Guest Post by Vliet Tiptree
“…you may hiss as much as you like, but it is comin’.”
–Sojourner Truth in 1853 at the Women’s Rights Convention in New York
I am a woman and I’m no superheroine. I don’t have an academic or other institutional connection, the strength behind me of a life-affirming culture, faith, a clear understanding of my situation, or a firm idea what to do. What I do have is an ongoing intolerable experience that this life I and other women live is blighted by male oppression, and that this blight diseases the trunk of our species’ existence, not just the branches, not just the leaves. Every moment of our existence, this blight injures us. It kills our spirits, ruins our bodies, destroys our happiness, twists our children. It has thrived for so long it sometimes seems ineradicable. This blight has many names: the Patriarchal System, Misogyny, Male Supremacy, Women’s Subjugation. I just call it the System at the moment.
I also have this: the conviction, based on all that I am, that the System can be eradicated.
And I have one other thing: the experience, action, and theory of other women around me now and living before me, who have exposed and attempted to eradicate this blight. Right now, I am learning from and contributing to the RadFem Hub, a new center of thought and action on the Internet for Radical Feminist women and women interested in their work.
Let me briefly describe my background: a hard-working girlhood without much protection in East Los Angeles, California; the feminist ferment of the 1970’s; a first professional job as a civil rights investigator for the federal government; law school; working as an affirmative action coordinator at several universities and colleges; practicing employment discrimination law along with criminal and civil litigation; marriage, motherhood, divorce; becoming a writer of novels and poetry as my second career. My emotional experience as a woman may be like many of yours; from incomprehension and hurt to horror and rage to reformism to despair and denial back to rage and on to comprehension and radicalism as I have gotten older.
I have become radicalized in the 21st century by the realization that the reformist strategies I have devoted much of my working life to are being absorbed by the System as a cost of doing business, that our successes over the last century and a half are being managed and quietly dissolved, and that the System is successfully resisting the changes in the public sphere by tightening its controls in the private sphere: the sphere of personal life, of sexual politics, of cultural mores, of psychology, of socialization of children. A tacit balance is being maintained. As we wrest for ourselves the vote, literacy, access to the legal system, we are brainwashed through the use of social controls into using these rights not for our own benefit, but to continue propping up our own oppression.
It’s an efficient and ruthless adjustment. The System gets subtler, dangles carrots, lets a few women in, gives up some of its most oppressive manifestations, and lets women burn themselves out. Reformist feminists give their money and time to setting up shelters, places for women to lick their wounds and be relatively safe for a little while. They try to get a few more percentage points in the futile effort to fully equalize the pay of women. They use themselves up filing lawsuits that go nowhere. They dilute their resources fighting for other groups who are also oppressed, leaving little for their own liberation. In short, they act as if the System is fundamentally sound. We have been reforming the System for a hundred fifty years in the Eurocentric countries, and we are trying to reform the entrenched System in the rest of the world, but wherever we are, the minute the King magnanimously lets us vote in municipal elections, arrests for daring to drive increase. We save a leaf here, lose a leaf there; the blight rages on.
Some women have always radicalized; they achieved as much as could be achieved then, great steps forward. I think of the Women’s Suffrage Movement in England. It began as an attempt at reform, but it turned radical as it had to. Emmeline Pankhurst in 1913 described women cutting the lines for telegraphs and telephones between London and Glasgow, vandalism, arson, and prison resistance. She said, “Now I want to say to you who think women cannot succeed, we have brought the Government of England to this position, that it has to face this alternative: either women are to be killed or women are to have the vote…”
Some sixty years later, during the upheaval of the Second Wave which similarly resulted in great achievements such as legalization of effective birth control and a renaissance in feminist literature, feminism continued to develop and become more complex as a movement. It was never a question of a hierarchical dynamic; the movement grew laterally. It has been said that Radical Feminists were distinguished in part by their insistence that oppression of women came first, before oppression of workers or oppression based on race. I personally don’t press this point, though I think it’s obvious that in an isolated primitive subsistence economy women had that dubious honor. Whether we were the first group to be oppressed or not, we are by any measure the largest group by far being oppressed, over three billion people.
It is also said that Radical Feminists were, like all radicals, working for a permanent cure, even if that meant the entire System was eliminated. I think that’s about right. Having identified the blight as being fundamental, we are looking for fundamental change. I think it’s also right that we don’t expect such change to take place incrementally. A slow process allows the ever-inventive System to counter each move, and many of us think the System will blow itself up, and us with it, before it can become healthy.
What is Radical Feminism as it enters the 21st Century? I’d say it’s the vanguard in the Feminist movement generally. I’d say it’s oriented to the future as a philosophy. I’d say it’s an ever-increasing global movement among women to live fully and freely, without further ado. We have a superb new tool in that endeavor, namely, the Internet, and we’re beginning to use it. We are seeing much potential in scientific research and related technologies.
I mentioned before that the System doesn’t have a single name. I think Radical Feminists have come to understand that many of these names lead to a mistake in thinking; the disease is not named, only its effect, the subjugation or oppression of women. The disease hides itself even in the name given to it. What causes the blight?
As Sheila Jeffreys has put it, and I think we all agree, it has to start with this: there is something wrong with men. It is a pathology with both physical and psychological features. I personally think it is as old as our evolution as hominids. I think it’s a biological adaptation which is now rotten, dangerous, and vestigial. I think we have to force the scientific establishment to take a clear look at this colossal sick old mammoth taking up all the space in the living room, and make it stop distracting itself with sexy cosmologies and particle accelerators. I don’t quite have a name for this pathology. Let’s give it a real name together.
I have tried to gather some of the issues, attitudes, and methods that distinguish Radical Feminism from other feminisms as we all enter the 21st century, as I see them today in my ongoing process of understanding.
1. Our Tradition. Eurocentric (or Northern, or Western, or industrial-society, or educated, whatever you want to call them) feminists now have a specific tradition of leaders and visionaries who have moved beyond reformism, including feminist groundbreakers like Sojourner Truth, Emmeline Pankhurst, Susan B. Anthony, Simone de Beauvoir, Germaine Greer, Kate Millett, and many others. For their times and circumstances, they are all great radicals. Women in all parts of the world have our resisters, our sisters who have died or been destroyed in life because they are female. Their names and actions are being retrieved and honored in each culture.
A broad, strong line of thinking has developed from the Eurocentric line through Mary Daly, Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde, Simone de Beauvoir, Shulamith Firestone, James Tiptree Jr./Alice Sheldon, Andrea Dworkin, Valerie Solanis, Catherine MacKinnon, Octavia Butler, Joanna Russ, Sheila Jeffries, Ursula K. LeGuin, Monique Wittig, and many others. Some of these women are philosophers, some are poets, some are scientists, some are writers. Some are, to many of us, giants, like Dworkin and Daly.
There are now countless women working together for fundamental, not just incremental, change all over the world, women scientists, politicians, grass-roots workers, nurses, weavers, students, mothers, and artists. Many who might not identify themselves as radical feminists are nevertheless attacking the System with great courage. We are forming global alliances, and the Internet is key to this work. We have this distinct tradition of action and theory to work from.
2. Our Willingness to Speak the Unspeakable. So much of the work that has to be done is disgusting, ugly. I call it Cleaning the Toilet. Radical Feminists have rolled up our sleeves. We speak, no, we shout, the unspeakable. We address the taboo subjects that control us at a deep and horrible and soul-destroying level of social control; sexual perversion, incest, rape, the sickness in marriage, the hidden horrors of growing up female. We speak over and over; we de-sensitize so others can stand to speak also. We take on this pain because we have to get close to the sickness to see it and describe it and eradicate it. The RadFem Hub is a crucial part of this endeavor. To speak unvarnished truth is a radical act for women.
The strongest tool of the System has always been the glossectomy, the cutting out of women’s tongues both literally and symbolically. Internet Blogs are more powerful than military hardware in stopping this mutilation. The action of speech includes written journalistic investigation, editorializing, organizing, consciousness-raising, developing strategies, developing theoretical and visionary frameworks, galvanizing, vomiting out the pain, and giving women the strength to resist in their daily lives. Putting all this more simply, we go to the most diseased, carefully-hidden part of the tree, the grim trunk itself without its foliage of illusion, and expose it to the world. We look at basic assumptions, and reading our work in places like the Radfem Hub can be horrifying as we examine the reality of marriage, sexual practices, and male violence. It can also be exhilarating to know that what an individual woman has only intuited before really is in issue, has a name, is discussed. Exposure is a curative act.
3. Our Uncompromising Attitude. We have given up the polite, diplomatic, politic, earnest, logical, legalistic approach in favor of Realpolitik. We accept revolutionary attitudes and emotions; rage and despair, unflinchingness, uncompromisingness as motivational and curative. We see that compassion, empathy, a willingness to work with men, is seized upon and perverted by the System as it has always been, a weakness when dealing with the amoral. We don’t make the mistake of wasting our energies trying to persuade men to do anything. We are not naïve or idealistic, and we work to avoid falling into denial. There is no romanticization possible of the System. As painful as it is, we choose to act without illusions, especially the illusion that the System can be fundamentally changed from within.
4. Our Emphasis on Fundamental Change. We have moved beyond palliation (negotiation, mediation, reform, compromise, engagement with the System) to exploring effective means of extirpating male pathology, including being open to biological explanations and treatment of such psychopathy. We are concerned with the overall structure of male oppression. We are open to going wherever the evidence and experience lead us.
In recent years, studies of male hormones and aggression, the development of the science of social dominance theory, primate studies, and genetics have begun in my opinion to take us very close to the etiology of the underlying sickness. This emphasis on looking at the pathology of male hormonal mechanisms is a new kind of “essentialism” that offers hope, because treatments can be developed to mitigate the death-drive of men, their hierarchical psychology, their insensitivity to the pain of living creatures, their pleasure in violence and intimidation, their acquisitiveness, their rape and phallic obsessions. It’s an exciting development, though the science involved it goes hand in hand with new dangers to women which must be resisted.
5. Our Sharp, Clean Boundary/Definition of Oppression that begins and ends with Women. I feel that our insistence on sharp women-centered boundaries is our most important defense against the inevitable attacks on our work. Boundaries keep us focused and avoid confusion. I think we differ very clearly from other Feminist groups in this. Other feminists do not maintain such boundaries. Reformist, “liberal” feminists, ally with elite men to make intermediate changes, which dilutes their work. Feminists who adopt as their priorities the eradication of colonialism and racism — ignoring sexualized racism as in pornography — ally themselves with previously-subjugated men, and it slows their work for women. Feminists who emphasize the liberation of women’s sexual natures ally with pornographers and male perverts; this alliance taints and undercuts their work. Some academic feminists, still under the sulfurous spell of Freud, Lacan, Kristeva, and other continental psychologists, find themselves in alliance with the Transgender Movement, which converts their theories into supporting what is actually primarily a male issue having little to do with women. Feminists who ally with Marxist and socialist philosophies are, again, promoting men as much as women. All of these different approaches to oppression are worthwhile; but without boundaries, the specific work of women’s liberation is muddied and slowed, and Radical Feminists avoid this ongoing risk and conserve our resources.
6. Our Exposure of Manufactured Confusion about Gender identity vs. Performance of Conditioned Sex Roles. One inventive strategy of the System has been to encourage the notion that sex, male and female, is entirely culturally conditioned. Some feminist academics, especially in the fields of psychology, philosophy, and literature were duped into following this seductive thread and claiming too much: that women are only social constructs, ignoring the reality that men know exactly who we are and oppress us accordingly.
Underlying this all-encompassing rejection is the fear of an unspeakable potential implication, which Radical Feminists can de-fuse and dispose of, namely, that if sex is fixed and inherent, then women are doomed to eternal subservience and subjugation by their biology. But taking biological differences between men and women off the theoretical table has had two unintended effects.
First, as I understand it, Radical Feminists are open to examining whether sexual differences may be fixed and inherent (what used to be called the “essentialist” viewpoint) and at the same time they agree that sexual roles are highly culturally conditioned and assigned as social controls.
The notion that sex is entirely culturally conditioned only strengthens the System, because it deprives us of our obvious and conspicuous identity so that we are unable to keep ourselves from being confused and overrun by male spies, saboteurs and fifth-columnists. At the moment, “male feminists” are demanding to be permitted to ally with us. Transsexual and androgynous men are demanding that we ally with them. Women reformists are demanding that we ally with male institutions to seek gradual change. Men and male institutions only have the objective, whether explicit or implicit, of becoming “allied” or “involved” to keep tabs and subtly control, and to bleed off our considerable resources.
Also involved is a naked showing of intimidation by the System, in the ongoing specific attempts to invade our identity. Male camps outside women’s music festivals protesting their exclusion; the insistence of some trans-female people on using women’s restrooms; the ongoing ridicule of feminist groups; the constant attempts to enter conversations occurring on women-centered blogs; many other “small” invasions seem almost funny until they are added up into an overall invasion to keep women from being left to themselves to organize and act as a group. The RadFem Hub is especially effective in stripping away the illusions in which these invasive actions are always cloaked.
7. Our Insistence that Cultural/Personal Control is More Malignant than Legal/Public Control. Let me introduce my use of this word, “malignant”. It’s a frightening word, isn’t it? It means to me the energy that causes a disease to progress. It is often stealthy, this energy. Radical Feminists are seeing the Malignant. It is metastasizing in a new form, insidious, abandoning the legal system, sneaking into our personal lives in a way we have not seen in our lifetimes. We are subject to it every time we turn on the TV, read about fashion shows or the wedding industry, see girls wearing less and less in the media photographs, see women heroized who announce that their sole purpose in life is to sexually please and be dependent on men for the rest of their lives. The pressure is intense and appears to be a reaction to Feminism’s legal gains.
One mechanism to control women is the pornography industry. It tortures, de-humanizes, and objectifies women, and yet it is being presented today to young women as harmless or even positive. This mechanism extends much more broadly than pornography media in the traditional sense; it includes the “sex-positive” idea, in which women are brainwashed to follow traditional male patterns of sexual objectification and usage. We are conned into sexual enslavement, encouraged to cater to male sex fantasies by publicly appearing in seductive clothing (slutwalks), told to accept multiple male sex partners without adequate protection, told that watching and accepting rape scenes in the media is normal, told to accept heterosexual marriage as our sole route to happiness and satisfaction in life, told to accept that the male definition of sexual satisfaction is the only one that matters, and so on. We are entered in toddler beauty contests dressed and made up as little sex workers. We must wear clothing and footwear that disables and cripples us. Even when we are old we must paint our faces and look “fuckable”. Women all over the world are taught these tremendous perversions of nature even as they are in many countries coerced into sexual intimacy from childhood in forced marriages in which they are bought and sold.
Radical feminists often use the word “Pornogrification” to describe this blighting mechanism of social control. It is so insidious and powerful because it gets confused with something completely different, the need for discovery of our real sexual natures, and for freedom in controlling our own bodies.
In spite of all the laws, women generally and globally are still property, still traded, still checked for reproductive health, still given the vaccines to keep them but not the boys clean, still intimidated on the streets, still kept from control over their own lives by intimidation, by brainwashing, by confusion, by dividing and conquering, by isolating us into private family holes controlled by masters. All feminists work for our full humanity, on our own sexuality, on our own mating choices, if any. Radical Feminists don’t ask for these things. We don’t bargain, cajole, or wait for deliverance.
Radical Feminists are also exposing, in places like the RadFem Hub, the use of new technologies to direct women’s lives. Attempts are being made to remove all control of childbirth from women. Other feminists seem to me to have dropped the ball here. They do not seem to understand the dangers and the need to prevent complete System control of reproductive technology and information. Again, it is important for women not to be deprived of major involvement in science and technology. Technology can help or harm, and the future will be shaped by the degree to which we use it for purposes of freedom, not control.
8. Our Exposure of Psychological Controls of Women such as Malignant Romanticism/Denial Control Mechanism, Stockholm Syndrome, Intimidation, Divide-and-Conquer, Confusion, Psychological Invasion. Again, the word “Malignant” is needed to describe these fantastically successful psychological controls on women. Many millions of women on this earth still don’t have more than an uneasy feeling regarding our oppression; we can’t imagine freedom; we love our oppressors. Many of us are attached by strong bonds to boys and men in our families. How to deal with this love and attachment is often a central and painful issue for feminists.
Attempts by women to separate ourselves even partially are met with the usual spectrum of intimidation: social controls, ridicule, hostility, violence. I think we need a reality-based psychology for women that explains and treats these mechanisms rather than training us to accept them. Beyond that, we must continue identifying them everywhere, but not merely to fight each individual manifestation. The ongoing focus of Radical Feminists is to stop them permanently from infecting men’s relations with women as a whole.
9. Respect for Other Strategies Attacking Male Oppression (Legal, Academic, Marxist). Radical feminists appreciate the work of feminists putting out the fires and relieving the immediate pain. We help when we can. We are all women, and we do want to ally with other women. We are sorry to see English and psychology and philosophy departments of universities still influenced by phallocentric theory, but we also have nothing but admiration for other professors like Donna Harroway and Sandra Harding for investigating the phallocentrism of epistemologies underlying various sciences, for instance, and others for developing some of the scientific and non-phallocentric theories I have mentioned above. White radical feminists support our sisters struggling with racism and sexualized racism, the effects of Eurocentric colonialism on women, and the damage to their cultures. Marxist/socialist feminists are close to our hearts; we do see how the economic systems we are drowning in are closely intertwined with the oppression of women. We aren’t rivals, any of us.
10. Our Development of Inspirational Visions of the Future. One of the saddest and most difficult areas of feminist thought has to do with women’s invisible ancient history. Our failure thus far to dispositively show that woman-dominated societies, or even unoppressive societies, once existed has been a blow. It makes it seem as if such societies could not occur in the future. Reformist Feminists are much concerned with resurrecting this uncertain, invisibilized past.
Radical feminists, I believe, point to the future. If there are no such societies found, Monique Wittig said, invent them. There were never societies without legal slaves until recently. But legal slavery is no more.
What will the future look like? Radical Feminism is especially prominent in developing many visions of societies in which women are no longer, as Germaine Greer put it, a subjugated caste. Visions and goals stimulate the methods for reaching them. Joanna Russ presented us with an early vision of a woman-only society. James Tiptree, Jr. wrote a story in which the women characters flee earth entirely. Some say an earth with only 10% men will be a safe earth free of oppression. We need more of these visions.
My own personal vision is that women will cure the sickness that ails men and that men will stay around, hunkered in their man-caves playing the ukelele, leaving us in peace at last. As to what that cure may be, my best bet is that what’s wrong with men is that their androgens need genetic modification.
I’m serious about this. If we can do it with corn, men ought to be easy.
Vliet Tiptree is a writer, poet, and ex-attorney blogging at http://vlietfeministpoetry.blogspot.com.