What is Radical Feminism?

Radical feminism is a loosely formed, but a highly visible movement within feminism calling for a substantial change to the structure of contemporary society (hence the designation ‘radical’), which originated in the US in the 1960s with the Women’s Liberation Movement. Radical feminism does not have a single or unified theoretical or political doctrine, however, it does take a consistent stance towards men. Radical feminists identify patriarchy as the principal and universal cause of women’s oppression via its control of women’s reproductive capacity, sexuality and-perhaps most importantly, though much less obviously-via the ideology of femininity. Some radical feminists, such as Shulamith Firestone, argue that it is precisely because of women’s reproductive capacity that they are vulnerable to subordination by men because pregnancy and childrearing make them dependent on men for support, at least in humanity’s prehistorical beginnings. Therefore control of reproduction via such means as the contraceptive pill is seen as a crucial political step. Similarly, the control of women’s sexuality is resisted by redefining sex in such a way that it is no longer seen in terms of satisfying male desires and needs (as exemplified by pornography and prostitution). One solution, advocated by at least some radical separatists, is to opt-out of the heterosexual matrix altogether and adopt a lesbian lifestyle. The more widely adopted solution, which was advocated by the likes of Germaine Greer, is for women to set aside the restrictions of the cultural expectations of chastity until marriage and self-denial within marriage and actively pursue their own pleasure needs. Many post-feminists have in recent times written off this strategy as a pyrrhic victory at best, describing its outcomes as melancholy sex without commitment or love. Probably the greatest changes, though, have been made with regard to the ideology of femininity, which radical feminists sought to overturn. Radical feminism, via the work of people like Mary Daly, has constructed a women’s epistemology, that is, a way of knowing the world from a woman-centric perspective.