I was assigned a section in Susan Mann’s Doing Feminist Theory: From Modernity to Postmodernity about radical feminism. Mann’s article was basically a history of radical feminism without much commentary. She chose to “highlight its positive features” (79) instead of also criticizing parts of the movement, which I would consider a flaw. It is more beneficial and more conducive to learning to look at both the strengths and weaknesses of arguments, and this can extend to an ideology.
Radical feminism is second-wave feminism. It concerned itself with “emphasizing how women’s emancipation required that women understand, protect, and control their own bodies” (78). This focus on the body is still very pertinent in feminism today, but was radical during the time. This was a time in which men had nothing preventing them from legally raping their wives. It wasn’t until 1983 in Canada that a man raping his wife was made an illegal offense. When these kinds of injustices are still prevalent, I think it is natural for women to make an effort to talk about these sorts of issues, and, when necessary, enact or ensure the enactment of laws to protect them.
Mann describes the prevalence and importance of Carol Hanisch’s phrase, “the personal is political”. It helps us understand why it was so important to enact laws protecting women, and to encourage women who were experiencing abuse and injustices to share their stories. Mann says that radical feminism “is conscious of how men in particular and patriarchal institutions in general benefit from control over women’s lives and bodies”. If women are unable to, at a base level, ensure security of their person, or if they do not even have the legal right to have security of their body, it is hard for us to continue to pursue other endeavors to promote equality. Autonomy and safety seem, to me, incredibly base freedoms, and without them it is difficult if not impossible to progress to other things. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is relevant for this point. Men and patriarchal institutions definitely benefit from control over women’s lives and bodies. If women cannot act as independent beings and are concerned for their safety, they will most certainly not pursue careers or anything else that threaten men.
There is a large section in the reading about lesbianism. Yes, there were lesbians during the period of radical feminism. No surprise. There have been lesbians forever. Just like there have been gay men throughout time. I think it probably would have been very hard at the time to exist within the confines of a society that had such limiting gender binaries. I disagree with quite a few of the arguments that those leading the lesbian separatist movement made, recognizing that as a heterosexual woman I am perhaps in an inappropriate position to judge. Mann describes Charlotte Bunch’s essay where she says that “heterosexuality separates women from each other, forces women to compete for men, and encourages them to define themselves through men” (92). I think that Bunch’s point is problematic because she leaves out the possibility of platonic relationships between women that can provide for friendship without needing to become a lesbian. I don’t think that heterosexual relationships blind women from seeing the problems with patriarchy if they choose to look. I also don’t believe that women are primarily competitive when it comes to men, though I may be biased as I have only lived my own experience, and I really don’t care at this point enough to pursue anyone. Women during this period absolutely benefitted from heterosexual relationships at this time, at least financially. But I don’t think you should discriminate based on sexual orientation, nor should you discriminate based on assumed political perspectives of people who engage in heterosexual relationships. And yes, I think women can sleep with the enemy and still be feminists. Although I avoid sleeping with assholes, I don’t mind calling men I am in a relationship with out if/when they are being sexist. It happens. But I’ve also met quite a few sexist lesbians.
I also think it is important to include men in the discussion about patriarchy, especially as it relates to consent and body autonomy. As Jackson Katz said in his TEDTalk, our society makes women the victim instead of addressing the person who commits acts of violence. There are many talks within the student movement about reframing the No Means No campaign to one revolving around enthusiastic consent to be more sex-positive. It is great to see advertisements targeted at men telling them not to rape instead of just at women, telling them how to protect themselves.
There is so much more I could write about this article, but I will conclude by saying that I understand why radical feminists felt like their primary goals should be in ensuring the physical protection and autonomy of women’s bodies. Even now, quite a lot of feminist discourse revolves around consent and rape culture, which are strongly tied to this fight. Women are still very much defined by their bodies, and are thus often looked at as objects instead of as people. That being said, I am glad we have also looked at different discourses, ,especially in broadening feminist dialogue to include race, class, sexual orientation issues. The lesbian separatist movement was controversial, but I think has its roots in a pretty solid place. Avoiding the chains of patriarchy by removing oneself from men kind of makes sense. But abandoning heterosexual women is problematic. It also seems more like they are giving up on the possibility of men being better people, which is disappointing. Patriarchy hurts women, but also hurts men as well. Changing the dialogue benefits everyone and would make this a world that wouldn’t be so shitty to live in.
To end, I am linking a couple funny but awesome articles.