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Free Radicals, Part 1

October 7, 2013

Camille Hayes

Who doesn’t love a topless protest?

Feminists fight with each other a lot; we’re a scrappy bunch. Most of the arguments are useful, a healthy airing of the differences you’re bound to find in a social movement as large and long-standing as US feminism. But there’s one particular argument I’d like to see us put to rest forever. It crops up at regular intervals and is never fully resolved. It’s an argument that appears to be about people—Sheryl Sandberg, say, or Hanna Rosin—but is really about philosophy; specifically, the differences between radical and liberal feminism. Unfortunately, the people having this recurring fight get distracted by whatever is the current controversy, so they don’t recognize it’s all the same dispute in different guises. They might think they’re arguing over Beyoncé’s stripper heels or Sheryl Sandberg’s corporate cronyism, but the radical vs. liberal fight is much bigger, and more fundamental, than that. We have trouble navigating this issue in part because radicalism was so completely overtaken by the liberal agenda that today’s feminists don’t even realize it’s what they’re fighting about—so the argument never ends.

I’ve talked about this philosophical divide before, in the context of abortion politics. But the more I think about it, the more I’m convinced that what American feminism needs right now is a dose of radical politics—something to shake up our worn-out policy reform strategies and help us start defining new, 21st-century goals. But because so many feminists don’t even know what radical feminism is, apart from an all-purpose insult wielded by right-wing radio bungholes, we’re not able to learn the lessons its philosophy has to teach us. To recap: the basic difference between the liberal and radical approaches is that liberal feminists use public policy and the legal system to reform our existing social structure to be more hospitable to women. Basically, they want a bigger piece of the pie. Radical feminists, one the other hand, think that our current pie is shitty and oppressive, and that our time would be better spent baking a new one. Radicals envision a culture freer and more equal for everyone: women and men, children, people of color, gays and lesbians. The kind of change radicals want would require us to re-imagine really basic things like gender identity and family structure. Where liberal feminists want to reform society from its laws down, radicals want to remake society from the ground up.

In retrospect it’s obvious which version of feminism would take root in America, a nation so pragmatic, so desirous of quick results, so surpassingly fond of litigation. The liberals and their policy reform strategy won the day so decisively that the distinction between the two doctrines has been pretty thoroughly elided, and it’s liberal reformists (as exemplified by NOW, NARAL and the National Women’s Law Center) who set the national agenda. But the principles of radicalism didn’t disappear, the mainstream movement just stopped trying to enact them. Radicalism still informs feminist thinking; we still carry it in our hearts. Whenever you hear feminists railing against rape culture, or answering statistics about women’s college enrollment with data showing that those women are less likely to be called on in class, they’re pointing directly at the gap between what liberal reform can accomplish, and what radical doctrine tells us real equality looks like.

So what does this have to do with the feminist in-fighting caused by people like Rosin and Sandberg? We’ll start with the controversy over Hanna Rosin’s book The End of Men. Lots of online feminists, me included, take exception to the book’s basic premise: the collapse of the manufacturing sector, combined with women outnumbering men in college and the service industry mean that (insert death-defying logical leap here) the patriarchy is dying and perhaps already dead. Now, this assertion isn’t based on nothing. The data Rosin cites are familiar to anyone who’s been following the economic downturn or the alleged “mancession.” Women are enrolling in higher education in record numbers, and some data indicate that as construction and manufacturing work dried up for the dudes, the ladies have found service jobs. (Although subsequent studies show most of those jobs don’t pay a living wage, so the victory is Pyrrhic and doesn’t come with health insurance.) Still, there are concrete indicators that women’s fortunes are on the rise, which feminists should celebrate, right?

Maybe we would, if Rosin’s central thesis didn’t make us so damned mad. The patriarchy’s not dead,we fume, just look around you! What about street harassment and the rape kit backlog? What about slut-shaming and eating disorders and the otherwise inexplicable existence of beauty pageants? If Rosin hasn’t satisfactorily addressed such criticisms, it’s because those things simply aren’t what her book is about. Her argument is liberal to the core, whereas street harassment and beauty pageants are better explained by radical philosophy. These are qualitatively different problems from like things like the wage gap—though all are clearly symptoms of the illness of sexism. But while you can pass laws prohibiting workplace discrimination, there’s no way to legislate the individual biases of officials who choose not to allocate resources to rape investigations. You can’t outlaw the contempt for women that causes men to catcall or humiliate them in the street. Those corrosive cultural norms were exactly what radicals had in their sights, but progress in the areas of personal feelings and private choices is hard to influence and harder still to quantify.

So Rosin, and American feminism generally, sticks to readily observable facts, happily enumerating the accomplishments of our liberal revolution: degrees attained, jobs acquired, dollars earned. The problem is that feminists like Rosin, and the feminists who think Rosin’s full of it, keep comparing liberal apples to radical oranges, and are confusing everyone in the process.

Coming up in Part 2: Beyoncé! Radical politics! Cranky pregnant ladies!

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