The other day, a commenter asked for a definition of radical feminism. Coincidentally, SarahMC and PilgrimSoul had just been talking about that very subject. Here are some of our thoughts. Join in!
On the perils of identifying as a radical feminist:
SarahMC: I qualify as a radical feminist in many ways, but it’s rare that I ever identify as one. There are so many different strains of feminism, and I agree with aspects of all of them, but I don’t find that there’s a reason to qualify my feminism with another label. Sometimes it’s more trouble than it’s worth, and it can be easier to simply let your words reveal your views. Even many feminists have adopted the deceptive framing of anti-feminists, who’ve successfully cast radical feminism as a man-hating philosophy that wishes to privilege women over men, enslave them, kill babies and outlaw heterosexual intercourse.
PilgrimSoul: Yeah, I usually leave my “This is What a Radical Feminist Looks Like” t-shirt in the closet. I do not defend this choice, which I did not make on principle. I made it out of sheer exhaustion from the baggage, as you mention, that people bring to the term. The cultural weight is, after all, against us. It’s like radical feminism has been reduced to bogeywoman everyone on the internet met in college or at Michfest or saw on tumblr. But I, personally, don’t seem to know any examples of this variety of “radical feminists.” But I got into radical feminism through an academic rather than activist route, perhaps that explains it.
PilgrimSoul: I would define radical feminism as follows: radical feminism insists that a patriarchal power structure exists in this and other cultures, that that power structure actively and deliberately oppresses women, and that the only way we can get at that power structure is through honesty, in consciousness-raising and other exercises focused on women’s experiences, about the ways in which the patriarchy continues to shape our lives. Radical feminists are particularly known for their critique of sexuality, since they tend to see that as a primary site in which patriarchy, well, happens.
SarahMC: I see radical feminism is a specific way of understanding the world and addressing the problems therein. The sex class “men” dominates the sex class “women” in a system called “patriarchy” which exists for the benefit of men and detriment of women. The goal of radical feminism it ending male supremacy (i.e. patriarchy) and thereby the oppression of women. Many radical feminists, myself included, recognize and strive to end all kinds of oppression: racism, classism, ableism, and heterosexism, among others.
PilgrimSoul: You know, I think one of the things that gets us in trouble as radical feminists is the way we tend to talk about things. We talk about “men,” and people think that means “all people with penises” when what we usually mean is “the socially constructed ideal of what a man is, to which most but not necessarily all men subscribe.” Put more academically, radical feminism is not equivalent to biological essentialism. Patriarchy does not reside in the Y chromosome. It resides in the world, where we live, and where the Y chromosome is given supremacy. But people seem unable to understand this nuance.
SarahMC: That is a huge pet peeve of mine. I am constantly accused of thinking “men are inherently x, y, z…” which is basically the exact opposite of what I argue. I reject the idea that people are inherently anything according to their sex. I think almost all observed emotional, mental, and intellectual differences between the sexes can be attributed to nurture rather than nature. People also seem incapable of realizing that critiquing and examining certain behavior =/= desire to outlaw said behavior.
On why we continue to be attracted to radical feminism despite all the baggage:
SarahMC: I suppose it’s important to me to constantly ask “why?” when it comes to human behavior, rather than accepting things at face value. “I choose my choice!” is not sufficient for me. At the heart of my radical feminist leanings is my absolute hatred of strictly enforced, unchallenged gender roles. The blind acceptance and perpetuation of gender essentialism is at the root of so much oppression, and it’s something that absolutely pervades society. I cannot stomach watching adults police children’s gender; it breaks my heart and I desperately want to bring an end to it.
PilgrimSoul: What attracted me to radical feminism was its refusal of simplistic interpretations of pretty much everything. Which is funny, because radical feminists are accused of being overly simplistic, of judging and condemning. But let’s put it this way: the radical feminists I recognize are people like MacKinnon and Dworkin and, to use an internet example, Twisty Faster. But those are very smart women who write complicated things about the complicated way patriarchy inserts itself into all of our lives. I guess I can understand that it’s easier to adopt simplistic interpretations, both of these women’s work and of the patriarchy itself, but I’m not sure that it gets us any further towards actually undermining male supremacy. Which, correct me if I’m wrong, is even what regular garden-variety feminism says it’s about when it talks about making women equal to men.