Exploring Radical Feminism: Why I Am Not a Separatist

I originally posted a version of this piece as a Note on the Facebook page of The Left Side of Feminism. This is a slightly expanded version of that Note.

On my personal Facebook page, a friend posted a comment from a poster at Radfem Hub. The commenter had repeatedly and explicitly called for radical feminists to take “real action” by living entirely separately from men. The idea of separatism is not new. It has been floating around some parts of the radical feminist movement for decades. While I understand the frustration that leads to separatist thought, I have never been able to go along with that school of thought. Sadly, it has become a dominant school of thought within radical feminism, although that was not always the case. At all.

Early radical feminism arose from groups of women who had been involved in radical Leftist politics, such as New York Radical Women, Redstockings, and New York Radical Feminists. These were women who had become disillusioned with the New Left. The men of that movement had revealed themselves to be anything but revolutionaries. They didn’t want to tear down a broken system and build it anew–at least, not when it came to relations between the sexes. They didn’t want to destroy their daddies’ world. They just wanted their daddies’ places within that world. They wanted to be the ones controlling, oppressing and exploiting women. Whether you’re talking Stokley Carmichael’s hateful comments about women, Abbie Hoffman’s hateful comments about women, or Ira Einhorn actually beating and murdering a woman, the leaders of the male-dominated New Left saw no reason to upset their advantageous apple cart vis-a-vis patriarchy.  So, women like Shulamith Firestone, Carol Hanisch, and Kathie Sarachild broke away.

These women, who were at the forefront of the development of radical feminism, were not separtists.  Many of them were veterans of the Civil Rights Movement.  They had long organized with men on issues of social justice.  They were dedicated to real changes for real people in the real world.  In fact, Hanisch (along with others) has criticized the move of feminist thought from the real world to the world of the academic.  As much as I may respect academics, such as Mary Daly, I have to agree with her.  Getting published doesn’t change the world.  Getting organized does.

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m not aligned with any single school of thought. Those who are obsessed with theory will take exception to that, but I pay them no mind.  Theory and life rarely coincide.  I prefer organic, people-oriented action and belief systems to theory-obsessed ideologues.  I take what I think is right from a whole host of different philosophies, and leave what I think is wrong. To me, that’s how everyone should operate. Tying ourselves to a single philosophy is evidence of lack of dedicated, personal, critical thought. We adopt the ideas of others (or what we’re told others believe) instead of thinking for ourselves. Thinking for yourself is the most important skill any person can have–especially if she wants to make real changes in the real world.

One of the things I must come back to on many occasions, both on the Facebook page and in my writings elsewhere, is that I am hugely influenced by the writings and the lives of radical feminist thinkers. I hold many of the same convictions and worldviews as radical feminists, past and present. However, I do not count myself as a radical feminist, by today’s definition of that term. That’s for a variety of reasons.

One the reasons I do not identify as a radical feminist is the idea that there is no such thing as “feminisms”. There is only feminism. You are or you’re not. Period. I believe you can hold to other philosophies–Marxism, general Socialism, liberalism, anarchism, libertarianism, etc.–but the feminism part of it is how you view the place of women in the world, as well as how you view patriarchal concepts and practices–the albatross around the necks of women. I am a Marxist, and I am a feminist. I am a Socialist, and I am a feminist. I hold sympathy with anarcho-syndicalism, anarcho-socialism and anarcho-communism. But I am a feminist. They are philosophies that can be parallel, but they are also separate. One’s other political philosophies may influence her expression of feminism, but it does not fundamentally change the fact that it is feminism.

The other reason I do not identify as a radical feminist has to do with the idea of separatism that many radical feminists hold as the epitome of the woman-identified woman. I oppose it for two reasons:

  1. It is morally repugnant to me.
  2. It is unworkable, and relies on several hypocritical practices and suppositions.

Let’s discuss item #1 first. The moral repugnance of the concept is the underlying idea of rejection of our male children, the turning over of our sons to the patriarchy and refusal to raise them. This disgusts me, and I find it the flip side of the coin of Chinese, Indian and other patriarchal rejection of female children. I absolutely believe that these concepts come from very different places. I understand why one would want to live completely separate from men. I really do. Under patriarchy, women are safest if they are away from all males–even those who support and sympathize with us. It’s too easy for a male with violent intentions to infiltrate and manipulate his way into the group. In addition, one study after another has shown that women and girls are freer to express themselves in all-female environments. They learn better in single-sex environments, for example. While the rejection of female children comes from a place of pure, unadulterated misogyny, this idea of turning male children over to their fathers and the patriarchal institutions comes from a place of protection for girls and women. I get all of that. And I still reject it as morally repugnant.

To me, the idea of giving over one’s male children, is giving into the patriarchy. Instead of seeking to destroy it for the benefit of all women, it seeks to simply separate from it. So, what of the women left behind? Do we simply not care? Do we turn our backs? To me, destroying patriarchal assumptions and misogyny are far better than simply throwing up our hands and walking away. The fight is more difficult, but it is the moral way to proceed.  Activists such as Hanisch felt this way, as well, since they realized that most women had no interest in lesbian separatism for one very good reason:  they weren’t lesbians.  Insistence that women be separatists in order to be radical feminists changed the face of radical feminism, and destroyed its momentum as a powerful movement for Women’s Liberation.  It became more of a fringe pursuit, giving liberal feminism the room to distort feminism into “anything a woman says it is,” as Hanisch noted.  While I may disagree with many of her comments in “What’s Wrong with Feminist Theory Today and What It Will Take to Make It Successful Again,” I have absolutely no arguments with her there.

On a personal level, I am the mother of a daughter and a son. They are both of me. They are mine. My spouse gave genetic material, but my body made them. My body carried them. They heard my heart as they formed and grew within me. My body birthed them. My body fed them. Mine. They are mine. To think I would essentially cut away half of me, and abandon him to the patriarchy is disgusting. Raising him right will not in and of itself destroy patriarchy, but it is one of the many methods which, taken in concert, will lead us there. Abandoning him to the patriarchy is, in fact, a victory for them. And it is a pathological thing for any parent to do.

Now, let’s discuss point #2: the fact that the very idea is unworkable and hypocritical. I’ve seen discussion of the idea of all-female communes that do not trade with males in any way. I’ve seen discussion that women should cut off all childbearing. I’ve seen discussion that women should no longer politically interact with males. To all of it, I say, “Bullshit.”

First, let’s talk about communes. I could support these up to the point where some proponents start talking about cutting off all trade. In order to have a commune of any type, one will inevitably rely on technologies that were developed by males. To say you will not trade or interact with males is foolish, when you can’t even chop wood without using technologies and tools that were developed by males or based upon other tools developed by males. There is no way to do that. To even discuss these concepts on the Internet is hypocritical, considering that men have been heavily involved in the creation of computers and networking–and they continue to be. If you’re discussing this on the Internet, you have already engaged in trading with the patriarchy and the male. So, where are you drawing your line here?

Now, let’s talk about childbearing. Parthenogenesis is not happening tomorrow. The only species that reproduce in this manner are those without much biological complexity or diversity. It is not happening in the human species. If we are to use artificial methods of impregnation, we are still going to be relying on the biological material of males and using techniques that males have had a hand in developing. So, once again, you would be relying on males to have birth-without-men. If you just stop reproducing, your all-female society very quickly dies out…and it deserves to, just as China and India deserve to die out for killing their women and girls.  If you only reproduce by recruiting women from the outside, you are, in essence, treating other women as your breeders; you are taking on the very attitude towards women and reproduction that is inherent to patriarchy.  You become a user of other women’s bodies.

Also, to say women are giving birth “for” men and “to” the children of men is dismissive of women. As I mentioned, my children are mine. They are mine more than they are my spouse’s. He gave biological material and he has been involved in their rearing, but I made them. Most of the work was from my body. I largely determine how they will be raised, because I am the more forceful and politically committed of the two of us; he largely follows my lead in those areas. They carry both of our names, but they are mine, first and foremost. I will not allow any movement to deny that fact. I also think that women must be pushed to take on this mindset instead of just waving the white flag to patriarchal concepts of childbearing and child rearing. Your body is producing this child. Stop thinking of it as “bearing my husband’s children”. No, you are bearing your children.

Then, we have the issue of political interaction. Again, I absolutely understand when women say that no male-defined movement or organization will ever properly represent women. The thing is that women, especially in the U.S., created the Left. It is our movement. It started with a stand that demanded women’s power in society and a fundamental rejection of the old ways of patriarchy. Even women who didn’t explicitly identify as “feminist” held these positions, and led these movements. Why in the hell are you willing to give in and walk away? I’m stronger and prouder than that.

I also believe that there are issues beyond feminism that are important to a truly just society. These issues concern men, especially men of the poor and working classes. They must be involved in that. Since I do not believe it is possible (or desirable) to break off from males entirely, I also think the idea of not politically engaging with men is begging for failure. What’s more, I have found men to be great allies in my own fight for women’s rights. Even if we just address The Left Side of Feminism, it has largely been successful because of the men who support our struggle. When I first created the Facebook page, some of the first members were men. My own father promoted the page among his friends. The first person who reached out to me with offers of help and advice to grow the page was a man. This very forum on which I am expressing my opinions was built with the help and strong support of men. These are the men who support our struggle, while also realizing there will be times we need to break apart from them and focus on our Sisters.

Share your thoughts, but be aware that comments on this blog are moderated. Please be patient, as it may take me a few days to moderate comments.

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