Finn Mackay has a mission: she aims to restore the revolutionary edge to feminism by reclaiming the political stance of radical feminism. In her view it has been undervalued, especially in contemporary feminist scholarship. The founder 11 years ago of the London Feminist Network, Mackay’s energy in rebuilding the feminist movement that she wants to see has been quite remarkable. This book, which is her account of the successes and challenges of this task, is a useful undertaking, and places it within its historical background and current global reach.
As she argues, we all tend to reflect the political outlook that first leaves its mark on us. As a teenager in a progressive family in rural Scotland in the early 1990s, Mackay was busy reading about the women-only peace camp at Greenham Common, before making her way, aged 17, to Yorkshire to the Menwith Hill Peace Camp (renamed Womenwith Hill by the female campers). There she made contact with older feminists including Alison Garthwaite who, along with Sheila Jeffreys, was a key voice of the militant revolutionary feminist current that appeared at the end of the heyday of second-wave feminism, in the late 1970s.
A feminist, anti-capitalist revolution is Mackay’s goal, and her means are to build upon women’s ‘self-organization’
When she moved to London in the early 2000s, still only in her twenties, Mackay found little in the way of bold feminist activism, and, with much bravado, decided to rebuild the movement herself. At the first meeting she called in 2004 to initiate an activist London network, only six women turned up, but that number multiplied quickly as the new London Feminist Network revived the Reclaim the Night marches of three decades previous. In the UK, these marches began in Yorkshire in 1977, in the midst of the serial sex killer Peter Sutcliffe’s attacks on women. The events were inspired in part by Take Back the Night, feminist protests against men’s violence towards women that had appeared earlier that decade in the US, and in part by European initiatives.
Without doubt, there has been an impressive and much-needed resurgence of movements against violence against women that draw attention to the brutal reality of the endemic, and in many places increasing, mistreatment and abuse of women by men around the globe. In this work, Mackay draws upon accounts from 25 activist women she interviewed for her doctoral research, and is convincing when she records that engaging in these marches brought an empowering sense of pleasure, agency and collective identity to the women involved. She is also clear and succinct in her summaries of radical feminism, which she sees as identifying women and men as two distinct political classes, and having four defining beliefs: in the universality of patriarchy and the need to end it; in the need for women-only spaces and political organising; in recognising male violence against women as a keystone of women’s oppression; in seeing institutions of pornography and prostitution as examples of male violence.
Mackay also highlights the small but vociferous (and originally Leeds-based) Revolutionary Feminism Group as a key offshoot of radical feminism in the UK. It championed “political lesbianism” and the complete withdrawal of women’s energies from men through “separatism”, outlined in a small booklet in 1981 “to question the role of heterosexual women within the movement, and indeed the desirability of heterosexuality at all”. The divisiveness of this stance remains, although Mackay plays it down, reporting that the group “clearly reassure heterosexuals that the lesbianism bit is not compulsory, and that celibacy is always an option”. Clear indeed, if hardly reassuring for feminist sinners!
She also addresses the controversy that Reclaim the Night marches have attracted, starting with the first one in Leeds where 30 women chose to march through Chapeltown, the centre of Leeds’ Afro-Caribbean community. Mackay is sensitive to the feminist critique that it is black men whose sexuality has always been portrayed as intimidating and violent, and they who have routinely been accused and punished for rape, if not lynched, when white men habitually go unpunished. She tends to agree with the Reclaim the Night marchers today who tell her that the movement has become “less angry” as it is co-opted by a mainstream that is more prepared to condemn men’s violence against women. In considering arguments for and against men’s presence on marches, she offers support for the argument, nowadays less popular, that they should be preserved as women-only spaces.
On the subject of the currently divisive issue – the presence of transgender or “trans” women on marches – Mackay, although condemning of what she sees as genuine transphobia, is sympathetic to the concerns of women who feel “unsafe” with people who did not live through the experience of being “the subordinate gender” when in their most formative years. In her diligent efforts to provide an overview of differing feminist currents, Mackay accepts much recent feminist theory, such as Judith Butler’s emphasis on gender as established through its coercive “performative” enactments. At the same time, she quotes approvingly Charlotte Croson’s view that “deconstructing woman is of absolutely no help in deconstructing male power” – by which she presumably means ending men’s continuing social and cultural dominance in most areas of life.
Although Mackay is aware of the familiar faultlines of her radical feminist text, she tends to downplay them. She provides no definition of pornography, which – alongside sex work – is presented as a cornerstone of male dominance. While she is surely right that most mainstream pornography demeans and objectifies women, and much commercial prostitution is exploitative of them, she still needs to establish exactly how, and why, it is these practices that remain overall key to the subordination of women. But no evidence is provided here that links their prevalence to shifts and continuities in gender relations. Indeed, she shows little interest in analysing any shifts in women’s social, cultural and political situation over the past generation, whether in the UK or elsewhere. Her overriding emphasis on male violence sidelines any such analysis.
Finally, Mackay insists that she, like all the feminist activists she interviewed, is politically on the Left, anti-capitalist and in favour of a peaceful, egalitarian world. Yet how you get from Reclaim the Night marches to such a goal remains unexplored. There is no discussion of whether or how segments of movements might form coalitions, or find some other way of working together to influence mainstream political parties. A feminist, anti-capitalist revolution is her goal, and her means are to build upon women’s “self-organization” and “lived experience from the ground up”. Mackay is well aware of the divisions between women, yet remains confident that once we organise ourselves separately from men, “opposing male violence”, we automatically head towards an anti-capitalist, socialist and peaceful future. Sadly, there are no arguments here to convince me that she is right.
Radical Feminism: Feminist Activism in Movement
By Finn Mackay
Palgrave Macmillan, 336pp, £14.99
Published 23 February 2015