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The End of Equality

How the exclusivity of a fifty-year-old movement is negatively shaping the new generation


After reading my writing, friends and family often ask what I'm going to write about next. Happy to oblige, I'll tell them my planned topic and describe what it is—recently I've been talking a lot about radical feminism. I'll explain the concept by saying something like, "To oversimplify, it basically says that men are at fault for everything." When I said this the first few times, I expected responses such as "Well, that's stupid." Instead, many people gave me looks that said, Well, aren't they?

In recent years, feminism—the belief in and practice of advocating for women's rights—has developed a bad name for being idealistic, critical, and stubborn. In stark contrast to the women of the 20th century who wore their feminism with pride, it now feels almost shameful to call oneself a feminist because of the idea that it actually advocates against men instead of in support of women. In reality, the vast majority of feminists don't hate men—but there is a basis for this line of thinking, and that's called radical feminism.

Exactly as it sounds, radical feminism was an extremist branch of the feminist movement that emerged as second-wave feminism in the 60s. Aggressive and blunt, its goal was to bring awareness to the oppressive patriarchal systems that function in society and find ways to rework those systems holistically. It argues that things like marriage, child rearing, and sex are all institutions of the patriarchy, implemented intentionally to keep women in their rightful place in the social hierarchy. 

Since its conception people have argued both for and against the creeds of radical feminism, claiming it is, at best, a necessary evil that's ahead of its time, but an oppressive and exclusive system that's no better than the one it tries to dismantle at worst. Radical feminism is not all bad; it did bring awareness to gender inequalities and make progress alongside traditional feminism within the Women's Liberation Movement. But does that excuse the implications that radical feminism projects, and could those ideas still be harming us today?  

To better understand this, I examined several key documents from the movement. In a piece from 1968 called "Vaginal Orgasm as a Mass Hysterical Survival Response," a radical feminist named Ti-Grace Atkinson repeatedly compares sexism to slavery and labels men the root cause of all evils. "The oppression of women by men is the source of all corrupt values throughout the world," she says. "Men have robbed women of their lives." She continues on to add, "In a free society, you cannot have the family, marriage, sex, or love." She also shamelessly uses the N-word twice despite the piece not being remotely related to race.

This kind of thinking is what originally put us in what's been called the "ideological war against men"—the problem is, these ideas aren't based on fact or evidence, and we've moved forward as if they are. For example, in the late nineties, women were buzzing about "profeminist therapy" for domestic violence offenders, which was implemented in many states as one of the preferred methods of recovery. It was viewed by feminists as the only right way to treat abuse, but in reality, the programs were bigoted and ridiculous. Any sort of violence, regardless of circumstance, was always considered the fault of deeply ingrained patriarchal values, and questioning a woman's role in what happened was viewed only as blaming the victim. One man said, "The message was clear: whatever she does to you is your fault, whatever you do to her is your fault." 

The idea that all men have an innate capacity for violence and cruelty is a falsehood that has been internalized by the minds of the new generation. It rears its head most often when relationships end or a girl gets rejected; you'll catch her saying things that take the blame off of the individual and place it on men as a whole in lengthy post-breakup lamentations. "Men just suck," she'll say. "They're all terrible, all of them." This sort of black-and-white thinking and misplaced guilt helps no one, and it's discouraging to the millions of men who work to fix what a small percentage have broken. When it comes to things like aggression and anger, we need to move forward productively by focusing on individual perpetrators—not go backwards by shaming innocent men who end up trying to fix flaws they don't have.

But the detriments of radical feminism aren't exclusive just to men, either. Radical feminism has long been a nemesis of the queer community for its speculative beliefs regarding trans women, gender non-conforming (GNC) people, and lesbians. Ti-Grace Atkinson was also an advocate for what became known as political lesbianism—the practice of using sexual orientation as a political and feminist choice in order to renounce and boycott male oppression. She believed it was the responsibility of feminists to either be celibate and never partake in relationships, or to suck it up and "choose" to be gay. 

Then there's Janice Raymond, the woman who's frequently found herself at the center of the "trans debate"—which really isn't a debate at all, but an argument on why trans people shouldn't exist or have rights. Over time she has made radical feminism out to be as much about neglecting the needs of trans people as it is about dismantling gender roles. On a website with an article called "Why I Became Trans," Raymond was interviewed as "the original Terf"—a well-known acronym in the rad-fem world that stands for trans-exclusionary radical feminist. 

Arguing against the "disingenuous tactics" that apparently comprise transitioning, the author of the article wrote that healthcare and medical treatment for trans people is "a very clever ruse by... activists to frame surgery and hormones as medical as opposed to cosmetic treatment." She also labeled trans activists—otherwise known as the majority of the queer community—as "deluded individuals" who need to "see the light." 

Let's say for a second that this argument isn't incredibly harmful and blatantly disrespectful. Okay, so trans women aren't women because they were born male, and in these people's opinions, that permanently excludes them from womanhood. They never experienced the pain of female adolescence so they can't know what it truly means to be a woman. They don't have periods or give birth, so they can't possibly be considered female. But if we follow this line of thinking, where does it ever stop? 

The fact is, womanhood exists in a multitude of different ways, no matter what radical feminism says. For example, some women don't get periods regularly because they're ill or underweight. Some women don't have periods, ever—about one in 5,000 girls have what's called Mayer-Rokitansky-Küster-Hauser syndrome and are born without uteruses or vaginas. This condition often makes these individuals feel like their womanhood is somehow less than, that it doesn't quite fit the bill and means they won't ever be "real" women. But why should the existence of a monthly cycle define womanhood either? 

What about women who've had double mastectomies? Are they less female because of lack of breasts? What about women who don't have hair because of chemo or alopecia, or women who've gone through menopause, or women who have naturally high testosterone levels? If we restrict womanhood to these narrow ideas, then arguably none of us would be "real women" at all—so why can't we just accept all types of gender identity and encourage people to be themselves? In accepting others, we promote kindness, inclusion, and love, whether an individual is queer, poor, disabled, or different in any other way, and this is the way to equality—not through the destruction of societally ingrained concepts, which would largely be impossible anyway.  

Many radical feminists are also strongly against pornography, prostitution, and the sex industry, which would make sense if so many women didn't rely on those institutions as their only way of making ends meet. There are more than 30 million women employed by the sex industry worldwide, most of which are working moms just trying to support their children. The industry is highly vilified already, but we're starting to realize that it's also highly misunderstood. And if those who depend on it for survival are willing to take such jobs to support themselves and their families, who are we to take that away from them?

It's in this way that radical feminism hurts men, women, and queer people across the board. The good news is that many female activists are starting to realize this and recognize that exclusion wasn't the original point, though it seems sometimes to have become that. In a speech titled "What's Wrong with Feminist Theory Today," a radical feminist named Carol Hanisch spoke about the movement in hindsight. "We needed to unite with other women, not put them down," she said. "Part of our theory was that in order to unite women we needed to really understand the differences among us."

Change can't happen if the group that tries to instigate it is divided, which is why acceptance and understanding need to be at the forefront of feminism going forward. We need to learn to ask questions, accept when we don't know something, and sit with things that we don't like before we write them off as evil. This is the key to any truly successful movement, and it proves that those who organize such things are often just trying to promote love and goodwill, not tear others down for the sake of it. If we all adopt this mindset, positive change can take place once again, and every generation after us can carry the torch and be proud to be a part of something good.