What is Radical Womanism?

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“… ‘radical’ simply means to grab something by the roots.”

—Angela Davis

Although she, sadly and ironically, does not agree with radical feminist viewpoints herself, this timeless and iconic quote by veteran black feminist scholar, activist, and intellectual Angela Davis cuts to the difference between the liberal and radical schools of feminist thought — in addition to describing political radicalism in general — with a meager single sentence of nine words. Derived from the Latin word radix, meaning “root”, the term quite literally means and signifies “change at the root”. Whenever the descriptor “radical” is attached to an ideology, it is indicated that the principles comprising the particular doctrine in question are focused on fundamentally altering social structures and institutions, often through revolutionary means.

As Deep Green Resistance explains, there are many varieties of (what at least claim to be) feminism. Radical feminism is the one that ultimately addresses the root cause of why women are subjugated throughout the globe: patriarchy, a political system, “takes biological males and females and turns them into the social categories called men and women, so that the class of men can dominate people called women. Gender is to women what race is to people of color: the ideological construct that underlies our subordination.” RadFem Collective elaborates: “We believe that male power is constructed and maintained through institutional and cultural practices that aim to bolster male superiority through the reinforcement of female inferiority. One such manifestation of the patriarchy is gender, which we believe to be a socially constructed hierarchy which functions to repress female autonomy and has no basis in biology. Radical Feminists also critique all religions and their institutions, and other practices that promote violence against women such as prostitution, pornography and FGM. The subjugation of women is a social process that has no basis in biology or any other pretext, and thus can and should be challenged and dismantled.”

As radical feminists, we assert that gender is no spectrum or binary, but a hierarchy. We believe that, instead of being arbitrarily “assigned” male or female, as third wave, liberal feminists maintain, people are assigned either masculinity or femininity — which are the social and cultural ideals of manhood or womanhood — based on the biological reality of being male or female. The World Health Organization is in agreement with us, defining gender as “the socially constructed characteristics of women and men – such as norms, roles and relationships of and between groups of women and men.” The euphemistically termed “socially constructed characteristics” of women are attributes that portray human beings of the female sex as naturally and inherently weak, submissive, and unintelligent, thus legitimizing the systematic domination and supremacy of males, who are cast as rational, strong, and competitive in binary opposition. Radical feminists see this sorting of human beings into the ridgid pink and blue boxes of gender based on their reproductive function as the root of all female oppression, and therefore advocate for the abolition of gender, rather than its reformation by “reclamation” of femininity, or “subverting” the gender binary by simply creating more boxes to sort people into.

Womanism is a school of thought that evolved out of black feminism, which itself has roots in both the American Civil Rights and second-wave feminist movements, though the foundations of black feminism took shape decades earlier. Sojourner Truth’s 1851 “Ain’t I A Woman” speech is considered by many to be a historical, groundbreaking cornerstone of black feminist thought, as well as also laying down the rudiments of intersectionality — yet another essential black feminist theory (that has, regrettably, gone mainstream and has subsequently been hijacked, misappropriated, and diluted) that was penned and named by another black woman activist and scholar over a century later in 1989. Before the specific term “intersectionality” was popularized, black women campaigners and intellectuals used numerous terms to describe the simultaneous interlocking oppressions of race, sex, and class, including “double jeopardy” and “triple bind.” Alice Walker introduced the word “womanist” into feminist terminology in her 1983 book In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose. In the book, she goes into detail about how the term is derived from the American Southern expression “acting womanish.” The phrase describes the outrageous and courageous behavior of a woman that is considered rebellious in the scope of societal norms. The term “womanist” is thus both an alternative to and an expansion of the term “feminist,” which is suggested by Walker’s quote “womanist is to feminist as purple is to lavender.” The word is also commonly used interchangeably with and as a synonym for “black feminist.”

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As black feminists and womanists, we discern that, in the words of our second-wave foremothers the Combahee River Collective, “Black women’s extremely negative relationship to the American political system (a system of white male rule) has always been determined by our membership in two oppressed racial and sexual castes.” Not only in America, but worldwide, female human beings of African descent dwell in the crosshairs of racial and sex-based oppression. Black feminist and womanist thought recognizes that the discrimination black women (and other women of color) experience for their sex cannot be neatly separated from the discrimination they face for their race and class: “We know that there is such a thing as racial-sexual oppression which is neither solely racial nor solely sexual, e.g., the history of rape of Black women by white men as a weapon of political repression.” Therefore, we understand racism, sexism, and classism to be inescapably connected, necessitating simultaneous combating of these social plagues and the dismantling of all systems of oppression for all women to truly be free.

Radical Womanism is thus the merging of radical feminist opposition to patriarchy with black feminist analysis of how black women are specifically disadvantaged under patriarchy by additional discrimination. Like the pioneering Combahee River Collective before us, we are actively committed to struggling against racial, sexual, heterosexual, and class oppression. Integrating radical feminist theory with black feminist analysis, we comprehend how capitalism and systematic racism work to funnel a supply of black women and other marginalized women into sexual servitude and misogynistic exploitation by men. We see how pornography is not only terribly sexist, but often racist as well, and how women (and men) of color are fetishized, exoticized, and portrayed in stereotypical, demeaning ways on top of the usual objectification and sexualized violence all women encounter in the sex industry. We grasp how the racist historical “Othering” of black women complicates black women’s relationship with gender, femininity, and the dominant cultural ideals of womanhood.

We draw on the works, theories, and militancy of generations of radical, black, and radical black feminist activists, writers, and intellectuals such as Audre Lorde, Julie Bindel, Claire Heuchan, Adrienne Rich, Angela Davis, Ti-Grace Atkinson, Sheila Jeffreys, Barbara Smith, Patricia Hill Collins, Catharine A. MacKinnon, Andrea Dworkin, Julia Long, Cynthia Delores Tucker, Meghan Murphy, Alice Walker, Mary Daly, Ida B. Wells Barnett, and bell hooks. Angela Davis and Andrea Dworkin in particular are two very different women who have each contributed to the feminist movement in their own vital, unique way. Angela Davis, a veteran of liberation movements from black nationalism to second-wave feminism, is an icon of empowerment for black women from America to Brazil, has written multiple books like her groundbreaking 1981 Women, Race, & Class, and is an active anti-racist and feminist activist to this day. Andrea Dworkin, despite (or perhaps, because of) her being a lightning rod for abuse and attacks from liberal feminists and anti feminists alike in both life and death, continues to inspire a new generation of feminists all around the world — from Canada to Argentina to Romania to South Korea to India — with her literature, such as Woman Hating and Right Wing Women. These two women have contributed greatly to the causes of black feminism and radical feminism respectively, and thus the two of them together embody the spirit of Radical Womanism.

Radical Womanism is unapologetic struggle for the liberation of the black female from all subordination, subjugation, and discrimination, a radical battle for a world free of patriarchy, gender, racism, misogyny, colorism, androcentrism, heterosexism, homophobia, and classism. Is it radical feminism that is black, or black feminism that is radical? That’s like asking whether the glass is half empty or half full; it is both, and neither.

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