Where are the Radicals?

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

Natasha Forrest, 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 confused.

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 feminism?

hooks argues that the inclusion of men is vital to feminism's success.

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 radical.

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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