Radical feminism focuses on patriarchy as a system of power that organizes society into a complex of relationships producing what radical feminists claim is a "male supremacy" that oppresses women. Radical feminism aims to challenge and to overthrow patriarchy by opposing standard gender roles and what they see as male oppression of women, and calls for a radical reordering of society.
Early radical feminism, arising within second-wave feminism in the 1960s, typically viewed patriarchy as a "transhistorical phenomenon" prior to or deeper than other sources of oppression, "not only the oldest and most universal form of domination but the primary form" and the model for all others. Later politics derived from radical feminism ranged from cultural feminism to more syncretic politics that placed issues of class, economics, etc. on a par with patriarchy as sources of oppression.
The term "radical" in radical feminism (from Latin, meaning root) is used as an adjective meaning of or pertaining to the root or going to the root. Radical feminists locate the root cause of women's oppression in patriarchal gender relations, as opposed to legal systems (liberal feminism) or class conflict (socialist feminism and Marxist feminism).
In the United States, radical feminism developed as a response to some of the perceived failings of both New Left organizations such as the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and liberal-feminist organizations such as the National Organization for Women (NOW). Initially concentrated mainly in big cities (like New York, Chicago, Boston, and Washington, DC) and on the West Coast, radical feminist groups spread across the country rapidly from 1968 to 1972.
As a form of practice, radical feminists introduced the use of consciousness-raising groups (CR groups). These groups brought together intellectuals, workers and middle-class women in developed Western countries to discuss their experiences. During these discussions, women noted a shared and repressive system regardless of their political affiliation or social class. Based on these discussions, the women drew the conclusion that ending patriarchy was the most necessary step towards a truly free society. These consciousness-raising sessions allowed early radical feminists to develop a political ideology based on common experiences women faced with male supremacy. Consciousness raising was extensively used in sub-units of the National Organization For Women during the 1970s.
Radical feminism describes sexual oppression (patriarchy) as the fundamental form of oppression and the primary oppression for women; men as a group are considered to be the beneficiaries of this social system of male supremacy (patriarchy). Radical feminism offers a real challenge to, and a rejection of, the liberal orientation towards the public world of men. Indeed it gives a positive value to womanhood rather than supporting a notion of assimilating women into arenas of activity associated with men. Radical feminism pays attention to women's oppression as women in a social order dominated by men. According to this approach, the distinguishing character of women's oppression is their oppression as women, not as members of other groups such as their social class. Hence, the explanation for women's oppression is seen as lying in sexual oppression. Women are oppressed because of their sex.
The notion of shared oppression is intimately connected with a strong emphasis on the sisterhood of women and encourages some degree of separatism from men. Furthermore, this identification with women and rejection of male dominance involves both a critique of the existing organization of heterosexuality as prioritizing men, and a recognition of lesbianism as a challenge to that priority. Radical feminism stresses that in a social order dominated by men the process of changing sexual oppression must, as a political necessity, involve a focus on women. And because radical feminism recommends putting women first, making them the primary concern, this approach is inclined to accord lesbianism an honored place as a form of mutual recognition between women.
Radical feminism's strong interest in recovering or discovering positive elements in femininity (asserting in essence that it is good to be a woman and to form bonds with other women), in combination with its location of men as the beneficiaries of sexual power relations, results in a relatively sharp division drawn between men and women. Radical feminists usually present a historically continuous, clear-cut difference between men and women. Sometimes, this is argued to be the result of an ontological (essential, intrinsic, innate) difference. However, other radical feminist writers note that male domination is a social structure and not the consequence of some in-built male propensity, even if motivations towards mastery are typically male. In other words, feminists in this tradition see a difference between men and women as inevitable (given by nature) or at least as so established historically that it is very deeply embedded.
Since radical feminist thinkers consider sexual oppression to be profoundly entrenched, frequently depicting it as the original form of coercive power, they also present the social and political changes required to overthrow the system of male domination as far-reaching. Radical feminism generally advocates a revolutionary model of social change. However, the proposed revolutionary change in the organization of power relations between the sexes is not described in terms of a single cataclysmic moment, but rather as the consequence of the cumulative effect of many small-scale actions. Moreover, revolutionary practice--conceived as the basis of radical feminist theory--is undertaken with an emphasis on small group organization rather than formalized, centrally administered structures.