by Maureen K. Doll
radical, adj.: late 14c., in a medieval philosophical sense, from Late Latin radicalis “of or having roots,” from Latin radix (genitive radicis) “root” (see radish). Meaning “going to the origin, essential” is from 1650s.
I first loved the word “radical” for pure potency. I learned from James Dobson as a girl that radical feminists are the scary ones: threatening to God, family, and social order. These three syllables infused conservative rants about disobedient women and had the force to make stolid men like James Dobson sputter. And so I wore them like a crown, following the long years of my de-conditioning.
I was aware of the etymology too, as a lovely background harmony: root. This was a comforting word, holding an earthy vibration amid a capitalist hallucination of disposable items and bodies. The root is what I understood bell hooks to have identified as “imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.” Imperialist, white supremacist, capitalist, patriarchy: a litany that put into focus the ambient chaos around me.
Some years later, nearly all the feminists I know are radical and the word has ceased to render quite the same delicious thrill. Rather, I find myself reflecting more on this: “going to the origin, essential.” Specifically, once we have identified the root issue, what is the essential response?
As radical feminists are a small band amid a storm of erratic liberalism, many of us can only meet online. There is enormous power generated in these groups, where women speak without censure. Yet this has effectively moved radical and liberal women into increasingly sequestered camps, while our own disagreements too often dissolve into bitterness. What solid root do we cling to, amidst increasingly polarized and maddening political realities? What, with all our cultural and personal divides, do we hold in common? And here I return to my now-favored three syllables: sisterhood.
This is not a syndicated commercial, encouraging women to wear pink ribbons and buy the preferred brand of tampons. This is not a magazine excerpt with excess exclamation points and images of preternaturally clean-looking female bodies. This is not a sermon: indeed, I am not qualified to issue one. This is simply a reminder, that my own heart has been clamoring for, of the radical task before us.
Sisterhood is not found in discussing agreed upon topics with agreed upon people. Sisterhood is not formed by suppressing disagreement, nor by exaggerating it. Sisterhood is also not birthed by throwing words and energy at women who are closed to them. Sisterhood is simply the radical realization that all our destinies are entwined.
sisterhood, n. “state of being a sister,” late 14c., from sister + -hood. Meaning “a society of sisters” (usually a religious order) is from 1590s; sense of “women having some common characteristic or calling” is from c. 1600.
This is our common calling: one another. As radical feminists, I believe we all hear the call of other women. It echoes through the centuries, it shouts in our dreams, it wakes us in the night with an inarticulable longing. How to make this bond manifest? Do we devote as much time to lifting up the most vulnerable women on this planet, as to winning online skirmishes? Do we give women—the most irritating, unrelatable women—the benefit of the doubt? Do we realize it is more important to empathize with another woman’s inability to cope, than critique it? When we see the most handmaiden of handmaideny writing, do we think, “There but for the grace of Goddess, go I?” Can we “block” the women who truly do distract us from our path, with compassion and a blessing? And when we white women hear the words “white feminism” do we listen—truly listen—to what the speaker is saying, until her tears are our own?
I know these things happen because I see them. And when I see them I feel clearer and stronger. But I also know how easy it is to become distracted by the torrent of snark, memes, and inanities forever on the periphery. I know how swiftly the ground starts slipping under my feet as I chase another point I think needs correcting. I also see through example what bears solid fruit, or is more likely to flood the roots. Recently, I was equal parts despondent over a billion critiques of an imperfect Women’s March as I was heartened by images of my dear sisters marching with their luminous signs, carrying the radical vision where it was most needed.
The last question posed above brings me to an uncomfortable truth: not all women identifying as “radical feminist” have fully grasped the root affliction. It is true that the imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy grew in inverse: first patriarchy, then capitalism, then imperialism and white supremacy. But it is also true these terrors are now fused into a single, brutal, indivisible force. There is no movement against patriarchy that is not fiercely fighting capitalism, white supremacy, imperialism, and the wholesale destruction of the planet. If this vision has not been fully and clearly articulated, it is only because white western women have still failed to right the omissions of our foremothers.
As the material reality on this planet continues to degrade, fear is omnipresent. It is easy to be angered by those still clinging to illusion, and tempting for those of us with the privilege of constant internet access to hide there. Patriarchy is striking with fatal precision at the root: the ability of the planet to host human life, the gains of prior generations of feminists, and the rights of the remaining first nations. And so, we too must return to our roots.
These roots, of our entwined destiny, pulsing with the unfathomable creativity of women, have been my salvation in this life. They grow deeper and stronger with intense listening, devotion to the most vulnerable, sacrifice for the planet, bearing with the misguided, and ruthless protectiveness toward all women. This is sisterhood. And this word we will one day wear as a crown, atop the long years of our tireless fight.