Lily Goodman, Claire Protano, Lula Lipman
Radical feminism falls within a broad spectrum of categorization, ranging from its historical origins to extremist societal comprehensions. Radical feminism as a concept emerged in 1968 during Second Wave Feminism from a group called the New York Radical Women as established by Shulamith Firestone (Bindel, 2012). The framework of this movement stemmed from a desire to expand upon superficial recognitions and feminist actions, with the intention of approaching feminism from a more holistic and intersectional perspective. Through this lens of activist work, radical feminists worked to highlight issues of inaccessibility and inequity which are foundationally embedded within the institutions of our society. This transformative framework shifted feminist dialogue from a discriminatory issue to one of fundamental oppression. As a result, radical feminists began to target systems as the root cause of this oppression, with the goal of revolutionizing society to allow for true liberation (Atkinson, 2014).
However, as radical feminist became an increasingly prominent mode of activism, its basic intentions became adopted by different subculture and countercultural groups, re-aligning recognitions of the movement into that of a heavily stereotyped term. The publication “Radical Feminism” recognizes this ridicule as taking on “all too familiar forms, raising the spectre of the hairy-legged, extremist, man-hating, lesbian feminist” (Mackay, 2015). This transition of political influence transformed the initial intent of the movement, adopting radical feminism within more extreme facets of society. Utilizing specific ideologies present amongst the originating movement, alternative groups were produced, including Valerie Solanas’ SCUM (Society for Cutting up Men), and TERF culture (Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists). These movements reconstructed the originating logics of radical feminism, creating branches of the framework which divert from the movement’s initial motivations. It is therefore necessary to make the distinction between these sub-movements and the originating context of radical feminism, as to not overlook the positive societal influences that arose from this mode of activism; including the movement’s active contributions in achieving the right to vote, increased access to education, abortion, and birth control, as well as increased protections against workplace discrimination (Mackay, 2015).
Ellen Willis (Credit: The New York Times)
Ellen Willis serves as an example of these transformative efforts, as evident by her accomplishments within the radical feminist movement. Willis was a left-wing political feminist activist, essayist, and journalist. She first came into the feminist movement thinking that meetings would be filled with “anti-sex fanatics.” (Greenhouse 2014). But she soon realized the urgency involved, and believed that the key steps were “the sharing of personal experience: generalization: analysis,” and then action. She was motivated by the fact that “in a rich postindustrial economy like ours,” women were still being denied fundamental rights such as job and income security, freedom of thought and expression, and time off (Greenhouse 2014). In 1969, Ellen Willis and Shulamith Firestone started Redstockings, a radical feminist group that advocated for women’s liberation through actions like speakouts, disruptions, and writings. They called the group Redstockings because of the term “bluestocking,” which was meant to derogatorily refer to women who pursued higher education, and red, of course, was for revolution.
The Redstockings Manifesto argued for complete liberation from male supremacy. The women who created it believed that all men are complicit in male dominance and that structures of oppression such as racism, classism, and imperialism were formed by men and misogyny. In section IV, they wrote, “Institutions alone do not oppress; they are merely tools of the oppressor” (Redstockings, 1969, IV). They believed that women do not need to change themselves but to change men, because men are the perpetrators of the patriarchy. The manifesto did not really discuss the nuances of patriarchy; it seems to view men as the problem rather than players within a social construct. However, they did call for men to give up their male privilege and join the fight for female liberation. They emphasized the importance of looking out for all women, regardless of their identity or situation – this was occasionally overlooked in other radical feminist works. They also emphasized democracy within their movement and the importance of shared leadership and experience. In section V they write, “Our chief task at present is to develop female class consciousness through sharing experience and publicly exposing the sexist foundation of all our institutions” (Redstockings, 1969, V). They were less concerned with being revolutionary, and more concerned with what was good for women. However, their final line seems to call upon women for revolution: “The time for individual skirmishes has passed. This time we are going all the way” (Redstockings, 1969, VII).
The Redstockings Manifesto (Credit: Dazed)
Atkinson, T.-G. (2014, March 27). The descent from radical feminism to Postmodernism – Boston University. Boston University. https://www.bu.edu/wgs/files/2013/10/Atkinson-The-Descent-from-Radical-Feminism-to-Postmodernism.pdf
Bindel, J. (2012, September 6). Shulamith firestone obituary. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2012/sep/06/shulamith-firestone
Greenhouse, E. (2014). The Radical Ellen Willis. The Dissent. https://www.dissentmagazine.org/article/the-radical-ellen-willis/
Mackay, F. (2015). Radical Feminism. Theory, Culture & Society, 32(7–8), 332–336. https://doi.org/10.1177/0263276415616682
Willis, E. and Redstockings. (July 7, 1969). Redstockings Manifesto. Redstockings. https://www.redstockings.org/index.php/rs-manifesto