Radical feminism (20TH CENTURY)

Theory of the primacy of sexual division and oppression in human society.

The most widely found division of advantage, power, and material well-being is between men and women. This system of oppression, termed patriarchy, is not derived from other systems such as capitalism but is distinct from them.

In consequence, women should organize on their own for the overthrow and transformation of the existing order.

Maggie Humm, The Dictionary of Feminist Theory (London, 1989)

Theory and ideology

Radical feminists assert that global society functions as a patriarchy in which the class of men are the oppressors of the class of women.[10] They propose that the oppression of women is the most fundamental form of oppression, one that has existed since the inception of humanity.[11] As radical feminist Ti-Grace Atkinson wrote in her foundational piece “Radical Feminism” (1969):

The first dichotomous division of this mass [mankind] is said to have been on the grounds of sex: male and female … it was because half the human race bears the burden of the reproductive process and because man, the ‘rational’ animal, had the wit to take advantage of that, that the childbearers, or the ‘beasts of burden,’ were corralled into a political class: equivocating the biologically contingent burden into a political (or necessary) penalty, thereby modifying these individuals’ definition from the human to the functional, or animal.[12]

Radical feminists argue that, because of patriarchy, women have come to be viewed as the “other[13]” to the male norm, and as such have been systematically oppressed and marginalized. They further assert that men as a class benefit from the systematic oppression of women. Patriarchal theory is not defined by a belief that all men always benefit from the oppression of all women. Rather, it maintains that the primary element of patriarchy is a relationship of dominance, where one party is dominant and exploits the other for the benefit of the former. Radical feminists believe that men (as a class) use social systems and other methods of control to keep women (as well as non-dominant men) suppressed. Radical feminists seek to abolish patriarchy by challenging existing social norms and institutions, and believe that eliminating patriarchy will liberate everyone from an unjust society. Ti-Grace Atkinson maintained that the need for power fuels the male class to continue oppressing the female class, arguing that “the need men have for the role of oppressor is the source and foundation of all human oppression”.[14]

The influence of radical-feminist politics on the women’s liberation movement was considerable. Redstockings[15] co-founder Ellen Willis wrote in 1984 that radical feminists “got sexual politics recognized as a public issue”, created second-wave feminism’s vocabulary, helped to legalize abortion in the USA, “were the first to demand total equality in the so-called private sphere” (“housework and child care … emotional and sexual needs”), and “created the atmosphere of urgency” that almost led to the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment.[6] The influence of radical feminism can be seen in the adoption of these issues by the National Organization for Women (NOW), a feminist group that had previously been focused almost entirely on economic issues.[16]


Radical feminists in the United States coined the term women’s liberation movement (WLM). The WLM grew largely due to the influence of the civil rights movement, that had gained momentum in the 1960s, and many of the women who took up the cause of radical feminism had previous experience with radical protest in the struggle against racism. Chronologically, it can be seen within the context of second wave feminism that started in the early 1960s.[17] The leading figures of this second wave of feminism included Shulamith FirestoneKathie SarachildTi-Grace AtkinsonCarol HanischRoxanne DunbarNaomi Weisstein and Judith Brown. In the late sixties various women’s groups describing themselves as “radical feminist”, such as the UCLA Women’s Liberation Front (WLF), offered differing views of radical feminist ideology. UCLA’s WLF co-founder Devra Weber recalls, “the radical feminists were opposed to patriarchy, but not necessarily capitalism. In our group at least, they opposed so-called male dominated national liberation struggles”.[18]Roots

Radical feminists helped to translate the radical protest for racial equality, in which many had experience, over to the struggle for women’s rights. They took up the cause and advocated for a variety of women’s issues, including abortion rights, the Equal Rights Amendment, access to credit, and equal pay.[19] Many women of color were among the founders of the Women’s Liberation Movement (Fran Beal, Cellestine Ware, Toni Cade Bambara); however, many women of color did not participate in the movement due to their conclusion that radical feminists were not addressing “issues of meaning for minority women”, Black women in particular [20] After consciousness raising groups were formed to rally support, second-wave radical feminism began to see an increasing number of women of color participating.

In the 1960s, radical feminism emerged within liberal feminist and working-class feminist discussions, first in the United States, then in the United Kingdom and Australia. Those involved had gradually come to believe that it was not only the middle-class nuclear family that oppressed women, but that it was also social movements and organizations that claimed to stand for human liberation, notably the counterculture, the New Left, and Marxist political parties, all of which were male-dominated and male-oriented. In the United States, radical feminism developed as a response to some of the perceived failings of both New Left organizations such as the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and feminist organizations such as NOW.[citation needed] Initially concentrated in big cities like New York, Chicago, Boston, Washington, DC, and on the West Coast,[6][a] radical feminist groups spread across the country rapidly from 1968 to 1972.

At the same time parallel trends of thinking developed outside the USA: The Women’s Yearbook[21] from Munich gives a good sense of early 1970s feminism in West Germany:

Their Yearbook essay on behalf of the autonomous feminist movement argued that patriarchy was the oldest and most fundamental relationship of exploitation. Hence the necessity of feminists’ separating from men’s organizations on the Left, since they would just use women’s efforts to support their own goals, in which women’s liberation did not count. The editors of Frauenjahrbuch 76 also explicitly distanced themselves from the language of liberalism, arguing that “equal rights define women’s oppression as women’s disadvantage.” They explicitly labeled the equal rights version of feminism as wanting to be like men, vehemently rejecting claims that “women should enter all the male-dominated areas of society. More women in politics! More women in the sciences, etc. . . . Women should be able to do everything that men do.” Their position—and that of the autonomous feminists represented in this 1976 yearbook—instead was that: “This principle that ‘we want that too’ or ‘we can do it too’ measures emancipation against men and again defines what we want in relationship to men. Its content is conformity to men. . . . Because in this society male characteristics fundamentally have more prestige, recognition and above all more power, we easily fall into the trap of rejecting and devaluing all that is female and admiring and emulating all that is considered male. . . . The battle against the female role must not become the battle for the male role. . . . The feminist demand, which transcends the claim for equal rights, is the claim for self-determination.[22][23]

Radical feminists introduced the use of consciousness raising (CR) groups. These groups brought together intellectuals, workers, and middle-class women in developed Western countries to discuss their experiences. During these discussions, women noted a shared and repressive system regardless of their political affiliation or social class. Based on these discussions, the women drew the conclusion that ending of patriarchy was the most necessary step towards a truly free society. These consciousness-raising sessions allowed early radical feminists to develop a political ideology based on common experiences women faced with male supremacy. Consciousness raising was extensively used in chapter sub-units of the National Organization for Women (NOW) during the 1970s. The feminism that emerged from these discussions stood first and foremost for the liberation of women, as women, from the oppression of men in their own lives, as well as men in power. Radical feminism claimed that a totalizing ideology and social formation—patriarchy (government or rule by fathers)—dominated women in the interests of men.


Logo of the Redstockings

Within groups such as New York Radical Women (1967–1969; not connected to the present-day socialist feminist organization Radical Women), which Ellen Willis characterized as “the first women’s liberation group in New York City”,[24] a radical feminist ideology began to emerge. It declared that “the personal is political” and the “sisterhood is powerful”;[6] calls to women’s activism coined by Kathie Sarachild and others in the group.[25] New York Radical Women fell apart in early 1969 in what came to be known as the “politico-feminist split”, with the “politicos” seeing capitalism as the main source of women’s oppression, while the “feminists” saw women’s oppression in a male supremacy that was “a set of material, institutionalized relations, not just bad attitudes”. The feminist side of the split, whose members referred to themselves as “radical feminists”,[24] soon constituted the basis of a new organization, Redstockings. At the same time, Ti-Grace Atkinson led “a radical split-off from NOW”, which became known as The Feminists.[26] A third major stance would be articulated by the New York Radical Feminists, founded later in 1969 by Shulamith Firestone (who broke from the Redstockings) and Anne Koedt.[27]

During this period, the movement produced “a prodigious output of leaflets, pamphlets, journals, magazine articles, newspaper and radio and TV interviews”.[6] Many important feminist works, such as Koedt’s essay The Myth of the Vaginal Orgasm (1970) and Kate Millet’s book Sexual Politics (1970), emerged during this time and in this milieu.

Ideology emerges and diverges

At the beginning of this period, “heterosexuality was more or less an unchallenged assumption”. Among radical feminists, it was widely held that, thus far, the sexual freedoms gained in the sexual revolution of the 1960s, in particular, the decreasing emphasis on monogamy, had been largely gained by men at women’s expense.[28] This assumption of heterosexuality would soon be challenged by the rise of political lesbianism, closely associated with Atkinson and The Feminists.[29]

Redstockings and The Feminists were both radical feminist organizations, but held rather distinct views. Most members of Redstockings held to a materialist and anti-psychologistic view. They viewed men’s oppression of women as ongoing and deliberate, holding individual men responsible for this oppression, viewing institutions and systems (including the family) as mere vehicles of conscious male intent, and rejecting psychologistic explanations of female submissiveness as blaming women for collaboration in their own oppression. They held to a view—which Willis would later describe as “neo-Maoist”—that it would be possible to unite all or virtually all women, as a class, to confront this oppression by personally confronting men.[30]

Ellen Willis

The Feminists held a more idealistic, psychologistic, and utopian philosophy, with a greater emphasis on “sex roles”, seeing sexism as rooted in “complementary patterns of male and female behavior”. They placed more emphasis on institutions, seeing marriage, family, prostitution, and heterosexuality as all existing to perpetuate the “sex-role system”. They saw all of these as institutions to be destroyed. Within the group, there were further disagreements, such as Koedt’s viewing the institution of “normal” sexual intercourse as being focused mainly on male sexual or erotic pleasure, while Atkinson viewed it mainly in terms of reproduction. In contrast to the Redstockings, The Feminists generally considered genitally focused sexuality to be inherently male. Ellen Willis, the Redstockings co-founder, would later write that insofar as the Redstockings considered abandoning heterosexual activity, they saw it as a “bitter price” they “might have to pay for [their] militance”, whereas The Feminists embraced separatist feminism as a strategy.[31]

The New York Radical Feminists (NYRF) took a more psychologistic (and even biologically determinist) line. They argued that men dominated women not so much for material benefits as for the ego satisfaction intrinsic in domination. Similarly, they rejected the Redstockings view that women submitted only out of necessity or The Feminists’ implicit view that they submitted out of cowardice, but instead argued that social conditioning simply led most women to accept a submissive role as “right and natural”.[32]

Forms of action

The radical feminism of the late 60s was not only a movement of ideology and theory; it helped to inspire direct action. In 1968, feminists protested against the Miss America pageant in order to bring “sexist beauty ideas and social expectations” to the forefront of women’s social issues. Even though bras were not burned on that day, the protest led to the phrase “bra-burner”. “Feminists threw their bras—along with “woman-garbage” such as girdles, false eyelashes, steno pads, wigs, women’s magazines, and dishcloths—into a “Freedom Trash Can”, but they did not set it on fire”.[33] In March of 1970, more than one hundred feminists staged an 11-hour sit-in at the Ladies’ Home Journal headquarters. These women demanded that the publication replace its male editor with a female editor, and accused the Ladies Home Journal, “with their emphasis on food, family, fashion, and femininity”, of being “instruments of women’s oppression”. One protester explained the goal of the protest by saying that they “were there to destroy a publication which feeds off of women’s anger and frustration, a magazine which destroys women.”[34]

Radical feminists used a variety of tactics, including demonstrations, speakouts, and community and work-related organizing, to gain exposure and adherents.[35] In France and West Germany radical feminists developed further forms of direct action.

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