Where Are the Radical Feminists?

We cannot forget this major movement

There’s a gap in our understanding of how gender equality came to be. Where the civil rights movement conjures pictures of leaders and protests, our main images of women’s liberation are a court case and a box of birth control. Somehow, we sense the place of women improved, but how, and by whom?

What’s in that gap is the radical feminist movement of the 1970s, and you will find it taught in very few classes at Harvard this semester. This must change.

Every couple of years, someone brings the claim that there are not enough women on Harvard syllabi. These observations are usually dismissed as the unfortunate results of historical inequality. Women did not write in the time when such thoughts were being produced, therefore they cannot be studied.

It’s true that such inequality exists—in the distant past.

But the radical feminists, active only 40 years ago, were a group of women who wrote together, fought together and accomplished real advances for Americans. To forget the radical feminists is to ignore much of the social change that has taken place in America in the last fifty years. As writer and radical feminist Ellen Willis (whose papers can be read in the Schlesinger Library) has argued, “Radical feminists sparked the drive to legalize abortion and created the atmosphere of urgency in which liberal feminists were finally able to the Equal Rights Amendment through Congress and most of the states.” Radical feminism made women aware that despite claims of equality, their gender was being held against them. It demanded equality in both public and private life.

To overlook radical feminism is also to overlook an intellectual movement which shook at the foundations of almost every aspect of daily experience. It made sexual politics a national issue, Willis writes. It sought to redefine social constructs like marriage in more daring ways than the current conversations. “Radical feminism is our [American] philosophical achievement on par with European post-structuralism, but more practical, deeper, more activist, more productive of change, less hermetic,” Mark Greif ’97 wrote in a recent issue of the journal N+1. Feminist thinkers pushed their readers to reexamine language, birth and love; they challenged critical texts for not going far enough.

No one would argue that post-structuralism has not changed the way modern intellectuals think, even as it goes out of favor and its claims continue to be re-examined. That’s why it’s used as theory in the literature concentration, studied in intellectual history, and read in government and social studies.

Radical feminism deserves the same treatment. Radical feminism belongs, not only in the Women, Gender and Sexuality courses, but in any survey of post-war thought or civil movements. As one example: Professor Kloppenberg should expand his single postwar feminism lecture in “Social Thought in Modern America” into several. Students should read Shulamith Firestone, Ti-Grace Atkinson and Ellen Willis, each the founder or co-founder of a radical feminist group. alongside Betty Friedan, currently on the syllabus. While it is true that, as Professor Kloppenberg acknowledged to me by email, a survey course does not have the time to delve deeply into any one of its subjects, it should give a full taste of the movements it proposes to cover. Radical feminism should be read in any course on critical inquiry; its oversights and shortcomings should be discussed in context instead of used as an argument against its worth.

I’ve frequently heard the complaint that women today don’t want to be called feminist, that they think “feminism” is a dirty word. Who can blame them? If someone wanted to know what a feminist was, where could she look? Many foundational feminist texts, like Firestone’s “Dialectic of Sex”, are out of print. In a few years, most of the members of the Redstockings and New York Radical Women will be dead, and many of their papers have not yet been archived into national or university collections. Radical feminists have been all but forgotten by the academy and if this absence persists, they risk being obliterated from the record of American history.

If Harvard is committed to upholding the truth, then it must include a social movement that changed the lives and thoughts of Americans as part of the narrative it presents of the twentieth century. Maybe then we can finally revise a historical tradition that has forgotten its major actors.

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