Examining neoradical feminism

I’ve written on transphobic radical feminism before, and I’ve talked about it outside this blog too. Over the past few years, there has been a renewed focus on examining the sort of radical feminism espoused these days, where criticism is often laid on it for being transphobic, whorephobic, or otherwise prejudiced, as opposed to the prima facie more exclusive intersectional feminism. And it should come to no surprise that I identify more with intersectionialism, given personal circumstances; arguably, it should follow, lived experience would lead to a similar conclusion. And while today’s radical feminists claim lineage from those of old, from the Steinems and the Dworkins and the Firestones, I would personally think that they would flock to the banner of intersectionality.

Let’s make some admissions here: paleoradical (paleo-: Ancient Greek, “old”) feminism does have some good concepts, some of which I do agree with (such as consciousness raising, the interpretation of oppression against the Other, the personal as political). I actually have a great respect for the kind of things that Steinem was saying during the sixties, and Dworkin herself isn’t the completely uber-radical boogeyman that her reputation proceeds her as (although I do admit I completely disagree with her views on sex work). But the problem is that, functionally, paleoradical feminism is dead, killed by the Sex Wars. In its place was born what we can now recognise as neoradical feminism and intersectional feminism.

Take one of the major criticisms of radical feminism, both old and new, which I’m personally familiar with: transphobia. Dworkin is hailed as a patron saint of transphobia, because, like many radical feminists during the seventies and eighties, she allied with the transphobic side. But it is hardly ever brought up that she wrote this:

There is no doubt that in the culture of male-female discreteness, transsexuality is a disaster for the individual transsexual. Every transsexual, white, black, man, woman, rich, poor, is in a state of primary emergency as a transsexual. There are 3 crucial points here.
One, every transsexual has the right to survival on his/her own terms. That means every transsexual is entitled to a sex-change operation, and it should be provided by the community as one of its functions. This is an emergency measure for an emergency condition.
Two, by changing our premises about men and women, role-playing and polarity, the social situation of transsexuals will be transformed, and transsexuals will be integrated into community, no longer persecuted and despised.
Three, community built on androgynous identity will mean the end of transsexuality as we know it. Either the transsexual will be able to expand his/her sexuality into a fluid androgyny, or, as roles disappear, the phenomenon of transsexuality will disappear and that energy will be transformed into new modes of sexual identity and behavior.

Hardly contending that transition is a human rights violation. I think that it would be wise to realise that Dworkin, for example, lived and flourished during times when the prevailing view of transsexuality was one of transvestism, not gender variance. Butler and those who followed were still growing up, attending college, writing their PhDs. So we do need to make these concessions where we should, in the same way we have to concede how, say, the Chartists were only interested in the male franchise as the idea of female suffrage was never even thought of. While I’m not as familiar with whorephobia, nor do I have any authority to speak about it, I imagine that a similar parallel argument flows there too.

I believe one of the major splits between intersectionalism and neoradicalism is inclusivity and exclusivity. Neoradicalism borrows a lot from the ideas of separatism and political acts of gender. Whereas intersectionialism to its core is to about viewing the intersections of gender oppression with other oppressions, and by following on it becomes more inclusive. That’s why transphobia, whorephobia, etc. tends to come from radical voices, really. I’m definitely not saying that non-radical voices can’t be transphobic or whorephobic; indeed, often is the case where reactionism gets the best of those voices. But pure intersectionalism would indicate a complete absence of such prejudices, whereas the same can’t be said for neoradicalism. At the same time, it should be emphasised that neoradicalism doesn’t in itself have prejudice as its core; it’s more an effect of the theory, rather than the cause.

It should be observed that neoradicalism is very much the minority viewpoint, however loud it is. Intersectionalism was born of the third wave, and in many cases can be seen as the logical extension of third-wave thinking. And the third wave, whether overtly intersectional or not, is clearly the primary form of feminism. You can see intersectional roots everywhere in contemporary feminism, from discussions of poverty and abortion access, to advocating protections for LGBT and people of color in VAW-related legislation. Neoradicals, meanwhile, are perceived of being theoretical purists against what they see as “revisionism” to second-wave theory, and the leftists reading this may be amused at the parallel that this has to socialist discourse. To this end, there has been an aversion to radical interpretation within intersectional circles something which may be to the detriment of the movement.

I recently had the (dis)pleasure of flicking through the infamous Janice Raymond book The Transsexual Empire. And one thing that struck me was that while it is undeniably bigoted, there is reason to the prejudice. Raymond did her homework, and the book does lay out a strong theoretical case for trans-exclusivity. But that in itself is the major weakness of the book as a whole: it’s theoretical. Whereas intersectionalism and third-wave feminism is inherently empirical, and builds itself from evidence of intersectional oppression. So basically, it’s that same old story again: the split between rationalism and empiricism. Germaine Greer’s comments on Question Time about rape survivor anonymity show this starkly: her rationalist radical views led her to controversially say that survivors shouldn’t be afraid of publicly accusing their attackers; an empiricist view may agree with the idea but not the end result, recognising the existence and proliferation of rape apologism across all sectors of society.

It’s lazy to suggest that neoradicalism isn’t a feminism, because really, it is: at its core, it is a movement for female liberation. But one of the major problems is that neoradicalism is flawed because its rationalist pillars have the effect of only focusing on misogyny rather than intersectional oppressions. Hence why the gains of feminism do go primarily to white middle class women, because without an empirical view of oppression, the ideas of racism and classism go unchecked. Indeed, the idea that oppression is primarily on one axis, be it gender, race, class, sexuality, whatever, doesn’t really reflect the realities of oppression any more; I’m pretty sure most of us smirk at the developing SWP member who claims that misogyny will be gone when the socialist revolution comes.

Looking to the future of feminism, I think there will come a point soon where intersectionality will become part of the core concepts, as the story of the third wave ends and the fourth wave begins, just as the humanity of women was the concept we took from the first and the concept of patriarchy was from the second. And I’m interested to see what will be the fourth wave, and I do hope that transfeminism and queer feminism in particular will be the focus. That fourth wave has arguably begun, with discussions on what it is to be a woman now taking the centre stage, years after Simone de Beauvoir famously said that “one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman”. Paleoradicalism is sadly dead, and neoradicalism is gladly dying, and I think it would be much more wise to focus efforts on problems within the third wave than focusing on an increasing irrelevancy.

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