Book review. Radical Feminism: Feminist Activism in Movement by Finn MacKay
by Ian Sinclair
7 December 2015
Coming out of her PhD thesis on the Reclaim The Night marches, Finn Mackay’s first book skilfully combines an analysis of grassroots feminist activism with a broader look at feminist history in the UK.
Based on 25 in-depth interviews, 100 online questionnaires and archival research Mackay, a Lecturer in Sociology at the University of the West of England aswell as an activist, provides a concise guide to the faultlines of contemporary feminism. So if you are unsure what “intersectionality” refers to, or want to know why people keep referring to “cis” or how people “perform their gender”, then this is the book for you.
As the title suggests, Mackay’s particular interest is Radical Feminism, which she argues has four main features that distinguish it from other forms of feminism: an awareness and focus on patriarchy; the promotion of women-only space and women-centred organising; the realisation that male violence against women is the keystone of women’s oppression; and an expansion of the definition of ‘male violence’ to include the institutions of pornography and prostitution.
Despite her clear bias for this school of thought, Mackay treats other branches of feminism with respect and fairness. The only serious false step for me is her treatment of prostitution, where her support for the ‘Swedish model’ – the criminalisation of clients and the decriminalisation of those selling sex – leads her to omit important sources and arguments. For example, she argues that “it can be enlightening… to study the local newspapers of towns and cities in all countries where brothels have been legalised to see what is happening on the ground.” This is undoubtedly correct but it’s surely also enlightening to study what respected international organisations such as the World Health Organisation, Anti-Slavery International and the UN Global Commission on HIV and the Law have to say on the subject (all support decriminalisation and all go unmentioned by Mackay). In addition, she never engages with the argument for unionisation among prostitutes to make their work safer. The omission is especially odd considering that Mackay goes on to compare prostitution to sweatshop labour in terms of the very limited level of agency and choice individual women usually have in prostitution.
A little more dry and academic than recent feminist bestsellers like The Equality Illusion and Laura Bates’s Everyday Sexism, Radical Feminism is nevertheless a much-needed overview of what is effectively hidden “herstory”. Particularly impressive is the penultimate chapter, where Mackay lets loose on how feminists can work, both inside and outside of the male-dominated establishment, for a fairer and more just society.
As the writer Joan Smith once noted, “Feminism is one of the great human rights movements” in history. Mackay no doubt agrees, and ends her book by noting women’s rights have not been kindly given by those in power. “Everything that we take advantage of today, everything that we see as basic are in fact rights that were hard won, and they were won for us by the feminists who have gone before”.
Radical Feminism: Feminist Activism in Movement is published by Palgrave Macmillan, priced £14.99.