Radical feminism or not, 5 years later

It’s been almost five years since I opened my first blog, Undercover Punk, in February of 2009. I have always written about feminism, but in the beginning, I didn’t even know that “radical feminism” was a thing. I just knew that my feminism was more “radical” than, like, everyone else’s. I was stumbling along, throwing half-baked rants at the wall, trying to make sense of men’s destructive behavior and the gender backlash. The process of sharing your thoughts with the world is not an easy one, even if done anonymously. In the past five years, some of my most deeply held beliefs have been shaken to the core, some ideas discarded, others adopted. I’ve made both friends and enemies…and maybe even a few frenemies. No joke. I have been applauded and maligned. I’ve been written about by other people; you can google me– the good, the bad, and the ugly. It’s been a wild ride and then some, that’s for sure.

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The subtitle to Undercover Punk was “Got AGENCY? Create. New. Values.” Sounds like a motto for #chooseychoice feminism, right? That sentiment no longer holds any feminist meaning for me. Not in terms of politics anyway. I think it’s all very nice and important for people to use their agency to express their values whenever possible. The proverbial Golden Rule is one of my favorites. But I cringe reading my old posts because I no longer think personal choices are politically interesting or relevant. Focusing on the “choices” women make necessarily undermines power analysis; power analysis that is fundamental to all class-based political theory including feminism.^1

I started writing criticism of political lesbianism on this blog a couple of years ago after I heard rumblings of the idea’s resurgence. I have been studying feminism for years, so it wasn’t my first exposure to the theory. In fact, when I initially encountered “lesbian feminism,”^2 it didn’t seem like such a bad idea. I even embraced it for a while and argued that rejection of males in one’s intimate life was a liberatory act. But this is a lifestyle-based argument, not a political one. No one can escape their own oppression, or effectively challenge the oppression of others, merely by making “better choices.” I know that now.^3

I don’t think “Leaning In” to corporate America (nor to a certain kind of sexuality: political lesbianism) is going to revolutionize the social status of women any more than Barack Obama’s presidency has revolutionized the social status of black people in America. We need a lot more than a few successful tokens demonstrating their sweet agency. We need strong structural analysis that will help us understand, articulate, and ultimately deconstruct the complexities of women’s oppression.

People ask me all the time if I’m a “radical feminist.” Maybe I am, maybe I’m not. I don’t know, if I ever did, what being a “radical feminist” requires. I am both pigeon-holed as a “radical feminist” by people who disagree with my gender criticism, and denied the same political identity by women who find my ideas too accommodating to males. I can be and not be a “radical feminist” on the same day to different people. Talk about making your head spin! Fortunately, being a “radical feminist” is not something I care about fighting over. Suit yourself, really.

When people ask me whether I’m a “radical feminist,” I am certain that don’t want to be associated with the term as a kind of (internet?) political I-dentity warfare. Because I am also certain that being a “radical feminist” does not require ignoring or denying the diversity of thought expressed by the foremothers of the “radical feminist” tradition. An increasing reliance on a “radical feminist” identity results in oversimplifying the ideology we claim to represent, but worse, it buries conflicts and silences criticism. The gist is that you can only be a Real Radical Feminist if you agree with the specific ideas currently in vogue. For example, male essentialism is very popular among women identifying as “radical feminists” on the internet. That’s fine, but it is intellectually dishonest to present this as The One True Radical Feminist Way. Andrea Dworkin wrote a scathing critique of biological superiority in feminist thought.^4 If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend taking the time to do so. Even her preamble is interesting. But presenting certain conclusions as foregone– such as the biological inevitability of male dominance, or that all heterosexual sex is rape– when these ideas were not universally accepted in the first place is historical revisionism. And nobody likes that except The Man.

In addition to being comforting, I think many people find political identities such as “radical feminist” so useful because they are discussion shortcuts and thought stoppers. If you are on the defense, you can hide behind the political identity, throwing it down as an explanation for your views: “I think xyz because I’m a radical feminist!” No more questions!^5 On the other hand, the careful introduction of a political identity question can force a conversational redirection while participants confirm, deny, or debate the political identity; effectively derailing the issue under examination. Another thought-stopper tactic is to leverage your opponent’s political identity to demand an explanation for an unrelated person’s behavior or statements. Now, instead of debating the issue, something entirely new is put on the table– just because the two parties share a political identity. Using political identities as discussion shortcuts may be convenient, but it is also counter productive to intellectual development and political understanding.

I sincerely do not care if other people consider me a “radical feminist”… as long as they don’t try to make me responsible for all “radical feminist” I-dentified people everywhere. Five years after I typed up my first post as anonymous blogger, I write almost exclusively about power analysis of gender and breaking down the double-speak of identity politics. What I write today wouldn’t make any sense in a different era– cis wasn’t a term used to explain gendered oppression and “gender identity” wasn’t a legally protected characteristic. Is my writing in the tradition of “radical feminism?” It doesn’t matter. It just needs to be done.

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https://revolutionarycombustion.wordpress.com/feminism-is/

2 The possibility of “lesbian feminism” and “political lesbianism” being different trains has occurred to me, but I don’t think that distinction matters here.

3 Socialization Matters: Why Identity Libertarianism is Failed Politics http://liberationcollective.wordpress.com/2013/05/20/socialization-matters-why-identity-libertarianism-is-failed-politics/

4 Biological Superiority: The World’s Most Dangerous and Deadly Idea http://www.nostatusquo.com/ACLU/dworkin/WarZoneChaptIIID.html

5 Wait. Wait a minute! Are you, like, a “Mary Daly” radical feminist? Or are you more of a “Catharine MacKinnon” radical feminist? Or maybe a “Sheila Jeffreys” radfem? Can you please clarify?

Women are not like men.

Women are not like men. Even when women do terrible things, they don’t do them like men do them. Because women can’t. It isn’t possible. Women’s behavior may remind us of men’s behavior, but it is never the same as men’s behavior. Because we live under a system of pervasive institutionalized male supremacy.

To believe that certain women are just as bad as men is to have misunderstood the entire basis of feminism as a form of class-based political analysis and critique. Feminism is concerned with how females, as a class, are oppressed by males, as a class, on the basis of sex. From a feminist perspective, then, the power dynamics between males and females are qualitatively, significantly different than the power dynamics between females. Between females, the cross-sex hierarchy of sexualized politics simply does not exist. Yet between males and females, the politics of sex is always present. It is present regardless of financial status, race, culture, and/or sexuality. So even when women mimic the behavior of men under patriarchy, women are not like men and cannot achieve the same results.

What I’m arguing here, by analogy, is a fairly straightforward application of the fallacy of reverse racism principle: just as it isn’t possible for people of color to oppress white people (or their fellow people of color) in the way that white people can oppress people of color; it is not possible for women to oppress men (or other women) in the way that men oppress women. Women simply do not have the necessary sex-based social capital to do so. Women can not be like men in that way.

“Rape is a conscious process of intimidation by which all men keep all women in a state of fear.”

Susan Brownmiller, Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape, 1975

When a woman rapes, she does not have the power to rape like a man does. She does not have a penis with which to penetrate her victim. She cannot impregnate her victim. She does not wield the sexualized power that the penis represents in terms of male violence and global domination. She does not have the hegemony of male supremacy with which to intimidate her victim and to protect herself. She may have some protection, she may have some power, she may be shielded in other ways– even in ways that reflect her social location as a woman— but she does not have the institutional advantages that simply being male under patriarchy affords male sexual predators (see link).

When a woman uses her position within the family to control or abuse her family members, she does not abuse them like men do. Her power is always predicated on, even continuously dependent upon, her relation to a higher ranking male. Female roles within heterosexual family structures are always, by design, limited by sexual politics. Even in very large families, women’s range of influence is ultimately constrained by the patriarchal mandate on domestic privacy that demands separation between public and private social affairs. This zone of privacy acts as a built-in check on the power that females may exercise. Male authority, by contrast, relies heavily on non-familial social affirmation in the form of public associations with other men. Men routinely grant the benefit of the doubt to other men in the wider community. Men grant each other unearned authority and control over women strictly because of their shared maleness. As a result, men’s roles as the natural guardians and arbiters of all family-based (i.e., heterosexual) relations are both created and reinforced by this continuous feedback loop.

Women can be horribly destructive. Women can destroy other women. Individual women may accumulate certain kinds of social power on the basis of economic class, race, culture, or professional standing. Individual women can even destroy individual men. But women, as individuals, can only do so much damage.

Feminists who want to help women as a class must not become preoccupied with the failings of individual women; we must not spend our time condemning and making examples of women we perceive as handmaidens. When we spend our energy hunting down handmaidens and being self-righteously indignant about the awful behavior of handmaidens, we are distracted from our primary purpose as feminists. Because when all the Bad Women have finally been defanged and their wreckage cleared away, what are we left with? What have we accomplished as feminists? What have we accomplished for women? If institutionalized male supremacy rages on unfazed and we are still swimming upstream against the tide of inherently unequal sexualized politics, I don’t think we have accomplished much more than putting out one of a million tiny forest fires. We have not touched the inferno of patriarchy itself.

Feminism is a form of class-based political analysis. It asks questions about the big picture. It is concerned with how females, as a class, are oppressed by males, as a class. Feminists must stay focused on women as a class in order to help women as a class.

When a woman yells at you on the internet or undermines you in person, it’s not like sexual harassment from your male boss. It’s not like the verbal rage of your abusive father. It may trigger those memories, but it is not the same. She is not like a man. It is not sex-based oppression. If a woman has any power over you at all it is not because she is a woman, but in spite of her status as a woman. Feminists who want to help women as a class know that women can never treat other women like men treat women. Because women don’t have sex-based power over other women.