Radical Feminism

By now, you have probably heard about feminism, or at least you may have come across it in your political studies. But, have you heard about radical feminism? What is it, and why is it different to other types of feminism? This explanation will explore radical feminism, how it differs from other forms of feminism, and it will discuss some pioneers of radical feminist thought.  

Radical Feminism Radical Feminism

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Contents
Table of contents

    Radical Feminism, TW, StudySmarter

    Radical Feminism meaning

    Let’s start with the definition of feminism so you can fully understand radical feminism as a political concept.

    Feminism is a political ideology with a long history, rising to prominence during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Feminists recognise that there is a structural power imbalance in society based on differences in gender and sex. This imbalance, referred to as the patriarchal system, typically favours the interests of cis-gendered men, often to the detriment of women and gender-variant individuals.

    Feminism seeks to create equality in social, economic, and political circumstances between the genders.

    Radical Feminism is a form of feminism that sprung from the US Civil Rights and Peace Movements in the 1960s. Like mainstream feminists, radical feminists acknowledge the existence of a patriarchal system that causes structural inequalities across societies.

    Radical Feminism Feminist symbol StudySmarter

    Fig. 1 One of the symbols of Feminism.

    This form of feminism is said to be ‘radical’, as radical feminists aim to challenge and dismantle these unbalanced structures to transform society. Therefore, Radical Feminists believe in equality between all genders.

    Because of this, Radical feminisim is a form of so-called Equality Feminism, as opposed to Difference Feminism or Essentialist Feminism, which believe in an essentialist and natural difference between gender.

    Equality Feminism believes that all genders are equal and that any difference between genders is socially, culturally, and historically constructed and upheld by patriarchy.

    Essentialist Feminism believes that there is an inherent difference between genders and that women should not conform to 'manhood' and should highlight their distinctiveness.

    Radical feminists seek to reorder societal structures to ensure male supremacy is eradicated to create equal and fairer societies. It is important to note that while radical feminism staunchly opposes patriarchy, it does not oppose cis-gender male individuals.

    This is a commonly misunderstood element of radical feminism and feminism in general. In the end, radical feminists don’t hate cis-male individuals, they oppose the patriarchy as a system.

    What's so radical about Radical Feminism?

    This form of feminism is said to be ‘radical’, as radical feminists aim to challenge and dismantle unbalanced structures in order to transform society. Whereas mainstream feminists seek to establish greater gender equality by reforming current societal structures.

    By dismantling and reordering societal structures, radical feminists aim to establish gender equity across societies. Examples of these structures radical feminists seek to reorder could include social structures, economic structures, and political structures.

    Radical Feminism theory

    A key concept of radical feminism is patriarchy. Radical feminists believe the patriarchy is the root cause of unequal societies and aim to challenge and dismantle its existence in society.

    Radical feminism believes that ‘the personal is political’. This is because patriarchy affects all aspects of a person's life. For instance, patriarchy promotes a power imbalance between men and women in a heterosexual domestic setting. This power imbalance is achieved in a number of ways through gender roles and expectations: these could relate to childcare, housework, or financial duties.

    Thus, radical feminists believe to create a more balanced society, all aspects of patriarchy must be targeted and overthrown. Ideas about how we should do this differ among radical feminists which leads to radical feminism being less of a cohesive ideology than other forms of feminism.

    Owing to its name, radical feminism is often perceived as an aggressive form of feminism. However, it is not an inherently violent ideology.

    As an ideological theory, radical feminism has inspired the actions of radical feminist thinkers and activists. These actions are intended to spark positive social change to dismantle patriarchal structures. Such actions, inspired by radical feminist theory, include:

    • Establishing refuges and rape crisis centres.

    • Staging ‘sit-ins’ at the courts of sexist judges.

    • Campaigning against the institution of marriage and for greater choice in how families are structured.

    One of the primary interests of radical feminists is expected gender roles. Radical feminists place gender roles under the microscope, studying them closely to understand what structural changes are needed to create fair and equal societies. Radical feminists reject the belief that there are set biological roles for people based on their sex.

    Famous radical feminists

    Let’s now look at some important figures of radical feminism.

    Historical radical feminist figures

    A sixteenth-century radical feminist who wrote under the pseudonym 'Jane Anger' was the first feminist to publish their work in the English language. While the author's gender and identity remain anonymous, their views are certainly of a radical nature. In the work titled Her Protection of Women (1589), the author lashes out at the very men who regularly accuse women of possessing questionable morals:

    Was there ever any so abused, so slandered, so railed upon, so wickedly handled undeservedly, as are we women? 1

    Anna Haywood Cooper, an American author and educator active during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, is known as 'The Mother of Black Feminism'. She promoted and used radical feminist theories to expand the movement's ideologies in the nineteenth century. She particularly focused on drawing at the oppression of women of colour. Her work educated those around her on how radical feminism is the only way that feminist views will be noticed: through radical means.

    Modern radical feminist figures

    Alice Echols is a radical feminist and author. In 1989, Echols published a piece called Daring to be Bad. This piece promoted radical feminism as a risky but effective way for people to notice the oppression of women and for women to pursue their political goals.

    Radical Feminism, Alice Echols in 2011, StudySmarterFig. 2 Alice Echols in 2011, Joe Mabel, CC-BY-SA-3.0, Wikimedia Commons.

    Andrea Dworkin is another example of a radical feminist author. In 1987, Dworkin published a book titled Sexual Intercourse, detailing the negative impacts of heterosexual sex and pornographic media. Dworkin argues that the overbearing nature of pornographic media leads to the oppression of the female gender in all other areas of society. In her book, she advocates for the removal of heterosexual sex and pornographic media from society.

    Another key example of radical feminism is Kate Millett. Her work in the 1970s inspired radical feminism to continue as a feminist ideal. Millett highlights within her poetic and biographical work that radical feminism is the way for feminists to be noticed, radical change and actions create the biggest reactions. In her text Sexual Politics (1969), she highlights that women are still oppressed in absolutely all areas of their life - and radical actions are needed in order to remove this oppression.

    Whatever the ‘real’ differences between the sexes may be, we are not likely to know them until the sexes are treated differently, that is alike.2

    Radical Feminism examples

    Andrea Dworkin, as introduced above, is a key figure in Radical Feminism.

    Her theory seeks to dismantle patriarchy and focuses on the presence of patriarchy in two practices: porn and "prostitution".

    Radical Feminists and "Prostitution"

    In particular, Radical Feminists like A. Dworkin believe that no sex worker becomes a sex worker by choice and that there is always a forceful patriarchal dynamic behind this practice. Indeed, she refers to the today-preferred term sex work as prostitution, highlighting the exploitative dynamic behind it.

    The author argues that prostitution and equality for women cannot exist simultaneously.3

    Today's Radical Feminist Movement

    These views are today highly criticised by most feminists that are part of Intersectionality Feminism and transfeminism, which can be seen as today's manifestation of the radical feminist movement since they also want to end patriarchy.

    Despite this, today, most feminists that want the end of the patriarchy do not call themselves Radical feminists since the theory they base themselves on goes beyond Radical Feminism. Intersectionality is now the base of Radical Feminism.

    These feminists believe, however, in the legalisation of "prostitution" and in the creation of a set of legislations that protect the rights of sex workers, understood as those individuals that decide to sell a service, such as sex, porn, etc., to a client.

    Their slogan is "sex work is work" which opposes the way in which Radical Feminism is based on a discourse that victimises and renders passive individuals who consensually decide to take part in sex work. At the same time, they denounce the non-consensual exploitation of sex workers. Sex workers argue that this ultimately fights patriarchy since it is not cis-men who force sex workers to engage in sexual services, but it is the free choice of sex workers themselves.

    Radical Feminism. Image from a decriminalisation of sex work protest in Brisbane, StudySmarterFig. 3 Image from a Decriminalisation of Sex Work protest in Brisbane, Australia, Kgbo, CC-BY-SA-4.0, Wikimedia Commons

    Strengths and weakness of radical feminism

    To understand the effects radical feminism has on society and the feminist movement, we must evaluate both the strengths and weaknesses of radical feminism as a political movement.

    Strengths

    Weaknesses

    of the genders in society. They look to transform society. To ensure lasting equality between genders, they intend to rewrite the structure of society completely.

    The radical feminism movement has not been as present in recent years, so some academics believe it is a dying form of feminism. Other competing forms of feminism include cultural feminism, liberal feminism, and socialist feminism. Today, in particular, transfeminism opposes classic radical feminists for their partial exclusion in the theory of trans women, BIPOC women, and sex workers from their theory.

    Radical feminists acknowledge that inequalities that individuals experience are also affected by other societal factors such as race, class, and sexual orientation. At the same time, most radical feminist theory does not expand on this.

    The perception that radical feminism is inherently aggressive in nature has earned it a certain amount of bad publicity. This perception also promotes the inaccurate but common belief that feminists hate cis-men and sex.

    Effects of Radical Feminism

    While radical feminism doesn't;t have one set of ideological beliefs, there is one effect of radical feminism that would be consistent among all radical feminists if it were to be fully implemented. That is that there would be a sexual revolution in society which wouldn't just increase the legal rights of women, or redistribute wealth, but fundamentally change the way society works so that it is no longer based on the patriarchy.

    Radical Feminism - Key takeaways

    • Radical feminism’s main objective is to create fair and equal societies by challenging and dismantling repressive patriarchal structures.
    • Radical feminists argue that ‘the personal is political’, and they believe that patriarchy touches every aspect of a person's life.
    • This form of feminism is said to be ‘radical’, as radical feminists aim to challenge and dismantle these unbalanced structures in order to transform society.
    • Crucial radical feminist theorists include Alice Echols and Andrea Dworkin.
    • An example of Radical Feminist politics can be seen in Radical Feminism's denouncement of "prostitution" as a manifestation of patriarchy and control over women's bodies.
    • Radical feminism is successful in tackling social inequalities between different genders.
    • Radical feminism has been substituted by Intersectionality and transfeminism and critiqued for its marginalisation of trans, BIPOC, and sex-workers individuals.

    Radical Feminism, TW, StudySmarter

    References

    1. Anger (1589) 'Her Protection of Women'.
    2. Millet (1969) 'Sexual Politics'.
    3. Dworkin (1993) 'Prostitution and Male Supremacy'.
    4. Fig. 1 Feminist symbol (https://pixabay.com/vectors/feminist-feminism-woman-s-rights-2923720/).
    5. Fig. 2 Portrait of Alice Echols, Joe Mabel, Wikimedia Commons, Licenced by Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0, (https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?search=Alice+echols&title=Special:MediaSearch&go=Go&type=image).
    6. Fig. 3 Decriminalise sex work march, Brisbane 8 March 2020, Kgbo, Wikimedia Commons, Licensed by CC-BY-SA-4.0 (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Decriminalise_sex_work_march,_Brisbane_8_March_2020,_07.jpg).
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    Frequently Asked Questions about Radical Feminism

    What is the difference between radical and cultural feminism? 

    Cultural feminism aims to redefine the female identity in society whereas radical feminism aims to reorder society to eradicate male superiority. 

    What is the goal of radical feminism? 

    To eliminate patriarchy from society. 

    What is radical feminism?

    Radical feminism is a branch of feminism that looks to remove the patriarchy from society by reordering and dismantling social structures. 

    What are examples of radical feminism? 

    Andrea Dworkin's work on sexual intercourse and porn between heterosexual couples are examples of radical feminism.

    What are the strengths and weaknesses of radical feminism?

    A strength: radical feminists have challenged the way we think about a number of different societal structures. Radical feminists acknowledge that inequalities that individuals experience are also affected by other societal factors such as race, class and sexual orientation. Therefore radical feminists have played a key role in a number of important social movements such as the US Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. 


    A weakness: the radical feminism movement has not been as present in recent years, so some academics believe it is a dying area of feminism.



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