I was, until recently, blissfully unaware of the existence of radical feminists. Having stumbled across the sex work debate I discovered that for those campaigning for sex workers’ rights radfems are Public Enemy Number One. They, I guess, wouldn’t see it that way. They are campaigning for women’s’ liberation from the patriarchy, from male oppression and prostitution is for them one of the most visible manifestations of the subjection of woman to man. Anyway I am not here to write about sex work again but rather consider what I have seen of radical feminism. To be honest I don’t like it very much.
They are having a conference in June Radfem2013 with a range of star speakers, none of whom I had ever heard of, with the exception of Julie Bindel. I had a look at the website the other day. It is heavy stuff. Apparently the radfems want to abolish gender which, they claim, is a male device to oppress women. Here the doubts began to surface in my mind. Radfem 2012 was cancelled after complaints to the venue about anti-trans woman discrimination. The website for 2013 makes no specific mention of trans women being excluded but it is clear from what has been said in various public forums that Radfem 2013 would rather only ‘real’ women participated, in other words, those who were born with two X chromosomes and the reproductive organs that go with it. This is odd since, having implied that gender is a social construct they fall back on a narrow biological definition of what it is to be a woman. Instead of seeing trans women, that is women who have the dreaded Y chromosome but think, feel and live as women as breaking open the binary gender opposition, they reject them, often in vitriolic terms. The radfems reject gender but the binary opposition of male and female is at the heart of their self definition. As they reject gender they smuggle it back in to divide and exclude. I cannot think this is either radical or feminist.
And what of gender as a social construct? If gender is indeed a thing imposed by men on women to ensure their subjection, we need to ask the question how this could, historically, have happened, through whose agency? After all neither men nor women are an undifferentiated mass who all think and act the same way. They are divided by class, socio-economic status, culture, religious belief and so on. Gender, in my view, cannot be considered in isolation from the wider structures of class and power. This implies that the struggle for women’s liberation cannot be separated from wider struggles for rights and justice. Gender can oppress men too as gay men, transgender men, submissive men have all found. Liberation for women is not the antithesis of liberation for men. They are two sides of the same coin
Radfem 2013 has a programme that makes no mention of the most important issues for many women, such as child care, employment rights, benefits, or the workings of a criminal justice system that locks up fewer and fewer rapists whilst continuing to put vulnerable women behind bars for offences that would earn men a slap on the wrist. No need to worry though because the radfems are going to ’critique’ (sic) queer theory. To test how relevant this is to women’s concerns I conducted a straw poll of twenty women I know aged between 23 and 77. The women were a mixture of single, married with children, married with grown up children, with one widow. Fourteen of the twenty were graduates. Only three had ever heard of queer theory and only one could say what it was. She was the 23 year old who happened to have covered it in her university course two years ago.
All in all many of the discussions at Radfem2013 seem so far removed from the problems and concerns of contemporary women that they might as well hold the conference on Mars. I personally find a load of middle class women parading their feminist consciences in pseudo-intellectual debate whilst doing nothing that could ever improve the lot of women in the real world, many of whom have not enjoyed the material advantages they have, dreadfully self-indulgent.
It all seems rather humourless too. If you went you would be treading on eggshells in case you breached the conference guidelines. Here’s what they say on the website:
‘Anti-female, racist, classist, disabilist and lesbophobic language will not be tolerated at the conference. Anyone found to be attending in order to be disruptive or to promote an alternative agenda will be asked to leave the conference. The organisers reserve the right to ask participants to leave at any time if they are not acting appropriately, in line with this agreement.’
Note the second point. If you dare to disagree with the line handed down from the platform you’ll be kicked out, assuming you haven’t first let slip an inadvertent classist comment, or blurted out that you like wearing heels or enjoy baking cakes or, horror of horrors, that you like giving your partner a blow job. It promises to be a laugh a minute.