Radical Feminism v. Cultural Feminism

With Daring to Be Bad, Alice Echols is the first historian to chart the rapid rise and fall of radical feminism in twentieth-century America.[1] Radical feminism, birthed in 1967, was eclipsed by cultural feminism by 1975.[2] Writing in 1989, Echols sought to demystify radical feminism for readers.[3] This required a significant exploration of the tendency that succeeded it: “A study of this sort seems to me especially important because radical feminism is so poorly understood and so frequently conflated with cultural feminism. This conceptual confusion arises in part because radical feminism was not monolithic and aspects of radical feminism did indeed anticipate cultural feminism.”[4] The latter evolved from the former, plus “cultural feminists almost always identified themselves as radical feminists and insisted that they were deepening rather than jettisoning” radicalism, creating fertile ground for disorientation.[5] Echols’ work is an intriguing history of these theories. Let us review the major distinctions between them.

Radical and cultural feminists have important points of intellectual departure. Radical feminism sought revolutionary changes in power structures, along Marxist lines, to bring about gender equality; cultural feminism was a turn inward, attention drifting away from the State and toward women’s culture, with the establishment of women’s businesses and other supports (stores, health clinics, credit unions, festivals) that to critics represented “an evasion of patriarchy rather than a full-throated struggle against it.”[6] The former was an anticapitalist movement for political transformation, the latter a self-sufficiency, self-improvement counterculture that rejected class struggle.[7] The radicals stressed the personal was political — a new system was needed to rectify oppression in the home, the bedroom, and so on.[8] Culture-minded reformers viewed matters from the other direction: the personal was the “foremost site of change,” from which a new world could be built.[9] Each movement had some form of opposition to male political supremacy and the construction of a new women’s culture, but each poured most of their energies into one arena. Echols offers a helpful parallel by pointing to the civil rights movement, which saw black nationalist offshoots that were “more involved in promoting black culture than in confronting the racist policies of the state.”[10] Of course, there were many other ideological differences among feminists. For instance, would women’s liberation be best served by minimizing male-female differences (the tack of the radicals) or placing more value on a unique female nature dismissed by the patriarchal society (the tack of the culturalists)?[11] Should you eradicate gender or celebrate it?[12]

Both tendencies left important legacies. The women in the earlier movement for social transformation demonstrated the power ordinary women have to enact political change. “They fought for safe, effective, accessible contraception; the repeal of all abortion laws; the creation of high-quality, community-controlled child-care centers; and an end to the media’s objectification of women.”[13] Unjust rape and domestic violence policies were challenged, as was exclusion from workplaces and universities.[14] Radical feminists engaged in direct action and civil disobedience, disrupting Miss America pageants and Senate hearings, hosting rallies, marches, and sit-ins.[15] Their organizing pushed the United States in a new direction. The Fourteenth Amendment was applied to women in Reed v. Reed (1971), the Equal Rights Amendment sailed through Congress (1972), the right to an abortion was guaranteed (1973), and more. With the ascendance of cultural feminism, political successes, expectedly, trailed off.[16] However, the later movement for personal transformation turned away from the talk of capitalism’s overthrow and other tenants of radicalism, broadening the tent. After the 1970s, far more women of color joined the movement, for instance.[17] In the same way, during the heyday of the radical feminists, “liberal feminism was…in some cases morediverse” than the radical feminist movement.[18] Though cultural feminism cannot be applauded for shifting focus away from political struggle, and much merit can be found in radical feminist beliefs, it is difficult to deny that more women might be attracted to a more tempered movement further divorced from the Marxist niche. This went beyond anticapitalism, as well, to other aspects of radical thinking. One of the defining texts of cultural feminism was Jane Alpert’s 1973 “Mother Right” piece, which “reaffirmed rather than challenged dominant cultural assumptions about women” by refusing to erase male-female differences, instead celebrating the “biological difference between the sexes… The unique consciousness or sensibility of women…”[19] Cultural feminism was better adapted to mainstream American ideologies, and could therefore attract a wider, more diverse following.

Overall, Daring to Be Bad offers history students and lay readers many ideas and phenomena to consider. It spotlights the bitter infighting leftwing movements typically experience. It prompts one to ask whether members of an oppressed group should focus on their commonalities or fully embrace their differences (an intersectional, but potentially paralyzing or divisive, approach). And will, as Alpert wrote, “economic and political changes…follow rather than precede sweeping changes in human consciousness”?[20] Or is it best to change social structures first, as the radicals insisted, freeing human thought, letting ideology catch up? Echols has produced both a fine history of a Leftist movement and a potential guide for future struggles.

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[1] Alice Echols, Daring to Be Bad: Radical Feminism in America, 1967-1975 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2019), xvi.

[2] Ibid., 5.

[3] Ibid., xvi.

[4] Ibid., 6.

[5] Ibid., 7.

[6] Ibid., viii-ix, xviii-xix.

[7] Ibid., 6-7.

[8] Ibid., ix, 3.

[9] Ibid., xix-xx.

[10] Ibid., 7.

[11] Ibid., xviii.

[12] Ibid., 6, 9.

[13] Ibid., 4.

[14] Ibid., vii-viii.

[15] Ibid., ix-x.

[16] Ibid., 293.

[17] Ibid., 291.

[18] Ibid., xxii.

[19] Ibid., 250, 252.

[20] Ibid., 251.