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The Vacuum Issue 11 spacer Issue 11
Radical Feminists
by Finola Meredith
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Radical feminists are wild. They believe in Fiercely Focused Rage and Elemental, Creative Power and breaking Terrible Taboos (check out those confrontational capitals). They're against fundamentalism, Coca Cola colonisation, pornography and Sigmund Freud, who, in the words of arch rad-fem Mary Daly, is the "figure-head for all professional Mind-fuckers". Radical feminists "want a Women's Movement like a lover". And many radical feminists believe that the enemy of women is not merely a social system or an economic institution but masculinity itself.
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The bottom line of radical feminism is the belief that women's oppression comes from women's categorisation as an inferior class to the class 'men'. Often speaking from the margins of the feminist canon, radical feminists don't want to waste time and energy playing around with 'irresponsible' postmodern ideas of woman: for them, letting the idea of woman float freely as 'a text', or 'pure difference', or 'the non-truth of truth' merely takes the heat off patriarchy. (Radical feminist joke: how many postmodern feminists does it take to change a lightbulb? None, they wouldn't bother because it's essentialist and ahistorical to think that you can't see in the dark.)
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Radical feminists think that feminist theory should be global, grounded in the actual experiences of real, live women across all classes, colours and cultures, whether they live in Bangladesh or Belfast, Dublin or Dubai. These feminists want to cut to the chase, get to the foundations of male domination, which they see as the defining characteristic of the social world, and destroy the sex-class system at the roots. They speak out against male aggression in all its forms, whether it manifests itself as mass rape in Bosnia/Hercegovina, or as clitoridectomy in Sudan, or as domestic violence in Northern Ireland. (In the process, they have earned themselves epithets like 'victim-feminists', 'man-bashers' and worse.) They think of themselves as 'women who took on the hard issues and stayed with them'.
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Radical feminists are, to a greater or lesser degree, separatist. They want womanculture, an autonomous, women-only women's movement. They are concerned with creating feminist alternatives, ways in which to 'live the revolution': they support women-run enterprises such as bookshops, restaurants, health programmes, lesbian cooperatives. These ventures are seen as providing for women's needs not met by patriarchal society; they are the building blocks of social change, the first movements towards a new feminist society. The whole idea of womanculture is based on the radical feminist celebration of womanhood, especially woman's ability to gestate new life, which many radical feminists see as woman's ultimate source of power. The radical feminist Adrienne Rich speaks of a 'female consciousness' as innately linked to the female body. She writes, "I have come to believe Š that female biology - the diffuse, intense sensuality radiating out from clitoris, breasts, uterus, vagina; the lunar cycles of menstruation; the gestation and fruition of life which can take place in the female body - has far more radical implications than we have come to appreciate".
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Radical feminists relish their amazing bodies, their miraculous ability to grow human beings of either sex from their own flesh, to bleed in rhythm with the phases of the moon, to sustain the life of an infant with their own breastmilk. They celebrate the ancient male terror of the swamp grass and snake's teeth that might lurk between women's legs. For them, men are eaten up with unacknowledged 'womb envy', which manifests itself as a desire to seize control of female biology through scientific and technological means. Incidentally, menstrual blood can be a useful weapon in the fight against male misogyny - witness the student radical feminist collective in the U.S. who, one moonlit night, decorated the exterior of their hostile history professor's charming neo-Gothic home with used sanitary towels. It doesn't get more elemental than that.
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There's no doubt that radical feminists can be pretty scary. But some men are horribly threatened by even the common-or-garden, workaday variety of feminist. Or perhaps just by women, full-stop. According to no less an authority than Dr. Sean Stitt of Irish men's support group 'Amen' (Letters Page, The Irish News, 17/9/02), Ireland is fast turning into a matriarchy where men are now 'the disposable sex', flushed ignominiously down the lavatory of history like a used sanitary towel (there's that iconic blood again). Sean Stitt and his ilk seem to think that women have got it made, and are now gleefully sharpening their knives to complete the feminist revolution in a final, unmistakable act of symbolic restitution. Gary Goldstein of men's magazine 'Esquire' gave voice to the anxiety that hitherto dare not speak its name when he yelped, 'Don't cut off my dick just because I'm a man!'. Don't worry, Gary. Most feminists aren't particularly keen on emasculatory rituals (Valerie Solanas's tragic 'Society for Cutting Up Men' (SCUM!) notwithstanding).
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But it's evident that many men are experiencing uncomfortable feelings of uncertainty, vulnerability and confusion. They feel threatened by the gradual erosion of the old order of overweening male dominance in both public and private realms. But this anxiety is really not a new phenomenon. Does the following sound familiar? 'Women have become so powerful that our independence has been lost in our own homes and is now being trampled and stamped underfoot in public'. Dr. Sean Stitt, Ireland, circa 2002? No, it's actually a comment by Cato, Rome, circa 195 B.C. (He was in a tizzy because a few Roman women tried to repeal a law that forbade them to ride in chariots). It seems that male reaction to even minor improvements in women's rights and opportunities is historically hyperbolic and disproportionate.
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Ultimately, the most extreme forms of radical feminism raise more questions than answers. For instance, if you argue that there are deep, unchangeable spiritual and biological differences between men and women, aren't you just replicating a different version of the same male-defined system you set out to demolish? The idea of woman as both different and inferior to man is an ancient product of patriarchy: Aristotle described woman as 'a misbegotten man'. Radical feminists reverse the categories, claiming that femininity is the superior option, a source of positive strength and creativity that men can never reach. But men are still men, and women are still women: nurturing, caring, sensual - sound familiar anyone? And what about differences between women, across class, ethnicity, sexual preference, age and so on? If you understand 'woman' as a universal category, the same across cultures and through time, do you risk erasing what it means to be living as a woman in a particular place at a particular point in history? These are vital issues too often left unaddressed by radical feminists. But hey, womb envy, wild females and feminist solidarity - what's not to like?
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Radical Feminists
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