Radical feminism is a branch of feminism that views women's oppression as a fundamental element in human society and seeks to challenge that standard by broadly rejecting standard gender roles. "Radical" in radical feminism is used as an adjective meaning the root; radical feminists seek the root cause of women's oppression. The traditional Radical feminist standpoint may be expressed as viewing the division in all societies as that between men and women and stating that men are the oppressors of women. These concepts were first developed in the late sixties as a significant part of second-wave feminism.
Roots of radical feminism
Radical feminism emerged simultaneously within liberal feminist and working class feminist discussions. The use of consciousness raising groups (CR groups) in advanced Western countries brought intellectual, workers and middle class women together. Regardless of their political or social position, during these discussions women noted a shared and repressive system. It was not only the middle class nuclear family that repressed women, but social organisations which claimed to stand for human liberation (like the counter-culture, SDS or Marxist political parties). Often Marxist feminists found that their own parties effectively silenced them, and that the methods used were patriarchal. Women in counter-culture groups related that the gender relations present were very much those of mainstream culture.
The feminism which emerged from these discussions stood first and foremost for the liberation of women, as women, from the gender roles of society. This feminism was truly radical in both a political sense, and in the sense of seeking the root cause of the oppression of women. Radical feminism described a totalising ideology and social formation which dominated women in the interests of men. This formation was called patriarchy (government or rule by fathers).
As the analysis intensified during the 1970s, radical feminists began questioning institutions like child-birth and child-rearing. Lesbianism became a serious sexual and political issue for radical feminists, and heavily divided some radical feminist collectives. Occasionally heterosexual women were perceived as "sleeping with the enemy." Additionally, lesbianism was important as it was perceived by some radical feminists to be a woman centered and woman initiated sexuality .
Social organisation and aims of radical feminists
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 womens centres, and this form of action was common in the late 1970s and early 1980s. During the mid 1980s many of the original consciousness raising groups had dissolved, and radical feminism was more and more associated with loosely organised university collectives. Since that period, radical feminism has generally been confined to activist student ghettos, inspired in part by famous intellectuals. However, occasionally, working class groups of women have formed collectives dedicated to radical feminism.
In many cases, due to state repression or cooption, the social organisations formed by radical feminists in the 1970s and 1980s were rendered ineffective. In Australia, many feminist social organisations accepted government funding during the 1980s, and the election of a conservative government in 1996 crippled these organisations.
While radical feminists aim to dismantle patriarchal society in a total historical sense, their immediate aims are generally concrete. Common demands include expanding reproductive freedoms and changes to organisational sexual culture (a common demand in US universities during the 1980s).
Radical feminist theory and ideology
Radical feminists believe that society is an oppressive patriarchy, which primarily (or solely) oppresses women. Some masculists claim that patriarchy also oppresses men. Radical feminists seek to abolish this patriarchy. Some strands of radical feminism advocating replacing patriarchy with its opposite (matriarchy). Because of this, some observers believe that radical feminism focuses on the gender oppression of patriarchy as the first and foremost fundamental oppression that women face.
Patriarchal theory is not always as single sided as the belief that all men always benefit from the oppression of all women. Patriarchal theory notes that dominant men use violent hierarchical social power to control non-dominant men as well as women. Additionally, patriarchal theory analyses some societies (like contemporary Western societies) as allowing women to play an active role in patriarchy, by taking over the role of dominant male. In these forms patriarchal theory maintains that the primary element of patriarchy is a relationship of dominance, where one party (almost always male) is dominant and exploits the other party (generally women) for his own benefit.
However, critiques of the above view have resulted in a different perspective on radical feminism held by some which acknowledges the simultaneity or intersectionality of different types of oppression which may include, but are not limited to the following: gender, race, class, perceived attractiveness, sexuality, ability, whilst still affirming the recognition of patriarchy.
Radical feminism and Marxism
Some strains of radical feminism have been compared to Marxism in that they describe a "great struggle of history" between two opposed forces. Much like the Marxist struggle between classes (typically the proletariat and bourgeoisie), radical feminism describes a historical struggle between "women" and "men". Radical feminism has had a close, if hostile, relationship with Marxism since the 1970s. Both Marxists and radical feminists seek a total and radical change in social relations; believe themselves to be on the political left; and, are primarily active amongst Western university students. Despite this commonality, as ideologies Marxism and radical feminism have generally opposed one another. In practice, however, activist alliances generally form around shared immediate goals.
Some radical feminists are explicitly avowed Marxists, and attempt to explore relationships between patriarchal and class analysis. This strain of radical feminism can trace its roots to the Second International (in particular the Marxists Rosa Luxembourg and Alexandra Kollontai). These strains of radical feminism are often referred to as "Marxist feminism".
Last updated: 10-13-2005 03:05:59