“Radical Feminism” Actually Means Something

My good friend and Chief Conversationist here, Kristycat, wrote a wonderful piece at her blog about feminism, radical feminism, and their various implications. She also asked me what I think and, since I’m a publicity hound and had a lot to say, I thought I would reply publicly here and save her huge comments.

The main thrust of the article is that while she is a feminist, she is not a “radical feminist”. It is based on this article from nicoleandmaggie about types of feminism. Kristycat takes this time to explain why she identifies as feminist in the way that she does and support her arguments, and I highly recommend reading it.

My first thought is that I think more articles need to identify that “radical feminism” is actually a thing. I say this because “radical” is often appended to “feminist” the same way “militant” is appended to “atheist” or “homosexual” by opponents. It doesn’t actually describe anything significant, or even marginally related to the topic at hand, but is an attempt to de-legitimize the very real concerns of very real people by classifying them as extreme. Ask an MRA or evopsych sexist what they consider non-radical feminism to be, and I can promise you will get one of four responses: a) they can’t define it, b) they tell you all feminism is radical, c) their answer is so vague as to be meaningless, or d) their answer makes feminism sound remarkably like patriarchy. In many respects, b is the default answer, and all feminism sounds like a major departure from current norms and is, therefore, “radical.”

However, there is a major difference, and I admit that I’m not a big fan of radical feminism either. I don’t like radical lesbianism which posits that sexual orientation is a choice, and one that women should avail themselves of to rectify the inequality of the sexual revolution of the 60s and 70s that favored male non-monogamy. I don’t like that radical feminists are typically anti-pornography, classifying all porn as violence against women and inherently problematic. I don’t like that radical feminists are often transphobic, classifying transmen as traitors and transwomen as not real women. These are broad generalizations, but when we discuss “radical feminism” as a political and ideological movement rather than a derogatory term, this is what we’re talking about, and I think it replaces one set of gender expectations with another.

Back to the article, Kristycat then goes on to discuss a conversation she was having with her mother-in-law and grandmother-in-law about what should happen if, during her pregnancy, complications arise and it comes down to a choice between her and the baby. While both women identify as feminists, the grandmother-in-law insisted that any choice other than saving the mother was invalid, whereas the mother-in-law insisted that it was vital that Kristycat make her own decision on this. The section really struck me because of the commentary.

In his grandmother’s generation, feminists were fighting for basic rights – the kind we take for granted now. In her day, it wasn’t even a choice. Doctors would save the baby and let the woman die, every time. That was one of their battleground issues, in fact – the right to choose not to die in childbirth. To her, sacrificing the woman for the child was unthinkable.

In his mother’s generation, the fight was for women’s voices to be heard. No one was routinely letting women die anymore, but they were certainly talking over them and making choices for them. The right to determine your own fate, to have your opinion matter as much as a man’s (or more, if the issue was your own body and health), was a battleground issue. To her, treating a woman as a doll to be protected, rather than a fully-functioning being with the right to choose to sacrifice herself or not, was unthinkable.

I think this is an important distinction to make, and one that I would like to apply intersectionally for a moment. The reason why social justice movements generally come in “waves” is because solving problems often reveals more problems, and we tend to prioritize issues, leaving some to be solved later. Dan Savage, a couple weeks ago, in talking about the amazing victories for LGBT rights we had during the election, mentioned that we still have a long way to go. DOMA is still on the books. ENDA needs to be passed. DADT was repealed, but trans* service members still can’t serve openly as their gender. The momentum from one victory can be applied to new fights.

Similarly, Atheism+ is about trying to create a new wave of atheism. The first wave atheists were simply trying to recognize that not believing in a deity was a valid and rational choice. The second wave, most closely associated with the Four Horsemen, focused instead on how the lack of belief in god could be linked to a lack of evidence, and proposed that science and scientific method be an integral and natural outcropping of the rejection of the supernatural (i.e. embrace of the natural). A+ takes that same idea and pushes it one step further: social injustice is often based on poor understanding of facts and bad assumptions about the nature of human beings, therefore a good skeptic will not only reject god for lack of evidence, they’ll reject social conventions that don’t have a basis in fact, like using “men and women are different” to justify any and all prejudice against women, including abnormal reliance on gendered language and rape threats to silence women who speak up. We are feminist (and pro-LGBT and anti-racist, etc.) because we’re atheist and it’s intellectually consistent to reject all non-evidence based assertions instead of just the ones dealing with god.

What that whole digression is about is that each wave of a movement tackles new things, and the resistance of DawkinsBlackford, and others to A+ is rather indicative of the same attitudes that had two self-identified feminists on opposite sides of an issue: they still prioritize the fights that defined their cause, and with no clear winner/loser, haven’t moved on to new fights.

Kristycat goes on to explore some of the specific issues she has seen raised regarding feminism, which I again recommend reading all of, but let’s just look at a few for reactions.

1. * Men haven’t had the same experiences women have

I would also like to point out that empathy and imagination do count for something, as does care for loved ones. I don’t have to be LGBTQ, for instance, to care about my friends who fall into that category. When I hear of someone being hurt for who they are, I immediately think “what if that were (person X)??” When I read about racially-motivated crimes, such as the Trayvon Martin case, it’s not a huge stretch of the imagination to think “what if that were my child?” It’s not the same as living it yourself, but it’s not nothing.

This. This a million times. The idea that we can fully understand the circumstances of another person is ridiculous, but the flip side that nothing that isn’t directly experienced can be valid is equally absurd. Our brains are very, very good at pattern recognition and prediction. We are consistently using our knowledge of how things work to figure out how to navigate this crazy world of ours. Watching a newborn learn is fascinating, and the things we take for granted are new and exciting discoveries to them. There is absolutely no reason that the same mechanism that tells us that gouging one’s eye out will hurt could not also tell us that being paid less than somebody else doing the same job for no reason other than being a woman would seriously suck. No, it’s never happened to me, but so what? I can recognize that it’s unjust and wrong and demand it be corrected just the same.

3. * By calling yourself feminist even though women have told you not to, you’re demonstrating your lack of concern for female voices and opinions

And doesn’t my opinion count too? Why should exclusive voices matter more than inclusive ones? Should your desire to exclude men trump my equally strong desire to include them? Am I not equally a woman, equally a feminist?

Again, I’m going to get a little intersectional here. The Episcopal Church, as of last July, became the largest Christian denomination to offer same-sex union blessings. They also ordain transgender people. They join the UCC, UU, and Quakers in supporting LGBT inclusion, adding up to over 35 million people.

So why do those arguing that same-sex marriage violates their religious freedom not seem to care about the freedom of those 35 million Americans who’s faith actively calls for LGBT inclusion in marriage and ordination? The answer, of course, is that it has nothing to do with freedom, but generally those who prefer to maintain power by acting as gatekeepers try to define freedom as limited to restricting membership. The only freedom worth mentioning is the freedom to oppress others.

But of course nobody owns the term “feminist” other than feminists, regardless of their specific gender. We can and do have discussions (such as this post and Kristycat’s) about what feminism is, but they are persuasive and focused on priorities, not definitive and objective lists of membership minutiae. And there are debates on who counts as being a feminist (Joss Whedon, for example, is a gray area for a whole lot of people). But ultimately, being inclusive is generally preferable than being exclusive, and I would rather have a robust discussion about the goals of feminism than a front united in misperceptions.

Yet again, check out all of her reasons and responses, but let me end with this. Any and all social movements come with a breadth of knowledge and ideas, and the purpose intellectuals serve in this world is to expose us to new thoughts and considerations. Movements shift and change, they reform and fall apart. That’s why it’s important to know what we are and why we want the things we do. I am a feminist because of all of the reasons Kristycat mentions, plus it’s a natural fit with my atheism. I disagree with the methods of people I may share goals with, and disagree with the goals of people I may share ideology with. It’s the nature of living in a complex world.

I know. Sad ending. Endings are hard, so please enjoy the somewhat random thoughts above and pretend they tie up nicely into a bow, because I can’t seem to unify them but they’re all pretty important.

4 thoughts on ““Radical Feminism” Actually Means Something

    • You’re quite welcome. There’s a certain tendency in people to try and simplify and lump people together, and feminism (like most other things) is far, far more complex than that.

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  2. Pingback: Intersectionality Fails | Reasonable Conversation

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