labrys, études féministes/ estudos feministas
janeiro/junho / 2015  - janeiro/junho 2015


Radical feminism

Susan Hawthorne


The personal is political is a maxim that exemplifies radical feminism. I explore the way in which my political and personal lives intertwined alongside the development of my political analysis. From the beginnings of my politicisation in 1972 when I was just over 20. I argue that radical feminism lies at the heart of feminism and even though we are often disheartened, in the end radical feminist ideas are taken up – but it can take 50 years! Radical feminism is also inventive and imaginative and by putting women at its centre it is the only political stance that fights for more than half the world’s population, the poorest of the poor: women.

Key words: radical, political, feminism.


Radical feminism saves lives

Radical feminism saved my life. I was 23, living in an unsatisfactory heterosexual relationship. Never violent, but it was boring. I read Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch in 1972 and a year later I came upon Shulamith Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex. I was won over. But, the following year when I was a second year student at university, I enrolled in a course in Marxism. I spent the year figuring out whether I was a socialist feminist or a radical feminist. Radical feminism won hands down because it made so much more sense. Don’t get me wrong, there are useful insights to be gained from Marxism and radical feminists do not throw the baby out with the bathwater.

It saved my life by making it possible for me to grow, to become a complete person in my own right. For the very first time in my life, I made real friends. I felt as if I belonged. I felt as if I had come home. Home turned out to be a place I’d never been before. Here was a reality in which I was not a lesser being.

I spent two more years at university, and in my final year I wrote an Arts Honours thesis called “In Defence of Separatism”. I was studying Philosophy and in hindsight it was a very good thesis and original. Originality normally gains a student additional marks. Not so when one is challenging the superstructure of patriarchy. Instead, I was punished.


Radical feminism puts women at the centre

The main reason why radical feminism won over socialist or Marxist feminism was the centrality of women. It made intuitive sense to me. At the beginning, I did not have a very sophisticated analysis. Nor was I steeped in political ideas. These would form over the next few decades. In order to take up a political stance, one needs to have some kind of gut reaction, gut feeling, passion. Activism is not made up of apathy, but of strongly held beliefs and beliefs that correspond to one’s experience.

Part of coming to radical feminism was my experience of consciousness-raising groups (CR groups). These were a way into gaining understanding of our collective oppression. We did not have a manual; we simply began to talk. We shared the stories of our lives. We asked questions of one another. Each of us felt shame about something. To have another person ask you why you felt that way was important in understanding that the feeling was not necessary.

One evening during our discussions I told the others that I suffered from epilepsy. I shook as I said this. I thought they would all get up and leave the room. I expected abandonment. They shrugged. I was shocked because as a child I had been told never to tell. I had thought that what I had was so terrible that not even my father knew (from a side comment my mother made). So I carried around this secret.

The women in my CR Group enabled me to grow in political understanding because we shared what we knew without judgement. Our lives became the centre of our analysis. We also discussed political ideas such as ‘the personal is political’ or ‘pornography is the theory, rape is the practice’. We tried to elaborate on whether we agreed with them or not.


Radical feminism is inventive

When I look back on my first five years as a radical feminist (1974-1978) I am very surprised at how much we learnt, how much we invented. Some of the things we invented are still touted as new ideas.

Radical feminists in Australia invented women’s lands. There are several stretches of land in Northern New South Wales which were purchased in the 1970s. They have been continuously inhabited by women, mostly lesbians. They are lands for women, where women can feel safe, can live without men, can learn to become whole human beings. Women learnt skills like building, farming, caring for country as well as creating a culture based on women’s knowledge. [1]

Radical feminists invented women’s theatre where our lives were reflected back to us. Women’s dances necessitated women’s bands and women’s rock music flourished.

We lived together and knowledge one woman learnt was shared. So many of us learnt how to read an astrological chart; do tarot readings for one another. We read up on herbal medicine, homeopathy; quite a few went on to do formal study in alternative medicine or Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). At the same time we were reading about the witches and changing our ideas about what that meant for women. I ran a health food shop for a year in 1979, something I couldn’t even have imagined doing in 1973.


Radical feminism takes the long view

By the end of 1976, I was travelling in Europe. Here I began to learn about the history of women going back many thousands of years. I travelled to Crete and was enamoured of what I found there. While I had heard of Minoan culture, I had known more about Daedalus and King Minos than the women in that society. As I followed my nose around the museum in Herakleion I began to see the world in a new way. It was as if the scales had fallen from my eyes. Here was a society without military fortifications; a society that portrayed women not as sex objects but as having power.

This long view of radical feminists has persisted. Radical feminists have written the most interesting scholarship on ancient societies. This, I believe, is because we read between the lines. We do not immortalise patriarchy, nor do we consider it either universal or inevitable.

Out of this scholarship has come a great deal of important research work. Max Dashu’s Suppressed Histories (web[i]1) for example delivers thousands of images of women from every continent and across millennia. The depth of history, the range of artefacts from artwork in caves or carved into stone, through to ceramic and metalwork as well as fabric and string. In the deepest periods very few images of men or boys are found. By contrast, thousands upon thousands of images of women, the Venus of Willendorf is only the most famous of these. [2]

In Italy in early 2014, I visited a museum in Ancona, the Museo Archeologico Nazionale delle Marche, which houses an extremely ancient artefact La Donna Lupa Paleolitica. She is the oldest known wolf woman in existence, dated at 300,000 BP. Her current home is a back room in that museum. There are no signs, almost nothing to distinguish her from the rocks and flint in the glass cases around her. This reflects the status of women. [ii]


Radical feminism is imaginative

Monique Wittig, with her novel, Les Guérillères, created one of the most imaginative works of fiction of the 20th century. She imagines a future society in which women are fighting against patriarchy as well as creating a new kind of society in which there is no war: a society more like that of the Minoans or the 300,000-year-old wolf woman.

Suzanne Bellamy captures this in one of her artworks. Working in porcelain, she depicts a small group of women with telescopes and laptops peering into outer space in order to observe ‘the transit of patriarchy’. Like Wittig, Bellamy brings together the deep past and the deep future. Lilla Watson, an Indigenous philosopher from Queensland said in 1984, “For Aboriginal people the future extends as far forward, as the past. That means, a 40,000-year plan.”(Watson, 1984)

I believe that radical feminists and many other peoples from around the world are on the same planet. This is our only planet. The ones who are out of step are the capitalists and warmongers, the pimps and developers.

Radical feminism has a future

My own work is focused on thinking for the future. For the last twenty-five years my partner Renate Klein and I have run Spinifex Press, a radical feminist publishing house [iii]< We know that we are years ahead of the social curve, not only in our political thinking but also in our creativity. We have frequently had the experience of publishing a book, only to find that ten or twenty years later someone else is getting all the credit for the same idea. The person credited is frequently presenting a watered down version of the idea, or if not the person is male. Ideas are so much safer when they come out of male mouths!

In spite of this, I have long-term optimism for radical feminism. In most instances our ideas do come forward, though it may take fifty years for it to sound ‘normal’ or ’acceptable’. In the meantime, we are labelled as ‘extremists’ when in fact this is an example of what radical feminist philosopher, Mary Daly, called a reversal. The real extremists are those who don’t care if the planet is destroyed so long as they make a profit; they don’t care : if people die of starvation or if women are killed and violated in the home. We have long known that the poorest of the poor is the group ‘women’. Putting women at the centre of our analysis means recognising that no political analysis is worth anything if it does not make the lives of the poorest peoples better.

My other focus for the future is poetry. Poetry can carry ideas across generations and I have taken on the personae of animals, cows, sheep and wolves to carry that message. A cow who sings a love poem to another cow is far less threatening than a lesbian who does the same thing [iv]< Even the farmers, among whom I grew up, can accept such a poem. This cow, Queenie, traverses the galaxy, the moon and earth’s mythic periods. Similarly, my wolves and lambs cry out about the torture they have endured through the ages, no matter their politics. [v] l>So-called ‘civilization’ is the history of misogyny. Only radical feminism can counter it.



Daly, Mary. 1984. Pure Lust: Elemental Feminist Philosophy. Boston: Beacon Press.

Foster, Judy with Marlene Derlet. 2013. Invisible Women of Prehistory: Three Million years of Peace, Six Thousand Years of War. Melbourne: Spinifex Press.

Hawthorne, Susan. 2011. Cow. Melbourne: Spinifex Press.

Hawthorne, Susan. 2014. Lupa and Lamb. Melbourne: Spinifex Press.

Moorhead, Finola. 2001. Darkness More Visible. Melbourne: Spinifex Press.

Thadani, Giti. 2004. Moebius Trip: Digressions from India’s Highways. Melbourne: Spinifex Press.

Watson, Lilla. 1984. “Aboriginal Women and Feminism”. Keynote speech presented at Fourth Women and Labour Conference, Brisbane. July.

Wittig, Monique. 1972. The Guérillères. London: Picador.



Susan Hawthorne has been a radical feminist since 1974. She is the author of thirteen books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction and co-founder of Spinifex Press. She was punished several times for her academic work, including in Philosophy and in Ancient Greek. Eventually, she completed a PhD in Political Science and Women’s Studies in 2002. She has also studied Sanskrit for the last eight years and is Adjunct Professor in the Writing Program at James Cook University in Queensland. Her books include Wild Politics: Feminism, Globalisation and Bio/diversity (2002), Bibliodiversity: A Manifesto for Independent Publishers (2014), Lupa and Lamb (2014) Cow (2011) and Limen (2013).



[1]  Finola Moorhead’s novel, Darkness More Visible is set in the women’s lands of northern NSW.

[2] For more see Judy Foster with Marlene Derlet, Invisible Women of Prehistory: Three Million years of Peace, Six Thousand Years of War and also Giti Thadani’s Moebius Trip.

[v] The Transit of Patriarchy by Suzanne Bellamy as well as other work by Australian radical feminist artists can be found at



labrys, études féministes/ estudos feministas
janeiro/junho / 2015  - janeiro/junho 2015