The Need for Revolutionary Feminism

The Need for Revolutionary Feminism, by Sheila JEFFREYS.

[Paper presented at the 1977 national Women’s Liberation Movement Conference in London by Sheila Jeffreys and re-printed in the Socialist Feminist journal ‘Scarlet Woman’, Issue 5. The 1977 national WLM Conference was attended by approx 2500 – 3000 women. It was held in Islington in April 1977 and was followed by the (as yet) last national WLM Conference the following year in Birmingham in 1978.The national conferences are seen to have begun with Ruskin in 1970 and formulated the Seven Demands].

“The Need for Revolutionary Feminism

There is a need for revolutionary feminism for two very important reasons – one is the liberal takeover of the women’s liberation movement, and the other is the grave lack of theory in the movement.

The Liberal Takeover of the Women’s Liberation Movement

There is a widespread hesitation to use the word ‘liberation’ and the reason given is that ‘lib’ is used pejoratively in the media and as a result the word has committed verbicide and now can only serve to provoke amusement and distaste. I believe that this tendency fits in well with other developments within the movement over the last few years towards a playing down and restricting of our revolutionary potential. There is a growing trend towards seeing the transformation of sex-roles as the desirable end of women’s liberation. Sex-roles can be transformed without any real change in power. Men can do housework and run crèches but this change of roles, which even the revolutionary left sees as desirable, can serve the interests of a state which seeks to have women at work without too much dissent and commotion. Will this change in sex-roles lead to women raping men and sticking jagged objects up them on waste ground? I think not, since the way male sexuality is used to control women on the streets, eg. flashing and rape, will continue while men are the ruling class and changing sex-roles does not seriously threaten their power.

Another development is the ‘educational’ role of the women’s liberation. Quite a few women’s groups have taken it upon themselves to talk to Women’s Institutes, church groups, etc. and have deliberately played down the meaning and the frightening aspects of women’s liberation, eg. by concealing or even lying about the fact that they are lesbians. The women’s liberation movement is, and should be seen to be, a threat, and I cannot see that it serves a useful purpose to represent it as mixed Tupperware party with men doing the coffee.

Another development is towards life-stylism. It is possible to live with women, be in a women’s food co-op, attend classes at the Women’s Free Arts Alliance and go to women’s discos. Meanwhile the need for political feminism, the development of theory and strategy to wrest power from the hands of men is ignored. What will happen is that the women’s liberation movement will be transformed into a socially acceptable alternative to the Townswomen’s Guild under their noses, and then it will be too late.

Another problem is ‘Spare Rib’. The ethos of the Spare Rib Collective is, apparently, to eschew theory or indeed ‘radicalism’ since the paper is aimed at a wide spectrum of women and at encouraging women into the movement. Therefore Spare Rib becomes bland and platitudinous and anger and hate towards men – on which all energy of the movement was originally based – are completely left out.

The Need for Theory

My second reason for the need for revolutionary feminism is the lack of theory in the women’s liberation movement. There is enormous suspicion of theory as being a male invention and writing about the personal, lifestyles and sex-roles purports to be theory in itself. Meanwhile, socialist feminists produce theory which is an adaptation of Marxism, and indeed they are doing this with such prolific strength that they are seen to have fulfilled the gap which was the lack of theory and strategy for feminists. I do not accept they have. There used to be ‘radical feminists’ who produced theory of the reasons – historical, psychoanalytical, etc – for women’s oppression, and tried to suggest on the basis of their analysis what strategy women should adopt to end it. Perhaps they still exist, but they are not making themselves felt and seem to have gone into hibernation. It is exciting to read about radical feminism when entering the WLM but it is difficult to find any women who actually espouse and expound radical feminist theory.

In fact, the term ‘radical feminist’ is now used to cover such a broad spectrum of positions that I do not consider it a very useful term to describe a revolutionary feminist position. Revolutionary politics is about power. It involves the concept of power being the hands of a particular group in society and being used to exploit and control another group or groups. It involves the determination to wrest power from the ruling group and to end their domination. It requires the identification of the ruling group, its power base, its methods of control, its interests, its historical development, its weaknesses and the best methods to destroy its power.

We need theory so that we can work out what are constructive and potentially revolutionary demands for women. We need it so that we do not just lump together the spectrum of apparently feminist demands at present being made, as equally desirable. We need to know where to put our weight so as to expose and embarrass men’s interests and weaknesses, to force them to take a stand and reveal their colours. Such an issue could well be fatherhood, or total female control over childbirth.

The Basis of Revolutionary Feminist Theory

Becoming a revolutionary feminist does not require the abandonment of socialism. As a revolutionary feminist, I see in existence two class systems, one is the economic class system based on the relationship of people to production, the second is the sex-class system, based on the relationship of people to reproduction. As a woman, it is the second class system which oppresses me most and which dominates and pollutes my day to day existence, through my fear on the streets at night, the eyes, gestures and comments of males in every contact with them, etc. to be a socialist feminist, I would have to accept a unity of interests between myself and a group of men and to accept that my fear and humiliation come from capitalism and not men, and that I cannot do.

To construct revolutionary feminist theory, concentration on reproduction is crucial. It is in no way enough for revolutionary left groups to hold workshops on ‘sexuality’ or the ‘family’. They must talk about that frightening and difficult subject, ‘reproduction’. Economic class could be eliminated in the socialist society of the future. The son of an ICI director brought up on a Lambeth council estate would resemble anyone else brought up on that estate. Colour would be eliminated as a division by turning the world into a ‘great big melting pot’. But the differences between men and women cannot be eliminated. Women’s bodies are the factories in which children are produced and who controls these factories controls the reproduction of life and the future of the human race itself.

Patriarchy, the rule of men, has existed from as far back in human history as we have evidence for (before economic class society). It is based not only on the exploitation of women as a class, but upon the ownership and control of their reproductive powers. No matter how much we ‘socialise’ childcare and how much toilet cleaning men are constrained to do, reproduction will still be a female function. I was disturbed to hear, at a socialist feminist workshop, of the desirability of the socialisation of our bodies. For whose benefit? Men already control our bodies and could cheerfully do so in the future in the name of ‘socialisation’ of our bodies and the collective ownership of children.

The above ideas are a fraction of the debate around the idea of sex-class and are meant to promote discussion. If I have trodden on any toes, it is in the hope of provoking a response. It is my aim that a strongly political feminism can develop around revolutionary theory so that the WLM can remain a LIBERATION movement, I would also like to see a network of women develop who are interested in discussing these ideas because it can be very lonely and frustrating to be a revolutionary feminist even within the WLM.”

Sheila Jeffreys. 1977


Gender Matters !

“A frequent criticism of radical feminism is that it supports a biologically based “essential” division of the world into male and female. In particular this accusation is charged against radical feminists working in the area of violence against women who name men as a social group, as well as individual men where relevant, as oppressors of women.

The facts are that men brutally oppress women as radical feminists have empirically shown. But why do men do this? Can it be changed? Kathleen Barry has addressed these issues in her analysis of sexual slavery which we discussed earlier. She states that men do these things to women because “there is nothing to stop them” (1979, p. 254). Her analysis of the values of patriarchy and theories which supposedly account for male violence is too detailed to discuss here. The important point to stress is that radical feminism cannot be reduced to a simplistic biological determinist argument. That its critics often do thus reduce it is a political ploy which takes place in order to limit the effectiveness of its analysis. Women have good reasons for being frightened to name men as the enemy, particularly when they live in hetero-relationships: punishment is often meted out for exposing patriarchy and its mechanisms (see Sally Cline & Dale Spender: 1987).

Christine Delphy argues that the concept of gender—that is the respective social positions of women and men—is a construction of patriarchal ideology and that “sex has become a pertinent fact, hence a perceived category, because of the existence of gender” (1984, p. 144). Therefore, she argues, the oppression creates gender, and in the end, gender creates anatomical sex (p. 144), “…in a sense that the hierarchical division of humanity into two transforms an anatomical difference (which is in itself devoid of social implications) into a relevant distinction for social practice”.

Radical Feminists are well aware of the dangers of basing analysis in biology. If men and women are represented as having “aggressive” and “nurturing” characteristics because of their biology, the situation will remain immutable and the continuation of male violence against women can be justified. But this is not to say that there are not differences between the sexes. This is patently so. These differences, however, do not need to be rooted in biology nor do they need to be equated with determinism. As the editors of Questions Feministes put it (1980, p. 14): “…we acknowledge a biological difference between men and women, but it does not in itself imply a relationship of oppression between the sexes. The struggle between the sexes is not the result of biology”.

Men are the powerful group. But men need women, for sexual and emotional labour, for domestic labour, for admiration, for love, and for a justification of the existing power imbalance (see Cline and Spender: 1987). In order to maintain the more powerful position and so feed on their need of women without being consumed by it, men as a powerful group institutionalise their position of power. This involves the need to structure institutions to maintain that power, the development of an ideology to justify it, and the use of force and violence to impose it when resistance emerges (see also Rowland: 1988).

It is possible that differences between women and men arise out of a biological base but in a different way to that proposed by a reductivist determinism. The fact that women belong to the social group which has the capacity for procreation and mothering, and the fact that men belong to the social group which has the capacity to, and does carry out, acts of rape and violence against women, must intrude into the consciousness of being female and male. But this analysis allows for change in the sense that men themselves could change that consciousness and therefore their actions. It also allows women to recognise that we can and must develop our own theories and practices and need not accept male domination as unchangeable.

Existing differences between women and men may have been generated out of the different worlds we inhabit as social groups, including our experience of power and powerlessness. Again this is not to say that these differences are immutable. The history of women’s resistance is evidence of resistance to deterministic thinking, as is the history of the betrayal of patriarchy by some men who support feminism.”

-Klein, Renate; Bell, Diane (1996-05-01). Radically Speaking: Feminism Reclaimed p.33-34

“One of the most common misreadings of radical feminist thinking is that it is essentialist; that it locates the source of women’s subordination in female biology and/or male biology. For example, although they state that not all radical feminists accept “biological theories”, british sociologists Pamela Abbot and Claire Wallace nonetheless feed this caricature of radical feminism as biologically determinist when they claim in their introduction to feminist perspectives in sociology that:

Women’s oppression is seen as rooted in women’s biological capacity for motherhood or in the innate, biologically determined aggression of the male, as manifested in rape (1990, p. 12)

The supposed essentialism of radical feminist perspectives can be seen, in part, as the outcome of a tendency, which in some cases would seem to be deliberate, to reduce the diverse strands of radical feminst thought to a relatively few sources. For instance, Shulamith Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex, first published in 1970, is still frequently cited twenty-five years later as if it were representative of what is termed the radical feminist “position”. Although issues of sexuality and reproduction remain central to radical feminist theorizing in the nineties, few radical feminists nowadays would agree with Firestone’s view that gender divisions are the outcome of natural biological differences between the sexes.”

-Diane Richardson, in Radically Speaking: Feminism Reclaimed p.143-44 Klein, Renate; Bell, Diane (1996-05-01).


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