The most common criticism of radical feminist theory is that we are gender essentialist because we believe that women’s oppression, as a class, is because of the biological realities of our bodies. Radical feminists define sex as the physical body, whilst gender is a social construct. It is not a function of our biology. It is the consequence of being labelled male/female at birth and assigned to the oppressor/sex class. The minute genetic differences are not reflected in the reality of women’s lived experiences. Gender is the coercive process of socialisation built upon a material reality that constructs women as a subordinate class to men. As such, radical feminists do not want to queer gender or create a spectrum of gendered identities; we want to end the hierarchical power structure that privileges men as a class at the expense of women’s health and safety.
This assumption is based on a misunderstanding of radical feminist theory, that starts from the definition of “radical” itself, which refers to the root or the origin: that is to say, the oppression of women by men (The Patriarchy). It is radical insofar as it contextualises the root of women’s oppression in the biological realities of our bodies (sex) and seeks the liberation of women through the eradication of social structures, cultural practises and laws that are predicated on women’s inferiority to men (gender).
Radical feminism challenges all relationships of power that exist within the Patriarchy including capitalism, imperialism, racism, classism, homophobia and even the fashion-beauty complex because they are harmful to everyone: female, male, intersex and trans*. As with all social justice movements, radical feminism is far from perfect. No movement can exist within a White Supremacist culture without (re)creating racist, homophobic, disablist, colonialist and classist power structures. What makes radical feminism different is its focus on women as a class.
Radical feminists do not believe there are any innate gender differences, or in the existence of male/female brains. Women are not naturally more nurturing than men and men are not better at maths and reading maps. Men are only “men” insofar as male humans are socialised into specific characteristics that we label male, such as intelligence, aggression, and violence and woman are “woman” because we are socialised into believing that we are more nurturing, empathetic, and caring than men.
Women’s oppression as a class is built on two interconnected constructs: reproductive capability and sexual capability. In the words of Gerda Lerner in The Creation of Patriarchy, the commodification of women’s sexual and reproductive capacities is the foundation of the creation of private property and a class-based society. Without the commodification of women’s labour there would be no unequal hierarchy of power between men and women, fundamental to the creation and continuation of the Capitalist-Patriarchy, and, therefore, no need for gender as a social construct.
Radical feminism recognises the multiple oppressions of individual women, whilst recognising the oppression of women as a class in the Marxist sense of the term. Rape does not require every woman to be raped to function as a punishment and a deterrent from speaking out. The threat therein is enough. Equally, the infertility of an individual woman does not negate the fact that her oppression is based on the assumed potential (and desire) for pregnancy, which is best seen in discussions of women’s employment and men’s refusal to hire women during “child-bearing” years due to the potential for pregnancy, which is used as a way of controlling women’s labour: keeping women in low-paying jobs and maintaining the glass ceiling. Constructing women as “nurturers” maintains the systemic oppression of women and retains wealth and power within men as a class.
Even something as basic as a company dress code is gendered to mark women as other. Women working in the service industry are frequently required to wear clothing and high heels that accentuate external markers of sex. Sexual harassment is endemic, particularly in the workplace, yet women are punished if they do not attend work in clothing that is considered “acceptable” for the male gaze. The use of women’s bodies to sell products further institutionalises the construction of women as object.
There is a shared girlhood in a culture that privileges boys, coercively constructs women’s sexuality and punishes girls who try to live outside gendered norms. The research of Dale Spender, and even Margaret Atwood, dating back to the 1980s has made it very clear that young girls are socialised to be quiet, meek and unconfident. Boys, on the other hand, are socialised to believe that everything they say and do is important: by parents and teachers, by a culture which believes that no young boy would ever want to watch a film or read a book about girls or written by a woman. Shared girlhood is differentiated by race, class, faith and sexuality, but, fundamentally, all girls are raised in a culture which actively harms them.
Radical feminists are accused of gender essentialism because we recognise the oppressive structures of our world and seek to dismantle them. We acknowledge the sex of the vast majority of perpetrators of violence. We do so by creating women-only spaces so that women can share stories in the knowledge that other women will listen. This is in direct contrast to every other public and private space that women and young girls live in. Sometimes these spaces are trans-inclusive, like A Room of our Own the blogging network I created for feminists and womanists. Sometimes these spaces will need to be for women who are FAAB only or trans* women only, just as it is absolutely necessary to have black-women only spaces and lesbian women-only spaces.
There is a need for all of these spaces because socialisation is a very powerful tool. Being raised male in a patriarchal white supremacist culture is very different to being raised female with the accompanying sexual harassment, trauma and oppression. The exclusion of trans* women from some spaces is to support traumatised women who can be triggered by being in the same space as someone who was socialised male growing up. This does not mean that an individual trans* woman is a danger, but rather a recognition that gendered violence exists and that trauma is complicated.
It is our direct challenge to hegemonic masculinity and control of the world’s resources (including human) that makes radical feminism a target of accusations like gender essentialism. We recognise the importance in biological sex because of the way girls and boys are socialised to believe that boys are better than girls. As long as we live in a capitalist-patriarchy where boys are socialised to believe that aggression and anger are acceptable behaviour, women and girls will need the right to access women-only spaces however they define them.
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