(This is an early draft of an article that was published in the Feminist Times)
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. The assumption that radical feminists are essentialist is based on a misunderstanding of radical feminist theory, which starts from the definition of “radical” itself. The term “radical” refers to the root or the origin. 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. Radical feminism challenges all relationships of power that exist within the Patriarchy including capitalism, imperialism, racism, classism, homophobia and even the fashion-beauty complex.
Radical feminists do not believe that there are characteristics that are uniquely male or uniquely female. Women are not naturally more nurturing than men and men are not better at math. Gender is not a function of our biology. It is a social construct created to maintain unequal power hierarchies. The conflation of sex with gender is another common misunderstanding of radical feminist theory. Sex is the reality of your body with no negative or positive characteristics attached to it. Gender is a social construct that privileges men/ masculinity above women/ femininity. Radical feminism is accused of gender essentialism because we recognise these power hierarchies and seek to destroy them. We do not, as frequently suggested, believe these are natural. It is a silencing tactic.
Women’s oppression as a class is built on two interconnected constructs: reproductive capability and sexual capability. Gender is created to grant men control over women’s reproductive and sexual labour in order for men to profit from this labour: whether this be unpaid labour within the house, in public spaces and childbearing/ rearing. Or, 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.
When radical feminists use this language of reproductive and sexual capability, we are derided for failing to include women who cannot get pregnant or who do/ do not experience sexual violence. Radical feminism is not about the individual but rather the oppression of women as a class in the Marxist sense of the term. Rape is used as a weapon to silence women as a class. It does not require every woman to be raped to function as a punishment. 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.
There are countless studies that discuss men’s refusal to hire women during “child-bearing” years despite not knowing whether or not that individual woman can conceive or carry a foetus to term (or the fact that it’s illegal to discriminate against women for pregnancy in the first place). It is 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.
Just this week, New Hampshire state Rep. Will Infantine (R) has stated that women deserve to be paid less than men because men work harder. The Equal Pay has existed since 1970 and yet women are still consistently paid less than men based on gendered assumptions about the value of women’s work. This is without investigating the intersections of racism, classism and misogyny, which result in women of colour being paid substantially less than white women for similar work.
Even something as basic as a company dress code is gendered to mark women as other. Harrods requires women staff members to wear make-up – a fact that became public when former employee Melanie Stark complained to the press about being hounded out of her job. British Airways requires all new recruits to wear skirts because women cannot be expected to look professional whilst handing out meals and pillows in trousers. High heels are frequently required as part of a ‘professional’ appearance for women despite the fact that they cause permanent damage to women’s feet and lower limbs.
Women working in the service industry are frequently required to wear clothing that accentuates external markers of sex, particularly their breasts. On the other hand, breasts displayed for the purpose of feeding an infant are considered a disgrace to basic human decency. 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.
In the UK, two women a week are murdered by former or current partners. Male violence is a major cause of substance misuse, self-harm, and homelessness in women. We know that women are the vast majority of victims of domestic and sexual violence and abuse. And, we know that men are the majority of perpetrators, yet we talk about “gender-based violence” as if men and women were equally perpetrators and victims. Radical feminist theory requires naming the perpetrator because it requires understanding and challenging hyper-masculinity within our culture which results in violence against women, children and other men.
If radical feminists were truly gender essentialists, we would believe that women deserve to be paid less than men. We would support hiring policies that privilege men. We would believe that women’s value is based entirely on their fuckability and childbearing/rearing. If radical feminists were gender essentialists, we would believe that men commit violence because they are born that way. Radical feminists are accused of gender essentialism because we recognise the oppressive structures of our world and seek to dismantle them. It is our direct challenge to hegemonic masculinity and control of the world’s resources (including human) that makes us a target of accusations like gender essentialism, which have no bearing in reality.
Radical feminism does not believe there are male/ female brains or that there are characteristics and behaviours that are innately male/ female. We believe that socialisation creates gender with the express purpose of maintaining current power structures. And, this is why radical feminism is so dangerous to the Capitalist-Patriarchy: we seek to destroy rather fiddle with the margins.