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.


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.



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?

The past, the future.

Googling myself is not something I enjoy doing. This is not because I hate the things I, personally, have written on the internet. Quite the opposite, I generally agree with myself. Haha. Which is not to say that I’ve never changed my mind about something–oh, I have!– but I’m very secure in my political positions. I’ve done a lot of thinking and researching and debating; I know why I believe what I do. I’m happy to support my positions when challenged. The reason I do not enjoy googling myself is because of what other people say about me. It’s very frustrating to read misrepresentations about me and/or my writing, knowing that I have no recourse. I simply have no control over what other people say about me. It’s an occupational hazard of sharing your ideas with the internet.

So, the top google hit on “Bess Hungerford” is a review of a blog post I wrote over a year and half ago, just before I closed my now-private blog called Undercover Punk and started this one. It’s kind of a funny read because the hyperbole is so thick and the critic clearly misunderstands what he’s read.

Here is a complete re-post of the post in question for your edification. The post foreshadowed this blog–especially the title, Revolutionary Combustion– so this is an equally appropriate venue for its publication. I will probably expand on these ideas in the future, but let me clearly summarize: violent elimination of *anything*–institution, individual, or class of people– is not a viable solution to patriarchy. If that’s what it takes to be “radical” or to be a “radical feminist,” then I am neither.


Radical feminism and the future

JANUARY 24, 2012

It is common to say that something is good in theory but not in practice. I always want to say, then it is not such a good theory, is it?

Catharine A. MacKinnon

I have reservations about framing “revolution” as the natural or inevitable conclusion of radical feminist theorizing. It seems generally accepted that “revolution” will cause the total destruction of all existing social institutions because revolution is only means of eliminating the “root” of female oppression. Thoughts which support revolution are therefore “radical;” everything short of that is not-radical. Not-radical thinking has no place in “radical” feminism. I’ve been turning these assumptions over and over in my mind. The belief that female liberation through “revolution” is even possible leaves many unanswered questions for me.

For example, how do feminists propose that we destroy all social institutions? With physical force? I think violence is counter-productive to feminism, but let’s pretend that women can use violence as a means to a greater end without harming ourselves in the process. I will suspend disbelief and take as given that women have also been successful in destroying all the buildings and physical infrastructure men have ever built; that we have effectively destroyed all the historical records and organizational documents of patriarchy (and that no one is secretly harboring any of them).

This is not yet a clean slate.

Patriarchal institutions are largely ideological. You can’t physically destroy ideas. Ideas exist in human minds. Many of them stubbornly persist despite our attempts to forget them. Gendered expectations of appropriate behavior, just for example(!), are deeply embedded in our collective consciousness. No matter how we struggle to deprogram ourselves, we have each internalized the mind warping effects of gendered social conditioning. So, how would women eliminate these residual subconscious biases? This is my primary reservation about revolution as liberation: human minds cannot be wiped clean of patriarchal ideas. Freeing women from the tangible constraints of patriarchal institutions is a noble cause, but revolutionary results will require us to transform ideology as well.

Further, is “revolution” merely an end? And then what? It’s not a suicide mission, is it? What would a post-patriarchal world look like? Now, I have some really sweet ideas. But so does everyone else. We may find ourselves in serious conflict about how to proceed. In fact, I think we should plan on having some disagreements. How would women prevent patriarchal values and hierarchies from re-establishing themselves in this dreamy post-revolutionary feminist utopia? How would we solve problems and distribute resources? I simply don’t have faith in human (read: female) “nature” to magically work-it-out. This will be especially problematic if we acknowledge that post-revolutionary minds will not be clean slates. We should prepare ourselves to preempt foreseeable challenges. I want a better plan and a clearer vision. How will the post-revolutionary future be better than the patriarchal past?

Feminist reliance on an inevitable, yet indeterminate, notion of “revolution” is not, from my perspective, effectively contributing to the alleviation of women’s collective oppression in the here and now. I don’t think this mythical “revolution,” as currently conceived of, is a viable end goal for our thoughts about how to liberate ourselves or how to improve women’s lives as a class. It’s an underdeveloped pipe dream that gives us permission to avoid the incomplete and unsatisfying– but urgently necessary– work of institutional reform/attack. We are wasting time. We can do better.

If this disqualifies me from be-ing a “radical feminist,” so be it. I must think more practically about the purpose of my engagement with radical feminist theorizing.