To somehow attempt to disentangle this mess, for the purposes of finding a radical feminism that is continually useful and meaningful (if only for me, I suppose?) rather than hatefully trans-exclusive and biological essentialist, I need to articulate an answer to this conflict. First though I need to wrap my brain around what it is that radfems actually think gender is. … Because honestly it’s not very clear. This is going to be a long endeavor (and post.)
“The Rape Relief sisters, who do not believe a surgically constructed vagina and hormonally grown breasts make you a woman…”So characteristics that contribute to how other persons perceive you as gendered has nothing to do with whether you are a woman or not. O-kay…
According to Julie Bindel,
“a person's wish "doesn't determine what he is". Quite. Call me old-fashioned, but I thought the one battle we feminists won fair and square was to convince at least those left of centre that gender roles are made up. They are not real. We play at them. We develop traditional masculine or feminine traits by being indoctrinated, not because we are biologically programmed to behave in those ways… When feminists suggested that the true "gender outlaws" were those who didn't give a toss about conforming to masculine or feminine norms”… A belief or desire for a particular gender is wrong, but feminism already proved that gender roles are made up and can be developed through indoctrination… or can be reconfigured and tossed aside by “gender outlaws” but… not trans people.
“when I worked on an advice line for lesbians, I would take call after call from self-hating, suicidal women who had experienced horrific homophobia. Thanks to feminism and gay liberation, that situation has altered radically. What a disgrace, therefore, that our legacy amounts to this: if you are unhappy with the constraints of your gender, don't challenge them. If you are tired of being stared at for snogging your same-sex partner in the street, have a sex change. Where are those who go berserk about the ethics of genetic engineering yet seem not to worry about major, irreversible surgery on healthy bodies?Where, actually, are there people in the U.S. or the UK that are suggesting that discomfort with homophobia or heterosexist bullying even remotely equates with gender dysphoria? There seems to be a willful refusal to understand the difference between “unhappy with the constraints of your gender” and gender dysphoria. It suggests that “I want to wear my hair long” or “I don’t want to wear make-up” are all there is to gender dysphoria. Presumably this relates to the fear that somehow transitioning will eradicate homosexuals (as is the stated intention of Iran’s government, but Iran is not the U.S.) But it pretty clearly ignores the rich tapestry of cis people’s gender resistance, and the extent to which that has and has not been successful in actually liberating people from restrictive gendered requirements.
“Also, those who "transition" seem to become stereotypical in their appearance - fuck-me shoes and birds'-nest hair for the boys; beards, muscles and tattoos for the girls. Think about a world inhabited just by transsexuals. It would look like the set of Grease.”I’m, at this point, totally unclear what Julie Bindel’s real issue with transgenderism is, because it seems like a mash-up between irritation that trans* people conform to gendered stereotypes (but the femmes of a butch/femme relationship are radical hip “gender rebels”!) and a fear that GAS (Gender Affirmation Surgery, more often referred to as Sexual-Reassignment Surgery) is equivalent to “modern day aversion therapy for homosexuals” … or else a really pathetic misunderstanding of the history of the medicalization of gays, trans*, and gender and sexual deviants, as described as:
“a diagnosis created by reactionary psychiatrists in the 1950s which claims that it is possible to be born "trapped in the wrong body".”For the record: It was not “a few reactionary psychiatrists in the 1950s” that came up with the idea of being “born in the wrong body,” nor are trans* activists at all uncritical about the medicalization of their experiences and the necessity of deploying illness-narratives in order to access hormonal treatments and various Gender Affirmation Surgical procedures if they choose to do so as part of their transition. Some of the earliest organizing for gay right used this same medicalizing language, largely as a way to argue against anti-homosexuality laws. Magnus Hirshfeld and Karl Ulrichs both adopted a belief about homosexual men as naturally “effeminate.” Ulrichs specifically wrote about the experience of male-male love as “a female psyche confined in a male body,” in the 1800s.
These early writings as a means of categorizing sexualities and genders in order to specifically taxonomy deviance is hardly unproblematic, and certainly ended up contributing a considerable amount of pain and confusion to uncountable numbers of lives. It’s no surprise that we are still struggling to disentangle the idea of orientation, the attraction towards a sexual target, versus self-identity, how (and if) one sees themselves as a gendered being. But Bindel’s image would have us instead believe that transsexuals were invented in the 1950s by doctors who just wanted to get rid of homosexuals (John Money, perhaps?), which is flat out wrong.
There’s a really great rebuttal of the stereotyping that Bindel is doing here on the F word, with her failure to understand that trans* people, far from being walking reproductions of Tim Burton’s “Mars Attacks!” alien-girl, are as varied and gender diverse as any other group.
“…trans people too, far from "seeking to become stereotypical", are often eager to live outside their prescribed gender roles and frustrated by the conformity that a misogynist society demands from those who wish to 'pass'. Marja Erwin told me that "gender identity and gender roles are not the same. I am trans, and I am not the hyperfeminine stereotype. I am a tweener dyke and more butch than femme. I know other trans womyn who are solidly butch, and others who are totally femme, and, of course, the equivalents among straight and bi womyn."Lisa Harney has a really great post on the “Abolishing Gender” concept perpetuated by a lot of radical feminists, which you should read, because there’s a lot of great points. Anyway, the concept of abolishing gender being undermined by transgender expression goes something like this:
“What ever happened to the radical stuff–analyzing gender as an inequality? What ever happened to changing social structures such that people can be happy and healthy in the bodies they’re born with? What ever happened to the dreams feminists had of one day no longer having gender and its shackles?
It just seems to me that at base, trans is about not getting rid of gender. It seems to be about maintaining masculinity and femininity, when you cut to the chase.”At the root, the idea behind abolishing gender theories take the position that gender categories are inherently hierarchical, that the root of women’s gender discrimination and oppression is the process of creating gender categories. However, at the same time, radical feminists want to be sure that this emphasis on abolishing gender doesn’t ignore the material oppression and violence experienced by women, so it becomes very important to reassure everyone that sex is an immutable and stable characteristic, but gender a fiction.
There is a considerable about of writing reinforcing the idea that gender itself is a tool of the patriarchy and needs to be destroyed, although it is by no means a universal claim. When Catherine Mackinnon wrote about sexualities being entirely defined by men’s desires for domination, she also reinforced this idea.
“It is to argue that sexual difference is a function of sexual dominance. It is to argue a sexual theory of the distribution of social power by gender, in which this sexuality that is sexuality is substantially what makes the gender division be what it is, which is male dominant, wherever it is, which is nearly everywhere.”Her writing is quite serpentine and dense, but Mackinnon essentially argues that gender divisions are created by men to serve the purpose of sexual domination. There is an aggressively anti-sex flavor to this entire essay, suggesting as it does that women’s sexuality is entirely unknowable, if such a thing even exists, because at present it’s all defined in terms of men (even lesbians, who are defined by the absence of men), whether for men or lacking men. I find it a bit creepy.
“To explain gender inequality in terms of ‘sexual politics’ is to advance not only a political theory of the sexual that defines gender but also a sexual theory of the political to which gender is fundamental.
In this approach, male power takes the social form of what men as a gender want sexually, which centers on power itself, as socially defined. In capitalist countries, it includes wealth. Masculinity is having it; femininity is not having it. [Masculinity precedes male as femininity precedes female, and male sexual desire defines both.] Specifically, ‘woman’ is defined by what male desire requires for arousal and satisfaction and is socially tautologous with ‘female sexuality’ and ‘the female sex.’”
~ Catherine Mackinnon, “Sexuality”
That this argument is not readily recognized as a logical fallacy of assuming the antecedent, or an exercise in circular logic is amazing to me. Where first a group has to be separated out and categorized as men who are assumed to be naturally motivated entirely by the desire to dominate (and at no time have themselves been acculturated to dominate) to then create gender difference as a means of pursuing this assumed sexual desire.
Or, to put it another way:
“If the gender/sex binary was imposed on humankind as a way to naturalize male domination, this would mean that all of us would be much more liberated by gaining freedom from imposed gender boxes…Everyone wants freedom from the coercive aspects of gender. But in some feminists’ minds gender is intimately tied with power: masculine/men equal domination, feminine/women equal subordination. “Gender” refers in this sense to who we’re supposed to be—to prescribed roles.”Sallydarity goes on to deeply investigate and interrogate a lot of theoretical feminist works in reference to gender abolition to come to an understanding about the clashes between radical feminism and trans* people, in a long essay that is really informative. She notes that,
…I’ve determined that the disagreements between and among feminists and trans* (see footnote) folks (not that they’re mutually exclusive) on the question of gender is that “gender” doesn’t have a commonly understood meaning. The thing is, the term gender is used to talk about the social aspects attached to what is commonly understood as sex (physical/anatomical/genetic/whatever)—sex is perceived as the container, and gender is the contents…She makes a really, really great point when she says, “I realized that a common pattern among feminists who see gender only in terms of gender stratum is that they are often influenced by Marxism and historical materialism (hence “Materialist Feminism”). Especially French Materialist Feminist Monique Wittig, a colleague of Guillaumin, spoke of women as a class.” This concept of women-as-a-class business and it’s relationship to Marxism has important implications for understanding how certain feminists might view trans men as women suffering from false class consciousness, by identifying with the “oppressor class”, i.e., men. It also has important meaning for understanding trans women-as-invaders if you think about the history of class struggle and the tools of the capitalist bosses have used to infiltrate, invade and disrupt class-based organizing, like Pinkertons and Scabs.
…What was being discussed when the term was popularized within feminism was how the roles and the social characteristics prescribed for women and men are not natural but imposed—that women wouldn’t be submissive if it weren’t for social forces, and if we could break down the coercion that enforces gender, we could each be ourselves. An understanding of gender as a mismatch or dysphoria does not necessarily have anything to do with a binary, whereas the feminist conception of gender specifically refers to the binary gender roles and requirements about dress and demeanor.
…The coercive aspects of gender, especially gender roles, are more along the lines of what certain feminists refer to as gender. I will tentatively call this “gender stratum” for lack of a better word. “Gender stratum” also clearly refers to aspects of gender within a hierarchical order. Because I have concerns about the term “identity” as possibly reinforcing an idea of something fixed or static, I will use the term “gender inclination” to refer to one’s own sense of self in terms of gender, although I do not claim to be able to precisely define what this means. I agree that without gender stratum, gender inclination might look very different, but it is impossible to know what gender inclination would look like without power relationships
But, to flip this perspective on it’s head, it ignores the ways in which the majority of class struggle and unionizing has been racist, sexist, homophobic, nationalist and also anti-communist, at various points, the the great shame and weakness of organized labor. And the parallels between these issues in union organizing and these issues in feminist organizing. Racism, sexism, homophobia, etc., are systems of oppression used by the hegemony to keep people divided by hierarchies, reinforced by stigma, stereotypes and hate to make unified organizing impossible. Sexism, misogyny, transphobia, transmisogyny, homophobia, lesbophobia, “corrective rape”, etc. are also systems of oppression used by the hegemony to keep people divided to make unified organizing impossible.
Sallydarity’s explanation is probably the most useful one for how to understand radfems’ definition of gender that I have found.
This article at Against All Evidence seems to vaguely reflect that perspective, with the added point that apparently “gender”, according to radfems can never be an identity.
Trans politics treats gender as an essential characteristic which every human has; gender is an “identity”. Radical feminism wants to abolish gender; gender is a role (not an identity), constructed through notions of ‘feminine’ characteristics and ‘masculine’ characteristics; gender is a system of violence, not ‘expression’.Actually, trans* politics doesn’t treat gender as an essential characteristic which every person has, trans* politics suggests that a person’s deeply held, internal identity is important. The assumption that this means every person’s identity is gendered is a leap, since plenty of trans* writing and experience has reflected on notions of experiencing neither male nor female, agender, preferring neutral pronouns, etc. Whether that has always been the case? Probably not. The question of who gets to speak for trans* people is important, where for a long time the people speaking were medical doctors. When trans* people started speaking out for themselves, the question became whose voices got heard, whether they were predominantly MtF or FtM, queer voices or straight.
There probably are trans* people who believe that “everyone” has a gendered identity, based on their own experience of feeling their gender, but that doesn’t make their generalizing from personal experience to all of humanity accurate or representative of trans* experience or politics. There are also other women that will swear up and down that my boobs and genitals mean something vitally important about me as a woman with “emotions” and “irrationality” and being unable to handle casual sex, for example.
Miska makes the same mistake, but in reverse,
I experience gender solely as something imposed on me externally (albeit in such a pervasive and insidious way that it could easily be mistaken as being an internal state). I suspect this is how most people experience gender too.Given the debates just within feminism alone as to whether being a woman imbues a specific kind of knowing and reasoning or not. Let alone all this debate about sisterhood and cis women talking about feeling womanly or feminine and how “women just understand each other” which has a lot of believers in this society. Somehow I am not convinced that “most people” experience agender internal lives where the only reason they feel gendered is based on external reinforcement.
Cont’d: Two different definitions of gender…