How Being Radical is Essential to Feminism

On October 8, my classmate and I went to a talk featuring bell hooks and Charles Blow in conversation about radical sexuality at the New School. Throughout the talk, hooks and Blow debated on many topics but the most significant debate was on the meaning of one word: radical. It may seem so simple, but this one word shaped the whole discussion about whether sexuality and sex should be described as radical.

(Photo credit: Mila Stieglitz)
bell hooks and Charles Blow talk about radical sexuality at the New School in early October. (Photo credit: Mila Stieglitz)

Blow argued that using “radical” made the subject of sexuality seem strange and also “othered” as something outside normal behavior.

Unlike Blow, hooks thought of “radical” as a way of amplifying the act of sex. She also argued that being radical is natural because we live in a world that is dominated by a “white supremacist imperialist patriarchal” society that does not want us to be ourselves therefore, simply being ourselves is a form of radicalism.

I agreed a lot more with hooks’ position on how sex and sexuality are radical because we often oversimplify sex to seem as if it only deals with straight people and penetration. If sex and sexuality only had to do with penetration and straight people, then the idea of it all would not be so controversial. Sex is controversial because it strongly correlates with culture, religion, traditions, socioeconomic status, gender, and most importantly, the culture of dominance. Culture, traditions, religion, socioeconomic status and gender create certain rules that restrict the fluidity of sex.  An example would be when hooks stated in the talk, that for some reason society believes that it is inevitable for men to have sex with each other in prison; however, once they leave prison this “habit” must be left behind. When many people argue against any sexuality that is not heterosexual, religion, traditions and culture will be used as a defense. The idea of even having sex that is not in the terms of certain religious, cultural and traditional practices (such as having sex out of marriage) are also denounced.

Many cultures and religions have different perspectives and rules on the concept of sex and sexuality. More importantly, the culture of dominance (the rules and regulations of those that are “in charge” or “in power”) decides who and what will be able to choose what these rules and perspectives will be. This is the main group that has been deciding what will be acceptable in certain societies through different forms of violence: colonization and slavery.

A prime example would be that most of the nations that we frown upon for having homophobic or transphobic laws have been colonized and have been following the laws established by wealthy men of European descent.  The problem with this is that almost always only one group—white heterosexual, wealthy, Christian, males—has a voice in deciding what these perspectives are while the voices of others are oppressed.

When I discovered the relationship between radicalism and sexuality, I realized how this talk related to feminism. For me, being a feminist means fighting the culture of domination that creates binaries and deems people being their natural selves as wrong.  Blow and hooks’s discussion on sexuality emphasized how feminist issues such as sex and sexuality can be considered radical. Feminism is about accepting yourself for who you are and others around you for who they are. Because of this, feminism is a form of radicalism.

hooks addressed this idea in the talk when she said that being “radical is coming into one’s self.” In her book, Feminism is For Everybody, she talks about the importance of consciousness raising groups during the second wave of the feminist movement in the U.S. and even now. Consciousness raising groups were groups where women, mostly white and middle class, were given the opportunity to talk to each other about the sexism that affected them and they had also “confronted their own sexism towards other women.” These consciousness raising groups were radical because they were a form of female bonding and as hooks writes, “female bonding was not possible within patriarchy; it was an act of treason.” These groups fought the patriarchy that constantly praised brotherhood but looked down on sisterhood.

My high school feminism class with Shibani Sahni. (photo credit:
My high school feminism class with Shibani Sahni. (photo credit: Ileana Jiménez).

hooks’ explanation of consciousness raising groups and feminist pedagogy reminds me of the kind of feminist pedagogy put into place at the Prerna Girls School in India. Around late September, Shibani Sahni of Prerna came to my high school feminism class to talk about how her school provides marginalized girls in Lucknow access to a feminist education. A feminist education is essential in India, where, according to Sahni’s presentation, a high rate of female feticide exists and around 1 million girls are killed in the womb every year. In some families, girls are treated more as a liability instead of as an asset.

Within the school, girls combat issues that are important to them through poetry,theater, and short plays. They even go into their own communities and perform plays on topics such as child marriage. When Sahni gave her presentation to the class, I realized that Prerna is a radical idea for girls’ education. It is the epitome of radical feminism in action because like the women in the consciousness raising groups, these girls had come together because of their similar struggles and they made their voices heard within a community that often silenced them. They went out into their communities and opposed the culture of dominance that prospered.

Later on in Sahni’s presentation to our class, she introduced an empowerment tool that they use at Prerna called SWOT. This acronym stands for strength, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. She explained that when they want to have the girls assess their successes, they ask them to examine both their strength and weaknesses, which are more internal, as well as opportunities and threats, which are mainly external. SWOT is a method used to teach the girls in the school how to empower themselves.  hooks would consider this feminist education being implemented in Prerna as radical.

Photo of Amalia Jaimes -Lukes (left) and I (right) presenting at our school's International Day of the Girl assembly. (photo credit: Steve Neiman)
Photo of Amalia (left) and I (right) presenting at our school’s International Day of the Girl assembly. (photo credit: Steve Neiman)

The positive impact that Prerna has had in Lucknow, India shows how providing an education for girls all over the world is essential to feminism.

At my school’s International Day of the Girl assembly, my classmate, Amalia and I did a presentation on global education. We focused on the issue of 62 million girls in the world who do not have access to an education.

Throughout our presentation, we addressed how education, such as the one provided at Prerna, empowers girls economically, making them assets to their families. With an education, girls are able to receive better jobs that will help their families financially.

Education makes girls in the world an asset, which is really different from what the culture of dominance has taught us. Giving women and girls around the world access to an education is a radical form of changing the view that girls are a burden to society.

Blow and many others may argue that the use of the word “radical” gives the subject a negative connotation, however, I believe that many people only think this because radical has been a word that has been misused to denounce anything that does not correlate with the culture of dominance. I learned a long time ago that using the word “radical” makes people feel uncomfortable. However, it seems that something is only radical when it does not fit into the white, hetero-normative, Christian, male perspective that dominates and colonizes almost every culture in the world. When we abandon these forms of dominance, we abandon the patriarchy.


7 thoughts on “How Being Radical is Essential to Feminism

  1. This piece was incredible. It gave me a deeper understanding to the meaning of radical and radicalization and made me self examine how I am radical . I love the line “we live in a world that is dominated by a “white supremacist imperialist patriarchal” society that does not want us to be ourselves therefore, simply being ourselves is a form of radicalism”. This blew my mind but also made me think a lot about when being yourself isn’t seen as radical, and when that would occur. I loved when you described what feminism meant to you, “fighting the culture of domination that creates binaries and deems people being their natural selves as wrong.” This is absolutely wonderful and eye opening and deep and a great article!

  2. I thought the way that you connected being a feminist with being radical was interesting because you talked about it in terms of “coming into oneself”. We have no choice but to look at our own internalized sexism and our sexism towards other women. Your point that the countries “we frown upon” have their homophobic or transphobic laws in place due to their colonization was one of my favorite parts, because it states how important decolonization is.

  3. You wrote that “education makes girls in the world an asset” and I completely agree! However, I think that a good education makes anyone (men, transpeople) an asset. To destroy the culture of dominance, everyone has to be woke.

  4. I really loved this piece! The connection between being a feminist and being radical is such a revolutionary and true idea. We need to acknowledge the internal shame and sexism that are emphasized on a woman’s sexuality and how women have a right to be able to come into and discover themselves the way men have the freedom to do so!

  5. When you talked about the idea of girls being an asset when they get an education is really interesting because you go on to talk about how it is much better in the long run. And it makes me think about how most things surrounding sexism and racism and all the -isms, are people thinking about what will happen directly after the action, not how it will help people out in the future. How do you think this change in thought will effect the -isms?

  6. This is an amazing blog post! I agree completely, “radical” seems to be given a negative connotation simply because being radical means to stray from the “capitalist imperialist white supremacist patriarchy.” I’m particularly intrigued by the idea of existence as an act of radicalism. You’re piece has really inspired me to reevaluate what it means to be radical.

  7. Very beautifully written. The concept of using radicalism to reject dominance is one that is truly powerful. I really love the way you frame radical as a word that can be used to empower and to deflect the harmful affects of the white patriarchy. It is another way in which we as feminists can begin to change the language that has been by the man to oppress us. Excellent post!

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