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Radical feminism is a "current" within feminism that focuses on the theory of patriarchy as a system of power that organizes society into a complex of relationships based on an assumption of "male supremacy" used to oppress women. Radical feminism aims to challenge and to overthrow patriarchy by opposing standard gender roles and what they see as male oppression of women, and calls for a radical reordering of society. Early radical feminism, arising within second-wave feminism in the 1960s, typically viewed patriarchy as a "transhistorical phenomenon" prior to or deeper than other sources of oppression, "not only the oldest and most universal form of domination but the primary form" and the model for all others. Later politics derived from radical feminism ranged from cultural feminism to more syncretic politics that placed issues of class, economics, etc. on a par with patriarchy as sources of oppression.
The term radical in radical feminism (from Latin rādīx, rādīc-, root) is used as an adjective meaning of or pertaining to the root or going to the root. Radical feminists locate the root cause of women's oppression in patriarchal gender relations, as opposed to legal systems (liberal feminism) or class conflict (socialist feminism and Marxist feminism). In particular, it has nothing to do with a feminist's degree of ideological fanaticism.
The term militant feminism is a pejorative term which is often applied to radical feminism, but also to other currents within feminism.
Radical feminists in Western society believe that their society is a patriarchy that primarily oppresses women. Radical feminists seek to abolish this patriarchy. They also believe that the way to deal with patriarchy and oppression of all kinds is to attack the underlying causes of these problems and address the fundamental components of society that support them. Due to this, some female radical feminists refer to themselves as "Womyn" in order to dissolve any ties to men or males.
While early radical feminists posited that the root cause of all other inequalities is the oppression of women, some radical feminists acknowledge the simultaneous and intersecting effect of other independent categories of oppression as well. These other categories of oppression may include, but are not limited to, oppression based on gender identity, race, social class, perceived attractiveness, sexual orientation, and ability. See sex-positive feminism for a sex-positive feminist critique.
Patriarchal theory is not always as single-sided as the belief that all men always benefit from the oppression of all women. Patriarchal theory maintains that the primary element of patriarchy is a relationship of dominance, where one party is dominant and exploits the other party for the benefit of the former. Radical feminists believe that men use social systems and other methods of control to keep non-dominant men and women suppressed. Radical feminists also believe that eliminating patriarchy, and other systems which perpetuate the domination of one group over another, will liberate everyone from an unjust society.
Redstockings co-founder Ellen Willis wrote in 1984 that radical feminism "got sexual politics recognized as a public issue", "created the vocabulary… with which the second wave of feminism entered popular culture", "sparked the drive to legalize abortion", "were the first to demand total equality in the so-called private sphere" ("housework and child care,… emotional and sexual needs"), and "created the atmosphere of urgency" that almost led to the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment. The influence of radical feminism can be seen in the adoption of these "personal" issues by even such liberal-feminist groups as the National Organization for Women (NOW) that had previously been focused almost entirely on economic issues.
The ideology of radical feminism in the United States developed as a component of the Women’s Liberation Movement. It grew largely due to the influence of the Civil Rights Movement that had gained momentum in the 1960s, and many of the women who took up the cause of radical feminism had had previous experience with radical protest in the struggle against racism. Chronologically, it can be seen within the context of second wave feminism, lasting from 1968 to 1973. The primary players and the pioneers of this second wave of feminism included the likes of Shulamith Firestone, Kathie Sarachild, Ti-Grace Atkinson, Carol Hanisch, and Judith Brown. On the other hand, many local women’s groups in the late sixties such as the UCLA Women’s Liberation Front (WLF) offered more diplomatic statements of radical feminism’s ideologies. UCLA’s WLF co-founder Devra Weber recalls, “‘… the radical feminists were opposed to patriarchy, but not necessarily capitalism. In our group at least, they opposed so-called male dominated national liberation struggles’”.
In their own ways, these women helped to make the connection that translated radical protest for racial equality over to the struggle for women’s rights; by witnessing the discrimination and oppression to which the black population was subjected, they were able to gain strength and motivation to do the same for their fellow women. They took up the cause and advocated for a variety of women’s issues, including abortion, the Equal Rights Amendment, access to credit, and equal pay. While certainly worthy causes for advocacy, they failed to stir up enough interest among most of the women’s fringe groups of society. A majority of women of color did not participate a great deal in the radical feminist movement because it did not address many issues that were relevant to those from a working class background, of which they were a sizeable part. But for those who felt compelled enough to stand up for the cause, radical action was needed, and so they took to the streets and formed consciousness-raising groups to rally support for the cause and recruit people who would be willing to fight for it.
In the 1960s, radical feminism emerged simultaneously within liberal feminist and working class feminist discussions, first in the United States, then in the United Kingdom and Australia. Those involved had gradually come to believe that not only the middle class nuclear family oppressed women, but also social movements and organizations that claimed to stand for human liberation, notably the counterculture, the New Left, and Marxist political parties, all of which they considered to be male-dominated and male-oriented. Women in countercultural groups related that the gender relations present in such groups were very much those of mainstream culture.
In the United States, radical feminism developed as a response to some of the perceived failings of both New Left organizations such as the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and liberal-feminist organizations such as the NOW. Initially concentrated mainly in big cities like New York, Chicago, Boston, Washington, DC, and on the West Coast radical feminist groups spread across the country rapidly from 1968 to 1972.
In the United Kingdom, feminism developed out of discussions within community based radical women's organizations and discussions by women within the Trotskyist left. Radical feminism was brought to the UK by American radical feminists and seized on by British radical women as offering an exciting new theory. As the 1970s progressed, British feminists split into two major schools of thought: socialist and radical. In 1977, another split occurred, with a third grouping calling itself "revolutionary feminism" breaking away from the other two.
Australian radical feminism developed slightly later, during an extended period of social radicalization, largely as an expression of that radicalization.
As a form of practice, radical feminists introduced the use of consciousness raising groups (CR groups). These groups brought together intellectuals, workers and middle class women in developed Western countries to discuss their experiences. During these discussions, women noted a shared and repressive system regardless of their political affiliation or social class. Based on these discussions, the women drew the conclusion that ending patriarchy was the most necessary step towards a truly free society. These consciousness-raising sessions allowed early radical feminists to develop a political ideology based on common experiences women faced with male supremacy. Consciousness raising was extensively used in chapter sub-units of the National Organization For Women (NOW) during the 1970s.
The feminism that emerged from these discussions stood first and foremost for the liberation of women, as women, from the oppression of men in their own lives, as well as men in power. This feminism was radical in both a political sense (implying extremism), and in the sense of seeking the root cause of the oppression of women. Radical feminism claimed that a totalising ideology and social formation — patriarchy (government or rule by fathers) — dominated women in the interests of men.
Within groups such as New York Radical Women (1967–1969, no relation to Radical Women, a present-day socialist feminist organization), which Ellen Willis characterizes as "the first women's liberation group in New York City", a radical feminist ideology began to emerge that declared that "the personal is political" and "sisterhood is powerful", formulation that arose from these consciousness-raising sessions. New York Radical Women fell apart in early 1969 in what came to be known as the "politico-feminist split" with the "politicos" seeing capitalism as the source of women's oppression, while the "feminists" saw male supremacy as "a set of material, institutionalized relations, not just bad attitudes." The feminist side of the split, which soon began referring to itself as "radical feminists" soon constituted the basis of a new organizations, Redstockings. At the same time, Ti-Grace Atkinson led "a radical split-off from NOW", which became known as The Feminists. A third major stance would be articulated by the New York Radical Feminists, founded later in 1969 by Shulamith Firestone (who broke from the Redstockings) and Anne Koedt.
During this period, the movement produced "a prodigious output of leaflets, pamphlets, journals, magazine articles, newspaper and radio and TV interviews." Many important feminist works, such as Koedt's essay "The Myth of Vaginal Orgasm" (1970) and Kate Millet's book Sexual Politics (1970), emerged during this time and in this milieu.
At the beginning of this period, "heterosexuality was more or less an unchallenged assumption." Among radical feminists, the view became widely held that thus far the sexual freedoms gained in the sexual revolution of the 1960s — in particular, the decreasing emphasis on monogamy — had been largely something gained by men at women's expense. This assumption of heterosexuality would soon be challenged by the rise of political lesbianism, closely associated with Atkinson and The Feminists. The belief that the sexual revolution was a victory of men over women would eventually lead to the women's anti-pornography movement of the late 1970s.
Redstockings and The Feminists were both radical feminist organizations, but held rather distinct views. Most members of Redstockings held to a materialist and anti-psychologistic view. They viewed men's oppression of women as ongoing and deliberate, holding individual men responsible for this oppression, viewing institutions and systems (including the family) as mere vehicles of conscious male intent, and rejecting psychologistic explanations of female submissiveness as blaming women for collaboration in their own oppression. They held to a view — which Willis would later describe as "neo-Maoist" — that it would be possible to unite all or virtually all women, as a class, to confront this oppression by personally confronting men.
The Feminists held a more idealistic, psychologistic, and utopian philosophy, with a greater emphasis on "sex roles", seeing sexism as rooted in "complementary patterns of male and female behavior". They placed more emphasis on institutions, seeing marriage, family, prostitution, and heterosexuality as all existing to perpetuate the "sex-role system". They saw all of these as institutions to be destroyed. Within the group, there were further disagreements, such as Koedt's viewing the institution of "normal" sexual intercourse as being focused mainly on male sexual or erotic pleasure, while Atkinson viewed it mainly in terms of reproduction. In contrast to the Redstockings, The Feminists generally considered genitally focused sexuality to be inherently male. Ellen Willis would later write that insofar as the Redstockings considered abandoning heterosexual activity, they saw it as a "bitter price" they "might have to pay for [their] militance", whereas The Feminists embraced separatism as a strategy.
The New York Radical Feminists (NYRF) took a more psychologistic (and even biologically determinist) line. They argued that men dominated women not so much for material benefits as for the ego satisfaction intrinsic in domination. Similarly, they rejected the Redstockings view that women submitted only out of necessity or The Feminists' implicit view that they submitted out of cowardice, but instead argued that social conditioning simply led most women to accept a submissive role as "right and natural".
Radical feminism was not only a movement of ideology and theory. Radical feminists also took direct action. In 1968, they protested against the Miss America pageant by throwing high heels and other feminine accoutrements into a freedom garbage bin. In 1970, they also staged a sit-in at the Ladies' Home Journal. In addition, they held speakouts about topics such as rape.
Because of their commitment to radical egalitarianism, most early radical feminist groups operated initially without any formal internal structure. When informal leadership developed, it was often resented. Many groups ended up expending more effort debating their own internal operations than dealing with external matters, seeking to "perfect a perfect society in microcosm" rather than focus on the larger world. Resentment of leadership was compounded by the view that all "class striving" was "male-identified". In the extreme, exemplified by The Feminists, the upshot, according to Ellen Willis, was "unworkable, mechanistic demands for an absolutely random division of labor, taking no account of differences in skill, experience, or even inclination". "The result," writes Willis, "was not democracy but paralysis." When The Feminists began to select randomly who could talk to the press, Ti-Grace Atkinson quit the organization she had founded.
Radical feminists have generally formed small activist or community associations around either consciousness raising, or concrete aims. Many radical feminists in Australia participated in a series of squats to establish various women's centres, and this form of action was common in the late 1970s and early 1980s. By the mid 1980s many of the original consciousness raising groups had dissolved, and radical feminism was more and more associated with loosely organized university collectives. Since that period, radical feminism has generally been confined to activist student ghettos, inspired in part by famous intellectuals. However, occasionally, working class groups of women have formed collectives dedicated to radical feminism.
In many cases the social organizations formed by radical feminists in the 1970s and 1980s were ineffective. In Australia, many feminist social organizations accepted government funding during the 1980s, and the election of a conservative government in 1996 crippled these organizations.
While radical feminists aim to dismantle patriarchal society in a historical sense, their immediate aims are generally concrete. Some common demands include:
•Expanding reproductive freedoms.
“Defined by feminists in the 1970s as a basic human right, it includes the right to abortion and birth control, but implies much more. To be realised, reproductive freedom must include not only woman’s right to choose childbirth, abortion, sterilisation or birth control, but also her right to make those choices freely, without pressure from individual men, doctors, governmental or religious authorities. It is a key issue for women, since without it the other freedoms we appear to have, such as the right to education, jobs and equal pay, may prove illusory. Provisions of childcare, medical treatment, and society’s attitude towards children are also involved.” From The Encyclopedia of Feminism (1986) Lisa Tuttle
• Changing the organizational sexual culture, e.g. breaking down traditional gender roles and reevaluating societal concepts of femininity and masculinity, among other things (a common demand in U.S. universities during the 1980s). In this, they often form tactical alliances with other currents of feminism.
Some strains of radical feminism have been compared to Marxism in that they describe a "great struggle of history" between two opposed forces. Much like the Marxist struggle between classes (typically, with reference to the present day, the proletariat and bourgeoisie), radical feminism describes a historical struggle between "women" and "men". Radical feminism has had a close, if sometimes hostile, relationship with Marxism since its origins. Both Marxists and radical feminists seek a total and radical change in social relations and consider themselves to be on the political left. Despite this commonality, as ideologies Marxism and radical feminism have generally opposed one another; radical feminism can be contrasted to socialist feminism in this respect. In practice, however, activist alliances generally form around shared immediate goals.
Some radical feminists are explicitly avowed Marxists, and attempt to explore relationships between patriarchal and class analysis. This strain of radical feminism can trace its roots to the Second International (in particular, the Marxists Rosa Luxembourg and Alexandra Kollontai). These strains of radical feminism are often referred to as "Marxist feminism".
Other radical feminists have criticized Marxists; during the 1960s in the U.S., many women became feminists because they perceived women as being excluded from, and discriminated against by, leftist political groups.
The problems of interpersonal and domestic violence are often defined in a manner prescribed by feminist thought. Women's shelters for neglected or abused women and children now in place did not exist in the early 70s. Laws mandating the reporting of domestic violence are now in place in all of the states (U.S.). Discussions of domestic violence are nearly always a feminist construct, largely due to statistics that show women as having a higher rate of victimization.
Women experience significantly more partner violence than men do: 25 percent of surveyed women, compared with 8 percent of surveyed men, said they were raped and/or physically assaulted by a current or former spouse, cohabiting partner, or date in their lifetime; 1.5 percent of surveyed women and 0.9 percent of surveyed men said they were raped and/or physically assaulted by such a perpetrator in the previous 12 months. According to survey estimates, approximately 1.5 million women and 834,700 men are raped and/or physically assaulted by an intimate partner annually in the United States. Because women are also more likely to be injured by intimate partners, research aimed at understanding and preventing partner violence against women should be stressed. From Prevalence, Incidence, and Consequences of Violence Against Women: Findings From the National Violence Against Women Survey.
Both the self-proclaimed sex-positive and the so-called sex-negative forms of present-day feminism can trace their roots to early radical feminism. Ellen Willis' 1981 essay, "Lust Horizons: Is the Women's Movement Pro-Sex?" is the origin of the term, "pro-sex feminism". In it, she argues against making alliances with the political right in opposition to pornography and prostitution, as occurred, for example, during the Meese Commission hearings in the United States. Willis argued for a feminism that embraces sexual freedom, including men's sexual freedom, rather than condemn pornography, consensual BDSM, and in some cases sexual intercourse and fellatio.
Within the New Left, radical feminists were accused of being "bourgeois", "antileft" or even "apolitical", whereas they saw themselves as further "radicalizing the left by expanding the definition of radical". Radical feminist have tended to be white and middle class. Ellen Willis hypothesized in 1984 that this was, at least in part, because "most black and working-class women could not accept the abstraction of feminist issues from race and class issues"; the resulting narrow demographic base, in turn, limited the validity of generalizations based on radical feminists' personal experiences of gender relations. George Carlin, a well known comedian, also made remarks during the Explicit Lyrics tours stating in one show: "I notice that most radical feminists are white, middle class women, they don't give a shit about black women's problems, that are only concerned about their own checkbooks." Many early radical feminists broke political ties with "male-dominated left groups", or would work with them only in ad hoc coalitions.
Betty Friedan and other liberal feminists often see precisely the radicalism of radical feminism as potentially undermining the gains of the women's movement with polarizing rhetoric that invites backlash and hold that they overemphasize sexual politics at the expense of political reform. Other critics of radical feminism from the political left, including socialist feminists, strongly disagree with the radical feminist position that the oppression of women is fundamental to all other forms of oppression; these critics hold that issues of race and of class are as important or more important than issues about gender. Queer and postmodernist theorists often argue that the radical feminist ideas on gender are essentialist and that many forms of gender identity complicate any absolute opposition between "men" and "women".
Some feminists, most notably Alice Echols and Ellen Willis, hold that after about 1975 most of what continued to be called "radical feminism" represents a narrow subset of what was originally a more ideologically diverse movement. Willis saw this as an example of a "conservative retrenchment" that occurred when the "expansive prosperity and utopian optimism of the '60s succumbed to an era of economic limits and political backlash." They label this dominant tendency "cultural feminism", view it as a "neo-Victorian" ideology coming out of radical feminism but ultimately antithetical to it. Willis draws the contrast that early radical feminism saw itself as part of a broad left politics, whereas much of what succeeded it in the 1970s and early 1980s (both cultural feminism and liberal feminism) took the attitude that "left politics were 'male' and could be safely ignored." She further writes that whereas the original radical feminism "challenge[d] the polarization of the sexes", cultural feminism simply embraces the "traditional feminine virtues". Critics of cultural feminism hold that cultural feminist ideas on sexuality, exemplified by the feminist anti-pornography movement, severely polarized feminism, leading to the "Feminist Sex Wars" of the 1980s. Critics of Echols and Willis hold that they conflate several tendencies within radical feminism, not all of which are properly called "cultural feminism", and emphasize a greater continuity between early and contemporary radical feminism.
Also, Willis, although very much a part of early radical feminism and continuing to hold that it played a necessary role in placing feminism on the political agenda, later criticised its inability "to integrate a feminist perspective with an overall radical politics," while viewing this limitation is inevitable in the historical context of the times. In part this limitation arose from the fact that consciousness raising, as "the primary method of understanding women's condition" in the movement at this time and its "most successful organizing tool", led to an emphasis on personal experience that concealed "prior political and philosophical assumptions".
Willis, writing in 1984, was critical of the notion that all hierarchies are "more specialized forms of male supremacy" as preventing adequate consideration of the possibility that "the impulse to dominate… could be a universal human characteristic that women share, even if they have mostly lacked the opportunity to exercise it." Further, the view of oppression of women as a "transhistorical phenomenon" allowed middle-class white women to minimize the benefits of their own race and class privilege and tended to exclude women from history. Further, Willis wrote that the movement never developed "a coherent analysis of either male of female psychology" and that it ultimately raised hopes that its narrow "commitment to the sex-class paradigm" could not fulfil; when those hopes were dashed, according to Willis the resulting despair was the foundation of withdrawal into counterculturalism and cultural feminism.
Echols and Willis have both written that radical feminism was, ultimately, dismissive of lesbian sexuality. On the one hand, if the central struggle was to take place within personal heterosexual relationships, as envisioned by the Redstockings, lesbians were marginalized. On the other, political lesbianism granted lesbians vanguard role, but only if they would play down erotic desire. Those lesbians whose sexuality focused on genital pleasure were liable to be dismissed by the advocates of political lesbianism as "male identified". The result, through the 1970s, was the adoption by many of a "sanitize[d] lesbianism", stripped of eroticism.