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Radical feminism arose in the USA, Canada, and Britain out of young women’s experiences within the civil rights, New Left, and anti-war movements of the 1960s. It was a revolutionary movement that called for fundamental institutional and cultural changes in society. There were three key beliefs guiding radical feminist activism. First, radical feminism argued that gender was the primary oppression all women face. Second, it asserted that women were fundamentally different from men. Third, it held that social institutions rely on women’s subordination, and consequently are constructed to perpetuate gender inequality, including around deeply personal facets like reproduction. Radical feminism was the most dominant force in the development of feminist activism and scholarship through the mid-1970s.
Radical feminism was distinct from the surge in liberal feminist activism that also emerged in the late 1960s. Women formed radical feminist groups such as the London Women’s Liberation Workshop, and the Redstockings, seemingly overnight in 1967 and 1968. One of the first protests was held at the opening of the US Congress in January 1968. The ”Jeanette Rankin Brigade,” named after the first woman elected to Congress and led by Rankin herself, brought 5,000 women affiliated with women’s peace groups to demonstrate against the Vietnam War. It was at this protest that the phrase ”sisterhood is powerful” was first used.
Radical feminists theorized that sex-class (women as a distinct class) was a social phenomenon maintained through violence and social sanctions. Out of this ideology developed critiques of all social institutions, including language, science, capitalism, family, violence, and law. One of the most important concepts to come out of radical feminism was the idea that the ”personal is political,” highlighting the belief that women’s intimate experiences of oppression were not isolated events, but rather products of institutional inequality. Consciousness-raising (CR) groups — small gatherings where women shared their experiences of sexism and developed a collective feminist critique — originated with the New York Radical Women, and quickly became a staple of radical feminism. It was through these groups that issues such as rape, abortion, and sexuality became politicized issues for feminist movements.
Some of the most significant legacies of radical feminist organizing are the service organizations that grew out of women’s liberation groups. Domestic violence shelters were founded in the early 1970s, as were rape crisis centers, feminist bookstores, and women’s studies programs. By the end of the 1970s, differences between radical and liberal feminisms became less clear as liberal groups radicalized and radical feminism moved toward cultural and service organizations. Simultaneously, sparked by homophobia within feminist movements, and sexism within gay liberation movements, many lesbian-identified feminists split with radical feminism. Lesbian feminism extended radical feminist ideology and argued that gender and sexuality work together to reinforce patriarchal power.
The central critique of radical feminism has been that theorizing women as a sex-class obscures differences between women, especially in terms of race, class, and nation. In Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment (1990) Patricia Hill-Collins described the interrelationships of oppression as a ”matrix of domination” and argued that radical feminism marginalized women of color and poor women. Regardless of these critiques radical feminist theorizing has continued to influence feminist activism and scholarship. The institutional legacies, in the form of cultural and political organizations, continue to thrive, and radical feminist ideology continues to shape contemporary feminist movements.
- Crow, B. (ed.) (2000) Radical Feminism: A Documentary Reader. New York University Press, New York.
- Moraga, C. & Anzaldua, G. (eds.) (1981) This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color. Kitchen Table Press, New York.
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