“The Whole Feminist Theory Upside Down”

An Interview with Carol Hanisch by Ksenija Kordic and other members of Femrevolt in Croatia

In the past two years, interview requests and articles have come from radical feminist writers and actitivist groups in Brazil, Portugal, Croatia and Chile. From the exchanges about women’s liberation theory, history and action, it’s clear that we are all grappling with very similar challenges to our thinking and organizing. While there are differences, it’s clear radical feminism in the U.S. is not “exceptional” or “different”. It’s similar to how we in the U.S. shouldn’t be talking about a fascistic Trump as if something like it isn’t happening in other countries suffering their own liberal or right-wing takeover.

We published an exceptional article by Black Brazilian radical feminist Amanda Martens in May last year. Then came an interview by Brazilian Aline Rossi currently active in Portugal in February followed by her article on theory and activism in Portugal in July. Below is an interview from FEMREVOLT in Croatia, and next week we will post one from FRESA in Chile. Although they overlap in some of the questions and replies, the questions in each came from a radical feminist activist or group and each has its own uniqueness, so we want you to see them all. We find it encouraging that there are so many younger women out there with whom we have much in common, who are struggling with many of the same ideas and organizing problems that inspire and plague us. To paraphrase a famous 19th century revolutionary, “Women of all countries, unite!” – even if it is only on the worldwide web just now. ­– Editors

About Femrevolt

In 2015 Ksenija Kordic and three other women founded a radical feminist organization Femrevolt for “re/contextualizing radical feminism into Croatian and ex-Yugoslav societal and political, especially leftist, sphere.” This was a group interview for their web-site for publishing theory, interviews and actions (femrevolt.com) They also have a Facebook page “very popular in all ex-Yu countries.”

The group participates in the annual March 8 Women’s March in Zagreb with thousands of people. “We always attend and use it as an opportunity to infiltrate with some radical slogans and we do our best to get noticed with our banners. This year we held an anti-porn banner ‘Porn is theory, rape is practice’ [top]. Last year’s banner was a call to revolution ‘Revolution will be female, or it won’t be’. [bottom]”

The Interview

FEMREVOLT: You coined a memorable feminist slogan “personal is political” arguing against individualist approach to women’s conditions under patriarchy, specifically advocating against “therapy” as a remedy for it. And one cannot unsee the recent advancement of gender politics going exactly in opposite direction, and to the extreme (with absurd pathologization and medicalization of gender non-conforming people, especially young butches), putting the whole feminist theory upside down. How is this possible?

CH: I would like to start by clarifying that I do not claim to have “coined” the slogan “The Personal Is Political” as is widely thought. I did write the position paper which explained and launched the concept in writing. I’d also note that I did not and do not use the word “patriarchy” to describe the system of male domination/supremacy that most of us in the U.S. and the world currently live under. There are exceptions, mostly in religions and cults, which are truly “rule by the father”, which is what patriarchy actually means. Using the term to describe our current situation is for the most part misleading. The beneficiaries of—and actors in—women’s oppression are not just fathers, but men in general and capitalist owners.

How we went from advocating collective struggle to individual struggle is a long, 50-year story, probably best summed up by calling it part of a merciless backlash against the Women’s Liberation Movement, especially its radicals. It came from individual men (and women), from the media, from the government, from corporations, and even from the CIA. It took the form of shunning, of isolating, of dividing, of punishing, of withholding support, of co-optation and other forms of marginalizing radical feminists and radical feminist theory. It came from replacing women’s liberation theory and collective struggle with going back to every woman for herself. They didn’t usually jail or shoot us but found ways to substitute a continuation of good old-fashioned individualism for the radical aim of liberation for all. The 1970s Redstockings book FEMINIST REVOLUTION analyzed a lot of this just as we were beginning to experience it big time. The book was bought by Random House, censored, not seriously promoted, and quickly left to die.  But you can still download it from the Redstockings web site.

It must be noted that the backlash against the Women’s Liberation Movement was also carried out against all the radical movements of the ’60s as the capitalist class sought to take back the ground it had lost. It came down hard on everyone, though in different ways. Several leaders of the Black Liberation Movement were jailed or killed. The labor movement was gutted with judicial rulings and new laws protecting the capitalist owners and an intensified buy off of opportunist union leaders.

Academia became a haven for many leaders of the various social movements. Rebelling students decided they should not just be aiding the working class revolution but that they were the revolution. Many have since taken their places in liberal political parties or in academia where they go along to get along. Having found a comfortable job, many have become complicit in formulating, teaching and exporting both a stunted history of the radical movements and disseminating theory that has aided the burial of the radical ideas and organizations that had made it happen. One of the most noxious of these theories is postmodernism, a combination of know-nothing-ism and the metaphysical. What better way to defeat women’s liberation than to confuse the definition of woman? Material explanations and truth went out the window.

What do you think about women’s privacy (more or less non-existent) and how does private relates to personal?

Private is the opposite of public. Everyone should have the right to privacy concerning his or her own body, but “personal” has to be considered in its context. In the early formative days of the WLM, we were often criticized by the Left, including many women, for wasting our time on “personal” issues instead of doing “political work.” They refused to see such issues as the right to decide whether or not to have a child, whether we wore skirts, high heels and makeup, whether we received sexual satisfaction from our mate, whether men shared the housework, whether free 24-hour child care was available as political issues. They might sometimes agree on the need for childcare, and equal pay for equal work and desegregating some jobs, but our demands to end the oppression of women in our daily lives were considered “personal” not problems for political activity.

Privacy takes on a political importance when it comes to organizing. In the early days of radical feminism we had to fight to keep men out of our women’s liberation meetings. In the beginning they called us names and occasionally tried to enter our meetings. We had to establish women’s right to meet separately from men. In an excellent paper (also published in FEMINIST REVOLUTION), “Separate to Integrate” Barbara Leon explained:

“In the early and mid-1960s, women active in the radical movement were beginning to take actions which confronted male supremacy in their organizations and the question of how to work with men on an equal basis. … From 1967 onwards, independent women’s liberation groups—groups both of and for women—began to form. The early founders were responding directly to the failure, and sometimes ridicule, which met their early efforts to raise the issues of women’s liberation in integrated movement groups. …”

The women’s movement is at that same point now [1975]. We can take the easier way of accepting segregation, but that would mean losing the very goals for which the movement was formed. Reactionary separatism has been a way of halting the push of feminism. Both building a separate power base and pushing for integration are necessary for the victory of women’s liberation. Women’s groups are pro­gressive only if they exist for the purpose of making themselves unnecessary.

As a woman who has always been unapologetically feminist and unapologetically left, how do you see the relation between the feminism and the left?

Women are and have always been active in the Left, even though we have often been forced to work unrecognized in the background. In 1968 I was forced out of a Left group that I very much liked because they could not accept the rising Women’s Liberation Movement which I was totally involved in. It broke my heart, but I did not ultimately give up on the Left. I came from a low-income background and was as committed to the victory of the working class as to the ending of male and white supremacy.

As uncomfortable as it may be, we have to acknowledge that feminism and the left need each other for either to succeed. And the working class is more than half women. Many of us recognize the need to work to end racism, but not so much the need to take on the class struggle. Even though we can make some limited gains, women simply can’t be liberated in a capitalist system. Given the powers that we are up against, we all need each other. We must use our organized force to insist on equality within Left organizations and that they support women’s liberation. We shouldn’t have to take on this double struggle, but I see no way to avoid it if we really want liberation.

None of this is easy and it doesn’t always feel good, though sometimes it feels absolutely great. If women are looking for easy, they won’t find it here, but if they seek genuine liberation, they’d best sign up. And on the positive side, the working class struggle and the climate crisis have the potential to unite us.

Considering that the most of the left is brocialist, do you think that men on the left are in conflict of interest? Could there be any real possibility of revolution when the left is held hostage by people that benefit from patriarchy (men)? 

Yes and yes. I do think it’s possible, but not without a huge united and focused effort. We have to liberate the Left from its male supremacy. When the women’s liberation was at its strongest in the late 1960s and early 1970s, we began to see some concrete changes in the Left as well as in general society. Then the backlash set it, many women gave up the collective struggle and went back to individual skirmishes and self-development, and we lost a lot of ground.

It’s not only possible that women force the Left to change, it’s necessary. Feminists can’t win alone and neither can the Left win without feminism. Capitalism is too strong. And feminist victories are very limited under capitalism. We need the redistribution of wealth that only genuine socialism can make possible to fund everything from the universal childcare to exit programs for the prostituted to everything else women need for liberation.

We mustn’t forget that men, the other half of humanity, need us too, unless we are to deteriorate into a fascist world. We know the most politically backward among Left men may never accept that, but we have to change the rest. Is there any possibility of revolution without either half of humanity? I don’t think so.

As someone with a huge experience in women’s political organizing, what do you think are the biggest obstacles and how to overcome them? How important is it to have women-only revolutionary organizations as opposed to mixed ones?

Female-only organizations whose reason for being is to fight male supremacy is crucial. Exactly what form that takes may vary depending on specific circumstances. Sometimes it takes organizing feminist caucuses—not just women’s caucuses—within Left organizations. But I don’t think we are at a point where such caucuses are sufficient.

We are facing so many obstacles. Many have been there all along, but our movement became strong enough to keep some at bay for a while. Others are developments we never dreamed of, like the transactivist males contending they are female and throwing up roadblocks and sapping our energy, time, and money—some even making physical threats or causing those who call them out to lose their jobs. They take the fruits of hard-won compensations for women as their own.

We seem to be back to having to convince women that they cannot liberate themselves individually, that it needs to be a collective effort. That’s easier to say than to do when individualist ideology rules society, not just women. However, there have been some positive developments in recent years, like the Me Too movement, which are helping break through the individualism that has plagued us. Young women are finding out anew that they share deplorable conditions with other women, that sexual harassment and assault didn’t happen to them because they personally did something wrong. Me Too is limited in scope and how it will play out in terms of ongoing feminist consciousness and organizing is not yet known.

Other collective struggles are having some success, like the fight for the $15 minimum wage, teachers and other strikes, immigration organizing, Black Lives Matter. All these help raise consciousness of the necessity to unite and fight.

We need to figure out forms of organization that suit our needs in the present. In the early days our main program was organizing and participating in consciousness-raising groups, but as the movement grew, we needed more structure to unify and concentrate the power we were building and to better protect the movement from both inside and outside interference, opportunism and co-optation.

You have argued that we should “listen to so-called apolitical women”. What do you think about right-wing women and RW alliances that radical feminists have made in the US (recently and in the 90’s)? Do you think such alliances are getting more dangerous since the right is currently peaking its power and we’re globally seeing the rise of fascism along with the decline of liberalism?

It’s very important to be organizing among right-wing women to win them over, not cringe away from them because their politics are not “woke” enough. But when it comes to making alliances that involve Right-wing groups, we have to be careful not to be dependent on their money and other resources. To do so is playing with fire. I understand such risks are tempting because we have so little support. Right-wing men often support right-wing women who are carrying out their agenda while Left wing men refuse to support us and often dismiss our demands as “identity politics”. This is absurd, of course, because being female is not an identity but a state of being that cannot be escaped and even has (reproductive) labor dimensions. The solution is more support from our side, not self-righteous castigation. 

There is an interesting parallel in your protest against Miss America and contemporary South Korean 4 B movement. Young Korean women are using the same kind of actions (burning bras, makeup and corsets in public) and it proves to be as shocking and provocative as the protest against Miss America was in the 60’s. What do you think, why are such feminist actions rare in the west which is far more likely to condemn wearing burqa and hijab nowadays?

Many young women in the west seem to be embracing femininity and “fun feminism” as “empowering.” It’s quite exasperating and depressing to see them dressing up in the “articles of female torture” that we so gratefully threw in the “Freedom Trash Can” at the 1968 Miss America Protest. This is largely due to the backlash and the successful suppression of the original radical feminist ideas that brought women into collective struggle. Women are back to individual appearance competition and it’s especially intense when one is young. As for the burqa and hijab, it’s easier to self-righteously condemn the situation of other women than to take a good look at our own. It can be comforting to feel grateful that others appear to have it worse than we do, even when our own situation is pretty bad. Is the “porn fashion” that attracts so many in the U.S. really so liberating?

What do you think about gun ownership and arming the proletarian class, especially women? In the light of the current geopolitical affairs, heightened militancy and rise of class violence, how does a feminist view onto the potential of armed struggle? I’m specifically addressing the perceived conflict of being an antimilitarist and a revolutionary.

This is not something I’ve ever been asked or have much personal experience with, though it’s certainly crossed my mind that we might be forced into armed struggle, given the direction things have been moving both here and globally. There can be wars to liberate and wars to exploit and oppress.

To me, non-violence can be a winning strategy, but only when it has the possibility of being successful. Many people think of the Civil Rights Movement in the U.S. in the 1960s was strictly non-violent, but many of those Black homes in the rural south had guns and used them when necessary in self-defense when the nightriders came. Those guns changed the power balance and most likely saved some lives. On the other hand, given the current military power of the state, including drones, it’s hard to see how advocating gun ownership is a winning proposition. Giving frustrated people a concrete plan and organizing with them would seem to be a better option. As for the feminist take on this, it’s like Sojourner Truth once said, “If it’s not a fit place for women to be, it’s not a fit place for men to be there.”

What’s your view on radical feminism today, its strong and weak points?

I hate to say it, but original radical feminism seems almost non-existent in the U.S. today, though there are still a few groups and individuals trying to keep it alive. A narrowed version of radical feminism that concerns itself mainly with pornography, rape, and other forms of violence against women – sometimes now referring to itself as “RadFem” – emerged in the late 1970s around Andrea Dworkin. Many radfems attribute this violence to an inborn male hatred of women (misogyny), which I don’t believe is true of most men. Women are not respected in male supremacist society, but I don’t believe this usually rises to the level of hate. Further, this theory of misogyny pretty much disregards the material benefits men and capitalists receive from other, non-violent everyday means of oppressing women to get such advantages as free or cheap labor both in the home and in the labor force, the better jobs, the higher pay, sex on their terms, and so on. Although I certainly oppose the pornography, prostitution, and rape that radfems focus on, this lacks the breadth and depth of the original radical feminist analysis—and that is a weakness. 

There are a number of inspiring stirrings going on around the world, like the South Korean women you mentioned. Also the Defend Rojava Kurdish Women’s Liberation Movement, Chile where “A Rapist in Your Path” flash mob action went viral and was performed by women in every country, in Mexico with #NiUnaMenos (#NotOneLessWoman) protests against femicide, the #KuToo Movement against mandatory high heels in Japan, to name just a few. 

Women are also very involved on the front lines of working class and social movements without accepting the proverbial backseat. It is no longer so unusual to see women organizing and leading these movements, writing books and articles, speaking in public gatherings and in the media. But that is not the same as a radical feminist movement that focuses its work on getting rid of male supremacy in society in general.

In addition to what I already noted about the backlash and other problems, we are now also dealing with the advance of fascistic tendencies in many governments around the world, including our own, which may call for more changes in tactics and strategies and how we organize.

#  #  #

We welcome your comments. If you have a problem posting, you may email them to MeetingGroundOnLine@verizon.net and ask us to post them for you.

1 comment for ““The Whole Feminist Theory Upside Down”

  1. Editors
    November 16, 2020 at 8:42 am

    This came into the Meeting Ground OnLine email from Amanda Martins in Brazil:

    Amazing interview, Carol! I really liked your approach towards the left and its sexism. It’s true that often (unfortunately) the left antagonize the feminism just to protect male privileges and keeping the male supremacy working but a lot of women in feminism but weirdly “apolitical” also use these problems as a form to attack the left as a whole, to not unite in the fight against capitalism and even support some of the right-wing’s politics.

Leave a Reply