Nowadays on LGBTQIA group chats and in leftist social discussions, the phrase "radical feminism" most often appears in a pejorative mention -- TERFS ("trans exclusive radical feminists") being castigated for their intransigence about female-spectrum transgender people, or disparaged for being anti-sex and anti-free-speech as exemplified by the MacKinnon-Dworkin pornography ordinance from a few decades ago, or accused of lying about data and making up statistics and being these vindictively hateful people who just want to blame males for everything.
Not that any of that would be a major surprise for the radical feminists I read throughout the 70s 80s and 90s. They knew they were hitting a nerve and were accustomed to receiving bad press and misrepresentation. I am sad to see them undercredited and disregarded by those who benefit from their insights though.
To review the basics, feminism in a broad general sense was a beacon of hope for me growing up, because its overall attitude towards gender was "hey, if it's sauce for the goose, it's sauce for the gander" -- that, regardless of whether men and women were different or were just regarded as different, it wasn't defensible to use a different yardstick of acceptable behavior. They pointed out the inconsistencies and folks recognized the unfairness. For me, as a gender invert, an exception to society's general rules about males and their personality and behavior, this translated as "hey, if it's OK for girls, it's OK for me; and if it's not OK for girls, then it's not right for the boys and hence it's not right to pressure me to be that way".
feminism, specifically, came to people's attention as it began to pinpoint topics that more mainstream feminism in the 70s shied away from: specifically sexuality, both in the sense of sexual orientation (yes, lesbian pride) but also more analytically in the sense of analyzing sexual politics, the politics of sexuality and sexual behaviors. Kate Millett taking contemporary depictions of sex and sexuality and holding them up for us to see how much they were about sex as an act of conquest and hostility, and about the eroticism of men having power over women. Susan Brownmiller writing about rape not as a horrifyingly deviant act but as a horrifyingly normative extension of how things otherwise were between the sexes, and as part and parcel of that overall situation. By going there, by having the courage and nerve to speak of such things as if they could perhaps be otherwise, and daring to condemn these situations instead of accepting them as a shameful but permanent part of human nature, radical feminism was the core from which central feminist tenets and understandings came in the 80s.
Catherine MacKinnon observed in 1987 (Feminism Unmodified
), "...our subordination is eroticized in and as female; in fact, we get off on it to a degree, if nowhere near as much as men do. This is our stake in this sytem that is not in our interest, our stake in this system that is killing us. I'm saying femininity as we know it is how we come to want male dominance, which most emphatically is not in our interest."
Adrienne Rich, Jill Johnston and others questioned the "natural" centrality of heterosexuality, positing a different sexuality -- a sexuality between women but specifically different because, unlike heterosexuality as it existed and tended to define sexuality altogether, it could be mutually affirming, sensuous, not violent, an alternative to a conventional model of sexuality in which women's role was that of "natural sexual prey" (Rich) to men.
For me, that resonated powerfully: as a kid, I considered myself to be akin to the girls, regarding them and respecting them as colleagues and seeking them as friends, and now as a sexually adult person I wanted that mutually affirming sharing form of sex and wanted nothing to do with the adversarial and predatory model that was predominant in all understandings and portrayals of "wild uncivilized sex".
Nor did I find much to interest me in the non-wild, tamed, civilized version of sex, for that matter. Here there was a disparagement of sex itself as suspect, as something people should abstain from for a prolonged period after attaining the age of feeling the full appetite for it, and even after that should only engage in sex within very narrowly defined permissible channels. Here, perhaps, was a model for engaging in sex (eventually) without embracing all that adversarial and predatory hostility, yeah, sure, but it was basically saying that yes, sex IS like that, it's just that being like that is bad and naughty so sex is bad and naughty and we will therefore put sex in a cage. And even in this context, sexuality was not going to be mutually affirming, not as far as I could see: the nice girls had to preserve their reputations and also refrain from tempting the boys, and the boys were to suppress their desires and not sully the chastity of the girls, and then when he could adequately support a family he could get married and then she'd let him do it to her. The sexuality inside the cage was the same sexuality; the notions and understandings of it were still polarized and painted a picture of male sexuality that I wanted no part of.
Radical feminists tended to see sex as insurrection; they observed that even though it was politically dangerous to women in the current context, putting women in the position of sleeping with the enemy and eroticizing male domination, it was treated as dangerous by the patriarchy as well, and for good reason. The same intimacy that threatened women with too much identification and connection with their oppressor was a threat to the patriarchal system and its requirement that women be perceived as other.
Jan Raymond and Mary Daly, among other radical feminists, have indeed been hostile to any acceptance of transgender women. Those who have expressed such sentiments are not the entirety of radical feminism, though. Buried among the more publicized nasty sentiments, though, have been radical feminist voices whose concerns about the transgender phenomenon mirror, almost exactly, the concerns now being voiced by nonbinary activists: that jumping the fence, as it were, is not a radical solution to the fence between the genders, insofar as it leaves the fence intact. Neither the radical feminists nor the current wave of nonbinary genderqueer folks have a sufficient excuse for being as intolerant as they've often been towards people who simply feel that they personally will be happier when transitioned so as to be treated and perceived as the persons that they are. But it is a gross oversimplification to portray radical feminism as intrinsically opposed to transgender people.
Radical feminists spoke of the centrality of gender polarization. They said the political dynamics between the sexes was the central keystone issue in our society, and that the sexual dynamics as made erotic within patriarchal heterosexuality was the fundamental building block around which our political power arrangements were patterned. It wasn't the first time that one social factor had been pinpointed as the central core of all politics -- Marxism had done it with labor and the ownership of the means of production -- but it was the first to come along in a century and it took some common-place everyday understandings and inverted them to make sense of them in new ways: it wasn't that the awful world of competitive social and economic posturing tended to invade and corrupt the intimacy of sexuality and sexual relationships but that the corrupted form of sexuality and sexual relationships eroticized and rendered irresistible those forms of interaction and made them present everywhere that people interacted.
Society as we know it, as many of us conceptualize as human nature, is sexual subject-object polarized adversarial dynamics, writ large. Robin Morgan wrote about feminism as the "larger context":
For almost two decades, I've written about, lectured on, and
organized for the ideas and politics of feminism for the sake of women
...as a matter of simple justice. If, in fact, these
were the sole reasons for and goals of the movement and
consciousness we call feminism, they would be quite
sufficient...nor is it necessary to apologize for feminism's
concerning itself 'merely" with women, or to justify feminism on
the "please, may I" ground that it's good for men too... In the
long run, it will
be good for men, but even were it
permanently to prove as discomfiting for men as it seems to be in
the short run, that wouldn't make women's needs and demands any the
less just. So the fact that I place feminism in a "larger
context" is neither an apology nor a justification. It is simply
to show, once and for all, that feminism is the larger
... The "Otherizing" of women is the oldest oppression
known to our species, and it's the model, the template, for all
other oppressions. Until and unless this
healed, we continue putting Band-Aids on our most mortal wound.
— The Anatomy of Freedom
Marilyn French wrote about power as the central patriarchal obsession, and taught us to recognize power by its own central imperative: the possession of control. Everywhere, she said, we see the sacrifices made in the name of obtaining and retaining control, as if it were an intrinsic good and a necessity in and of itself. And here again is the eroticized sexual imperative, the attempt to seize and make things happen according to one's own will and without concern for the will of that which is being controlled except as a possible impediment to be conquered.
Within the pages of lesbian radical feminism, as lesbian feminists sought to explain why this was important beyond the expressed choice of who to have sex with, came the growing recognition that in both gay and lesbian sexuality the people involved are not anchored by the body in which they were born to a preordained scripted role -- you weren't tied to being butch or femme, to being the man or the woman, on the basis of your bodily sex; and that that was, itself, radical. It wasn't how patriarchal heterosexuality was constructed and hence it was a threat, which went a long way towards explaining the hostility reserved for gay and lesbian people.
To say "patriarchal heterosexuality" was, and still is, somewhat akin to speaking of "women's lingerie" or "earthly lifeform" -- our conventional understanding of the category completely eliminates any need for the adjectives because those are the only forms we have tended to encounter.
Genderqueer sexual politics is radical sexual politics, and especially so the specific formulation of gender inversion: whether we refer to it as "heterosexual" or choose not to, to posit sexual relationships between male people and female people in which the participants are not gendered as men and women, respectively, elaborates on the radical departure from subject-object adversarial dynamics spoken of by the lesbian feminists; specifically, it extends it to where it is needed the most, directly dismantling what we've been describing as the core of the whole system. Untying male-female sexual possibilities from heterosexuality as we know it.
"Why", you may ask, "is it necessary to embrace gender inversion? Isn't it more useful to discard gender and embrace absolute gender equality instead? And if the female role is and has been on the receiving end of patriarchal oppression, of what conceivable value is it to issue a loud political hurrah for males styling themselves as feminine and wanting to be the girl in their relationships? Isn't that just making a fetish of the accoutrements of being one of the oppressed?"
Firstly, let's consider the limits of "let's just be equal shall we" optimistic idealism against the backdrop of the current eroticized 'devil boy chase angel girl' polarization. We go bravely forth (or we send forth the subsequent generation, all consciousness-raised and socially aware) into a social world that knows there may be sexually egalitarian people. It also knows to expect the continued existence of people in the traditional mold. The social milieu of expectations therefore is newly open to equality while still entirely familiar with the orthodox which is gender-specific. Anyone who has had to spend an evening doing arithmetic homework knows that when you do averages, the average that you obtain is less than the higher number, so when you average out the expectations of sexually egalitarian and sexually orthodox, your result is going to be sexually orthodox by some amount.
Secondly, yes, I can understand the misgivings about a set of traits and behaviors marked as submissive and subservient and offering them to males as a desirable experience and identity. But it is the subject-object adversarial worldview that tends to see things only in terms of power over and of domination or submission. Exactly WHAT
is it that males are deprived of in a patriarchal context? Does it not strike you as odd that a patriarchy, a system of male power and privilege, should deny freedoms to its males with such intensity as it denies variant gender expression? The answer is that power is not a substance owned by the powerful. Power is instead a relationship that defines all parties involved, the powerful and the oppressed alike.
about seeking subserviency or making a fetish of being dominated; there is and has always been an encoding of traits as feminine as part and parcel of encoding power as male, AND no, the boys don't get all the good ones. You're never going to understand this if you don't understand that some things are more desirable than power. But yes it is not a desire to be oppressed (by women or anyone else). I share Robin Morgan's and Marilyn French's radical feminist vision of a world no longer anchored by the obsession with controlling others.
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