Few serious thinkers will argue that the women’s movement is no longer necessary. Few would argue that the movement does not have a noble history. Liberal feminists however, need to reclaim it.
Although feminism has a noble history, it was hijacked in the 1970s, with motley crews such as the New York Radical Women and the Redstockings stealing the show. After that, “radical” feminism was propelled by the likes of Andrea Dworkin and Catharine Mackinnon. Dworkin, whose contempt for women matched her hatred of men, famously wrote that women who enjoyed heterosexual sex with men were “collaborators, more base than other collaborators have ever been: experiencing pleasure in their own inferiority.”1
These radical feminists incited a backlash against all of feminism, despite only ever representing its lunatic fringe. In contrast to radical feminism–built on the dubious theory of sexual castes– the philosophy of liberal feminism is empirical and straightforward. Under classical liberalism, women have the inalienable right to be educated, employed and self-determining, and within the broader feminist canon, there is a treasure-trove of pragmatic work done by women such as Arlie Hochschild, Mary Ann Mason, Janet Yellen, and Ayaan Hirsi Ali. The list goes on.
Some years ago in 1991, Susan Faludi drew attention to a ‘backlash’ against feminism in a book of the same name. She argued that conservative media was biased against the movement, caricaturing feminists as family-destroying, man-hating shrews. Her thesis was that conservative commentators built a strawman out of feminism, which then contributed to an unwarranted pushback2. Faludi’s argument was strong, yet it was incomplete. It is true that all forms of media build strawmen out of certain targets. Often the most polemic and blustering voices on any topic are published, because editors know what mass audiences like. Subjects are simplified and nuance is tossed in the trash. Yet backlashes against feminism cannot be dismissed as mere media confections. To characterise them as such is intellectually lazy.
In 2013, and Amanda Marcotte wrote –
There is no such thing as a “radical feminist” anymore. Don’t get me wrong! There was. In the 60s and 70s there were radical feminists who were distinguishing themselves from liberal feminists. Radical feminists agreed with liberal feminists that we should change the laws to recognize women’s equality, but they also believed that we needed to change the culture. It was not enough to pass the ERA or legalize abortion, they believed, but we should also talk about cultural issues, such as misogyny, objectification, rape and domestic violence. In other words what was once “radical” feminism is now mainstream feminism.
Despite her assertions, Marcotte’s description of ‘radical feminism’ is simply a dumbed-down, euphemistic trope of what radical feminism actually was. Talking about cultural issues is not, and has never been, radical. What defined it in the ‘60s and ‘70s was the radical view that society was split down the middle by sexual castes3. In this philosophy, nothing about gender roles is natural – not even sex or having children. According to the radicals, the male caste has oppressed the female caste to the point where anything that can be described as ‘feminine’ is evidence of oppression; from make-up to high-heels, to breastfeeding and pregnancy. The radicals wrote books such as Lesbian Nation4, and argued that a nation state along the lines of a Zionist Israel should be set up just for women5. While liberal feminists wanted to ensure women and girls had equal opportunities to succeed in life, radical feminists were motivated by an unquenchable will to power.
The perception that radical feminism was ‘anti-male’ never came from conservative media. It was never a strawman argument. Anti-male ravings came from the women who stole feminism from the rest of us. And it must be taken back again. More than ever, we need to distinguish liberal feminists from the radicals who’ve hijacked the cause.
Claire Lehmann is the founding editor of Quillette.
1 Dworkin, A. (1987). Intercourse. Basic Books.
2 Faludi, S. (2009). Backlash: The undeclared war against American women. Random House
3 Firestone, S. (2003). The dialectic of sex: The case for feminist revolution. Macmillan.
4 Johnston, J. (1973). Lesbian nation. Simon and Schuhster, New York.
5 Dworkin, A. (2000). Scapegoat: The Jews, Israel and Womens’ Liberation. Simon and Schuster.
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