Radical Feminism And Subjectivity

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Ever feel like the world is a meaningless place? Well, Nietzsche predicted that feeling pretty accurately. Of course, people have sought to find meaning in the world since human beings have existed. But religion had pretty much always been there, in one form or another, to offer guidance and support.

But what do we do now, in a world where religious attitudes are no longer assumed? Nietzsche predicted that society would feel pretty meaningless. Enter stage left: post-modern theories. Post-modern theories like Sartre’s views on subjectivity and the radical feminist movement are two theories that are closely related because they came about at the same time.

Much of the below is taken from lecture notes that I formulated during Dr. Richard Stopford’s lectures at the University of Durham; I took a class there during my undergraduate studies called, ‘Theory, Literature and Society’, which I had little opportunity to pursue during my Master’s degree at the same institution. That was a shame, because I really enjoyed it…but alas, Durham is a concentrated hub (like many philosophy schools in the UK) of analytic philosophy, rather than the continental kind — the latter, I realized far too late, I enjoy far more than the former.


What is it to be a material thing? That’s one of the very questions post-modernists ask themselves.

Material things exist as non-reflective, non-intentional states of affairs (includes parts of you; the body does not reflect on itself) this, what Jean-Paul Sartre terms being-in-itself, is a kind of brute existence. I’ve written a few bits on Sartre; one of the most cohesive, perhaps, is here.

Brute Existence

Brute existence is a kind of pure existence. Being-in-itself, as a determination of being-in-itself, is being-for-itself. Being-for-itself has no essence, no list of properties. We, as conscious beings, are being-for-itself, whereas the parts of our bodies are being-in-itself.

Being-in-itself is what objects are; they aren’t comprised of consciousness. They don’t have intentional states like we do; chairs and tables can’t be friends with each other (I actually had a conversation with a panpsychist at university once, where he tried to argue that tables and chairs have exactly the same kind of conscious experience that we do. When I mentioned the impossibility of tables and chairs being friends, he protested very strongly for the possibility of such an occurrence).


Modality is a very important idea in Sartre; he mentions the importance of necessity, contingency, possibility and impossibility. Modality is the kind of way that something is expressed in the world. For Sartre, it isn’t necessary that the material stuff is the way that it is. The material stuff is not self-conscious. It isn’t aware of its own contingency; it is stuck with how it is despite its contingency, because it has not the awareness to change itself. The being-for-itself can realize its situation, and realize the possibility of being-for-itself.

So, we can do what we will with tables and chairs. They cannot get up and start walking about; unless they feature in the Beauty and the Beast animation film. We are responsible for them. A designer creates an image of the chair he desires, and enlists someone to make it for him. That highly-skilled person manipulates raw material to make the being-in-itself. That’s what’s so unique about the being-for-itself — about the conscious experience of human beings.

Thus, the responsibility that comes with this freedom is immense; such is the nature of existential angst. I have a body, which exits as a part of the material world; and thus the socio-cultural-historical world is a nest around my body.

I could use this nest to find my own place in the world; I just inhabit this world as how it is for me. I could just treat myself as another part in the material world. I could pretend I am nothing but an object, and flit meaninglessly between experiences, people, and places. But for Sartre, this is the route to bad faith. It’s a kind of denial of an essential part of what it is to be a conscious being, to have conscious experiences.


A key part of Sartre’s views on subjectivity involves facticity. Facticity is treating oneself as an object; “finding” oneself as an object for others. Subjectivities aren’t just marooned in nature; the way in which we are with others is important in determining the nature of our own subjectivity. We form relationships with others, and these relationships shape our lives.

A classic Sartrean description of our situation is the example of a person looking through a key-hole. Ever spied something you shouldn’t have, and become drawn into it? You forget that you’re present. Your consciousness is thrown into the world you are inhibiting.

You feel as if you’re present at the scene you’re looking at. It’s the kind of thing that Yukio Mishima describes so aptly in The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea (午後の曳航). Mishima’s short novel is about a young boy who spies on his widowed mother’s romantic relationship with a sailor. At first, he is enraptured with the sailor’s life.

He idolizes him, and the story is in many ways a simple bildungsroman; it’s about that classic experience whereby a young person idolizes an adult only to be rudely awakened to the fact that adults are flawed human beings just like children. But it’s also about what it is to see, and to be seen; Mishima’s protagonist is a young child who spies on adults having a sexual experience.

He feels angry towards the sailor, who he had thought was a supremely rational being, who didn’t go in for any of that romantic nonsense. So, he ponders killing the sailor. But he doesn’t — crucially — flirt with homicide whilst he views the offensive act. He’s lost in the moment when he spies on them; he isn’t aware of himself, or his feelings. It’s the kind of feeling we get when reading, when we’re just lost in the book before us. That’s part of the reason Sartre thinks that reading is so effective.

This is what nothingness is like. It’s a kind of not-being.

Then, the boy snooping hears a sound which shocks him back to reality; he suddenly becomes aware, for example, of the footsteps of another and realizes he is spying. He is the guilty party, and he becomes consumed with sinfulness. His own subjectivity becomes defined by the one who might see him — he realizes he will be seen as culpable. He is suddenly himself again. The structure of experience thus radically transforms. One is situated very much in the world by the presence of another. Sartre’s theory is thus antagonistic to some extent; it is the nature of one’s being to just be free but others are creating blocks to our own freedom. We are still able to be free, but the nature of our lived experience in the material world is radically constrained, and it is constrained by the existence of others.

Are all subjectivities equal? Sartre’s view seems to imply an egalitarian view of our enjoyment of freedoms just through the way we are in the world. But, one could object that there are really complex stratagems of power going on in the world. Other people are hindering us greatly in our projects; our attempts to create meaning in our lives (through our relationships with others, our employment). Ought we to choose radical freedom; is there a deontic principle from Sartre that we all ought to choose radical freedom? How can Sartre ground this ought in his radical subjectivity?


Radical feminism rises out of grass-roots political activism largely in piecemeal about various issues (including, for example, the war movement and Marxist issues). Radical feminism was comprised of groups of women who are already politicly active. It encompasses various ideas: the idea of child-rearing, culture, pornography, prostitution, sexual liberation, thinking about sexual politics away from men (lesbianism and political lesbianism).


Much of radical feminism revolves around re-thinking labour; the way that labour is understood as having a reflexive role on the nature of gender. What are the expectations of gender over this kind of work? Women’s labour in the private sphere has traditionally been neglected and reduced; why is it that certain forms of work have been more upheld traditionally? For example,

Radical feminists are interested in laws and policy-making; particularly abortion and contraceptive law. Yet not all radical feminism is utopian or bust. The radical feminist is instead saying that the way we understand the law and the extent that we can understand the law is different.

Language Games

For radical feminists, we must often begin with thinking about language; there is a domain of society thinking about a political issue which is ring-fenced in a certain way. We need to extend it. Sexism goes right into the way we think about language; hysterical is indexed into the female body as over-emotionality and a lack of sexual control, consider also the semiotic difference between being a bachelor and a spinster. These ideas have been suffused into society.

A bachelor is someone who (traditionally, at least) was not often looked down upon because of his decision to remain unmarried. For spinsters — female bachelors — it was considered a little differently. Spinsters were seen as women who had something undesirable about them — something that made them unsuitable for marriage.

Racism and Feminism

A hotly contested idea at the time of radical feminism was that it was basically racist. Groups of women, all who are white, middle-class, and college-educated understood oppression in solely their own terms, based on their own experiences. This is arguably a theoretical and political mistake on the behalf of those women; taking one’s own experience of oppression to be a hallmark of oppression itself perpetuates the mode of oppression already present in the patriarchy. This critique came from black feminists.

The Combahee River Collective Statement was created and written by Afrocentric black feminists who parted ways with the NBFO (National Black Feminist Organization). They organized such a critique. They said that, given the structure of white women’s experience, white women can ringfence the problem around men; but black women share issues of oppressions qua racism with black men.

The Collective didn’t want to cut off black men. They didn’t want to ostracize men as perpetrators of discrimination when some of those men were suffering discrimination themselves — as black men. Doing something like that is divisive when combating issues of racism. Also, The Collective asserted, what it is to be a woman is not something that can just be read off biological sex. One cannot just throw their own oppressions into someone else. Through this notion was borne intersecting modes of oppression; one’s own experience of oppression particularizes conceptions of subjectivity.

Liberal Feminism

Some people see that much of early feminism was defined by political action and that later feminism was often defined by radical feminism, characterized by attempting to provoke societal change. They sometimes draw the conclusion that liberalism gave way to radical feminism. But that’s not necessarily the case; it’s important that we recognize the importance of what liberal feminists have done for women. The Suffragettes were liberal feminists, and they fought for women’s emancipation.

Liberal feminisms are not unaware of the issues that radical feminism has raised; they say they have the resources to deal with the problems. This speaks to a more meta-question: what political practice is appropriate for feminism?

Enlightenment Now

In a quasi-historical sense, the contested grounds between liberal and radical feminism do not go away. Issues over subjectivity, freedom, political practice go back to the Enlightenment.

Language, rationality, and freedom as categories of thought experience their own crisis mapped through from the Enlightenment into now. What we have taken to be a bedrock of thinking is a chimera, a function of the Enlightenment and the way it has conceived of subjectivity. A liberal will make even a Kantian transcendental move; the very idea of political action requires a subject and so we need a well-formed notion of a woman to have political action. What happens if you think that the very notion of justification and explanation, that the very method of a posteriori and a priori enquiry come apart? If you think that truth is problematic in some way, then what about the sentence ‘woman are oppressed’?

With postmodernism comes an increased polarity and increasing degree of particularization over individuals. Taken to its logical ultimatum every individual is just a particular and cannot be grouped together; is this true? Dialogue became increasingly complex about the subject and this put pressure on kinds of things; how can we classify human beings now? We cannot merely divide them into men and women.

We see this more than ever as society advances towards a deeper understanding of gender and sex. As Judith Butler said, gender is a kind of performance; increasingly, we’re seeing gender as being more complex than just male and female, but being about how individuals want to be perceived in the world. There needs to be space for non-binary persons or genderqueer persons in feminists’ view of the world, and that is happening.

BA & MA in Philosophy from Durham University, writing accessible Philosophy pieces, poetry, and mental health content

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