What Is Radical Feminism?
Radicals believe that the patriarchy is a source of inequality that oppresses women, and this is observable in numerous segments of our cultural and societal expectations. This patriarchal oppression affects women on political and personal levels. The patriarchy oppresses women through sexuality, including aspects such as pornography, reproduction, gender, and compulsory heterosexuality. Radical feminist literature provides perspectives on attitudes toward the patriarchy and ways to dismantle it, and illustrates how the personal is political.
Radical vs. Liberal Feminism
Radical feminists attempt to go beyond merely reformative actions, and often express the need for revolution. Radical feminist views are often controversial and clash with those of liberal feminism. Liberal feminists do not have an overall goal of changing institutions entirely, but wish to have an equal footing in them. Personally, I tend to fall more into the radical side than the liberal because even if you are on a platform that is equal to men, the system of sexism and male domination still exists. Liberal feminism at times seems like a perpetual struggle. Once certain rights are achieved, there becomes more to fight for because those power systems are still in place.
Notions of Oppression
A key theme in radical feminism is the oppression of women. Alison Jaggar and Paula Rothenberg wrote on women’s oppression and believed that the oppression of women was the most basic form of oppression. These two women concluded that women are the first oppressed group historically, women’s oppression is the most widespread as it can be identified in every society, the oppression of women is the hardest form of oppression to eliminate and causes the most damage to its victims, and that the understanding of the oppression of women allows for the understanding of all other forms of oppression (Tong, p.51).
The “SCUM Manifesto” by Valerie Solanas suggests that eliminating men entirely would end the domination of women. Her language and proposed tactics for the elimination of the patriarchy were terroristic. She stated that “A small handful of SCUM can take over the country within a year by systematically fucking up the system, selectively destroying property, and murder (Solanas, p.188).” This is obviously one of the most radical sentiments, as well as the most implausible.
It seems as though a message so terroristic would repulse most women, and potentially cause them to reject feminism if they believed it to be so radical. Feminists today are often labeled as radical even if their views are not fully in line with radical feminists. This form of labeling comes from both men and women and can deter some women from labeling themselves as feminists.
The Redstockings were a group of radical feminists who published the “Redstockings Manifesto” in 1969. They believed that women are oppressed and that oppression is connected with every aspect of a woman’s life. Because women have had such a close relationship with male oppressors, they have not been able to see their own personal suffering as something that is also political. In the experiences of those who are oppressed, there is sometimes a perceived relationship that they are similar to the oppressors or that the oppressors are not actively oppressing them. When some women are satisfied with their relations with men, including their husbands, they may not feel challenged by political aspects affecting women such as reproductive rights. These women may perceive their experience only and neglect the experiences of other women or issues that may affect them on a larger scale.
The Redstockings outlined oppression and recognized male supremacy as one of the oldest and most basic forms of domination. They saw other forms of oppression such as oppression based on race and class as being extensions of male supremacy. Through these forms of oppression, men still hold power over others. The manifesto points out that women are not to blame for their own oppression. Submitting to men is not the fault of women, and they should not change themselves as men are the real problem.
The group also challenged the idea that women can oppress men. Men sometimes feel persecuted when their privilege is attacked. However, men are in a position of power over women therefore their feelings of persecution are less legitimate. The overall goal of the group was for women to create a class consciousness through consciousness-raising so that they could achieve liberation.
Breaking Down the Gender Binary
Some in the radical feminist hemisphere encouraged the creation of a society that is androgynous. These feminists argued that women should embrace both masculine and feminine traits, and believed that society uses gender roles to oppress women. An example of a gender role used to constrain women is the role that women must be passive, and men must be active. This construction of gender roles empowers men and places women at a lower level. How can a woman expect to have her voice heard if society believes she must be passive and quiet?
Millett believed that “the male-female sex relationship is the paradigm for all power relationships (Tong, p.54).” This system must be dismantled and the patriarchy’s construction of gender must be eliminated in order for women to be liberated. By creating a society that is androgynous, there would be no distinction between men and women, so women could be valued in the same way that men are. Marilyn French, however, focused more on biological differences between men and women than differences that are a result of socialization. She believed that feminine traits are better than masculine traits, and that early human societies were matricentric (Tong, p.58)
Radical Feminists of Color
Radical feminist women of color should also be recognized for their ideas regarding the patriarchal control of women. In “An Argument for Black Women’s Liberation as a Revolutionary Force”, Mary Ann Weathers attacked black women in the movement for pushing for the liberation of black men rather than liberation for themselves. She found it alarming that black men are oppressed yet still believe in male superiority. Black women are forced to live and exude a maternal image, even for oppressors. Weathers also supported the idea that all women should build connections with each other regardless of race or class in order to end oppression. If women are still constrained by having to take on a maternalistic role, it becomes easier for men to capitalize on that, and maintain power and a voice.
Pauli Murray in “The Liberation of Black Women” asked, “Would the black struggle have come this far without the indomitable determination of its women? (Murray, p.201).” Throughout history, black women are often neglected despite the impacts they have made, and the voices of black men are more prominent. Murray also agreed that black and white women both experience oppression based on sex. She stated that there is a difficulty in aligning the races in the United States on the basis of “genuine equality and human dignity (Murray, p. 207).” To achieve this, Murray believed that black and white women must work together to achieve the humanity that they share.
Literature by women of color highlights that though women of different races may have different experiences, they are still oppressed as women. Murray and Weathers both suggest that women must work together to disassemble the patriarchy. They also recognize sexism as being one of the strongest forces of oppression.
These pieces of literature that fall into radical feminist thought have multiple similarities regarding the patriarchy and by what means oppression from the patriarchy can be dismantled. Consciousness-raising is a key proposition. Through consciousness-raising, women share their experiences and are able to recognize that personal issues are also political issues. Through sharing experiences, women become closer and realize that they are not alone in their experiences. The oppression of women is also a complex issue that is seen by some as the most difficult form of oppression to eradicate. Complexity is supplemented when women cannot find a common ground, and take on different identity issues.
- Murray, P. (1970). The Liberation of Black Women. In Feminist Theory (4th ed., pp. 200-207). New York, NY: McGraw Hill.
- Redstockings. (1969). Redstockings Manifesto. In Feminist Theory (4th ed., pp. 192-193). New York, NY: McGraw Hill.
- Solanas, V. (2013). SCUM Manifesto. In Feminist Theory (4th ed., pp. 187-190). New York, NY: McGraw Hill.
- Tong, R. (2014). Radical Feminism: Libertarian and Cultural Perspectives. In Feminist Thought (4th ed., pp. 50-91). Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
- Weathers, M. (1969). An Argument for Black Women’s Liberation as a Revolutionary Force. In Feminist Theory (4th ed., pp. 193-200). New York, NY: McGraw Hill.