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  • Kill Daddy:Reproduction, Futurity, and the Survival of the Radical Feminist
  • Mairead Sullivan (bio)

A curious thing always happens on the first day of my Introduction to Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies courses. During my opening notes, I ask students to define two terms: feminist and feminism. We begin with feminist. I ask the class to describe a feminist, giving them permission to draw on cultural stereotypes as well as their own understandings of the term. Without fail, the following responses end up on the board: lesbian, man hating, radical, extreme, opinionated, does not shave. Leaving these descriptors on the board, I then ask them to define feminism. Again, the answers are nearly always the same: a commitment to women’s rights; the belief that men and women should be equal. As a pedagogical exercise, I ask my students to explain how column one relates to column two and, not surprisingly, they are quick to come to the defense of feminism’s insistence on equality and reprimand the negativity associated with the definition of a feminist. The joy and intrigue of the exercise, for me, is how readily it highlights this persistent bifurcation of the figure of the feminist and feminism as ideology, with the clear distinction that the former is bad and the latter is good. What is even more apparent in this bifurcation is how the image of virulent radical feminist as the embodiment of feminism persists so vehemently, even in the face of a seemingly more palatable juridico-political definition of feminism as tethered to civil equality.

How does this figure of the radical feminist persist, indeed, survive, in our current cultural moment? Furthermore, how has the radical feminist’s survival as a malevolent extremist enacted her effacement as a critical figure for contemporary queer and feminist theory? Building on these questions, how does the figure of the radical feminist further push a critique [End Page 268] of reproductive futurity, as recently argued by Lee Edelman in No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive (2004)?1

In her recent book Feeling Women’s Liberation, Victoria Hesford presents the figure of the “feminist-as-lesbian”—a figure explicitly connected to radical feminism—as a spectral trope that has served to both define and discredit the women’s liberation movement (2013, 1). This figure, which emerged in the early 1970s, served not only to demarcate the boundary between proper and improper (read: heterosexual) femininity, but was also a catalyst for certain schisms and shifts within the burgeoning women’s liberation movement. The lesbian, Hesford argues, “becomes the figure through which the emotive force of the attack on women’s liberation is generated. … As a consequence, women’s liberationists are marked as anterior to normal women, with the lesbian the boundary figure through which that separation is made” (2013, 27–28). Interestingly, in No Future, Edelman proposes a very similar figure—albeit one coded strictly as male—in the “sinthomosexual.” Like the “feminist-as-lesbian,” Edelman’s sinthomosexual identifies the cultural fantasy of queerness as simultaneously the abject other and defining border of the normative political subject. Following this similarity between the feminist-as-lesbian and the sinthomo-sexual, this essay reads the two figures together in order to argue that the figure of the radical feminist, as the heir of the lesbian-as-feminist position, persists as a sinthomosexual figure. Pushing Edelman’s argument further, I aim to demonstrate that the radical feminist reads more violently than his sinthomosexual, and thus, is more closely aligned with the destructive forces of the death drive, which Edelman highlights.

Edelman’s polemic takes to task an affirmative, humanistic political regime that grounds itself in an ever-deferred future staked on the symbolic logic of the Child. Edelman dubs this “structuring optimism of politics” as reproductive futurism (2004, 5). The queer, Edelman argues, figures in this logic as a negativity that “names the side of those not ‘fighting for the children,’ the side outside the consensus by which all politics confirms the absolute value of reproductive futurism” (3). The central argument of Edelman’s polemic is that those who find themselves marked by this stain of queerness, rather than disavowing this...


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