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Feminism 101

What is feminism?

As writer and editor Marie Shear famously wrote in 1986, "Feminism is the radical notion that women are people." In other words, feminism is a commitment to achieving the equality of the sexes. This radical notion is not exclusive to women: men, while benefiting from being the dominant sex, also have a stake in overcoming the restrictive roles that deprive them of full humanity.

Though the media has maligned feminism as a drive for selfish fulfillment by female professionals, those who stand to gain the most are actually those who have the least. The demand for full equality for all women is profoundly radicalizing when it addresses the additional layers of discrimination women experience because of class, race, sexuality, disability, and age, and also the heightened impact on women and children of war, poverty and environmental degradation. Multi-issue feminism quickly develops into a critique of the whole social system. As Clara Fraser, the pioneering theorist and builder of socialist feminism, wrote, "The logic of feminism is to expand into generalized radicalism." (See Clara Fraser, "The Emancipation of Women," in Revolution, She Wrote .)

Types of feminism

As with every social movement, feminism encompasses a variety of political tendencies. There are three main types of feminism: socialist, reformist, and radical/separatist.

--Socialist feminism (which can also be termed Marxist feminism or materialist feminism) traces the oppression of women to inequalities that developed in connection with the class system of private property. Socialist feminists view gender inequalities as intrinsic to the capitalist system, which makes vast profits off women's unpaid labor in the home and underpaid labor in the workforce. Like racism, homophobia and other forms of bigotry, sexism divides the working class and thereby allows the capitalists to make super-profits. Because these different forms of oppression have a common source, they also have a common solution: socialism. Socialist feminists seek to eliminate the capitalist system and replace it with socialism, which collectively shares the wealth created by human labor and has no economic stake in maintaining exploitation. Socialist feminists believe that the leadership of women and other oppressed people in a worker-run democracy will be able to root out chauvinist practices and psychology quite quickly. Radical Women is today's leading socialist feminist women's organization. Since its inception it has called for multi-issue organizing strategies, independent from capitalist political parties, that prioritize the needs of the most oppressed women. Radical Women is affiliated with the Freedom Socialist Party, a revolutionary socialist feminist party of men and women.

--Reformist feminists believe that gender inequality can be eliminated through legislative or electoral reforms without the need to alter the capitalist system itself. Groups such as the National Organization for Women and NARAL/Pro-Choice America typify reformist feminism. Because they limit their efforts to what can be achieved within the current system, they orient primarily to more privileged white, middleclass women many of whose needs can be at least partially or temporarily ameliorated by reforms. Their approach is single-issue and aimed at swaying politicians and donors.

--Radical feminists target male psychology or biology as the source of women's oppression. The most extreme form of radical feminism is separatism, which advocates a total break with men. By posing an all-inclusive sisterhood as the solution to patriarchy, radical feminists overlook the class differences that prevent women as a whole from having the same interests. They often minimize the importance of solidarity between women and men of color in the fight against racism. They tend to ignore issues that don't relate directly to a narrowly defined female experience. The magazine off our backs and the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival are long-established upholders of radical feminist ideology. Radical feminists are extremely bigoted against transgender people, and actively organize against them. For insights on this question, see the Radical Women pamphlet "Unpacking Transphobia."

To cite this page: "Feminism 101," Red Letter Press, 27 August 2007, http://www.redletterpress.org/feminism101.html (accessed Date Month Year).