Free Radicals, Part 4

Read Parts 1, 2, and 3.

It seems like an obvious point, the idea that legislation alone can’t fix human problems that have roots in complex personal and environmental factors. To wit: if the sentence for a domestic violence perpetrator is determined by a judge who doesn’t believe, deep down, that such “personal” matters belong in court in smash patriarchythe first place, how likely is that judge to recommend a stiff penalty, regardless of how brutal the attack was? Not very, and it isn’t too hard to understand why. Still, truly coming to grips with the limits of legislative reform is an extremely hard lesson to learn for social movements, and for individual activists like me. It’s such a bitter pill to swallow in a democracy, where laws constitute our entire societal infrastructure. Citizens of democracies believe deeply in the unassailable power of the law, we have to—otherwise, why bother conforming to democratic norms? Elections are an awful lot of trouble, why not just stage a coup now and then? They’re cheaper, and we wouldn’t have to sit through all those terrible TV spots.

But NOT having coups is what makes us America, so we follow the norms and have faith that our laws will keep the wheels of democracy turning smoothly, and it mostly works. (Mostly.) And the fact that it works so often makes it that much harder to recognize when you’ve encountered a social problem that the law just isn’t going to solve. So I don’t blame myself much for how long it took me to realize that legislation and criminalization could never end domestic violence, nor do I really fault the mainstream feminist movement for being a bit blind to the limits of its own change strategies.

The liberal reform perspective tells us that if only we had enough laws, or the right kind, or could enforce them better, all social ills would ultimately be solvable through them. Implicit in that idea is the belief that the current social structure is fundamentally sound and ultimately perfectible. Don’t question the cultural biases built into the penal code, just pass some protective laws in hopes of counteracting them. Don’t change society’s basic framework, just make it a little easier for women to get along within it. In this framework, electing Hillary president is valued not so much for how it will change society, but for what it will mean for women to achieve the office which, using pretty standard patriarchal values, is judged to be the very pinnacle of power.

But the radicals among us, and the radical sympathizers, think that there are potentially more effective means of making our culture less sexist than electing a woman to an office that has fairly limited influence over domestic policy—policy which itself has limited influence over people’s personal beliefs and private behavior. That doesn’t mean we should abandon policy reform as a means of social change. It will always be an important preliminary step in the long, slow process of societal evolution. But we do need to collectively awaken from the comforting slumber in which we have dreamed, in vain, that our laws would do all the work of social change for us.

We need to start educating and socializing our citizens differently if we want them to behave differently; it’s at once as simple and as damnably difficult as that. Difficult, because that means feminism has to find a way into our schools and churches and families, into those spheres where personal values are formed. And it’s not just a difficult proposition, it’s also kind of a scary one, because our history doesn’t offer any good models for how to go about it. The labor movement, the civil rights movement, the second wave itself; none of them provide a clear blueprint for planning the next step, the one that comes after the laws have been passed, and it’s time to push society to integrate the values and ideals the laws represent.

It seems a nearly impossible undertaking for feminism, in a culture that has vilified it to the point that the legitimacy of contraceptive use is again up for debate. And maybe it is impossible to breach those implacable cultural bulwarks, yet it is what must come next. Because if we don’t at least attempt it, if we persist in using strategies that are no longer appropriate to the historical moment and the tasks at hand, our revolution will remain forever unfinished.


  1. Elliot Koontz says:

    Thank you for writing this. These last four parts illustrated the interaction between liberal and radical feminism very clearly for me; but this last one helped me cope with my frustration at the seeming inexplicable ineffectiveness of liberal reform, and offer a solution through moving ideals of equality into more personal social spheres. Really well-written, thanks again.

  2. It’s so frustrating, isn’t it? On the one hand, policy reform is obviously such a limited strategy, a way to start the social change process, but not its ultimate goal. On the other hand, what else are we supposed to do? It’s the only paradigm we know. Figuring out the next step will be intellectually challenging, and probably upsetting for people who are invested in the current system. But I don’t think we have much of a choice but to try, we’ve hit a wall, strategically. Thanks so much for your comment, and for reading!

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