Radical feminism was a vital entry-point into the conversation about gender in our society. In the 1970s, radical feminism began to expose issues of patriarchy, sexism, and the inequality American women face. Over the last 40 years, feminism has evolved, and become a more inclusive and diverse field of study and action. Radical feminists still remain today, and often are quite vocal on issues of patriarchy and sexism. While radical feminists play an important role in exposing the existence of gender issues in our society, they have garnered criticism on their controversial stance on various subjects. In the paragraphs to follow, I will give a brief history of feminism, and critique the radical feminist on her stance on sexuality, trans-phobia, and male exclusion.
In each wave of feminism, movements have molded to best reflect the grievances and struggles of the present time. The first wave took hold in the 19th and early 20th century, focusing on the fight for equal voting rights. In 1919, women gained the right to vote, and the suffrage movement largely diffused. During the 1960s, second wave feminism took hold, advocating equality between men and women, and the end of damaging patriarchal systems that dominated nearly all corners of society. This wave gained momentum in the idea of “Women’s Liberation,” which took on a conservative form of feminism and focused on defining gender roles and empowering the female voice in a male-led society.[i] Radical feminism was challenged in the 1990s by third wave feminists, which champion a more diverse and inclusive approach to what it means to be a woman. Today, mainstream feminism seeks to break away from the limitations of the second wave, as well as stereotypes that are sometimes encouraged and perpetuated by smaller “RadFem” organizations and movements that are still in existence.
Radical feminists of the 1970s drew from theory to ground their actions, the main being the theory of patriarchy as the cause for most, if not all, oppression. Contemporary feminists are critical of patriarchy; however, it is recognized as an institution that is damaging not only to the women who are subordinated by it, but also the men who are forced into roles of hyper-masculinity from birth. While the radical feminists of the 1970s took huge leaps forward in thinking, this philosophy often contrasts directly with the modern form through its conservative and exclusive approach, which has the potential to alienate many prospective feminists from participating in the fight for equality by limiting the field to white, middle-class women.
Radical feminists criticize not only the practice of presenting the female body as a commodity, but also many everyday sexual practices that they deem inherently as male power and female subordination. Known for being prominent advocates against prostitution and pornography, radical feminists fight against many institutions that seem to commodify women’s bodies. While this debate reaches outside the world of radical feminism, the apparent denouncement of the importance of sexuality strikes a sour chord with many, as at the core of RadFem theory, any act of heterosexual sex and modern relationship dynamics are forms of female subordination[ii]. This process undermines the widespread belief that there should be a freedom to exercise one’s sexuality in the way they choose. In the process of condemning this sexist sex, there leaves little room for an explanation as to what would be a better alternative.
Radical feminists have been heavily criticized for their stance on transgender men and women. While not all RadFems today exclude the fight for transgender rights, a select group, often referred to as the TERFs, or Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminists, have gone so far as to fight for the exclusion of trans health care and deny recognition of trans people as deserving of equal rights.[iii] In the New Yorker article “What is a Women,” Michelle Goldberg identifies the radical feminist view of gender as “less an identity than a caste position,” in which male-to-female trans people are seen as inherently male, and not entitled to being “female” because they do not embody the essence of the female gender struggle.[iv] In addition, a male “seizing” the title of female is seen as an exercise of patriarchy in itself. In the case of trans female-to-male, the trans people are seen as traitors to the female sex by abandoning the struggle against patriarchy and, instead, becoming a part of it.[v] The fight to define gender as something biologically determined is surprisingly conservative, and seems to be somewhat counter-productive in ending gender stereotyping. If no one can every break out of the roles they were born into, then why fight for equality at all?
Perhaps the most damaging position of the RadFems is the view that all problems are literally man-made, and that men should not enter the world of feminism as they are bound to always be the problem. The emphasis on the “sisterhood” being the only legitimate voice in the fight for equality actually eliminates any hope for equality at all, as it does not allow for ally-ship and collaboration with males for positive change. An example of this is seen in the brochure for the Radfem Conference of 2013, in which a discussion workshop on climate change has the following description:
Man’s damage to the environment is irreparably destroying our chance and our children and our children’s children of a patriarchal-free future. It is male violence and greed, which is causing this long-term irreversible damage. Increasing numbers of women are being badly affected by climate change. They are trapped, unable to flee from floods/droughts and are climate migrants trapped in poverty and dependent on male protection and approval. [vi]
While women may definitely be suffering from the effects of climate change, the responsibility cannot be put entirely on men, nor should the male victims of the issue be ignored in the process of idealizing the women. Such a generalization also discredits women’s ability to be agents of change, as it portrays women and children as the ultimate victims, which in itself perpetuates the idea that a victim is all a woman can be.
Today, RadFems make up a minority of feminists, and yet their exclusive and often polarizing views have tainted the term of feminism for many. Gender is far more complex than just a conflict of men against women, and if we limit it to such a definition, we are not fighting for equality at all, but instead protracting the conflict by creating deeper divisions in society. If radical feminism only allows for the voice of a chosen few, then it is not a fight to end discrimination, but a fight to instill the idea of inherent difference and superiority. As modern feminists and activists, it is our job to spread the word that feminism is not an exclusive term. Let us make feminism synonymous with social justice. Let us recognize that race, sexuality, class, culture, religion, ability, age, and numerous other factors play into the various definitions, norms, and manifestations of gender and inequality in our societies. Let us embrace and celebrate each other’s differences, and not damn one-another for being born into an unchangeable and inherently biased system. Let us recognize the legitimacy to radical feminists as a group with the right to have a voice and an opinion, but not let it dominate our feminism in the process.
[ii] Ell. “ASK A RADFEM.” Tumblr. http://askaradfem.tumblr.com/.
[iii] “The TERFs.” The TERFs. Accessed March 18, 2015. http://theterfs.com/.
[iv] Goldberg, Michelle. “The Dispute Between Radical Feminism and Transgenderism.” The New Yorker, July 28, 2014. http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/08/04/woman-2.
[vi] tba. “Sisters Tackling Climate Change and Male Destruction of the Environment.” presented at the RADFEM 2013: Resurgence of Women’s Liberation, June 9, 2013. https://bugbrennan.files.wordpress.com/2013/03/rf2013-programme.pdf.