I begin with George Lawson’s own admission in his book, Anatomies of Revolution, in footnote 10, page 88, that “[T]he story of women and revolution is not, on the whole, well told…” and that, “to its detriment, [is] no better in this regard”. Indeed, the book does contribute to the analytic invisibility of women’s roles in revolutions, and largely ignores how gender is constructed through revolutions and their aftermaths. An exception can be found in the section on ‘Revolutionary Outcomes’ where Lawson discusses Iran and the 1979 Cultural Revolution. There, his analysis highlights how the control of women’s bodies, specifically the way women dress and veil themselves, embody women’s role as symbolic reproducers of collective identity. Moreover, that the aftermath of revolution can mean not so much change as the reimposition and further hardening of boundaries that relegate women back to traditional and biologically-defined roles (pp. 166-7). In other parts of the book, he mentions examples such as the all-woman Mariana Grajales platoon in Cuba for their crucial role in securing military advances (p. 130); and #MeToo in the discussion of contemporary revolutions (p. 231). So why does gender matter and why should scholars interested in revolutions take gender seriously?
Gender as a central category of analysis informs richer and more just anatomies of revolution. It raises comprehensive insights on where and when revolutions start and end. Importantly, it entails questioning what counts as revolutionary, for whom, and at what cost. First, because it does not analytically engage with gender, Anatomies of Revolution fails to anatomise whose bodies and labour get counted in revolutions. A feminist analysis, by contrast, pays attention to the interactions between material and ideological conditions that inform what forms of political actions are made visible, considered legitimate and valued in the accounting of revolutions and their aftermaths. This is strongly evident in the works of Rachel Elfenbein (2019) on the Bolivarian revolution, Lorraine Bayard de Volo (2018) on the Cuban Insurrection, and Jenny Hedstrom (2017) on the Kachin revolution in Myanmar. The household and women’s unpaid labour are indispensable to the biological and symbolic reproduction of the revolution itself. Women typically perform roles shaped by gendered divisions of labour such as care and domestic work that ensure continuity of life even in times of uncertainty and strife. They are tasked with food provisioning and nursing of the sick and injured, in addition to varied roles in actual sites of conflict as combatants. These roles are either dismissed and devalued, or strategically harnessed to mobilise women in support of the revolution only to then exclude them when power and resources are negotiated in the aftermath. The suffering and distinct harms women bear including for ongoing unpaid labour in the household, are often written off in the memorialising of revolutions.
The work of Kumari Jayawardena (1986) on women and revolutionary struggles in the ‘Third World’ demonstrates that revolutions are perspectival. From a ‘Third World’ feminist perspective, revolutions are differently experienced and interpreted across multiple and overlapping axes of oppression in terms of gender, race, and class. Third World women revolutionaries were situated at the crossroad of nation and imperialism. They were simultaneously fighting for their nation against colonial rulers and fighting within the nation for equality. However, women’s concerns and gender equality as a political and economic agenda more broadly, are often relegated to ‘later’ or believed to naturally occur once the revolutionary struggles they participate in are won. To rephrase Cynthia Enloe, ‘revolutions’ don’t simply end. And ‘revolutions’ don’t end simply. In Anatomies of Revolution, women’s labour and bodies yet again form the invisible but ‘permanent background’ to periods of ruptures, restorations and repairs. A core continuity before, during and after revolutions is in the enduring and even further deepening of patriarchy. Thus, feminist scholarship is interested in understanding why we are not interested enough in learning who does the ‘cleaning up’ after revolutions.
Lawson argues for the need to historicise revolutions. In a clearly articulated passage, he states:
Revolutions do not start history afresh, but nor can they be reduced to mere footnotes in history. Rather, revolutions involve the forceful breakdown of the old order and the attempt to reconstruct forms of political, economic, and symbolic authority. Revolutions have a formative effect on the societies where they occur, on the regions in which they take place, and on the wider international order with which they interact (p. 31).
He also makes a compelling case for the ‘singularity’ or ‘non-replicability’ of revolutionary episodes. Though no two revolutions are alike, there are recurrent situations, trajectories and outcomes. How might this approach explain feminism as an ongoing revolutionary project? bell hooks, in Feminist Theory: from margins to center, defines feminism as necessarily a gradual and protracted struggle to radically transform society. According to hooks, unlike other revolutionary projects, feminism cannot be based on violence but rather on cultural and material transformations driven by a liberation ideology shared by everyone. Its ‘tactics’ are consciousness-raising, love and dialogue. Based on this definition, feminist revolution is not beholden to the particularities of time, place, and history – in fact, it seeks precisely to supersede these. The goal is to actively bridge and adapt feminist revolution with other revolutionary projects. It is driven by a logic of transgressing singularity or ‘uniqueness’ to instead ask, how is your revolution, my revolution? How can we see your revolution and mine as shaped by the same forces and structures of power?
Lawson in his own analysis suggests an openness to a future anatomies of revolution that take seriously the ideological and normative content of revolutionary projects of this nature. For instance, central to the book is the argument that revolutions are relational and inter-social. “All revolutions are formed by the interaction of entities-in-motion – they are confluences of events that are embedded within fields of action that are, in turn, derived from historically specific conditions” (p. 249). He points out the emergence of ‘negotiated revolutions’, contemporary revolutions as “transversal assemblages of subjectivities and events” (p. 232) and struggles that deal with “a smorgasbord of contemporary ills: globalization, neoliberalism, austerity, environmental degradation, inequality, racism, sexism, injustice, neoimperialism, militarism, and more” (p. 233). Importantly, Lawson believes that “these movements are likely to have fleeting rather than enduring effects” (p. 233) because they do not offer clear political alternatives. In postcolonial feminist scholarship, Feminism as a revolutionary project transgresses discretely bounded political projects. Maria Lugones in her book Pilgrimages/Peregrinajes defined feminism in terms of coalitions from which to understand and enact more inclusive and liberatory possibilities. Similarly, Chandra Mohanty defined feminism as a pluralist and ‘multi-issue’ struggle toward “a world where pleasure rather than just duty and drudgery determine our choices, where free and imaginative exploration of the mind is a fundamental right; a vision in which economic stability, ecological sustainability, racial equality, and the redistribution of wealth form the material basis of people’s well-being” (p. 3).
Feminism as a revolutionary project is unexplained in Anatomies of Revolution because it reflects an anatomy without ‘hearts and minds’. However, I see the most fruitful dialogues and connections emerging from his analysis of militant Islamism and populism in the section on ‘revolutionary futures’. Lawson points out a bias in the scholarship on revolutions for its overwhelming focus on ‘leftist’, ‘democratic’ or ‘self-consciously progressive’ revolutions. I do not think that rectifying this problem is simply a matter of classifying sets of projects that are ‘regressive’ and ‘progressive’, ‘revolutionary’ and ‘counterrevolutionary’. Analysing the geopolitics of feminism, for instance, has shown that it has been positioned by a range of actors including by women across the spectrum of these labels. Rather, to me, this is a bigger task of examining changing material relations of power and the production and reproduction of particular ideologies which may be either rigid and fundamentalist, or adaptive and generative. Revolutions are then inter-social as Lawson argues in the book, as well as ideological and inter-subjective.
A forward-looking anatomy of revolutions takes seriously interactions of and among different normative visions that make possible political projects that transmute and endure. The many lives of feminism attest to this. Feminism is in the suffragette movement, in Third World liberation and anti-colonial movements, in #MeToo and pink ‘pussyhats’, and to the ongoing push to address the ‘shadow pandemic’ in the global COVID-19 crisis. These transmutations occur precisely because of patriarchy’s adaptability. Masculinities and femininities are constantly reinvented and repackaged to maintain gender order. Transforming this gender order, from a feminist perspective, is the revolution and dismantling the gendered and racialized division of labour, as Silvia Federici argues, is ‘revolution at point zero’. The study of revolutions, therefore, will continue to be partial and impoverished unless it starts to treat revolutions as if gender matters.
 “Wars don’t simply end. And wars don’t end simply.” The Curious Feminist, p. 193.
The set image is of a young Sandinista named Idalia, taken during a military parade to celebrate the first anniversary of the triumph of the Sandinista Revolution in 1980. Photo by Mexican photographer Pedro Valtierra. Captured in Estelí, Nicaragua, 1980.