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Radical Feminism — a good idea in theory

Welcome to the academic mean girls club.

Radical feminism often gets a bad press, but it’s one of the branches of feminism that has been central in forming the movement that we have today. Many concepts, such as patriarchy and the notion of women and men as social classes, originated in radical feminism and they are pivotal in the discourse of other schools of thought — some of them opposed to other aspects of radical feminist philosophy. It seems to have gone astray recently, with many attacking radical feminism as a concept. It’s a shame, because applied appropriately, it has a lot of uses in the 21st century.

The core idea of radical feminism is that our society is designed to favour men giving them unfair advantages and more power than women, and in order to achieve gender equality, society needs to be reordered to redistribute power and access to resources. That in itself isn’t too controversial (although there’s always those that play the “reverse sexism” card), but some of the other ideas stemming from radical feminism are more problematic.

Radical feminism began in the 1960s, arising from the civil rights movement. It aimed to centre gender as the most fundamental form of oppression (the term “radical” in this sense refers to identifying the root cause of sex discrimination — it doesn’t mean “extreme” or “crazy”). There were contentions from the beginning because this form of feminism focusses only on oppression based on gender, at the exclusion of other characteristics such as race and socioeconomic status.

However, its message was one that gathered broad support, and was adopted practically as well as theoretically. Women were brought together in consciousness-raising groups and protests, and while not everyone was on board with the movement (those who felt excluded due to their ethnic and class status), it was able to carry out important work for the benefit of women generally — it might be reasonable to say for the benefit of women “as a class”. Targeted issues included reproductive rights, gender roles, pornography, rape, prostitution, traditional families and patriarchal structures.

While radical feminism didn’t speak to all women, it did achieve a lot and its concerns are still relevant today. But it has also run into problems. A part of this is due to feminists declaring themselves to be Radical Feminists, rather than adopting the principles of radical feminism. That sounds like the same thing, but it isn’t: if you adopt the principles of radical feminism, and use them as gadgets in your feminist toolbox, you are free to replace them, update them, use some and not others, and bring in tools from other kits when our own toolkit doesn’t have the correct device for the job. If you follow its principles, but allow yourself to acknowledge other ideas, your values remain strong, but with room to adapt to new problems and a changing world.

If you identify as a Radical Feminist, you’re more likely to face conflict, both internal and external. Firstly, adopting any identity takes an idea, a concept, and makes it your actual existence. This is similar to followers of religion — it’s not just that they believe in their faith, they identify as members of that faith. Any criticism of their religion is seen as criticism of them personally. The same can be true for those who call themselves Radical Feminists — rejecting feminist ideas that conflict with their own personal brand of feminism, which can have bizarre and harmful consequences.

Radical feminism grew up in the 1960s and served us well as it was until the end of the 80s. Other feminisms existed alongside it, but it was easier then to align with the theories of radical feminism and remain consistent and relevant. But things started to change in the 1980s when the broader feminist movement paid more attention to those intersections that had previously been neglected by radical feminism, and to sex-positivity and trans-inclusivity.

Many feminists accept the histories of all versions of feminism and recognise that some concepts have been more influential and useful in dealing with the struggles we face today. There are plenty of elements of radical feminism that we still need. But there are also those that we don’t, and some better ideas to replace and/or complement the old. Things change, we meet new challenges, new thinkers emerge — that’s pretty standard. But the self-identified Radical Feminists see this process of updating the toolkit as a personal attack on them — this is the identity they’ve bought into, and they stick rigidly to it, even if it is contradicted by facts and evidence.

And then we have radical feminist ideas that work well on paper, but that could never work practically, or that have dire consequences. Many philosophical schools have models that are useful for informing our thinking, but do not translate well as models for living. Radical feminism has a few of these, but unlike most other philosophies, its adherents prefer to ignore reality and claim that their version of the world is the correct one.

In spite of the progress it has brought us, and the tools that we are still able to make use of now, it’s clear that radical feminism has got some serious problems. Let’s take a look at three examples to highlight where the conflicts are.


Political Lesbianism

This is the idea that women should abandon relationships with men due to the oppressive and unequal nature of traditional heterosexual relationships, and hook up with women instead. A great idea in theory, because opposite-sex partnerships have had centuries of history of abusing women and treating them like property. The trouble is that sexual orientation isn’t as easy to choose as one’s political views. It may or may not be fixed, but it sure ain’t a matter of choice. I’m sure that a relationship with another woman would be way healthier & fulfilling than the heteronormative version, but if you’re not attracted to the ladies, it’s not going to work out.

A slightly more workable option exists in Political Celibacy, which in some ways many women do engage in by choosing to stay single and not date — and there’s nothing wrong with that. We wouldn’t be able to make that choice as freely without feminism.

Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminism (TERFs)

Now we’re about to step into a rather topical minefield. This small and obscure branch of feminism is making the headlines on both sides of the Atlantic due to recent anti-trans activity. It seems bigger than it is due to the amount of attention it gets, and the fact that it has supporters with large media platforms. But given that self-identified Radical Feminists are a minority, and TERFs are a subset of that, there aren’t that many of them. I’d be surprised if there were more TERFs than there are trans people (who comprise around 1% of the population).

Transgender exclusion has been a part of some strands of radical feminism since the 1970s, but it was largely unnoticed by the general population because not everyone back then had a passionate interest in women’s issues. Nowadays we do, but more importantly, the media loves a bit of drama and so everyone gets to hear about it. The thing is, TERFs have issues with the idea of transgender people (transgender women in particular) for ideological reasons:

“Trans women were born with male privilege” — ignoring the fact they also experience gender dysphoria, homophobia, transphobia, and that they relinquish their male privilege upon transition.
“Trans women insisting on being accepted as women is an example of men trying to redefine womanhood” — this only makes any sense if one thinks that trans women are men, which they aren’t. And anyway, who exactly does get to define womanhood?
“There’s no such thing as a male or female brain — this is true but it doesn’t have anything to do with being transgender. Gender identity is not something that can be mapped on a brain scan — although the brains of men and women have broad trends in structural and activity differences, on the whole human brains have far more similarities than differences. Additionally, gender identity is a complex product of biology, psychology, neuroscience, hormones and more — so it’s far more nuanced than “pink brain / blue brain”.
“Behavioural differences between men and women are the product of socialisation” — to a large extent, probably — but it’s irrelevant. The issue is that a transgender person does not feel that their gender aligns with their assigned sex. It doesn’t matter what has caused the differences between genders, or whether some people are gender non-conforming without transition, the fact is that it is a problem for trans people experiencing gender dysphoria. That is the problem we need to tackle in order to effectively treat an individual’s medical needs. If you want to break down gender roles, then great — so do many trans people. But this isn’t an either/or. We can still challenge this socialisation while accepting that transgender people experience their own gender in a way that is different to most of the population.
“Trans people reinforce gender roles” — except when they’re breaking them by literally changing their gender and adopting behaviours that are incongruent with their assigned sex.

As we can see, some of these positions are contradictory and contrived. But what matters to those making these arguments is that their version of reality is upheld in spite of the facts (an accusation they levy at trans people, funnily enough). Our understanding of gender identity, sexuality and human biology has improved since these theories were developed, and it’s obvious that they are not played out in reality. In order to maintain the fantasy that their ideas are real, they require the elimination of trans people — which has predictably horrid consequences.

Sex Worker-Exclusionary Radical Feminism (SWERFs)

Unfortunately, it gets worse. Radical feminism classes porn, prostitution and other sex work as inherently harmful to women by fuelling rape culture. There are good arguments in favour of, and against, this position, but that’s not what the problem is. This is one of the more rational theories but it still causes issues when applied to the real world. Or rather, the way it is implemented by the current wave of SWERFs. Many radical feminists are in favour of the Nordic Model of eliminating prostitution, but sex workers say that this policy would put them in danger. This is a clear case of ideology being upheld while individuals’ rights are removed. The Nordic Model criminalises clients, making it more difficult for sex workers to operate safely, and unsafe to report any crimes committed against them for fear of being arrested themselves. Meanwhile, nothing is done to tackle the root causes of women entering sex work, or the fact that the demand for it will still exist. Regardless of your opinion on sex work, deliberately putting women in danger isn’t the greatest feminist act.


In each of these examples, we have some good theories, in an academic sense at least. But when these theories are unleashed on the real world, things do not turn out well. Some facets of Radical Feminism require heavy-duty cognitive dissonance when trying to reconcile strongly-held beliefs with a reality that doesn’t play by a set of rules that were developed in a silo.

In all other branches of academic study, theories are developed, adapted and updated depending on the latest evidence. We still keep old theories “on the books” even if they’ve been superseded. They can still be discussed, and useful parts of them are used where they still work. Just because we come up with new theories, it doesn’t mean that the older ones disappear, or no longer matter.

In the cases where we can see actual harm existing from situations that align with any theory, we cannot continue to operate like that. We do not achieve equality by harming those more marginalised than us. Sex workers and transgender people are vulnerable groups, and looked down upon by society — yet some sectors of radical feminism claim that they are responsible for upholding the structures that oppress women, and so they insist that the way to resolve this conflict is for those groups to stop what they’re doing: stop being a sex worker, stop being trans, stop… existing.

The ridiculous thing is that they’re so, so close to identifying the actual problem — but their theory is so important to them that they’ve abandoned reason and critical thinking. Most other feminists can see that patriarchy is the problem, not those who are the most marginalised by it. Dammit, radical feminism came up with the concept, but that final connection’s not being made somehow. A lot has changed since the 1980s, most for better, some for worse. But the main point is that it has changed. The old rules needed updating, and new theories came into being. If you want to live in the past, then you can’t expect the present to stand still and wait for you. Radical Feminism works wonderfully in theory, but we need to be mindful of how we practice it.