Radical feminism redux

July 24, 2012

In blogs and podcasts, feminists have been discussing the perennial problem of having to explain that feminism means the struggle for gender equality, not female supremacy. Now many third wave and younger feminists have found the courage to reclaim not only the original meaning of “feminism,” but “radical feminism.” During the 1960s and early 1970s, “radical feminism” was used interchangeably with “women’s liberation” to describe a more profound feminism than liberal feminism.

In an interview in the Fall 2011 issue of Feminist Studies, Ti-Grace Atkinson, one of the founders of this movement, described how it turned into counter-revolution: “Probably what was called ‘radical feminism’ by the mid-1970s really did not even resemble its origins. In most ways, later incarnations were the opposite of earlier radical feminism. For example, if matriarchy becomes radical feminism, you find that power dynamic again… It certainly wasn’t a challenge to sex [gender] roles because it was sex roles with a vengeance.”


Younger feminists call hijackers of the expression “radical feminism” by the derogatory term “radfems.” Radfems’ twisted version of radical feminism happens to be the same as the Right’s stereotype of it, and in fact radfems tend to resemble the followers of fundamentalist religion in their preoccupation with purity and dogmatism. In their attempts to distance themselves from this faction by dropping the word “radical,” equality-minded feminists have allowed the Right to redefine “radical” as meaning “extremism.” This contributed to the Left’s disowning of the word and its power to make people think that a completely new society is possible.

In reality, conservatism means wanting the system to remain the same, liberalism means wanting to make changes in the system, and radicalism means a desire for a completely new system. (The religious fundamentalists of the Right are reactionaries, not radicals, because they want to go back to an old system.) The idea that all people are equally human is radical because it is the opposite of the reactionary systems of both patriarchy and matriarchy.

In the first episode of their podcast “Opinionated,” Samhita Mukhopadhyay and Amanda Marcotte reclaim radical feminism and distinguish it from liberal feminism which is mostly concerned with workplace equality. They state that their feminism is about achieving equality in all areas of life. Laura, host of the “Fully Engaged Feminism” podcast, in the “Radically Feminist” episode, discusses with Avory Faucette of the Radically Queer blog how radical feminism means examination of the intersectionality of oppressions, including racism, queer- and trans-phobia, and classism.


I agree, but would add that radical feminism is also an active force changing everything about society. When liberal feminists focused on workplace equality, radical feminists questioned what counts as real work, including unpaid labor such as caregiving and creative work along with the manual labor of women in developing countries. The Feminist Health Movement, along with the Civil Rights Movement, have not only been concerned with making it possible for women and people of color to be doctors but with removing the paternalism in medicine, giving patients responsibility for their own health and a say in treatment. The Feminist Spirituality Movement has not just been about allowing women to be ministers but about redefining deity and spirituality in gender-inclusive and non-hierarchal ways (for which they continue to take scolding from the fundamentalist Right).

These basic changes in philosophy and society do not come from female superiority but from equality. Also, a radical form of feminism requires a process of listening to, being allies with, and learning from other oppressed groups, for example, sex workers, rather than the radfems’ simplistic and ineffective desire to pass laws to “rescue” them. When feminists call the process in which they are already engaged “radical,” they reconnect with and learn from the activists of the past and develop confidence in the possibility of a new society.


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