I was planning to entitle this “A Defense of Radical Feminism” but instead I will hope to prove that radical feminism does not deserve to be on trial. However, radicalism in any form inspires fear, and there are many who claim that contemporary feminism is too combative, or that it does not have the same claim to indignation that previous feminist movements had. These views are prominent in many cultural landscapes; they’re in the pictures and videos shared by racist friends from high school and in the arguments held dear by the nation’s homophobic extended relatives. Feminism must refute these arguments somehow—a movement meant to engage at least half of the world’s population has a certain need to be respected. In an attempt to gain this respect, radical feminism becomes a sacrificial victim. Even outspoken feminists backtrack from accepting this label, and instead offer the panacea that feminism is only about equality between the sexes and etcetera and etcetera ad infinitum until the issue calms down again. The problem with this pattern is two-fold: it establishes a precedent of feminists withdrawing their bolder claims whenever threatened and it leaves behind a necessary tool of feminism—radical feminism.
It is important at this point to define what radical feminism is and is not—and what exactly is meant in saying that it is necessary to the movement. Radical feminism is a facet of feminism that seeks to uplift the status of women through destabilization of the existing systems and institutions. Valerie Solanas’s The Scum Manifesto is perhaps the most famous literature of radical feminism, and although the premise and title of the book are based on violence, the underlying thoughts of the book are fundamentally couched in a deconstructionist approach to change. As distinct from traditional feminism, radical feminism does not seek change through legislation or other traditional means, but instead exists as a faction outside of the political system.The existence of such a school of thought is essential because it separates feminist thinking from the confines of largely male legislative groups. Simone de Beauvoir, a prominent philosopher and feminist during the 1950s, claimed that feminism has a problem in that all of their gains have only consisted of what men have been willing to give them, and this will continue to be the case until representation in government is completely equal. Radical feminism, then, is feminism that exists outside of the domain of male control.
The tendency to reject radical feminism is rooted in a misunderstanding. The word “radical” inspires distrust when associated with any belief system, and it is not incorrect to say that some statements associated with feminism are extreme. However, in practice, radical feminism is more philosophical than even political feminism. Rallies and protests for more reproductive rights or other feminist issues are by definition not radical, because these activities appeal to legislation. It is also very important to clarify that radical feminism as a philosophy is distinct from the existing “radfem” movement, which ironically tends to fail to properly support many groups of women, such as trans women or women who work in the sex industry. Uncorrupted radical feminism, then, is a movement that seeks the advancement of all women through unconventional and destabilizing processes.
The tenets of radical feminism are needed to deal with the two classes of problems that plague contemporary feminism. The first class of problem facing feminism consists of the more visible and more inane issue of anti-feminist reactionaries. These are the knee-jerk social media comments and the self-congratulatory online op-eds. The second class of problems is the serious problem of the unclear aims and membership of third-wave feminism. Contemporary feminism is fractured and multi-faceted, and its varied goals can create friction among feminists of different walks of life. Moderate feminism, which confines itself to operating within a political sphere, must attempt to reconcile the political aims of all of its ideologically distinct members. Radical feminism, on the other hand, gives itself the freedom to exist outside of these strictly defined groups. Having defined radical feminism, its use as a way to resolve specific problems and points of disagreement facing the feminist movement as a whole can now be demonstrated.
One of the more persistent reasons that people turn away from feminism is that they feel that feminism does not fight for equality, but instead prioritizes the causes of women over those that affect only men. This, they say, invalidates the central premise of feminism: gender equality. The idea that feminism works only for the interests of women is difficult to deny because it is absolutely true. Feminism was created to advocate for the ascendency of women, and it continues to work for that goal today. The fact that the relaxation of traditional gender roles also benefits men is true, but that does not mean that men’s interests have the right to be represented within feminism. Feminism’s essential duty is to elevate the status of and fight for the representation of their interests. It is useless to argue that feminism is somehow corrupt because it promotes women’s issues over problems that affect men. That, in fact, is the very essence of feminism. However, moderate feminism, which relies on broad appeal and legislative support, must justify this male support by claiming that feminism also helps men. Radical feminism, in the case of this objection, is the only type of feminism that is willing and able to stay true to the original definition of feminism. Without an appeal to the tenets of radicalism, feminism would be forced to concede some of feminism’s power to men’s issues.
The radical feminist point of view is also an important lens through which to view the objection that men and women should not be equal because there are inherent biological differences between men and women. Some even say that women are naturally inferior in some qualities, and for this reason, feminism has reached its natural conclusion.Proponents of this stand-by of anti-feminism say that legal equality is the only equality needed, and other social inequalities are simply effects of natural differences. The fact that equality under the law has been largely achieved is also a reason that critics disavow the modern need for feminism. This objection obviously ignores historical influences and the pressures and demands on each gender, and feminism; even moderate feminists promote the idea that gender roles are constructions of society instead predetermined destinies. De Beauvoir challenges this point by saying that women are only inferior based on attributes that have men have deemed valuable, and that if different qualities were more appreciated, women would not be so disadvantaged. Beyond this, the obvious recourse to radical feminism is that, because the ideology does not seek to operate solely within the legal system, the radical feminist perspective denies the validity of a legal system as a metric of gender equality. Radical feminism is also a safeguard against complacency that stems from this political equality.
There are, of course, much more pressing problems in contemporary feminism than the criticisms of internet reactionaries. The arguments above are cosmetic problems with cosmetic solutions, and feminism contains under its skin several crises of its fundamental structure. Feminism as a movement must adjust to the realities and challenges of modern activism. Because contemporary feminism focuses more on treatment and perception of women than previous iterations of feminism did, there is more room for interpretation in feminists’ objectives. These interpretations involve grappling with topics like inclusivity issues, differences in goals and experiences, and the definition of priorities. As their purposes and needs change, women must re-confront the movement and come to terms with the realities it constructs. As a tool in this reconstruction, radical feminism is more useful than traditional feminism, because its basic tenets remain unchanged even when confronted with different problems, whereas political feminism must react to each legislative development separately and continuously reinvent itself.
Inclusivity has become a problem within feminism more recently, as various sub-groups of feminists have argued about the definition of women and womanhood, as well as parsing the term “female.” The result of this has been extensive infighting. One of the more significant divisions inside feminism has been between the “radfem” faction and transgender women. Members of the radfem movement claim that trans women have not had the experiences that other women have been subjected to during their lives, and that in the duration of their lives before their transition, trans women benefited from the patriarchal system. Some radical feminists also take exception to women who embrace traditional symbols of femininity, claiming that they enforce these views of women as a whole. Here, the abstract idea of radical feminism must confront the viewpoints adopted by those who currently carry the mantle of radical feminism. Radical feminism as a concept must be committed to the ascendance of all women in order to be valid. Although there are differing definitions of who exactly encompassed in this womanhood, it can be argued that greater inclusion in general would lead to a larger and inherently more powerful female population. But the more important aspect of radicalism’s influence comes from its commitment to reinventing or circumventing the system that allowed the oppression of women to go on for long. Using this philosophy as a standard, it is nonsensical to exclude trans women from feminism because they are inherently separate from the system that radicalism opposes.
Another point of contention in contemporary feminism stems from the fact that women of different racial and ethnic backgrounds have had fundamentally different problems. No woman lives the exact same experience of womanhood as another; despite this, feminism has long skewed in the favor of one group over another. Historically, American feminism has been based around the white, female experience, and has overlooked the distinct problems of women of color. As this fact has become discussed more, virtually all feminists can agree that women of all backgrounds should be represented within feminism. However, in regard to this issue, radical feminism has a greater right to the future of feminism. This is due to the fact that much of traditional political feminism is so rooted in the experiences of middle-class white women. These experiences were represented in the aims of moderate feminism, leaving a void of support for women who did not fit into these molds. Radical feminism, on the other hand, offers a type of feminism that is not as based in traditional power structures. Because radical feminism is based in the destruction of these kinds of structures, the philosophy naturally lends itself to greater inclusivity.
Feminism, even since second-wave feminism, has had many different iterations that have prioritized various goals. However, much of the history of feminism seems to act as a single narrative from property rights and suffrage to Title IX protections. However, as feminism’s borders become wider and its membership fractures, feminism must adopt a more comprehensive philosophy. The brass tacks of radical feminism are able to account for all of the changes in feminism because it itself is based on change. Radical feminism as established during the sixties has suffered damage to its reputation due to the violence associated with radicalism and because of the ironically inflexible views of the radfem movement. The stigma of these association notwithstanding, the future of feminism depends on settling within a philosophical framework that appropriately encompasses all of its members. It may not go under the name of Radical Feminism, but if feminism is going to continue as a movement and not simply be absorbed into “gender equality”, it must break the narrative that has carried it thus far.
Feminism will undoubtedly continue to exist in various forms until full equality for women is achieved. However, all movements at some point or another must go through a crucible of re-invention. Contemporary feminism seems to be approaching that point, as people on the internet question the validity of its existence and even supporters fight amongst themselves over what feminism should fight for. Under these stresses, political feminism, which has so far served feminist aims well, fails to completely answer the challenges. Because of this, it is unfortunate that radical feminism is viewed so negatively. As the feminist movement adjusts to new problems, radical feminist philosophy will become more applicable to the goals of feminism. Continuing to view racial feminism as a school of thought that is only valid for extremists and writers of manifestos will not serve feminism well. In term of fitting the needs and arguments of the modern feminist movement, radical feminist philosophy has already become an appropriate reference and recourse. Its main problem is not the extremism or problems in its underlying principles, but the stubborn refusal to accept these philosophies as part of the mainstream feminist canon.