A History of RadFems
Radical feminists (RadFems) are a contemporary group of feminists, who are defined by their work creating inclusive communities for women and explicitly against creating inclusive spaces for trans folx. To understand this group, it is imperative to contextualize radical feminism and provide the framework, which sets up the stage for this movement.
The dominant themes of radical feminism concentrate on sexuality, control, and violence, often dealing with multiple themes at the same time. This movement became popular in the 1960s and early 1970s and resulted from ideas of how to change the patriarchal system. Groups of women created Women’s Clubs, which hosted consciousness-raising sessions, meetings dedicated to commiserating in the frustration of their daily life and to sharing stories of oppression (Calixte, Johnson, and Motapanyane 2005:22).
Radical feminists knew that in our society, men have more institutional power. To combat this power, these women began to disrupt society through direct actions that displayed their rejection of societal norms and publish manifestos that spread their ideas. One of the most famous acts of societal defiance associated with radical feminism was the supposed bra burnings at the 1968 Miss America Pageant (Sullivan 2016:272). Even several decades later, this event, along with the SCUM manifesto and the Redstockings Manifesto, created the persevering stereotype of violent and angry feminists.
The Redstockings Manifesto, a defining RadFem manuscript, outlines the radical feminists’ accepted beliefs: all men have oppressed women, and all men receive social, economic, and political benefits directly from that oppression (Redstockings Manifesto 1969). Additionally, this manifesto delineates the belief that male supremacy is the origin for all forms of exploitation and oppression. Most RadFems believe in the common themes of liberation from systemic oppression, biological essentialism, and revolution against a ruling structure (Koedt 1973:318-320). Combining those core ideologies, their ultimate goal is to demolish power structures and instate internal systems of democracy.
Sharply contrasting with the radical feminists, looking into liberal feminism provides an opportunity to investigate differentiating ideologies. It’s main tenents are rational thinking, a strong belief of freedom of choice, meritocracy, and access to equal of opportunity. Many scholars and activist criticize liberal feminism for heavily focusing on white upper-class women. However, its strategies have obtained many major accomplishments over the years, like winng equal voting rights for the female gender, the right to higher education, and many reproductive rights. An example of a contemporary feminist who tackled these topics is bell hooks, a 21st century author who wrote the book Feminism is For Everybody (2000). In it, she states that “[s]imply put, feminism is a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression,” a statement that examplifies liberal feminist ideaology (hooks 2000).
A Summary of RadFems
Contemporary radical feminists maintain that all women share a collective marginalized identity of systemically oppressed women. Common sociological solutions suggested by radical feminists in the ’60s aimed to rid social norms of a nuclear family dynamic, separating the ties between reproduction and a woman’s body through artificial reproduction and a female revolution to liberate women from socialized self-hatred. In an open letter written to the public, a mass collection of contemporary RadFems addressed the rise of present-day gender theory, defining their persecution as the idea that “biological women are oppressed and exploited as a class by men and by capitalists due to their reproductive capacity” (Forbidden discourse: the silencing of feminist criticism of gender 2013). This definition outlines that radical feminists see reproductive capacity as a requirement for women to suffer under male oppression. By using reproductive ability and the term “biological women”, radical feminists claim a trans-exclusionary title. Continuing on in the open letter, these women assert that trans identities undercut the social and political goals of radical feminism as they “[reinforce] the cultural, economic and political tracking of “gender” rather than challenging it” (Forbidden discourse: the silencing of feminist criticism of gender 2013).
By reinforcing gender essentialism and biological determinism, radical feminists believe that they are fighting against patriarchal oppression. A transgender man may be allowed to exit situations of gendered oppression by passing as a male instead of being forced to confront the direct persecution that RadFems vehemently oppose. Additionally, RadFems also display the idea that by passing as women transgender women are able to depart from the guilt and the responsibility of being part of the oppressors. Many lesbian RadFems believe that trans folx who do not immediately disclose of their personal identity, are purposely deceiving others. Moreover, if trans women do not disclose of their transgender identity before becoming intimate, especially with a lesbian RadFem, it is believed that they are attempting to undermine the identity of lesbianism. In this way, RadFems question trans politics and criticize trans-inclusionary measures.
Globally, radical feminism takes focuses on sex trafficking and believes that it functions within an internalized capitalist system. A rise in the visibility of the trans community also comes with backlash, saturated with discrimination, most notably centered from the radical feminist movement (Munro 2013:23).
Criticisms of radical feminism include an inattention to race and elitist views toward trans women, which is where the term TERF (trans-exclusionary radical feminist) was born. Contemporary radical feminists share a group mentality, centered around the belief that trans women are not “real” women, support the “bathroom bill” (a bill that restricts multi-user restrooms and sex-segregated facilities on the basis of sex assigned at birth), and believe that trans people should be barred from accessing women-only spaces, such as rape crisis centers or women’s shelters (Jeffreys 2014). RadFems will intentionally use trans folx deadnames, will use incorrect pronouns, and willfully reject the notion that gender identities can change.
While not all TERFs hold the same beliefs, all identify as feminists while simultaneously gate-keeping and maintaining an exclusive cisgender women only community. Many TERFs identify as “RadFems” or “gender-critical feminists,” which speaks to their belief in gender essentialism as mentioned above. This community of RadFems is almost entirely comprised of white, middle-class cisgender women. Many gender critical feminists also identify as lesbian, dispelling previous ideas that only heterosexual women were maintaining these beliefs. While radical feminists accept the label of “trans-exclusionary,” they perceive the term ‘TERF” as a slur, although a small group proudly claims the identity online (TERF isn’t just a slur, it’s hate speech 2017; What is a TERF? 2017).
Many people associate Trans-exclusionary radical feminists with SWERFs (sex worker-exclusionary radical feminism), another subgroup of feminism, which opposes women’s participation in pornography and prostitution. The ideology of both groups overlap in the demanding, prescriptive approach to feminism. These feminists use techniques like doxxing (revealing personal identification information to out a trans person), picketing, and trolling to abuse trans folx, disrupt queer parades, and distribute their social/political beliefs. Due to the lack of intersectionality and their affinity for gender essentialism, many feminists have labeled TERFs as an “anti-feminist” group (TERF Wars 2015). Recently at the 2018 Pride Parade in London, a group of TERFs lay down in front of the parade and refused to move until they were allowed to lead the parade. Many carried signs announcing, “transactivism erases lesbians” and that the transmovement is “anti-lesbian” as explained by their strict adherence to biological determinism (London Pride 2018).
Radical feminists from the 60s and 70s were assertive in declaring their frustrations with the current systems of power. Likewise, current RadFems are vocally exclusive about who is welcome in their subgroup. This form of gatekeeping maintains a subgroup population that is relatively homogenous in their ideas and beliefs and thereby reducing the internal conflict that can appear in other subcultures.
Gender essentialism, a fundamental concept in radical feminist circles, is a major tool used in gatekeeping the community. Through the use of this concept, RadFems are able to keep trans people out of their group. Essentialist theories claim that gender and sex have a biological set of characteristics that differentiate femininity and masculinity, while many other present-day feminist groups operate from foundations of Queer Theory.
Stigmatization from other groups
While a large majority of society stigmatizes RadFems for being outspoken and unapologetic feminists, contrasting feminist groups additionally stigmatize them for being harsh and unaccomadating. A trans activist and educator, Riley J. Dennis, summarizes an outside feminist perspective of this group in a video posted online.
Media and Other Resources
What is a TERF? | Riley J. Dennis
This video is produced by a trans activist and educator on YouTube. They explain from their point of view what a TERF is and why they are harmful.
Re: What is a TERF?
This video is produced by a self-proclaimed radical feminist, Magdalen Berns. She reacts and responds to Riley J. Dennis’s video on what a TERF is.
Debunking myths about “Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminism”.
This is another video by Magdalen Berns responding to an article titled “Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminism”.
“Forbidden discourse: The silencing of feminist criticism of “gender”. Meeting Ground OnLine.
Redstockings Manifesto. 1969.
TERF Wars. 2015. International Business Times.
TERF is hate speech. 2017. Feminist Current.
TERF as a slur. 2017. New Statesman America.
Calixte, Shana L., Jennifer Johnson, and J. Maki Motapanyane. 2005. “Liberal, socialist, and radical feminism: An introduction to three theories about women’s oppression and social change.” pages 1-34 in Feminist issues: Race, class, and sexuality.
This piece of literature clarifies the differences between several types of feminist groups.
Hooks, Bell. Feminism Is for Everybody: Passionate Politics. Cambridge, MA: South End, 2000. Print.
This text contains the thoughts and musings of bell hooks, who explains the ideas of intersectional feminism.
Jeffreys, Sheila. 2014. Gender hurts: A feminist analysis of the politics of transgenderism. New York: Out of House Publishing.
This book investigates the social and political context of transgender identities and argues for the abolition of gender.
Koedt, Anne, et al., 1973. Radical feminism. New York: Quadrangle Books.
Anne Koedt authors this foundational work about feminism and advocates for systemic change to advance women’s rights.
Bucur, Maria. 2017. Gender Hurts. A Feminist Analysis of the Politics of Transgenderism, by Sheila Jeffreys, Women’s History Review, 26:4, 655-656, DOI: 10.1080/09612025.2016.1263441
Munro, Ealasaid. 2013. “Feminism: A fourth wave?” Political Insight 4(2):22-25.
Nes, Janet A., and Peter Iadicola. 1989. “Toward a definition of feminist social work: A comparison of liberal, radical, and socialist models.” Social Work 34(1):12-21.
Sullivan, Mairead. 2016.”Kill Daddy: Reproduction, Futurity, and the Survival of the Radical Feminist.” Women’s Studies Quarterly 44 (1/2):268-282.