The term radical in radical feminism (from Latin rādīx, rādīc-, root) is used as an adjective meaning of or pertaining to the root or going to the root. Radical feminists locate the root cause of women's oppression in patriarchal gender relations, as opposed to legal systems (liberal feminism) or class conflict (socialist feminism and Marxist feminism).
The term militant feminism is a pejorative term which is often applied to radical feminism, but also to other currents within feminism.
While early radical feminists posited that the root cause of all other inequalities is the oppression of women, some radical feminists acknowledge the simultaneous and intersecting effect of other independent categories of oppression as well. These other categories of oppression may include, but are not limited to, oppression based on gender identity, race, social class, perceived attractiveness, sexuality, sexual orientation, and ability. See sex-positive feminism for a sex-positive feminist critique.
Patriarchal theory is not always as single-sided as the belief that all men always benefit from the oppression of all women. 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 have claimed that men use social systems and other methods of control to keep non-dominant men and women suppressed. Radical feminists believe that eliminating patriarchy, and other systems which perpetuate the domination of one group over another, will liberate everyone from an unjust society.
Redstockings co-founder Ellen Willis wrote in 1984 that radical feminism "got sexual politics recognized as a public issue", "created the vocabulary… with which the second wave of feminism entered popular culture", "sparked the drive to legalize abortion", "were the first to demand total equality in the so-called private sphere" ("housework and child care,… emotional and sexual needs"), and "created the atmosphere of urgency" that almost led to the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment. The influence of radical feminism can be seen in the adoption of these "personal" issues by even such liberal-feminist groups as the National Organization for Women (NOW) that had previously been focused almost entirely on economic issues.
The ideology of radical feminism in the United States developed as an extremist 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 had previous experience with radical protest in the struggle against racism. Chronologically, it can be seen within the context of second wave feminism, lasting from 1968 to 1973. The primary players and the pioneers of this second wave of feminism included the likes of Shulamith Firestone, Kathie Sarachild, Ti-Grace Atkinson, Carol Hanisch, Judith Brown, and Valerie Solanas, author of the SCUM Manifesto. On the other hand, many local women’s groups in the late sixties such as the UCLA Women’s Liberation Front (WLF) offered more 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’”.
In their own ways, these women helped to make the connection 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. While certainly worthy causes for advocacy, they failed to stir up enough interest among most of the women’s fringe groups of society. A majority of women of color did not participate a great deal in the radical feminist movement because it did not address many issues that were relevant to those from a working class background, of which they were a sizeable part. 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.
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 not only the middle class nuclear family oppressed women, but 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 liberal-feminist organizations such as the NOW. Initially concentrated mainly in big cities like New York, Chicago, Boston, Washington, DC, and on the West Coast 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. Radical feminism was brought to the UK by American radical feminists and seized on by British radical women as offering an exciting new theory. As the 1970s progressed, British feminists split into two major schools of thought: socialist and radical. In 1977, another split occurred, with a third grouping calling itself "revolutionary feminism" breaking away from the other two.
Australian radical feminism developed slightly later, during an extended period of social radicalization, largely as an expression of that radicalization.
As a form of practice, radical feminists introduced the use of consciousness raising groups (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 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. This feminism was radical in both a political sense (implying extremism), and in the sense of seeking the root cause of the oppression of women. Radical feminism claimed that a totalising 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 Radical Women, a present-day socialist feminist organization), which Ellen Willis characterizes as "the first women's liberation group in New York City", a radical feminist ideology began to emerge that declared that "the personal is political" and "sisterhood is powerful", formulation 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" with the "politicos" seeing capitalism as the source of women's oppression, while the "feminists" saw male supremacy as "a set of material, institutionalized relations, not just bad attitudes." The feminist side of the split, which soon began referring to itself as "radical feminists" soon constituted the basis of a new organizations, Redstockings. At the same time, Ti-Grace Atkinson led "a radical split-off from NOW", which became known as The Feminists. 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.
During this period, the movement produced "a prodigious output of leaflets, pamphlets, journals, magazine articles, newspaper and radio and TV interviews." Many important feminist works, such as Koedt's essay "The Myth of Vaginal Orgasm" (1970) and Kate Millet's book Sexual Politics (1970), emerged during this time and in this milieu.
At the beginning of this period, "heterosexuality was more or less an unchallenged assumption." 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 something gained by men at women's expense. This assumption of heterosexuality would soon be challenged by the rise of political lesbianism, closely associated with Atkinson and The Feminists. 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.
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. They held to a view — which Willis would later describe as "neo-Maoist" — that it would be possible to unite all or virtually all women, as a class, to confront this oppression by personally confronting men.
The Feminists held a more idealistic, psychologistic, and utopian philosophy, with a greater emphasis on "sex roles", seeing sexism as rooted in "complementary patterns of male and female behavior". They placed more emphasis on institutions, seeing marriage, family, prostitution, and heterosexuality as all existing to perpetuate the "sex-role system". 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" sexual intercourse as being focused mainly on male sexual or erotic pleasure, while Atkinson viewed it mainly in terms of reproduction. In contrast to the Redstockings, The Feminists generally considered genitally focused sexuality to be inherently male. Ellen Willis would later write that insofar as the Redstockings considered abandoning heterosexual activity, they saw it as a "bitter price" they "might have to pay for [their] militance", whereas The Feminists embraced separatism as a strategy.
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".
In many cases the social organizations formed by radical feminists in the 1970s and 1980s were ineffective. 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. Common demands include expanding reproductive freedoms and changes to organizational sexual culture (a common demand in U.S. universities during the 1980s). In this, they often form tactical alliances with other currents of feminism.
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".
Other radical feminists have criticized Marxists; during the 1960s in the U.S., many women became feminists because they perceived women as being excluded from, and discriminated against by, leftist political groups.
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". Radical feminist have tended to be white and middle class. Ellen Willis hypothesized in 1984 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"; the resulting narrow demographic base, in turn, limited the validity of generalizations based on radical feminists' personal experiences of gender relations. Many early radical feminists broke political ties with "male-dominated left groups", or would work with them only in ad hoc coalitions.
Betty Friedan and other liberal feminists often see precisely the radicalism of radical feminism as potentially undermining the gains of the women's movement with polarizing rhetoric that invites backlash and hold that they overemphasize sexual politics at the expense of political reform. Other critics of radical feminism from the political left, including socialist feminists, strongly disagree with the radical feminist position that the oppression of women is fundamental to all other forms of oppression; these critics hold that issues of race and of class are as important or more important than issues about gender. Queer and postmodernist theorists often argue that the radical feminist ideas on gender are essentialist and that many forms of gender identity complicate any absolute opposition between "men" and "women".
Some feminists, most notably Alice Echols and Ellen Willis, hold that after about 1975 most of what continued to be called "radical feminism" represents a narrow subset of what was originally a more ideologically diverse movement. Willis saw this as an example of a "conservative retrenchment" that occurred when the "expansive prosperity and utopian optimism of the '60s succumbed to an era of economic limits and political backlash." They label this dominant tendency "cultural feminism", view it as a "neo-Victorian" ideology coming out of radical feminism but ultimately antithetical to it. Willis draws the contrast that early radical feminism saw itself as part of a broad left politics, whereas much of what succeeded it in the 1970s and early 1980s (both cultural feminism and liberal feminism) took the attitude that "left politics were 'male' and could be safely ignored." She further writes that whereas the original radical feminism "challenge[d] the polarization of the sexes", cultural feminism simply embraces the "traditional feminine virtues". Critics of cultural feminism hold that cultural feminist ideas on sexuality, exemplified by the feminist anti-pornography movement, severely polarized feminism, leading to the "Feminist Sex Wars" of the 1980s. Critics of Echols and Willis hold that they conflate several tendencies within radical feminism, not all of which are properly called "cultural feminism", and emphasize a greater continuity between early and contemporary radical feminism.
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 criticised its inability "to integrate a feminist perspective with an overall radical politics," while viewing this limitation is inevitable in the historical context of the times. In part this limitation arose from the fact that consciousness raising, as "the primary method of understanding women's condition" in the movement at this time and its "most successful organizing tool", led to an emphasis on personal experience that concealed "prior political and philosophical assumptions".
Willis, writing in 1984, was critical of the notion that all hierarchies are "more specialized forms of male supremacy" as preventing adequate consideration of the possibility that "the impulse to dominate… could be a universal human characteristic that women share, even if they have mostly lacked the opportunity to exercise it." Further, the view of oppression of women as a "transhistorical phenomenon" allowed middle-class white women to minimize the benefits of their own race and class privilege and tended to exclude women from history. Further, Willis wrote that the movement never developed "a coherent analysis of either male of female psychology" and that it ultimately raised hopes that its narrow "commitment to the sex-class paradigm" could not fulfil; when those hopes were dashed, according to Willis the resulting despair was the foundation of withdrawal into counterculturalism and cultural feminism.
Echols and Willis have both written that radical feminism was, ultimately, dismissive of lesbian sexuality. On the one hand, if the central struggle was to take place within personal heterosexual relationships, as envisioned by the Redstockings, lesbians were marginalized. On the other, political lesbianism granted lesbians vanguard role, but only if they would play down erotic desire. Those lesbians whose sexuality focused on genital pleasure were liable to be dismissed by the advocates of political lesbianism as "male identified". The result, through the 1970s, was the adoption by many of a "sanitize[d] lesbianism", stripped of eroticism.