The Urgent Need for Radical Feminism Today
It is well to note that from radicalism has flowed all that makes life better today than yesterday. It is now, as in the past, the only force capable of leading the world out of its night of hunger, hatred and fear. Humanity advances over a path blazed by radicals and stained with their blood. So long as there is injustice there will be radicals. The name itself is the proudest title of free men and women.
—Industrial Workers of the World
When the crushing loss of abortion rights started to sink in during the summer of 2022, many feminists felt an urgent need to reorient themselves toward political activism and radical ideologies. What could it mean, after all the advances toward gender equality, that such a blatant and retrograde act of misogyny, enacted through the Supreme Court, could remove a right that had been secured fifty years ago? Did this mean that all rights could be rendered fragile and subject to the whims of Christian ideologies and the far Right? How could the feminist movement have stopped this? What could a radical refusal to play by the legal rules provide that liberal feminist ways of thinking could not? Indeed, this is a disorienting time, one that serves as a stark reminder that progress is never permanent, and that disdain for—and hatred of—women underlies many of the institutional decisions of US politics. It is within this context that I want to lay out an argument for the urgent need to embrace radical feminism, mapping not only the strengths and pitfalls of radical feminism but the stakes of turning away from radical feminist thought at such a tumultuous and regressive moment.
Radical feminism remains one of the most fraught, maligned, and misunderstood segments of the feminist movement. This is in part a consequence of the incessant distortions applied to the word radical both in the mainstream news media and in colloquial conversation. Radical does not mean “extreme” or “outrageous” but rather a process of going to the roots of something, of digging deeper and deeper in order to understand a system, structure, or phenomenon. As such, the phrase radical Right is really a misnomer, as the far-right conservative movement in this country, and in much of the world, has little interest in uncovering or understanding problems at their roots. Rather, much of their politics relies on reactionary, superficial, and willfully ignorant positions that reject deeper analysis. Radicalism is, and has historically been, a practice of the far Left, specifically derived from the labor activism of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (radical labor organizing, the IWW, the organizing of the African American Pullman porters, railroad strikes), which then bled into the social movements of the 1960s and beyond. To understand the contexts within which radicalism originated—and the price paid for engaging in radical analysis and organizing—connections must be drawn between early radical activism, mid-twentieth-century radical social movements, and contemporary radicalism. To conceptualize radical feminism without referencing radical labor and early civil rights activism deprives it of its richer story and keeps it marginalized as a relic that has outlived its usefulness. Radicals of all types, working in many movements, have paid with their blood and have faced terrorism by white supremacist and anti-labor organizations for over a century.Radical does not mean extreme or outrageous but rather a process of going to the roots of somethingClick To Tweet
Radical feminism comes from a context of thinking about, and rebelling against, the root structures of women’s oppression. Many early radical feminists, who came of age in the 1960s, grew up with parents and grandparents involved in radical labor movements and antiwar organizations. Their ability to conceptualize radical ideas or engage in deeper analyses of women as a class or caste was modeled—at least in part—after the way their elders thought about coal miners, railroad workers, soldiers, and factory laborers. They were, in short, impatient with the notion of using existing means of progress (workplaces, courts, family, the ballot box) to distribute resources. Through immersion in radical movements, they learned that working within institutional structures failed to address the root causes of social problems. They instead wanted to take direct action to improve women’s lives. Still, they understood from watching their parents and grandparents’ struggles that action without theory would lead to disaster. Radical feminists also saw that without solidarity between women from different backgrounds, no movement to liberate women could ever succeed. They imagined that women could operate as a power bloc and that they could advocate for themselves, demand transformative change, build new means for the distribution of rights and resources, and powerfully upend the status quo.Radical feminism comes from a context of thinking about, and rebelling against, the root structures of women’s oppressionClick To Tweet
The legacies of second-wave radical feminism
In its earliest iterations, and in conversation with the growing visibility of liberal feminism, second-wave radical feminism wanted to look at the structural and systemic roots of patriarchy and sexism, with particular interest in how seemingly private experiences (sexuality, the body, spirituality, housework, emotions, the family) connected to broader structures that disempowered women and limited their freedom and autonomy. These radical feminists worried, rightly, that the work being done for women’s rights had focused too much on accommodating existing structures rather than reimagining those structures in their entirety. In essence, liberal feminism (or “within-system” feminism) moderately improved women’s lives (salaries, visibility, safety) but left in place the structures that limited women’s options, suppressed their ambitions, and kept them confined to the home and to childrearing and husband-pleasing. Liberal feminist ideologies rarely diminished men’s social and political power. Moreover, liberal feminist activism typically served a more narrow group of women rather than expanding out to include women on the margins or in conditions of precarity.
Radical feminists not only wanted to target a wider range of oppressions, they wanted to engage in more aggressive public actions that challenged power structures and demanded far-reaching change. These firebrand feminists knew that powerful entities would not concede power without a fierce public struggle. They protested the Miss America pageant in 1969, demanding an end to how women and their bodies were treated as objects of the male gaze. They organized a “pee-in” at Harvard to protest the lack of women’s restrooms in the halls where students took exams (the organizer, Florynce “Flo” Kennedy, told the Harvard Crimson, “If you had to give the world an enema, you would put it in Harvard Yard. This has got to be the asshole of the world.”) They stormed the Ladies Home Journal offices and demanded changes in how women were depicted and how decisions were made (hiring women of color at all levels of managerial and writing staff, opening an on-site daycare, no longer publishing ads that degraded women), thus pushing for a radical reimagination of how workplaces could operate. They expressed fury at the treatment of the Chicago Seven to show solidarity with other resistance movements, and later dressed as witches and hexed a bridal fair at Madison Square Garden while wearing black veils in order to upend commonly held beliefs about marriage. They organized women to take taekwondo lessons for self-defense, escorted women safely to their homes, advocated for politically motivated celibacy, and witnessed other women’s narratives of oppression through consciousness-raising sessions.
Though in some ways short-lived, and certainly not without its limitations, second-wave radical feminism opened up new understandings of gender and power, reimagined solidarity between movements, made space for angry and impatient agitators, and embodied notions of feminist praxis.`For example, radical feminists demanded the outright abolition of abortion laws and argued for a constitutional amendment that guaranteed women the fundamental right to bodily autonomy. They also demanded deep-seated revisions to the economic distribution of resources and the commutation of prison sentences for women who acted in self-defense against domestic violence. Far more than their liberal counterparts, radical feminists understood the role of race and class in women’s liberation, and that the links between the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, and labor movements were critical. Radical feminism drew from the peace and antiwar movements (particularly through Donna Allen and Women Strike for Peace)1, the labor movement (notably the Wobblies and their tactics), and the civil rights movement (particularly with Florynce Kennedy as a key organizer and leader of early radical feminist work), in tactics, direct action, consciousness-raising sessions, and inter-movement organizing. Most significantly, radical feminists understood that all progress could be taken away, that all rights were hard-earned, and that no activists could rest on their laurels or imagine that change has arrived.Far more than their liberal counterparts, radical feminists understood the role of race and class in women's liberation, and that the links between the civil rights movement, the women's movements, and labor movements were criticalClick To Tweet
The power of radical feminism—its historical significance, its tactics and actions, its scope and ambition, its fusion of the personal and political, its ultimately prescient warnings about the overreliance on liberal “within-system” tactics—ripples through our lives today. Some of our most robust critiques of the links between patriarchy, white supremacy, and the ruling class owe a debt to radical feminist actions and theories. Second-wave radical feminists believed they had to showcase the power imbalances between men and women in order to truly embody an antiracist, anticapitalist, anti-imperialist radical politics. Radical feminists connected the problem of sex roles to an entire class system rooted in an unequal distribution of power. Compared to their liberal counterparts, radical feminists have demonstrated a sharper and more nuanced critique of patriarchal influences on family and sexuality, and more support for collective rabblerousing for gender equality. They have been more engaged in feminist activism and antiracism efforts. Radical feminist histories are connected not only to earlier iterations of feminist activism but to radical activism throughout the last two hundred years. Most centrally, I argue in this essay that radical feminism opens up, rather than forecloses, space, and that its core politics are expansive and revolutionary rather than reductionistic and limited.
TERF as Boogeywoman
Given the rich and varied histories of radical feminism and their ties to other radical movements, it is all the more tragic that radical feminism is now seen, particularly online, as synonymous with the figure of the TERF: an acronym for trans-exclusionary radical feminist. Indeed, most of the time radical feminism is mentioned on social media is in the context of the rejection of TERF-dom. This fusion links the histories, ideologies, and practices of radical feminism to the figure of the TERF, reducing the complexity of radical feminism to trans exclusion. This not only falsely represents radical feminism, it also promotes the false narrative that trans activism and radical feminism do not have common origins, goals, and enemies. The belief that one must either be for trans rights or identify as a radical feminist has problematic implications for trans liberation and women’s liberation. For example, gender scholar Finn Mackay has argued that women’s rights and trans rights can and should exist in tandem with each other and that arguments that pit them against each other are not only harmful but misrepresent the goals of both movements. We can, they argue, advocate for both trans inclusivity and for helping women who feel traumatized by men’s violence against women; they have pointedly said, “We need to be focusing on that which makes egalitarian models so difficult in the first place.”This fusion links the histories, ideologies, and practices of radical feminism to the figure of the TERF, reducing the complexity of radical feminism to trans exclusion.Click To Tweet
I want to argue here that the figure of the TERF is neither feminist nor radical, and that in lumping radical feminists and radical feminism in with TERFs, we occlude what is radical and what is feminist about radical feminism. Notably, the label “TERF” was originally created by radical feminists as a way to criticize and delegitimize feminists who held essentialist and trans-exclusionary views. It is a bizarre framing to imagine that anything that excludes trans people is now read as radical feminist, when both radicalism and feminism have been underpinning liberation movements for decades. The way TERFs are represented in contemporary media, primarily by those not affiliated or identified with radical feminism, reflects a more general lack of contextualization. Reading a historical movement through a contemporary lens can feel unsettling, and such readings are often rooted in glossy and ahistorical understandings of the struggles surrounding earlier waves of feminist mobilizations. For example, when I teach Valerie Solanas’s SCUM Manifesto, a document written in 1967 (peppered, for example, by words like “groovy” and “swinging”), students often react that her fixation on biology and innate superiority/inferiority reads as transphobic. I remind students that the mid- to late 1960s were marked by a strongly Freudian/psychoanalytic understanding of gender alongside a biological essentialism that marked women as inferior. Penis envy was widely assumed to be true, and psychiatrists routinely talked to the husbands of their female patients to “update” them on their wives’ progress in therapy. Solanas’s insistence on reversing the direction of these binaries (accusing men of “pussy envy” or calling them “incomplete females”) was in part a reaction to the heavily psychoanalytic and biologically essentialist sexist contexts in which she lived and worked.
With regard to the TERF framework, there were (and are) radical feminists who believe(d) that trans people threaten the feminist movement. A few radical feminists—Lierre Keith and Robin Morgan, among others—held essentialist views on gender and have been wary of including people assigned male at birth (AMAB) in women-only spaces (e.g., toilets, changing rooms, rape crisis and domestic violence shelters, and women’s political and social groups). These conversations have primarily occurred around discussions of physical safety and women’s freedom from violence, notions that male privilege infects trans women’s consciousness, and women’s learned fear of people who were socialized as boys and men. (For example, MichFest founder Lisa Vogel and others held that women who faced violence from male partners or family members needed space to exist without the fear of that violence.) Notions of excluding trans people from women-only feminist spaces have also been introduced into conversations about the importance of connecting people assigned female at birth(AFAB) around issues of reproduction, pregnancy, abortion and menstruation/menopause. Some radical feminists have contended that shared reproductive capacity could be an organizing principle for women as a class/caste.
These premises were short-lived and have been dismissed by the vast majority of feminists (radical or otherwise), particularly in US academic and political feminist spaces. For example, no data has supported claims that trans women pose any notable physical threat or danger to cis women (in fact, trans women are four times as likely as cis women to experience violent victimization). As Finn Mackay has argued, “The bigger priority…is tackling the sexualised male violence that threatens women and trans men alike.” Similarly, self-reflexive work examining male privilege among trans women and nonbinary AMAB people has opened up space for more nuanced analyses of how male privilege differently impacts cis/heterosexual men and trans and nonbinary AMAB people. Political organizing around reproductive rights, abortion, and menstruation has increasingly and vocally embraced the fact that trans and nonbinary people are central to struggles for reproductive justice (abortion access, menstrual equity, health care inclusion, etc.). Trans, nonbinary, and genderqueer activists have always been, and will always be, a key constituent of the feminist movement.
Understanding the contrasts between the political dog-whistling happening in the broader political and media culture around trans rights—which often uses trans people as political puppets and has little regard for liberatory politics—and the political clashes within feminism is critical to disentangling the figure of the TERF from radicalism, feminism, and radical feminism. Within feminist circles, lesbians from older generations often lament that their experiences, identities, and politics have been supplanted by a broader interest in trans and queer politics (for example, the Journal of Lesbian Studies has reported a sharp drop-off in research about lesbians and submissions to the journal; nearly all of the New York City lesbian bars have closed; and the figures of the lesbian and the feminist are at risk for being rendered, in one account, as permanently reactionary). That said, most of the trans-exclusionary discourse has occurred outside of feminist spaces and has been generated within reactionary culture-war conflicts. J.K. Rowling, for example, famously tweeted in response to an article on menstruation: “‘People who menstruate.’ I’m sure there used to be a word for those people. Someone help me out. Wumben? Wimpund? Woomud?” She later defended this by saying, “If sex isn’t real, the lived reality of women globally is erased.” (She has also recently supported antiabortion and anti-trans activist and Kiwi Farms user Caroline Farrow, which suggests that Rowling’s comments are not one-off asides but are indicative of deeper political fissures, both personally and in UK discourses more broadly.) Debates about the hazards of these shifts in language (turning off wider groups of political allies, obscuring the misogynistic roots of antiabortion laws) versus the hazards of exclusion (trans men and nonbinary people not getting appropriate healthcare screenings and care around pregnancy, risks of being outed unwittingly in men’s restrooms, criminal prosecution for accessing healthcare, bomb threats against children’s hospitals, or even deadly violence like Club Q) suggest that these tensions constitute a thorny, painful, and provocative part of contemporary feminist politics. They map onto broader conflicts within feminism about inclusion/exclusion, naming, visibility, and hierarchy while also underscoring the dangers of reducing feminism to a singular narrative or failing to identify who speaks for feminism without clear links to feminist goals, tactics, and histories. More nuanced and less reactionary discussions about language shifts and exclusion would well serve the feminist movement, as would a focus on the historical and contemporary roots of misogyny.
The lack of conceptual clarity around the figure of the TERF also points to the flimsy basis that links TERFs to actual radical feminist politics. As Finn Mackay argues:
More nuanced and less reactionary discussions about language and language shifts and exclusion would well serve the feminist movement, as would a focus on the historical and contemporary roots of misogyny.Click To Tweet
The acronym has become so widely shared in social media activism and mainstream journalism that it has become almost a void, as it is applied to anyone expressing transphobic, prejudiced, bigoted or otherwise exclusionary views about trans men, trans women and all transgender and trans people. It is applied to those who are not feminist activists and would never identify themselves as feminists; it is put onto those who may be feminists but are certainly not Radical Feminists; it has become a shorthand for transphobic, and mostly applied to women.
Accusations of being a TERF have been used as a tool for outright dismissal of people, texts, ideas, bodies of thought, and even entire historical periods of feminism. Who (or what) is being excluded, and what kind of inclusivity matters, are questions mostly left underexamined. Still, in the world of contemporary feminist discourse, particularly online, the TERF is seen as synonymous with all of radical feminism. This easy elision of “trans-exclusionary” and “radical feminist” creates a false narrative that dismisses the contributions and voices of actual radical feminists and, notably, obfuscates the identity and motives of actual transphobes. How exclusionary politics have been coded as “radical” rather than as a limited flank of feminist thought (or as a prominent part of conservative thought!) is also puzzling. (Remember, too, that TERF was first used by Australian blogger and journalist Viv Smythe, who also pondered using “trans-exclusionary separatist” to more accurately depict who was doing the excluding.) A great deal is lost in today’s glib linking of “radical” with “TERF.” Instead, we might interrogate why certain ideas/figures become boogeywomen and what this says about the co-optation of (radical) feminist politics by those with fundamentally conservative and reactionary leanings. This interrogation might do more to improve the actual lives of trans and nonbinary people than unsubstantiated and sweeping associations of radical feminism with “terfiness.”
To assert that radical feminism has one singular take on trans inclusivity/exclusivity is deeply false, and the blanket dismissal of radical feminism undermines its political significance and influence. As Finn Mackay argues in their newest book:
There is undoubtably a level of misogyny, sexism and ageism which fuels the blanket ridicule, dismissal and willful ignorance about just what Radical Feminist theory even is, and what it isn’t. Second Wave has become a dirty word, an insult in many political circles, and Radical Feminism emblematic of an out of date, politically incorrect and prissy feminism which will not be mourned when it dies out. However, a politics and theory as strong as Radical Feminism, a politics and theory that is truly radical in the revolutionary sense, will never die out; and in fact, its influence can be seen in much queer theory and activism today, proving, time after time and decade after decade, its prescience and relevance.
A further reckoning of the interface between feminism and queer politics, not to mention racial and class politics, is clearly needed, particularly given the importance of inclusivity and embracing marginality within the feminist movement. Big questions linger: How can we move from imagining women as a class or caste (as in 1960s radical feminism) to framing feminism as a movement invested in solidarity between people working for similar political goals? Are these mutually exclusive? How can radical feminism connect people with shared anger across identities and movements? How can it help us engage in meaningful and robust critiques of power structures? How do we disentangle the figure of the TERF from both radicalism and feminism, such that we understand the TERF as neither radical nor feminist? How do we usher in new ideas of feminist progress without shutting down or losing insights from earlier periods of feminist history? How can we move toward radical reimaginings of sex and gender, including, perhaps, the abolition of gender itself? Most importantly, how do we complicate rather than reduce the feminist movement, both historically and today?
The Crushing Blow to Abortion Rights
If we are to champion the liberatory potential of radical feminism while disentangling it from the reductionistic figure of the TERF, we need to remember why radical feminist thought matters and how radical feminism contributes to our understanding of gender, politics, embodiment, and power. Consider what radical feminism can offer to this contemporary crisis around abortion rights. The painful loss of federally mandated access to abortion—rooted in a deep-seated hatred of women and in an increasingly aggressive push to solidify the relationship between state and religious political power—has pushed feminists and our allies to reckon with the fragility of rights. Though abortion rights have long been limited and eroded by aggressive conservative efforts, the outright loss of access to abortion (and the well-founded fear that a federal ban on abortion is imminent) has been, as radical feminist activist Ti-Grace Atkinson said, a “bucket of ice water” over the head. The costs of this legal blow—not only to AFAB people’s psychological and emotional well-being but to their upward mobility in terms of social class and education—are staggering. Whether it will motivate a seismic shift in voting behavior remains to be seen, though the 2022 midterm elections in the United States suggest a promising shift toward collective anger translating into pro-choice electoral politics.
A liberal feminist argument for abortion (rooted in Roe’s reliance on the right to privacy)—contends that as long as those capable of pregnancy have access to abortion in some (albeit restricted) form, these partial rights are better than having no access at all. Liberal feminists have argued that the courts would “protect” AFAB people, that the word “choice” should substitute for the (scary) word “abortion,” that abortion is a medical issue rather than a legal or moral issue, that voting serves as a key means to ensure continued access to abortion. These arguments have revealed themselves to be uniquely dangerous. First, the right to privacy establishes the doctor-patient relationship as the primary relationship worthy of constitutional protection, and in essence values the doctor’s rights over the rights of those who are actually pregnant. As radical feminist Carolyn McConnell writes:
Roe v. Wade was not a good decision. It was grounded in respect for doctors’ freedoms, not women’s, and in the consumerist right to “choose” an abortion if you could pay for it, not in the right to equality. Three years after the Roe decision, Congress enacted the Hyde Amendment banning federal funding to allow poor women to get abortions. States began enacting more and more restrictions on abortion, requiring parental (and even spousal) notification or consent, forcing ultrasounds, compelling inaccurate speech by health care providers, placing onerous requirements on abortion clinics, barring late-term abortions, and so on. There may have been a federal right to “choose” abortion, but for many women, especially poor, black, and brown, and young women, that didn’t mean any ability to get one.
Many groups and individuals—radical feminists, critical legal theorists, women of color active in reproductive justice work, socialist feminists, and even Ruth Bader Ginsburg all tried to warn the National Organization for Women that right to privacy would be prone to attacks, erosion, assaults, and an outright overturning of the right to abortion one day. They turned out to be painfully correct.
In late August of this year, I interviewed radical feminist Ti-Grace Atkinson about abortion. Atkinson had been heavily involved in abortion activism in the late 1960s, having first offered her personal phone line for women to call and ask for help in getting abortions, and later arguing against the lead positions of the National Organization for Women (as their former president) by saying that the right to privacy was a poor choice for securing abortion rights. She said:
But the model … we were dealing with in the ‘60s was really playing whack-a-mole with the rights of the fetus. I mean, the woman is just ancillary…. The sperm and the ovum meet,… and then conception occurs. After that, all reproduction is really incubation … from the moment of conception to birth. And you can’t intervene in that except by assault on the woman’s person.” 3
She went on to add, “There’s talk of the embryo and the fetus, everybody and anybody except the star of this drama, which is the woman’s body…. It’s easy to get caught up in these games of, ‘Well, how advanced is the fetus?’ etc. etc. It’s irrelevant. The only solution, really, is to abolish any regulations concerning abortion. Just wipe them. It’s the only thing that works.”4
When I asked her why the movement to abolish all bans on abortion stalled in the late 1960s, she replied:
We weren’t able to get enough movement support … from the abortion rights groups…. So, the compromise happened and people jumped on Roe, “Oh, this is wonderful.” Now, the fact that there was so much leeway for making all sorts of amendments to it … (restricting abortion access to more and more and more women), that was built into that. I can’t say I foresaw something like this Dobbs thing. This is just a horrendous disaster.” 5
When we make an argument that some rights are sufficient, we obscure the radical basis for abortion rights. One convincing radical feminist argument holds that because a pregnancy is carried entirely by the person incubating the zygote/fetus, absolutely no restrictions should exist for people’s access to abortion. Therefore, any restriction on abortion is essentially a state-sponsored assault on the pregnant person’s body. Late-term abortions, which are rare and mostly derive from medical complications, have long been a conservative political talking point, but the liberal feminist move away from the liberatory implications of abortion and birth control, and toward privacy and choice, has largely driven radical arguments for abortion rights underground, leaving late-term abortions as a dangerous “wedge issue.” No restrictions on abortion would also mean more access to abortion, particularly by poorer people, those who have been assaulted or raped, and those for whom pregnancy could pose undue risks. It would also make abortion a medical procedure that all governmental and private insurance companies must pay for. In essence, a radical feminist argument holds that abortion should be unrestricted, affordable, accessible, and guaranteed in the Constitution—and that medical support and care should be available for those who need/choose it. The state should reflect and protect the truism that all people have the right to bodily autonomy, especially those who are carrying a pregnancy. It also holds that the state has no claim to limit the reproductive capacities of any particular population (for example, the state may not require that people go on birth control before receiving governmental financial support, or sponsor sterilization efforts). Anything short of this creates a context for state ownership of, and assault on, the uterus. US abortion laws are a case study in the dangers of what happens when radical claims to bodily autonomy are ignored in favor of incremental change.
As an extension of this argument, another radical feminist claim could hold that AFAB people should be compensated financially for the labor they provide in birthing children, particularly given the well-documented declines in income they experience when having children. As it is, there is no federal paid maternity leave. As Atkinson noted during our interview:
As women start having children, one child, they are out of the labor force for a period, but two children, three, it’s finished until the children all leave and the woman is just treated like garbage. It’s very significant. It’s pivotal… You … have to … understand that there is a relationship between the individual and the state and population… Women should be compensated. You should compensate women for this labor properly. It’s not healthy. It takes a lot out of the body.
This idea was originated by socialist feminist and labor lawyer Crystal Eastman, who wrote in 1920 of the need to compensate women who raise children: “If and when they choose housework and child-raising, to have that occupation recognized by the world as work, requiring a definite economic reward and not merely entitling the performer to be dependent on some man.” In particular, Eastman criticizes the early feminist movement for its refusal to deal with birth control and Black women’s rights, arguing that without a balance between work, life, and labor, both inside and outside of the home, women could not truly be free.
While there are certainly many critiques of the model of compensating women for childbirth—particularly how it could enshrine childcare responsibilities as those of women alone—the failure to address the tangled problem of motherhood, economic standing, abortion rights, educational advancement, and gender biases has exposed significant fault lines of gender, race, and class. Atkinson believes that feminism’s refusal to deal with the relationship between reproduction, motherhood, and their economic standing has led to blind spots that allowed Roe to fall: “We needed to grab hold of this reproductive aspect and the motherhood thing,” she told me.
Look at us now. This is the price if you don’t. If you don’t deal with it straightforwardly, this is the result. And it was almost impossible to get people to deal with it in a really diligent way. The … feeling was, “Well, we have so many other issues. If we touch this, the third rail, we won’t be able to make any other progress.” But if you don’t touch the third rail, you can’t make secure progress.
Reflecting now on the fall of Roe and the patterns of the feminist movement more broadly, Atkinson said:
I’ve thought all along in my depressed state, “Well, at least there’s Roe,” as far as accomplishment. If you study the last women’s movement—I’m talking nineteenth century—they were in the wilderness for seventy years. And they lost. They had a promising beginning, and then they kept losing ground. Any gains women have made can be taken away if you don’t deal with [reproductive justice and childbearing]. It’s fundamental. Take away all of the bullshit and look at it. What is the value to society, and how should it be compensated?
Atkinson expressed surprise that people have been more disoriented than furious about the fall of Roe: “I think that this Dobbs decision, it is a bucket of ice water, but we have to build on it. I think people were enormously shocked, but they don’t want to think, ‘Well, what does it mean?’… Still women are reluctant to say, ‘You SOBs, you do this to me? I’m going to get you.’ Which would seem to me to be a reasonable response, but they’re afraid.” 6
Whether the Dobbs decision will embolden an ongoing energy around securing abortion rights in a more fundamental way—a constitutional amendment, for example—is an open question, though the voting patterns in the 2022 midterm elections do show broad support for abortion rights and growing anger about what this means for gender, race, class, and sexuality.
Working from the Margins
It is hard to think and conceptualize in radical ways, and it is even harder to put radical ideas into practice. Nevertheless, the stakes of not thinking in radical ways have become unbearable. Radical activism requires a deep understanding of the systems invested in maintaining the status quo; the pressures to make no change or only small incremental change is relentless. I am reminded of early radical feminist organizers’ concerns about women’s studies programs that emerged in the early 1970s.7 They believed, convincingly, that women’s studies was the academic wing of an activist movement and that women’s studies scholars should always have allegiance to the broader activist efforts of the feminist movement rather than to the academy. Women’s studies scholars were tasked with generating the theory and research that would further advance the activist movement. The key question they were meant to ask about all of their academic endeavors was: How can this serve the feminist movement, and how can it contribute the activist efforts to destroy oppressive systems of power? Feminist academics had to work tirelessly not to become the institutions they operated within, instead working permanently on the margins. They were meant to be saboteurs and insurrectionists, not comfortably tenured “yes women.”It is hard to think and conceptualize in radical ways, and it is even harder to put radical ideas into practice. Nevertheless, the stakes of not thinking in radical ways have become unbearable.Click To Tweet
So much of what we do as academics, so much of what we get frenzied and anxious about, matters little to the broader context of feminist struggles. I see this constantly as I compare the work I am asked to do as a professor in academia with the urgent needs I hear about as a practicing clinical psychologist. Much of my practice specializes in issues of sexuality, trauma, embodiment, queer and trans identity work, fat-affirmative work, and, most recently, helping clients who face an onslaught of death threats and harm from right-wing trolls. There is a curious lack of overlap between the concerns of the academy and the concerns of my clients. Radical feminism has long wanted to close those gaps, to ground what we do in academia more within the material conditions of people’s lives. This makes it all the more urgent that we understand radical feminist thinking as necessary, important, and based in activism rather than as reactionary or easily rendered obsolete.
There is another necessary pivot as well: We must see radical feminism as something that opens up space rather than forecloses it. Last semester I worked with students on using French philosopher Julia Kristeva’s work on abjection in conversation with Jennifer Nash’s writing on Black anality and Valerie Solanas’s manifesto, which (perhaps satirically) advocated for the elimination of the male sex. We drew from these texts to imagine a framework for thinking about trash and trashiness, writing from the gutter, and the theoretical basis for imagining truth in madness and in the grotesque. I was struck with Solanas’s claim that she wrote the SCUM Manifesto not for those she perceived as privileged and monied but for “whores, dykes, criminals, homicidal maniacs.”8 This compelled me to think more deeply about the links and overlaps between feminist rage and the rage that springs from poverty. Radical feminist critiques require analysis of what it means to write from the gutter or for those in the gutter, foregrounding analysis of the conditions surrounding the creation of art, writing, and knowledge. Radical feminist manifesto writers like the Combahee River Collective, Lesbian Avengers, and Silvia Federici understood, this, as have emerging radical feminist scholars like Da’Shaun Harrison’s radical “fat destructionist” spaces and Alison Kafer’s radical feminist disability writings. Radical feminism has long pushed for thinking and writing beyond the borders of a singular audience, instead reaching those who have been discarded and discounted, ignored and trivialized. From the narration of violence in the writings of Dorothy Allison and Andrea Dworkin to the ongoing struggles to push back against carceral and anti-indigenous oppression in the writings and activism of Angela Davis and Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, radical feminists push the boundaries of what can and should be foregrounded, described, acted upon, and revolted against. Further still, radical feminism has embraced those living in various states of precarity: those struggling with madness, poverty, trauma, incarceration, abject embodiment, and so many other aspects of living on the edge. Radical feminism has necessitated the embrace of the boogeymen of feminism itself by upending existing structures of power and privilege, wholeheartedly embracing marginality and the jagged edges of feminism, making space for building new worlds that do not prioritize the corporatized or easily co-opted versions of feminism.
The greatest legacy of radical feminism has been the laying of groundwork to understand not only the importance, but the absolute necessity, of solidarity. This (ironically, given the typical framing of radical feminists) means the full-throated inclusion of the jagged edges of feminism, the marginalized and downtrodden, the hot-tempered and the complainers, the difficult characters and the outcasts. It also means a refusal to diminish the diversity of beliefs, attitudes, identities, life experiences, and subtleties of people’s lives within the feminist movement. Radical feminism understands, as indigenous radical feminist Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz has so eloquently argued, that at oppressed people have shared connections and that radical social movements can build on these shared priorities. Our struggles are bound up with each other’s struggles.Recent work, for example, the interconnectedness of anti-fatness with anti-Blackness speaks to some of the possibilities inherent in radical feminist work that more deeply explores these shared origin stories. It makes space for the subversion of power, hierarchy, and dominance. The struggle for abortion rights and LGBTQ+ rights also have common links, particularly as certain bodies move in and out of frameworks of criminalization. Further, understanding that all-important relationship between social structure and emotions, particularly how affect shapes and drives oppression and liberation, can help to free up energies to work toward a feminist politics of solidarity.
This is all a fancy way of saying that we do a deep disservice to our own feminist histories to malign, dismiss, and ignore radical feminism and what it can offer to a contemporary feminist politics. Feminism—radical or otherwise—has largely failed or become irrelevant whenever it has argued for (or condoned) a politics of exclusion of other feminists, whether in its framing of trans people as invasive to women-only spaces, or in its anxieties about the optics of lesbians as the face of the feminist struggle (known as the “lavender menace”). The painful legacies of these decisions has rightly left people feeling tentative about how to carry radical feminism forward into the future of the movement. That said, at its core radical feminism has offered a framework not only for inclusive politics but for radical visions of solidarity and mutuality, for sophisticated critiques of patriarchy and its affiliated structures, for the necessity of political action and activism. It has asked us to engage in a process of incessant self-criticism and self-reflection, to get it right rather than take the easiest or most doable options available to us, and to work hard to embrace the margins of our movement and the difficult figures on the edges of feminism. A radical feminist politics asks that we never rest comfortably, that we resist the powerful institutions that shape our consciousness, and that we see feminism not necessarily as an ideology for “everybody” but as a threat to the foundations of the status quo.A radical feminist politics asks that we never rest comfortably, that we resist the powerful institutions that shape our consciousness, and that we see feminism not necessarily as an ideology for “everybody” but as a threat to the foundations of the status quo. Click To Tweet
1 Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz and Dana Densmore. Interview by Breanne Fahs. Boston, March 29, 2014.
2 Ti-Grace Atkinson, Interview by Breanne Fahs, “Abortion Rights Activism After the Fall of Roe,” Phone, August 28, 2022.
3Atkinson, Interview by Fahs, August 28, 2022.
4Atkinson, Interview by Fahs, August 28, 2022.
5Atkinson, Interview by Fahs, August 28, 2022.
6Atkinson, Interview by Fahs, August 28, 2022.
7 Kathie Sarachild, “Feminist Revolution: Toward a Science of Women’s Freedom,” Lecture,
Arizona State University, Phoenix, March 26, 2013
8 Valerie Solanas, Letter to Ti-Grace Atkinson, June 16, 1968, Ti-Grace Atkinson
Personal Collection, Cambridge, MA.
Breanne Fahs is Professor of Women and Gender Studies at Arizona State University. She has published widely in feminist, social science, and humanities journals and has authored six books: Performing Sex; Valerie Solanas; Out for Blood; Firebrand Feminism; Women, Sex, and Madness; and, most recently, Unshaved. She has also coedited three volumes: The Moral Panics of Sexuality, Transforming Contagion, and Burn It Down! She is the Founder and Director of the Feminist Research on Gender and Sexuality Group at Arizona State University, and she also works as a clinical psychologist in private practice.