Recently I’ve been reading interesting discussions about what is and should be the primary focus of radical feminism.
Is it reproductive freedom (which, as I understand it, encompasses freedom from unwanted sexual contact [eg, rape] as well as freedom from unwanted pregnancies)?
Well, certainly that’s a main concern! But how much do other things play a role in women’s oppression? Things like poverty? Homophobia? Transsexual infringement on women’s spaces? Certainly racism isn’t an issue, nobody in radical feminism suffers from that, right (wink, nudge).*
It’s pretty clear that all of these issues affect women. However, women often feel that if all women don’t suffer from a particular oppression, it is not necessarily a radical feminist concern. Not all women are not-white, hence racism should be left to anti-racist groups. Not all women are poor, hence poverty should be left to anti-poverty groups. Otherwise, we are being ‘individualistic’ and taking energy away from women as a whole.
All this approach does, however, is make radical feminism into that thing we claim we are not: a monolith that privileges rich white women to the exclusion of other experiences. Naturally, this isn’t anything new; “rich while white” is considered the default experience for everyone across the globe. (Just look at television, paying particular attention to advertisement-specific media, all of which is catered at what Americans euphemistically call “the middle class” — integrated only grudgingly, and always with some amount of disposable income and desire for upward social/financial mobility.)
Now, of course, women universally share many of the same oppressions. The primary commonality between all women is our vulnerability to rape, and most women share susceptibility to unwanted pregnancies (both from rape and from ‘consentual’ heterosexual intercourse). Unfortunately, even lifelong lesbians can be raped and impregnated, and even women who are infertile can be raped, so none of us have guaranteed safety.
These things are not in question. In fact, many liberal feminists can even figure them out (although they usually take divergent approaches to solving the problems).
But as radical feminists, we should understand that there are more factors at play. We should understand that women are oppressed from multiple angles, including race, class, ability, age, love for other women, and politics. (Even in 2012, political incarceration isn’t just for Occupy protesters, ‘Weathermen’, and people in Guantanamo Bay or outside of the Western world.)
Inventing a nice and tidy academic word, ‘intersectionality’, doesn’t mean the same thing as actually understanding those oppressions, and these oppressions are often a primary factor in a woman’s life. While our unifying oppression is that of vulnerability and often impregnability, white class-privileged women may notice it more because they don’t have to notice other things, like being profiled constantly for superficial reasons and living under the incessant threat of being arrested for absolutely no valid reason.
And as radical feminists, we should also understand that patriarchy is the root of female oppression — and patriarchy isn’t just men and the way men are taught to/permitted to behave, it is also the entangled web of male-created systems. Everything around us is a male-created system. Legislation (the laws we have, the ways they are enforced, and why), education (the things we learn, the way we learn, who is given the opportunity to learn, and why), finances (who makes and spends money, how and why they make and spend money), everything that makes up life as we know it — all are male-created, male-centric, systems. They aren’t just influenced by patriarchy — they are patriarchy.
Life without patriarchy would not just mean “women getting better educations and better jobs, therefore making more money.” Life without patriarchy would likely revolve around a completely different form of exchange, and therefore we would have no money. “Education” and “jobs” would mean completely different things, to which point that we would not recognize them from here. The ways we define “success” and “quality of life” would change drastically. The ways we eat and the things we eat, the ways we live and the places we live, the things we prioritize above other things, the ways we decide to spend our time and our lives and our energies, the ways we look at and think about other human beings (especially other women) — all of these things would change without patriarchy.
We can’t defeat patriarchy by putting more women through college. We can’t defeat patriarchy by hiring more female CEOs. That isn’t radical feminism, that’s reformist feminism.
And we won’t defeat women’s oppression just by giving us reproductive freedom — although that would be a huge burden lifted. Eliminating that unifying oppression might even mean that many women would have absolutely nothing in common. If it happened, how many middle- and upper-class white women would still call themselves feminists? How many would feel that the struggle continued? Would they think the job had been done?
Caring about multiple facets of oppression isn’t individualistic because not all women are nonwhite/poor/etc.; that’s like saying feminist theory (at its broadest) is individualistic because not all humans are female. Haven’t we been arguing against that mindset for a really long time?
Without feminism, we guarantee the continued oppression of all women (and it even affects men, too, although who cares about them). Likewise, without undermining all of patriarchy, we risk continued oppression of most women. (Most women are neither rich nor white.) And if you feel that’s just the problem of the women who will still be oppressed, you may wish to have a serious thinking session about your politics.
Reproductive freedom is a huge issue, but it’s not the only issue, and it’s not the only facet of patriarchy. Radical feminism isn’t The Highlander. We can care about more than one thing at one time without weakening our movement — and in fact, we should care about more than one thing, or we risk losing sight of the reasons we have a movement at all.
* I am employing deep, cynical sarcasm to mock a particular mindset; I obviously understand that racism is a huge problem, and one that has been widely untouched in many political circles. It is not a winking, nudging matter.