Why We Are Feminists
This text, originally presented in pamphlet form, was written by radical feminist and environmentalist author Lierre Keith for Deep Green Resistance, an organization she founded.
In the words of Andrea Dworkin, “Feminism is the political practice of fighting male supremacy on behalf of women as a class.”
Let’s start with the phrase “women as a class.” From a radical perspective, society is made up of groups of people; some groups have power over other groups. The powerful use ideology to naturalize their dominance and the subordinate group’s submission: if society is actually arranged by nature or god or the cosmos, then there’s no point in fighting it. Ideology can be very effective at foreclosing resistance. The model of racism we have inherited in the US was originally created by the English in their attempts to colonize Ireland. Before that, differences between peoples were seen as cultural. But by the 17th century, the English had solidified an ideology that made biological claims about the supposed inferiority of the Irish. The Irish weren’t culturally deficient—they were by their nature “savage.”
The English image of the Irish was constructed around the concept that they were a separate “race” from the English, a race that was godless, immoral, lazy, “wicked, barbarous and uncivil.” Underpinning this image was “the belief that many Irish were incapable of being civilized, that the ‘wild’ Irish, those who most vigorously resisted English hegemony, would remain untamed: and that the only way to bring them under some form of civilized control was to enslave them.” With this racial ideology, people around the world could be enslaved or simply wiped out with no ethical or moral reservations on the part of the colonizers. That’s pretty much the last four hundred years in one sentence.
The point is that race is not biologically real. Politically, socially, economically, race is, of course, a brutal reality around the globe. But the concept of race is a creation of the powerful. If we want a just world, the material institutions that keep people of color subordinate need to be dismantled. And the concepts of “whiteness” and “blackness” themselves will ultimately be abandoned as they make no sense outside of the realities of white supremacy.
A lot of people get confused when asked to apply the same radical analysis to gender. But from a feminist perspective, the parallels are obvious. Are there differences in skin tone across the human species? Yes. Why do those differences mean anything? Because a corrupt and brutal arrangement of power needs an ideology called racism. Are there differences in the shapes of people’s genitals? Yes. Why do those differences matter? Because a corrupt and brutal arrangement of power—patriarchy—needs an ideology called gender.
Are there differences in skin tone across the human species? Yes. Why do those differences mean anything? Because a corrupt and brutal arrangement of power needs an ideology called racism. Are there differences in the shapes of people’s genitals? Yes. Why do those differences matter? Because a corrupt and brutal arrangement of power—patriarchy—needs an ideology called gender.
Patriarchy is a political system that takes biological males and females and turns them into the social categories called men and women, so that the class of men can dominate “people called women.” Gender is to women what race is to people of color: the ideological construct that underlies our subordination. Men’s socialization is the process that turns a child into a boy and then into a man. Being a man requires a psychology based on entitlement, emotional numbness, and a dichotomy of self and other. Masculinity is essential to any militarized culture, because those are the psychological traits necessary in soldiers. One can only kill on command if the human impulse to care for one another has been subdued or eradicated. The constant need to turn others into Others is one result: the rejected, “soft” parts of the self are projected outward so they can be destroyed. This is a project that will likely never end as humans do have hearts and souls, and those can never be excised, try as men might. The Viet Nam vets who suffered the worst post-traumatic stress weren’t the ones who survived atrocities, but those who committed atrocities.
Patriarchy is a political system that takes biological males and females and turns them into the social categories called men and women, so that the class of men can dominate “people called women.” Gender is to women what race is to people of color: the ideological construct that underlies our subordination.
Masculinity requires what psychologists call a negative reference group, which is a group of people “that an individual … uses as a standard representing opinions, attitudes, or behavior patterns to avoid.” Boys in patriarchal cultures create negative reference groups as a matter of course. Boys’ first despised Other is, of course, girls. No insult is worse than some version of “girl,” usually a part of female anatomy warped into hate speech. But once the psychological process is in place, the category “female” can easily be filled in by any group that a hierarchical
society needs dominated or eradicated. A personality with an endless drive to prove itself against another, any other, combined with the entitlement that power brings, creates a violation imperative. Men become “real men” by breaking boundaries, whether it’s the sexual boundaries of women, the cultural boundaries of other peoples, the political boundaries of other nations, the genetic boundaries of species, the biological boundaries of living communities, or the physical boundaries of the atom itself.
For the entitled psyche, the only reason “No” exists is because it’s a sexual thrill to force past it. The real brilliance of patriarchy is right here: it doesn’t just naturalize oppression, it sexualizes acts of oppression. It eroticizes domination and submission. Through the concepts—and lived reality—of masculinity and femininity—patriarchy institutionalizes domination and submission across the culture and deep into our psychologies. And so men commit brutal and violating acts as a matter of course. Psychological profiles of rapists have found “that they are ‘ordinary’ and ‘normal’ men who sexually assault women in order to assert power and control over them.” Battering is the most common violent crime in the US, committed once every fifteen seconds. That’s a man beating up a woman. It’s one of the leading causes of injury and death to women in the US. A Canadian survey found that four out of five female undergraduates had been victims of violence in a dating relationship. The World Health Organization estimates that “one in four women will be raped, beaten, coerced into sex or otherwise abused in her lifetime, sometimes with fatal consequences.” Anything happening on this scale is clearly normal, a part of everyday life, the behavior into which a global culture of male dominance is socializing men as a matter of course.
The real brilliance of patriarchy is right here: it doesn’t just naturalize oppression, it sexualizes acts of oppression. It eroticizes domination and submission. Through the concepts—and lived reality—of masculinity and femininity—patriarchy institutionalizes domination and submission across the culture and deep into our psychologies.
Right now, patriarchy is the ruling religion of the planet. Women are just another resource for men to use in their endless quest to prove their toxic masculinity and breed soldiers for civilization’s constant state of war. The masculinity and the war—against people, against the planet—together have created a perpetual motion machine of domination and destruction of the land and human rights. This is why militarism is a feminist issue, why rape is an environmental issue, why environmental destruction is a peace issue. We will never dismantle misogyny as long as domination is eroticized. We will also never stop racism. Nor will we mount an effective resistance to fascism, since, as Sheila Jeffereys points out, fascism’s root is ultimately the eroticization of domination and subordination—fascism is in essence a cult of masculinity. Those are all huge spin-outs from the same beginning. The result is torture, rape, genocide, and biocide.
And the deep heart of this hell is the authoritarian personality structured around masculinity. Lundy Bancroft, writing about the mentality of abusive men, writes, “The roots [of abuse] are ownership, the trunk is entitlement, and the branches are control.” You could not find a clearer description of patriarchy’s reign of terror. What of femininity? Femininity is a set of behaviors that are in essence ritualized submission. Female socialization is a process of psychologically constraining and breaking girls—otherwise known as “grooming”—to create a class of compliant victims. Across history this breaking has including so-called “beauty practices” like FGM (female genital mutilation) and footbinding as well as ubiquitous child sexual abuse. Femininity is really just the traumatized psyche displaying acquiescence.
It’s become chic to embrace trendy notions from Post-modernism in some activist circles. This includes the idea that gender is a “binary.” But gender is not a binary: it’s a hierarchy, global in its reach, sadistic in its practice, murderous in its conclusion, just like race, just like class. Gender is the ideology that underlies the material conditions of women’s lives: rape, battering, poverty, prostitution, and gynocide. Those conditions could not exist without the creation of social categories “men” and “women”—and those violent, violating practices are in turn are what create people called women. Those conditions, known in the aggregate as patriarchy, have to be resisted and dismantled, until the concept of gender no longer has meaning.