What Is Radical Feminism?

Etymologically, the word “radical” means “of or relating to the root.” Radical feminists aim to dismantle the entire system of patriarchy, rather than making adjustments to the existing system through legal or social efforts.

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Radical feminism is a philosophy emphasizing the patriarchal roots of inequality between men and women, or, more specifically, the social domination of women by men. Radical feminism views patriarchy as dividing societal rights, privileges, and power primarily along the lines of sex, and as a result, oppressing women and privileging men.

Radical feminism opposes existing political and social organization in general because it is inherently tied to patriarchy. Thus, radical feminists tend to be skeptical of political action within the current system and instead tend to focus on culture change that undermines patriarchy and associated hierarchical structures.

What Makes It 'Radical'?

Radical feminists tend to be more militant in their approach (radical as "getting to the root") than other feminists. A radical feminist aims to dismantle patriarchy rather than making adjustments to the system through legal changes. Radical feminists also resist reducing oppression to an economic or class issue, as socialist or Marxist feminism sometimes did or does.

Radical feminism opposes patriarchy, not men. To equate radical feminism to man-hating is to assume that patriarchy and men are inseparable, philosophically and politically. (Although, Robin Morgan has defended "man-hating" as the right of the oppressed class to hate the class that is oppressing them.)

Roots of Radical Feminism

Radical feminism was rooted in the wider radical contemporary movement. Women who participated in the anti-war and New Left political movements of the 1960s found themselves excluded from equal power by the men within the movement, despite the movements' supposed underlying values of empowerment. Many of these women split off into specifically feminist groups, while still retaining much of their original political radical ideals and methods. "Radical feminism" became the term used for the more radical edge of feminism.

Radical feminism is credited with the use of consciousness-raising groups to raise awareness of women's oppression. Later radical feminists sometimes added a focus on sexuality, including some moving to radical political lesbianism.

Women Against Pornography
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Some key radical feminists were Ti-Grace Atkinson, Susan Brownmiller, Phyllis Chester, Corrine Grad Coleman, Mary Daly, Andrea Dworkin, Shulamith Firestone, Germaine Greer, Carol Hanisch, Jill Johnston, Catherine MacKinnon, Kate Millett, Robin Morgan, Ellen Willis, and Monique Wittig. Groups that were part of the radical feminist wing of feminism include Redstockings, New York Radical Women (NYRW), the Chicago Women's Liberation Union (CWLU), Ann Arbor Feminist House, The Feminists, WITCH, Seattle Radical Women, and Cell 16. Radical feminists organized demonstrations against the Miss America pageant in 1968.

Key Issues and Tactics

Central issues engaged by radical feminists include:

  • Reproductive rights for women, including the freedom to make choices to give birth, have an abortion, use birth control, or get sterilized
  • Evaluating and then breaking down traditional gender roles in private relationships as well as in public policies
  • Understanding pornography as an industry and practice leading to harm to women, although some radical feminists disagreed with this position
  • Understanding rape as an expression of patriarchal power, not a seeking of sex
  • Understanding prostitution under patriarchy as the oppression of women, sexually and economically
  • A critique of motherhood, marriage, the nuclear family, and sexuality, questioning how much of our culture is based on patriarchal assumptions
  • A critique of other institutions, including government and religion, as centered historically in patriarchal power

Tools used by radical women's groups included consciousness-raising groups, actively providing services, organizing public protests, and putting on art and culture events. Women's studies programs at universities are often supported by radical feminists as well as more liberal and socialist feminists.

Some radical feminists promoted a political form of lesbianism or celibacy as alternatives to heterosexual sex within an overall patriarchal culture. There remains disagreement within the radical feminist community about transgender identity. Some radical feminists have supported the rights of transgender people, seeing it as another gender liberation struggle; some have been against the existence of trans people, especially transgender women, as they see trans women as embodying and promoting patriarchal gender norms.

The latter group identifies their views and themselves as Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminism/Feminists (TERFs), with the more informal monikers of "gender critical" and "rad fem."

Because of the association with TERFs, many feminists have stopped identifying with radical feminism. Though some of their views may be similar to the original tenets of radical feminism, many feminists no longer associate with the term because they are trans-inclusive. TERF is not just transphobic feminism; it is a violent international movement that often compromises its feminist stances to partner with conservatives, with a goal to endanger and get rid of trans people, especially transfeminine people.

Earlier in the year, one of the more notorious TERF organizations in the United States partnered with South Dakota Republicans despite their disagreement about abortion to ban medical intervention for trans youth.

Radical feminism was progressive for its peak, but the movement lacks an intersectional lens, as it views gender as the most important axis of oppression. Like many feminist movements before and after it, it was dominated by white women and lacked a racial justice lens.

Since Kimberle Crenshaw coined the term intersectionality, giving a name to the practices and writings of Black women before her, feminism has been moving towards a movement to end all oppression. More and more feminists are identifying with intersectional feminism.

Radical Feminism Writings

  • Mary Daly. "The Church and the Second Sex: Towards a Philosophy of Women's Liberation." 1968. 
  • Mary Daly. "Gyn/Ecology: The Metaethics of Radical Feminism." 1978.
  • Alice Echols and Ellen Willis. "Daring to Be Bad: Radical Feminism in America, 1967–1975." 1990.
  • Shulamith Firestone. "The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution." 2003 reissue.
  • F. Mackay. "Radical Feminism: Feminist Activism in Movement." 2015.
  • Kate Millett. "Sexual Politics." 1970.
  • Denise Thompson, "Radical Feminism Today." 2001.
  • Nancy Whittier. "Feminist Generations: The Persistence of the Radical Women's Movement." 1995.

Quotes From Radical Feminists

"I didn't fight to get women out from behind vacuum cleaners to get them onto the board of Hoover." — Germaine Greer
"All men hate some women some of the time and some men hate all women all of the time." — Germaine Greer
"The fact is that we live in a profoundly anti-female society, a misogynistic 'civilization' in which men collectively victimize women, attacking us as personifications of their own paranoid fears, as The Enemy. Within this society it is men who rape, who sap women's energy, who deny women economic and political power." — Mary Daly
"I feel that 'man-hating' is an honorable and viable political act, that the oppressed have a right to class-hatred against the class that is oppressing them." — Robin Morgan
"In the long run, Women's Liberation will of course free men—but in the short run it's going to COST men a lot of privilege, which no one gives up willingly or easily." — Robin Morgan
"Feminists are often asked whether pornography causes rape. The fact is that rape and prostitution caused and continue to cause pornography. Politically, culturally, socially, sexually, and economically, rape and prostitution generated pornography; and pornography depends for its continued existence on the rape and prostitution of women." — Andrea Dworkin
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Lewis, Jone Johnson. "What Is Radical Feminism?" ThoughtCo, Nov. 25, 2020, thoughtco.com/what-is-radical-feminism-3528997. Lewis, Jone Johnson. (2020, November 25). What Is Radical Feminism? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-radical-feminism-3528997 Lewis, Jone Johnson. "What Is Radical Feminism?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-radical-feminism-3528997 (accessed March 31, 2023).