Visions of Life After the Revolution

What is feminism’s endgame? In particular, what is to become of men if and when feminism achieves all of its goals?

In liberal feminisms the answer is straightforward: women and men will have the same rights and privileges, the same freedoms, and so on.

In radical feminisms the answer is more elusive. This is because in radical feminism women and men are not fixed and eternal categories. Rather, human beings are constituted as women and as men by the social relation of patriarchy.

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Radical feminisms tend to employ the epistemic strategy of dialectical hierarchy, in which men or patriarchy appear as thesis and women or matriarchy appear as antithesis. That is, the dominant or hegemonic social order privileges men over women while the feminist movement, within the much narrower and more constrained social space available to it, privileges women over men.

What I mean by this privileging of women over men is simply that, within the movement, and in opposition to the dominant social order, the needs and the goals and the perspectives and the experiences and the moral worth of women are given higher priority than those of men.

One finds the same pattern in radical articulations of many struggles: women privileged over men, queer privileged over straight, Black or Indigenous privileged over White, proletarian privileged over bourgeois, and so on, within the movement and for the purposes of social struggle.

This privileging is completely necessary if we accept inequality as a product of systemic power relations.  In a dialectical worldview, we cannot make the world more equal by treating everyone the same. To do so would require that power relations not exist, that oppression and privilege be somehow independent of one another.  A radical feminist says to a libertarian: you don’t balance a tipped cart by pushing up evenly on both sides; you push up on one side and let the other side come down to level.

This is something that people employing an epistemic strategy of methodological individualism find very difficult to understand. That is, there is an intellectual difficulty, which is distinct from emotional difficulties that people have with checking their privilege and so on.

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So to return to feminism in particular, we could say that radical feminisms respond to dominant patriarchy with a subordinated, insurgent, matriarchy. Hardly anyone calls it that but I think the term fits, as long as we understand that we are referring to the logic of struggle employed within a movement and not to society as a whole.

Within the movement, at least within the more radical aspects of the movement or aspects influenced by radicalism, men are subordinated to women. What this means in practice is that men are told: look, you can support this movement, join it even, but you can never own it in the way that women can; you may benefit from it, but it will never act primarily for your benefit; you can contribute to the movement but first you need to check your ego, be silent, and listen, really listen, to what women are saying about their lives and their experiences and their needs, until their words and their emotions sink deep into your soul and change you; and even then, no matter how expert you become in matters of feminist thought and struggle, it will never be unproblematically okay for you to speak on behalf of women or speak over top of women or to silence women or to gain cultural capital for yourself from women’s actions. Even if you must do these things for the benefit of the struggle you will always be held to a higher standard of scrutiny and skepticism than women who do the same.

This offends the sensibilities of mainstream liberals or anyone habituated to MI thinking. But it’s how radical struggles work. For men who are really serious about getting into feminism, or White people serious about anti-racism, and so on, it’s good to know what one getting into and why, so that one is not discouraged by the inevitable, emotionally challenging shifts in value that occur when one crosses from one side of a dialectic to the other.

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Where does this lead, though? Following the logic of dialectical thinking, I can see three broad hypothetical outcomes:

  1. No end to the struggle; deployment of matriarchy as a permanent resistance to a permanent patriarchy.
  2. Overthrow of patriarchy and its replacement with matriarchy.
  3. Overcoming of the patriarchy-matriarchy opposition through a social revolution which abolishes the hierarchical gender relation — and which therefore abolishes women and men as social classes.

Of these three hypothetical outcomes, #3 follows the standard logic of Hegelian/Marxian notions of dialectic; the other two are only incompletely dialectical, for whatever that’s worth.

True visions of a future societal matriarchy are rare; I’ve found them only in some feminist science fiction (e.g. Woman on the Edge of Time), and maybe in essentialist feminist writers like Mary Daly.

Pessimistic visions of feminism as a permanent resistance are distressingly common.

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The thing is, I think that we still have very little (radical) writing that helps us map out what post-dialectical social relations could look like in practice or how to implement elements of them in our immediate lives. So our radical feminist struggle is defined more by what we are struggling against and away from than by what we are struggling for and towards.  But we need more than negative critique; we need positive visions of the future we are working towards and a sense of what concrete actions will help bring that vision into the present.

In this respect radical feminism is similar to radical socialism, and perhaps also to other radical forms of social struggle. There’s a need for a different kind of intellectual production than we’ve had so far.

2 thoughts on “Visions of Life After the Revolution

  1. I have found some (not all mind) radical feminists make it extremely difficult to have any kind of discussion without accusations of ‘mansplaining’ or other similar remarks. Indeed, radical feminism has a problem – there is no consensus on what constitutes radical feminism – one radical feminist might regard another radical feminist as not being a feminist at all, or consider them to be a different type of feminist. In this sense, radical feminism can be exclusionary, even to women, unless they meet certain, rather fluid criteria.

    The attitudes and comments of TERFs take this a step further. By applying blanket assertions about men, radical feminists also assume that transgender women are actually an effort to subvert what it means to be women, and that they represent the infiltration of women-only spaces by men masquerading as women. They go on to assume transgender women will be dangerous and violent toward women.

    Liberal feminism is, in my opinion, the better version of feminism, that encapsulates what feminism really should be – building bridges, educating both women and men, and promoting real equality.

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    • Thanks for the comment! I feel that I know what you’re talking about and that I’ve had some similar experiences. In fact, you’ve touched on points I want to specifically address in my next post. And your opinion re. liberalism is a fair one, of course. But I’d also like to say a couple of things to try to interest you in taking another look at certain strains of radical feminism.

      In “Feminist Thought: A More Comprehensive Introduction”, Rosemarie Tong makes what I think is a very useful distinction between two strains of radical feminism: essentialists (Mary Daly is a good example, and arguably also Andrea Dworkin) and anti-essentialists or constructionists (think Monique Wittig or Shulamith Firestone or maybe Jo Freeman). The former group asserts or assumes that certain gender differences are a product of men’s and women’s essential natures, hence inalterable on some level. Whereas the latter group ascribes most if not all significant gender differences to social relations, which can and do change over historically.

      My sense is that trans-exclusionary attitudes as well as reductive attitudes towards men tend to belong more organically to the essentialist strain of radical feminism. Whereas someone like Judith Butler, for instance, builds on the kind of anti-essentialist radicalism of thinkers like Wittig. (If you have a chance, check out Wittig’s “The Straight Mind and Other Essays”, a great collection of lucid short insightful pieces.)

      I realize what I’m saying is kind of academic and may not be reflected in most people’s use of the term ‘radical feminist’. But even so, I think the tradition of anti-essentialist radical feminism has some valuable ideas.

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