Radical feminism has got a bad name in the last few years.
I have had students express concern at the possibility of being considered a “rad fem” in class, and I have a suspicion that this is inspired by Tumblr feminism, and the conflation of radical feminism with the exclusion of trans women from feminism.
So let it be clear. Now. Radical feminism is not, by definition, transphobic. The radicalisation of feminist thought does not require the exclusion or oppression of trans women. It does not require the reduction of anyone or their experiences to their genitals. (And that’s not to say that there isn’t some radical feminism that does this, as well as some other feminisms, and other kinds of thought that definitely does this, but it’s not required and certainly not synonymous with it.)
Instead, radical feminism is any genre of feminism that interrogates the social system through which we are all oppressed. Its opposite is liberal feminism, which seeks to address inequity within existing systems of governance, society and commerce.
Traditionally, radical feminism is defined in opposition to liberal feminism. Liberal feminism is any brand of feminist initiative that seeks to address inequity within existing social, legal and political systems. The projects of liberal feminism are things like ensuring greater representation of women (and people of colour, if they’re being intersectional that day) in parliament, on company boards, and in public life. The idea of the Bechdel test is a good example of this. It’s designed to highlight inequity within a pre-existing system, and provides a system through which representation can easily be assessed (in terms of quantity, at least).
By comparison, radical feminism is an approach to feminist thought and action that begins from the position that the existing social, political and representative systems are inherently oppressive for women and other minority identities, and so the only way that can be addressed is by finding new systems, or ways of doing things. In other words, radical feminism is the type of feminism that says “fuck the system. get a new system.”
However, in reality, most feminist initiatives and movements require a little bit of both. You can’t “take back the night” without representation, and you can’t get suffrage without changing the system at a fundamental level.
The comparison between radical and liberal feminist thought (and it’s important to keep in mind that there are many different kinds of feminism, and these are umbrella terms) is also made around the issue of equality. Liberal feminism seeks equality by asking for it. It is Emma Watson at the UN, asking very politely for men to think about treating women like people, which results in this frankly ludicrous video, a critique of which will be posted on another day, simply because there is so much. As I said to my students when we discussed it in class, the main problem with it is that it isn’t actually satire. And that’s terrifying.
By comparison, radical feminism tends to question the notion and project of “equality” generally. This is because the concept of asking for or seeking equality necessarily reasserts the dynamic where those without power in a system or society are asking those who wield power to share it. It reasserts this uneven, hierarchical relationship and communicates to those who have power already, and have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo, as it benefits them, that they have the capacity to either allow or deny others that same recognition.
A little bit like the current “postal survey on marriage equality” in Australia – by the very fact of being forced to ask to be equal, you’re always already positioned as inferior – and the very act of asking to be recognised reasserts this dynamic.
So, while we’re often forced into the position of begging to be recognised as human beings that should have equal rights (#voteyes) it’s also important to continue the project of radical thought that questions this institutional dynamic in the first place.
Also, before you call someone “rad fem” when you mean transphobic (or in fact decide to be transphobic and think that’s what the definition of radical feminism is)… as I often like to say… crack a book.