Why I Gave up Radical Feminism
Updated: Apr 13, 2020
Content Warning: This article contains references to trans and sex worker exclusion, cis-centric language, female anatomy and pussy hats.
Do you remember when you first became a feminist? I don’t remember the exact moment, but it was in 2015 when I got involved with feminist activism. I was involved with a women’s activist group which later went on to open a women’s space. I immensely enjoyed getting involved with these activities, I even wrote my undergraduate research project about it.
I never stopped to think about what kind of feminist I was, either. A man, of all people, was the first to point out that I was a radical feminist. I was like, “A what?”. I went on to investigate what a radical feminist was, and I came across a book by Finn Mackay (2015) called Radical Feminism: Feminist Activism in Movement.
She argues that radical feminism:
“[Firstly] believes in the existence of patriarchy and seeks to end it. Secondly, it promotes women-only space and women only political organising as paramount. Thirdly, it views male violence against women as a keystone of women’s oppression. Fourthly, it expands the understanding of male violence against women to analyse the institutions of pornography and prostitution” (Mackay 2015, p. 61).
At the time, this seemed right to me. Or, at least, it seemed to resonate with my experience of feminist activism. But still, the last part about pornography and "prostitution" bothered me; but I told myself that I didn’t have to agree with every facet of radical feminism.
However, my radical feminism began to splinter when I attempted to join a radical feminist group on Facebook last year. They asked me some screening questions, such as “Do you think trans women are women?” and “Do you think sex work should be legalised?”. I said, “Yes, of course trans women are women” and “Yes, of course sex work should be legalised”. And, to my surprise, I didn’t pass the test. They told me I was a liberal feminist, not a radical feminist.
I was gobsmacked. I had previously thought that I had found a home in radical feminism, even though I disagreed with a couple of its facets. I decided to let it go for that moment.
However, this issue came up again when I recently moved to Melbourne to pursue Honours. In preparation, I decided to do some reading and returned to Mackay’s book. Last time I hadn’t made it far past the first chapter. But, this time, I read the entire book.
I was left, once again, feeling gobsmacked with radical feminism.
In her book, Mackay openly spouts her views about sex workers and trans and non-binary folk:
“[I will] provide some feminist arguments against the industry of prostitution, though these will not please those queer or third wave activists who see that industry as a potentially positive site of women’s empowerment, economic and otherwise. In fact, it may be the case that my views on this industry will only fulfil stereotypes about radical feminists, because indeed I do consider the so-called sex industry to be a form of male violence against women and a symptom of patriarchy” (Mackay 2015, p. 204).
“Where rape is a weapon of oppression and where sexual violence is a tool of control, the male body can never be neutral. This is partly why it is necessary, right and important that space for women assigned female at birth be protected and maintained. Ultimately, the right to self-organisation must be paramount. Just as trans women should have the right to organise politically together, so should women assigned female at birth” (Mackay 2015, p. 250).
Basically, Mackay is saying here that she doesn’t support sex worker or trans inclusion in radical feminism because "prostitution" is a form of violence against women and "male" bodies can't be trusted (suggesting that trans women's bodies are male bodies). I don’t know why I was so surprised that she was a TERF/SWERF; I think it’s because I looked up to her and I was hoping that not all radical feminists excluded trans people and sex workers from their feminism.
To say the least, what I read in Mackay’s book did not sit well.
The Ideological Transformation Begins
Not long after this happened, I had an initial meeting with my university supervisor, who is a queer theorist. I don’t remember a lot about what we discussed in that initial meeting, but I do recall feeling challenged, mostly because she troubled my beliefs around autonomous women-only organising. Essentially, she said women-only spaces were problematic. And, at the time, I didn’t understand why.
As someone who had been heavily involved in women-only organising, I felt very confused and frustrated. I thought to myself, “Are you telling me I can’t have my women-only space?” However, at the same time, I knew that I couldn’t support a feminism that excluded trans/non-binary people and sex workers. I just didn’t understand why it had to be at the expense of giving up women-only space.
I’m now four months in to my honours program, and my perspective on feminism has done a 180. I’ve really begun to take on deconstructionist perspectives (“post” perspectives such as postmodernism, poststructuralism, postcolonialism and queer theory, among others). The thing I like most about deconstructionist perspectives is that everything is under the microscope. Or, as Sara Ahmed (2017) puts it: “To live a feminist life is to make everything into something that is questionable” (p. 2).
Unitary Gender Categories
In a turn towards poststructuralist feminism, the first thing you may run in to is a critique of unitary gender categories and why autonomous women-only organising is problematic.
By “unitary gender categories” I mean the universal gender groupings that we are allocated (i.e. “man” and “woman”). You see, poststructuralists are known for challenging language, and, when it comes to feminism the emphasis is on challenging the category of “woman” due to the essentialist nature of feminist organising. Essentialism, in this case, is the idea that all women share universal gender characteristics, whether they be biological, psychological or social (for instance, that women are feminine, or nurturing, or all have vaginas). This is problematic within itself because essentialist notions of “woman” operate to exclude or marginalise gender nonconforming women/people from feminism.
The way I see it: not all women are the same, and not all feminists are women.
To put it in another way, using language that reinforces the gender binary and reinforces feminism as a movement exclusively for women excludes certain people from feminism. Also, women collecting and organising in women-only spaces exclusively around women’s issues can be seen as problematic (especially in Western countries like Australia, where these groups are mostly dominated by White, middle class, privileged, cisgender women) because it actively excludes feminists who don’t identify as women or who aren’t White (who, I would argue, are the people who could use feminism the most). Even if these women-only spaces symbolically welcome marginalised groups in to their folds, a lot of marginalised people still feel that these spaces are not intended for them.
Now, I’m not saying that the rights of White, cisgender women don’t matter. I am saying, however, that they do dominate the movement. We need to acknowledge that feminism is constantly evolving, and with the increased influence of deconstructionist perspectives, there are now many kinds of feminisms and a renewed call to make space for difference. Therefore, we need to make space in feminism for people who haven’t traditionally been invited to the table.
Voices of difference have always existed; however, visibility has increased with the introduction the new wave of feminism. I think some new wave feminists are doing a fantastic job in terms of troubling ideas around gender and sexuality, practicing intersectionality and pushing for a more inclusive feminism. I feel like, somehow, I missed out on this supposed new wave of feminism; however, I enjoy reading and hearing the voices of other feminists who are constantly challenging me on my feminist beliefs.
Bye, Bye, Pussyhat!
Speaking of, I was rather challenged recently when I attended a panel hosted by a university feminist collective. A trans person present in the audience made a critique about pussy hats that I was not aware of. For those not clued in, pussy hats are those pink beanies that are worn by feminists at anti-Trump women’s rallies and have somewhat become a symbol of the feminist movement. This trans person argued that pussy hats were offensive and excluded trans people from feminism. This was news to me, and I was a horrified that I had not realised this for myself.
I was also slightly horrified because I was exactly the type of person that this trans person was critiquing. I admit that, at that time, my Facebook profile had a picture of me wearing a pink pussy hat. Dang, I even used it as a logo for a feminist social group I started in Melbourne. I felt like I had been living under a rock. When I got home I instantly changed my profile picture and I removed the pussy hat logo from my feminist social group. But, as someone later pointed out to me, giving up pussy hats alone does not solve the problem of exclusion. Despite this, I disassociated myself from the pussy hat without hesitation (after all, it’s just a hat).
I took to Facebook to make a statement against pussy hats, and not to my great surprise, I got some pretty stock standard responses from some White feminist friends such as: pussyhats were never meant to be offensive, they weren’t intended to be shaped like vaginas, and they were in response to a comment that Trump made, etc. People were holding on very tightly to their pussy hats, and I couldn't really understand why, especially as it was at the expense of rejecting trans critiques and voices.
However, the most problematic thing about this process was that I had one person ask me whether talking about vaginas makes trans people feel uncomfortable and excluded because they haven't got one. For one, she was asking the wrong person. For another, I think what she was really trying to get at was: are you telling me that I can’t talk about my vagina?
I spent a lot of time thinking about this and what I was meant to say to White feminists who think I am telling them they can’t talk about their vaginas. The entire thing seemed ridiculous. It sat with me for at least a month, and the answer finally came to me in a gender studies lecture.
Don’t Centre Your Vajayjay
So, here it is: ladies, no one is telling you that you can’t talk about your vaginas. However, I argue that you shouldn’t put your female body parts at the centre of your feminist politics, nor should we be making vaginas the symbol of the feminist movement.
Why? Because you don’t need a vagina to join the feminist club, that’s why!
It comes back to that gender essentialism stuff: not all women are the same, and not all feminists are women. As the idea of gender evolves, so does feminism – which means that our feminist membership is also evolving to include people who challenge the notion of gender and who may not identify with the unitary category of “women”. Feminism is no longer just about women (if it ever was). Therefore, making vaginas the centre of our feminism just isn’t right. Using a pink vagina as a symbol of feminism is basically a big “fuck you!” to every feminist who doesn’t have one.
We need to accept that when we centre vaginas it may exclude some trans/non-binary people and when we centre pink vaginas it may also exclude some women of colour. If we are going to have a feminist symbol, shouldn't it be something that all feminists can identify with?
Ultimately, we need to invite trans and non-binary people in to our folds and make them feel welcome, because they too should feel at home in feminism. For me, feminism is about elevating the voices of fringe feminists which means we need to listen to their voices and centre their issues. And yes, this involves not making female body parts the centre of our feminist universe. This is not code for “you can’t talk about vaginas”, it just means please don’t make your female body parts the symbol of feminism, especially when it excludes fringe groups who may need feminism just as much as we do.
However, again, this does not mean sidelining women’s issues.
So, What Does it Mean to “Centre” Marginalised Issues?
I want to briefly explore the idea of “centring” marginalised issues. It does not mean that you forget about issues close to your heart such as abortion, violence against women or the gender pay gap. It’s about bringing marginalised issues to the fore along with your women’s issues. For instance, the violence inflicted upon trans/non-binary/LGBT+ people should be just as important as violence against women/children/men, or that refugee/asylum seeker rights should be just as important as homelessness here in Australia, etc.
It’s about having an intersectional approach to your feminism, and not just in a symbolic way. What I’m trying to say here is that your feminism shouldn’t just be centred on women’s rights just because you’re a woman. This is especially problematic when you are a part of an autonomous group full of !hite cisgender women who are only collecting around issues that concern themselves. These types of groups tend to be homogenous and perpetuate themselves without ever evolving or broadening their membership. This is why it’s important to practice intersectionality and to invite diverse and marginalised voices in to your feminist spaces.
Some Reflections from the Past
I think one of the interesting things about me writing this article is that I used to be the kind of White feminist that I’m now critiquing. I was a privileged White feminist engaging in a women-only spaces who believed that feminism was only for women. We used to present our women-only spaces as inclusive of trans women, but as far as I could see, we never actually invited them in. We also actively excluded anybody who didn’t identify as a woman, such as non-binary people. Most of the women in the space were White women as well. Upon reflection, it was exactly the kind of self-perpetuating radical feminist space that I have described above.
I now realise that this was not good enough. We never actively invited marginalised individuals in to our space; in no way did we do anything to challenge the gender binary; and we were very guilty of centring women’s body parts (and when we received criticism about this, we became very defensive and protected our vajayjays for our dear lives). I think my biggest regret is not challenging the idea that non-binary people should be welcomed in to the space. I once organised an event that stated that non-binary people were welcome, and I was later told that this was not okay and that this space was for women and women-identifying people only. It didn’t feel right, but I went with the status quo.
However, now, if I were to ever to start a new group, it would be inclusive of fringe feminists and it would centre their issues from the very beginning. I think there is a real need for a new kind of feminist space, especially as the current feminist scene is dominated by groups run by cisgender white feminists who organise events that serve their own interests. I’ve not yet discovered such groups in Melbourne. But, if they do exist, I’d be there in a split second ready to listen and learn about how we can make feminism more inclusive.
Ahmed, S 2017, Living a Feminist Life, Duke University Press, Durham, UK.
Mackay, F 2015, Radical Feminism: Feminist Activism in Movement, Palgrave Macmillan, UK.