If you’re old enough to remember the Second Wave of the Women’s Movement (the First Wave was for suffrage, from the mid-19th to the early 20th century), you may be among the few who are aware that the term “radical feminist” is much abused in popular usage, as if it meant “feminist-only-more-so.” But the term “radical” derives from the Latin radix, meaning “root,” and radical feminism saw the whole historical phenomenon of patriarchy – not the excesses of modern capitalism or sexist laws or lopsided institutional leadership – as the root cause of women’s problems that literally needed to be eradicated.
If you’re a woman chipping away at a system from within – say, by running for office or trying to crack the glass ceiling in your profession – that doesn’t qualify you as radical, no matter how compulsively you work at it. Or to put it another way, a Pagan priestess brewing up herbal birth control potions and promulgating the notion that the Creator is really the Creatrix is, by definition, a radical feminist; a Catholic nun agitating to get women ordained as priests isn’t. People who call Hillary Clinton or even the likes of Gloria Steinem a “radical feminist” have no idea what they’re talking about.
Radical feminism has its own illustrious history, epitomized in such organizations founded in the 1960s and ’70s as the New York Radical Women and the Redstockings, led by women like Ellen Willis, Shulamith Firestone, Ti-Grace Atkinson and Carol Hanisch. Authors associated with the movement, like Kate Millett, Andrea Dworkin, Phyllis Chesler, Robin Morgan, Mary Daly and Jill Johnston, coined concepts like “consciousness-raising” and “sexual politics” that became persistent countercultural memes. The radical feminists emphasized gender roles and managed to get more mainstream feminist groups like the National Organization for Women to add issues like reproductive choice, rape, domestic violence, pornography and prostitution to their agendas, which had hitherto focused more on economic issues like equal pay for equal work.
Eventually the formative radical feminist groups fell apart, partly due to their rejection of any sort of leadership other than consensus as being based on a patriarchal model: a view that prefigured organizational difficulties experienced more recently by the Occupy Movement. They clashed with the New Left over economic models of oppression and with free-speech absolutists over pornography. Many lesbians felt that their issues were being marginalized within the groups’ approach and split off to organize on their own. And other women’s rights activists, finding the radicals’ grand goals too idealistic and unachievable, opted to apply their energies pragmatically by working to reform existing systems.
But the influence of the early radical feminists changed the way that women’s issues are framed in modern thought, and it might fairly be said that they succeeded in their avowed quest to “subvert the dominant paradigm.” Some of the founding mothers are still stirring up trouble, and a couple of them will be on hand at Upstate Films in Woodstock on Sunday, March 8, to talk about their experiences following the 1:30 p.m. screening of Mary Dore’s new documentary about the movement, She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry. One of them is Sheila Isenberg, a Woodstocker who was one of the original New York Radical Feminists; the other, former Redstocking Carol Hanisch and author of The Personal Is Political, was the strategist behind the legendary protest against the 1968 Miss America pageant that got people to start thinking more critically about gender-based double standards regarding personal appearance. Hanisch lives in Ellenville today and runs the graphic arts studio Word/Graphics.
Described as chronicling the “heady, magnificent and moving days of glory” of the “outrageous, brilliant women who founded the modern women’s movement,” She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry will also be shown at 1:30 p.m. on Saturday, March 7 at Upstate Films in Rhinebeck in celebration of Women’s History Month. The 1:30 p.m. Rhinebeck screening on Saturday will be followed by a question-and-answer session with the film’s co-producer and editor, Nancy Kennedy.
Tickets for Upstate Films screenings cost $10 general admission, $6 for members. For more information call (845) 876-2515 or (845) 679-6608 or visit https://upstatefilms.org. To view a trailer for the film, visit www.shesbeautifulwhenshesangry.com.
She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry screening/discussion, Saturday, March 7, 1:30 p.m., Upstate Films Rhinebeck, 6415 Montgomery Street (Route 9), Rhinebeck, (845) 876-2515; Sunday, March 8, 1:30 p.m., Upstate Films Woodstock, 132 Tinker Street, Woodstock, (845) 679-6608; https://upstatefilms.org.