A common misconception among people (even feminists themselves) who are less familiar with the terminology of feminist theory is that radical feminism is a generic term for extremist or fringe feminism. In reality, it is an actual kind of feminism with actual beliefs. It is indeed more extreme than some other kinds of feminism (notably liberal feminism), but that doesn’t make it fringe or non-mainstream.
Radical feminism has classically been one of the two main kinds of feminism in America and Britain, alongside liberal feminism in the former and socialist feminism in the latter . Socialist feminism lost ground in the 1990s, but “liberal feminism and radical feminism remain strong currents in feminist political thought” .
Radical feminism provides the “bulwark of theoretical thought in feminism”, acting as an “important foundation” for other varieties . It is a more “indigenous” feminism, less grounded in other ideologies than liberal and socialist feminism are .
What is radical feminism, then?
This is a big topic (books have been written on it) and people differ somewhat in their definitions, but I’ll highlight a few key points that should not be controversial. First, in contrast with liberal feminism, radical feminism sees “male domination of women” as especially ingrained into the fabric of society .
Radical feminism’s theoretical watchword is patriarchy, or men’s pervasive oppression and exploitation of women, which can be found wherever women and men are in contact with each other, in private as well as in public. Radical feminism argues that patriarchy is very hard to eradicate because its root — the belief that women are different and inferior — is deeply embedded in most men’s consciousness.
They see the liberal feminist focus on equal rights and opportunities as shallow and missing the deeper roots of “male supremacy”, which permeate not just the public sphere (politics, business, etc.) but also the private one (relationships, etc.) .
Radical feminist writers introduce a range of issues into social science which have conventionally not been considered to be part of an analysis of social inequality. […] The question of who does the housework, or who interrupts whom in conversations, is seen as part of the system of male domination.
[…] Male violence against women is considered to be a part of a system of controlling women, unlike the conventional view which holds that rape and battering are isolated incidents caused by psychological problems in a few men. […] The threat of violence and rape, radical feminism theorizes, is the way patriarchy controls all women.
Radical feminists want more radical changes to society .
They usually clash with the ideals of the liberal feminist, because radical feminists believe that society must be changed at its core in order to dissolve patriarchy, not just through acts of legislation.
Key issues for radical feminists include :
- a critique of motherhood, marriage, the nuclear family and sexuality, questioning how much of our culture is based on patriarchal assumptions.
- a critique of other institutions including government and religion as centered historically in patriarchal power.
Radical feminism is also less individualist than liberal feminism .
First, whereas liberal feminists emphasize the individual (men and women as individual human beings), radical feminists focus on women as a class, typically as a class that is dominated by another class known as men.
Radical feminism contrasts with socialist or Marxist feminism in seeing “male domination of women” as an independent system, not a by-product of capitalism .
Radical feminists also resisted reducing oppression to an economic or class issue, as socialist or Marxist feminism sometimes did or does.
- Theorizing Patriarchy (1990 book by British feminist sociologist Sylvia Walby)
- “Feminist Political Philosophy” (webpage from Stanford Encyclopedia of Feminism)
- “Gender Issues in Management: Feminism” (course webpage from Louise Ripley, professor at York University—referencing feminist newsgroup discussion)
- The Variety of Feminisms and their Contribution to Gender Equality (1997 book by Judith Lorber, prof. sociology and women’s studies at the City University of New York)
- “Different Types of Feminist Theories” (webpage from Cara Gillis, professor of philosophy at Pierce College in Washington)
- “What Is Radical Feminism?” (article at ThoughtCo by women’s history writer Jone Johnson Lewis)
- “Feminism and the Limits of Equality” (1989 article by Patricia A. Cain, professor at Santa Clara University School of Law)