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Speaking Out from the Margins: Radical Feminism in Focus 07 Dec 2012
* This is an extract from a talk given by Betty McLellan at the FUSE Conference, Melbourne on 17 November 2012


In recent weeks, with Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s amazing speech naming misogyny for all the world to hear and think about, we witnessed a rare moment in history when feminist issues were front and centre of the political agenda. And while Australia’s mainstream media were lukewarm about it, online media were not. The issue inhabited YouTube, On Line Opinion sites, blogs, Facebook, Twitter – and, because of that, we were enabled to talk about misogyny with our friends and acquaintances in a way that hasn’t been possible for quite some time. It felt like a rare moment in the sun, when the spotlight was on our issues.

What happened in the wake of the speech, however, was entirely predictable, because patriarchy has a way of absorbing even the fiercest of challenges to its existence. It simply expands and allows the criticism in – but makes sure the system itself, the status quo, is still intact. How was that done in this instance?

Well, with the help of liberal feminists (and I’m not criticising them here. They’ve made the most of the moment and done a good job). What I’m saying is that patriarchy has allowed liberal feminist issues to become the focus in the wake of the accusation of misogyny, but once again ignored radical feminist issues. We’ve seen a focus on: the treatment of women in politics; the dearth of women in leadership positions as CEOs and on Boards; the equal pay debate; sexual harassment in the workplace, and so on. What we haven’t heard is any mention of the misogyny that characterises pornography and prostitution, nor the continuing high level of men’s violence against women, nor the escalation of rape, the escalation of the murder of women and their children by men.

And you and I know that, until society is prepared to look at the incredible imbalance of power demonstrated in those kinds of practices: the misogyny, the hatred, the subordination of women by men – until patriarchy is challenged at its root, nothing will change in real terms.

In this paper, “Radical Feminism in Focus”, I want to present radical feminism as a radical ethical enterprise.

First, I’ll remind us of some definitions of radical feminism – to make sure we’re all on the same page but, also, because I’m always inspired by feminism as it’s defined by radical feminists!

Second, I’m going to take a moment to remind us all of the stark differences between liberal and radical feminists. US feminist Lierre Keith makes an important point when she says: If we understand the difference, we’ll know that we’re never going to meet in the middle. We’ll never find a compromise that will allow us to meet. And, in my view, that’s OK. They’ll continue doing their thing and we’ll do ours. But we do need to understand the difference.




First, to a few definitions: How do we define radical feminism? Well, I’ve never been able to find a better definition than that proposed by Catharine MacKinnon in 1987. She called it “feminism unmodified” (1987, p. 16). We are not prepared to modify our analysis of patriarchy’s oppression of women, nor to modify and water down our demands for change. Robin Morgan spoke of our “stubborn commitment to the people of women, the courage to dare question anything and dare redefine everything” (1996, p. 7). In Radically Speaking, Diane Bell and Renate Klein declared that the strength of radical feminism “lies… in its dynamism, in the fluid energy that links unapologetic intellect with unashamed passion; it is a means, not an end; a process, not a dogma” (1996, p. 6). I just love that – radical feminism “links unapologetic intellect with unashamed passion”. Denise Thompson, in Radical Feminism Today, simply calls radical feminism, “feminism per se” (2001, p. 2).

Radical feminism IS feminism, and all other groups claiming the name are modifications of the real thing – including liberal feminism. That doesn’t mean we can’t respect parts of their agenda and commend them for the “wins” they’ve had on behalf of women, but we do need to understand where we differ from them and why.




So let’s do a quick comparison between radical and liberal feminism.



1. Liberal feminists take a gender-neutral approach, insisting that there is no difference between men and women and that, because we are the same, we should all be treated the same. They espouse equality, equal opportunity, equal respect. They call on women to claim their rightful place alongside men as their equals.

Radical feminists take an “unequal power relations” approach. We maintain that the dominance of men and the deliberate subordination of women points to the fact that the issue of power relations must be addressed before anything resembling equality can ever be achieved.

2.  Liberal feminists focus on the individual woman. She can do anything if only given access to equal educational and employment opportunities.

Radical feminists, on the other hand, focus on the collective “women” and maintain that no amount of education for individual women will change the subordinate status of women while misogyny goes unchallenged and unchanged.

3. Liberal feminists are committed to free speech. Prostitution, pornography, sexualisation and the like are all supported by liberal feminists in the name of individual choice and free speech.

Radical feminists, on the other hand, are committed to fair speech and call for all speech and actions causing harm to others to be disallowed. Like philosopher and free speech advocate John Stuart Mill (writing in the 19th Century), we believe that all words and actions need to pass the fairness test before qualifying as free speech.

4.  Liberal feminists believe in working to effect change for women from within mainstream, negotiating with men and compromising where necessary, because they insist that change can best be effected from within.

Radical feminists, on the other hand, prefer to agitate from the margins. We are careful not to be co-opted by the patriarchal system and will not compromise our values in order to be deemed acceptable by the mainstream. Because of our uncompromising stand, we are pushed to the margins of society and, in fact, as Mary Daly advocates (1973), we opt for the margins as the most effective vantage point from which to protest and bring about change. [Of course, many of us do work in mainstream professions, universities and other workplaces for the practical purpose of earning a living. But our activism is done from the margins.]

My comparison between Liberal and Radical feminism is similar, of course, to that of other radical feminists. Robin Morgan put it like this:


Radical feminists refuse to settle for:

. the individual solution

. pornography and prostitution as faux sexual liberation

. “wonderfully supportive” male lovers or spouses who “permit” a woman to be a feminist

. playing by the boy’s rules, e.g., thinking that imitating establishment men could possibly be good for women  (1996, pp. 5-6).




  Lierre Keith’s list looks like this:

.  (liberals focus on) Individualism                  . (radicals on) Group identity

.  Change happens through education       . Change through dismantling unjust systems                                                                                                                                    

. Voluntarism (choice): we choose to be oppressed         . Oppression is real    

.  Focus on abstract moral principles         . Focus on Justice. Name the harm and act on it


So, let me bring that all together. Radical feminism focuses on the collective “women”; on unequal power relations between the sexes; on dismantling unjust systems; and on achieving justice for women, for all people and for the planet. And radical feminists courageously NAME injustices and ACT to change them.






Bell, Diane and Renate Klein, eds. 1996. Radically Speaking: Feminism Reclaimed.North Melbourne: Spinifex.       

Daly, Mary. 1973. Beyond God the Father: Toward a Philosophy of Women’s Liberation. Boston: Beacon.

Keith, Lierre. 2012. “Deep Green Resistance - Liberal vs Radical Part 1 of 3”.

MacKinnon, Catharine. 1987. Feminism Unmodified: Discourses on Life and Law. Cambridge, MA.: Harvard University Press.     

McLellan, Betty. 2010. Unspeakable: a feminist ethic of speech. Townsville:OtherWise Publications.

Mill, John Stuart. 1999. On Liberty. New York: (online books). First published 1869. London: Longman, Roberts & Green.  

Morgan, Robin. 1996. “Light Bulbs, Radishes, and the Politics of the 21st Century”. In      Bell, Diane and Renate Klein, eds. 1996. Radically Speaking: Feminism Reclaimed. North Melbourne: Spinifex. pp. 5-8 

Thompson, Denise. 2001. Radical Feminism Today. London: Sage. 

Associated Author: Betty McLellan
Associated Book: Unspeakable


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