June 26, 2013

How Two Young Feminists Are Using Radical Feminism To Pave A New Way Forward

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What is the issue?

Meghan Murphy argues on Feminist Current that third wave feminism, the feminism that dominates the mainstream, is influenced heavily by Naomi Wolf’s Fire with Fire which implicates radical feminism as actually being what Wolf refers to as “victim feminism”, which “casts women as sexually pure and mystically nurturing, and stresses the evil done to these ‘good’ women as a way to petition for their rights” and so strips women of their individuality and agency. Wolf claims that “victim feminism” (radical feminism) ignores women’s actual power — namely the legal rights and wealth gained by women since the era of second wave radical feminism — and so is outdated.

Wolf’s thought — that radical feminism is supposedly outdated and disempowering — seems widespread in the era of Slut Walk and Jezebel.

Does radical feminist theory still have any relevance to women in politics today? With this in mind, I interviewed two women in their twenties who share my interest in this question, and have studied and been influenced by some radical feminist thought.

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I first interviewed Alexandria Brown, who, at the age of 25, is well-versed in radical feminist theory and continental philosophy. She uses her educational background to discuss the appeal of radical feminism in terms of making sense of her personal life as a young woman, and its relevance to the 21st century.

Below, Alexandria addresses a number of contemporary social issues through the lens of radical feminism, ranging from the atrocious human rights abuses against women occurring in Ciudad Juarez, to the nauseating racism and Islamophobia in the movie Zero Dark Thirty.

She argues for a trans-inclusive radical feminism while discussing what she sees as the political limitations of liberal feminism. She concludes by sharing a vision of a liberated future and offering possible ideas as to how it could be achieved.

Marie Calloway: Why do you call yourself a radical feminist? How did you discover it?

Alexandria Brown: My first and possibly best encounter with “radical feminism” was in the context of working with a Nietzsche scholar named Dr. Ofelia Schutte. She knew a woman academic who courageously went to work in the mass assembly plants in Juarez, known as maquiladoras. In these huge factories, there are times when your only option is to sign a form, have your ovaries surgically removed, and work for $55 a week. General Electric is here essentially determining that your body is a disposable body, of a lesser grade than the ones used for breeding.

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For Dr. Schutte, radical feminism means “the personal is the political.” This is vague but central. It is only by politicizing my private life that I have been able to undo the impact that traumatic sexual assault and gendered violence has had on the very structure of my self-understanding. Schutte also helped me to realize that the notion of an emancipatory overthrow of the patriarchy is already a central component of the fraternal, liberal male supremacist narrative. Male progressives always see themselves as brothers, “bravely” joining together to rise up and overthrow the rule of their father. We should combat “male supremacy” itself, not merely “patriarchy.”

I do think radical feminism has had a crucial role to play in the advancement of women’s rights in the US. However, I am absolutely not “canon” to what radical feminism has come to mean today. There is a mortifying, first-wave essentialist transphobia constructing straw arguments about trans politics and glibly erasing the structural marginalization against TGNCI people in the US experience. This narrative implies that if you are a lesbian, someone is out there who will force you to have PIV sex with a trans women to prove you are not transphobic. This same narrative erases trans men by saying that they are really just women, colluding with male supremacy. Jack Halberstam has written a great essay deconstructing the border wars between butch lesbian women and transgender men. And so while I am interested instrategic essentialism, I don’t subscribe to traditional notions of gender identity — even for the sake of exposing sex/gender hierarchy. Abolish the Harry Benjamin scale!

Andrea James / Wikimedia Commons
Andrea James / Wikimedia Commons

Most radical feminists — most people in general, actually — conflate the “sex” of female with “having a uterus.” Yet the body itself is plastic. Trans women who elect for SRS can have penetrative vaginal intercourse, and they can breastfeed their children. Being “woman” — this does indicate a historical association with a reproductive exploitation (pregnancy) to which you are only vulnerable if you have a uterus. But being “woman” also means domestic labor. It means cultural femininity. It means rape, sexual harassment culture — it means other things. Trans women do not just have to combat transphobia, as if that were simple — they live this too. There are clear Venn diagrams you can draw showing CAMAB trans women, CAFAB people with a uterus, cis women, and effeminate cis men all experience intersecting penalization in the face of male supremacy.

Anyone can simultaneously be the victim and perpetrator of abuse, and tokenism can’t excuse unethical behavior, which is where I think confusion is setting in. Yet we have to build coalition around dismantling the penal code which is generating all of the abuse to begin with in a fundamental, causal sense. The only alternative is basically to dismantle our alliances across identity categories. We don’t need to have such a showdown merely because our experiences are non-identical. The feral difference of our experiences is precisely the virtue of coalition. I make videos sometimes with my good friend Gianna Love (we are working on a feature length film entitled The Gift of Monstrosity), and we’ve madea video addressing this topic. But I want to shift the focus away from those who are “transcritical” entirely. I think it is counterproductive. Instead, I want to ask whether it isn’t deeply, irrefutably violent for heterosexual cis gendered men to identify that way at all.

MC: What do you see as being the relevance of radical feminism today? Why do you think it is more useful than liberal or other kinds of feminism?

AB: Pop feminism erases poverty, blackness, genuine misandry, lesbian separatism, sex striking. Andrea Dworkin is not sexy in the eyes of hetcis white male supremacists, and those are still the dominant eyes. Given the recent shootings, I think about my own experiences with male violence. A man tried to kill me twice when I was 14 years old and a student at Braulio Alonso High School. I subsequently forgot about it until 2009 in a psychologist’s office with my mother in San Francisco. It makes thinking about male violence very personal for me. When you look at the numbers, most serial killers are white men. What genocide has been led and perpetrated by women? What nuclear holocaust? The gender of sheer violence itself is the huge elephant in the room which mainstream feminism is totally inadequate for dealing with. When I say women don’t perpetrate violence, I don’t mean that women are incapable of masterfully colluding with corrupt imperialist perpetrators of violence. A woman directed Zero Dark Thirty, to our absolute disgrace.

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The “choice” feminism which sees Kathryn Bigelow’s Islamophobic commercial success in filmmaking as a “gain for women” as a class is repugnant. So radical feminism needs to help us become capable of envisioning a world in which we are entirely autonomous of men. Today Valeria Solanas is a figure of satire, but will the abolition of misogyny require the abolition of men? That is both a tragic and comic question for our political moment. What would it take, exactly, for us to legitimately ask the question? How much worse things would things have to get? We aren’t currently even capable of answering. But if we cannot seriously imagine life without men, we will always be at the mercy of male supremacy. Nothing short of a global sex strike will end it. The very psychological possibility of imagining lesbian utopia is an essential component of constructing a radical feminism which will not be incorporated into the liberal mainstream.Shulamith Firestone is a symbol of the monumental task here. Firestone did not die the way she did because she was “mentally ill.” As Deleuze and Guattari have said, the very imposition of the Oedipal subject on the schizoid body is a terrorism. Firestone did not “have schizophrenia” — she exhibited the “symptoms” of living colonized under male supremacy. Her mind fractured in resistance to male supremacy.

Imagine an island, populated by women. Imagine conception in the unthinkable leisure of a sperm bank. Imagine lesbian partnerships between cis and trans women with “genetic” children. But before that, imagine negotiating politically with a population of cis men whose very ability to reproduce themselves is at stake in this negotiation. This is the event horizon for feminist consciousness. It is important. I saw Iyad Burnat speak recently, and in his brother Emad’s Oscar- nominated film Five Broken Cameras, people kept saying they wanted to end the occupation in Palestine — for the sake of their children, the future. Even as brilliant as that film is, I see female-bodied people being locked into the domestic sphere within it. So — separatism! What if all Palestinians and Jews capable of becoming pregnant carried out a successful sex strike? It has to be thinkable. There is enough technology in the world that we actually can resist. We can say: “there will not be any children for your future until this, all occupation ends!” Until we say that, feminism itself will always be somewhat imaginary to me.

MC: How has identifying as a radical feminist affected your real life (e.g. relationships with boyfriends)

AB: Provisionally, and partially. I am more interested in movements like materialist feminism at this point but I think it is crucial for people to recall the function that radical feminism served prior to its falling into transphobia. I think there is a need for female-bodied people to give voice to the level of hatred that living under male supremacy inspires in them. Joanna Russ’ essay on that is helpful. I have been interrogating the relationship between the erotics of masculinity, gender identity, and my own political marginality, lately. I used be repulsed entirely by masculine men. I used to watch pornography. Since learning that the US is using pornography to torture Islamic detainees in Guantanamo, I have stopped. I think about Iceland fairly often. I sometimes wonder to what extent any “good” pornography is possible under capitalism. It is not going to be easy for female-bodied, transgender, gender-nonconforming and intersex people to wrestle out positive representations of themselves into the media.

I genuinely think that under conditions of male supremacy, female-bodied people cannot technically consent to being involved with heterosexual cis men — even if we can and ought be granted the capacity to “choose” to do so. I will not sleep with a man who does not understand this and increasingly feel that I ought not sleep with heterosexual cis gendered men at all. If I am a radical feminist, it is in order to resist liberal narratives of progress about this. Foucault noticed we are always hoping that “some day, sex will be good again.” We need to decenter a repressive hypothesis the alleged “sexual liberation” of the US in the sixties made visible. I want my desires to engage in reality — I do not want equal access to window-dressing, the forms of economic and sexual domination historically exercised by men. Dean Spade is one among many who have pointed out that popular discourse is now pinkwashing the Israeli occupation of Palestine. Imperialism is dressing itself in the mask of feminism and it wraps rainbow pride flags around all its prisons.

I am barely persuaded friendship itself can exist between women in such an atmosphere. Love will probably not be possible between men and women right now. I can list you the names of the men I love and I love Nietzsche more than all of them except my own father. Even he is replete with a violence. Nietzsche asks in Zarathustra — “woman is not yet capable of friendship: but tell me, you men, who among you is capable of friendship?” Read Lillian Faderman on romantic friendship or listen to a radio podcast about it here.

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I next interviewed Jillian Horowitz, a 26 year old graduate student of women’s, gender, and sexuality studies at the CUNY graduate center. Jillian discusses the problematic elements of radical feminist thought (namely, transphobia and racism), but goes on to urge feminists to not disregard radical feminism. Instead, she illustrates the way she believes radical feminist thought has influenced contemporary feminist thinking. Jillian discusses her critical involvement with SlutWalkNYC and subsequent disillusion with the event, and details her intellectual and political development, which grew out of encounters with canon radical feminists like Andrea Dworkin and French feminists like Hélène Cixous. She ends by criticizing liberalism and sex-positivism, arguing for a more critical look at sexuality, and discussing how her politics have influenced her personal life.

Marie Calloway: What is your interest in radical feminism?  How did you discover it?

Jillian Horowitz: I want to preface all of my comments here with the acknowledgment that I don’t identify with radical feminism in its current permutation, and many radical feminists would probably consider me, derisively, to be a “funfem.”  I cannot, and will not, accept “trans-critical” ideologies as being anything other than essentialist and harmful.  I don’t ascribe to gender abolitionism so much as I believe that a multiplicity of genders has the potential to explode the category of gender itself.  The sex binary exists on ground more precarious than many radical feminists would like to admit.  However, I absolutely identify with what I feel are the most basic tenets of radical feminism: that we live in a patriarchal society from which men benefit both personally and collectively (if only on the basis of gender); that patriarchy is predicated on a relationship of dominance; that this relationship and its corollary, male supremacy, permeates every aspect of our lives; that, therefore, the personal is political and vice versa; and that the destruction of patriarchy and male supremacy is of paramount importance for women’s liberation.  Interestingly, these cornerstones of radical feminism don’t differ all that much from the core ideas that undergird more contemporary strains of feminism.  Outside of liberal feminist circles, most feminists I’ve encountered ascribe to a worldview in which patriarchy exists as a structure that privileges men to the detriment of all others/Others, one which must be dismantled or radically reorganized in order to constitute a less oppressive and more livable world.  The language may be slightly different — male privilege vs. male supremacy, speaking and writing in terms of gender rather than of sex — but the content is very, very similar.  Radical feminism has never been particularly fashionable, and the transphobia, racism, and sex work savior complex espoused by a particularly vocal contingent combined with the discourse of generational divides/”waves” has transformed the designation into a kind of slur.  While it’s important to be critical of radical feminism (just as it is for any other branch of feminism), I’m not particularly interested in making blanket condemnations, or refusing to give credit where credit is due, or engaging in reductive conversations about second/third/fourth/whatever waves that inevitably erases feminists and feminist work that don’t fit into neat, compact narratives.  It’s easy to forget that feminists of color worked alongside white radical feminists in the 1960s and 1970s and that womanism materialized well before the advent of “third wave” feminism, for example, or to conflate radical feminism and cultural feminism.  So many small elisions and absences create an incredibly simplified version of history.

Getting back to the questions at hand: I think my interest in feminism, and with the particular modes of feminist thought and practice that many people would characterize as constituting radical feminism, has taken a rather circuitous route that is worth tracing for the purposes of this interview. I’ve identified as a feminist off and on since I was eleven years old, at which time I discovered early-90s riot grrrl via the Internet.  I was very, very passionate about feminism at a fairly young age, reading a lot of zines and making my own website and listening to a lot of Bikini Kill, but my enthusiasm waned a bit as I made more friends and recognized that naming myself as a feminist or expressing explicitly feminist sentiments outside of equal-rights platitudes could threaten my precarious social position.  I re-discovered feminism when I was 18, around the time that I went to college and ended my first serious (and abusive) relationship with an older guy.  I spent a lot of time reading canonical radical feminist texts from the late 1960s and 1970s — Kate Millett, Andrea Dworkin, Catharine MacKinnon (whose work was published a bit later, beginning in the 1980s), Valerie Solanas, Susan Brownmiller, Germaine Greer — during my first year of college, which allowed me to make sense out of the aftermath of that relationship and motivated me to start (re-)incorporating feminist theory into the academic work I was doing and into my daily life.  Above all, I was inspired to keep reading and thinking and to explore other feminisms. The second pivotal event in constituting my feminist identification and thinking (after my adolescent discovery of riot grrrl) occurred when I began reading work by French feminist theorists, particularly women like Hélène Cixous, Luce Irigaray, and Monique Wittig. Their writings, published mostly in the 1970s but not seeing translation into English until the late 70s and 1980s, presented totally different but no less radical insights into issues of sexual difference, of writing the body, of how western languages and intellectual traditions engage in either the total erasure of the feminine or its representation as a lack, and how patriarchal institutions manipulate women’s bodies and labor to maintain the dominant order.  French feminist theorists are routinely criticized for being impenetrable, too focused on Freud and Lacan and Marx, not political enough; but, to me, nothing could be more personal or political than Cixous comparing women writing to masturbation (a specifically embodied and pleasurable act that is considered shameful, private, to be performed only behind closed doors and never spoken of) or Irigaray’s discussions of women as commodities, or Wittig’s denaturalization of both sex and gender and insistence on a materialist analysis of oppression.  Their work continues to inform and transform my thinking.

The third, and final, crucial event (thus far, anyway) was in 2011, when I participated in organizing SlutWalk NYC.  My reasons for involving myself were questionable, in retrospect; I had numerous qualms about the walk and so-called “movement” but somehow believed that my critical participation (coupled with similar critical engagement by others) would somehow alter the nature of the event, would make it “better” and more inclusive with a stronger political analysis. How fucking misguided that was!  The entire event was a shitshow from start to finish: mainstream feminist darlings showed up at the messy beginning of the organizational process and promptly disappeared, only to re-emerge when the shit hit the fan in order to self-righteously issue blanket criticisms of the organizers; a large number of women involved were more concerned with logistics and publicity than with politics; a general lack of a coherent politics; and there was more than enough petty, clique-y bullshit to go around.  By the time the protest rolled around, I was feeling incredibly disillusioned with feminism and so-called feminist organizing; the next day, when photographs of the white teenager with the “woman is the n——- of the world” sign surfaced and the Internet exploded, I knew I was done.  Frankly, I haven’t participated in any feminist organizing since.  I’m still angry about the silencing of women who didn’t constitute SlutWalk’s core audience, but I blame a good deal of that on the limited amount of time spent formulating a coherent analysis of patriarchy, the misogyny it engenders, and the interlocking systems of oppression that work with them.  Ending “slut-shaming and victim-blaming” is important (though, admittedly, those terms irk me these days), but we cannot effectively struggle against them without that analysis.

In other words, my interest in radical feminism can be attributed to my desire to work and think with cogent accounts of patriarchal power and to acknowledge the radical roots of more contemporary feminisms while remaining critical of transphobia and racism.  (Also, I should account for my discomfort with sex-positivity and uncritical pro-kink and pro-porn positions, but I’ll save that for the next section.)

MC: What do you see as being the relevance of radical feminism today? Why do you think it is more useful than liberal or other kinds of feminism?

JH: Once again, I think that a radical account of patriarchy and male supremacy is really important in explicitly feminist theory and practice, and I fear that such accounts have been sidelined, even as that analysis informs a great number of non-liberal feminisms.  Liberal feminism is utterly meaningless to me. I have fundamental disagreements with liberal accounts of the individual and of the self; I consider myself an anti-capitalist with less than zero interest in reformist agendas; legal redress cannot in itself guarantee equality (hell, “equality” isn’t my end goal to begin with when it comes to feminism); having more women in positions of economic and political power does not necessarily ease the boot off the necks of the least powerful.  “Choice feminism” is a corollary to liberal feminism that similarly lacks an analysis of power and is defined by its relation to neoliberal ideologies, in which the concept of “choice” is sacred and unquestionable and positioned in an apolitical vacuum that is made all the more political by its lack of analysis.  I don’t know how many times I’ve had to say something along the lines of, “not every choice you make is a feminist choice just because you ID as a feminist” to someone, but I’d be thrilled if I never had to say it again. Related to choice feminism is sex-positive feminism, much of which makes me rather uncomfortable.  It often seems to me that, for many self-identified feminists, sex is the one domain in which feminist politics should have no import (unless that politic is that sex and/or pleasure is always good and healthy and desirable and that fantasies and desires have no bearing on life outside the bedroom).  Sex is not a realm separate from politics — it is always already political and social and it doesn’t happen in a vacuum.  Kinks are not necessarily harmless.  Even the notion of consent, considered by so many to be a simple matter, is problematic — in a patriarchal society where women’s agency is circumscribed by male supremacy, how meaningful is consent?  These issues are purposefully obscured by sex-positive feminists who believe that sex is an inherent good and that to feel otherwise is somehow aberrant, abnormal, a position that should be remedied.  These beliefs also extend to discussions about pornography and sex work — that both are good to neutral and that less-than-happy experiences are anomalies.  I do not ascribe to an abolitionist position on porn or sex work, but I am still working through my thoughts on how such work is performed within a patriarchal society, who is at risk and who does and does not suffer, how to best help women who have experienced sex-related trafficking without indulging in savior complexes, etc., etc.  Moreover, while I do subscribe to the post-structuralist notion that gender is citational and performative, it is easy to sideline analyses of power in favor of taking a playful approach to gender and pop culture and what have you.  When analyses of power do pop up, they often tend to be simplistic and lacking in nuance.

Anyway, power is everywhere and nowhere, as Foucault would say, and we need to account for it accordingly.

MC: How has radical feminist affected your real life (e.g. relationships with boyfriends)?

JH: This is a difficult question to answer. I’ve been in a relationship with a man for 4.5 years, living together for 3, and he was a libertarian when I met him.  We started off not discussing our politics at all with one another, but that wasn’t a tenable position to maintain. He supports feminism without identifying as a “male feminist,” but it hasn’t always been easy.  There have been a lot of fuck-ups along the way, and there will always continue to be, but I can live with it.  Prior to my current boyfriend, most of the men I’ve dated have supported feminist ideas but have not always been adept at putting them into practice, whether in their relationship with me or in their day to day lives.  I am, however, always wary of men who are too enthusiastic about feminism — too many of them are predatory, or trying to absolve themselves of something, or otherwise not men I wish to associate with.

At this point, I want to direct more of my energies toward cultivating my friendships with other women. I’ve experienced cruelty and humiliation at the hands of many girls and women over the years, some of whom I believed to be my friends; admittedly, these experiences have left me feeling a bit apprehensive about maintaining close friendships. I often wonder if it’s even possible to maintain healthy, lasting friendships between women in a patriarchal society. I’m trying like hell, though — there are many women in my life these days that I love and value, and I’d really like for them to stick around for a while. TC mark

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