Where are the Radicals?

Natasha Forrest untangles the labels and wonders whether radical feminism has been hijacked by authoritarian and conservative imposters.

, 16 November 2002

I’ve never really been able to place myself on the liberal/radical scale.

Being pro-pornography, anti-separatism and a firm believer in male

feminists, I don’t feel entitled to define myself as a radical, despite the

fact that I see my politics as pretty radical. And recently I?ve become

increasingly reluctant to label myself a liberal – it just sounds like such

a sell-out. But is liberalism really such a bad thing, or has it been

unfairly pitted opposite radicalism, at the lame end of the spectrum? And

are self-defined ‘radical feminists’ really as radical as they believe, or

has the term been hijacked by impostors with decidedly conservative values?

In exploring various definitions of liberal and radical feminism, I have

come to the conclusion that it’s not me but the labels themselves that are


Revolutionary feminism was pushed underground.

In bell hooks’ inspiring book, ‘Feminism is for Everybody’, she discusses

the conflict between the second wave ‘reformist’ and ‘revolutionary’

feminists: ‘Reformist thinkers chose to emphasise gender equality.

Revolutionary thinkers did not want simply to alter the existing system so

that women would have more rights. We wanted to transform that system, to

bring an end to patriarchy and sexism. She describes how reformist

feminists compromised the integrity of the movement by promoting ‘lifestyle

feminism’ – the idea that anyone can incorporate feminism into their life

without changing their political views – and ‘power feminism’ – the idea

that privileged women can use feminism to gain power at the expense of

underprivileged women – while revolutionary feminism was pushed underground.

These seem to be some of the common criticisms levelled at liberal

feminists. But is liberal feminism really the same as reformist feminism – a

short-sighted, purely practical movement, lacking a deeper understanding of

the complexities underlying patriarchy? I would argue that the entire

feminist ideology is based on the political philosophy of liberalism –

freedom, equality and progress – with reformist liberals at one end and

radical liberals at the other. The idea that liberal feminism is somehow

inferior, therefore, makes no sense, and labelling oneself a liberal should

be nothing to be ashamed of.

For argument’s sake, though, let’s take hooks’ description of reformist

feminism to be what is more commonly regarded as liberal feminism. Following

on from this assumption, it seems logical to equate revolutionaries with

radicals. But, if this is the case, how did hooks’ visionary, egalitarian

movement turn into the elitist, authoritarian,

you’re-either-with-us-or-against-us set of values commonly known as radical


hooks argues that the inclusion of men is vital to feminism’s


Reading further, it seems that hooks, who describes herself as “as real and

as radical a feminist as one can be”, finds fault with a number of the

principles laid out by Jessica York et al. in a radical feminist manifesto

entitled “We are the feminists that women have warned us about”. While they

insist that men can play no part in the movement, nor even in feminist’

lives, hooks argues that the inclusion of men is vital to feminism’s

success. While they argue that, as feminists, we must “always take the

woman’s side”, hooks complicates the issue by pointing out that there are

feminist men and sexist women, and even contends that men suffer from sexism

too (albeit significantly less than women). I would add that I find some of

the policies in the manifesto verging on authoritarian; the exact opposite

of liberalism and therefore in conflict with everything feminism stands for.

As Hooks goes on to discuss feminist positions on sexuality, it becomes

clear that the revolutionary radicalism she so passionately speaks of is an

entirely different branch of feminism from the narrow-minded, oppressive

branch which has stolen the radical label. Hooks talks about the devastation

of feminist discussion of sexuality when it was discovered that feminist

lesbians engaged in sadomasochistic sexual practices: “Faced with issues

powerful enough to divide and disrupt the movement, by the late ’80s most

radical feminist dialogues about sexuality were no longer public…Publicly

the feminist women who continued to talk the most about sexuality tended to

be conservative, at times puritanical and anti-sex.” This puritanical,

anti-sex talk sounds a lot like the pro-censorship line taken by such

‘radical feminists’ as Andrea Dworkin and Catherine McKinnon. Perhaps this

would explain why they so often find themselves allied with the right wing,

religious moralists against the liberal feminists, ie, the feminists. I have

certainly never heard the word ‘conservative’ used in a definition of


So if these self-titled ‘radicals’ are not the real radicals but impostors,

then where have the real radicals gone? What happened to those inspiring

revolutionary radicals who were driven underground by debates over

sexuality? Perhaps that’s who the rest of us are; those who can’t agree with

censorship but feel like we?re too passionate and committed to the cause to

be anything less than radical. Or, to give us our full title, radical

liberal. Whatever the case, I think it’s time to re-evaluate the meanings of

the words ‘radical’ and ‘liberal’ and create some less confusing labels.

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