman: Revolution as a Way of Life (New Haven, CN: Yale University Press, 2011).

Marsden, Dora, “Views and Comments,” The Egoist: An Individualist Review, Vol I No 3 (Feb 2, 1914): p. 45.

Parsons, Lucy, Lucy Parsons: Freedom, Equality and Solidarity, ed. Gale Ahrens (Chicago: Charles H. Kerr, 2004).

Rowbotham, Sheila, Hidden from History: Rediscovering Women in History from the 17th Century to the Present (NY: Random House 1976).

Vipond, Paddy, “The Anarchist Case for Voting in Elections,” Films for Action ( Sept 4, 2015)  https://www.filmsforaction.org/articles/anarchists-it-is-our-duty-to-vote-in-elections/

Ward, Colin, “The Case Against Voting,” Freedom Vol 48 No 6 (June 1987). theanarchistlibrary.org

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