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Rave On: Julia Serano on Daring to Be Bad

"Rave On" is the Page Turner series that asks feminist writers, artists, musicians, activists, leaders, and scholars to talk about a book that completely rocked their world. The series highlights books that led people to first identify as feminist, shaped their feminist ideology, radically transformed their view of feminism and our world, or just moved them so deeply that they read the book a bunch of times and then made all their friends read it, too.

This edition features writer, performer, activist, and biologist Julia Serano on Daring to Be Bad: Radical Feminism in America, 1967-75, by Alice Echols.

I transitioned from male to female in 2001. While I considered myself to be a feminist before my transition, once I began to be treated as a woman day in and day out, feminism really helped me make sense of what I was experiencing. It also helped make me aware of how many of the assumptions that people have about trans women are rooted in misogynistic assumptions about femaleness and femininity more generally.

I came across Daring to Be Bad in late 2006 as I was doing research for my book Whipping Girl. I was looking for references that chronicled how lesbians were often excluded from feminist groups in the 1960s, as there are many parallels between the rhetoric used in those instances and the language that has more recently been used to justify the exclusion of trans women from lesbian-feminist groups and spaces.

Daring to Be Bad was not only a good source for that topic, but it was just really interesting. I couldn't put it down. I read most of it in November of that year, as I was at home recovering from a skin cancer-related surgery and rushing to finish my manuscript.

I remember that during the actual surgery, I was trying to focus on something other than the surgery—you know, a distraction to help calm me down. Perhaps this is weird, but I started thinking about Daring to Be Bad, and how radical feminism had gone from being a broad, diverse, outward-focused movement to end sexism, to a more monolithic and insular movement that promoted the idea that women were superior to men. And it occurred to me that there were many similarities between this shift and some of the changes that had been occurring in queer and trans activism in the early 2000s, especially the increasingly popular notion that gender-nonconforming people were somehow supposedly more cool, righteous, or subversive than conventionally-gendered people. That epiphany eventually became the basis of the last chapter of Whipping Girl.

Many younger feminists have a fairly negative stereotype of radical feminism: that it was an exclusively white and middle-class movement that promoted gender essentialism, "woman's energy," separatism, transphobia, banning pornography, disparaging femininity, and so forth. Honestly, I had this impression when I first became interested and involved in feminism in the early 2000s. No book shattered that stereotype for me more than Daring to Be Bad.

Echols begins by chronicling how radical feminism grew out of many female activists' discontent at the male-centricism that ran rampant in the major progressive movements of the 1960s. During its early years, radical feminism was an especially vibrant and anarchical movement. There were different radical feminist groups scattered across different cities, and each was writing its own manifestos and organizing its own protests. While they definitely influenced one another, these groups also had very different ideologies, and there were many debates about the direction of the movement both between and within these groups.

Echols goes on to discuss how the movement became fractured as a result of these numerous disagreements, especially those concerning sexuality, class, and what today we would call "essentialism versus constructionism." Echols makes the case that these fractures allowed "cultural feminism"—a more monolithic, woman-centric movement that many now equate with radical feminism—to come to dominate feminist ideology during the 1970s and 1980s.

While I definitely do not agree with all of the ideas forwarded by the early radical feminists, Daring to Be Bad, more than anything else I have read, made me appreciate and understand the context in which those beliefs arose. It also made me realize that many of the supposedly "cutting edge" debates that regularly occur in feminist circles today had already taken place back then.

Understanding one's history is important for any movement to progress, so I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in feminism's past, present, and future.

Julia Serano is an Oakland-based writer, performer, activist and biologist. She is the author of Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity (Seal Press, 2007), a collection of personal essays that reveal how misogyny frames popular assumptions about femininity and shapes many of the myths and misconceptions people have about transsexual women. For more information about her, check out www.juliaserano.com.

Related:

Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Feminism But Were Afraid to Ask

Shelf Lives: Paging Through Feminism's Lost & Found Classics

Rave On: Estelle Freedman on Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape

Rave On: Anne Elizabeth Moore on Dirty Plotte

Rave On: Jessica Hoffmann on Women, Race, and Class

Rave On: Jennifer Baumgardner on The Girls Who Went Away

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Comments

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Radical Feminisms

Thanks to Julia Serano for posting her observations above. I can definitely relate to that "haven't we been here before?" feeling, since recent debates in queer and trans spaces remind me so much of debates within feminism in the late eighties and early nineties (when I myself came to identify as a feminist). Radical feminism, more than any other feminist tendency, has much to say about gender and sexuality that it is quite relevant to queer and trans issues today -- which is ironic, because sometimes people talk as if radical feminists invented transphobia. This is usually based on a poor understanding of our history, and I was glad to hear Serano make this point so well.

There is just one correction I wish to make, likely an issue I have with Echols rather than Serano: as I understand it, radical feminism did not evolve out from a mainstream, liberal feminist movement in the late sixties and late seventies, but the opposite is true. (It could be Serano, and Echols, meant to point out that a first wave of feminism was liberal feminism, which is true enough, but radical feminism didn't historically come out of Liberalism as a philosophical system, or from a first wave of liberal feminism that was deemed to have been too conservative in any case.) To take just one one main example, radical and often lesbian feminists developed feminist consciousness raising methods (that they adopted from the communist practice of "bitterness speaking") that were later adopted and adapted by liberal feminism. Whereas in early CR groups there had been free-form discussions on issues brought forth by group members at will, liberal feminism developed set topics for groups to discuss, and further, set ground rules for how to run a CR group. (Sarachild has set much of this history down in "Cosnciousness-Raising: A Radical Weapon .) Many of what came to be known as feminist CR groups (what we might think of today, off hand) *were* rather homogeneous, but this is because feminism itself came to be more and more homogeneous, and these groups also collapsed because dissent within them could be neither tolerated nor absorbed...

Radical feminisms never did assume sameness, but forged a political movement on the basis of politicized differences (race, class, gender, sexuality). On the other hand, liberalism assumes (philosophically) an underlying "human" sameness, and liberal feminists applied this insight to claim that all women are alike underneath or beyond perceived differences, and posited this sameness as the foundations for mainstream feminism. Radical feminisms were pluralistic, attentive to women's differences; and these women and men (yes, there were radical feminist men) tended to be anarchic, local in their political practices, independent of mind and spirit, and diverse.

I would even go so far as to say that organizations responding to the AIDs crisis, and giving rise to the queer movement, took shape through the "muscle memory" of radical feminism, as women gathered around to support gay men during the early years of the crisis. The coalitional politics that queer theory, well, theorized in the wake of Queer Nation and Act Up! are already being theorized by the Combahee River Collective, a radical feminism women of color group, in their famous "Statement" ,http://www.buffalostate.edu/orgs/rspms/combahee.html>.

In short, debates about women's differences where worked out in and by radical, lesbian, and separatist feminisms, and not elsewhere, because this conversation (and dissent as a political necessity) was built into the very idea of what it meant to be politically radical, or what it meant to be a part of a broader, social justice movement for Liberation. Before there was a second wave of feminists, there was a women's liberation movement and a gay liberation movement, both of which are indebted to nationalist movements against colonialism, the black power movement, as well as the civil rights movement.

During the debates over ENDA last year, I remember hearing repeatedly the common but incorrect sentiment: that gays and lesbians have had this civil rights movement going on 40 years, so the transgender movement should get in line and wait their turn -- as if they were latecomers to the LGBT movement. But you know, a similar thing was said about women of color when they criticized the homogeneous movement feminism had become. But transsexuals, cross-dressers, drag queens and other gender non-conformists who today might identify with the transgender movement where not only there at Stonewall, but they may have thrown the first shoe; just like women of color were a part of feminist organizing and agitating since before the inception of the second feminist wave, and radical feminists sparked the second wave by symbolically throwing items symbolizing women's oppression into a trash can outside of the Miss America pageant in 1968.
-D. Rita Alfonso, Visiting Assistant Professor in Gender and Women's Studies/LGBT Studies, U.C. Berkeley

I'll have to pick that book

I'll have to pick that book up, thanks for sharing!

I have to say, as I started exploring feminisms, I first came to one divide: liberal and radical feminism. Radical feminist beliefs had always been mine, and through interacting on certain feminist blogs, I realized there were quite a few differences between what I thought and what the commenters were saying. If it weren't for radical feminism(s), I don't think I would have a very good relationship with the feminist movement, which is strange for me to even consider. I didn't know about the hurt and intolerance that was (is?) shown towards trans* people. As a radical feminist, or feminist period, I assumed trans* rights were automatically a part of the movement, but I was sadly mistaken, and really, really taken aback. There is no excuse.

I often see radical (second wave) feminism as the one target-those radical feminists are transphobic, hateful, but I have not seen third wave feminism criticized as a whole like the 2nd wave is. I still see transphobia running rampant in many liberal feminist circles, but as a whole, I don't see liberal feminism being denounced as hateful and transphobic. If the 2nd wave and radfeminism is to be criticized, then the 3rd wave and liberal feminism need to be as well, b/c I often see it as many separate episodes of transphobia being pointed out and dealt with, but I don't see liberal feminism being talked about like radical feminism, and as a radical feminist, that bugs me. Transphobia needs to be called out, and if that means pointing toward one belief system or movement, or group that perpetuates it, even if it's not everyone, then so be it. As a radical feminist, I know that it needs to be called out within radical feminism, and I'm still trying to figure out how one comes to be so hateful yet associated with something like feminism. I have more learning to do.

I don't know if my words will convey how I feel, but I hope they do at least a little.

well said

Great review Julia, I will have to check that book out. And Rita, thanks for the excellent comment. I was never comfortable with the caricature of radical feminism that things like MichFest have come to symbolize. There is too much important writing, thought and activism that came of of the movement to throw it away with the (admittedly problematic) bathwater, and I think some of those foundational theories of difference deserve a fresh look.

Here in LA we have a new group called the Lesbian Exploratorium, and their discussions on historical lesbian culture have been drawing a refreshingly intergenerational group of local women, and it's been really cool to sit down with women who were involved in feminist groups in the 60's and learn about our rich history, and be reminded that the gay rights and women's rights movements were alive and well long before stonewall. So many of these discussions have happened before, and will happen again, and I feel like there is very little sense of where we (the younger generation) came from.