A Real Explanation of Radical Feminism

One of my very first blog posts on Femillennial covered different types of feminism, but I’ve had some conversations recently that have inspired me to revisit two types in particular and discuss some of the differences: liberal feminism and radical feminism.

Radical feminism isn’t a school of thought that’s given much attention in public discourse, so I’d like to shed some light on it here, because generally one wouldn’t learn anything about radical feminism at all without actively looking for it, and I think we need to raise awareness and accessibility in this respect.

Almost all feminism represented today in media and popular culture would be classified as “liberal feminism”. The broad definition of liberal feminism includes a focus on individual choices and a concerted effort to work within the existing system/society to achieve equality as best as possible for women (commonly identified with third-wave feminism).

Radical feminism admittedly sounds much scarier. Feminism already has some negative connotations, and adding “radical” in front of anything immediately invokes fear, right?! But purely from a semantic standpoint, radical means “advocating complete political or social change”. That’s it. Radical feminism holds that society as a whole needs to change or restructure in order to achieve gender equality (commonly identified with second-wave feminism).

These differences in ideology play out in almost every feminist issue, and one of the most common critiques of liberal feminism is that it is “de-fanged” – that is, it has lost its edge by compromising ideals in order to appeal to a wider audience, and pandering to men in order to not appear ‘threatening’.

Here are just a few example issues and the lib fem/rad fem take on each:

  • Gender and gender roles are oppressive social constructs.
    • LF: Yes! Gender is a spectrum. We will create additional genders so we can each identify in a way that feels most relevant to us (nonbinary, genderfluid, genderqueer, etc).
    • RF: Yes! But instead of creating additional genders, we should abolish gender and gender roles completely.
  • The make-up industry reinforces beauty standards and profits off female insecurity.
    • LF: True, but make-up is art and if a woman genuinely enjoys doing her make-up in a way that expresses herself, it’s a feminist act.
    • RF: Yes, and therefore applying make-up can never be a feminist act.
  • The sex industry (stripping, porn and prostitution) harms the women in it and women in society at large by the norms it enforces.
    • LF: That’s not true! Many women feel empowered and liberated by participating in sex work. They are in control of their own sexuality.*
    • RF: Yes, and we should strive to abolish these industries. The vast majority of women involved are abused, the act reinforces male entitlement to female sexuality and female objectification, and consumers of these industries are proven to internalize harmful beliefs, such as rape myths.

Now, this isn’t meant to hate on liberal feminism, and I want to be clear: I am not against feminism or feminists in any form – just like I’m not against women who wear makeup or participate in sex work. I am just critical of the greater context in which those actions occur. Radical feminists get a bad rep for being judgmental and exclusionary – which is absolutely not the case (I wear make-up!). We are not in the business of critiquing individuals; we are in the business of critiquing institutions.

Naturally, I differ from liberal feminists on many of their positions, and I hate the way liberal feminism has been turned into a marketing commodity – especially to sell products that are clearly antifeminist. But there are many places of common ground: the idea that gender roles are oppressive, the prevalence of violence against women, the fight for female equality in the workplace and more. I wanted to call out the differences here for the sake of exploring different ideologies, but feminism as a whole should be focusing on working together and not allow the divisions to fragment the movement.

*In 2004, radical feminist Andrea Dworkin declared, “If we give up now, younger generations of women will be told porn is good for them, and they will believe it.” Today, many women do believe it – even liberal feminists.

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