"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.