Radical Secular Feminism

The OCR DCT A2 specification lists body, difference and androgyny as the issues that you should consider within your study of radical and naturalist feminism.

You also need to know about Post-Christian feminism and alternative Christianity - both of which could be also described as 'radical'.  There is a separate page for the theological radicals.

What is radical feminism?

Rosemarie Tong's chapter on radical feminism in her book Feminists Thought is excellent and well-worth reading.  A lot of the material on this page has been taken from there.

Radical feminists are concerned with many of the same issues as reconstructionists and liberals.  Rosemarie Tong suggests that radicals are much more interested than either liberal or reconstructionists in the ways men have controlled:

  1. Women's bodies (especially their reproductive capabilities)
  2. Women's sexuality

Radicals also (as the name suggests) tend to propose more extreme solutions to the problems faced by women in society than either the liberals or the reconstructionists.  As Tong warns, 'radical feminism is still evolving in many directions at once' and not all radicals think the same thing!


Shulamith Firestone:

Shulamith Firestone came from an Orthodox Jewish family which maintained strict gender specific roles.  

Later, her sister later became a rabbi in the Reform tradition.

Shulamith Firestone (b. 1945) was a Canadian born feminist who in 1970 (when she was only 25) published a book called The Dialects of Sex.  She was influenced by Engels and Marx and previous feminists like Simone de Beauvoir.

Firestone agreed with Marx and Engels that the history of the world was a history of class struggle. However, she rejected the idea that the class divisions were economic.  She argued that the original division was between 'two distinct biological classes for procreative reproduction'.  In the class (gendered) struggles that followed women have been disadvantaged due to their biological difference and this has enabled men to exploit them.

'Women throughout history before the advent of birth control were at the continual mercy of their biology—menstruation, menopause, and 'female ills,' constant painful childbirth, wet-nursing and care of infants, all of which made them dependent on males (whether brother, father, husband, lover, or clan, government, community-at-large) for physical survival.'

Firestone, The Dialects of Sex (1970)

Rosemarie Tong explains Firestone's reasoning thus:

‘Because Firestone believed that the roots of women’s oppression are biological, she concluded that women’s liberation requires a biological revolution, in much the same way that Marx concluded that the essentially economic oppression of workers required an economic revolution. Whereas the proletariat must seize the means of productions in order to eliminate the economic class system, women must seize control of the means of reproduction in order to eliminate the sexual class system; and just as the ultimate goal of the communist revolution is, in a classless society, to obliterate class distinctions, the ultimate goal of the feminist revolution is, in an androgynous society, to obliterate sexual ones.

Unlike the naturalistic feminists (see below) who see women's role in childbearing as something distinctive to women and as such should be celebrated, Firestone believed that what was natural is not necessarily good.  

She thought that women should be liberated from the 'barbaric' nature of pregnancy.  In The Dialects of Sex she argued that far from being an amazing and wonderful experience '...childbirth is at best necessary and tolerable. It is not fun. (Like shitting a pumpkin, a friend of mine told me when I inquired about the Great-Experience-You-Are-Missing.)'

Women, as the exploited underclass, should 'own the means of production' and take control of the things used to exploit them.  I.e. women must take control of childbirth.

Contraception and abortion provide women with some ability to control their own destiny but ultimately Firestone wanted to go beyond this. The Dialects of Sex was written before the first successful test tube baby, but she hypothesised that as technology developed it would become possible for babies to grow in artificial wombs.

'Unless revolution uproots the basic social organization, the biological family..the tapeworm of exploitation will never be annihilated.'

'Feminism, when it truly achieves it's goals, will crack through the most basic structures of our society.'

Firestone's views about the family are among her most radical and controversial ideas.  She thought that the traditional nuclear family was not 'natural' but was a cultural construct that developed from the need to raise children in a certain way. In addition, she thought that it was damaging because it was partly responsible for inequality in the world. There can be huge differences in the type of start in life that children get; some are born into privilege, others into deprivation. This is exacerbated by the principle of inheritance which allows parents to ensure that their own children are in a position to do well in the world by leaving them money and resources.

It is important to note that her suggestions for the future are speculative.  Intended in her words 'to stimulate thinking in fresh areas rather than to dictate the action.'  I.e she was trying to get people thinking, she was not saying that this must be the case.

Firestone hypothesised that it would be better if children were not raised solely by two biological parents in the traditional heterosexual nuclear family unit. She thought that it would be better for children to be raised communally by a larger group of adults.  She also thought that this would be better for children who currently are over-parented.  She said 'The best way to raise a child is to LAY OFF!'  By all accounts she herself had a turbulent relationship with her own father and clashed with him often.

Another way of creating a fairer society (according to Firestone) is the abolition of gender norms.  Rather than expecting people to identify as either male or female society should remove these expectations.  Biological sex then becomes unimportant; people become essentially androgenous.  This would permit people to have more genuine free choice when it came to relationships. Heterosexual relationships would not be seen as 'normal' and homosexual ones as perverted/abnormal/alternative.

'The end goal of feminist revolution must be, unlike that of the first feminist movement, not just the elimination of male privilege but of the sex distinction itself: genital difference between human beings would no longer matter culturally.'

Firestone, The Dialects of Sex (1970)


  • Ann Oakley agrees that women do not need to be mothers.  She has said that there are three myths surrounding motherhood.  
  1. All women want to be mothers - Oakley says that they don't, they are just brought up to aspire to motherhood. 
  2. All women need their children - they don't. there is no such thing as 'maternal instinct', Oakley sites studies showing that women do not instinctively know how to breastfeed and women who neglect their children were often neglected as children to argue that motherhood is learned not instinctive.
  3. All children need their mothers - they don't.  Adopted children, children brought up by single fathers or in communal groups (e.g. Jewish kibbutz) turn out as well as children reared in more traditional families. Children need stability and love but it does not have to come from the mother.

Thus Oakley's studies could be used to argue that Firestone's suggestions are at least plausible (and possibly desirable, Oakley also thought that the myth of motherhood was dangerous as women who do not want to be mothers end up feeling forced into it).

However, many feminists have challenged aspects of Firestone's approach.

Adrianne Rich ‘Patriarchal thought has limited female biology to its own narrow specifications.  The feminist vision has recoiled from female biology for these reasons; it will, I believe, come to view our physicality as a resource, rather than a destiny.'

  • Liberating women from childbirth: A significant number of feminists think that a woman's role in procreation should be celebrated rather than avoided. Feminists like Mary O'Brien (The politics of Reproduction, 1981 and Adrianne Rich (Of Women Born) argue that motherhood can be a fulfilling experience provided women themselves are in control. The problem is not childbirth and motherhood but male control of those things. They agree with part of Firestone's identification of the problem, but think that her solution is too drastic and involves sacrificing the good with the bad.

Azizah al-Hibri 'Technological reproduction does not equalize the natural reproductive power structure, it inverts it.  It appropriates the reproductive power from women and places it in the hands of men who now control both sperm and the reproductive technology that could make it indispensable…It ‘liberates’ them from their “humiliating dependency” on women in order to propagate.’  

  • The role reproductive technologies: Other feminists are concerned rather than encouraged by developments in reproductive technologies. Azizah al-Hibri claims that reproductive technologies make women unnecessary to men. Andrea Dworkin says that such technologies will enable men to 'farm' women more effectively. Dworkin uses the brothel model and the farm model to explain how men interact with women.  The 'farmed' woman (wife) has more power than the mistress/prostitute because  ‘…it is not in a husband’s best interest to use up or waste his wife too quickly.  A wife, it turns out, is not as easily replaceable as a prostitute is.  It makes good sense, therefore, for a husband to take relatively good care of their wives.’ However, reproductive technologies enable men to get more from their wives for less. Gena Corea has argued (in an essay called 'The Egg Snatchers) that there is good reason to be suspicious of reproductive technologies as they are currently controlled by men who can use them to reinforce their control rather than use them to liberate women.
  • Androgyny: Whilst Mary Daly did explore the idea of androgyny as a way of liberating women she ultimately rejected it (she suggested it was a male ploy to seize the best aspects of women's nature). She wanted to celebrate difference rather than aim for same-ness.  Traditional Christian theology would also reject the idea of androgyny (although the Genesis 3:28 text 'In Christ there is no.....male or female....all are one in Christ' could be used to support it).  In the Mulieris Dignitatem Pope John Paul II promoted the 'equal but different' model.


If androgyny is at one end of the radical spectrum, at the other is naturalism which argues that bodily difference needs to be taken into account. Rather than try to be the same as men (arguably the aim of early liberals and of Firestone) women should celebrate their difference.

'A third paradigm is what Parson's calls 'naturalistic feminism', really an approach that tries to re-examine whether there are any innate human characteristics that exist within and despite an admittedly large component of socialisation and cultural shaping, and whether any universally human experiences or values that can give rise to any moral standards or ideals.  From the point of view of gender, the issue would be whether reproductive differences, which few can deny, can yield any guidance for the ethics of relationships and institutions.'

Lisa Sowle Cahill's chapter on Gender and Christian Ethics in The Cambridge Companion to Christian Theology (ed. Robin Gill)

Virginia Woolf  (b1882) was another feminist writer who advocated celebrating female difference.  

Woolf, in stark contrast to the likes of Wollstonecraft and Taylor suggested that men and women should be educated differently.  'Ought not education to bring out and fortify the differences [between the sexes] rather than the similarities?' She thought that men and women writers would have naturally different styles and that women should not emulate the style of men because 'The weight, the pace, the stride of a man’s mind are too unlike [woman’s]…for her to lift anything substantial from him successfully.' 

Unlike liberal feminism, naturalist feminism begins with the assumption that men and women are different and the biological differences between the two mean that men and women will reach fulfilment in different ways.

Naturalists argue that women must first discover the essence of what it is to be female and then work out how to facilitate women in fulfilling their essence.  The challenge for naturalists is to disentangle what is actually part of the essence of women from what men have said is part of the essence of women.

The catagorise of liberal, social constuctionist and naturalist are used by Susan Frank Parsons in her book Feminism and Christian Ethics.  She dates the origins of the naturalist approach back to the nineteenth century writer Mary Fuller who wrote 'women must leave off asking them [men] and being influenced by them, but retire within themselves, and explore the groundwork of being till they find their particular secret.  Then ... they will know how to turn dross into gold.' Thus Fuller suggests that the key to identifying the essence of women is to have women, and not men, saying what the essence of women should be based on their own experience.

The question of reproduction and motherhood is one that is central to the naturalistic debate. 

Mary O'Brien:

Mary O'Brien was a midwife before she became a philosopher so she had a lot of experience of the 'labour of labour' as she called it.  However, she never became a mother herself.

Mary O'Brien could be said to be a naturalistic feminist because she argued that rather than try to be the same as men (as liberal feminists wanted) women should celebrate what makes them different.  Two of her most well known books 'The Politics of Reproduction' (1981) and 'Reproducing the World' (1989) set out her thesis that women should recognise the value of reproduction and motherhood and she was critical of feminists who failed to do this.

'The implication of de Beauvoir’s model of human development is not only that parturition [birth] is non-creative labour, but that the product, the human child, has no value, that the value of children must wait to be awarded by the makers of value, men.'

O'Brien argued that men are detached from most of the process of reproduction. She also pointed out that it takes place inside the mother and the father often cannot be totally sure that the child is his.  Thus he is alienated from the process (which is why - in O'Brien's opinion - men feel the need to gain control in other areas of life).  It is important to note that O'Brien is not saying that the alienation of men from reproduction is a good thing!  She is simply drawing attention to the fact that men and women experience different challenges in life.  She felt that feminism often fell short by beginning with the ways in which women are exploited rather than the ways that women are empowered. She was also wary of the use of reproductive technologies suggesting that it enabled the man to get something for nothing.


You might agree that motherhood (or at least the potential to be mothers and the biology associated with motherhood) is what makes women what they are. Biologically reproductive difference is what sets men and women apart (although on this basis you could say that men are defined by fatherhood). Motherhood might well be the aspect of life that people in general find most fulfilling and you might argue that women are privileged to be more intimately involved in the process of creating new life.  Obviously from a traditional Christian perspective this idea reflects the idea of 'equal but different' found in the mulieris dignitatem and many traditionalists would agree that women are fulfilled (or even perhaps 'saved' as Timothy says) through reproduction and fulfilling her telos.

However, many other feminists would disagree with O'Brien.  As you have already seen liberals like Harriet Taylor were dismissive of 'one animal function and its consequences' and suggested that many women were mothers only out of necessity as no other 'jobs' were available. Simone de Beauvoir said that a woman's attitude towards motherhood depended entirely on the circumstances under which she became pregnant and some women would resent their children. As stated above Ann Oakley suggested that the issue of motherhood is surrounded by myths.  She said that it is a myth that all women want to be mothers, that they need their children or even that children need their mothers.  (It is worth noting that Oakley is both a mother and grandmother). For many feminists, the idea that woman = mother is a patriarchal idea and if women aspire towards it then it might well be just because she has been brought up to think that way. Feminists tended to think in terms of freeing women from motherhood and ensuring that it was a matter of choice for women. Consider how Shulamith Firestone might respond to O'Brien's arguments.

More naturalists:

Of course motherhood is not the only thing that could be said to be part of a woman's nature (though it is probably the most obvious).

Naturalistic feminists have also discussed to what extent women and men are different in their moral values and their ways of moral reasoning. Traditionally, women have been said to be more intuitive (and less rational), better at empathising and better at forming inter-personal relationships.

Synoptic link:

These discussions relate to natural law (the way we should be is discoverable by applying reason to the way things are) and to virtue ethics (to be a successful person and reach eudaimonia is to fulfil our telos and function well). The idea of moral intuition has considerable relevance to the issue of conscience.

The Russian-born feminist (Red) Emma Goldman argued that the values that liberal feminists took to be self-evidently true were in fact male values.  Liberal feminism encouraged women to aspire towards 'narrow respectabilities' rather than following her innate 'love instinct'.  Goldman thought that women's moral intuitions, based on her maternal instinct for love could provide a distinctively female contribution to morality.  She said that 'good and evil, moral and immoral are but limited terms for the inner play of human emotions upon the human sea of life.'

Virginia Woolf also suggested that women have an intuitive approach to moral reasoning which involves considering the way things are and how they could be different.  Susan Frank Parsons summarised Woolf's views thus:

'Through such means they [women] are able to judge truth from falsity, and to encourage the development of authentic ways of living and relating to others.'

Susan Frank Parsons Feminism and Christian Ethics

Women could also celebrate their difference from the perspective of their sexuality. Many radicals believe that patriarchy has tried to control women's sexuality and has regarded the sexually powerful woman as a dangerous/evil thing. Women have been taught that they must 'preserve' their virginity. Standards for men and women have not been the same and women have been taught to be ashamed of their sexual feelings. Radical feminism encourages women to embrace their sexual desires and enjoy their bodies.


To what extent do you think it is true that men and women have different psychological characteristics? 

Perhaps it is logical - given the obvious bodily difference - that there are difference in male and female brains (and thus different characteristics).

Male and female brains wired differently.  Guardian report here.

Men find it harder to read emotion. Telegraph report here.

Testosterone inhibits empathy study here.

  • Studies done at the University of Pennysylvania have indicated that male and female brains are connected up differently (male connections run from front to back, the connections in female brains zigzag.
  • Another study done at Edinburgh university showed that it took men longer to recognise whether a face is friendly or not.
  • Studies at Cambridge suggest that testosterone inhibits the ability to read emotions whist oxytocin enhances it.

However, is this an over-simplification and are naturalistic feminists guilty of reductionism and essentialism? Does naturalistic feminism trap women into the narrow roles that liberal feminism fought to avoid? Moreover, does it fall foul of the naturalistic fallacy by assuming that what is natural is automatically good.

The idea that men and women might have a different way of approaching moral reasoning is challenging to various branches of ethics that make right and wrong discoverable primarily through reason.  Furthermore, suggesting that men and women might have different ethical values could potentially lead to very radical conclusions as demonstrated in the thought of Mary Daly.

Mary Daly:

For more detail on Daly's earlier work see the post-Christian feminist theology page.

Mary Daly's earliest work (The Church and the Second Sex) was fairly liberal/reformist in scope but over time she became more radical.  In Beyond God the Father she explored the idea of androgyny as a possible solution to the problem of men being seen as normative and women as 'the other'.  If humanity were not polarised into two 'types' then one could not be seen in relation to and from the perspective of the other.  However, she ultimately abandoned the idea of androgyny (she suggested it was a patriarchal trick to try and keep hold of women and claim the best parts of their nature).  Instead Daly embraced a radical form of naturalistic feminism which celebrated female difference.

However, 'femaleness' is not the same as traditional ideas about femininity.

'[Femininity] is a man-made construct, having essentially nothing to do with femaleness.'

Mary Daly Gyn/Ecology (1978)

Therefore, to understand what is a 'natural' female we need to first deconstruct the unnatural one!

Rosemarie Tong:

‘Daly is Nietzschean not because she posits two types of morality – a superior female morality and an inferior male morality – but because she insists that when it comes to women, she whom the patriarch calls evil is in fact good, whereas she whom the patriarch calls good is in fact bad.  Thus, if a woman is to escape the traps men have laid for her – if she is to assert her power, to be all that she can – then she must realize that it is not good for her to sacrifice, deny, and deprive herself for the sake of men and children in her life.  In other words, what is good for women, insists Daly is precisely what patriarchy identifies as evil for women.’

Daly believed that men seek to control women and create their own morality (which she called 'phallic morality') for this purpose.  In this idea we can see that Daly was influenced by Nietzsche who argued that 'God is dead' and humans have to make their own moral values.  He thought that traditional (Christian) morality is all about control.  According to Nietzsche people have been taught to value unnatural things like altruism and humility.  This 'slave morality' has replaced a more natural 'master morality' which encourages people to strive to be successful and powerful. 

Daly (and many of the less radical feminists before her) thought that the values that women were taught to aspire to (virtue, chastity, quietness of temper etc) made her easier to control and enabled men to flourish at the expense of women. Daly thus called on women to reject the male morality that she had been taught and to look within to discover her own moral values.  According to Daly, traits which are intrinsically feminine (love and sharing) have been deformed by male morality into excessive versions of themselves.  Thus love becomes self-sacrificing, self-abasing maternal love which turns women into victims.  In order to reclaim the true value women need to first have the courage to reject male morality and become the things that male morality says that they should not be. Women then need to look within themselves and discover their own essence and power.

'[Daly] insists that when it comes to women, she whom the patriarch calls evil is in fact good, whereas she whom the patriarch calls good is in fact bad. Thus, if a woman is to escapre the traps men have laid for her - if she is to assert her power, to be all that she can - then she must realise that it is not good fro her to sacrifice, deny, and deprive herself for the sake of the men and children in her life.  In other words, what is good for women, insists Daly, is precisely what the patriarch insists is evil for women.'

Rosemarie Tong Feminist Thought.

In her first truly radical book Gyn/Ecology Daly continued to argue that women should refuse to be 'tamed' or 'domesticated' women conforming to male expectations but should instead thrive as 'natural' or 'wild' women. This, she said, was impossible without separation from male society.  According to Daly, patriarchy is endemic within male society and men try to control women at every turn.  In Gyn/Ecology she explored the various ways that men had tried to control both women's minds and bodies and explored patriarchal practices from round the world like female circumcision in Africa and food binding in Asia.

To be a wild woman is to reject patriarchal values and embrace the things society condemns.

'Hag is from an Old English word meaning harpy, witch... It also formerly meant: "an evil or frightening spirit." (Lest this sounds too negative, we should ask the relevant questions: "Evil" by whose definition? "Frightening" to whom?) ...Hag is also defined as "an ugly or evil-looking woman." But this, considering the source, may be considered a compliment.  For the beauty of strong, creative women is "ugly" by misogynistic standards of "beauty." The look of female-identified women is "evil" to those who fear us.  As for "old," ageism is a feature of phallic society.  For women who have transvaluated this, a Crone is one who should be an example of strength, courage, and wisdom.'

Mary Daly, Gyn/Ecology (1978)

Susan Frank Parson provided the following overview of Daly's approach to ethics and morality.

'Daly produces a feminist ethics that is written completely from woman's own experience and insight.  The task requires women to reclaim their own natures, so that 'entering the realm of the wild reality of women's Selves', they may develop the fullness of their own being.  Daly affirms this nature of women as fundamentally good, since it is the place where women discover truth, where the radical bonds of friendship are formed, and where women may 'mend and create unity of consciousness' for the healing of creation.'

'The process of moral reasoning Daly calls a journey, a spinning, a voyage, into a place of pure insight and value untainted by the language, culture, presence, or expectations of men...'

'... it [the new morality] is discoverable by a process of 'exorcism' in which the false circularity of male mystifications is broken through the imaginative and innovative use of language.'

'The morality discovered by women is 'deeply intuitive', and it is an important purpose of Daly's writing to stir up and fan the flames of this fiery wisdom.  Women's confidence in theses intuitions and commitment to their truth are encouraged through reflection on experience, by which women develop a 'new organ of the mind'. This reflective consciousness surpasses the knowledge of good and evil as defined and delineated by men, and challenges men's ethical theories.'

'Her hope is for the recovery of a deeper truth, 'beyond, behind, beneath the patriarchal death march - an unquenchable gynergy'.'

'This truth is apprehended within and amongst women, and is nurtured in separation.'

Susan Frank Parsons Feminism and Christian Ethics (all her quotations are from Daly's book Gyn/Ecology)

Rosemarie Tong (again)

‘As Daly sees it, oppressive gender roles will be deconstructed as a result of a revolution that, she predicts will begin with dissident women.  This emphasis on women’s revolutionary role eventually takes Daly far beyond the possibility of an acceptable androgyny at the end of he road that begins with patriarchy.  Although Daly begins her journey in Beyond God the Father with a plea for androgyny, she ends it in Pure Lust with a spirited defence of “wild,” “lusty” and “wandering” women – women who no longer desire to be androgynous and who prefer to identify themselves as radical lesbian feminist separatists.’

Daly's desire for separation in society stemmed from her belief that men will always try to control women.  For this reason Daly thought that it was impossible for a woman to thrive in a heterosexual relationship.  Therefore, she advocated lesbianism in practice though she rejected the terminology.  

Daly's re-invention of language is one of the most characteristic elements of her writing. She argues that language itself is a product of patriarchy.  The terms that we use have certain meanings and implications that come from patriarchy and thus terms have to be reinvented or subverted to escape this patriarchal inheritance.  The term 'lesbian' carries with it the implications of going against the sexual norm, being an outcaste within patriarchy etc - which is why Daly refuses to use it.

In an interview in 1999 Daly claimed:

'If life is to survive on this planet, there must be a decontamination of the Earth.  I think this will be accompanied by an evolutionary process that will result in a drastic reduction of the population of males.'

Daly interview with What is Enlightenment magazine

Daly's feminism includes separatism.  For her, anything less is doomed to failure because men are always out to exploit women. Whilst her ideas are extreme, she was not unique in her views.  Charlotte Bunch and Jill Johnstone both argued that heterosexual feminists are not true feminists.  They, like Daly, believe that women's sexuality has been shaped to suit the needs of men.

‘To say that women’s sexuality is for men but that men’s sexuality is not for women is to say something that would probably not occur to the ordinary person in the street… “Look,” says the radical feminist, “see for yourself” who has the upper hand in all heterosexual relationships – it is man.” “For whom does prostitution exist?” “For whom does pornography exist?” “Who rapes whom?” “Whom harasses whom?” “Who batters whom?” And so on.  Thus, unlike the liberal feminist, who believe that given the correct legal and political institutions, heterosexual relationships will be voluntary, egalitarian, and just, and unlike the Marxists, who insist that given the right economic institutions, heterosexual relations will not be exploitative, alienating, or oppressive, the radical feminist believes that women will always remain subordinate to men unless sexuality is reconceived and reconstructed.’

Rosemarie Tong Feminist Thought.


Critics of Mary Daly argue that:

  • She is the type of man-hating feminist that gives feminism a bad name. Her ideas are so radical that few people can agree with her.  
  • The idea of separation within society seems implausible (how, for example would reproduction work? What about women who want to be in a relationship with men?). 
  • The idea of re-working morality and embracing things that are said to be bad would not be popular with moral absolutists.  
  • Furthermore, we could argue that Daly does not provide us with a very clear picture of what a natural woman is other than saying that she is not what patriarchy says that she is.  Consequently, the idea of celebrating female nature is difficult if we don't know what that nature entails.

However, Daly anticipated some of these criticisms.  

'Natural woman is 'attacked by mutants of her own kind, the man-made woman.'

  • She fully accepted that her ideas would not be popular - even among women.  She argued that an overwhelmingly patriarchal society full of 'domesticated' women who are slaves to patriarchy will naturally resist the message of the natural women.  She would be unconcerned with the unpopularity of her ideas. 

'There are and will be those who think I have gone overboard.  Let them rest assured that this assessment is correct, probably beyond their wildest imagination, and that I will continue to do so.'

  • Similarly, she would be perfectly happy being thought immoral - that after all is the point!  Women should be what patriarchy wants them not to be.  
  • She would also have a ready answer to the criticism that she does not set out what a natural woman should be.  She says women need to look within themselves for the answer.

Religious Responses:

Mary Daly was a theologian so to an extent her ideas are an example of a religious response to radical theological ideas.  

Certain ideas like androgyny are explored by the likes of Elaine Pagels and (to a lesser extent) by more liberal feminist theologians who consider texts like Galatians 3:28 ('There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.') to promote a degree of androgyny by suggesting that gender is irrelevant. Christianity has often suggested that it is a person's soul rather than their body which is important (though other theologians have stressed that God creates soul and body and Jesus' resurrection was physical).  Augustine taught that in their souls men and women were both in God's image. One could also argue that Jesus was a radical who challenged society and preached a radical message of his own in which family ties were not as important as love of God so in that sense Firestone's attempt to revolutionise society for the better could be viewed as a continuation of the Christian message.

However, her ideas about family are at odds with the traditional Christian teachings (honour your parents is among the ten commandments) and many traditionalists would object to the idea of androgyny and an end to male/female relationships as normative.  They would argue that God created men and women to be different. Women are created for motherhood and given the gifts suitable to that role. Men are created to be dominant (wives should 'submit' to their husbands according to Ephesians 6). This is essentially the message that Pope John Paul II set out in the Mulieris Dignitatem in which he specifically condemned the 'masculinisation' of women whilst supporting the more liberal pursuit of equal rights. Furthermore, traditional Christianity follows Leviticus in considering homosexuality an 'abomination' so would not agree with Firestone's objective of having all forms of sexuality equally valid nor Daly's advocation of lesbianism.

Naturalistic feminism perhaps has more in common with traditional Christian values and the idea that women should be fulfilled by celebrating motherhood fits very well with the teachings in the Mulieris Dignitatem.  That said, the emphasis on the female control of childbirth and childrearing might be said to go against the idea of man as first principle and woman as helper. Moreover, liberal Christian theologians and those wanting to reform the Christian teachings might challenge this view and regard it as essentialist and deterministic. Women are not mother's by 'essence', they are not destined for motherhood from birth. Feminist theologians like Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza and Rosemary Radford Ruether as well as Elaine Pagels would argue that Jesus' supported women who challenged the social norms of the day. Evidence from the Early Church suggests that women like Phoebe and Prisca did more than just be mothers and women should be offered the choice in how they choose to find fulfilment in life.

Separatist ideas like those promoted by Mary Daly appear to be at odds with most forms of Christianity which advocate forgiveness, reconciliation and agape love. Daly believed that her ideas were incompatible with Christianity (and thought that Christianity was at odds with feminism) hence she is regarded as 'post-Christian'.


When evaluating radical feminism you must be aware that not all radicals think the same thing! You need to evaluate specific ideas rather than general trends. The ideas included in the 'critiques' above will help you.  That said, it is possible to make some very general comments.

  • Those who oppose radical feminism tend to argue that it goes too far.  For example, liberal feminists would say that radical solutions (such as lesbianism, separatism or androgyny) are unnecessary.  Equality can be achieved through more moderate methods such as changes to the law.  (Radicals would perhaps respond by saying that the continued existence of the 'glass ceiling' despite equality legislation shows that changes to the law are not enough).
  • A related point is that these radical solutions are undesirable.  Women do not want to live separately from men. Many might prefer to be in heterosexual relationships and lesbianism and/or androgynous societies limit women's choices just as much as a patriarchal society does.  (A radical might reply that their 'choice' to be with men is merely evidence of their domestication).
  • Some of the most radical suggestions (an end to nuclear families, reduction in the number of men) might be regarded as actively immoral (certainly by religious traditionalists).
  • There are also issues of practicality.  Even if such solutions were necessary and desirable would they be achievable? Is technology really likely to liberate women from reproduction? Could gender become irrelevant? Could women live in separate societies? (Of course, something might be the right thing to do and still be extremely difficult to implement).
  • Finally, many more moderate feminists regard radical feminism as divisive.  As we have seen, some radicals do not regard the more moderate feminists as feminist at all.  The extreme views give feminism a bad name and make women unwilling to count themselves as feminists and make men more likely to be hostile to the cause.

On the other hand you could argue that radical feminism has merits because:

  • More moderate forms of feminism do not recognise how deeply sexism is ingrained in society. Their solutions are too minor to bring about substansive change. Only the radicals are brave enough to propose adequate solutions such as androgyny or separatism.

Further Reading:

Great overview/analysis of different attitudes to motherhood here.

Very readable biography/obituary of Firestone published in the New Yorker. Contains several references to the feminist movement as a whole.  Here.

First chapter of Shulamith Firestone's The Dialects of Sex here.

Evaluative essay on the feminism in Woolf's book 'A Room of One's Own' here.

Read Marge Piercy’s scifi novel ‘Women on the Edge of Time’ which explores the type of world that Firestone's ideas seem to envisage.  Or Margaret Atwood's novel The Handmaid’s Tale for an alternative dystopian future.  Alternatively, read online overvies/summaries here and here.

Rosemarie Tong Feminist Thought: A Comprehensive Introduction.  Originally published in 1989, republished in 2013. Available to buy here (kindle editions also available for less).