A bunch of people involved in the furor over Rebecca Watson saying, “Guys, don’t do that,” went around pointing fingers and calling people “radical feminists.” The implication was that being a radical feminist was somehow a bad thing–you know, radical.
The problem is that, in the context of feminism, ”radical” means “at or of the root.” “Radical” feminism is the proposition that institutions in a sexist culture tend to be designed to perpetuate the sexism. It recognizes two things–that those in power shape the world to suit their needs and desires, including the desire to hang onto power, and that culture is self-perpetuating. In essence, it’s Newton’s First Law for society.
How does this “radical” notion play out in reality? One example would be jobs that penalize for parental leave in a society in which women do the vast majority of care-giving. Another would be male ownership and management of the media production companies responsible for determining what culture is “mainstream” and what remains underground. Others are as simple as the application of cognitive biases, such as in-group bias in a world where gender is considered an important part of identity or just-world beliefs in an unequal society.
Radical feminism fit right in with the rest of the big radical movements of the late 60s and early 70s. Those movements–championing civil rights, questioning the basis for foreign wars, rejecting consumerism–pointed out that our society, by design, gives weight to certain ideas and people over others, regardless of merit, much as the atheist movement is doing today. The derisive connotation of the word “radical” comes from the marginalization of these ideas, painting them with the naturalistic fallacy as unrealistic or dangerous.
Yes, there were a few feminist theorists of the time who suggested that this understanding required that institutions be torn down and replaced. Again, this was in keeping with the general ethos of the human rights activism of time. These are the people that anti-feminists still point to when they want to claim that radical feminism is just too…radical by modern standards. However, the truth is that recognition of how our institutions are biased has become mainstream, and the consensus on how to deal with it involves changing the institutions instead of dismantling them.
To use my examples from above, where we now have parental leave policies that may still slightly disadvantage parents who use them, we used to have a situation in which women were fired when their employers found out they were pregnant. Underground culture is now merely alternative but much more easily available. We have collected data that can be and has been leveraged to demonstrate that bias is just that. We now have institutions that are less sexist, due to the work of radical feminists.
Yes, this also means that we have divorce courts that recognize fathers’ roles in their children’s lives and that award alimony to men. We have family leave policies that benefit fathers and male caretakers as well. We have federal agencies that recognize that men can be sexually harrassed. We have a greater variety of masculine depictions in the media from which to choose role models. We have masculine norms that don’t rely on violence or the capacity for violence. Radical feminism has dug into the roots of male oppression as well.
Given all that, the challenge is this: Explain to me why (other than not being post-colonial) being called a radical feminist should be seen as anything other than a compliment.