Radical vs. Liberal Feminism: Part One

In her book, Why I Am Not A Feminist:  A Feminist Manifesto, Jessa Crispin includes a chapter called “Men Are Not Our Problem.”  In this chapter she writes:

“You as a man are not my problem.   It is not my job to make feminism easy or understandable to you.  It is not my job to nurture and encourage your empathy, it is not my job to teach you how to deal with women being human beings.”

Crispin’s book is a scathing critique of liberal feminism in favor of more radical forms of feminism.  Her charges against liberal feminism are numerous, but the gist of it is that she charges liberal feminism as being a series of compromises with the oppressive systems of patriarchy, capitalism and white supremacy.  Part of the motivation of this type of feminism is making the idea of feminism more accessible to men and to justify the success of women of higher social class at the expense of women of lower social class.

Crispin avoids naming any specific self-proclaimed feminists in her book because she didn’t want to make her book an attack on specific people but on an idea.  As a result,  I have already seen a number of liberal feminists dismiss her book as being about some “made up” feminism that doesn’t really exist.    There is one very telling name that Cripsin does mention in her book.  That person is Hillary Clinton.

Whatever else you want to say about Hillary Clinton, much of which could be seen as very positive about her competence and success, Crispin argues that she is neither a feminist nor was supporting her feminist.   Her objection to the claim of Hillary’s narrative being an inherently feminist one is that it is filled with so many examples of her success coming at the literal disenfranchisement of poor women and people of color.  In addition to this, Clinton is a rather brazen enthusiast for capitalism, something that Crispin sees as antithetical to feminism.  Though Crispin doesn’t mention it, there are also many feminists who object to Clinton because of her alleged role in covering up and defending much of her husband’s questionable behavior over the years.

Many people may be put off by the dadaesque title of Crispin’s book, though I found it to be very clever.  What is suggested by it is that the divide between these two schools of feminist thought is so wide that both of them could not truly be called feminism.  Crispin is aware that the conversation has become one of who can call themselves a feminist, so she side steps this one.  What she is saying is that when liberal feminists use the word feminism, they are meaning it in a completely different way than she is when she uses the word feminism.

One of the big parts of liberal feminism that Crispin is criticizing is the idea that feminism is about equality for women, or specifically women having equality with men.  To Crispin, such a view is used in order to try and shame as many people as possible, especially men, into calling themselves feminists.  Crispin points out that a person’s acceptance of a label is far less important than the views they have or the actions they take.  She uses the example of the singer Bjork denying the feminist label and this sparking outrage.  One could compare it, as Crispin doesn’t, to the singer Taylor Swift.  Swift initially denied she was a feminist and then was shamed into accepting the label, but if we compared her to Bjork in terms of beliefs and actions, there is hardly a comparison between the two.

One of the things that Crispin is most annoyed with is that liberal feminism has now portrayed second wave feminism as having “gone too far.”  She contends that the tactic of liberal feminism is to hold up more radical feminists as examples of “bad feminism” in order to get more men on board for a “soft” pro-capitalist version of feminism.    Crispin doesn’t object to criticism of radical feminists like Andrea Dworkin, Catharine Mackinnon and Shulamith Firestone on their individual ideas, because no intellectual is ever right about everything, but she is angered by the blanket dismissals that liberal feminism has toward these women and their ideas.

The normal reaction to this argument I have seen from liberal feminists who have bothered to pick up Crispin’s book is that it is outrageous that she say they should read these women because they are racist and transphobic.  I will address the racism topic shortly, but the idea of transphobia being associated with radical feminism is one that is an example of the tendency of liberal feminists to employ identity politics as a broad smear against a large number of people with very little evidence.  Crispin spends the most time in her book talking about the three women that I have mentioned, Dworkin, Mackinnon and Firestone, none of which were transexclusionary.

Now, its possible, and I would say even likely, that these liberal feminists are so ignorant of the views of these women that they do not know this and assume that all radical feminists are transexclusionary.    This proves Crispin’s point better than any argument that she could make ever could.  The only feminist that Crispin mentions in the book who could be labeled transexclusionary is Germaine Greer.  However, part of Crispin’s point is that you could criticize this element of Greer’s feminism and still agree with her on a lot of the other things she says.  It is ironic that people can overlook the oppression that Hillary Clinton spent decades contributing to and still enthusiastically support her, but not even be able to engage with the ideas of Greer because of one element of perceived prejudice.

As for the subject of race, this is a thornier issue and one that needs some more background to deal with.  First, one needs to look at the differences between “radical feminism” and “socialist and Marxist feminism.”  Some people, looking at somebody like Firestone, who was a Marxist, and say there isn’t any.  However, I have talked to self-described radical feminists who claim not to be socialists.  From what I can gather on this is a radical feminist can be a socialist or not be a socialist, but a socialist feminist is necessarily a radical feminist.

Here is an attempt to make the distinctions we need.  A socialist sees capitalism as being inherently oppressive.  A radical feminist sees patriarchy as being inherently oppressive.  A socialist feminist therefore might buy into the idea that people are oppressed under capitalism and women are oppressed under patriarchy but a socialist who is not a feminist ignores patriarchy, while a radical feminist who is not a socialist ignores capitalism.  The problem with liberal feminists is that while they may be critical of these systems in general, they do not seek to overthrow them but to reform them in a way that is advantageous to themselves personally, or women like them.  Another problem with all this  is that there is a third oppressive system that we are ignoring altogether and that system is white supremacy.

The problem we are talking about is one that Bell Hooks sought to take on in her landmark book, Feminist Theory From Margin To Center.   For Hooks, the problem with feminism at the time she was writing was this quote from Sonia Johnson:

“One of the basic tenants of radical feminism is that any woman in the world has more in common with any other woman regardless of class race, age, ethnic group, nationality, than any woman has with any man.”

I disagree that this should be seen as the defining characteristic of radical feminism but I cannot argue that many radical feminists see things exactly this way.   Bell Hooks argued that this was wrong and that any feminism that was worth anything had to address the three sources of cultural oppression, patriarchy, capitalism and white supremacy.  She stated that this was what was holding feminism back and why it was seen as a middle-class white movement.  Working class women were not likely to find the idea of working outside the home liberating because many of them already did, and women of color, who had seen men of their race subjected to racism, were torn between these two different kinds of oppression.

Citing Hooks,  has become a way of disparaging Crispin, but I can’t understand why.  Like Crispin, Hooks rejects the idea that feminism is about equity for women.  Hooks states that saying this assumes that all men are equal and ignores the problems of class and race.  Also, Hooks sees the inherent problem with a person calling themselves “a feminist.”  Hooks says that using the word feminist to describe oneself gives the impression of absolutism.  Hooks suggests people say, “I advocate feminism,” because this changes the subject from oneself to what exactly the person is advocating.  If everybody did this, the distinction between somebody like Crispin and the feminists that she is criticizing would become crystal clear.

So in short, there isn’t really a difference between the kind of feminist theory that Jessa Crispin advocates and the one Bell Hooks advocates.  Both women see that feminism needs to challenge capitalism and white supremacy, as well as patriarchy in order to unite all women.   This is, I think, a better definition of radical feminism.  Radical feminism seeks to upturn the oppressive systems that keep women down.  Liberal feminism may be critical of these systems but does not advocate revolutionary politics because it is “too extreme” or conflicts with one’s own interests in some way.

The second part of this blog will deal with some of the more substantive differences between radical and liberal feminism,  including issues like prostitution and pornography.  I will also address “gender critical” radical feminism and some of the conflicts that arise between this philosophy and transgender studies.