Radical feminism - what's that all about then?

(41 Posts)
scallopsrgreat Mon 02-Jun-14 11:53:37

As promised on the Pub thread here is a thread about radical feminism. The question was asked as to whether people considered themselves radical feminists and moved on to what that actually consisted of.

There was also a bit of confusion as to what radical feminist theory consisted of. So here are a few questions to get us started:

1) What does radical feminism mean to you?
2) What aspects of feminist theory would you attribute to radical feminism?
3) What makes someone a radical feminist?
4) What makes radical feminism different from other strands of feminism?

Please don't feel obliged to answer all the questions or feel free to ask some more of your own!

I'll jump in with some fairly shallow thoughts if that's ok. smile

1) That the patriarchy (ie., oppression of women on a structural, not merely individual, level) is the root problem we have to deal with. That doesn't mean other kinds of analysis (class analysis etc.) are irrelevant, but that there is no-one who is unaffected by the patriarchy.

2) Dunno, would be interested what others thing. Do you mean which kinds of ideas or which kinds of writers?

3) Believing that women are systematically oppressed and believing this is wrong. Optional extra: trying to do something about it! Not sure you can be a radfem without trying to do something, but it doesn't have to be giving up your job to campaign for women's rights.

4) It explains the root causes of women's oppression, and IMO it is a coherent way of thinking that can be applied to any situation. It's not pick-and-mix. So you always have to think, what is the power structure in this situation, and how is it positioning women? My feeling is that other kinds of feminism have more of an element of case-by-case decision, and see some people and some activities as being unaffected by patriarchy.

scallopsrgreat Mon 02-Jun-14 12:17:22

Yes I think looking at the power structures involved in different situations is key and also looking at the systematic structures men have created and dismantling them.

I also think radical feminism is very female centric. Puts women at the core and recognises the oppression of women is down to biology and gender is a construct and a hierarchy used to keep women at the bottom.

With question 2 I was thinking of theories like the abolishing gender, PIV being problematic for women, female sexuality being, male violence being at the core of oppression, changing systems and structures rather than working within existing structures, separatism and others.

Oh, I'm with you. I agree about being female centric. And about recognising male violence. I think that may be the key thing, actually -

I'm not great at theory, but it seems to me that a lot of second wave/70s writers focus on sex/sexuality in ways that maybe have less to say now? Since then we have had some changes - marital rape criminalized, more awareness of sexual abuse and emotional abuse in relationships, the pill becoming more normalised. And I think the third wave responds to this by seeing women being in control of their sexuality as the most important thing. Yet we're not, and it's male violence that reminds us we're not. You can make changes to women's relationship with sex (eg., by criminalizing marital rape or whatever) but it doesn't get us all that far.

I guess I am a bad radfem in that I do often work in existing structures - I'm married, I teach in HE, I do a fair bit of performing femininity. But I'd like to see those structures change.

MiniTheMinx Mon 02-Jun-14 12:40:54

1) What does radical feminism mean to you?
Activism over theory

2) What aspects of feminist theory would you attribute to radical feminism?
Critique of male violence, prostitution and porn, gender binary positions, PIV, rape etc,..

3) What makes someone a radical feminist?
The belief that sex and gender shape all discourse, social relations and individual lived experience. Belief that patriarchy is the force behind history and continued subordination of women.

4) What makes radical feminism different from other strands of feminism?
1,2,3 I'm not a radical feminist because I don't subscribe to no;3 but I find much to agree on in terms of 1 and 2

MiniTheMinx Mon 02-Jun-14 12:46:41

LRD, it is impossible not to live and work within the existing structure, it just is. Unless you want to be a hermit smile I think its possible to antagonise the existing structure from within. There are contradictions that create spaces in which struggle can take place. Each radical demand is eventually subsumed into the structure, such as changes to the law and such like, but sometimes we have to then accept or antagonise the law of unintended consequences, and so it goes on...

FourForksAche Mon 02-Jun-14 12:47:51

lurking smile

Oh, sure, I know it's impossible ... but some people do more than others. I am definitely not a hermit! grin

I'm interested in your number 1, because I always feel as if radical feminism is very theoretical. I am not sure that is a good thing. But then, I think a lot of the theory is disseminated just the way we're doing it here, or by word of mouth, so it's fairly democratic rather than being handed down from on high, so maybe it's closer to activism anyway?

NormaStanleyFletcher Mon 02-Jun-14 12:57:21

Watching with interest.

SconeRhymesWithGone Mon 02-Jun-14 13:05:21

And I think the third wave responds to this by seeing women being in control of their sexuality as the most important thing. Yet we're not, and it's male violence that reminds us we're not. You can make changes to women's relationship with sex (eg., by criminalizing marital rape or whatever) but it doesn't get us all that far.


MiniTheMinx Mon 02-Jun-14 13:06:19

Yes I think its very democratic and non-elitist. I don't think radical feminism has been co-opted into the institutions of HE, reworked, and spewed back at us. It might be that for me, I see it as very much a movement from the ground up. But then the more I think about it, its maybe something to do with the 70s. You had things like the Birmingham school of critical theory spring up, a move towards recovering female writers, critiquing lit in terms of gender etc, perhaps it is more to do with the way in which women went into the institutions and spread around the depts applying feminist analysis in new ways. So I'm not certain. Whereas I am inclined to think that socialist/marxist feminist whilst still being activists, tend towards your politics, philosophy and sociology, never really attempting to use theory in other areas. Even I struggle with theory and quite frankly I read radical feminist analysis and think, wow, now doesn't that make sense! But then I would draw a distinction between theory and analysis.

CailinDana Mon 02-Jun-14 13:14:12

I agree with pretty much all that's been said so far, although I am also sceptical of the activism/theory distinction - I think there is a lot of theory in radical feminism, but there is an expectation that we will put that theory into practice rather than just talking about it. I think that's where people struggle with radfem as it can lead to quite an uncomfortable relationship with the world.

I think I've become more radicalised in the last few years and I find it quite tough and draining, because the more you open your eyes to it the more you realise how misogyny is everywhere. It can feel like a constant battle. So you're faced with the tough decision to either accept things the way they are and live your life or to rail against everything and be weighed down by anger. Of course, the ideal is a balance between the two, but that can be tough to achieve. It's a case of picking your battles, which can seem like capitulation on some fronts.

Ooh, I got an 'exactly'! <jumps up and down>

mini - YY, I think that's definitely true, it's from the ground up. And I think HE has never been at all comfortable with it.

I guess with the theory, what I do notice is how often someone will say something that really clarifies things for me, and they'll tell me it's from a theorist. And I did read a bit of theory recently after the New Statesman series on feminist theory, and it was good. OTOH I read some things that have dated, but that's natural.

What's the difference between theory and analysis (if that's not a daft question)?

allhailqueenmab Mon 02-Jun-14 13:23:55

For me radical feminism is about how you think about women's oppression and potential liberation: an unflinching recognition of how deeply the patriarchy sees us as mere things, tools, instruments for its use. It isn't about what one does or doesn't do, but how one sees things as part of a pattern.
For me (and I know this is not strictly correct, but for me) it isn't so much about the primacy of female oppression, in the sense of being the one that happened first relative to all other oppressions. It is about the depth and completeness of that oppression now, and actually about how men - most men, even though they deny it and think they think otherwise, I am talking about actual men now, not just "the patriarchy" but men - think that women are for their use. That this is what women are for - to do things for men.

This is why I get the red mist rage about the trivialising of housework and the fact that women get lumped with it. It isn't as bad as FGM or rape in war or the many other kinds of outrageous violence that men inflict on women. But it is so deeply accepted that it makes me want to throw things and smash things. It makes domestic appliances of women, and everyone just nods and tuts and rolls their eyes and goes "they don't see dirt, do they?"

Radical feminism is a deeply held belief in the humanity of women, as non-instruments but as souls; and a simultaneous clear-eyed understanding that patriarchal structures do not see us that way, but as things to be used

MiniTheMinx Mon 02-Jun-14 13:24:20

LRD, you have answered your own question wink theory will never date as long as it can be tested by analysis, and shown to hold up to that interrogation. Theory, is a hypothesis really or like a fact that must be tested, not applied. Analysis is applying interrogation to something and seeing what its constituted of. If you apply a theory to a problem, you can always shape that analysis to support the theory, many marxists are accused of this grin so instead you use the problem to test the theory!

And yes HE has always been uncomfortable with radical feminism. Women were hived off into different depts applying feminist analysis in lots of areas. However radical feminist theory does not supply the backbone of humanities courses because it just isn't accepted. That's my feeling anyway.

Oh, I see! Yes, that makes perfect sense.

I am trying very hard to get some feminism (of any kind, really) into HE, btw. smile

MiniTheMinx Mon 02-Jun-14 13:29:19

Me too, onwards....grin

calmet Mon 02-Jun-14 13:31:03

I think one of the key differences (although it shares this with Marxist and socialist feminism), is how it analyses on the basis of looking at women as a class. Liberal feminism and queer theory looks at individuals and talks a lot about choice. Radical feminism looks at what is best for all women.

So for example, you might say as an individual you choose to work in a job where women get paid less than men. Liberal feminist theory would say that is your choice. Radical feminism wouldn't blame you as an individual for doing that, but it would say that it is harmful for all women if some women are paid less than men for doing the same job.

grin Indeed, mini.

cal - YY, I agree, that's important.

allhailqueenmab Mon 02-Jun-14 13:38:41

I think it's also about how you approach receiving this information that you will be paid less for this job.

The liberal approach would accept the rationalisations about why this is and think that some sort of market-driven approach should be taken to correcting the pay gap of this job ("women in this field must improve their qualifications" "all the women in this field have taken maternity leave so don't have the same experience" etc)

the radical approach would be to understand that, whatever rationalisations apply, and whatever historical route has been taken to allow the women to be paid less, the actual reason why this keeps happening is that men believe they have access to women's labour for free, and both men and women are conditioned to keep behaving as if this is so

calmet Mon 02-Jun-14 13:40:10

And allhailqueen says about women's oppression being the primary or key oppresoldest sion, is what differentiates radical feminism from Marxist or Socialist feminism. Radical feminism sees patriarchy like a tree with its roots being the oppression of women, and then other oppressions springing from that primary oppression.

(Some radical feminists argue the oppression of animals is the oldest oppression, but all agree that the oppression of women is the and key oppression amongst humans.)

DonkeySkin Mon 02-Jun-14 13:49:37

I started exploring radical feminism online about two years ago, and since then I've identified as a radfem, although I don't claim to be an expert on it. I was just mightily relieved to find women who were articulating problems I'd long had with mainstream liberal feminism and was blown away by the intellectual depth of their investigations into the roots of patriarchy. I agree with LRD that radical feminism is a coherent theory, whereas IMO other feminisms (such as liberal and Marxist) fail to properly account for the ancient and worldwide oppression of women by men.

1) What does radical feminism mean to you?

Radical comes from the Latin 'radix', meaning root, and radical feminist theory is an attempt to identify the root of women's oppression, while radical feminist practice attempts to dismantle the material and ideological institutions that support it. That means that no aspect of society or human relations is off limits to radical critique.

Radical feminism, in my understanding, locates this root in the male colonisation of female sexuality and reproductive capacity. Because women can bear children and men cannot, men will always try to control us. In almost all known human societies, members of the female sex caste are treated differently from birth, forced into an inferior social role, exploited for their domestic labour, subjected to male violence and then blamed for it, and sexually objectified. This is all naturalised by a system called 'gender'.

2) What aspects of feminist theory would you attribute to radical feminism?

Radical feminists produced almost all of the theory of the second wave: the dissection of gender roles as unnatural and part of the structure of women's oppression; the exploitation of women's unpaid domestic and affective labour as a central pillar of capitalism; male eroticisation of women's subordination; rape as a tool of patriarchal control, not a product of sex mania; the exploitation and control of women's reproductive capacities as the material basis of the sex-caste system; the fact that this system actually predates and underlies later exploitative social strata like economic class.

As others have noted, the most important of these theories is the identification of male violence as the core strategy of political control of women as a class. As I understand it, liberal feminists of the time were actually embarrassed by the radfem focus on rape and violence - they preferred to concentrate on issues like equal pay and political representation, not realising that women's social and economic inferiority was intimately related to the eroticisation of violence against us, the impunity afforded to men who committed it, and the material effects of this.

All feminists now recognise male violence as a central issue, but liberal feminists IMO have watered down the analysis to obscure the understanding of it as a deliberate strategy of political control. They proceed as if it is all a mistake that men need to be educated out of. For instance, they believe that men rape because they haven't been sufficiently educated about consent. They don't say 'male violence against women', they say 'gender-based violence', which hides the agent. In so doing, they prevent women from getting to the root of the problem.

3) What makes someone a radical feminist?

A commitment to getting to the root of women's oppression, which means being prepared to follow your thoughts and the thoughts of other women to their conclusions, instead of stopping half way when those conclusions become uncomfortable. Most of all, radical feminism involves an unqualified commitment to putting the interests of women and girls first.

4) What makes radical feminism different from other strands of feminism?

Catherine MacKinnon has described radical feminism as feminism unmodified, and I agree with that. This means that if something works against women's interests, it should never be defended on any grounds, despite whatever male theory (liberalism, neoliberalism, cultural relativism, etc.) is deployed to justify it.

I put women and girls first, not because I'm indifferent to the injustices faced by boys and men, but because someone has to. I would like to reshape the world in the interests of the freedom and full humanity of women and girls, and this means that most social, economic and cultural institutions need to be radically re-imagined or abolished. This is deeply uncomfortable for many women, and outright resisted by men.

MiniTheMinx Mon 02-Jun-14 14:24:28

YY to wages, I agree although I would say this is rooted in how segmented labour is functional to capitalist accumulation.

I think man's primary exploitation is that of nature. I agree with that. Everything else, including the way in which human nature is conditioned springs from our need to create and recreate the conditions of our existence under whatever mode of production dominates.

DonkeySkin Mon 02-Jun-14 15:15:15

queenmab, I think this article brilliantly articulates why liberal approaches to the gender wage gap will never work - because gender itself creates the wage gap.

women are not devalued in the job market because women’s work is seen to have little value. It is the other way round. Women’s work is devalued in the job market because women are seen to have little value.


calmet Mon 02-Jun-14 15:20:57

I have always liked this explanation from Andrea Dworkin of how unequal pay is not a reform as liberal feminists often view it, but would be revolutionary.

“Feminists know that if women are paid equal wages for equal work, women will gain sexual as well as economic independence. But feminists have refused to face the fact that in a woman-hating social system, women will never be paid equal wages. Men in all their institutions of power are sustained by the sex labor and sexual subordination of women. The sex labor of women must be maintained; and systematic low wages for sex-neutral work effectively force women to sell sex to survive.

The economic system that pays women lower wages than it pays men actually punishes women for working outside marriage or prostitution, since women work hard for low wages and still must sell sex. The economic system that punishes women for working outside the bedroom by paying low wages contributes significantly to women's perception that the sexual serving of men is a necessary part of any woman's life: or how else could she live?

Feminists appear to think that equal pay for equal work is a simple reform, whereas it no reform at all; it is revolution. Feminists have refused to face the fact that equal pay for equal work is impossible as long as men rule women, and right-wing women have refused to forget it.”

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