Liberal Feminism Has Failed Us. Now What?

Feminism used to be a bad word. The reigning F-word from the 1960s until the late 80s, the mere mention of it invoked images of radical, deafening demands and cardboard slogans, feral women who’d gotten out of the yard and all the way to the steps of the capitol, wrapping angry jaws around the neck of the nation and refusing to let go until they’d won the right to control their bodies, their lives, and their futures.

They handed us a better world, and less than fifty years later we let it slip through our fingers.

By the mid 1990s feminism had been defanged, given a makeover, and lobotomized. Political structures and direct action were viewed as unladylike relics wielded by nasty women. You know the type. Always unsatisfied, too serious, too certain, always too much. But this new feminism would not be like that other feminism, these girls not like those other girls. The new feminism would be one of individual expression, of sex positivity and girl ‘power’, bumper sticker platitudes and lipgloss apathy.

The new feminism arrived, and it was pink, and stupid. It was a movement even a man could love. And man, they did.

What wasn’t to love? These feminists weren’t those angry radicals; these women were fun. Agreeable. The modern feminist didn’t waste time shouting or making demands, she was too busy making herself pleasant to look at, her makeup on point, her clothing sending a clear message that her body was no longer the private property of any one man. Now, she was open to the public.

But for many women something felt off. If the sexualized sideshow of ‘empowerment’ was the best that modern feminism had to offer them, why not see what the other side — the Devil-They-Knew — was selling, instead.

Every minority group has its traitors. Vile unbelievers who lie down with dogs and forgive them their fleas. Women especially do this in droves, choosing to join or ally with the right wing, to marry into a traditional home and lifestyle. Worse, they utterly despise women on the left, going to great lengths to become vocal, useful idiots for their male oppressors, attacking and vilifying any version of womanhood that steps beyond male-defined boundaries.

It’s not your imagination — today we see more women choosing this life than at any other point over the last 30 years, and in the days since Roe’s death they are more visible than ever. We see them on the news, on our social media feeds, almost everywhere we look. Women of all ages — most distressing are those in their late teens and early 20s — celebrating the return to traditional values. We watch, stunned, as they welcome the theft of their own bodily autonomy. It is a baffling spectacle to most women. The shouting. The cheering. We look and we wince and we look again. We ask ourselves — we ask each other, we ask the heavens: What in the hell is she doing?

We tell ourselves that she has been brainwashed — by religion, surely, or by some controlling male relative, or by right-wing media. We tell ourselves that she would not and could not possibly chosen this life of her rational own free will. We tell ourselves this, and we are usually wrong.

Andrea Dworkin explained it plainly in 1983:

Right-wing women face reality and what they see is that women get fucked whether they want it or not; right-wing women, at least, get fucked by fewer men. She conforms, in order to be as safe as she can be. Sometimes it is a lethargic conformity, in which case male demands slowly close in on her…Sometimes it is a militant conformity. She will save herself by proving that she is loyal, obedient, useful, even fanatic in the service of the men around her.

Right-wing women accuse feminists of hypocrisy and cruelty in advocating legal abortion because, as they see it, legal abortion makes them accessible fucks without consequence to men. In their view, pregnancy is the only consequence of sex that makes men accountable to women for what men do to women.

The tragedy is that women so committed to survival cannot recognize that they are committing suicide.

Andrea Dworkin — Right Women Women, 1983

Far from advocating for the right-wing viewpoint, Dworkin illustrates that liberal feminism does not sufficiently account for many women’s lived-reality, and that some women decide — quite rationally — to suffer a more reliable sort of oppression at the hands of the right-wing. Liberal feminism has failed the woman in your Twitter feed wearing a MAGA hat just as much as it has failed you. But she, at least, admits it.

We can admit it, too. And we can decide to replace the feminism that failed us with a better one, maybe even an older one. The kind of feminism that gets results, and doesn’t give a damn about looking pretty in the process.

Radical feminism died with the 80s. It wasn’t a dignified death, the movement unable to control its own momentum, arms flailing as it landed face-first under the weight of its own imperfections, leaving behind a jagged, bloody streak of victories that were vital to women’s rights: chief among them, the achievement of reproductive freedom in 1973.

But any mention of radical feminism today prompts discourse not of its accomplishments, but only its flaws: the movement was too white, too wealthy, too cisgender, too exclusive. All of this is true. And this already-lousy image is made worse by the periodic attempts to re-animate its remains by various hate groups — primarily those interested in glossing over their disgust of the transgender community with an academic coat of paint (That many radical feminists were inclusive of trans people is merely an inconvenient footnote for these hateful flunkies). Perhaps the most frequently-cited criticism of radical feminism is its lack of intersectionality, and to be sure the importance of a broader perspective cannot be overstated.

But while liberal feminism fixated on how best to expand the forest, radical feminism at least understood that the trees were on fire. Liberal feminism promised eventual equality from oppression, but only as long as the rules were followed to the letter; no individual must ever feel excluded; no one must ever feel invalidated even for a moment; all voices and all issues must be equally considered and prioritized at all times and in every circumstance, regardless of whether or not any action or progress ever occurs; and the most important rule of all: women must keep themselves neatly arranged within the system designed by — and entirely for — their oppressors.

Radical feminists knew better than to ask for equality; they demanded liberation, for themselves and for their daughters. Intersectionality can and must be a pillar of feminism going forward. But how much worse will our lives have to become before we accept that a movement forced to be everything to everyone will ultimately never accomplish anything for anyone?

Perhaps there’s still something to learn from radical feminism — that we can politically organize around what we have in common, and make separate time to focus on the needs that make us unique; to take the good while leaving behind the bad; to learn from the old and empower the new, and to revive the demand for nothing less than liberation. Radical feminism showed us that no matter how hard any man works to scrub away all traces of your life and your experiences, he’s going to miss a spot. They always do.

Our oppressors dread the thought of us returning to the radical, embracing the tactics that have worked before. They fear what feminism would look like if we brought back its teeth, its muscle, and its memory. They desperately want us to think we’re helpless; we won’t believe them. They hope we’ll let our reproductive freedoms fade into distant memory; we won’t allow it. They’ll continue to bombard our senses with lies and horror and distractions because our despair and our cynicism feeds their cruelty; starting now, we’ll let them starve.

Abortion access was the single greatest accomplishment in the fight for women’s rights — a generous inheritance from the feminists of yesterday, in all their impatient, imperfect, and radical glory.

It’s time to take it back.



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