Why Feminism Isn’t Radical

There’s an article up on Vice as of a couple days ago. It’s about a particular feminist thinker Sophie Lewis and her call to eliminate the family as the social unit we embrace today. Her full argument is contained in Full Surrogacy Now, if you’re interested, but the article is not about the argument per se, but the social reactions of various groups of people to the publication of the book.

As one might imagine, it’s not an idea that skyrockets in popularity with the media attention it receives. The right is both dismissive and antagonistic, in fact the right wing appears to be dismissive of the work in order to justify not taking the time to understand it in order to make it easier to express antagonism. Some of the antagonism clearly targets ideas Lewis isn’t arguing, and if some does, well, it doesn’t seem to be as a result of intellectual rigor. Rather the explosive reaction sends antagonism in all directions, which necessitates some of it targeting Full Surrogacy Now’s argument: target everything, after all, and so long as Lewis’ book’s argument is part of everything it will eventually be criticized accurately.

But backlash is not limited to the right wing. The left also has its objections, well founded and otherwise. It is in exploring the objections of the left that Marie Solis, the author of the Vox article, goes awry:

Abolishing the family may not have ever been a mainstream proposition, but for a stretch of time in the 1960s and 70s it was a fairly well-known one. Arguments for family abolition date back to Marx and Engels (and indeed, even further, to Plato [Jesus too, I might add – cd]), but the radical feminist Shulamith Firestone is credited with popularizing the concept on the modern-day left. In her foundational 1970 manifesto The Dialectic of Sex, she identifies the biological family as the basis for women’s oppression because it establishes women as an underclass by forcing them to bear the brunt of gestational labor.

To be a radical feminist during these years would have meant being familiar with this text and its central demand, which appeared in leftist pamphlets and literature. Yet just a decade later, any advocacy for family abolition had all but disappeared from feminist discourse. Instead, the movement chose to embrace family values, preferring to fight for the reform—rather than the annihilation—of the nuclear family structure.

The emphasis is mine, and it is crucial. The author is here making a category error. In the first bolded clause Solis describes what would be familiar to “a radical feminist”. In the second, Solis speaks of “feminist discourse” without any limiting modifiers.

I mention this because it’s part of an ongoing string of similar errors that conflate 1970s feminism with radical feminism. But remember for a moment that Shulamith Firestone is not NOW, and one never needed to be a “radical feminist” to support the Equal Rights Amendment. Passing the ERA was a quintessentially feminist endeavor, but while radical feminists were always tiny in number, the ERA actually made it through congress and was ratified by more than 30 states in the 1970s. Is it reasonable to assume that everyone who thought the ERA was a good idea and spoke approvingly of it to friends had also read Firestone’s Dialectic or even simply excerpts from it? Of course not.

It’s also true that Firestone’s feminism may not even qualify as radical feminism. While colloquially it’s certain that many people have referred to Firestone and her work as radical feminist, there have in fact been significant struggles over whether socialist feminism is radical feminism as we know it. Socialist feminism, after all, posits oppression of economic classes as an ur-oppression, and the end of sexism as only possible through the end of capitalism and the creation of a socialist society. Socializing companionship, sex, and care, yes, including care for children, fits naturally into a socialist feminism, which is why the idea has recurred within socialist feminist scholarship on a regular basis.

Radical feminism, while having been used in a number of ways during a number of periods, seems to have settled on a definition that requires anti-oppression work to center feminism in order to qualify as radical feminism. In fact, much of what we call radical feminism conceptualizes sexism as an ur-oppression (and while equally lacking in solid proof as the socialist feminist assertion that class oppression came first and retains primacy, radical feminist assertions of ur-sexism have rather higher plausibility given that sexual stratification can exist within hunter-gatherer societies while class stratification is absent). Socialist feminism and this incarnation of radical feminism are irreconcilably opposed.

I don’t doubt that people who would have described themselves as radical feminists when the ERA was being ratified in 1973 would have been familiar with Firestone’s work. Radical feminists and socialist feminists were constant co-travelers as both found themselves on the outside edges of what was already a movement with a mainstream. But even in the mainstream feminism of the 1970s Firestone would have been little known. And thus Solis’s category error, and the cumulative lie it forwards: Certainly it’s true that few feminists (as a percentage) would have been familiar with the arguments of family abolition in the 1980s. As a casual feminist in the latest 80s I never encountered those arguments. But as a radical feminist of the earliest 90s, I was immediately introduced to Firestone and the ideas of socialist feminism.

Wages for Housework, a group that had its roots (IIRC) in socialist feminisms of Italy in the 60s and 70s, had similar ideas of internalizing into the monetized economy the costs of child rearing and other housework. While that is not a specific call to abolish the family (and wasn’t interpreted that way in Italy), the idea is fundamentally similar. One person might do the caretaking. They might even be a relative. But it’s the economic system as a whole that is responsible for that labor and uses wages to guarantee it gets done – Wages for Housework would say that their proposed solution uses fair labor compensation to ensure completion of these vital tasks instead of relying on sexist coercion.

Wages for Housework was active in certain parts of the US in the mid 80s and very active in London throughout the 80s, but Solis speaks of these ideas as having vanished in the 80s. If Solis is right that socialist feminism’s anti-family ideas “vanished from feminist discourse” in the 80s (before magically returning to life in 1991 just in time for my friends to encourage me to read Firestone, I guess?) this is only true in the sense that anti-family socialist feminism constituted a vanishingly small percentage of the overall feminist discourse in the 1980s. While that is likely true, it misses the point dramatically: from 1950 on, socialist feminism of the Firestone/WfH type has always been a tiny percentage of US feminism because socialism has been portrayed with persistent negativity in the US throughout that period. It also fails to note that what was “radical” in the 1970s wasn’t mainstream in the 1970s. The retrospective amnesia which permits every boomer to pretend that they attended Woodstock and fought the Man and challenged patriarchy likewise allows this century’s writers to pretend that Firestone’s importance to women on the fringes of 60s and 70s feminism must of course have translated to importance to women in the mainstream of 60s and 70s feminism. But what is considered historically important is almost never a period’s mainstream, quotidian, or banal experience. We would not remember Firestone’s name today if she was merely saying what everyone else was talking about.

In a way, this is the reverse of the error sexists love to make when they portray Valerie Solanas as an archetypal feminist and her SCUM Manifesto as common (and non-satirical) feminist discourse. But don’t buy in! Socialist feminism in the US has long been a marginal strain. There was no major transition from the 70s to the 80s during which a socialist-feminist majority slipped away. That majority was never present. Indeed it might very well be that Firestone’s Judaism played a key role in opening her to the ideological possibilities of social collectivism, as socialism in Israel was never as thoroughly discredited as it was in the US.

Solis wants us to believe that feminism is not radical today because some significant change came over the group of people supportive of ending sexism. The truth is that feminism is not radical today but was also not radical in the 1970s, just as it is not socialist today but it was also not socialist in the 1970s. While there have been these feminist segments for many decades, and while a historically relevant portion of the best of feminism may come from these segments, feminism as a whole isn’t radical because feminism as a whole never has been radical.

P.S. This error by Solis also further reinforces a thesis that I’ve advanced here at other times: generational or otherwise temporal divisions in feminism are generally much more counterproductive than productive, and teasing apart various feminist movements or “waves” is much better done on the basis of the underlying ethics and metaethics of a particular effort. The ERA is typically seen as the completion of contractarian feminism (which saw its first major victory with winning the vote for women in 1920) and the logic of the ERA is primarily based on a system of ethics that doesn’t generally support most other feminist priorities today. It is because contractarian feminism had become seen as well-established and non-controversial that it was possible to pass the ERA in the first place, but since adopting the premises of contractarianism does not require or even predispose one to adopt the premises of socialism, it can be seen that we should never have expected the advocates of feminism’s most significant project of the 1970s to be generally sympathetic to or even interested in the project of Firestone and other socialist feminists seeking to remake the family. In fact, a large part of the successful movement to kill the ERA was a PR campaign to reframe the amendment as something other than straightforward contractarianism. Anti-family motives in advancing the ERA were frequently alleged by the ERA’s opponents. It is in the success of these anti-ERA campaigns that we can easily see that anti-family feminisms of any stripe never held much currency among 1970s feminists.


  1. says

    Breaking the transfer of inherited wealth would be a great move for social equality.

    I have long believed that children should be raised by professionals not their parents. Obviously people tend to freak out about that idea. Now you know why I’m not a breeder.

    I wonder how much of the promotion of radical, divisive feminism in the 70s was effected by CIA assets. We’ll probably never know. Now I feel like a conspiracy theorist :/

  2. Allison says

    Marcus Ranum @1:

    I have long believed that children should be raised by professionals not their parents. …. Now you know why I’m not a breeder.

    I would say that the first part of that quote is a result of the second. If you had actually had primary responsibility for the day-to-day care for an infant on up to at least the pre-teen years, you would have recognized the folly of leaving that in the hands of “professionals.”

    Children, especially infants, need individual adults with whom they can have a close, interactive relationship and who will go above and beyond for the child. It is how they develop a stable psyche. That’s what “attachment theory” is all about, and the absence of a stable attachment has well-known, devastating consequences. They need one (or maybe two) specific adults who they can get to know intimately and who they experience as being there when they need someone, no matter when and no matter what, if they are to have enough trust in themselves and the world to “go out and do what needs to be done.” (Ask me how I know this personally!) Generic parent-like figures will not work, especially ones that are there only for a shift and may move on after a year or two.

    The individual adults do not have to be their bio-parents — that’s why adoption works. But they have to be a consistent presence in the child’s life, in a way that, for example, neighbors, teachers, day-care workers, etc., cannot be.

    It’s an issue even for older children. The British practice of sending children off to boarding school at a fairly young age results in children and adults who are enslaved to the mores of whatever peer group they find themselves in. Even teen-agers need adults who will value them for who they are, not for who the power structure of the moment wants them to be, if they are going to grow up to be responsible, moral adults. Though I suppose it’s a great idea if you want to turn out soldiers who will willingly massacre “natives” when their superiors order them to.

    It doesn’t have to be the current “nuclear family,” it doesn’t even have to be people genetically related to one another, but families — small groups of people who know one anther well and are committed to be there for one another over the decades — are absolutely necessary.

  3. says

    No doubt!

    I wasn’t saying there shouldn’t be continuity; maybe a society that actually cared about kids would study this matter and figure out if parenting can be done better, and how. I’ll note (as you do) that “nuclear family” is a new ideal; historically many children were raised with extended family thanks to wars, diseases, and infections, etc.

    The potential for brainwashing children is one I hadn’t really thought of and I recoil from the idea – though naturally governments would be happy to try that if they thought they could get away with it. I have always wondered how much of “the greatest generation” was a matter of passing their trauma on to their kids, and I suspect that the result was a wave of nationalism and conservatism that we are still dealing with.

    In my series of fictional postings about Badgeria I imagined a class of people who actually want to be parents, coupled with a society that does not force women to give birth to unwanted children. Raising children in families where they have support and love and education would certainly be better than raising them with their natural parents if their natural parents don’t want them or can’t handle the economic stress that results. Although, a civilized society would have some sort of subsidy for people who needed to raise their child and couldn’t also hold a job while doing it. Our societies often seem to drive a wedge right into the middle of parenting experience; that’s not the kind of interference that helps.

    Definitely, it’s a complicated issue and it’s clearly one I am not experienced with and I have predispositions that cloud my thinking.

  4. Pierce R. Butler says

    Firestone’s manifesto, IIRC ~45 years after reading it, centered and depended on a Huxleyan development of artificial wombs to relieve women of the burdens of pregnancy and delivery. We don’t have anything even slightly approaching that now, and probably won’t have it in any reliable, affordable form in this century (even assuming we somehow skate past the near-certainty of ecological and social collapse).

    My (admittedly immature, distracted, and male) perspectives on ’70s feminism matched our esteemed host’s analysis of the marginality of Firestoneism during that decade and afterwards. Exploration of those ideas properly still belongs in the domain of science fiction – not that I can think of examples of anyone having done so except as shallow imitations of Brave New World (published in 1932).

  5. Ridana says

    But even in the mainstream feminism of the 1970s Firestone would have been little known.

    I may have missed your point here, but one doesn’t need to subscribe to radical ideas to be aware of them. The Dialectic of Sex was a best seller, and I’m pretty sure there weren’t enough radical feminists at the time to have made it so on their own. I certainly knew about it and I was no kind of activist or “radical” (not sure how that’s even defined).

  6. Allison says

    generational or otherwise temporal divisions in feminism are generally much more counterproductive than productive,

    However, there are generational differences in what ideas are widely held and which are controversial. At one time, the mainstream was hostile to lesbians, but a decade or so later, acceptance of lesbians and lesbian desire was mostly seen as an essential part of feminism. I think that was due in large part to the steady influx of new (mostly younger) feminists who couldn’t see why somebody being lesbian was an issue in the first place.

    I’m seeing that today. It is the older, long-time feminists that are arguing about whether “trans women are women” or whether they are threats to womankind. (E.g., Germaine Greer.) Among the younger feminists, acceptance of trans women as being women (full stop) is pretty much a no-brainer.

    But we’re talking distributions (in the mathematical/statistical sense.) I’m in my 60’s, and have been a feminist (in my view, at least) for most of that time, and have been following on-line feminism since the late 1980’s. There were a lot of people posting then whose views would fit right in with what people now think of as “latest wave” feminism. (And plenty of people posting now whose views would have been considered regressive even in the 1970’s.)

    If there is an impression that feminism is in any way static or monolithic, I think it’s because the TV talk shows and newscasters mostly focus on feminists whose feminism fits in with what they (i.e., the Patriarchy) would like feminism to be.

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