Radical feminists disrespect women and harm feminism

One of the greatest ironies of radical feminism is that it is both disrespectful to women and harmful to the feminist project.

Consider this comment left on my Facebook page by a radical feminist:

[H]ow does anyone, not only women, make decisions in a patriarchal society that aren’t limited by patriarchal structures? Have you developed a moral paradigm that transcends social mores without breaching them?

No, I haven’t developed such a moral paradigm but professional philosophers have and it’s very compelling.

As I explained yesterday, radical feminists insist, like the commentor above, that the patriarchy is so powerful it constrains all women’s decisions whether those women are aware of the constraints or not. This is known in philosophy as “adaptive preferences.” Although women may believe they are acting on their own preferences — such as choosing to wear makeup, shave body hair or change surname upon marriage — those preferences have been constrained by the long history of patriarchal oppression and are adaptive not genuine. Women go along to get along whether they understand that or not.

Professor Rosa Terlazzo of the University of Rochester has recently published a paper that addresses this specific issue.

Terlazzo lays out the problem:

The concept of adaptive preferences is supposed to explain how and why victims of injustice might come to endorse their own oppression, and to provide political philosophers with a tool for objecting to that oppression even when its victims do not. Critics, however, argue that using the concept of adaptive preferences further harms the victims of injustice, by denying them the respect owed to moral agents …

I strongly agree. Radical feminists’ use of the concept harms the very women who have been victims of patriarchal injustice by denying them respect and by derogating their efforts to direct the course of their own lives.

Terlazzo unpacks this further:

The majority of political philosophers are presumably unified in opposing the kinds of systemic conditions that marginalize and oppress some members of the political community, leaving them less able to pursue their projects, lead good lives, or expect the kind of treatment that justice demands… [But] many political philosophers hold that using the concept [of adaptive preferences] will likely lead to further and distinct kinds of marginalization and oppression of those already harmed by unjust systems …


[A] judgment that a person has an adaptive preference will of course be a judgment that her autonomy is in some way compromised. And as we know, the possession of autonomy is often taken to play an important role in granting recognition of persons’ moral equality… They are not a moral agent to the same degree that others are; their judgment cannot be taken as seriously as that of others; they do not direct the course of their own life in the way that others do…

Being viewed in this way is fundamentally disrespectful to individual women and the harm is compounded when entire groups of women — women who wear makeup, shave body hair, change their surname on marriage for example — are characterized this way.

That’s bad enough but there’s an additional factor that renders such judgments both morally suspect and deeply enraging to the women thus characterized. Almost by definition such judgments are rendered by elites over non-elites.

Those who … develop academic theories of adaptive preference, tend to be members of dominant groups – wealthy, white academics, policy makers, and development practitioners. When people in these groups are granted more authority about the good of marginalized people than those marginalized people themselves are granted, then we reinforce racist, sexist, and other kinds of objectionable power dynamics even as we aim to undermine structural injustice.

Terlazzo summarizes:

The concept of adaptive preferences, then, can be a tool against injustice when it allows criticism of unjust structures that are not protested by their victims. Without care, however – and especially in cases of disagreement about which lives count as good – the use of the concept can encourage … expressive judgments that harm precisely those who the concept was meant to champion.

The bottom line is this: radical feminists — who tend to be white, well off, well educated elites — should be very, very wary of denying both autonomy and respect to women who make choices different from theirs. Such judgments harm both women and feminism.