Today I plan to go where many have gone before.
Answering the question: ‘What is radical feminism?’ is as easy as reading an enormous amount of radical feminist theory or as challenging as googling ‘radical feminism’. Regardless of the magnitude of work other radical feminists have done defining and writing and talking and acting and building radical feminism, as well as the convenience of Wikipedia, there continues to be a rather consistent confusion around the fact that a) radical feminism is a real thing and b) it actually means something. Radical feminism is a thing. It’s true. We didn’t just make it up. Or did we?
Radical feminism is not extremism, as many believe, nor is it simply ‘employing radical methods of everyday resistance‘, though I certainly support that kind of action. Radical feminism is, of course, focused on addressing the roots of oppression and for women, that root often is patriarchy. While there are most certainly other forms of oppression that work to prevent women from gaining freedom and equality, such as race and class, patriarchy is very much there. Always. At the root.
So the difference between radical feminists and, say, liberal feminists is that we don’t believe that we can just work with what we’ve got. This means that, for example, to argue that some women profit financially off of making pornography does not mean that all women are empowered. Nor does it, actually, mean that even they, as individuals are empowered. It means they will be able to pay the rent that month. Which is wonderful. But not the same thing as freedom from patriarchal oppression.
Now, misunderstandings of radical feminism are expansive. Mostly they consist of angry, hateful folks calling radical feminists nazi man/sex haters. These misunderstandings are, yes, dangerous and frustrating but I want to look at today is somewhat of an opposite problem. Just as Sarah Palin is not a feminist, regardless of how many times she claims to be, “because if anti-feminists get to be feminists too, then the word has no real meaning and we’ll have to come up with a new one.” One does not get to simply change the definition of radical feminist to one that suits their behaviour or beliefs simply because they like the sound of it. I am going to use one particular example in this post, in order to discuss and, hopefully, stave off further cloudiness around radical feminism that might well perpetuate misunderstandings and misrepresentations of this particular nature.
Now I do think that this (re)definition, by Lori Adorable, is actually due to confusion rather than a malicious attempt to confuse the pants off anyone who doesn’t already have a solid understanding of feminism and its various strands, so I’m going to explain what exactly is wrong with her confused definition of radical feminism while simultaneously giving her the benefit of the doubt. Lori identifies as a radical feminist based on the following definition:
“I’m a radical feminist because I’m a woman who came to recognize the structural inequality amongst people and the specific injustices in the world through the feminist analysis of my personal experiences with abuse. Also, I believe that the only way to eradicate these problems on both a small and large scale is by employing radical methods of everyday resistance. I use ‘radical’ here in both the original sense of ‘addressing the root’ and the newer, no doubt related sense of being ‘extreme.’ In other words, I’m a radical feminist in the purest sense, not in the sense of belonging to the radical feminist movement, which has been thoroughly co-opted by the most privileged women, women who also happen to be anti-kink and anti-sex work and, all too often, transphobic and racist. I have this desire to take the term ‘radical’ back from them, because, well, it’s my term too.”
So. A couple of problems here. First of all, you simply can’t have a definition of radical feminism that doesn’t include the word patriarchy. Recognizing ‘the structural inequality amongst people and the specific injustices in the world’ is super, but it isn’t radical feminism. These ‘people’ you speak of are women and men. And the specific injustice you speak of is patriarchal oppression. Patriarchy provides men with what is commonly referred to as ‘male privilege’, which exists at the expense of women and has a direct impact on the experiences of women. There are many people in the world who believe that there is no such thing as gendered oppression and that women are not oppressed any differently than men are. But those people aren’t radical feminists. What Lori believes is that her own personal way of resisting oppression empowers her in a way that identifies her as feminist. Which is fine. But that is both not political, nor is it radical feminism. Rather it firmly plants her within a tradition of liberal feminism in that she sees her own personal choices and actions as empowering for her as an individual. And I don’t necessarily doubt that she does indeed feel personally empowered by her choices, but the lack of connection to a larger context, to a larger politics of feminism, to an analysis of the systems of power which have impacted her experience and her ‘choice’ to become a sex worker, as well as her superficial understanding of what will, in fact, create radical change, is what clearly aligns her feminism with the liberal feminist tradition.
‘Addressing the root’ is, indeed, key to radical feminist politics, so she got that part right. But it is certainly not ‘new’ to view radical feminism as extreme. Radical feminists have been painted as extremists from the get go. It would appear as though criticizing the very systems of power that make those in power so very happy is unpopular. People who do that sort of thing are often viewed as ‘extremists’.
The ‘purest sense‘ of the term ‘radical feminism’ is….radical feminism. It’s not plugging together the words radical and feminism and assigning a new meaning to an already defined ideology. Anyone else out there want to redefine Marxism while we’re at it? Maybe instead it could mean capitalism. Or anarchism. Radical feminism recognizes patriarchy as a primary source of women’s oppression and sees women’s experiences as women in a patriarchal culture as a primary factor in their lived experiences and in their experiences of subordination. In order to alter this experience, we must end patriarchal oppression. So while everyday acts of resistance are, indeed, valid, in terms of, potentially, challenging dominant norms and dominant ideology, they don’t necessarily constitute radical feminism. Particularly not when those acts buy into, support, perpetuate and profit (or facilitate and encourage others to [further] profit) off of those norms/systems/ideologies. While Lori may well desire and deserve to make her own personal choices about her life, this is not, in and of itself, what constitutes radical feminist politics. Me me me me me / my life my life my life my life is not radical feminism.
The reason we have definitions and ideology that are universally understood to imply a certain set of beliefs and/or politics is so that we are able to actually have coherent conversations. Calling yourself a radical feminist implies certain beliefs and politics. And let’s be clear – politics are absolutely key here, this isn’t just about me making choices that make me feel good. It is about addressing very serious inequity, abuse, exploitation, and oppression that impact women, in particular, within a patriarchal culture.
Redefining radical feminism based on absolute ignorance and disregard for the history, activism, arguments, ideology, and theory that found and define radical feminism, alongside nonsensical attacks on radical feminists which aim to shut down conversation (such as accusing them of being ‘whorephobic’ or ‘sexworkphobic’; meaningless terms which demonstrate a deep misunderstanding of radical feminist arguments and, in fact, of the word ‘phobic’) and invalidate feminist arguments, places one about as far away from radical feminism as you can get without actually going the ‘y’all are just a bunch of misandrists’ route.