The present paper focuses on radical feminism as a significant step in the development of feministic theories. In order to understand the specific ideology of radical feminism, its history is traced as a basis for the peculiar character of this type of feminism. Further on, the key notions of radical feminism are reviewed, and comments are made on the efficiency and drawbacks of the teaching. Overall, the paper maintains a thesis that radical feminism, springing from the left-wing tendencies in the post-war America, positioned itself as a movement for exclusion from the general mainstream and termination of the governing patriarchal principles.
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The history of feministic thought has witnessed its evolution through various trends and tendencies. Most of those were naturally predetermined by the contemporary social conditions that at one time or another served as a seminal ground for emergence of certain feministic ideas. One of the specific occurrences in the history of feminism is the radical feminism, the onset of which was prepared by the social and political events of the 1960s. Springing from the left-wing tendencies in the post-war America, radical feminism positioned itself as a movement for exclusion from the general mainstream and termination of the governing patriarchal principles.
Although traditionally the notion of radical feminism is considered within the time scope of late 1960s – early 1970s that coincided with the so-called ‘second-wave feminism’, the roots of radical trends in feminism can be traced back to as early as the second half of the nineteenth century. Radical feminism of that time is associated by researchers, inter alia, with the activities of the French campaigner Hubertine Auclert who, together with promoting the general feminist ideas of the necessity to introduce changes into laws, also insisted on introducing women to public office since only then fair legislation would be possible (Evans 131). Impatient and persistent, Auclert went much further than the moderate feminists of the time and suggested enlarging the social borders of feminism to all social strata including the proletariat. Moreover, the tactics she used for bringing forward her ideas were also characterized by forcefulness and push. While in calmer German society a simple public protest meeting was already considered revolutionary, in a more open-minded France it was possible for Auclert to conduct street demonstration and even alternative general elections among women. Additionally, she launched a taxation protest “I do not vote, I do not pay” and ran a La Citoyenne magazine for a decade, where sensational methods were used to attract public attention to the feministic demands of political rights for women (Evans 131-132).
At approximately the same time period, social and organizational processes in the other hemisphere provided for the development of more radical feminist action in the United States of America. The achievements of the “women’s crusade against alcohol” in the early 1870s resulted in the emergence of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Unit allowed attracting large numbers of women to the feministic side (Evans 53). Provided with masses enough to launch a large-scale campaign, the National Women Suffrage Association started to employ more radical methods of public influence including “speaking tours and mass meetings, the scattering of handbills at American Centennial celebrations in 1876, […] and the almost annual introduction of a Constitutional Amendment in favor of female suffrage into Congress from 1878 to 1896” (Evans 53-54). Such were the beginnings of radical trends in feminism which with the time were dissolved in the suffrage movement and for a certain period were dropped for the sake of preserving public tranquility.
In the history of feministic trends, the rise of radical feminism proper is connected by the researchers with the political course of John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s administration in the 1960s (Rodnitzky 23). For one thing, Kennedy promoted active participation of women in political life by establishing the first Federal Commission on the Status of Women headed by Eleanor Roosevelt. The remarkable thing about the Commission activities was that while they were mostly moderate, certain allowance was made for publishing more radical reports. In the legislative sphere, the Commission operations led to a ban on high-federal employment of women and endorsement of the Equal Pay Act in 1964. For another thing, the same year celebrated the inclusion of women in Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Bill. Thus, John Kennedy, renowned for his womanizing behavior, became a prophet of women liberation — probably most unexpectedly for himself, led by a simple wish to keep women happy and comfortable (Rodnitzky 23-24).
In addition to the activities of President Kennedy’s administration, another factor possibly contributed to the subsequent development of female liberation. Betty Friedan’s 1963 bestseller The Feminine Mystique echoed the ideas voiced at the beginning of the century by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. The vivid account of oppressing women locked up in their daily family routine could not leave millions of housewives indifferent and thus prepared the ground for redefining home and domesticity several years later. The problems of frustration, boredom, and unfulfilled career plans received a broad resonance throughout the country resulting in social readiness for action (Rodnitzky 24-25).
If the abovementioned were the factors that could have exerted indirect influence on the rise of radical feminist movement, a more immediate connection can be traced from the activities of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) organization. Being at the front of New Left student activism, in the mid-1960s SDS voiced the strongest radical opinions of the time. Initially focusing on civil rights, student rights and anti-Vietnam protests, SDS preferred to ignore the claim of their female members for leadership which resulted in a number of female activists dropping from SDS and forming a number of radical feminist groups in New York and Chicago. Subsequently more groups followed all over the country often bearing odd names like Redstockings, W.I.T.C.H. (Women’s International Terrorism Conspiracy from Hell), S.C.U.M (Society for Cutting Up Men), and others. Mass media of the time did not take those groups seriously and when covering them in the news used the topic rather for reader entertainment (Rodnitzky 26-28).
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With Richard Nixon’s arrival at a presidential post, the Vietnam War continued and radical groups became increasingly dissatisfied with the way their protests were ignored. Therefore, more aggressive actions began to take place: the “Days of Rage” campaign led by SDS brought to the fore such famous slogan as “Make Love — Not War” and was increasingly used by feminists after 1965. Already separated from SDS, female liberation groups inherited such of its hallmarks as “self-righteousness, impatience, crudeness, and paranoia”, and appeared to be more influenced by SDS than by the suffragists’ movement (Rodnitzky 28-29). The disillusion brought about by the unequal treatment of women in the New Left front by their male associates triggered a wave of radical feminist counterculture that drew in additional support from variously discriminated female community of the time.
Initiated as a protest against socialist-oriented politics of the New Left, by 1970 the small groups of women criticizing male supremacy had gradually grown and developed into a full-fledged female liberation movement with radical views being the most vital and imaginative source of it (Echols 3). Placing a great importance onto mass media as a time-tested conservative means of communicating ideas to the public, radical feminists of the time not only organized street marches, but also participated in media actions and theorizing in form of multiple writings. After their bitter experience with the mainstream mass media that only distorted their actions and turned them into a laughing stock, radical feminists at times agreed to cooperate with female reporters only, at the same time creating their own autonomous women’s media (Rhodes 41). Developed to mobilize women for struggle, feministic journals thrived: such editions as Aphra, Asian Women, Women: A Journal of Liberation continuously published appeals for all women to join the movement. The pages of underground feministic newspapers were filled with ideas of overthrowing any hierarchy and questioning any ideology, theorist or institution. Women-owned and -controlled publications were a powerful tool for not only informing the confirmed feminists about the developing ideas but also attracting new forces to the movement (Keetley 4-6).
The disappearance of the radical feminism movement was as speedy as its rise: by the early 1970s it began to lose ground since its nurturing basis was gradually lost. The progress radical feminists had made in promoting abortion rights and equal pay and reducing job discrimination, as well as the end of Vietnam War that made the New Left student movement unnecessary, all that brought about crucial changes in the ways feminism continued its activities thereafter. Paradoxically enough, the success of radical feminism was the key reason for its fading and transformation into rather cultural movement. After the 1970 the women’s movement continued to grow but in different, more established and rationalized patterns that did not demand the “wild creative surges” of the radical feminism period (Rodnitzky 41).
The historical conditions of the radical feminism development by large defined the specificity of the ideas supported and promoted by the members of the movement. As such, the problems of female rights and sexuality were not new: yet, they received a new understanding within the context of the social movements of the time. Though being grounded on the same idea of promoting female as a self-sufficient independent being, radical feminism was totally averted from the liberalistic point of including women into the social mainstream of the time. On the contrary, the radicalism revealed itself in the claim for the rejection of the mainstream and cardinal opposition to it. While liberal feminists tried to solve the problem of the exclusion of women from the sphere of public influence, radical feminists occupied themselves with the issue of sexual politics of the private life (Echols 15). The whole theory of radical feminism is based on the assumption that women form a sex class; and therefore the departing point for any radical feminist analysis is the oppressed condition of the female class (Madsen 152). Due to its early occurrence in the historical course of events, oppression of females is seen as a predecessor and a basis for all future kinds of oppression possible:
Male supremacy is the oldest, most basic form of domination. All other forms of exploitation and oppression (racism, capitalism, imperialism, etc.) are extensions of male supremacy: men dominate women, a few men dominate the rest. All power structures throughout the history have been male-dominated and male-oriented. (Thompson 133)
Therefore, male domination is viewed as the root of all evil and all the discrimination, inequality and injustice in the world: “The oppression of women by men is the source of all the corrupt values throughout the world…” (Thompson 132). Inheriting some features of the Marxism thinking style from the New Left movement, radical feminists view human history as the history of struggle between two classes: men and women. Patriarchy becomes the key concept and the natural enemy of radical feminists who position men and women as two ever-conflicting and hostile groups: “Women have very little idea of how much men hate them” (Dickerson, Flanagan, and O’Neill 206). In search of support for that pretentious claim, feminists analyze certain male behaviors as those aimed at female oppression. For example, rape, sexual harassment and violence against women are viewed as basic means of social control; pornography is considered to be degrading for women and is often seen as “anti-female propaganda” and gender violence (Dickerson, Flanagan, and O’Neill 206). That behavior is analyzed by a renowned writer on radical feminism, Catharine MacKinnon, who in her search of male definition of women departs from the abovementioned abusive sexual behavior and arrives at the conclusion that men envisage women as “rapable”, and in a broader context “socially rapable” (Flick 160).
Stemming from the view of female oppression as being based on biological factors, radical feminism finds a solution for the unacceptable situation in escaping it, i.e. in separating from men (Murphy, and Livingstone 182). For a number of radical feminists, this emancipation from male domination necessarily presupposed lesbianism which is viewed not simply as a sexual orientation but rather as a political position. Political lesbianism was viewed as a part and parcel of feministic emancipation since it served as a means of expression of female solidarity on the one hand, and allowed to revolutionize the terrains of family and motherhood which were oppressive to females on the other hand.
Childbearing is announced by radical feminism to be barbarian since it firstly causes pain and suffering to women and secondly confines them to childcare sacrificing their own interests. According to radical feminists, pregnancy should be substituted for artificial laboratory fertilization and fetus implantation into animal host womb; and biological families are no more a necessity since the responsibility for raising up children should be transferred to specially employed people who bear little relation to the child. Moreover, with the disintegration of biological families as the oppressive factor for women, traditional standards of sexual behavior should be terminated: “… all forms of sexuality would be allowed and indulged”, incest included (Dickerson, Flanagan, and O’Neill 207). It should be remarked, however, that inside the radical feminists movement there existed certain discrepancies on the issue of childbearing and child raising. While some activists like Firestone insisted on total transformation, mechanization and artificalization of childbearing and child raising process, others, such as Mary O’Brian, supported an opinion that those processes symbolize female significance and uniqueness and therefore should be given over under total consideration of the women who could carry out a control over childbearing at their own discretion (Dickerson, Flanagan, and O’Neill 207).
Despite its chronological shortness, the period of radical feminism movement has had long-lasting consequences on the global society. On the one hand, due to their openness and decisive actions, radical feminists managed to bring a new understanding of female role in society. Women have gained an unprecedented level of control over their own sexuality and possess the possibility to streamline their sexual life in behavior in an own-designed way. Scientific developments in spheres of artificial fertilization can be explained not only through technical progress but also as necessitated by political demands brought forward by radical feminists. Terms like sexual harassment, rape, pornography, and prostitution are nowadays social signals of danger and abuse that should be eradicated and in no way encouraged. Female sexual minorities are recognized to the same degrees as male ones and enjoy no less rights and freedoms. All those changes signify a qualitatively new cultural level of treating women in modern society.
On the other hand, one can observe certain drawbacks and limitations in the teaching of radical feminists. Due to the radical character of their standpoint, their views on sexual roles, family issues, and treatment of children present a significant danger to the core values of traditional society. Recognizing the necessity for vesting both sexes with similar rights to develop in accordance to their own personal interests, it still appears reasonable that certain relations should be present between two sexes. Radical feminist theory, with its rejection of natural childbirth and the importance of biological family for bringing up children, appears to overlook the natural need of people for stability and protective background. Taking refuge in the slogan of liberating women from the burden of motherhood, radical feminists reject any natural feelings of love, affection, and care that emerge in the framework of the family. Together with fighting against pornography and prostitution, they promote sexual promiscuity which cannot be viewed as a praiseworthy behavior in any case. As a result, radical feminists are caught in the same trap that is their own argument against male sexual dominance: claiming family and children to be one of the forms of female oppression by males, they run to the extreme of rejecting those values and letting chaotic behavior dominate the world.
All in all, it becomes obvious that the specific character of radical feminism ideas stems from the historically created social framework of protest against neglecting the demands of a significant part of population. The ideas of male dominance and patriarchy oppressing women had both positive and negative consequences on the social development. Therefore, such ideas should be treated carefully and with regard to the necessity for preserving the core values and stabilizing society for the benefit of both genders.
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Flick, Rachel. “The Failure of Radical Feminism.” The Moral Foundations of Civil Rights. Eds. Robert K. Fullinwider, and Claudia Mills. Totowa, NJ: Rowman & Littlefield, 1986. 159-166. Print.
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