What is Radical Feminism? - Theory & Examples

By Olivia Guy-Evans, published Aug 22, 2022 | Fact Checked by Saul Mcleod, PhD


  • Radical feminists believe that men are the enemy and marriage and family are the key institutions which allow patriarchy to exist.
  • For radical feminists in order for equality to be achieved patriarchy needs to be overturned. They argue that the family needs to be abolished and a system of gender separatism needs to be instituted for this to happen.
  • Sommerville argues that radical feminists fail to see the improvements that have been made to women's experiences of the family. With better access to divorce and control over their fertility women are not longer trapped by family. She also argues that separatism us unobtainable due to heterosexual attraction.

What Is Radical Feminism?

Radical feminism is a branch of feminism that seeks to dismantle the traditional patriarchal power and gender roles that keep women oppressed.

Radical feminists believe that the cause of gender inequality is based on men’s need or desire to control women. The definition of the word ‘radical’ means ‘of or relating to the root’.

Radical feminists thus see patriarchy as the root cause of inequality between men and women and they seek to up-root this. They aim to address the root causes of oppression through systemic change and activism, rather than through legislative or economic change.

Radical feminism requires global change of the system. Radical feminists theorize new ways to think and apprehend the relationships between men and women so that women can be liberated.

Radical feminism sees women as a collective group that has been and is still being oppressed by men. Its intent is focused on being women-centered, with women’s experiences and interests being at the forefront of the theory and practice. It is argued by some to be the only theory by and for women (Rowland & Klein, 1996).

What Are The Principles Of Radical Feminism?

Below are some of the key areas of focus which are essential to understanding radical feminism:

Patriarchal institutions

Radical feminists believe that there are existing political, social, and other institutions that are inherently tied to the patriarchy.

This can include government laws and legislature which restricts what women can do with their bodies, and the church, which has long restricted women to the maternal role, and rejects the idea of non-reproductive sexuality.

Traditional marriage is also defined as a patriarchal institution according to radical feminists since it makes women part of men’s private property.

Even today, marriage can be seen as an institution perpetuating inequalities through unpaid domestic work, most of which is still done by women.

Control over women’s bodies

According to radical feminists, patriarchal systems attempt to gain control over women’s bodies. Patriarchal institutions control the laws of reproduction where they determine whether women have the right to an abortion and contraception.

Thus, women have less autonomy over their own bodies. Kathleen Barry stated in her book Female Sexual Slavery (1979) that women in marriage are seen to be ‘owned’ by their husband.

She also suggested that women’s bodies are used in advertising and pornography alike for the male use.

Women are objectified

From a radical feminist standpoint, the patriarchy, societal sexism, sexual violence, and sex work all contribute to the objectification of women.

They accuse pornography of objectifying and degrading women, displaying unequal male-female power relations. With prostitution, radical feminists argue that it trivializes rape in return for payment and that prostitutes are sexually exploited.

The struggle against pornography has come to occupy such a central position in the radical feminist critique of male supremacist relations of power.

Campaigns against this are intended to tell women how men are willingly being trained to view and objectify them (Thompson, 2001).

Violence against women

Radical feminists believe that women experience violence by men physically and sexually, but also through prostitution and pornography.

They believe that violence is a way for men to gain control, dominate, and perpetuate women’s subordination. According to radical feminists, violence against women is not down to a few perpetrators, but it is a wider, societal problem.

They claim there is a rape culture that is enabled and encouraged by a patriarchal society.

Transgender disagreement

There is disagreement about transgender identity in the radical feminist community. While some radical feminists support the rights of transgender people, some are against the existence of transgender individuals, especially transgender women.

Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists (TERF) are members of the radical feminist community who do not acknowledge that transgender women are real women and often want to exclude them from ‘women-only’ groups.

For this reason, TERFs often reduce gender down to biological sex differences and do not support the rights of all those who identify as being a woman.

What Are The Goals Of Radical Feminism?

Structural change

Radical feminists aim to dismantle the entire system of patriarchy, rather than adjusting the existing system through legal or social efforts, which they claim does not go far enough.

They desire this structural change since they argue that women’s oppression is systemic, meaning it is produced by how society functions and is found in all institutions.

They believe that institutions including the government and religion are centered historically in patriarchal power and thus need to be dismantled.

They also criticize motherhood, marriage, the nuclear family, and sexuality, questioning how much of culture is based on patriarchal assumptions. They would like to see changes in how these other institutions function.

Bodily autonomy

Radical feminists emphasize the theme of the body, specifically on the reappropriation of the body by women, as well as on the freedom of choice. They want to reclaim their bodies and choose to be able to do what they want with their bodies.

They have argued for reproductive rights for women which would give them the freedom to make choices about whether they want to give birth.

This also includes having access to safe abortions, birth control, and getting sterilized if this is what a woman wants to do.

End violence against women

Radical feminists aim to shed light on the disproportionate amount of violence that women face at the hands of men. They argue that rape and sexual abuse are an expression of patriarchal power and must be stopped.

Through dismantling the patriarchy and having justice for victims of violence on the basis of sex, radical feminists believe there will be less instances of this violence.

Many also argue that pornography and other types of sex work is harmful and encourages violence and domination of men over women and should be stopped. They believe that sex work falls under patriarchal oppression of women and is exploitative, although some radical feminists disagree with this position.

Women-centered strategies

A main part of radical feminism is that they want strategies to be put in place to help women. This can include the creation of shelters for abused women and better sex education to raise awareness of consent.

Many radical feminists strive for establishing women-centered social institutions and women-only organizations so that women are separated from men who may cause them harm.

For instance, they may be against having gender neutral public bathrooms as this increases women’s risk of being abused by a man.

This is also where TERFs can be critical of transgender people as they do not want them in women-only spaces since they do not see a transwoman as a woman.

The History Of Radical Feminism

Radical feminism mainly developed during the second wave of feminism from the 1960s onwards in primarily western countries. It is influenced by left-wing social movements such as the civil rights movement.

It is thought to have been constructed in opposition to other feminist movements at the time: Liberal and Marxist feminism. Liberal feminism only demanded equal rights within the system of society and is criticized for not going far enough to make actual change.

Marxist feminism on the other hand, confined itself to an economic analysis of women’s oppression and believes that women’s liberation comes from abolishing capitalism. Although becoming popularized from the 1960’s there are believed to be radical feminists decades before this time.

For example, some of the actions of the women in the women’s suffrage movement in the early 20th century can be considered radical. Likewise, a 1911 radical feminist review in England titled The Free Woman published weekly writings about revolutionary ideas about women, marriage, politics, prostitution, sexual relations, and issues concerning women’s oppression and strategies for ending it.

It was eventually banned by booksellers and many suffragists at the time objected to it because of its critical position on the right to vote as the single issue which would ensure women’s equality (Rowland & Klein, 1996).

Radical feminism as a movement is thought to have emerged in 1968 as a response to deeper understandings of women’s oppression (Atkinson, 2014). The early years of second wave feminism were marked by the efforts of young radical feminists to establish an identity for their growing movement.

They argued that women needed to engage in a revolutionary movement which goes beyond liberal and Marxist movements. A significant radical feminist group which emerged around this time is the New York Radical Women group, founded by Shulamith Firestone and Pam Allen.

They attempted to spread the message that ‘sisterhood is powerful’. A well-known protest of this group occurred during the Miss America Pageant in 1968.

Hundreds of women marched with signs proclaiming that the pageant was a ‘cattle auction’. During the live broadcast of this event, the women displayed a banner that read ‘Women’s Liberation’, which brought a great deal of public awareness of the radical feminist movement.

A noteworthy writing prior to this time which may have been influential to the movement is Simone de Beauvoir’s 1949 book titled The Second Sex. In this book, she understands women’s oppression by analyzing the particular institutions which define women’s lives, such as marriage, family, and motherhood.

Another influential writing is Betty Friedan’s 1963 book titled The Feminine Mystique which addresses women’s dissatisfaction with societal standards and expectations. Her book gave a voice to women’s frustrations with their limited gender roles and helped to spark widespread activism for gender equality.

Strengths And Criticisms Of Radical Feminism

Radical feminism is thought to expand on earlier branches of feminism since it seeks to understand and dismantle the roots of women’s oppression. It is considered stronger than liberal feminism which only seeks to make changes within the already established system, which is considered not enough to make actual change.

Radical feminism has also been responsible for many of the advances made during the second wave of feminism. This is particularly true when it comes to women’s choice over their bodies and violence against women.

Due to the activism of radical feminists, sexual violence such as rape and domestic violence are now considered crimes in most western countries.

It has also been recognized that violence against women is not a series of isolated cases, but rather a societal phenomenon. Radical feminists have thus increased awareness of this issue.

A prominent criticism of radical feminism is the transphobia associated with TERFs. Many people who relate to a lot of the original ideas of radical feminism may have stopped identifying as a radical feminist due to its association with TERFs.

It is not only transphobic but is part of a wider movement which encompasses its feminist stance to partner with conservatives, with a goal to endanger and get rid of transgender people.

While radical feminism may have been progressive during its peak, the movement can be criticized for lacking an intersectional lens. It views gender as the most important axis of oppression and sees women as a homogenous group collectively oppressed by men. It does not always take into consideration the different experiences of oppression suffered by women with disabilities, women of color, or migrant women for instance.

As with a lot of branches of feminism, radical feminism is often dominated by white women. Radical feminists are often criticized for their paradoxical views of bodily autonomy.

They promote freedom of choice when it comes to women and what they do with their bodies, but they do not support women who choose to engage in sex work. They argue that all sex workers are oppressed, without recognizing that a good number of them use this work to reappropriate their own bodies or even to play on male domination.

The critical view that radical feminists have about sex work has contributed to the further stigmatization of this industry and it contradicts their message of ‘my body, my choice’ and their opposition to conservative views of sexuality.

If they supported bodily autonomy, then they should be happy to see a woman choosing to engage in sex work, as long as this is what she is choosing to do.

Are there different types of radical feminists?

According to Rosemarie Tong (2003), there are two types of radical feminism: libertarian and cultural. Radical libertarian feminists assert that an exclusively feminine gender identity limits a woman’s development, so they encourage women to become androgynous, who embody both masculine and feminine characteristics.

Radical cultural feminists argue that women should be strictly female and feminine and should not try to be like men. However, not all radical feminists fit into one of these categories.

What are radical feminists’ views on crime?

Radical feminists recognize that there is a disproportionate amount of violence against women including domestic abuse. In the 1970’s radical feminists labored to reform the public’s response to crimes such as rape and domestic violence.

Prior to the revision of policies and laws, rape victims were often blamed for their victimization. Due to the help of radical feminists, there is more justice for victims of gender-based violence.

What are radical feminists’ views on the family?

Adrienne Rich (1980) analyzed the compulsory nature of heterosexuality and claims that men fear that women could be indifferent to them and only allow them emotional and economic access on their own terms.

She suggests that the compulsory nature of heterosexual relationships allows men access to women as natural and their right. The family is considered to be an institution, which starts off with marriage and a legal contract where the reproduction of children naturally follows.

Many radical feminists may engage in political lesbianism, refuse to marry, and remain childfree as a way to not feel tied down by patriarchal institutions.

About the Author

Olivia Guy-Evans obtained her undergraduate degree in Educational Psychology at Edge Hill University in 2015. She then received her master’s degree in Psychology of Education from the University of Bristol in 2019. Olivia has been working as a support worker for adults with learning disabilities in Bristol for the last four years.

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This article has been fact checked by Saul Mcleod, a qualified psychology teacher with over 17 years' experience of working in further and higher education. He has been published in psychology journals including Clinical Psychology, Social and Personal Relationships, and Social Psychology.

Cite this Article (APA Style)

Guy-Evans, O. (2022, Aug 22). Radical Feminism Theory. Simply Sociology. https://simplysociology.com/radical-feminism.html


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