The most radical feminism
Radical feminism was a comparatively new arrival in Australia and many women in the Womens Liberation Movement were not radical feminists they were just women liberationists. But radical feminist ideology quickly became dominant. At the same time, the movement moved away from directly political activity. The idea of self help projects halfway houses, rape crisis centres and so on inspired many women who wanted to get down to the nitty gritty of helping those poor women out there.
With the ALP re-elected (for presumably 3 years) in May 1974, and then IWY in 1975, government grants helped realise many feminist dreams. Projects of all sorts nourished: novels, non-sexist childrens school books, historical research, womens refuges and health centres. Nobody was too worried about theory when things seemed to be working out so well in practice.
Suddenly, November 11, 1975 and the world would never look the same again. For the first time, many womens liberationists realised that the political situation had to be dealt with, and the WLM couldnt do it on its own.
The political scene darkened during 1976. IWY was over and many grants dried up. Fraser made cuts in many areas affecting women and the womens movement. At the same time problems began to surface in the halfway houses and health centres. Rosters broke down, personal conflicts broke up collective projects, and government funding was questioned.
Today the WLM has entered a slump. And although there has been some re-evaluation, the tragedy has been the continued dominance of radical feminism.
A glance at Womens Liberation publications over the past year shows how widespread is the malaise. Vashtis Voice thinks that «the WLM has arrived at an impasse in activity and interest» and that «there has been a drought period this year in political discussion and thinking around directions for the WLM». Anne Summers, a Sydney WL activist, comments after looking at the state of the movement around Australia, that «many activists are disillusioned and self critical.»
The problem is not lack of activity in itself. For those who want it, there is endless activity in staffing 24 womens refuges. 3 working womens centres, 5 rape crisis centres and at least 6 womens health centres around the country. Quite aside from at least 14 newspapers and magazines, and many other projects.
WL activists seem to think that where these projects fall down is on politicisation. Women use services, but dont understand the ideas behind a rape crisis centre or a womens refuge. For instance, in the Melbourne Womens Centre, «there were women seeking abortions and crisis accommodation, but there wasnt one call to find out what WL is on about … We are not winning women on politics.»
The general feeling is that the WLM has been co-opted by concentrating on reforms and bandaids.
And yet no one wants to admit that those who criticised self-help strategies when they were first starting off were right. Radical feminists argue now that although self help didnt work out as a strategy it wasnt a mistake.
In other words, to be a real womens liberationist these days, youve got to be more feminist than ever before. Instead of reforms, youve got to «further revolutionary goals.»
Behind all this rhetoric is the social reality, the change that has occurred in Australian society in the last few years. Party due to the efforts of the WLM itself, WL ideas have become very widely accepted. Not by everybody of course, but they are no longer outside the mainstream of society, spurned by all «descent people» as extremes.
Anne Summers describes the widespread influences at government level, in the churches, and in the conservative organizations such as the NCC. Women in unions, professional organizations, political parties, the media, and in the suburbs are organising themselves.
The change hasnt just been at the top level. Women in all walks of life have been affected, and the majority of ordinary women, in my opinion no longer laugh at WL ideas but take them seriously.
Of course, few accept the ideology behind WL demands, but there is no doubt that there has been a change in attitude to women as a social group. The society we are dealing with today is not the same as when the WLM just began.
Radical feminists usually recognize this.
Of course it is true that the new general awareness is not revolutionary (whether feminist or socialist). But what the radical feminists dont realise is the opportunities the penetration of WL ideas provides. Instead of going out into the real world and trying to build on this base, they retreat into vague theorising. The door stands open but they wont walk through.
The radical feminists retreat into their own ideology, their feminist purity. They are desperately afraid of contamination by the real world.
And so there is an obsession with finding a pure, un-co-opted radical feminist strategy.
Many of the popular strategies and practices of the past few years have been well criticised in current WL literature. Kerryn Higgs and Barbara Bloch, for instance, talk about how the movement has developed its own orthodoxy. Instead of freedom and individual expression there has often been conformity and compulsive behaviour. They discuss various conformities, such as sharing, autonomy personal harmony, spontaneity and lesbianism. Their conclusion is depressing.
Kathie Gleeson criticises the way the movement ignores its development out of the left, and the refusal to see how all our personal life is influenced by the political and economic reality around us.
Lesbianism is no longer regarded as a strategy for all feminists.
Barbara W. and her friends also make a number of specific criticisms of the movements practices in their long article, which I have already quoted.
But radical feminism today is no closer to providing workable strategies than it was in 1974. The women who so well criticise and analyse past problems either admit their impotence, or have nothing to suggest but more of the same.
Barbara W. ends her article with 16 «practical and organizational» proposals. But looking closer it is dear that they are really nothing more than a statement in point form of the need to deal with the problems set out in the article. There is only one actually concrete proposal to change the name of the coordinating committee!
With all the detailed analysis of mistakes and problems, there is no real attempt to work out why there were such problems. To the radical feminists they are simply the result of being «misguided», having the wrong «attitude», or «understanding». Over the years, «many of our fine original insights have become distorted (and) our practice has ended up conflicting with our theory.» Why? Because of «errors in judgement»!
Is it simply the result of a few errors of judgement that «we keep making the same mistakes over and over again»? Why is it that so many women find that after 6 years of the movement it gets harder and harder to reconcile their theory with their practice? Surely at this point there should be some questioning of radical feminist theory itself.
«The idea that sexism is the basic oppression, that the basic class system is one between men and women.» This is the fundamental idea of radical feminism. In the article reprinted here, I have shown what happens if you follow this idea through to its logical conclusion. I hope it will be of use to radical feminists who do want to start questioning the theory itself.
NOTE: In the original article, and in this new introduction, I haw concentrated on quotes and examples from the Australian movement. This is not because I think Australian radical feminism is different quite the opposite. I believe radical feminism is pretty similar everywhere, and I could have written a similar article based on literature from Britain or USA. But this way there is no copout for Australians; no one can say, «Radical feminism is different we havent made the same mistakes as overseas.»
Radical Feminism, a comparatively recent trend in the Womens Liberation Movement in Australia, is based on the theory that womens oppression is the fundamental political oppression, that women are a class and that they are «engaged in a power struggle with men». Furthermore, according to ideas of radical feminism, the purpose of male chauvinism is primarily to obtain psychological ego satisfaction and is only secondarily found in economic relationships.
This article will attempt to show that defining women as a class brings the Radical Feminists back to affirming the one thing all women do have in common the female role; that the a-historical approach of personal politics is part of this female role, and that the lack of a strategy has meant the movement has reverted to those activities traditionally open to women for example «self-help» which is no more than charity dressed up.
AFTER the initial stages of consciousness-raising, after the first rage had died down, the Womens Liberation Movement had begun to question, to ask where the oppression had come from, and try to work out the wax forward. Radical in its belief that a new society was necessary, the movement was strongly influenced by the New Left with its emphasis on conscious and experience. The social group of which the New Left was