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Radical feminism: what it is and why we're afraid of it

 

Alongside the obvious questions of freedom of information and criminal justice, the Julian Assange affair has also made visible a multitude of contemporary anxieties concerning sex and gender. This was brought into sharp relief by claims that Assange’s prospects of a fair trial might be compromised by the possibility that Sweden’s chief prosecutor Marianne Ny is a “malicious radical feminist" with a "bias against men".

But what exactly is radical feminism? If popular attitudes to feminism are anything to go by, it’s clearly something pretty terrifying.

Research suggests that, in the popular imagination, the feminist – and the radical feminist in particular – is seen as full of irrational vitriol towards all men, probably a lesbian and certainly not likely to be found browsing in Claire’s Accessories. As an academic working on issues concerning gender and politics, I’ve had the good fortune of meeting lots of inspiring feminist women – and men – but despite searching I’ve yet to locate a feminist matching that particular description. Perhaps I haven’t looked hard enough. A more likely possibility is that the popular insistence that radical feminists – and often by implication feminists in general – are all man-haters reflects wider misunderstandings about the history of feminism and its impact on contemporary gender relations.

So what is radical feminism? Historically, radical feminism was a specific strand of the feminist movement that emerged in Europe and North America in the late 1960s. Distinctive to this strand was its emphasis on the role of male violence against women in the creation and maintenance of gender inequality (as argued by the likes of Susan Brownmiller,Andrea Dworkin and Catherine MacKinnon). And while a minority of radical feminists – most infamously Valerie Solanas – were hostile to men, radical feminism was much more instrumental in generating widespread support for campaigns around issues such as rape, domestic violence and sexual harassment.

However, in Britain at least, radical feminism has never been particularly dominant, partly because – in the eyes of many socialist and postcolonial feminists – it has been insufficiently attentive to the intersections between gender inequality and other categories, such as race and class. So Rod Liddle’s peddling of the tiresome rightwing idea that radical feminism has destroyed the family, along with Dominic Raab’s assault on “feminist bigotry" and the Vatican’s efforts to address “distortions” caused by radical feminism, rest on at least two implausible assumptions. First, they reduce feminism to a horrifying caricature that never really existed and second, they make the frankly bizarre suggestion that radical feminism is the dominant ideology of our times. It would seem that not only do these radical feminists commit the outrage of not wearing makeup, but they use the time this frees up to consolidate their world domination. Or an alternative explanation might be that these are the paranoid anxieties of fearful anti-feminists.

Their fear is not totally misplaced, for radical feminism has undoubtedly had some success. Fortunately for Dominic Raab, world domination is not one of them. Three decades ago, the notion that rape and domestic violence are pressing political issues rather than trivialities, or that men should play an active role in childcare, would have been seen by many as radical and dangerous. Today, thanks to the influence of the insights of diverse strands of feminism (including, but not limited to, radical feminism), these ideas have seeped into the mainstream. Despite this, genuine gender equality can seem distant, but many groups and individuals continue to push in the right direction.

Although the rights and wrongs of the Assange affair are at this stage far from clear, whenever accusations of “man-hating feminism” enter into a debate, our suspicions should be immediately aroused. For more often than not, the temptation to close down debate by tossing around accusations of man-hating radical feminism is caused not by a fear of debate, but by the deeper fear that feminism might actually have something important to say.