Radical Feminism for the 21st Century and Beyond (Introduction)
This is the Introduction to Elizabeth Miller's anthology of current radical feminist theory, Spinning and Weaving: Radical Feminism for the 21st Century, which was published by Tidal Time Press in spring 2021.
Why publish a collection of writings on contemporary radical feminist theory? Because women are under attack. Women are always under attack. The status of women since patriarchy began is attack by misogynist forces, mostly male, but also by female handmaidens of the patriarchy who center men and help them oppress women. Women as a class and all over the world have been oppressed by men as a class since men invented the patriarchal system: by slavery, forced marriage, forced breeding, compulsory heterosexuality, witch burning, female infanticide, foot binding, female genital mutilation, rape, murder, and the threat of those things to keep us in line.
Men as the ruling class have treated us as their property and their resources, and have terrorized us into not objecting to any of it. Then there are the things they have taken from us, or prevented us from having: the right to own property, the right to vote, access to education, access to training for professions and well-paid work under good conditions, the legal right to work for money in work we choose, the right to serve in government and to participate in governing ourselves, in making the laws that govern us. Even basic literacy. Even our own bodily autonomy. All of these things men have kept from us.
These days, radical feminists are perhaps most immediately worried about our oppression by the transgender movement. Transgender activists are engaged in a society-wide campaign to define women out of existence, to take away the few legal rights we have managed to wrest for ourselves by denying that women exist at all, except as an idea in men’s heads that men can appropriate for themselves. While the trans juggernaut is truly terrifying, it is only the newest flavor of male oppression of women.
Because men never tire of finding new ways to control, own, and torture women, radical feminism is necessary. Radical feminist political theory as a blueprint for helping women achieve our liberation from patriarchy is necessary. It has always been necessary, but only in the last two or three hundred years (when women finally wrested the right to literacy and education from men’s denying hands) have women had the means, tools, and opportunity to develop and to put in writing a formal political theory naming men’s oppression of us. We are naming our right to be liberated from that oppression, and beginning to write a plan for a path forward. We are naming the methods by which we will liberate ourselves, the worldwide class of the female sex, from that oppression.
Radical feminism is the political theory recognizing that males for the past several thousand years have forcibly structured society in a power hierarchy imposed by violence and the threat of violence. This hierarchy of dominance keeps males in power over females on the basis of our membership in the biological sex class of females.
Radical feminism is root feminism – “radical” is from the Latin rādix (“root”) – meaning that radical feminism recognizes that the root of women’s oppression is our sex and men’s construction of the patriarchal system to control and exploit us based on our sex. Radical feminism names the patriarchal system as the root of women’s oppression. Radical feminism identifies women’s liberation as what is needed to free ourselves from that patriarchal system.
Radical feminism has its roots in the political theory originated by Mary Wollstonecraft in the 18th century and developed in the 19th century by the female slavery abolitionists and suffragists. These abolitionists and suffragists fought for women’s rights to vote, own property, refuse marriage, and access education and paid work outside the home. In the first half of the 20th Century, world wars and the Great Depression pushed women’s fight for our rights to the back burner. The perceived need to repopulate Europe after the world wars pressured women to devote their lives to marriage and childrearing. In the United States, Europe, and much of the Western world, there was a Second Wave of radical feminism in the 1960s through the 1980s. This Second Wave was followed by another backlash of political conservatism and the reemergence of men’s sexual rights movements that again pushed women’s fight for our rights to the back burner.
So-called liberal feminism, or equality feminism, which focuses on getting equal rights to economic and political resources for women, while leaving the patriarchal structure intact, has been on the ascendancy since the 1980s. This “equality feminism” is not really feminism at all. Equality feminism is a mere sop to women, offering us perceived equality in name only while seemingly conceding that it is fine for women to be only a token numerical minority in positions of political and economic power.
This feminism says that it’s fine for the “sexual revolution” to consist solely of women being “freer” to have heterosexual sex on men’s demand and to abort unwanted fetuses that result. Instead of patriarchy dressed in liberal feminist clothing, radical feminism seeks a sexual revolution where women have unquestioned control over our own bodies in all circumstances, and where it is not assumed that we will marry men, have their children, take on most of the responsibility of raising those children, and keep house for the man who fathers them. But society tells women that liberal feminism is the most we can hope for. And liberal feminism in turn redirects our attention to appreciating our “right” to have sex with all men who want to access us for sex, whether in dating, marriage, or “sex work.” We are told to find this focus liberating. We are redirected into forgetting about dismantling the rotten societal structures that limit our choices to those which men find it convenient for us to have.
All of this shows us that radical feminist activism and radical feminist theory are as needed as ever to enable our work for liberation. New radical feminist theory must continue to develop in response to changes in societal conditions and changes in the guises (e.g. transgenderism, the rebranding of sex trafficking as “empowering sex work,” etc.) in which men oppress women. The camouflage in which men put our oppression changes (and sometimes men wear those disguises themselves, when they put on lipstick and call themselves “she”). But their underlying goals of controlling us and appropriating our bodies, reproductive capacity, labor, and experiences as resources for themselves stay the same from generation to generation. Because men find new ways to disguise the means of their oppressing us in different eras, radical feminists need to stay nimble. We need to write radical feminist theory that recognizes, names, and calls out that oppression, and that exhorts women to liberate themselves from patriarchy. We can give ourselves the vision and the words we need as tools to liberate ourselves.
Hence, this book.
As a radical feminist who is actively engaged with other radical feminists in real life but also online, I noticed some things: There has not been a broad-ranging anthology of radical feminist essays published in many years, and not because there is no radical feminist political theory being developed. To the contrary, every day I see women writing radical feminist brilliance online, in blogs, in articles on websites, in social media posts and social media comments on other people’s posts. Too much of this brilliance has been evanescent. Social media posts and comments in particular scroll away into obscurity within a day or a few days, simply because of the ever-renewing nature of social media. Even blog posts and website articles soon become buried when new material is written. I wanted the voices of the women I was reading and admiring to be raised up, to be amplified to more listeners, to be held so that it could last over time.
I decided to reach out to these women whose posts and articles inspired me, and ask them to share some of their radical feminist theory in a book, this book. I reached out to over 100 radical feminist women whom I know online or in real life, and some whom I don’t know, but whose work I’ve admired.
I reached out to radical feminist Black women and women of color, women in Europe, the Middle East, India, Pakistan, South Korea, Central and South America, Australia, New Zealand, the U.S., and Canada - those who write in English, and whose work I’m aware of. Not everyone answered me, and some of those who answered and intended to contribute to the book became too busy to do so – and these contributions were also being written during the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic! I know that there is vast radical feminist work being done all over the world, and I wish I had better ways to learn of the work of women in Africa, Asia, Central and South America.
English-speaking social media has not been a very likely place to connect with these sisters, and I would be lost in non-English speaking social media. So this collection reflects a smaller swathe of the radical feminist thought currently being developed in the world. This is another project for radical feminists – we have to find ways to share our work with each other across language barriers. For example, South Korean feminists recently hosted Sheila Jeffreys at a conference on her work, and are translating some of her books into Korean.
The Women’s Human Rights Campaign (founded in the U.K.) hosts a live Feminist Question Time webinar every week, platforming feminists from around the world. But there is so much more to be done to bring us together. How about a billionaire radical feminist to build us a United Nations-like radical feminist building where we can meet and have headphones with simultaneous translation in our ears as we speak to each other? J.K. Rowling, can you help us out? All of this to say that I wish the book reflected more voices of Black women, women of color, and women from more countries. I do feel good about the efforts I made as one woman bringing this book together.
Conservatives say that no progress for women is necessary. Liberal feminists believe that progress for women is linear; that women have the vote, the right to own property, and the right to enter professions – and that therefore we have triumphed over patriarchy. Alternatively, liberal feminists believe that there no longer is a need to fight for women’s liberation -- that prostitution, pornography, and being choked by men IS women’s liberation. Liberal feminists will say that these things are “empowering” because men tell us they empower us, and liberal feminists believe them. Radical feminists are realists: we understand that the fight for women’s liberation from patriarchy is cyclical, not linear. Every time we make progress women become complacent and men stop paying attention, and we have to win the fights all over again.
The threats to our autonomy and liberation come from both the Right and the Left. Trump appointed three conservative religious zealots to the Supreme Court and now the right to abortion is in more danger than it has been in decades. We won the right to same-sex marriage and the trans movement rode in on the LGB movement’s coattails. Transgender activists and allies spent the past 10 years telling women that men can be women, and that men who say they are women should get to be housed in women’s prisons and play on women’s sports teams and undress in women’s locker rooms and get elected to the New York legislature in a position set aside for women.
The sexual liberation movement in the 1960s turned out mostly to “liberate” women to be ever more available as a resource for men. Prostitution is called liberation. Allowing gay men to use our bodies as surrogates to gestate babies for them is called liberation. Having pornography made of us is called liberation, including the pressure to perform the sexual acts common in violent pornography. Being pressured to shave our vulvas and cover ourselves in makeup and wear “slutty” clothes and have plastic surgery to appeal to men’s fetishes is called liberation. Everything that men want to take from us is rebranded as “liberatory” for women and sold back to us as something we are supposed to want.
And yet, despite -- or perhaps because of -- the intensification of the hellscape that men build for women every day, the 21st Century, and particularly the past 10 years, has seen a renaissance of radical feminism around the world. Women are forming new radical feminist and gender critical and lesbian feminist organizations, like Feminists in Struggle in the U.S., and the Women’s Human Rights Commission, Get the L Out, and the LGB Alliance around the world. Women are founding websites and podcasts and radio shows, and radical feminist journals and zines, and organizing radical feminist conferences and publishing books like this one. Women are meeting in radical feminist consciousness-raising groups and feminist salons across America. Polish women by the hundreds of thousands are protesting on the street for a month at a time to demand their reproductive rights.
After mass street protests by millions of Argentinian women, a bill legalizing abortion was enacted by the Argentina’s Congress in December 2020, making Argentina the largest country in Latin America to legalize abortion. Mexican women seized Mexico City’s National Human Rights Commission building to protest femicide in Mexico. Women in South Korea have launched the Reject the Corset movement, in which they stop purchasing cosmetics, plastic surgery, and uncomfortable “feminine” clothing, cut their hair short, and in some cases, boycott romance, marriage, sex, and childbearing with men. Women around the world crusade for the abolition of Female Genital Mutilation.
Thousands of women in Iran have defied Iran’s compulsory hijab laws, removing their hijab in public and in many cases posting videos of themselves doing so, even though hundreds of women have been arrested and imprisoned for breaking the modesty law. Young women in Sudan led a public protest movement against the 30-year-long dictatorship of Omar Hassan Ahmad al-Bashir. In India, female college students created the "Pinjra Tod" (break the cage) campaign at college campuses nationwide, to protest curfews for women students living in college hostels or dorms. Hundreds of thousands of women in Pakistan organized Aurat Marches (women’s marches), demanding a society without exploitative patriarchal structures, the right of women to make decisions about their own bodies, and ending harassment, forced religious conversions and the sexist portrayal of women in the media, among other things.
Bangladeshi police launched an all-female unit to tackle a rise in online abuse and harassment targeting women. Grassroots women’s organizations across Nigeria, Uganda, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Lesotho, and Sudan are organizing around feminist issues including reproductive health, food security, and education. Women in Belarus are the driving force of a movement aimed at toppling President Aleksandr. G Lukashenko, a leader known as “Europe’s last dictator.” There are countless more examples of our sisters’ fierce commitment to making the world better for women and girls.
This book was inspired by Mary Daly’s metaphors of radical feminists spinning and weaving creation, and by interactions with my worldwide community of radical feminist sisters both in real life and in online communities, as we co-spin and co-weave our work of women’s liberation.
A woman whose occupation is to spin participates in the whirling movement of creation. She who has chosen her Self, who defines her Self, by choice, neither in relation to children nor to men, who is Self-identified, is a Spinster, a whirling dervish, spinning in a new time/space ....
Daly also gifted us the imagery of women weaving a feminist world:
Sparking means building the fires of gynergetic communication and confidence. As a result, each Sparking Hag not only begins to live in a lighted and warm room of her own; she prepares a place for a loom of her own. In this space she can begin to weave the tapestries of her own creation. With her increasing fire and force, she can begin to Spin. As she and her sisters Spin together, we create The Network of our time/space.
The force of Spinsters’ Spinning is the power of spirit spiraling, whirling. As we break into The Third Passage we whirl into our own world. Gyn/Ecology is weaving the way past the dead past and the dry places, weaving our world tapestry out of genesis and demise.
--Mary Daly, Gyn/Ecology: The Metaethics of Radical Feminism.
As Mary Daly visioned, may fierce radical feminists the world over continue to arise, to fight, to take to the streets, to take back our freedom and our power, to say “No!” to the patriarchal forces that assail us. May we continue to spin and weave ourselves into a liberatory future! Solidarity, my sisters!
Spinning and Weaving: Radical Feminism for the 21st Century, seeks to amplify the voices of women around the world writing or creating from a radical feminist perspective, including scholars, journalists, political activists and organizers, bloggers, writers, poets, artists, and independent thinkers. The anthology especially seeks to amplify the voices of Women of Color, who are most likely to be silenced, marginalized, or ignored, and their experience denied or minimized. Relevant to contemporary radical feminism, the collection explores themes around the intersection of sex, race, and other axes of oppression; violence against women and girls; sex trafficking and the sex industry; pornography; sexuality; lesbian feminism; the environment; political activism; feminist organizing; women-only spaces and events; liberal versus radical feminism; transgenderism; and many other topics of interest and import to radical feminist theory and practice.
Spinning and Weaving’s Contributing Editor, Elizabeth Miller, is a Chicago feminist activist who runs the Chicago Feminist Salon and co-organized the Women in Media Conference, a radical feminist conference held in Chicago in 2018. In recent years, she worked on the successful campaigns to get the U.S. Equal Rights Amendment ratified in Illinois and to enact Illinois House Bill 40, which ensured that abortion will remain legal in Illinois even if the U.S. Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade. Among other projects, she is currently working with the U.S. radical feminist organization Feminists in Struggle to lobby Congress to pass legislation protecting women’s sex-based rights and the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and gender non-conforming people, organizing two other radical feminist conferences in the United States, and running several large radical feminist social media pages and groups.
The book can be ordered from UK independent bookstores News from Nowhere, @NewsFromNowhere, and Irish Feminist Bookshop, @IrishFemBooks. For a full list of where you can purchase the book, visit the available platforms. You can learn more about Tidal Time Publishing and the US women’s rights organisation Feminist in Struggle on their website. Follow Elizabeth Miller’s feminist activities on social media at @Rad_Feminista.