“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.

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

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  1. I think you were right in saying that I am a radical feminist. Sometimes I have even said to the guys that a day would come when we would need men only for their sperms. It’s not that I hate men but I want to be treated as equal to them. I live in India where we have a patriarchal society and since I was a child I have been fighting to be treated equal to my brothers and uncles. I feel I should not be fighting to be treated as equal rather I should be treated equal just like that because it’s my right.

    1. Agreed. It is your right as a human being to be treated like one. I am glad my prediction that you were a “radical feminist” held true! I’m proud of you for working toward your own equality. Keep up the good work!

  2. I never identified with the Radical movement, but I definitely agree with their alliance with the power of choice. Especially in the female reproductive and equal sexual relationship arenas, most of all because there isn’t a single law restricting or regulating how a man handles his body in any avenue of the reproduction process. There are some women out there who don’t find sex, giving birth, or even male attention so flattering that they will accept being belittled to get it. On the other hand, if a woman seeks those things out it doesn’t make her weak, needy, or co-dependent. It’s about feeling like a woman can make a choice, any choice, without her gender or genitals being the reason why she can’t or shouldn’t.

    1. Yep, it does come down to choice! Thanks for putting that so succinctly. I often use this as my definition of feminism as a whole. I agree that, like you, I don’t necessarily identify with all of their ideas, but I’m certainly appreciative of many of them. 🙂

  3. It’s funny that I should come across this post because I’ve been thinking extensively about my own definition of feminism. I know that I’m not a traditional feminist, but I’m really trying to pin point exactly what my feminist ideals are. Thanks for sharing such an informative post and I’m looking forward to learning more!

  4. Emily, the five main points of radical feminism, I find are truisms and do not see them as radical at all. It gets back to the premise of “Half of the Sky” by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. The maltreatment of women is engrained in so many places around the world, even here in the states, it takes a mountain of education, change agents and publicity to move the ball forward. Jimmy Carter’s book “A Call to Action” picks up on and references “Half the Sky” and notes we need to do better in the states with domestic violence, rapes on college campuses, rapes in the military, equal pay for equal work/ skills, etc. Good series of posts. BTG

  5. I find I agree with a lot of the ideas in radical feminism but certainly not all of them. This is a really informative series. I didn’t realize there were so many different kinds of feminism or that they were so well defined schools of thought.

    1. Yeah, it is interesting to see how different groups think about this stuff. Interestingly, although these groups are “well-defined,” as you point out, I’m starting to wonder just how cohesive they really are in practice. I think that might be one of the biggest problems with feminism, is our lack of unity, but maybe that’s a good thing.

  6. What people forget is that there were men and women who stood up for gender equality way before the 19th or 20th centuries when the term “feminism” was coined. Ex. Christine de Pizan. With any movement, there are spokespeople and lobbyists. The current American spokespeople for the movement do not represent me. As a Catholic, it is important for me to deny any affiliation to the movement as it has publicly promoted policies that go against my faith. I went to an all-girls school for 4 years. Every book we read for English (without exception) was subjected to feminism criticism. I had to write countless essays in defense of things I don’t even support just so that I would not be labeled a “hater” etc. I appreciate your posts about feminism. I especially like that you do not call out or put out people who don’t want to be labeled as feminists. This issue causes me a lot of anxiety and unfortunately anger. I want to move on but my experience in a feminist environment was far from pleasant.

    1. I’m sorry to hear that, Fariba. But good for you for being who you are and being true to yourself. I’m working on that right now within a feminist movement in my religion. I’m having a hard time seeing how it is productive and where I fit. I just see a lot of fighting and criticizing rather than problem solving among some of the groups. I see myself as more of an academic feminist, but not necessarily an activist. Anyway, I love Christine de Pizan! She is included (along with many many other women from centuries past who were religious and also feminist) in Freedman’s history of feminism. I wrote about it here if you’re interested: https://thebookshelfofemilyj.com/2014/05/15/a-history-of-feminist-thought-the-essential-feminist-reader/. Some of the women you mention who stood up for gender equality early on are lumped into the liberal feminist movement… Thanks for the comment!

  7. This is no different from my friends who refuse to use the label “Christian” because of the stigma behind that word. They’ll call themselves “Christ-followers” or something similar, while still holding to traditional Christian ideals. I’m confused why it’s not common sense to the average person that not everyone who identifies with a particular label believes the exact same things.

    1. How interesting. I hadn’t thought of it that way, but yes, it is funny how we buy into those stereotypes by rejecting the labels, instead of living our truths and changing those negative connotations.

  8. Also, isn’t it remarkably sad that we live in a world in which “The ideal sexual relationship is between consenting, equal partners” is a radical proposition?

    I’m in a strange position as a queer feminist in a monogamous, heterosexual marriage; while I identify quite a bit with some radical feminist tenets, I obviously do not think that all heterosexual relationships are inherently unequal, and I do not approve of some radical feminists’ tendency to exclude transwomen from their thinking.

  9. An interesting series, to be sure! I’m remembering a lot of what I learned in my gender studies class on the feminist health movement. I don’t agree with most of the arguments laid out here, with the important exception of #4 in each list, “The ideal sexual relationship is between consenting, equal partners” which I think would go without saying. I certainly hope that babies are never born in petri dishes… I really, really didn’t like “Brave New World,” and that wasn’t even the biggest reason why!

    1. It is a pretty weird book, so I can’t blame you for that! I don’t know if I can say I liked it either. It is one of those books I think I felt like I had to read, and I learned from it, but I didn’t necessarily enjoy it. And yes to the obvious truth of equal relationships! Maybe it says something sad about society (at the time) that radical feminists felt they had to point that out.

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