Radical feminism

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We can further understand such differences by looking more extensively at that political position known as radical feminism. In part, radical feminism was created by women who had been active in NOW and were dissatisfied with what they perceived of as NOW's conservatism. Thus in 1967 at the annual meeting of NOW subsequent to the one in which the above demands were formulated, a group of New York women allied with Ti-Grace Atkinson left NOW and subsequently formed an early radical feminist organisation, "The October 17th Movement," later called "The Feminists.'' Radical feminism was to a large extent also constituted by women whose previous political activity had been in the diverse organisations of the New Left. This was the case, for example, with such women as Shulamith Firestone and Jo Freeman, who founded an early radical feminist organisation, Radical Women, in New York City in the fall of 1967. These two women, with others, had earlier presented a series of women's demands to a New Left conference, the National Conference for a New Politics, in the spring of that year. None of the demands were taken seriously, causing them to begin thinking about the necessity of separate women's organisations outside existing groups.

The early organisers of radical feminism shared with the rest of the New Left a belief in the systemic nature of much of political injustice. Thus when these women began to perceive the situation of women as representing a case of this injustice, they employed the adjective "radical" to describe their stance. It signified a commitment to look for root causes. Radical feminists viewed the activities of women who had been involved in NOW or other existing business and professional women's organisations as "reformist," helpful and necessary but fundamentally inconsequential. This view stemmed both from a belief that the criticisms liberal feminism made of relations between women and men in both domestic and non-domestic life did not go far enough, and also, from a belief that liberal feminism had no sense of the importance of gender, and the social relations of domestic life, in structuring all social life. For radical feminism, liberal feminism's belief in the power of the law to remedy inequalities between women and men testified to a lack of insight into the fundamentality of the "sex-role system," those practices and institutions which were important in creating and maintaining sex-role differences. Of particular importance was the family, for it was here that biological men and women learned the cultural constituents of masculinity and femininity, and learned about the fundamental differences of power which, according to radical feminism, were a necessary component of both. A quotation from a manifesto of New York Radical Feminists illustrates the political position:

Radical feminism recognises the oppression of women as a fundamental political oppression wherein women are categorised as an inferior class based upon their sex. It is the aim of radical feminism to organise politically to destroy this sex class system.

As radical feminists we recognise that we are engaged in a power struggle with men, and that the agent of our suppression is man insofar as he identifies with and carries out the supremacy privileges of the male role. For while we realize that the liberation of women will ultimately mean the liberation of men from their destructive role as oppressor, we have no illusion that men will welcome this liberation without a struggle....

The oppression of women is manifested in particular institutions, constituted and maintained to keep women in their place. Among these are the institutions of marriage, motherhood, love and sexual intercourse (the family unit is incorporated by the above).

In sum, for radical feminism, women's inferior political and economic status were mere symptoms of a more fundamental problem: an inferior status and lack of power built into the role of femininity. Radical feminism challenged prevailing beliefs that the constituents of this role, such as women's abilities and interests in child-rearing or lack of assertiveness or even the content of women's sexual interests, were "natural." Rather the argument was made that all but certain limited biological differences between women and men were cultural. The constituents of the sex-role system were social constructions, and more important, such constructions were fundamentally antithetical to the interests of women. The norms embodied in femininity discouraged women from developing their intellectual, artistic, and physical capacities. It dissuaded women from thinking of themselves and from being thought of by others as autonomous agents. Whereas "masculinity" embodied certain traits associated with adulthood, such as physical strength, rationality, and emotional control, "femininity," in part embodied traits associated with childhood, such as weakness and irrationality. The norms of femininity created an emphasis in women's lives on achieving the roles of wife and mother whose outcome was a comparable imbalance between men and women in economic and emotional autonomy. Moreover, while the norms embodied in femininity often worked against women, the norms embodied in masculinity served to create many unattractive beings, those who too frequently were aggressive, selfish, instrumental in their dealings with others, and unskilled in the arts of nurturance and caring. The source of the problem, according to radical feminism, was to be found in the home and family, where girls and boys received their initial and most primary lessons on the differences between the sexes and where adult women and men played out the lessons that they learned. The lessons of gender differences learned and practiced in the home were in turn transferred to the outside world when women did leave the home. Thus when women took paid employment, they replicated and were expected to replicate the practices and inferior status of women which were a part of the home. In sum, according to radical feminism, the inferior status of women as political or economic beings was merely the symptom of a problem whose roots were to be located elsewhere.

Radical feminism also generated new forms of political organising. Organisations such as NOW, WEAL, BPW had engaged in traditional political means to improve women's status. Such groups sent telegrams and lobbied in Congress. Members of NOW sometimes marched or demonstrated. The primary intent of such actions was to bring about changes within the law. While radical feminists also marched and demonstrated, the intent of the action was not always the same. The point was not necessarily to change people's thinking so that they might vote differently but sometimes to change people's thinking so that they might live differently. This conception of political organising was embodied in the phrase "consciousness-raising." In the early years of radical feminism, this was occasionally attempted through street theatre, itself a practice carried out within the New Left. This tactic was employed in Atlantic City in the fall of 1968 at an event which first brought "Women's Lib" to national attention. The New York Radical Women demonstrated outside the Miss America contest, crowning a sheep "Miss America" and throwing such feminine articles of clothing as bras, girdles, curlers, false eyelashes, and wigs into a "Freedom Trash Can."" It was from this event that the media's description of "Women's Lib" as "bra-burners" was generated. The more prevalent form that consciousness-raising took within the early years of "Women's Lib" was small-group discussion. Women came together to discuss the implications of gender in their own lives, which included its personal as well as its political and economic components. What is notable about such groups is that they expressed, and were consciously designed to express, a political statement in their very purpose. The attention that radical feminists gave to the dynamics of personal relations was accompanied by a belief that attention to feelings and personal experience was a necessary condition for eliminating the present sex-role system. Since the components of that system were embedded in deep and complex ways in daily life experience, it was only through careful examination of that experience that the multiple manifestations of gender could be understood and thus changed.

This attention to "personal experience" had immense significance for the direction contemporary American feminism has taken. On a practical level it entailed a rethinking of the nature of social change. On a theoretical level it entailed anew focus on the family as a central institution in structuring social life. To be sure, radical feminism was not the first social movement to devote attention to the family and personal life. Psychoanalytic theory has also been concerned with both the family and sexuality. For many radical feminists, however, much of psychoanalytic theory appeared to reflect uncritically prevalent assumptions concerning gender. For example, psychoanalytic theory did not question the dominant position that men played within the family or within society at large. It often assumed the universal existence of the family type which prevailed in the middle classes in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Western society. In short, psychoanalytic theory did not treat the family as a social institution whose dynamics might be susceptible to criticism and possible change; it did not address the family and gender relations in political terms.'

Thus the initial task which faced early radical feminist thinkers was that of creating a theory which both treated the family as a social institution and recognised its centrality in structuring social life as a whole. Thus if for liberalism the state, or public law, has been seen as possessing priority in structuring social life, and if in certain interpretations of Marxism the economy, or sphere of production, has been viewed as the base from which might be explained all other social phenomena, so for radical feminism the family, sometimes described as the sphere of "reproduction," occupies an analogous role. This point was made explicit by Shulamith Firestone, one of the early radical feminist theorists, in her rewriting of Engels:

Historical materialism is that view of the course of history which seeks the ultimate course and the great moving power of all historic events in the dialectic of sex: the division of society into two distinct biological classes for procreative reproduction, and the struggles of these classes with one another; in the changes in the modes of marriage, reproduction and childcare created by these struggles; in the connected development of other physically differentiated classes (castes); and in the first division of labor based on sex which developed into the (economic-cultural) class system.'

An important problem with Firestone's argument, which surfaces in much, and particularly early, radical feminist writing, is a tendency to resort to biology to ground the analysis. In Firestone's case this tendency manifests itself in her claim that the ultimate causes of women's oppression are biological differences between women and men. That women bear and nurse children makes necessary a basic family form in which women are fundamentally dependent on others in a way in which men are not. This power imbalance between women as a class and men as a class is replicated by a similar imbalance between children and adults. From such biologically based imbalances result the imbalances of power which have marked all human societies. However, for Firestone, biology need not be destiny. Technological developments in the reproduction of children conjoined with cultural changes in child-rearing would end the so far universal "tyranny of the biological family."

As many critics have pointed out, Firestone's account suffers from the obvious problem of ahistoricity. That we associate child-bearing or child-rearing with dependence and devalue those who perform such tasks need not imply that all other societies make or have made similar associations. Similarly, Firestone's account seems to project onto all societies a modem Western nuclear type of family with a certain gender division of labor. This projection seems allied with her association of child-bearing and child-rearing with dependence. If we abstract from our own nuclear family, where individual women are often dependent on individual men, to different family forms with different divisions of labor, then it is easy to see that a pregnant or lactating woman need be no more dependent on a larger social group than any other member of that group. To respond here that any other member possesses a greater possibility of leaving that group because of a greater ease in existing self-sufficiently is to belie both the social nature of human existence and the fact that women are as capable of forsaking children as men.

These problems in Firestone's account bear explicating only because they reflect methodological problems prevalent in radical feminist theory. Within the larger body of that theory there has been a tendency to create transhistorical descriptions and explanations and at times to resort to biology. As Heidi Hartmann notes, the radical feminist emphasis on psychology tends to blind it to history.' Also, the inclination to articulate a transcultural perspective follows from the need to create a theory which will explain the universal phenomenon of female oppression. The emphasis on biology is connected with this need and also with the radical feminist focus on the family, as the family tends to be viewed in modern Western culture in largely biological terms. The contradiction here is that radical feminism's attention to the family and to gender has been motivated by the desire to denaturalise both, to enable us to see both as constructed and changeable. It has been one of the important contributions of radical feminist theory to make the point that women are made and not born. The dilemma for radical feminism has been to retain this awareness of the social construction of gender and the family while also maintaining an awareness of the persistent and deep-seated phenomenon of female oppression and the importance of the family both in generating that oppression and in structuring non-domestic life.

Radical feminist practice and theory has also changed in many ways since its genesis in the late 1960s. One change is a growing attention to issues of race and class. Another is an abandonment of the early reliance on the terminology of "roles" and the "sex-role system." As Alison Jaggar has noted, role terminology implies that women and men have a high degree of choice vis-a-vis gender; role terminology suggests that gender is a kind of mask or script which people may assume or relinquish at will. Also, radical feminism in more recent years describes women's oppression less as a consequence of "the family" and more in terms of specific practices which have been associated with that institution, such as mothering and sexuality.

Indeed, one of the most important changes in radical feminism since the late 1960s has been its increased, explicit focus on sexuality, a change associated with the extension of radical feminism into lesbian feminism. An article which greatly contributed to this development was "The Woman Identified Woman." This paper claimed that women must eliminate the need for male approval and the practice of identifying with male beliefs and values, both central components of a misogynist culture. The authors argued that an important means for women to accomplish such tasks and to remove the self-hate women typically have toward themselves is to love other women, both emotionally and sexually. At the very least, women cannot let the label "dyke" stand in the way of developing such love and removing such self-hatred. More recently, Adrienne Rich has also tied together female self-identification and lesbian sexuality under the phrase, "a lesbian continuum." By using the term "lesbian" to denote not only female homosexuality but also instances "of primary intensity between and among women, including the sharing of a rich inner life, the bonding against male tyranny, the giving and receiving of practical and political support," Rich argues that "We begin to grasp breadths of female history and psychology which have lain out of reach as a consequence of limited, mostly clinical, definitions of 'lesbianism,' "

However, radical feminism has gone even further than stating that there is a connection between lesbianism and women coming to define and love themselves. Made more explicit, both by Rich and others, is the assertion that women's oppression is constituted by heterosexuality. As Catherine MacKinnon puts it, "Sexuality is the Iynch-pin of gender inequality." It is worthwhile examining the following passage from the article in which this point was made for its illustration of the similarities and differences between early radical feminism and more recent forms:

Implicit in feminist theory is a parallel argument: the moulding, direction, and expression of sexuality organises society into two sexes-women and men-which division underlies the totality of social relations. Sexuality is that social process which creates, organises, expresses, and directs desire, creating the social beings we know as women and men, as their relations create society. As work is to Marxism, sexuality to feminism is socially constructed yet constructing, universal as activity yet historically specific, jointly comprised of matter and mind. As the organised expropriation of the work of some for the benefit of others defines a class- workers-the organised expropriation of the sexuality of some for the use of others defines the sex, woman. Heterosexuality is its structure, gender and family its congealed forms, sex roles its qualities generalised to social persona, reproduction a consequence, and control its issue.

MacKinnon, like Firestone before her, defines feminism by contrast with Marxism. As Marxism has defined production, or human labor recreating the conditions of its existence, as central to its analysis of oppression, so feminism, according to MacKinnon, makes sexuality the cornerstone of its analysis of oppression. Thus MacKinnon is continuing that path well trodden by contemporary feminists, of recognising that Marxism, while providing a deeply insightful tool for analysing social oppression, has no means for comprehending gender oppression. What is unique in MacKinnon's argument is her explicit claim that the central lacuna in Marxism and that which serves as the defining issue for feminism is sexuality.

MacKinnon's argument gives us clues for seeing both what has been most insightful in radical feminism and its major problems. Contemporary radical feminism has been relatively unique in the concerted attention it has given to matters often thought of as either natural or trivial, issues such as sexuality and the family, and in arguing for the centrality of these phenomena in structuring relations between women and men and social life as a whole. The insightfulness of the first point, that in at least some cultures sex may be instrumental in structuring gender is illustrated in the English language where the word "sex" refers both to sexual activity and to gender. Moreover, the illuminating power of the second point, that both sexuality and gender are concerns not only of "private life" but of all social life, must also be recognised as a crucial contribution of radical feminism. For one, it enables us to see the interconnection of gender oppression in domestic and non-domestic settings. Also, it helps us realize that the liberal feminist solution of extending the sphere of state control is not necessarily a solution for women: that to extend the realm of state control may entail merely a substitution in new forms of masculine power, or gender inequality, in women's lives.

However, if the strengths of radical feminism lay in its recognition of the interconnection of sexuality and gender and of their importance in affecting social life, its weaknesses result from its tendency to collapse gender into sexuality and to see all societies as fundamentally similar. Indeed the interconnection of these two problems can be seen in MacKinnon's analysis. MacKinnon argues that "sexuality is the Iynch-pin of gender oppression." A question one might put regarding this assertion is: does it hold true for all women? For example, one might say that the form of sexism experienced by contemporary, poor, black, American women at the hands of a white, male-dominated, state bureaucracy and corporate world seems at least as central, if not more central, a form of sexism in the lives of these women than the sexism experienced in the context of heterosexual relations. In other words, MacKinnon's analysis does not appear to leave room for the possibility that forms of gender oppression, such as those experienced in work, politics, or religion, might express or have come to express a central form of the oppression of some women. This is not to deny that sexuality might have played a central role historically in generating gender oppression, but that would constitute a historical and not an analytic truth, which would have to be integrated with historical analysis to explicate gender oppression in other periods. Indeed, as I will argue in later chapters, when one provides this kind of historical analysis, the insights of radical feminism appear at their strongest.



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