Radical Feminism by Finn Mackay: a review


CW: Sexual violence

More academic than Caitlin Moran’s How To Be a Woman but by no means dry, Finn Mackay’s Radical Feminism (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015) offers an alternative to the plethora of humorous and heavily autobiographical texts on liberal feminism published lately. The book gives the uninitiated an overview of radical feminism – its ‘definition’, history, arguments, etc – with heavy focus on its Reclaim the Night movement, recently revived thanks to the hard work of many activists including author Finn Mackay.

It’s unusual to read about radical feminism lately, with the exception of the cries of ‘meninists’ and other anti-feminists that we’re all “too radical”. In fact, despite hearing the argument that feminism has become too extreme quite frequently during online and off-line debates, before picking up Radical Feminism, I had rarely read anything that seemed to cover radical feminism at all. The feminism of 2015 is overwhelmingly liberal – Finn Mackay describes it as “insidious”, dubbing it both “feminism-lite” and “choice-feminism”. “Choice-feminism” refers to the focus on a woman’s right to make her own choices, regardless of its wider implications within the feminist movement. As Mackacy describes in a recent article for the Guardian:

“There is an attempt, unfortunately fairly successful, to reduce feminism to simply being the right for women to make choices. Not choices about whether to stand for parliament, or instigate pay transparency in the office or lead an unemployed worker’s union, or form a women-only consciousness-raising group in their town; far from it.

Instead, there are choices about what amount of makeup to wear, whether to go “natural” or try mascara that makes your eyelashes look like false eyelashes, or what diet drink to buy, or whether or not to make the first move with a man – or other such modern and edgy decisions of the sort which face the feisty, sassy, pull-no-punches liberated woman of today. Excuse me while I am sick.”

– Finn Mackay

This would be the same school of feminism that places Beyonce at its head, despite her scantily-clad appearance in highly sexualised music videos and her pride in becoming ‘Mrs Carter’ (we were all relieved when she dropped that moniker – why be Mrs Carter when you can be Beyonce?) after marrying Jay Z. It’s messy and problematic, yes, but it’s also arguably more inclusive and welcoming than other forms of feminism. There’s no difficulty in seeing why it’s gathered so much support.

I’ve always considered myself a liberal feminist but after reading Mackay’s arguments, my eyes were opened both to the strengths of radical feminism and to the dangers of being ‘too liberal’ – after reading her book, I have to admit that I’m guilty of practising “choice-feminism” when it suits me.* Mackay’s four criteria for radical feminism are also ones which I believe the majority of us would agree with: First, the acceptance of the existence of patriarchy alongside a commitment to end it. Second, the use and promotion of women-only space as an organising method. Thirdly, a focus on all forms of male violence against women and their role as a keystone of women’s oppression broadly. Fourth and finally, an extension of the analysis of male violence against women to include the institutions of pornography and prostitution.

Mackay’s book encourages the reclaiming of a more revolutionary feminist stance and asks the reader to challenge beliefs previously thought to be set in stone. Even if you don’t end up changing your mind, reading different feminist arguments and realising you disagree with them helps you to develop your own ideas about the movement – another benefit of reading something more ‘radical’ than usual.

Mackay gives a clear overview into the history of radical feminism, briefly covering the other types of feminism: revolutionary (which overlaps considerably with radical), socialist, queer, etc, and giving considerable props to the second wave for its contribution to radical feminism. The theme of respecting the arguments and actions of past feminist activists runs through the book, and reminds us that there is much to learn beyond the glosses pages of third wave publications. With this in mind, Mackay plunges into the history of Reclaim the Night, established in the 1970s. It’s fascinating to see how this worldwide movement began, and to see how one of its main criticisms took root – specifically, the claim that the event is steeped in racism. This argument, as presented by Mackay, came about when the original marches were led through areas of London with high BME populations. Some people believed that this route was chosen due to an unspoken claim by the feminists marching that BME men were more likely to commit rape. However, Mackay defends Reclaim the Night with the explanation that most of the women marching lived in those areas, and so they were reclaiming the space they in particular spend the most time in. While it’s difficult to form an opinion without reading literature from both sides (and word count limits prevent me from summarising her argument in full here), she is passionate and convincing, and if anything, the chapter gives insight into the kinds of criticisms campaigners can face.

Critical claims of exclusivity, in regards to both Reclaim the Night and radical feminism itself, also apply to other groups. Mackay covers the arguments both for and and against the exclusion of men and transgender people from events (and the wider movement). This is where I run into problems with radical feminism – it tends to be more trans-exclusive, which I will never be on board with, and while I appreciate women-only spaces I think that men have something to offer (and plenty to benefit from) feminism. However, Mackay lines up the reasons people put forward regarding both groups – separately of course, lumping the two types of people in together would be an offensive statement in itself – letting you swill the arguments around in your brain like a fancy wine without jumping in to tell you how it tastes. This is one of her greatest skills, which is probably surprising to those that have read her articles. Mackay shows restraint when discussing the things she doesn’t agree with and only gives her personal thoughts on matters briefly. This gives the text more neutrality than you would expect. She identifies criticisms when they occur, whether they’re of a more focused topic like women-only spaces or of radical feminism itself, giving the criticisms context and accepting where they have merit should she find any. I was expecting to froth with rage at any trans-exclusive arguments but instead, I simply disagreed. This is no raging SCUM manifesto.

A small problem with Radical Feminism is the style of the prose. It’s difficult to walk the line between commercial and academic writing, and Mackay isn’t always successful. Casual flourishes which mention how comfortable an interviewee’s sofa was, or how cute her cats were, sit awkwardly amongst the more factual chapters and the section at the end which gives guidance on establishing your own Reclaim the Night event is far more informal than the rest, and feels much more natural. In comparison, the rest of the writing suffers from being stiff and is sometimes jarring in tone.

Overall, however, Radical Feminism is an interesting read and I’d recommend the book to others trying to branch out with their feminist education. I wouldn’t say I’m a radical feminist convert, but I would think twice before putting myself in either liberal or radical (or revolutionary, socialist, etc) category again. The book also served as an eye-opener in itself – I  realised that a) I felt nervous reading a book titled Radical Feminism on the Tube b) nobody actually cared. This in turn made me wonder whether radical feminism no longer provoked the kind of reaction it used to, whether the reaction online misrepresents the actual attitudes of people to radical feminism i.e the majority of people aren’t going to threaten you with death over it, and whether I was actually a huge coward rather than the 100% openly feminist person I thought I was. Finally, it made me wonder whether commuters would actually notice if I got on the Tube naked and sang Abba hits in the style of Pierce Brosnan. They just want to get to fucking work.

–  Jade Slaughter is editor of The Jar Belles and has written for The F Word, Parallel and Litro magazines. Follow her on Twitter: @msjadeslaughter.

 * See: my decision to wear make-up everyday. It has taken me 26 years to admit to myself that I don’t do this “because I want to”, because make-up is only really fun when it’s for a big night out or fancy dress, and 99% men sure as hell don’t bother with it. I do it because I feel unattractive in public without it. Hard truths, man.