Sex, Gender, and the New Essentialism

A brief foreword: This is the first in a series of essays on sex, gender, and sexuality. If you agree with what I have written, that is fine. If you disagree with any of the following content, that is also perfectly fine. Either way, your life will go on undisturbed after you close this tab irrespective of what you think about this post.

I refuse to remain silent for fear of being branded the wrong type of feminist.  I refuse to remain silent as other women are harassed and abused for their views on gender. In the spirit of sisterhood, this post is dedicated to Julie Bindel. Our views may not always converge, but I am very glad of her work to end male violence against women. In the words of the late, great Audre Lorde: “I am deliberate and afraid of nothing.”

Update: this essay has now been translated into French.


 

When I first enrolled as a Gender Studies student, my grandfather was supportive – delighted that I had found direction in life and developed a work ethic that had never quite materialised during my undergraduate years – yet bemused by the subject. “What do you need to study that for?” He asked. “I can tell you this for free: if you’ve got *male parts, you’re a man. If you’ve got *female parts, you’re a woman. There’s not much more to it. You don’t need a degree to know that.” (*Social convention prevented my grandfather and I from using the words penis or vagina/vulva in this conversation, or any other we shared.)

My initial reaction was shock: having spent a bit too much time on Twitter, having witnessed the extreme polarity of discourse surrounding gender, I was conscious that expressing such opinions on social media carried the risk of becoming subject to a sustained campaign of harassment. Then again, being white and male, I reasoned that – were my septuagenarian grandfather to venture onto Twitter – he would be likely to remain safe from this abuse, which is almost entirely directed towards women.

All the same, hearing that perspective spoken with such casualness as we sat in the garden together was a world apart from the tensions contained in digital space, the fear women carried of being branded the ‘wrong sort’ of feminist and publicly targeted as a result. This exchange pushed me to consider not only the reality of gender, but the context of gender discourse. Intimidation is a powerful silencing tactic – an environment governed by fear is not conducive to critical thought, public discourse, or the development of ideas.

Until the end of his life my grandfather remained blissfully unaware of the schism gender has created within the feminist movement, a divide that has been dubbed the TERF wars. For the uninitiated, TERF stands for Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminist – an acronym used to describe women whose feminism is critical of gender and advocates the abolition of the hierarchy. How one should approach gender is arguably the main source of tension between feminist and queer politics.

The Hierarchy of Gender

 

Patriarchy is dependent on the hierarchy of gender. To dismantle patriarchy – the core objective of the feminist movement – gender must also be abolished. In patriarchal society, gender is what makes male the normative standard of humanity and female Other. Gender is why female sexuality is strictly policed – women called sluts if we allow men sexual access to our bodies, called prudes if we don’t – and no such judgements are passed on male sexuality. Gender is why women who are abused by men get blamed and shamed – ‘she was asking for it’ or ‘she provoked him’ – while the behaviour of abusive men is commonly justified with ‘boys will be boys’ or ‘he’s a good man, really’. Gender is why girls are rewarded for being nurturing, passive, and modest, traits that are not encouraged in boys. Gender is why boys are rewarded for being competitive, aggressive, and ambitious, traits not encouraged in girls. Gender is why women are considered property, passing from the ownership of father to husband through marriage. Gender is why women are expected to provide domestic and emotional labour along with the vast majority of care, yet such work is devalued as ‘feminised’ and subsequently rendered invisible.

Gender is not an abstract issue. A woman is killed by a man every three days in the UK. It is estimated that 85,000 women are raped every year in England and Wales. One in four British women experiences violence at the hands of a male partner, a figure which rises to one in three on a global scale. Over 200 million women and girls alive today have undergone female genital mutilation. The liberation of women and girls from male dominance and the violence used to maintain that power disparity is a fundamental feminist goal – a goal that is incompatible with accepting limitations imposed by gender as the boundaries of what is possible in our lives.

“The problem with gender is that it prescribes how we should be rather than recognising how we are. Imagine how much happier we would be, how much freer to be our true individual selves, if we didn’t have the weight of gender expectations… Boys and girls are undeniably different biologically, but socialisation exaggerates the differences, and then starts a self-fulfilling process.” – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, We Should All be Feminists

Gender roles are a prison. Gender is a socially constructed trap designed to oppress women as a sex class for the benefit of men as a sex class. And the significance of biological sex cannot be disregarded, in spite of recent efforts to reframe gender as an identity rather than a hierarchy. Sexual and reproductive exploitation of the female body are the material basis of women’s oppression – our biology is used as a means of domination by our oppressors, men. Although there are minority of people who do not fit neatly into the binary of biological sex – people who are intersex – this does not alter the structural, systematic nature of women’s oppression.

Feminists have been critiquing the hierarchy of gender for hundreds of years, and with good reason. When Sojourner Truth deconstructed femininity she critiqued the misogyny and anti-Black racism shaping how the category of woman was defined. Using her own physical prowess and fortitude as empirical evidence, Truth observed that womanhood was not dependent on the traits associated with femininity and challenged the Othering of Black female bodies required to elevate the perceived fragility of white womanhood into the feminine ideal. Ain’t I a Woman is one of the earliest known feminist critiques of gender essentialism; Truth’s speech was an acknowledgement of the interaction between hierarchies of race and gender within the context of white supremacist patriarchal society (hooks, 1981).

Simone de Beauvoir too deconstructed femininity, stating that “one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.” With The Second Sex she argued that gender is not innate, but provides roles into which we are socialised into adopting in accordance with our biological sex. She highlighted the limitations of these roles, in particular the limitations imposed upon women as a result of gender essentialism, the idea that gender is innate.

As de Beauvoir observed, gender essentialism has been used against women for centuries in an effort to deny us entry to the public sphere, life independent of male dominance. Claims of women’s inferior intellectual capacity, inherent passivity, and innate irrationality were all used to restrict women’s lives to a domestic context on the basis that it was woman’s natural state. History demonstrates that insistence upon a female brain is a tactic of patriarchy used to keep suffrage, property rights, bodily autonomy, and access to formal education the preserve of men. Owing to the long history of misogyny resting upon assumptions of a female brain, in addition to it being scientifically untrue, neurosexism (Fine, 2010) is contradictory to a feminist perspective.

Yet the concept of a female brain is once more being advocated – not only by social conservatives, but within the context of queer and leftist politics, which are generally assumed to be progressive. Explorations of gender as an identity as opposed to a hierarchy often rely upon the presumption that gender is innate – “in the brain” – and not socially constructed. Therefore, the development of transgender politics and subsequent disagreements over the nature of women’s oppression – what lies at its root, and how woman is defined – has become a faultline (MacKay, 2015) within the feminist movement.

Feminism and Gender Identity

 

The word transgender is used to describe the state of an individual whose personal understanding of their own gender does not align with their biological sex. For example, someone born female-bodied who identifies as male is referred to as a transman. Someone born male-bodied who identifies as female is referred to as a transwoman. Being transgender can involve a degree of medical intervention, potentially including hormone replacement therapy and sex reassignment surgery, a process of transition undertaken to bring the material self into alignment with the internally held identity of a transgender person. However, of the 650,000 British people fitting under the trans umbrella, a mere 30,000 are estimated to have made any surgical or medical transition.

The term trans initially described those born male who identify as female, or vice versa, but is now used to denote a variety of identities rooted in gender non-conformity. Trans encompasses non-binary identity (when a person identified as neither male nor female), genderfluidity (when an individual’s identity is liable to shift from male to female or vice versa), and genderqueerness (when an individual identifies with both or neither masculinity and femininity), to name just a few examples.

Converse to transgender is cisgender, a word used to convey the alignment of biological sex and ascribed gender role. Being cisgender has been framed as a privilege by queer discourse, with cis people positioned as the oppressor class and trans people as the oppressed. Although trans people are undeniably a marginalised group, no differentiation is made between the cis men and women in consideration of how that marginalisation manifests. Male violence is consistently responsible for the murders of transwomen, a tragic pattern Judith Butler identifies as being the product of “…men’s need to meet culturally held standards of male power and masculinity.

From a queer perspective, it is the gender with which one identifies as opposed to the sex class to which one belongs that dictates whether one is marginalised by or benefits from patriarchal oppression. In this respect, queer politics are fundamentally at odds with feminist analysis. Queer framing positions gender in the mind, where it exists as a positively self-defined identity – not a hierarchy. From a feminist perspective, gender is understood as a means of perpetuating the structural power imbalance patriarchy has established between sex classes.

“If you do not recognise the material reality of biological sex or its significance as an axis of oppression, your political theory cannot incorporate any analysis of patriarchy. Women’s historic and continued subordination has not arisen because some members of our species choose to identify with an inferior social role (and it would be an act of egregious victim-blaming to suggest that it has). It has emerged as a means by which males can dominate that half of the species that is capable of gestating children, and exploit their sexual and reproductive labour. We cannot make sense of the historical development of patriarchy and the continued existence of sexist discrimination and cultural misogyny, without recognising the reality of female biology, and the existence of a class of biologically female persons.” – Rebecca Reilly-Cooper, What I believe about sex and gender

As queer theory is built upon post-structuralist thought, by definition it is incapable of providing cohesive structural analysis of systematic oppression. After all, if the material self is arbitrary in defining how one experiences the world, it cannot then be factored into the understanding of any political class. What queer theory fails to grasp is that structural oppression is not connected to how an individual identifies. Gender as an identity is not a vector in the matrix of domination (Hill Collins, 2000) – whether or not one identifies with a particular gender role has no bearing on where one is positioned by patriarchy.

The Problem with ‘Cis’

 

Being cis means “identify[ing] with the gender you were assigned at birth.” But the assignation of gender roles based upon sex characteristics is a tool of patriarchy used to subordinate women. Having the limitations imposed by gender used to define the trajectory of their development is the earliest manifestation of patriarchy in a child’s life, which is particularly damaging for girls. The essentialism behind assuming women identify with the means of our oppression rests on a belief that women are inherently suited to that oppression, that men are inherently suited to wield power over us. In other words, categorising women as ‘cis’ is misogyny.

Through the post-modern lens of queer theory, women’s oppression as a sex class is repackaged as a privilege. But, for women, being ‘cis’ is not a privilege. Globally, male violence is a leading cause in the premature deaths of women. In a world where femicide is endemic, where one third of women and girls can expect to experience male violence, being born female is not a privilege. Whether or not a natal female identifies with a particular gender role has no bearing whether she will be subject to female genital mutilation, whether she will struggle to access reproductive healthcare, whether she is ostracised for menstruating.

It is impossible to opt out of oppression that is material in basis by means of personal identification. Therefore, the label of cisgender has little to no bearing upon where women are positioned by patriarchy. To frame inhabiting a female body as a privilege requires a total disregard for the sociopolitical context of patriarchal society.

The fight for women’s rights has proven to be long and difficult, with advancements achieved at great cost to those who resisted patriarchy. And that fight is not over. Significant developments in the recognition of women’s rights brought about by the second wave of feminism were deliberately met with socio-political backlash (Faludi, 1991), a pattern currently repeating itself to the extent that women’s ability to legally access to abortion and other forms of reproductive healthcare is jeopardised by the mainstreaming of conservative fascism across Europe and in the United States. Intersections of race, class, disability, and sexuality too play roles in defining the ways in which structures of power act upon women.

Yet, in the name of inclusivity, women are being stripped of the language required to identify and subsequently challenge our own oppression.  Pregnant women become pregnant people. Breastfeeding becomes chestfeeding. Citing female biology becomes a form of bigotry, which makes addressing the politics of reproduction, birth, and motherhood impossible to directly address without transgressing. In addition, rendering language neutral of any reference to sex does not prevent or challenge women being oppressed as a sex class. Erasing the female body does not alter the means by which gender oppresses women.

Queer framing locates the ownership of gender discourse firmly with those identifying as trans. As a result, gender is a topic many feminists try to avoid in spite of the hierarchy playing a fundamental role in women’s oppression. Invitations to drink bleach or die in a fire are, unsurprisingly, an effective silencing tactic. Jokes and threats – often indistinguishable – about violence against women are commonly used as a means of suppressing dissenting voices. Such abuse cannot be considered “punching up”, the oppressed venting frustration at the oppressor. It is at best horizontal hostility (Kennedy, 1970), at worst a legitimisation of male violence against women.

Queer identity politics fail to account for and at times wilfully ignore the ways in which women are oppressed as a sex class. This selective approach to the politics of liberation is fundamentally flawed. Depoliticising gender, adopting an uncritical approach to the power imbalances it creates, benefits nobody – least of all women. Only the abolition of gender will provide liberation from the restrictions it imposes. The shackles of gender cannot be re-purposed in the pursuit of freedom.

 


Bibliography

Simone de Beauvoir. (1952). The Second Sex

Susan Faludi. (1991). Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women

Cordelia Fine. (2010). Delusions of Gender

bell hooks. (1981). Ain’t I a Woman?

Florynce Kennedy. (1970). Institutionalized Oppression vs. the Female

Finn MacKay. (2015). Radical Feminism

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. (2014). We Should All be Feminists

Rebecca Reilly-Cooper. (2015). Sex and Gender: A Beginner’s Guide

Sojourner Truth. (1851). Ain’t I a Woman?

 

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20 comments

  1. Real Feminist History · February 7

    Brilliant as always, Claire! I apologize for being an insensitive old white lady at times (this is Penny White) but please know I fully support & respect your work. Thank You for your courage!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. ninamgeorge · February 7

    Well said…

    Like

  3. june42 · February 7

    this is magnificent summation of the issues involved- thank you

    Like

  4. Jo Phoenix · February 8

    Thoroughly enjoyed this piece. Clear. Concise. And insightful. Will be sharing it widely.

    Like

  5. Nicky · February 8

    I really appreciated reading this. I am surrounded by queer politics and feel completely isolated and silenced about discussions around sex and gender. Women are falling all over themselves to accommodate others that we are erasing our own existence. This was a fantastic explanation of what I often fail to put into words.

    To my community I am no longer a lesbian but a gender non-conforming queer (Although weirdly enough men are allowed to call themselves lesbians now) I am no longer considered a woman and for me to critique gender is akin to misogyny as apparently I fit on the masuline side of the gender spectrum and therefore benefit from the patriarchy – all because I wear comfortable clothes and cut my hair short.

    I have a question that hopefully someone might be able to help me with. When I tell people that feminists work to abolish gender sometimes queer people respond that they are doing the same by not recognizing their gender. While I don’t agree that this tactic works because gender is about how other people define us, however, it seems that the idea comes from a similar desire to abolish gender all together. So my question is, could there be any overlap between feminism and queer ‘identities’ in this respect? Or is this refusal to participate in gender just as damaging as the transgender identity?

    I apologise if this is a dumb question.

    Like

    • Claire · February 8

      That’s not a dumb question at all. Queer politics can be isolating for lesbian women, and I’m sorry that this has been your experience. Those questions are central to my next two posts in this series, which will be posted within the next fortnight.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Dar Guerra · February 10

    Hi, just wanted to thank you for this great analysis. This comment especially is so well-expressed: “It is impossible to opt out of oppression that is material in basis by means of personal identification. Therefore, the label of cisgender has little to no bearing upon where women are positioned by patriarchy. To frame inhabiting a female body as a privilege requires a total disregard for the sociopolitical context of patriarchal society.”

    To me this is the core of the article: “As queer theory is built upon post-structuralist thought, by definition it is incapable of providing cohesive structural analysis of systematic oppression. After all, if the material self is arbitrary in defining how one experiences the world, it cannot then be factored into the understanding of any political class. What queer theory fails to grasp is that structural oppression is not connected to how an individual identifies. Gender as an identity is not a vector in the matrix of domination (Hill Collins, 2000) – whether or not one identifies with a particular gender role has no bearing on where one is positioned by patriarchy.”

    Yes, gender as an identity is not a vector in the matrix of domination. I’ll have to get Hill Collins book.

    Thanks again and good luck with your writing!

    Like

  7. louisina · February 10

    Really powerful read Claire, you are doing amazing work xxx

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Jen · February 12

    I’ve always considered myself a feminist (am in my 40’s now) but have started to read more about it recently and am learning so much from articles such as this. Thank you!

    Like

  9. kittynolanblog · February 12

    Thank you for this; it has crystallised my own thinking about gender and the experience of being a woman. My focus has been on GBV; it’s roots in patriarchy, and looking for solutions. I’m constantly frustrated by how there is a general sense women have equality, but 1 in 4 women experience violence at the hands of a male partner. Until GBV is challenged loudly, and our society stands up against violence and for respect, women’s equality will continue to be evaded.

    Like

  10. Jo · February 12

    Brilliant! Put it in words I couldn’t. Especially the bit about the problem of “cis”. I am not a ciswoman. I am a woman. I refuse to use cis as it is a way of defining gender as one thing. I am a woman because of my genitals. Not because of my personality of brain, because I don’t believe that my genitals can alter that!

    Like

  11. ybawife · February 12

    Just brilliant. Made notes that clarify my thinking. 100% important work Claire can’t wait for the next essay. Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Abolissimo · February 15

    Dear Claire,
    Can we publish a French version of this essay on http://TRADFEM.WORDPRESS.COM, a non-profit radfem translation collective, please?

    Like

    • Claire · February 15

      Yes, provided I can cross-post it to Sister Outrider! Thank you very much for your interest – do let me know when the translation goes live.

      Like

  13. Pingback: Le sexe, le genre, et le nouvel essentialisme | Sister Outrider
  14. Pingback: Le sexe, le genre et le nouvel essentialisme | TRADFEM
  15. Pingback: Lezbehonest about Queer Politics Erasing Lesbian Women | Sister Outrider
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  17. troy · March 16

    Great article, thanks. The term ‘cis’ I believe (and tell me if I’m wrong…) was coined by the trans movement as a way to differentiate transpeople from those who are content with their corresponding match of gender and biological sex. What they often fail to see is that by categorizing non-trans as cis, they’ve simply created another binary. Because of this I’ve seen pro-trans arguments often collapse upon themselves.

    I notice you’ve posted your other essays and I look forward to checking them out in the next few days. Thought I’d leave a comment none the less 🙂

    Like

  18. Pingback: Grasping Things at the Root: On Young Women & Radical Feminism | Sister Outrider

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