“I’m Not a Feminist, But . . .”: Radical Feminism

We hear people say this all of the time, and yet they often go on to express “feminist” ideas and could identify as a feminist. There are many reasons why people distance themselves from the feminist movement. I can’t possibly explain or guess them all. But I can explain the different types of feminism according to Rosemarie Tong’s book Feminist Thought: A More Comprehensive Introduction (2009). There are many types of feminism, and we know that “all feminists do not think alike” (p. 1). However, labeling different schools of thought help us to “mark the range of different approaches, perspectives, and frameworks a variety of feminists have used to shape both their explanations for women’s oppression and their proposed solutions for its elimination” (p. 1).

This series will outline and define the many feminisms. Maybe you’ll be able to identify where you agree and disagree with feminist thought.

feminist thought cover

Today’s focus is Radical Feminism. (Last week I wrote about Liberal Feminism.)

Radical feminism emerged in radical social movements, such as civil rights and Vietnam protests. Radical feminists engage in consciousness-raising, and come “together in small groups and [share] their personal experiences as women with each other. They discovered that their individual experiences were not unique to them but widely shared by many women” (p. 48). They insist that the personal is political, and that “men’s control of both women’s sexual and reproductive lives and women’s self-identity, self-respect, and self-esteem is the most fundamental of all the oppressions human beings visit on each other” (p. 49).

Radical feminism has five main points about women’s oppression.

  1. Women were historically the first oppressed group.
  2. Women’s oppression is the most widespread.
  3. Women’s oppression is the hardest form of oppression to eradicate.
  4. Women’s oppression causes the most suffering to victims.
  5. Women’s oppression provides a conceptual model for understanding all other forms of oppression (p. 49).

Radical feminists reject pornography because it makes impossible standards for women. “Emptying the pockets of pornographers is the best way for feminists to fight the misogynistic ideology pornographers willingly spread” (p. 69). Pornography is harmful because it is about men’s power over women. “First, it encourages men to behave in sexually harmful ways toward women . . . Second, it defames women as persons who have so little regard for themselves they actively seek or passively accept sexual abuse. And third, it leads men not only to think less of women as human beings but also to treat them as second-class citizens” (p. 68).

Tong identifies two types of radical feminists: radical-libertarian and radical-cultural.

Radical-libertarian feminists believe in androgyny. “Patriarchal ideology exaggerates biological differences between men and women, making certain that men always have the dominant, or masculine, roles and women always have the subordinate, or feminine, ones” (p. 52). “Men do this through institutions such as the academy, the church, and the family, each of which justifies and reinforces women’s subordination to men, resulting in most women’s internalization of a sense of inferiority to men” (p. 52).

Radical-libertarian views on sexuality follow:

  1. Heterosexual practices are repressive.
  2. We should reject stigmatizing sexual minorities.
  3. Women need to reclaim control over female sexuality.
  4. The ideal sexual relationship is between consenting, equal partners.

Radical-cultural feminists embrace femaleness and recount female goddess societies and women’s connection to nature. They see the terms “masculine” and “feminine” as “products of patriarchy” (p. 59). Women “should reject the seemingly ‘good’ aspects of femininity as well as the obviously ‘bad’ ones. They are all ‘man-made constructs’ shaped for the purposes of trapping women deep in the prison of patriarchy” (p. 61). They believe that when we reject these, we can return to our original femaleness.

Radical-cultural views on sexuality follow:

  1. Heterosexual relations objectify women and support violence against women.
  2. We should repudiate sexual practices that normalize male violence.
  3. We should reclaim control over female sexuality, with more intimacy and less performance.
  4. The ideal sexual relationship is between consenting equal partners who are emotionally involved.

Some radical feminists believe “the only kind of sex that is unambiguously good for women is monogamous lesbianism” (p. 67). This is obviously controversial.

Reproduction is a site of concern for radical feminists as well. Some see a future where “[s]exual intercourse will no longer be necessary for human reproduction. Eggs and sperm will be combined in vitro, and embryos will be gestated outside of women’s bodies” (p. 75). This reminded me of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. However, critics of this say that technological reproduction inverts power, placing it “in the hands of men who now control both the sperm and the reproductive technology that could make it indispensable. . . reproductive technology further consolidates men’s power over women” (p. 77). This section of the book makes connections to Adrienne Rich’s Of Woman Born.

I don’t identify as much with radical feminists, but I am drawn to some of their ideas, specifically their rejection of pornography and their ideas about consenting and equal sexual relationships. I also like the idea of consciousness-raising, and I see this at work in social media these days.

Next week I’ll post about Marxist and Socialist Feminism.