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Radical feminism

Radical feminism is a perspective within feminism that calls for a radical reordering of society in which male supremacy is eliminated in all social and economic contexts.[1]

Radical feminists seek to abolish patriarchy by challenging existing social norms and institutions, rather than through a purely political process. This includes challenging the notion of traditional gender roles, opposing the sexual objectification of women, and raising public awareness about such issues as rape and violence against women.

Early radical feminism, arising within second-wave feminism in the 1960s,[2] typically viewed patriarchy as a "transhistorical phenomenon"[3] prior to or deeper than other sources of oppression, "not only the oldest and most universal form of domination but the primary form"[4] and the model for all others.[4] Later politics derived from radical feminism ranged from cultural feminism[1] to more syncretic politics that placed issues of class, economics, etc. on a par with patriarchy as sources of oppression.[5]

Radical feminists locate the root cause of women's oppression in patriarchal gender relations, as opposed to legal systems (as in liberal feminism) or class conflict (as in anarchist feminism, socialist feminism, and Marxist feminism).


Theory and ideologyEdit

Radical feminists assert that society is a patriarchy in which the class of men are the oppressors of the class of women.[6] They propose that the oppression of women is the most fundamental form of oppression, one that has existed since the inception of humanity.[7][8] As radical feminist activist and writer Ti-Grace Atkinson articulated in her 1969 foundational piece “Radical Feminism,”

The first dichotomous division of [mankind] is said to have been on the grounds of sex: male and female… it was because half the human race bears the burden of the reproductive process and because man, the ‘rational’ animal, had the wit to take advantage of that, that the childbearers, or the 'beasts of burden,' were corralled into a political class: equivocating the biologically contingent burden into a political (or necessary) penalty, thereby modifying these individuals’ definition from the human to the functional, or animal.[7]

While some radical feminists maintain that the oppression of women is separate from and more vehement than any other form of oppression, others acknowledge how multiple unique identities—including race, class, gender, perceived attractiveness, sexuality, ethnicity, nation, religion, and ability—intersect to create specific oppressions. [9]

Radical feminists posit that because of patriarchy, women have come to be viewed as the "other" to the male norm and as such have been systematically oppressed and marginalized. They furthermore assert that men as a class, benefit from the oppression of women.

Patriarchal theory is not generally defined as a belief that all men always benefit from the oppression of all women. Rather, patriarchal theory maintains that the primary element of patriarchy is a relationship of dominance, where one party is dominant and exploits the other party for the benefit of the former. Radical feminists believe that men (as a class) use social systems and other methods of control to keep women (and non-dominant men) suppressed.[7] Ti-Grace Atkinson maintained that the need for power fuels the male class to continue oppressing the female class, arguing, “the need men have for the role of oppressor is the source and foundation of all human oppression” [7]

Radical feminists seek to abolish patriarchy, and believe that the way to do this and to deal with oppression of any kind is to directly challenge existing social norms and institutions. Radical feminists also believe that eliminating patriarchy, and other systems which perpetuate the domination of one group over another, will liberate everyone from an unjust society.[7]

The influence of radical feminist politics in the mainstream Women's Liberation Movement was considerable. Redstockings co-founder Ellen Willis wrote in 1984 that radical feminists "got sexual politics recognized as a public issue,"[2] "created the vocabulary... with which the second wave of feminism entered popular culture,"[2] "sparked the drive to legalize abortion",[2] "were the first to demand total equality in the so-called private sphere"[2] ("housework and child care ... emotional and sexual needs"),[2] and "created the atmosphere of urgency"[2] that almost led to the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment.[2] The influence of radical feminism can be seen in the adoption of these issues by the National Organization for Women (NOW),[citation needed] a feminist group that had previously been focused almost entirely on economic issues.[10]



The ideology of radical feminism in the United States developed as a component of the women's liberation movement. It grew largely due to the influence of the civil rights movement, that had gained momentum in the 1960s, and many of the women who took up the cause of radical feminism had previous experience with radical protest in the struggle against racism. Chronologically, it can be seen within the context of second wave feminism that started in the early 1960s.[11] The primary players and the pioneers of this second wave of feminism included Shulamith Firestone, Kathie Sarachild, Ti-Grace Atkinson, Carol Hanisch, and Judith Brown. Many local women's groups in the late sixties, such as the UCLA Women's Liberation Front (WLF), offered diplomatic statements of radical feminism's ideologies. UCLA's WLF co-founder Devra Weber recalls, "'... the radical feminists were opposed to patriarchy, but not necessarily capitalism. In our group at least, they opposed so-called male dominated national liberation struggles'".[12] "Radical feminism had a "powerful influence" on the "women's movement" and played a tremendous role "in shaping feminist politics".[13]

These women helped secure the bridge that translated radical protest for racial equality over to the struggle for women's rights; by witnessing the discrimination and oppression to which the black population was subjected, they were able to gain strength and motivation to do the same for their fellow women. They took up the cause and advocated for a variety of women's issues, including abortion, the Equal Rights Amendment, access to credit, and equal pay.[14] They failed to stir up enough interest among most of the women's fringe groups of society.[clarification needed] Most women of color (who were predominantly working-class) did not participate in the formation of the radical feminist movement because it did not address many issues that were relevant to those from a working-class background.[15] But for those who felt compelled enough to stand up for the cause, radical action was needed, and so they took to the streets and formed consciousness raising groups to rally support for the cause and recruit people who would be willing to fight for it. Later on, Second Wave radical feminism saw greater numbers of black feminists and other women of color participating.

In the 1960s, radical feminism emerged simultaneously within liberal feminist and working class feminist discussions, first in the United States, then in the United Kingdom and Australia. Those involved had gradually come to believe that it was not only the middle-class nuclear family which oppressed women, but that it was also social movements and organizations that claimed to stand for human liberation, notably the counterculture, the New Left, and Marxist political parties, all of which they considered to be male-dominated and male-oriented. Women in countercultural groups related that the gender relations present in such groups were very much those of mainstream culture.

In the United States, radical feminism developed as a response to some of the perceived failings of both New Left organizations such as the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and feminist organizations such as NOW.[citation needed] Initially concentrated in big cities like New York, Chicago, Boston, Washington, DC, and on the West Coast,[16] radical feminist groups spread across the country rapidly from 1968 to 1972.

In the United Kingdom, feminism developed out of discussions within community based radical women's organizations and discussions by women within the Trotskyist left.[citation needed] Radical feminism was imported into the UK by American radical feminists and seized on by British radical women as offering an exciting new theory to replace Trotskyism.[citation needed] As the 1970s progressed, British feminists split into two major schools of thought: socialist and radical.[citation needed] In 1977, another split occurred, with a third grouping calling itself "revolutionary feminism" breaking away from the other two.[citation needed]

Australian radical feminism developed slightly later, during an extended period of social radicalization, largely as an expression of that radicalization.

Radical feminists introduced the use of consciousness raising (CR) groups. These groups brought together intellectuals, workers, and middle class women in developed Western countries to discuss their experiences. During these discussions, women noted a shared and repressive system regardless of their political affiliation or social class. Based on these discussions, the women drew the conclusion that ending of patriarchy was the most necessary step towards a truly free society. These consciousness-raising sessions allowed early radical feminists to develop a political ideology based on common experiences women faced with male supremacy. Consciousness raising was extensively used in chapter sub-units of the National Organization for Women (NOW) during the 1970s. The feminism that emerged from these discussions stood first and foremost for the liberation of women, as women, from the oppression of men in their own lives, as well as men in power. Radical feminism claimed that a totalizing ideology and social formation – patriarchy (government or rule by fathers) – dominated women in the interests of men.

Within groups such as New York Radical Women (1967–1969; no relation to the present-day socialist feminist organization Radical Women), which Ellen Willis characterized as "the first women's liberation group in New York City",[17] a radical feminist ideology began to emerge that declared that "the personal is political"[2] and "sisterhood is powerful",[2] formulations that arose from these consciousness-raising sessions. New York Radical Women fell apart in early 1969 in what came to be known as the "politico-feminist split"[17] with the "politicos"[17] seeing capitalism as the source of women's oppression, while the "feminists"[17] saw male supremacy as "a set of material, institutionalized relations, not just bad attitudes."[17] The feminist side of the split, which soon began referring to itself as "radical feminists",[17] soon constituted the basis of a new organization, Redstockings. At the same time, Ti-Grace Atkinson led "a radical split-off from NOW",[18] which became known as The Feminists.[18] A third major stance would be articulated by the New York Radical Feminists, founded later in 1969 by Shulamith Firestone (who broke from the Redstockings) and Anne Koedt.[19]

During this period, the movement produced "a prodigious output of leaflets, pamphlets, journals, magazine articles, newspaper and radio and TV interviews."[2] Many important feminist works, such as Koedt's essay The Myth of the Vaginal Orgasm (1970) and Kate Millet's book Sexual Politics (1970), emerged during this time and in this milieu.

Ideology emerges and divergesEdit

At the beginning of this period, "heterosexuality was more or less an unchallenged assumption."[20] Among radical feminists, the view became widely held that, thus far, the sexual freedoms gained in the sexual revolution of the 1960s, in particular, the decreasing emphasis on monogamy, had been largely gained by men at women's expense.[20] This assumption of heterosexuality would soon be challenged by the rise of political lesbianism, closely associated with Atkinson and The Feminists.[21] The belief that the sexual revolution was a victory of men over women would eventually lead to the women's anti-pornography movement of the late 1970s.[citation needed]

Redstockings and The Feminists were both radical feminist organizations, but held rather distinct views. Most members of Redstockings held to a materialist and anti-psychologistic view. They viewed men's oppression of women as ongoing and deliberate, holding individual men responsible for this oppression, viewing institutions and systems (including the family) as mere vehicles of conscious male intent, and rejecting psychologistic explanations of female submissiveness as blaming women for collaboration in their own oppression.[22] They held to a view – which Willis would later describe as "neo-Maoist"[18] – that it would be possible to unite all or virtually all women, as a class, to confront this oppression by personally confronting men.[23]

The Feminists held a more idealistic, psychologistic, and utopian philosophy, with a greater emphasis on "sex roles",[24] seeing sexism as rooted in "complementary patterns of male and female behavior".[24] They placed more emphasis on institutions, seeing marriage, family, prostitution, and heterosexuality as all existing to perpetuate the "sex-role system".[24] They saw all of these as institutions to be destroyed. Within the group, there were further disagreements, such as Koedt's viewing the institution of "normal"[24] sexual intercourse as being focused mainly on male sexual or erotic pleasure, while Atkinson viewed it mainly in terms of reproduction.[24] In contrast to the Redstockings, The Feminists generally considered genitally focused sexuality to be inherently male.[25] Ellen Willis would later write that insofar as the Redstockings considered abandoning heterosexual activity, they saw it as a "bitter price"[25] they "might have to pay for [their] militance",[25] whereas The Feminists embraced separatist feminism as a strategy.[25]

The New York Radical Feminists (NYRF) took a more psychologistic (and even biologically determinist) line. They argued that men dominated women not so much for material benefits as for the ego satisfaction intrinsic in domination. Similarly, they rejected the Redstockings view that women submitted only out of necessity or The Feminists' implicit view that they submitted out of cowardice, but instead argued that social conditioning simply led most women to accept a submissive role as "right and natural".[26]


Radical feminism was not and is not only a movement of ideology and theory. Radical feminists also take direct action. In 1968, they protested against the Miss America pageant in order to bring "sexist beauty ideas and social expectations" to the forefront of women's social issues.[27] Even though there weren't any bras burned on that day, this protest is famous for the phrase "bra-burner".[27] "Feminsts threw their bras—along with "woman-garbage" such as girdles, false eyelashes, steno pads, wigs, women's magazines, and dishcloths—into a "Freedom Trash Can", but they did not set it on fire".[27] In 1970, more than one hundred feminists staged an 11-hour sit-in at the Ladies' Home Journal.[28] These women demanded that the editor "be removed and replaced by a woman editor".[28] The Ladies Home journal, "with their emphasis on food, family, fashion, and femininity, played an important role in maintaining the status quo and thus were instruments of women's oppression".[28] One member explains the motivation of the protest noting that they "were there to destroy a publication which feeds off of women's anger and frustration, a magazine which destroys women.[28] In addition, they "used a variety of tactics-demonstrations and speakouts"[1] about topics such as rape.[29] Through "tireless[ly] organizing among friends and coworkers, on street corners, in supermarkets and ladies' rooms" these radical feminists were able gain an amazing amount of exposure".[29] The movement gained momentum, while a "prodigious output of leaflets, pamphlets, journals, magazine articles, newspaper and radio and TV interviews" were produced.[29]

Radical egalitarianismEdit

Radical egalitarianism, "an approach to the distribution of economic resources", aimed to "diminish differences among people" based on "culture or a way of life".[30] Because of their commitment to radical egalitarianism, most early radical feminist groups operated initially without any formal internal structure. When informal leadership developed, it was often resented. Some of the feminist leaders reacted with defiance, some quit the movement", and "others tried to respond to the criticism by echoing it and withdrawing from [their] leadership roles, in classic guilty liberal fashion".[29] Many groups ended up expending more effort debating their own internal operations than dealing with external matters, seeking to "perfect a perfect society in microcosm"[31] rather than focus on the larger world. Resentment of leadership was compounded by the view that all "class striving"[31] was "male-identified".[31] In the extreme, exemplified by The Feminists, the upshot, according to Ellen Willis, was "unworkable, mechanistic demands for an absolutely random division of labor, taking no account of differences in skill, experience, or even inclination".[31] "The result," writes Willis, "was not democracy but paralysis." Willis believed that part of the reason the problems weren't dealt with was because "of the unconscious fear that feminists' demands for freedom and power would provoke devastating retribution".[29] When The Feminists began to select randomly who could talk to the press, Ti-Grace Atkinson quit the organization she had founded.[31]

Social organization and aims in the U.S. and AustraliaEdit

Radical feminists have generally formed small activist or community associations around either consciousness raising or concrete aims. Many radical feminists in Australia participated in a series of squats to establish various women's centers, and this form of action was common in the late 1970s and early 1980s. By the mid-1980s many of the original consciousness raising groups had dissolved, and radical feminism was more and more associated with loosely organized university collectives. Radical feminism can still be seen, particularly within student activism and among working class women.

In Australia, many feminist social organizations accepted government funding during the 1980s, and the election of a conservative government in 1996 crippled these organizations.

While radical feminists aim to dismantle patriarchal society in a historical sense, their immediate aims are generally concrete. Some common demands include:

  • Expanding reproductive rights.

    Defined by feminists in the 1970s as a basic human right, it includes the right to abortion and birth control, but implies much more. To be realised, reproductive freedom must include not only woman's right to choose childbirth, abortion, sterilisation or birth control, but also her right to make those choices freely, without pressure from individual men, doctors, governmental or religious authorities. It is a key issue for women, since without it the other freedoms we appear to have, such as the right to education, jobs and equal pay, may prove illusory. Provisions of childcare, medical treatment, and society's attitude towards children are also involved.[32]

  • Changing the organizational sexual culture, e.g., breaking down traditional gender roles and reevaluating societal concepts of femininity and masculinity (a common demand in US universities during the 1980s). In this, they often form tactical alliances with other currents of feminism.

Other nationsEdit

The movement also arose in Israel among Jews.[33]

Views on the sex industryEdit

Radical feminists have written about a wide range of issues regarding the sex industry – which they tend to oppose – including but not limited to: harm to women during the production of pornography, the social harm from consumption of pornography, the coercion and poverty that leads women to become prostitutes, the long-term effects of prostitution, the raced and classed nature of prostitution, and male dominance over women in prostitution and pornography.


Radical feminists argue that, in most cases, prostitution is not a conscious and calculated choice.[citation needed] They say that most women who become prostitutes do so because they were forced or coerced by a pimp or by human trafficking, or, when it is an independent decision, it is generally the result of extreme poverty and lack of opportunity, or of serious underlying problems, such as drug addiction, past trauma (such as child sexual abuse) and other unfortunate circumstances.[citation needed]

Radical feminists point out that women from the lowest socioeconomic classes – impoverished women, women with a low level of education, women from the most disadvantaged racial and ethnic minorities – are overrepresented in prostitution all over the world. "If prostitution is a free choice, why are the women with the fewest choices the ones most often found doing it?" (MacKinnon, 1993).[34] A large percentage of prostitutes polled in one study of 475 people involved in prostitution reported that they were in a difficult period of their lives and most wanted to leave the occupation.[35] Catharine MacKinnon argues that "In prostitution, women have sex with men they would never otherwise have sex with. The money thus acts as a form of force, not as a measure of consent. It acts like physical force does in rape."[36]

They believe no person can be said to truly consent to their own oppression and no people should have the right to consent to the oppression of others. In the words of Kathleen Barry, consent is not a "good divining rod as to the existence of oppression, and consent to violation is a fact of oppression. Oppression cannot effectively be gauged according to the degree of "consent," since even in slavery there was some consent, if consent is defined as inability to see, or feel any alternative."[37]

Andrea Dworkin stated her opinions as: "Prostitution in and of itself is an abuse of a woman's body. Those of us who say this are accused of being simple-minded. But prostitution is very simple. ... In prostitution, no woman stays whole. It is impossible to use a human body in the way women's bodies are used in prostitution and to have a whole human being at the end of it, or in the middle of it, or close to the beginning of it. It's impossible. And no woman gets whole again later, after."[38] Dworkin argues that "prostitution and equality for women cannot exist simultaneously" and in order to eradicate prostitution "we must seek ways to use words and law to end the abusive selling and buying of girls' and women's bodies for men's sexual pleasure".[39]

Radical feminist thinking has analyzed prostitution as a cornerstone of patriarchal domination and sexual subjugation of women that impacts negatively not only on the women and girls in prostitution but on all women as a group because prostitution continually affirms and reinforces patriarchal definitions of women as having a primary function to serve men sexually. They claim it is crucial that society does not replace one patriarchal view on female sexuality – e.g., that women should not have sex outside marriage/a relationship and that casual sex is shameful for a woman, etc. – with another similarly oppressive and patriarchal view – acceptance of prostitution, a sexual practice which is based on a highly patriarchal construct of sexuality: that the sexual pleasure of a woman is irrelevant, that her only role during sex is to submit to the man's sexual demands and to do what he tells her, that sex should be controlled by the man and that the woman's response and satisfaction are irrelevant. These feminists argue that sexual liberation for women cannot be achieved as long as we normalize unequal sexual practices where a man dominates a woman.[40] "Feminist consciousness raising remains the foundation for collective struggle and the eventual liberation of women".[41]

They see prostitution as a form of male dominance, as it puts the woman in a subordinate position, reducing her to a mere instrument of sexual pleasure for the client.[citation needed] These feminists believe that many clients use the services of prostitutes because they enjoy the "power trip" they derive from the act and the control they have over the woman during the sexual activity. Catharine MacKinnon argues that prostitution "isn't sex only, it's you do what I say, sex."[42] "Sex is seen as 'a social product of culture, a political product of gender hierarchy, and these are the conditions of male power".[41]

Radical feminists strongly object to the patriarchal ideology which has been one of the justifications for the existence of prostitution throughout history (and which they say continues to justify it in many cultures), that is, that prostitution is a "necessary evil", as men cannot control themselves, and thus it is "necessary" that a small number of women be "sacrificed" to be used and abused by men, in order to protect "chaste" women from rape and harassment. These feminists see prostitution as a form of slavery, and say that, far from decreasing rape rates, prostitution leads to a sharp increase in sexual violence against women, by sending the message that it is acceptable for a man to treat a woman as a sexual instrument over which he has total control. Melissa Farley argues that Nevada's high rape rate is connected to legal prostitution because Nevada is the only US state which allows legal brothels and is ranked 4th out of the 50 U.S. states for sexual assault crimes,[43] saying, "Nevada's rape rate is higher than the U.S. average and way higher than the rape rate in California, New York and New Jersey. Why is this? Legal prostitution creates an atmosphere in this state in which women are not humans equal to them, are disrespected by men, and which then sets the stage of increased violence against women."[44]

Indigenous women the world over are particularly targeted for prostitution."The early 1970s witnessed the rise of a vastly expanding sex industry, and soon evidence emerged that women were being brought from developing countries to provide sexual services for male clients in the affluent Western nations. Since then—partly due to improved transportation and communication networks—migration and trafficking have grown immensely on a worldwide scale".[45] In Canada, New Zealand, Mexico, and Taiwan, studies have shown that indigenous women are at the bottom of the race and class hierarchy of prostitution, often subjected to the worst conditions, most violent demands and sold at the lowest price.[46] It is common for indigenous women to be over-represented in prostitution when compared with their total population. This is as a result of the combined forces of colonialism, physical displacement from ancestral lands, destruction of indigenous social and cultural order, misogyny, globalization/neoliberalism, race discrimination and extremely high levels of violence perpetrated against them.[46]


Radical feminists, notably Catherine MacKinnon, charge that the production of pornography entails physical, psychological, and/or economic coercion of the women who perform and model in it. This is said to be true even when the women are being presented as enjoying themselves.[47][48][49] It is also argued that much of what is shown in pornography is abusive by its very nature. Gail Dines holds that pornography, exemplified by gonzo pornography, is becoming increasingly violent and that women who perform in pornography are brutalized in the process of its production.[50][51]

Radical feminists point to the testimony of well known participants in pornography, such as Traci Lords and Linda Boreman, and argue that most female performers are coerced into pornography, either by somebody else, or by an unfortunate set of circumstances. The feminist anti-pornography movement was galvanized by the publication of Ordeal, in which Linda Boreman (who under the name of "Linda Lovelace" had starred in Deep Throat) stated that she had been beaten, raped, and pimped by her husband Chuck Traynor, and that Traynor had forced her at gunpoint to make scenes in Deep Throat, as well as forcing her, by use of both physical violence against Boreman as well as emotional abuse and outright threats of violence, to make other pornographic films. Dworkin, MacKinnon, and Women Against Pornography issued public statements of support for Boreman, and worked with her in public appearances and speeches.[52]

Radical feminists hold the view that pornography contributes to sexism, arguing that in pornographic performances the actresses are reduced to mere receptacles – objects – for sexual use and abuse by men. They argue that the narrative is usually formed around men's pleasure as the only goal of sexual activity, and that the women are shown in a subordinate role. Some opponents believe pornographic films tend to show women as being extremely passive, or that the acts which are performed on the women are typically abusive and solely for the pleasure of their sex partner. On-face ejaculation and anal sex are increasingly popular among men, following trends in porn.[53] MacKinnon and Dworkin defined pornography as "the graphic sexually explicit subordination of women through pictures or words".[54]

Radical feminists say that consumption of pornography is a cause of rape and other forms of violence against women. Robin Morgan summarizes this idea with her often-quoted statement, "Pornography is the theory, and rape is the practice."[55]

Radical feminists charge that pornography eroticizes the domination, humiliation, and coercion of women, and reinforces sexual and cultural attitudes that are complicit in rape and sexual harassment. In her book Only Words, MacKinnon argues that pornography "deprives women of the right to express verbal refusal of an intercourse".[56]

MacKinnon argued that pornography leads to an increase in sexual violence against women through fostering rape myths. Such rape myths include the belief that women really want to be raped and that they mean yes when they say no. It is disputed that "rape myths perpetuate sexual violence indirectly by creating distorted beliefs and attitudes about sexual assault and shift elements of blame onto the victims".[57] Additionally, according to MacKinnon, pornography desensitizes viewers to violence against women, and this leads to a progressive need to see more violence in order to become sexually aroused, an effect she claims is well documented.[58]

German radical feminist Alice Schwarzer is one proponent of the point of view according to which pornography gives a distorted view of men and women's bodies, as well as the actual sexual act, often showing the performers with synthetic implants or exaggerated expressions of pleasure, as well as fetishes that are not the norm, such as watersports, being presented as popular and normal.

Radical lesbian feminismEdit

Radical lesbians are distinguished from other radical feminists through their ideological roots in political lesbianism. Radical lesbians see lesbianism as an act of resistance against the political institution of heterosexuality, which they view as violent and oppressive towards women.

During the Women’s Liberation Movement of the 1970’s, straight women within the movement were challenged on the basis of their heterosexual identities perpetuating the very patriarchal systems that they were working to undo.

A large fraction of the movement sought to reform sexist institutions while “leaving intact the staple nuclear unit of oppression: heterosexual sex”[59] -- these were mainstream feminists. However, others saw the logic of lesbianism as a strong political act to end male dominance and as central to the women’s movement.

Radical lesbians criticized the women’s liberation movement for its failure to criticize the “psychological oppression” of heteronormativity, which they believe to be “the sexual foundation of the social institutions”.[59] Radical lesbians argued that heterosexual love relationships perpetuate patriarchal power relations through “personal domination” and therefore directly contradicted the values and goals of the movement.[60] As one radical lesbian wrote, “no matter what the feminist does, the physical act [of heterosexuality] throws both women and man back into role playing… all of her politics are instantly shattered”.[60]  They argued that the women’s liberation movement would not be successful without challenging heteronormativity.[59][61]

Radical lesbians believe lesbianism actively threatens patriarchal systems of power.[60] Radical lesbian feminists defined lesbians not only by their sexual preference, but by their liberation and independence from men. Lesbian activists Sydney Abbot and Barbara Love argued that “the lesbian has freed herself from male domination” through disconnecting from them not only sexually, but also “financially and emotionally.”[60] They argue that lesbianism fosters the utmost independence from gendered systems of power, and from the “psychological oppression” of heteronormativity.[62]

Rejecting norms of gender, sex and sexuality is central to radical lesbian feminism. Lesbianism as a political act represents an ability to create identity from all aspects of the human condition, both masculine and feminine, while rejecting societal identities that are imposed onto bodies by a culture.

Radical lesbians believed that "lesbian identity was a 'woman-identified' identity,'" meaning it should be defined by and with reference to women, rather than in relation to men.[61][61][63]

In their manifesto “The Woman-Identified Woman”, Lesbian Radical Feminist group Radicalesbians underline the necessity of creating a “new consciousness” that rejects normative definitions of womanhood and femininity, which center on the powerlessness.[61] This redefinition of womanhood and femininity means freeing lesbian identities from harmful and divisive stereotypes. As Abbot and Love argued in their 1971 piece “Is Women’s Liberation a Lesbian Plot?”,

As long at the word ‘dyke’ can be used to frighten women into a less militant stand, keep women separate from their sisters, and keep them from giving primacy to anything other than men and family—then to that extent they are dominated by male culture.[60]

Radicalesbians reiterate this thought, writing, “in this sexist society, for a woman to be independent means she can’t be a woman, she must be a dyke”.[61]

The rhetoric of a woman-identified-woman has been criticized for its exclusion of heterosexual women and lesbians of color. According to some critics, “[lesbian feminism’s use of] woman-identifying rhetorics should be considered rhetorical failures".[63] Other critics argue that the intensity of radical lesbian feminist politics, on top of the preexisting stigma around lesbianism, gave a bad face to the feminist movement and provided fertile ground for tropes like the man-hater or the bra burner.[63]

Views on transgender peopleEdit

Since the 1970s, there has been an ongoing debate among radical feminists about the role of transgender identities in society.[64] Some radical feminists, such as bell hooks, Catharine MacKinnon and John Stoltenberg have supported transgender rights and trans-inclusivity.[65][66][67] Others, such as Janice Raymond, Germaine Greer, Sheila Jeffreys, Julie Bindel, and Robert Jensen, have accused the transgender movement of perpetuating patriarchal gender norms and characterized it as incompatible with radical feminist ideology.[64][68]

In 1978 the Lesbian Organization of Toronto voted to become womyn-born womyn only and wrote:

A woman's voice was almost never heard as a woman's voice – it was always filtered through men's voices. So here a guy comes along saying, "I'm going to be a girl now and speak for girls." And we thought, "No you're not." A person cannot just join the oppressed by fiat.[69]

In 1979 American lesbian radical feminist activist Janice Raymond released the book The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the She-Male, which looked at the role of transsexuality – particularly psychological and surgical approaches to it – in reinforcing traditional gender stereotypes, the ways in which the "medical-psychiatric complex" has medicalized "gender identity", and the social and political context that helped spawn transsexual treatment and surgery as normal and therapeutic medicine.[70] The Transsexual Empire maintains that transsexuality is based on the "patriarchal myths" of "male mothering", and "making of woman according to man's image". Raymond claimed this was done in order "to colonize feminist identification, culture, politics and sexuality", adding: "All transsexuals rape women's bodies by reducing the real female form to an artifact, appropriating this body for themselves .... Transsexuals merely cut off the most obvious means of invading women, so that they seem non-invasive."

In 1999, Germaine Greer published a sequel to The Female Eunuch, the book The Whole Woman. One chapter was titled "Pantomime Dames", wherein she states her opposition to accepting transsexuals as women:[71]

Governments that consist of very few women have hurried to recognise as women men who believe that they are women and have had themselves castrated to prove it, because they see women not as another sex but as a non-sex. No so-called sex-change has ever begged for a uterus-and-ovaries transplant; if uterus-and-ovaries transplants were made mandatory for wannabe women they would disappear overnight. The insistence that man-made women be accepted as women is the institutional expression of the mistaken conviction that women are defective males.[72]

Sheila Jeffreys argues that gender is not immutable and thus does not warrant radical medical intervention, considers detransitioners to be evidence of this, and describes sex reassignment surgery as "mutilation".[64] Jeffreys also argues that "the vast majority of transsexuals still subscribe to the traditional stereotype of women" and that by transitioning medically and socially, trans women are "constructing a conservative fantasy of what women should be. They are inventing an essence of womanhood which is deeply insulting and restrictive".[73] Throughout Gender Hurts: A Feminist Analysis of the Politics of Transgenderism, co-written with Lorene Gottschalk, Jeffreys insists on using male pronouns to refer to trans women arguing that "use by men of feminine pronouns conceals the masculine privilege bestowed upon them by virtue of having been placed in and brought up in the male sex caste".[64] Julie Bindel said "I don't have a problem with men disposing of their genitals, but it does not make them women, in the same way that shoving a bit of vacuum hose down your 501s [jeans] does not make you a man."[74] As of 2009, Bindel maintained that "people should question the basis of the diagnosis of male psychiatrists, at a time when gender polarisation and homophobia work hand-in-hand."[75] She argues that "Iran carries out the highest number of sex change surgeries in the world" because "surgery is an attempt to keep gender stereotypes intact"[75] and that "the idea that certain distinct behaviours are appropriate for males and females underlies feminist criticism of the phenomenon of 'transgenderism'."[75]

Robert Jensen has outlined feminist[76] and ecological concerns[77] about transgender ideology, and connected that ideology to a larger cultural fear of the feminist critique of patriarchy.[78]

Radical feminists have sometimes advocated for the exclusion of trans women from feminist events, a source of much controversy. Lisa Vogel, the Michfest event organizer claimed that protesters from Camp Trans responded to this controversy with vandalism.[64][79] They argue that trans women cannot be counted as women because they were not born biologically female.[64][79] Such radical feminists hold that trans women have enjoyed male privilege by virtue of being assigned male at birth and their insistence on acceptance is a type of male entitlement.[64] Radical feminists reject the notion of a female brain. They believe that the differences in behavior between men and women are a result of different socialization and believe that – in the words of Lierre Keith – femininity is "ritualized submission".[80] In this view, gender is less an identity than a caste position and transgenderism is an obstacle to gender abolition.[64][79] These views are not widely held by broader feminist movement,[64] are rejected by many trans women,[64] and are often labeled transphobic.[81]

The term TERF (trans-exclusionary radical feminist) has been used to refer to radical feminists who hold such views,[64] and radical feminists holding these views have been described as members of a hate group who are allegedly "masquerading as feminists".[82] Roz Kaveney argues, "The TERF idea is that sex is entirely binary, that the oppression of women is entirely based on that binary difference; that gender is a malign fiction created by a patriarchy that exists wholly and solely to oppress women as a class... None of this explains, of course, the existence of gender-variant people in most human cultures and the particular violence against them by patriarchal society".[83]

On the other hand, the term "TERF" is considered a slur and a hyperbolic reaction to legitimate feminist concerns by those at whom it is directed.[64][81][84] Feminist Sarah Ditum suggested that use of the term results in the silencing of feminists via guilt by association.[85]


Since its inception as an ideology and then a political movement, radical feminism has faced criticism from both within the feminist movement and without. Popular criticisms of radical feminism point to its failure to recognize and address issues of race and class, and how they intersect with women’s oppression within patriarchal systems of power; its insistence on excluding men from the movement and unwillingness to work with men to effect change through political channels; and its frequent reinforcement of gender essentialism (the idea that men and women are inherently different).[86][87]

Early in the radical feminism movement, some radical feminists theorized that "other kinds of hierarchy grew out of and were modeled on male supremacy-were in effect specialized forms of male supremacy".[29] Therefore, "the struggle against male domination had political priority over other forms of politics" because "the liberation of women would mean the liberation of all".[88] This ideology that the oppression of women is separate from other forms of oppression and furthermore takes priority over other forms of oppression is highly contested, particularly by intersectional feminism and black feminism. Critics argue that this ideology accepts the notion that identities are singular and disparate, rather than multiple and intersecting. For example, understanding women’s oppression as disparate assumes that "men, in creating and maintaining these systems, are acting purely as men, in accordance with peculiarly male characteristics or specifically male supremacist objectives".[29]

According to Ellen Willis' 1984 essay Radical Feminism and Feminist Radicalism, within the New Left, radical feminists were accused of being "bourgeois", "antileft", or even "apolitical", whereas they saw themselves as further "radicalizing the left by expanding the definition of radical".[89] Early radical feminists were "overwhelmingly white and mostly middle class" resulting in "a very fragile kind of solidarity" that "excluded large groups of women".[29] Willis hypothesized that this was, at least in part, because "most black and working-class women could not accept the abstraction of feminist issues from race and class issues";[3] the resulting narrow demographic base, in turn, limited the validity of generalizations based on radical feminists' personal experiences of gender relations.[3] However, the rejection of other marginalized groups of women "allowed white middle-class women to minimize the ways in which women participated in and benefited from race and class privilege".[29] Failure to recognize "social differences among women" negatively affected the movement, "limit[ing] and distort[ing] both [their] analysis and [their] practice".[29] Many early radical feminists broke political ties with "male-dominated left groups",[89] or would work with them only in ad hoc coalitions.[89]

Also, Willis, although very much a part of early radical feminism and continuing to hold that it played a necessary role in placing feminism on the political agenda, later criticized its inability "to integrate a feminist perspective with an overall radical politics,"[89] while viewing this limitation as inevitable in the historical context of the times.[89] In part this limitation arose from the fact that consciousness raising, as "the primary method of understanding women's condition"[20] in the movement at this time and its "most successful organizing tool",[20] led to an emphasis on personal experience that concealed "prior political and philosophical assumptions".[20] "Although the late 1960's and early 1970's might have been the 'heyday' for white 'radical' feminists in CR groups, from the perspective of white antiracists, the early 1970's were a low point of feminism-a time when many women who were committed to an antiracist analysis had to put their feminism on the back burner in order to work with women and men of color against racism."[88]

See alsoEdit


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  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k (Willis 1984, p. 118)
  3. ^ a b c (Willis 1984, p. 122)
  4. ^ a b (Willis 1984, p. 123)
  5. ^ (Willis 1984, p. 141)
  6. ^ Echols, p. 139.
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  11. ^ Sarah Gamble, ed. The Routledge companion to feminism and postfeminism (2001) p. 25
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  13. ^ (Willis 1984, p. xi)[not in citation given]
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  18. ^ a b c (Willis 1984, p. 124)
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  • Willis, Ellen, "Radical Feminism and Feminist Radicalism", 1984, collected in No More Nice Girls: Countercultural Essays, Wesleyan University Press, 1992, ISBN 0-8195-5250-X, pp. 117–150.
  • Ellen Willis (1984), "Radical Feminism and Feminist Radicalism", Social Text, 9/10: The 60's without Apology: 91–118, JSTOR 466537 

Further readingEdit

External linksEdit