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The Politics of "Radical"

radical feminism, radical women of color, and trans women

Forum: Reddit (/r/AskFeminists)
Date: 08/19/2012


What does the "radical" in radical feminism mean? Is it radical as in extremist and over the top or radical in that it's attacking the "root" of the patriarchy?

"Radical" does refer to radical feminists' determination to address the "root" of problems facing women (and the world). Radical feminists are defining themselves against previous feminist movements that have, according to them, sought to build on men's ideas--most notably liberalism and socialism--to make them simply more inclusive and equitable to women. Radical feminism calls for the complete overhaul of the social systems.

But not everyone who believe in challenging the "root" of women's problems are radical feminists: for example, socialist feminists certainly believe that they are attacking the root as well. The actual defining characteristic of radical feminism is the primacy of the Patriarchy as the "root" of all evils; other societal oppressions such as racism and classism can be tools of the Patriarchy to divide women and reinforce men's domination over women, but are not treated as equivalent systems of oppressions. This assumption further lead to the belief in women's shared experiences and struggles under the Patriarchy that supersede all other social divisions among women.

During the so-called feminist sex wars in the 80s, radical feminists fought against a coalition of liberals, other feminists, queers, and sex-positive folks who called themselves "sex radicals." But radical feminists refused to call them by that name, referring them as "sex liberals" or "sex libertarians" instead.

Another group of people who have used the word "radical" are "radical women of color," sometimes even "radical feminists of color" whose writings can be found in This Bridge Called My Back and other anthologies and books. These radical women of color were often explicitly critical of radical feminists' privileging of sexism over other oppressions. Radical Black feminists of Combahee River Collective stated:

Although we are feminists and Lesbians, we feel solidarity with progressive Black men and do not advocate the fractionalization that white women who are separatists demand. Our situation as Black people necessitates that we have solidarity around the fact of race, which white women of course do not need to have with white men, unless it is their negative solidarity as racial oppressors. We struggle together with Black men against racism, while we also struggle with Black men about sexism.

Radical feminists' response to "radical women of color" tended to be less confrontational; they did not need to, because they could simply ignore or minimize their criticisms. For example, in From Practice to Theory, or What is a White Woman Anyway?, a piece that attempts to respond to the criticisms, Catharine MacKinnon (mis)characterizes criticisms from radical women of color as suggesting that white women barely suffer any oppressions, and ends the piece with a snide comment about how her politics "is not built on anyone's back."

In my opinion, there is nothing in radical feminist philosophy that requires anti-sexworker or anti-trans positions. It's true that many radical feminists are critical of both groups, but it is not necessarily so (I was a pro-sexworker, pro-trans radical feminist in the past). But the primacy of the Patriarchy over all other oppressions and of women's shared experiences and struggles--both of which have been criticized by radical women of color as silencing their experiences and upholding white supremacy--are fundamental to radical feminism. If you reject these two principles, you cease to be a radical feminist (and I did).


Something to consider in all of this is the feminist makeup of feminist subreddits on Reddit. A very large percentage of people in this subreddit and even in other more "intense" subreddits are casual feminists, or "fun feminists" who are more associated with general social justice than they are with feminism.

You are lumping together two distinct groups of feminists here. First is "fun feminists," which is a radical feminist epithet against people who identify as feminists but do not think beyond (white middle-class) women having more individual choices and freedoms and have no structural analysis.

Then there are feminists who have (or seek) intersectional structural analysis about how gender, race, class, sexuality, etc. interact with each other and are addressing multiple social justice issues at the same time because they believe that these forces are inseparable.

I understand that radical feminists have disagreements with both groups, but it is disingenuous for radical feminists to dismiss them together as if they are the same thing.

Not every single thing on Radfem Hub is hateful or transphobic. There is definitely content that can be read as such, but that is not the entirety of the content of the site. I would recommend that you make several visits to various parts of the site over the course of several days/weeks in order to form a judgement about it.

I agree that "not every single thing on Radfem Hub is hateful or transphobic." But the fact you have to state that, and that it might take "several visits to various parts of the site over the course of severals days/weeks" to understand that, is a problem.


In some cases, the label 'transphobic' is overused. The top link on radfem is some outrage over transgender children. Could you read this as transphobia? Sure. But the critical theory part is more like 'why would you call a girl fulfilling male gender roles 'a boy' at only 18 months?'

They didn't. The mother was talking about the confusion she felt because her youngest daughter wasn't acting like the other two she had raised.

Forum: Reddit (/r/AskFeminists)
Date: 08/22/2012


I actually have an impression that fitting trans* people into feminist theory has been an increasingly big concern for third-wave feminism over the past decade or so

"Fitting trans* people into feminist theory." That is what has been wrong about many other previous efforts to make feminism more inclusive and diverse: they start from the white, middle-class, cis, etc. women's experiences as the generic "women's experiences," and only later try to add experiences of other kinds of women to make it "more diverse."

Cis feminists do not own feminism. We don't need to "fit trans people into feminist theory"; we simply need to challenge cissexism in feminist movements and theories. Trans people do not need to be explained by feminist theory; we need to start from the fact that trans people exist and matter.


I'm a trans woman myself... I've just been reading a lot of feminist theory lately and I'm beginning to think that my existence is an insult to women.

No. A lot of trans orthodoxy may be insulting to women (as well as to trans people, and doubly so for trans women), but it is ideas and political rhetorics that are problematic, not your existence.

Also, while I feel that some of trans orthodoxy are highly problematic, I view it as defensive rhetorical strategy developed by a severely marginalized group in order to survive, and treat it differently than problematic behaviors and ideas of the dominant group.