I'm obtaining my MA in Women's Studies. As part of one of the courses I'm taking this year, each student is required to present an overview to the class, going in depth about the subject which we read about for the week. I was selected to present about radical feminism. I'd like to preface that although I identify as a feminist, I do not identify as a radical feminist. I'd consider myself more of a third-wave, or arguably, fourth-wave feminist.
The credo of radical feminism can be described as thus: the oppression of women is the most fundamental form of oppression. Radical feminism, when viewed by the uneducated eye, can be portrayed as a throng of women professing ""Valar Morghulis," (a phrase coined by fantasy author George R.R. Martin that translates to "All Men Must Die"). That being said, there's much more to the movement than this. When delving deeper, it can be ascertained that radical feminists protest patriarchy, and the various benefits men receive because of the patriarchal system; radical feminists arguably do not abhor men themselves. In Feminist Thought, Rosemary Tong writes a concise summary on the background and basic tenants of radical feminism. Issues covered by radical feminist authors include, but are not limited to, the social constructs of gender, childbirth, and class. Radical feminists also have unique views on transgendered women and voluntary prostitution.
Radical feminism first rose to prominence in the 1960's and 1970's. Numerous feminist groups came into fruition around that period in time. (Tong) Examples of radical feminist groups from that era consist of the Redstockings, The Feminists, New York Radical Women, and New York Feminists. (Tong) As the names of these groups indicate, most of these groups had roots in New York City. Radical feminists can conceivably be credited with bringing the concept of consciousness-raising to the feminist movement. (Tong) Radical feminist groups, at that time, fostered women from all different backgrounds meeting in small groups. The woman in these groups then shared their individual, personalized experiences as women together. (Tong) Radical feminists realized that many of the individual experiences shared were not exclusive solely to the woman that told her story. (Tong) Instead, many of those experiences were shared by a plethora of women. (Tong) Because of these discoveries that were explored in the consciousness-raising model propagated by radical feminists, radical feminists then claimed that "the personal is political," and that all women were "sisters." (Tong) As mentioned previously, radical feminists also believe that the oppression of women is the first and most fundamental form of oppression. Tong aptly writes:
"They insisted that men's control of women's sexual and reproductive lives and women's self-identity, self-respect, and self-esteem is the most fundamental of all the oppressions human beings visit on each other."
Radical feminists then split, as Shakespeare would say, "To two houses, both alike in dignity…From ancient grudge break to new mutiny." These two "camps," as Tong describes them, are radical-libertarian feminists and radical-cultural feminists. Radical-libertarian feminists and radical-cultural feminists have two very distinct views on how to fight sexism.
Radical-libertarian feminists argue that "An exclusive feminine gender identity is likely to limit women's development as full human persons." (Tong) Radical-libertarian feminists believe that androgyny is the gender ideal that women should aspire to. (Tong) Radical-libertarian feminists argue that the concept of "woman" is a social construct created by a patriarchal society in order to benefit men.
Radical-cultural feminists stand on the opposite side of the hypothetical line drawn in the sand by radical-libertarian feminists. The belief system of radical-cultural feminists eschews the concept that androgyny is the gender ideal that all women should aspire for. In lieu of that, radical-cultural feminists "…replaced the goal of androgyny with a summons to affirm women's essential 'femaleness.'" (Tong) In short, it's better for women to be female/feminine. In an even more succinct term: women should not try to be like men. (Tong) Instead, women should underscore and stress the cultural values that were normally associated with women; examples include independence, community, connection, sharing, emotion, absence of hierarchy, etc. (Tong) Radical-cultural feminists tout the idea that all women share one female nature, and the less that the male gender can profane that nature, the better. (Tong)
Arguably, the most sensationalized (which can partially be contributed to her assassination attempt of Andy Warhol) author of a radical feminism writing is Valerie Solanas. Solanas wrote a piece entitled "The SCUM Manifesto" in 1967. Although originally thought to be an acronym (standing for The Society for Cutting Up Men,) Solanas insisted that SCUM was not an acronym. (Solanas) The stance of the SCUM manifesto is, in the words of Solanas,:
"Life in this society being, at best, an utter bore and no aspect of society being at all relevant to women, there remains to civic-minded, responsible, thrill-seeking females only to overthrow the government, eliminate the money system, institute complete automation and destroy the male sex."
Solanas argues that biologically, there is no need to have men if birthing methods shifted from natural to artificial means. (Solanas) Solanas emphatically states that men are in actuality, stunted women. To solidify her argument, Solanas points out how a Y-chromosome- the chromosome in pair 23 that determines gender the male gender- is in actuality, a stunted, misshapen, X-chromosome. (Solanas) Solanas provides an interesting perspective in regards to that point, as every person has a X-chromosome. Traditionally, only those assigned the male sex at birth have Y-chromosomes. Solanas also attacks Freudian theory, stating that women do not have "penis envy," a phrase that Freud famously touted. In lieu of "penis envy," Solanas argues that men instead have "pussy envy," and that sex acts are an act of defense against male's subconscious loathing of their stunted Y-chromosome. (Solanas)
A significant contribution to the radical feminist ideology occurred in the publication of The American Search For Woman. Written by H. Carelton Marlow and Harrison M. Davis, The American Search For Woman was published in 1976. In Chapter 4, entitled "Matriarchy and Puny Man: Superior Feminism," some doctrines of radical feminism can be found. Although the authors do not source Valerie Solanas, Marlow and Davis certainly echo some of her belief systems. Marlow and Davis bring up Olive Schreiner's study on biological facts that "substantiate female superiority," mainly, noting the size of an unfertilized egg when compared to a male sperm. (Davis, Marlow). Davis and Marlow explain that the Y-chromosome is "shriveled, rudimentary, and underdeveloped." Davis and Marlow expand on that thought, in the next paragraph, saying that a Y-chromosome is nothing but a "vestigial" remnant of a female chromosome that had been destroyed. (Davis, Marlow)
Radical feminists are notorious for their notions on childbirth. Shulamith Firestone's "The Dialectic of Sex" delves deeply into this issue. In "The Dialectic of Sex," Firestone argues that when technology renders conventional methods of conception and birth obsolete, gender equalities will cease to exist. (Firestone) Firestone pens that childbirth is "barbaric." Firestone then elaborates; at best, Firestone argues, birth is "tolerable," and a worst, birth is akin to "shitting a pumpkin." (Firestone) By saying that the joy of birth is a myth perpetuated by a patriarchal society, Firestone is an example of a radical feminist take on this issue that impacts women.
Historically, transgendered individuals and radical feminists have had a contentious relationship. Michelle Goldberg explores this tumultuous history in "What Is a Woman? The Dispute between Radical Feminism and Transgenderism." Many radical feminists staunchly insist that transgendered women are men. (Goldberg) The term "TERF," (or, trans-exclusionary radical feminist), is incorrectly used by some authors as a term to distinguish radical feminists that follow this belief system. (Goldberg) In actuality, TERF is considered a slur by the radical feminists that the phrase is directed that. (Goldberg) The roots of this schism can be traced back over forty years ago, to a West Coast Lesbian Conference in 1973. (Goldberg) The initial split began over the inclusion of a performance by a transgender woman folk-singer. (Goldberg) The keynote speaker at the conference, Robin Morgan, snarled:
"I will not call a male "she"; thirty-two years of suffering in this androcentric society, and of surviving, have earned me the title "woman"; one walk down the street by a male transvestite, five minutes of his being hassled (which he may enjoy), and then he dares, hedaresto think he understands our pain? No, in our mothers' names and in our own, we must not call him sister."
Goldberg acknowledges that these views are held by very few feminists now, but that some radical feminists still hold onto these principles. (Goldberg) Explaining that in this view, gender is not an identity, but is instead a caste position. (Goldberg) Goldberg goes on to elucidate that radical feminists believe:
"Anyone born a man retains male privilege in society; even if he chooses to live as a woman—and accept a correspondingly subordinate social position—the fact that he has a choice means that he can never understand what being a woman is really like. By extension, when transwomen demand to be accepted as women they are simply exercising another form of male entitlement."
In addition to a historically prickly relationship to transgendered women, radical feminists traditional abjure voluntary prostitutes. This is because radical feminists believe that women who voluntarily get into sex work do so not of their own volition, but instead, do so because of subtle patriarchal coercion. Sarah Bromberg wrote extensively on the subject of radical feminism and prostitution in her presentation to the 1997 International Conference on Prostitution at Cal State University, Northridge. (Bromberg) To quote Bromberg:
"From the radical feminists' standpoint, the issue of prostitution is an extension of the power politics that govern social intercourse between men and women."
Bromberg expounds the radical feminist theory by stating that radical feminists believe that the prostitute (even those that enter the field voluntarily) is a victim of the system of male oppression. (Bromberg) To radical feminists, sex acts are not private transactions, as radical feminists believe that prostitution is degrading to women, and because "all women are sisters," prostitution therefore affects all women in negative ways. (Bromberg) Radical feminists take the stance that prostitution should not occur, due to the radical feminist belief that eradicating all actions that degrade women is the proper path to gender equality. (Bromberg)
Radical feminism is much more than the incorrect assumption that radical feminists believe that "all men must die." Radical feminists believe that the oppression of women is the foremost form of oppression in the human race. Radical feminists can be designated to two camps of thought, those being Radical-libertarian feminists and radical-cultural feminists. Indisputably, radical feminists have a belligerent history with both transgendered women and voluntary prostitutes. That being said, one could argue that radical feminism is a non-inclusive movement that seems antiquated in the eyes of today's third and fourth wave feminists.
Bromberg, Sarah. "Radical Feminism." 1997. Feminist Issues In Prostitution. 8 September 2014.
This source was invaluable in regards to my study of radical feminism and prostitution. Although the website is outdated, the information is sourced and solid.
Firestone, Shulamith. "The Dialectic of Sex." Nicholson, Linda. The Second Wave: A Reader in Feminist Theory. Routledge, n.d. 19-26.
This piece not only included ideas that pique the interest of readers, Firestone also included quotes that can be used to liven and intellectual conversation.
Goldberg, Michelle. "What Is a Woman? The Dispute Between Radical Feminism and Transgenderism ." 4 August 2014. The New Yorker. 9th September 2014.
This piece was eloquently written and included a summary of the historical background of thee conflict between radical feminism and transgederism. Having only been published in August, this source is also recent.
H Carleton Marlow, Harrison M Davis. "Matriarchy and Puny Man: Superior Feminism." The American Search For Woman. Santa Barbara, CA: Cilo Press, 1976. 195-252.
This chapter of this book is relevant to radical feminism, that being said, the rest of the work is not relevant to radical feminism.
Solanas, Valerie. "SCUM Manifesto." womynkind.org/scum.htm. 1967. 7 September 2014.
This piece of work is interesting, Solanas was a firebrand for the radical feminist movement. Riddled with profanity, this source may be controversial for some academic publications.
Tong, Rosemary Putnam. Feminist Thought: A More Comprehensive Introduction. Westview Press, 2014.
This source provided a solid background on radical feminism in an easily understandable way.