An interview with Carol Hanisch by FRESA in Chile
Editors’ Note: Our first contact with radical feminists in Chile came in 2016 when Feminists Lucid in Santiago asked permission to translate and publish “The Personal Is Political.” They later sent questions about radical feminism and its history in the U.S. for their own study and for posting on their website. They also contributed “Chilean Feminists Respond to Birth Regret” to Meeting Ground OnLine after they read “Birth Regret: A Mother’s Day Truthtelling”.
Recently another radical feminist group in Chile interviewed Carol Hanisch about historic and current issues in the Movement for publication on their website. Since we found the questions revealing of what radical feminist are faced with in many countries, we are posting the interview below. Here is a photo of FRESA with other radical feminist organizations from their March 8th action in Santiago.
Here is how FRESA describes itself:
“FRESA (Radical Feminists in Santiago) is a group of women of different ages and occupations in Santiago, Chile, that sympathises with the radical feminist movement. Its creation in 2018 was driven by the need to organise ourselves around the Chilean political and social context and to create spaces for women to connect with each other, share knowledge and think critically about the situation of women in our country and around the world. Since its beginning, FRESA has participated in multiple spaces and debates to advocate for women’s right to be recognised as an oppressed sexual class, criticise and oppose the liberal ideas about sex and gender, and advocate for the abolishment of the sex trade industry. For more details regarding FRESA: fresachile.org“
FRESA: In 2011, you wrote an article for On The Issues Magazine, called “Women’s Liberation: Looking Back, Looking Forward”. In one of the paragraphs about “the feminist bandwagon”, you described certain groups that deviated from the women’s liberation movement, and “bore little relationship to the real struggle for feminist or women’s liberation demands, but were women self-segregating themselves to fight for other goals”. Regarding this, what’s your opinion on the instrumentalisation of feminism by lgbt and trans-activism groups? How do you think we can approach the censorship and erasing of women-exclusive experiences?
CH: I’m not familiar with the term “instrumentalisation of feminism”, but I know of no approach to stop the erasure of women except to “unite and fight” against it, to call it out for what it is: an attempt to stop the struggle for women’s liberation. That means speaking up and speaking out and daring to go against what is currently very popular among many. We need to keep explaining the necessity for women to focus on our own needs as female humans in a world that mistreats us.
Feminists have always had to stand strong against those who tried to co-opt their ideas and successes – or who have sought to displace feminism or re-define it into something less effective. It’s part of the struggle. To do this well, we need to be alert and understand and make good rational arguments, so that it helps us to inform ourselves and others.
Related to the previous question: What are your thoughts about the use of the word “TERF” to make the difference between radical feminists who include or exclude trans-identified males?
TERF is a slander used to shut down and shut up radical feminist criticism. We live in a time when we are pressured to be “inclusive” whether it is good for us or not. Women are always expected to step back and take care of the needs of everyone else first. This is not a new idea; it has just taken different forms. Today we are told that transgender people are more oppressed than female people and we should therefore accept males who claim to be women into spaces that are protective of females. We are even pressured with the threat that if we don’t yield to them, they might commit suicide and it will be our fault!
Meanwhile we are also pressured not to talk about the one thing that really does make men and women different and is the basis of our oppression: women’s capacity to carry and birth children. We are accused of being oppressive of transpeople to even say that it is women who give birth or need abortions (“people” get pregnant!) or even mention that women have vaginas and ovaries. Science is buried so some can deny their sex and promote the very gender stereotypes we are trying to get rid of so that they can be perceived as the opposite sex. Pointing out material reality makes them feel bad, so we are urged not to do this and threatened when we do. Denying science is dangerous, and not only for women. If the COVID-19 virus has taught us nothing else, it is how important scientific facts are to our health and lives.
What’s your opinion on the generalised use of the concept of gender instead of sex as a class category?
The replacement of sex with gender has been an act of – or at least complicit with – male supremacy. It has opened the door to various kinds of attacks on feminist activity from de-platforming to negating women as the reproductive class. It’s rather hard to organize women when you can’t use the term to mean females and even the existence of females is confused.
Denying that sex difference exists suppresses our ability to join other females to fight for what we need as women and as humans. They accuse us of being “essentialists”, but our physical reproductive sex “equipment” is the only real difference between women and men. We are not essentialists in the sense that we think there is some kind of female essence significantly different from that of men, like the idea that women are inherently more peaceful or moral or anything like that. But our sex is an actual existing physical difference. We don’t have to be exactly the same physically to be treated as equal humans and to demand full liberation from male domination.
It seems to me the whole transgender phenomenon is part of a broader attack to undermine an emphasis on material reality and put the focus on individual “feelings”, on the psychological. At best it seems a misguided attempt to try to avoid the pressure of following society’s gender-based dictates on one’s actual sex by simply declaring oneself to be the opposite sex. Sometimes the grass looks greener on the other side of the fence, so to speak. I can understand why females want to become males, with their broader freedoms and rewards, but I can’t understand why men would want to become women.
You are known for your quote: “The personal is political”. In the essay of the same name, you elaborate on how patriarchy and male supremacy exist not only in the public and political spheres but also in the personal life of women and their decision-making. Do you think your quote has been misinterpreted by the current feminist wave? How so?
I don’t use the word “patriarchy”. That has traditionally meant “rule by the fathers”, and that is not exactly what we are dealing with in the modern world. All males have the power to oppress women – some more than others, of course. It is also a class issue. Wealthy, mostly white men are at the top of the oppression pyramid (a few billionaires are black and fewer are women), but working class black and white men still benefit from the work of women. They also sexually harass and exploit women and are sometimes violent. They usually have more power in relationships and in the community. They get the better, well-paying jobs and are paid more for it. And they certainly resist doing childcare and domestic work!
“The personal is political” has been misinterpreted, even opposed, by many since its beginning, but in the early days, our faction of the WLM had a much stronger voice. As our Movement weakened, all kinds of interpretations were put on it to support a growing liberal feminism centered on the success of the individual woman, rather than on building a strong, mass political movement to lift up all women. It got distorted so badly that individualist feminists actually could push the line that “feminism is anything a woman says it is”. This wipes out any meaningful understanding of both “political” and “feminist.” Try building a movement for female liberation on that!
I’m not sure what the “current feminist wave” is. In the media it seems to be a version of Third Wave (individualist) Feminism. However, we know there are even now many women who have a much better understanding than that of what must be done to gain women’s liberation. They are sifting through the original radical feminist theory and action to find what might be of use in the current conditions, and are agitating on important single issues, even if they don’t yet understand the whole of women’s oppression and haven’t succeeded in forming the kind of organized movement for women’s liberation that can win it.
You are considered one of the founders of Radical Feminism. How do you think its theory has evolved or changed over time? What are the positive and negative aspects of these changes?
The radical feminism that I championed saw as its purpose the liberation of all women from male supremacy in all its forms. We knew this could not happen within a capitalist society whose necessity includes exploiting the many for the profit of a very few. We knew that divisions among women like race would also need to be abolished. We knew we had to demand what we really want, not just win a reform here and there. This is what we originally meant by “radical. We insisted we were part of the Left, even though much of the Left wanted (and still wants) us to just go away. We formed the radical feminist branch of the feminist movement to build an independent power base to define the needs of women and fight to have them met in the new society we were struggling for.
However, the term “radical feminism” was soon applied by lesbian separatists and cultural feminists only to themselves, as they considered they were the only really radical women. Many lesbians claimed to be the vanguard of the WLM because they didn’t “sleep with the enemy”, a position that put off the majority of women, those who had or wanted men in their lives. Such terms used to describe the various factions of the movement became very mixed up and confusing. The Redstockings’ book FEMINIST REVOLUTION (of which I was an editor) analyzed much of the loss of radical feminism while it was happening to us in the mid-1970s. See especially the articles “The Power of History” by Kathie Sarachild and “The Retreat to Cultural Feminism” by Brooke (Williams). You can read the book for free here.
As the radical political activity of the 1960s and early 1970s wound down for various reasons, many participants from Left movements turned to the universities for careers and as a “safe space” to continue their political work. Women’s Studies was among them and came to contribute to the suppression of radical feminism in several ways. Professors were in a bind. On the one hand, Women’s Studies owed its very existence to the WLM. On the other, universities primarily serve capitalists, so they found ways to sheep herd radical feminism into safe “discourse.” Lots of discourse! Those who did this best, like Judith Butler, were rewarded. Of course there were always some who fought, too often unsuccessfully, to hold onto their political principles. Meanwhile those in the academy were the voices most allowed to be heard.
Most groups today who claim the term radical feminists do not mean what we meant by radical. They are interested in a militant personal separation from men, not the kind of political separatism Barbara Leon wrote about in “Separate to Integrate”. Many RadFems seem mainly interested in stopping violence against women, especially rape and pornography, and the threats made by transwomen to women’s right to speak, meet, and organize (and pee!) without males in the room. All of these issues are important, but too much of women’s lives is missing from this approach. Not all men, including not all transwomen, are violent toward women. Our lives are much bigger and broader than that.
RadFems seem to have little interest in liberating women from the reproductive labor of child bearing except as an individual choice to not do it. Childcare and domestic work are necessary to continued human existence, and most of it, whether done in home or in public institutions, is still largely thrust upon women and enforced by both male supremacy and capitalism. Ignoring this key front of struggle will not get women very far. I think the need/desire of our oppressors to control and avoid sharing this labor is actually at the root of much of the violence that women experience at the hands of men.
As we know, there was a difference between radical feminists like you, Kate Millett, Shulamith Firestone and cultural feminists like Adrienne Rich. However, today all of you are merged in the same strand. Is that a theoretical mistake? What were the differences between Radical and Cultural feminists from the second wave? Do you think these variants have gotten close or far over time? Do you have an observation about how to bring together different types of feminism that have some common interests?
Unite where we can and not give up working for liberation when we can’t. There have always been differences between radical feminists. Some are differences in consciousness, but other are differences of self interest – real or imagined. There were differences in New York Radical Women and in Redstockings. We argued a lot! Most of the divisions we see today we can see in the early movement as well.
It’s never good to mush varying political ideologies or positions together. Rather it is important to seek to understand and articulate the differences, to see whether and how we can unite and where we can’t. This takes a careful sorting out. There is usually some theory and issues around which we can all unite, but there are differences that need to be acknowledged and taken into consideration. Working to understand and incorporate differences is a crucial part of political work, but must be done in the service of working for more and more unity.
Of course we can’t stop all our work until we agree on everything and we can’t compromise our basic principles. Differences often get resolved by practice. Putting theory into practice is how we all find out what works, which goes far in persuading others.
What’s your opinion on the tenets of Difference Feminism from Europe? Are they compatible with Radical Feminism? Do you think we are experiencing as they put it “the end of patriarchy”?
I hadn’t heard the term until you asked that question. I looked into it a little and it seems very much like a strain of what we called “cultural feminism”, which maintains there are “innate” differences between the sexes. “We are not and don’t want to be like men”, as they put it in my day. We thought that was a limited way to look at it.
Original radical feminism said the only difference between men and women that matters is the physical reproductive one. Women have been forced to developed certain skills due to our oppression, like juggling family tasks, but men can develop them too when they have to. Unless we are talking about reproduction, men and women are just humans who have been forced and squeezed into genders because it suited those in power (both the male class and capitalist class) to keep it that way.
We are nowhere near the “end of patriarchy” if by that they mean male supremacy and not the end of “rule by the father.” Women have made progress in some areas but have lost ground or at a standstill in others. For example, today women are wearing even higher heals and feeling the pressure to shave their genitals, not just their legs and armpits! Though some men “help out”, women still do most of the housework and childcare.
What’s your advice to the new generations of feminists about Liberal or “Individualist” Feminism that can be used to drive them to a feminism that really advocate for their liberation? What are the common mistakes about organization and relations between women that we should consider?
For one thing, we need a little less “discourse” and a little more face-to-face consciousness-raising, action and organizing. The only way to win liberal feminists over is to keep agitating and working to build accurate consciousness and a strong movement that will make them want to join. Of course we have to critique their position, but with the intent to unite. Those who cannot be won over because they have a stake in the status quo have to be let go, at least for now.
One of the mistakes many of us made in the early days of radical feminism was not taking into consideration fully enough that not all women are going to be eager to join us. Some are wary and fearful, understandably since radical feminism takes courage because the powerful are determined we must not succeed. The financially insecure world that most now live in makes both those risks bigger (while it may make big changes more possible). Some benefit more than others from the status quo and don’t want to take the necessary risks of opposing it. Sometimes the few have to go first. And there are always opportunists among us who want to use the movement to get ahead personally. There is a major difference between individual advancement and social progress for the whole.
Another mistake was that we never got the leadership question right. Some carried into the WLM too much acceptance of the anti-leadership line that came out of the New Left. They were completely anti-structure. Leadership and structure are slippery things to pin down. We need adequate structure to carry out whatever tasks are before us. There are certainly some kinds of phony leadership that we need to avoid. Just because someone looks good or speaks well doesn’t mean that what they are saying represents us. Again, we want the right leadership for the task.
There are always going to be genuine leaders: the proven ones who go first, the ones who figure things out better, the ones who are most sensitive to what is needed at the moment and can point the way. These are not always one person, but can be a core who are able to bring their strengths to the group to work together. Even a group of leaders benefits from someone taking on the job of holding everything together.
My generation is leaving a lot of work, both theoretical and practical, to be done on this! We failed to organize the many local groups of the early WLM into a workable national and perhaps international structure. This is not an easy thing to do, but it is necessary to work at getting everyone on the same page for both strength and protection.
There is no blueprint for what is ahead. One thing is sure: the unexpected is sure to pop up. None of us conjured up the attack on feminism from trans ideology in our wildest dreams, yet here it is, draining time and energy from many! And who expected COVID-19 would be making organizing so much more difficult. In the U.S., few were ready for a Donald Trump presidency!
One thing I miss most about the original radical feminism was its ability to think deep and wide and demand much. Everything feels chopped up now, with strong criticisms of each other and a weak critique of the conditions in which we live.
We ask you for a message for actual and future generations of radical feminists.
Study the past for ideas and understandings so you don’t have to start from scratch.
Learn to be both a good leader and a good follower. They are both crucial.
Take yourselves and what you do seriously. It will have repercussions.
Don’t let fear stop you, but be smart, not reckless.
Beware of being co-opted. This is always a big danger. Those who offer money or other support often want something in return that we can’t afford to give up.
Don’t let fear of making a mistake paralyze you. Learn from those who went before you but don’t be intimidated. We’ve made mistakes too.
Be honest. People distrust liars and are smarter than you may think.
Study, agitate and organize!
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