Binary or Spectrum, Gender is a Hierarchy

A brief foreword: this is the fifth essay in my series on sex, gender, and sexuality. Parts 1, 2, 3, and 4 are available here on Sister Outrider. With this essay, I challenge the notion that gender can be repurposed as anything other than a hierarchy. This one is dedicated to E, a stellar lesbian and feminist.


 

“It is impossible to name and act against oppression if there are no nameable oppressors.” – Mary Daly

What is Gender?

Gender is a fiction created by patriarchy, a hierarchy imposed by men to ensure their dominance over women. The idea of a gender binary was established in order to justify the subordination of women by positioning our oppression by men as a natural state of affairs, the result of how characteristics innately held by men and women manifest. Framing gender as natural not only serves to depoliticise the hierarchy, but uses essentialism in order to convince women that radical resistance to gender – the means of our oppression – is futile. Hopelessness breeds apathy, which undermines social change more effectively than any overt challenge. If abolishing gender (and therefore dismantling patriarchy) is an unobtainable goal, women have no choice but to accept our status as second-class citizens of the world. To treat gender as inherent is to accept a patriarchal blueprint for the design of society.

gender imageGender is a hierarchy that enables men to be dominant and conditions women into subservience. As gender is a fundamental element of white supremacist capitalist patriarchy (hooks, 1984) it is particularly disconcerting to see elements of queer discourse argue that gender is not only innately held but sacrosanct. Far from being a radical alternative to the status quo, the project of “queering” gender only serves to replicate the standards set by patriarchy through its essentialism. A queer understanding of gender does not challenge patriarchy in any meaningful way – rather than encouraging people to resist the standards set by patriarchy, it offers them a way to embrace it. Queer politics have not challenged traditional gender roles so much as breathed fresh life into them – therein lies the danger.

To argue that gender could or should be “queered” is to lose sight of how gender functions as a system of oppression. Hierarchies cannot, by definition, be assimilated into the politics of liberation. Structural power imbalances cannot be subverted out of existence – reducing gender to a matter of performativity or personal identification denies its practical function as a hierarchy. Any ideology which flagrantly disregards gender as the method of women’s oppression cannot be described as feminist – indeed, as queer ideology remains largely uncritical of the power disparity behind sexual politics, it is anti-woman.

The logic of gender identity is fundamentally flawed, resting on the premise that gender is innately held. As feminists have argued for decades, gender is socially constructed – a fabrication designed to grant men dominion over women. The upbringing of children, 1600-Genderbread-Persongendered even before birth, serves to divide the sexes into a dominant and subservient class. Feminism recognises that biological sex exists while opposing essentialism, opposing the idea that sex dictate who or what we are capable of being as humans. Feminism asserts that our character, qualities, and personality are not defined by whether we are male or female. Conversely, queer theory argues that one set of traits is inherently masculine and another set of traits is inherently feminine, and our identity is dependent on how we align with those traits.

 

Instead of acknowledging that there are multitudes of ways to be a man or a woman, queer theory pigeonholes people into an ever-increasing range of categories organised by stereotype. There is no scientific evidence to support the existence of gendered brains, and claims of inherently gendered brains are the product of neurosexism (Fine, 2010). Yet queer ideology positions gender as an innately held identity, claiming that gender “is what you feel.”

“The manacles of a lifetime of cultural conditioning that has tried to convince me that gender is a biological fact rather than a social construct are more difficult to shake off than I would like.” – Louise O’Neill, I Call Myself A Feminist: The View from Twenty-Five Women Under Thirty

The Trouble with Gender Identity

Despite its essentialism, the queer understanding of gender has grown increasingly mainstream within progressive and feminist spaces. It is not difficult to understand why. Gender ideology acknowledges that a binary of male and female gender roles are restrictive for individuals, but instead of advocating the extensive work required to dismantle the hierarchy of gender, it offers a far easier solution: an individual opt-out clause that enables people to make peace with patriarchy. To embrace gender ideology is to embrace a narrative of exceptionalism. To embrace gender ideology is to accept that there is a class of people naturally suited to their position within the hierarchy of gender (be it oppressed or oppressor), and a class of people who are exceptions to the traditional rules of gender.

There is a fundamental problem with queer gender ideology. As I have previously written, that problem is misogyny. To claim certain groups are naturally suited to the gender role imposed upon their sex category – “cis” people – is to endorse misogyny. The women categorised as cis, by the logic of gender identity, are inherently suited to being oppressed by men. The whole system of patriarchy is therefore whitewashed by gender ideology, presented as a natural occurrence as opposed to a system of oppression built to grant men dominion over women.

As queer identity politics are built around a narrative of exceptionalism, the power dynamics of sexual politics to be ignored altogether. Through the linguistic twist of “cis”, women’s oppression is reframed as a privilege and therefore the liberation of “cis” women from patriarchal oppression ceases to be a priority. Sexual politics are negated by self-identification, through which membership of a sex class is rendered politically invisible.

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“So many genders and yet we still know, magically, which half of the human race is expected to wipe arses and scrub floors.” – Victoria Smith, @glosswitch

 

Gender is a prison, and I have compassion for everyone constricted by it. It is abhorrent that men are discouraged from empathy, kindness, and creative self-expression.  There is real cruelty in socialising boys into masculinity. That being said, there is a connection between gender ideology and the laundering of male privilege that demands scrutiny.

This issue is exemplified by the case of Ben Hopkins, one half of the punk duo PWR BTTM. Hopkins is biologically male and, as such, was socialised into masculinity. Like a great many famous persons who are biologically male, Hopkins exploited his fame and power to sexually abuse female fans. According to one of his victims, Hopkins is a “known sexual predator who has perpetrated multiple assaults, bullied other people in the queer community, and has made unwanted advances towards underage minors.” What allegedly sets Hopkins apart from a longstanding tradition of powerful male abusers is that he identifies as genderqueer. As such, queer perspective would have it that Hopkins’ actions cannot be considered male violence against women. Queer exceptionalism as it manifests through the logic of gender identity makes it impossible to name or challenge male violence as such.

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Statement from Survivor

Men are taught from birth that they are entitled to women’s time, women’s attention, women’s love, women’s energy, and women’s bodies. Yet, in accordance with the logic of gender ideology, unfortunate yet random as opposed to a likely consequence of the gendered socialisation men receive in patriarchal society. Despite identifying as genderqueer, the sexual violence Hopkins enacted against women with dramatically less social power than him follows perfectly the logic of masculinity. In what sense can a man who carries out the most toxic behaviour rooted in masculinity claim to be queering or resisting gender?

As his actions make clear, Hopkins has not consciously unlearned male socialisation or entitlement to women’s bodies. How Hopkins chooses to identify has little bearing upon the grim reality of the situation. Yet in claiming the label of genderqueer, Hopkins attempted to erase the male privilege from which he continued to benefit. Writing for Feminist Current, Jen Izaakson clearly articulates the paradox of Hopkins claiming to queer gender:

“…Hopkins used glitter, eyeliner, and vintage dresses to demonstrate an understanding of and adherence to queer ideals, to illustrate a rejection of “toxic masculinity” and the gender norms socially ascribed to males. But wearing flowery dresses and lip gloss does not necessarily lead to an actual rejection of the male entitlement and male dominance of men under patriarchy. By centering self-defined identities, individual expression, and performativity, instead of scrutinizing male violence and unequal systems of power, queer discourse has allowed misogyny easy access to the party.”

Similarly, trans activist Cherno Biko (born male) openly confessed to raping a transman (born female) with the fantasy and intention of impregnating them against their will.  Despite having publicly acknowledged committing sexual abuse, Biko was invited to speak on stage at the Women’s March in Washington and served as Co-Chair of the Young Women’s Advisory Council for New York City. This raises questions not only about the apparent lack of accountability for sexual abuse within feminist spaces, but also the extent to which progressive political movements are prepared to overlook instances of violence against women if the perpetrator identifies as transgender or genderqueer.

Acts of violence against women are both cause and consequence of patriarchy, and they are normalised by the logic of gender. Gender ideology disregards the power disparity of sexual politics – a hierarchy instituted through gender itself – and instead considers gender purely as a matter of self-identification. The queer perspective deliberately individualises the issue of identity in order to depoliticise gender, thereby avoiding difficult questions about power and patriarchy.

We are told that gender is a deeply personal matter and therefore, as all good liberals know, not to be scrutinised. Yet research demonstrates that transwomen retained a male pattern regarding criminality following sex reassignment surgery, and that the same was true regarding violent crime.” Given that one in three women will experience male violence in her lifetime, this is no small matter: 96% of people who commit acts of sexual violence are biologically male. The safety of women and girls is never an acceptable price to pay, not even in the name of inclusion. Masculine socialisation plays a demonstrable role in shaping attitude and behaviour – if women cannot name the violence we experience or identify the system that makes it possible, we cannot challenge it.

“When Simone de Beauvoir wrote that a girl is not born a woman but rather becomes one, she did not mean that an individual born into the male sex, socialised into the expectation of the masculine gender, can simply decide to take hormones and maybe have surgery and ‘become a woman’.”Dame Jenni Murray

Through the lens of gender identity, the oppressor may shed his male privilege and claim the status of oppressed. Through the lens of gender identity, the oppressed may also reject the grounds of their oppression by means of self-identification. Gender ideology aims to repurpose a hierarchy as an identity. Unfortunately, one cannot simply opt out of an oppression that is structural and systematic in nature – although queer discourse presents this as a legitimate route to women. Man is the default standard of humanity, with woman relegated to “Other” – defined purely in relation to men (Beauvoir, 1949). Is it no wonder that a growing number of women, dissatisfied by the limitations imposed by the feminine gender role and conscious that self-actualised human beings are more than the hollow stereotype of femininity, cease to identify as women.

Instead of identifying the feminine gender role as the problem, and working to dismantle the hierarchy of gender, women are encouraged to stop identifying as such if they behave or feel as human beings do. Instead of giving women the tools to unlearn internalised misogyny, gender ideology encourages them to disown womanhood and claim to be individual exceptions to the rule of gender. Through positioning full humanity and womanhood as being mutually exclusive, gender ideology invites women to participate in I’m-Not-Like-Other-Girls: Queer Edition.

It is understandable that women are eager to escape the feminine gender role – indeed, women’s liberation from the hierarchy of gender is a core feminist objective. But the feminist movement advocates the liberation of all women from all forms of oppression, not simply the liberation of those who believe their individual oppression through gender is wrong – those who “don’t aspire to any kind of womanhood.”

The Homophobia of Queering Gender

gay liberationDespite talk of queer community, an alliance between members of the LGBT+ alphabet soup, homophobia has always been at the root of queer politics. Queer ideology emerged as backlash to lesbian feminist principles, which advocated radical social change through the transformation of personal lives (Jeffreys, 2003). The political interests of lesbian women and marginalised gay men – primarily the abolition of gender roles – were dismissed within queer spheres. Individualism precluding any concentrated focus on feminist and gay liberation politics, which queer discourse began to describe as old-fashioned, dull, or anti-sex.

In recent years, this derision has escalated into openly anti-gay sentiment. Attempts to erase lesbian women and gay men are now standard practice within a queer setting. In an opinion piece that questions whether lesbian identity can “survive the gender revolution”, Shannon Keating claims that lesbian and gay sexualities are obsolete:

“Against the increasingly colorful backdrop of gender diversity, a binary label like ‘gay’ or ‘lesbian’ starts to feel somewhat stale and stodgy. When there are so many genders out there, is it closed-minded — or worse, harmful and exclusionary — if you identify with a label that implies you’re only attracted to one?”

There is a persistent strain of homophobia within gender ideology. It manifests so regularly because that homophobia is woven into queer gender politics. Same-sex attraction is relentlessly problematised because it acknowledges both the existence of biological sex and its significance in determining the potential for attraction – a contradiction of the claim that gender, not sex, is the defining unit of identity.

Earlier this year Juno Dawson, author of The Gender Games, claimed that being a gay man was merely a “consolation prize” for those unprepared to opt into a life of transwomanhood. Prior to transition, Dawson lived and loved as a gay man – therefore, it is particularly troubling that Dawson proclaimed homosexuality to be anything less than worthy of respect and recognition as legitimate. Dawson positioned life as a gay man as an inferior alternative, a poor substitute, for repressed transwomanhood. When gay men and lesbian women objected to this homophobia, Dawson delivered a non-apology which hit upon a fundamental truth about the politics of gender identity and sexuality: “Lots of trans men and women previously lived as gay men or lesbians prior to transition so I think it’s a really important thing to discuss…”

It is wildly regressive to argue that gay men are really unfulfilled women on the inside. By that logic, only the most straight and toxic of masculinities is authentically male. And if gay men are really straight transwomen, there is no such thing as gay men. Homosexuality has been ‘cured’ – an agenda that traditionally belonged to social conservatives, but can now be found within queer ideology. And it is not coincidence that so many of those who choose to undergo surgical or medical transition are gay men or lesbian women who, upon undertaking transition, live as heterosexuals. In Iran, where same-sex relationships are punishable by death, clerics are prepared to “accept the idea that a person may be trapped in a body of the wrong sex.”

Gender ideology is fundamentally conservative. It is based on the premise that gender roles are absolute, that those who stray from the gender role ascribed to their sex must belong to another category. Lesbian women and gay men defy the gender roles simply by loving someone of the same sex, by deviating from the heteropatriarchal patterns of dominance to create a sexual politics of equality. If we are transitioned into heterosexuality, into compliance with gender roles, we are made to conform to the gender roles mapped out by patriarchy.

Nobody is born in the wrong body. A body cannot, by definition, be wrong. The system of gender, on the other hand, is wrong in every way. Problematising bodies as opposed to the hierarchy which confines them only replicates the destructive ideology at the heart of patriarchy. It is an upside-down approach to the politics of liberation, misguided at best and complicit with patriarchy at worst.

Conclusion

Critiquing gender ideology is strongly discouraged – I suspect this is because the more one explores the queer perspective of gender, the more apparent its misogyny and homophobia become. Once the progressive veneer begins to crack – once it grows clear that gender ideology is at best complacent about patriarchy and the harms patriarchy visits upon women – queer politics become much harder to sell to the general populace.

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And so those feminists who do question gender ideology are branded bigots, the criticisms and those women brave enough to make them rendered illegitimate. Women who question gender ideology are derided as TERFs – we are told time and time again that their only motive in critiquing gender is malice, as opposed to meaningful concern for the well-being of women and girls. To that, I echo the words of Mary Shelley: “Beware; for I am fearless, and therefore powerful.” Any attempt to discourage women from addressing our oppression is deeply suspect.

Gender ideology creates a false dichotomy of people who are innately bound to traditional gender roles and those exceptional few who are not. Gender politics are the most elaborate and harmful example of using the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house. Why queer gender when we can abolish it? Why waste energy trying to subvert oppressive practice when we can do away with it altogether?

Woman is a sex class – nothing more, nothing less. Man is a sex class – nothing more, nothing less. To claim the scope of our identity is defined by the gender role pressed onto our sex class is to legitimise the project of patriarchy. As a feminist, as a woman, I reject queer politics and the gender ideology it advocates. Instead, I argue that women and men living outside of the script set by gender – be it the queer or patriarchal classifications – should be embraced as revolutionaries. Only through the abolition of gender can we achieve true liberation.


Bibliography

Simone de Beauvoir. (1949). The Second Sex.

Cordelia Fine. (2010). Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference.

Lynne Harne & Elaine Miller (eds.). (1996). All the Rage: Reasserting Radical Lesbian Feminism.

bell hooks. (1984). Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center.

Sheila Jeffreys. (2003). Unpacking Queer Politics.

Audre Lorde. (1984). Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches.

Cherríe Moraga & Gloria E. Anzaldúa (eds.). (1981). This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color.

Bonnie J. Morris. (2016). The Disappearing L: Erasure of Lesbian Spaces and Culture.

Victoria Pepe (ed.). (2015). I Call Myself A Feminist: The View from Twenty-Five Women Under Thirty.

Rebecca Reilly-Cooper. More Radical with Age.

 

 

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Grasping Things at the Root: On Young Women & Radical Feminism

A brief foreword: a number of young women have contacted me in the last year, writing to ask about what it is like to be publicly radical in my feminism. That young women embrace radical feminism makes me optimistic for the future. That young women are too scared to be open about their radical feminism is utterly grim. And so this post is dedicated to every young woman bold enough to ask questions and challenge answers.

Update: this post has since been translated into French.


 

Why does radical feminism get so much bad press?

Radical feminism isn’t popular. That’s not exactly a secret – Pat Robertson’s infamous Holy Cow! Too Funny!!!!!!claim that the feminist agenda “…encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism, and become lesbians” has set the tone for mainstream discussions of radical feminism. While Robertson’s perspective on radical feminism verges upon parody, his misogyny served with a side of blatant lesbophobia, it has also served to frame radical feminism as suspect.

If radical feminism can be written off as something sinister or dismissed as the butt of a joke, none of the difficult questions about the patriarchal structuring of society need to be answered – subsequently, power need not be redistributed, and members of the oppressor classes are saved from any challenging self-reflection. Rendering radical feminism monstrous is a highly effective way of shutting down meaningful political change, of maintaining the status quo. It is, therefore, predictable that the socially conservative right are opposed to radical feminism.

What’s often more difficult to anticipate is the venom directed towards radical feminism thought by the progressive left, which is assumed to support the politics of social justice. For women to achieve that justice, we must be liberated from patriarchy – including the constraints of gender, which is both a cause and consequence of male dominance. Yet, when one considers why that hostility emerged, it becomes sadly predictable.

Two factors enabled the left to legitimise its opposition to radical feminism. Firstly, the way in which liberation politics have been atomised by neoliberalism and replaced by the politics of choice (Walter). Personal choice, not political context, has become the preferred unit of feminist analysis. Therefore, critical analysis of personal choice – as advocated by radical feminism – has become a matter of contention despite its necessity in driving meaningful social change. The second factor is the gradual mainstreaming of a queer approach to gender. Instead of considering gender as a hierarchy to be opposed and abolished, queer politics position it as a form of identity, a part to be performed or subverted. This approach ultimately depoliticises gender, which is far from subversive, disregarding its role in maintaining women’s oppression by men. Feminists who are critical of gender are treated as the enemy, not gender in itself.

As a result, we find ourselves in a context where radical feminism is reviled across the political spectrum. On social media it feels as though radical feminists are just as likely to be abused by self-proclaimed queer feminists as we are men’s rights activists – the main difference between the two groups is that MRAs are honest about the fact they hate women.

Young women in particular are discouraged from taking up the mantle of radical feminism. We have been raised on a diet of hollow buzzwords like ‘choice’ and ‘empowerment’, taught to pursue equality instead of liberation. From the ‘90s onwards, feminism has been presented as a brand accessed through commercialism and slogans instead of a social movement with the objective of dismantling white supremacist capitalist patriarchy (hooks).

guerilla girlaThe third wave of feminism was marketed as a playful alternative to the seriousness of the second wave, which is routinely misrepresented as joyless and dour. Manifestations of women’s oppression, such as the sex industry, were repackaged as harmless choices with the potential to empower (Murphy). If young women are not prepared to accept pole dancing and prostitution as a harmless bit of fun, we risk being tarred by the same boring brush as the second wave; we are denied the label of “cool girl” and all the perks that come with remaining unchallenging to patriarchy. It is no coincidence that “pearl-clutching” and “prude”, accusations commonly directed towards radical feminists, are loaded with ageist misogyny – if radical feminists are presumed to be older women, the logic of patriarchy dictates that radical feminism must be boring and irrelevant. Both the desire for male approval that is drilled into girls from birth and the tacit threat of being associated with older women are used to keep young women from identifying with radical feminism.

Liberal feminism has gained mainstream appeal precisely because it doesn’t threaten the status quo. If the powerful are comfortable with a particular form of feminism – liberal feminism, corporate “lean in” feminism, sex-positive feminism – it is because that feminism presents no challenge to the hierarchies from which their power stems. Such feminism can offer no meaningful social change and is therefore incapable of benefiting any oppressed class.

What are the negative consequences of being openly radical?

The backlash to being openly radical is the least fortunate element of it. I won’t lie: in the beginning, that can be intimidating. With time that fear will fade, if not dissipate. You will stop thinking “I couldn’t possibly say that” and start wondering “why didn’t I say that sooner?” The truth demands to be told, regardless of whether or not it happens to be convenient. Backlash and abuse directed towards radical feminists is a silencing tactic, plain and simple. Whether it comes from the conservative right or queer feminist left, that backlash (Faludi) is a means of silencing dissenting women’s voices. This realisation is freeing, both on a personal and political level. Personally, the good opinion of misogynists is of little value. Politically, it becomes clear that speaking out is an act of resistance. You will simply stop caring.

It takes energy, carrying the hatred people direct towards you – at some point you will realise that you’re not obliged to shoulder that burden and give yourself permission to set it down. Spend that energy on yourself instead. Read a book. Play an instrument. Talk with your mum. Do your nails. Binge-watch The Walking Dead. The time you spend worrying what people say about you, worrying if people like you, is a precious resource that cannot be recovered. Do not give them the gift of your worry – it is exactly what they want. Evict haters from your headspace.

You’re scared of being called a TERF. Let’s be real. That fear of being branded a TERF (trans-exclusionary radical feminist) is why so many feminists are afraid to be openly radical, are increasingly unwilling to acknowledge gender as a hierarchy. And that’s alright to feel that fear – it’s meant to be scary. However, the fear needs to be put into perspective. The first time I was ever called “TERF” was for sharing a petition opposing female genital mutilation on Twitter. And when I pointed out that girls were at risk of FGM precisely because they were born female in patriarchy, that the girls who are cut are often of colour, often living within the global south (Spivak) – not exactly enjoying a wealth of cis privilege – the accusations only continued.

It spreads like wildfire. Because I did not repent for sharing that petition, because I did not condemn other women to save myself in the court of public opinion, it went on. That I am a lesbian (a woman who experiences same-sex attraction, i.e. disinterested in sex involving a penis) has only fanned the flames. My name can now be found on various shit lists and auto-block tools across the internet, which is pretty funny. Sometimes you do just have to laugh – it’s the only way to stay sane.

What’s less amusing is being told that I am dangerous. There is an insidious idea that any feminist who queries or critiques a queer perspective on gender is some sort of menace to society. Women who have devoted their adult lives to ending male violence against women are now described, without a trace of irony, as being violent. On a political level, it’s disturbing that disagreement over the nature of gender is positioned as violence within feminist discourse. There is an undeniably Orwellian quality to those opposing violence being described as violent, a double-speak perfected by queer politics. Framing gender-critical feminists as violent erases the reality that men perpetrate the overwhelming majority of violence against trans people and, in doing so, removes any possibility for men to be held accountable for that violence. Men are not blamed for their deeds, no matter how much harm they cause, whereas women are often brutally targeted for our ideas – in this respect, queer discourse mirrors the standards set by patriarchy.

Radical feminism is commonly treated as being synonymous with or indicative of transphobia, which is deeply misleading. The word transphobia implies a revulsion or disgust that simply is not there in radical feminism. I want all people identifying as trans to be safe from harm, persecution, and discrimination. I want all people identifying as trans to be treated with respect and dignity. And I do not know another radical feminist who would argue for anything less. Although radical and queer perspectives on gender are conflicting, this does not stem from bigotry on the part of the former. Abolishing the hierarchy of gender has always been a key aim of radical feminism, a necessary step in liberating women from our oppression by men.

As is often the case with structural analysis, it is necessary to think in terms of the oppressor class and the oppressed class. Under patriarchy, the male sex is the oppressor and the female sex the oppressed – that oppression is material in basis, reliant on the exploitation of female biology. It is impossible to articulate the means of women’s oppression without acknowledging the role played by biology and considering gender as a hierarchy – deprived of the language to articulate our oppression, language which queer politics deems violent or bigoted, it is impossible for women to resist our oppression. Therein sits the tension.

joan jettUltimately, getting called names on the internet is a cost I am more than willing to pay if it is the price required to oppose violence against women and girls. Were it otherwise, I would be unable to call myself a feminist.

Did I choose to be ‘out’ as radical?

At no point did I make a decision to be publicly radical. Even in its most basic form, my feminism understood that ‘sex positivity’ and porn culture were repackaging women’s exploitation as ‘empowering’, that endless talk about choice only served to obscure the context in which those choices are made. I also recall being puzzled by the words sex and gender being used interchangeably in contemporary discourse – the former is a biological category, the latter is a social construction fabricated to enable the oppression of women by men. Seeing gender treated as an amusing provocation or, worse, something innate in our minds, was deeply disconcerting – after all, if gender is natural or inherent, so too is patriarchy. I was conscious that my views were considered old-fashioned but, although it was slightly isolating, not troubled by the tension between me and what I now know to be liberal feminism.

It was only through finding radical feminist Twitter that I realised plenty of International-Feminism-01contemporary feminists thought with the same framework, that these ideas did not exist solely in books that had been written some twenty years before I was born. I do not say this to disparage the feminism of the 1970s, but rather to point out that there was an almost wishful nostalgia to my conceptualisation of that era and the politics it embodied. The second wave felt impossibly far away – thinking about it was like thinking of a party for which you are already decades too late. It felt like that feminism, of radical ideas and action, was gone. Now I realise that is exactly what young women are conditioned to think in the hope that we will grow complacent and accept our oppression instead of challenging it at the root.

Having grown up and developed my ideas, it now seems unlikely I would have found a place had I been of that context – as lesbian feminists go, I am fairly apolitical with regard to sexuality: I’m still not convinced it is possible to choose to be a lesbian, do not know that I would choose to be a lesbian even if the option had been there (there is an undeniable appeal to being slightly more ‘of’ than Other), and oppose the notion that bisexual women are being half-hearted in their feminist praxis because they will not ‘become’ lesbians. Yet, I would not have found my way into those conversations without radical feminist Twitter.

As my political consciousness was catalysed by radical feminist Twitter, a community that continues to challenge and delight me, it seemed natural to participate in that discourse publicly. I was more concerned about developing my ideas – learning from and, later on, teaching other women – than any potential reaction. Perhaps naïvely, I had not fully considered the convenience of closeting my politics. Being connected to radical feminist discourse, engaging with its ideas and the women behind them, was always the priority. I did not initially consider the possibility of acquiring public profile, and now consider it as a largely unfortunate by-product of my participation in feminist discourse as opposed to something worth maintaining in its own right – perhaps why I do not self-censor for the sake of popularity.

Are there professional consequences for being a radical feminist?

It depends on what you do. Countless radical feminists have been reported to their employers for differentiating between sex and gender. Being openly radical when you work in the women’s sector carries a particular risk. Similarly, women who are academics or hold some form of institutional power are in a delicate position, faced with the dilemma of jeopardising a career or speaking out. I know dozens of radical feminists who achieve more social good for other women by saying nothing explicitly radical whilst doing the most extraordinary, necessary work. None of that work would be possible if those women chose to die on the hill of gender politics. A direct result of that would be other women losing out – from literacy classes to policy on male violence, there would be very real consequences if covertly radical women lost their positions. There are times when staying quiet is the smarter option, particularly in conversations about gender politics, and I will not condemn women who make that tactical decision.

My career is freelance – in this respect, being directly accountable only to myself is useful. That being said, a freelance career is dependent on organisations being willing to commission my writing or workshops. Becoming a pariah is fairly counterproductive in that respect. At points people have contacted (or at least threatened to contact) places where I study, volunteer, and write. Nothing has ever come of it. Why? Their accusations are false. I have nothing to hide about feminism – there is no shameful secret at the heart of my sexual politics. I will only ever say what I believe in, what I can back up with evidence, what a substantial body of feminist theory supports.

Being able to speak with conviction and follow through when questioned is crucial. Those qualities are also what appeal to the people and organisations who hire me. A recurring theme with commissions: at least one person within the organisation has covertly voiced support for my radical feminism. Radical feminism is less of an anathema than we are made to believe.

I am commissioned to produce work that I believe in. Nothing my detractors have said or done changes that fact. To quote Beyoncé, the best revenge is your paper.

How do non-radical feminists react?

Badly. Not always, but often. Some of the most rewarding and thought-provoking engagements are with women who are not radical feminists yet engage in good faith. Unfortunately, those interactions are in the minority.

Abuse from strangers, while it can be frightening, is something to which I have grown habituated. I report it to the relevant authorities and move on. Following the most concentrated period of abuse I have endured, it was not the threats that weighed on my mind, but the responses of queer and liberal feminists. A number openly celebrated my abuse and its consequences. Theirs is the type of feminism that is opposed to racism, misogyny, homophobia, etc. up until the point those prejudices damage someone whose politics do not align with their own. That was disconcerting. Be prepared for those moments. Be prepared to lose false friends, too.

It’s a strange position to be in. If the label TERF has ever been applied to you, it strips away something of your humanity in the eyes of the wider public. You are no longer viewed as a worthy recipient of empathy or even basic human decency. This isn’t surprising, because TERF is often used in conjunction with violent threats and graphic descriptions of abuse. It legitimises violence against women.

TERF functions something like “witch” in The Crucible. Only by condemning other women can you avoid that condemnation yourself. There is a frantic edge behind the panic it spreads. There are plenty of feminists who will be prepared to monster you to save their own reputations. They are not worth your respect, let alone the time it would take to puzzle out their motives.

It is also worth considering the responses of feminists who are not publicly radical. Women routinely tell me that I am saying what they believe, express gratitude that I speak out, tell me that my words resonate. And this is gratifying, yes, but it is also isolating. An almost supernatural courage is projected onto openly radical women, an exceptionalism that is often used by other women to justify their silence. Glosswitch often speaks about this phenomenon, and she is right – it would be far more rewarding if the women who offer private support would publicly claim their own radical politics instead, provided they are in a position to do so.


 

Bibliography

bell hooks. (2004). The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love

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

Feminist Current

Miranda Kiraly  & Meagan Tyler (eds.). (2015). Freedom Fallacy: The Limits of Liberal Feminism

Gayatri Spivak. (1987). In Other Worlds: Essays in Cultural Politics

Natasha Walter. (2010). Living Dolls: The Return of Sexism

Hibo Wardere. (2016). Cut: One Woman’s Fight Against FGM in Britain Today

 

 

 

The Problem That Has No Name because “Woman” is too Essentialist

This is the third in my series of essays on sex and gender (see parts 1, 2, & 4). Inspired by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s comments on gender identity and the subsequent response, I have written about language within feminist discourse and the significance of the word woman.

Update: this essay is now available in French and Spanish.


 

Screenshot_20170315-144208“…what’s a shorter non-essentialist way to refer to ‘people who have a uterus and all that stuff’?” In many ways, Laurie Penny’s quest to find a term describing biologically female people without ever actually using the word woman typifies the greatest challenge within ongoing feminist discourse. The tension between women acknowledging and erasing the role of biology in structural analysis of our oppression has developed into a fault line (MacKay, 2015) within the feminist movement. Contradictions arise when feminists simultaneously attempt to address how women’s biology shapes our oppression under patriarchal society whilst denying that our oppression is material in basis. At points, rigorous structural analysis and inclusivity make uneasy bedfellows.

That same week Dame Jeni Murray, who has hosted BBC Woman’s Hour for forty years, faced criticism for asking “Can someone who has lived as a man, with all the privilege that entails, really lay claim to womanhood?” Writing for the Sunday Times, Murray reflected upon the role of gendered socialisation received during formative years in shaping subsequent behaviour, challenging the notion that it is possible to divorce the physical self from socio-political context. Similarly, the novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie came under fire for her comments on gender identity.

When asked “does it matter how you arrived at being a woman?” Adichie did what few feminists are presently prepared to do because of the extremity within debate surrounding gender. She gave a candid public response:

“So when people talk about ‘are transwomen women?’, my feeling is transwomen are transwomen. I think if you’ve lived in the world as a man, with the privileges the world accords to men, and then switch gender – it’s difficult for me to accept that then we can equate your experiences with the experiences of a woman who has lived from the beginning in the world as a woman, who has not been accorded those privileges that men are. I don’t think it’s a good thing to conflate everything into one. I don’t think it’s a good thing to talk about women’s issues being exactly the same as the issues of transwomen. What I’m saying is that gender is not biology, gender is sociology.”

In the court of queer opinion, Adichie’s crime was to differentiate between those who are biologically female and raised as such, and those who transition from male to female (and were, for all intents and purposes, treated as male before undergoing transition), in her description of womanhood.  Within queer discourse the prefixes of ‘cis’ and ‘trans’ are designed to draw precisely that distinction, yet it is only when feminist women articulate and explore those differences that their acknowledgement becomes a source of ire.

Adichie’s statement is perfectly logical: it is ludicrous to imagine that those socialised and Chimamanda-Ngozi-Adichie_photo1read as female during their formative years have the same experiences as those socialised and read as male. Patriarchal society depends upon the imposition of gender as a means of subordinating women and granting men dominance. Conflating the experiences of women and transwomen erases the male privilege that transwomen held prior to transition and negates the legacy of learned male behaviour. It denies the true significance of how one arrives at womanhood in shaping that experience of womanhood. It denies both sets of truths.

Everyday Feminism published a piece outlining seven points that prove transwomen never held male privilege, a piece which would perhaps have been more effective in advocating feminist solidarity if it didn’t direct ageist misogyny towards second wave feminists in the opening line. Within this article, Kai Cheng Thom argues that “…if [transwomen] are women, that means we cannot receive male privilege – because male privilege is by definition something that only men and masculine-identified people can experience.”

Here is crux of the matter – the tension that exists between material reality and self-identification in shaping definitions of womanhood. If transwomanhood is synonymous with womanhood, the hallmarks of women’s oppression cease to recognisable as women’s experiences. Gender cannot be categorised as a socially constructed means of oppression if it is also to be considered as an innate identity. The connection between biological sex and the primary function of gender – oppressing women for the benefit of men – is erased. As Adichie stated, this conflation is at best unhelpful. If we cannot acknowledge the privileges those recognised and treated as male hold over their female counterparts, we cannot acknowledge the existence of patriarchy.

Biology is not destiny. However, within patriarchal society, it determines the roles ascribed to girls and boys at birth. And there is a fundamental difference in how those biologically male and biologically female are positioned by dominant structures of power, irrespective of gender identity.

“Girls are socialized in ways that are harmful to their sense of self – to reduce themselves, to cater to the egos of men, to think of their bodies as repositories of shame. As adult women, many struggle to overcome, to unlearn, much of that social conditioning. A trans woman is a person born male and a person who, before transitioning, was treated as male by the world. Which means that they experienced the privileges that the world accords men. This does not dismiss the pain of gender confusion or the difficult complexities of how they felt living in bodies not their own. Because the truth about societal privilege is that it isn’t about how you feel. It is about how the world treats you, about the subtle and not so subtle things that you internalize and absorb.”Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

If women can no longer be identified as members of a sex class for political purposes, women’s oppression cannot be directly addressed or challenged. Subsequently, feminist objectives are undermined by queer politics.

Linguist Deborah Cameron has identified the trend of “the amazing disappearing woman”, highlighting the pattern of women’s lived realities and oppression being rendered invisible by gender-neutral language. Whereas womanhood is relentlessly deconstructed within queer discourse, the category of manhood is yet to be disputed.

no womenIt is not an accident that masculinity remains uncontested even as the word woman is treated as offensive, exclusionary. Man is positioned as the normative standard of humanity, woman as other-to-man. In reducing women to “non-men”, as the Green Party attempted to,  in reducing women to “pregnant people”, as the British Medical Association advised, queer discourse perpetuates the framing of woman as other. Queer ideology takes patriarchal conventions to their logical conclusion by quite literally writing women out of existence.

Defining the oppressed class in relation to the oppressor, denying the oppressed the language to speak of how they are marginalised, only serves to ratify the hierarchy of gender. Though such linguistic shifts appear inclusive at first glance, they have the unforeseen consequence of perpetuating misogyny.

“Removing the word women and biological language from discussions of female bodily reality seems dangerous. Refusing to acknowledge the female anatomy, reproductive capabilities and sexuality has long been the work of the patriarchy. It seems we had a few golden decades of acknowledgement, and could wear our lived experience of bodily womanhood proudly – but now we have to drop that language in favour of the group. Even with logic in the driver’s seat, it’s hard not to feel this particular aspect of womanhood is being erased with uncomfortable echoes of patriarchy past.”Vonny Moyes

Addressing the issues of biological sex and gendered socialisation have become increasingly controversial, with more extreme elements of queer ideology positioning both subjects as TERF “myth”. It would be easy to wish the connection between women’s biology and our oppression, the consequences of gendered socialisation, were myths. In such a scenario, those in possession of a female body – women – could simply identify our way out of structural oppression, choose to be part of any group other than an oppressed class. Yet exploitation of female biology and gendered socialisation both play a pivotal role in establishing and maintaining the oppression of women by men.

Queer politics repackages women’s oppression as a position of inherent privilege whilst simultaneously depriving us of the language required to address and oppose that very oppression. The issue of gender identity leaves feminists in something of a double-bind: either accept that being marginalised on account of your sex is cis privilege or speak up and risk being branded a TERF. There is no space for dissenting voices in this conversation – not if those voices belong to women. In this respect, there is very little difference between the standards set by queer discourse and those governing patriarchal norms.

The word woman is important. With a name comes power. As Patricia Hill Collins observes (2000), self-definition is a key component of political resistance. If womanhood cannot be positively articulated, if womanhood is understood only as a negative of manhood, women are held in the position of object. It is only through considering women as the subject – as self-actualised human beings with the right to self-determination – that liberation becomes possible.

“The strength of the word ‘woman’ is that it can be used to affirm our humanity, dignity and worth, without denying our embodied femaleness or treating it as a source of shame. It neither reduces us to walking wombs, nor de-sexes and disembodies us. That’s why it’s important for feminists to go on using it. A movement whose aim is to liberate women should not treat ‘woman’ as a dirty word.”Deborah Cameron

Without proud and open use of word woman, feminist politics lack the scope to mount anyradfem-symbol real resistance to women’s subordination. You cannot liberate a class of people that may not even be named. Womanhood is devalued by these insidious attempts to render it invisible. If women do not consider ourselves worth the inconvenience caused by naming us directly, specifically, we can hardly argue that we are worth the difficulties that liberation must bring.

Any potential offence caused by referring unequivocally to the female body is minor compared to the abuse and exploitation of our female bodies under patriarchy. As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie says, “‘Because you are a girl’ is never a reason for anything. Ever.”


Bibliography

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

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. (2017). Dear Ijeawele, or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions

Kat Banyard. (2010). The Equality Illusion: The Truth about Women and Men Today

Deborah Cameron. (2007). The Myth of Mars and Venus: Do Men and Women Really Speak Different Languages?

Patricia Hill Collins. (2000). Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness and the Politics of Empowerment (Second Edition)

Finn MacKay. (2015). Radical Feminism: Feminist Activism in Movement

Natasha Walter. (2010). Living Dolls: The Return of Sexism

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. Parts 2, 3, and 4 are now available.

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 and Spanish.


 

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?

 

But Some of Us are Brave – Questions on Race and Feminism

Since starting Sister Outrider, I have received questions about race and feminism on a regular basis. Now I’m going to take those questions and answer them publicly – all queries will be dealt with anonymously, so you have nothing to lose by asking. Anything asked in good faith will be answered in kind, so email your questions to me at SisterOutrider@outlook.com. This first Q&A was a delight to conduct – with the thought and the honesty women put into their questions, how could it be anything else? So please don’t be shy.


 

Question: What are the main differences in UK and US feminism based on race?

First off, it’s important to state that my life, and subsequently my activism, has all been lived and carried out in the context of the UK – I’m Scottish. I’m also Black and, as a result, will restrict my observations to that because it is both my lane and my area of expertise. Although the majority of Black feminist theory and activism influencing my own work was and continues to be North American, that’s not the same as having the experience of activism in an American setting. In fact, I’d be fascinated to hear what Black women across the pond would make of this same question… But here is my answer:

Although discussion about race in the feminist movement is far from perfect in the USA, in many ways it strikes me as being more open. Maybe that has something to do with British repressiveness. Irrespective of whether white women engage with what their Black sisters have to say in the States, historical racism is more difficult to sweep under the carpet because slavery took place on American soil. It’s much harder to deny. On numerous occasions, white feminist women have informed me – without a trace of irony – that racism is “all over there”, in the American feminist movement. They speak as though women of all races are listened to and prioritised equally within our branch of the movement, and feign a sort of colour-blindness on the understanding that we’re all sisters together. This approach is in keeping with how Britain as a whole treats racism, completely overlooking Britain’s own colonial legacy; how much wealth was generated from slavery; the racial hierarchy used to justify imperialist expansionism; how that wealth and that world view shape today’s political landscape, even within the feminist movement. As a result, white women can be quite disingenuous when talking about race.

In other ways, I think it’s very similar. The problems that African-American feminists talk about relating to race and feminism are almost entirely the problems that Black feminists face in Britain, too. On a daily basis, I see Black women from the UK and the US dealing with the same racism from white women. That shared experience is, in part, why Black feminist texts originating in the States are influential to Black feminist praxis in the UK.

Question: How can non-Black feminists begin to understand the experiences of Black women?

For white women: By listening to us, engaging with what we are telling you, and reflecting on it. By looking at the dynamic of race with the same critical eyes you turn towards examining the dynamic of gender. By accepting that Black womanhood is an entirely plural thing, meaning that our experiences vary due to factors such as class, sexuality, disability, and where we are situated by geopolitics. By ceasing to conceptualise Blackness as something distinct to, separate from, womanhood. By understanding that – no matter how well intentioned – claiming our experiences mirror those of white women is ultimately deeply unhelpful, as it erases a significant part of our reality.

For non-Black women of colour: Though our experiences are not the same, the road to solidarity between us is a smoother. Acknowledging those differences and amplifying one another’s voices is the way to continue paving it, to develop mutual understanding.

Question: Beyond listening to our sisters of colour, are there any practical and direct actions that white women can take with race and feminism? Or any recommendations on books/articles/movies etc. that you feel have covered this subject in an honest and useful way?

Listening is only the first part of a process. Be open to learning, honestly exploring what we say, and even changing your perspective. Think critically about which voices you listen to and value within the feminist movement, which feminist writers you read, which feminist thinkers influence your praxis – what is prioritised and what is not. Since whiteness is treated like a neutral standard, even within the feminist movement, it can be very easy to fall into a pattern of engaging with only white women’s words and ideas. I know I was once guilty of this. You can break that cycle by actively seek out writing by women of colour. After a time, it will become second nature. In addition to challenging racist assumptions, reading our work also makes it more difficult for white women to dismiss us as a subgroup of womanhood, to categorise us as Other and, subsequently, less relevant to the feminist movement.

When interacting with women of colour, remain mindful of the dynamic of race – the difference in structural power, how that manifests. A key problem is that when women of colour voice our experiences, articulate how race intersects with sex, white women speak over us. For example: “That doesn’t happen/I’ve never noticed that.” White women position their own experiences as objective, accepted as standard within feminist dialogue, yet treat what women of colour have to say about race as subjective – based more in our skewed perception than in the material reality of structural inequalities. So often, white women would rather contradict us rather than confront the possibility of their own racism. By applying the same critical thinking to racism as misogyny, actively exploring the resultant ideas even when it becomes uncomfortable, white women can support women of colour.

The first piece of writing I recommend is the conversation between Audre Lorde and Adrienne Rich. It can be found in Sister Outsider, a collection of Lorde’s essays, reflections, and speeches. This is described as an interview but, in truth, it’s more of a dialogue – a mutual process. Lorde and Rich were both radically lesbian women, sharing not only a great deal of common ground, but a mutual affinity: they explored each other’s ideas fully, shared an honesty that made their negotiation of race authentic. To put it plainly, they got each other. That relationship demonstrates the best of possibilities for relationships between Black and white feminist women. That Lorde spoke so openly on the subject of race, about how her Blackness shaped her experiences, to Rich – a white woman – indicates a rare ease between them. Throughout that exchange, it is also clear that Rich is conscious of where her whiteness positions her in relation to Lorde.

To a large extent I think it was enabled by their adherence to lesbian ethics. Although lesbian feminism is frequently treated with derision, lesbophobic stereotyping used as a foil to reassure young women that fighting for equality will not, in fact, result in them becoming ugly, angry man-haters, I think it has a lot to offer the contemporary feminist movement. Particularly with regard to race and interracial solidarity between women, a lesbian approach is so far ahead of most other forms of feminist praxis – queer feminism included. With this answer, it would be impossible (and somewhat dishonest) to ignore that my meaningful connections with white women are predominantly between me and white lesbians. That’s out of step with fashionable thinking, of course, but it is the deepest truth I have to offer.

I would also recommend the work of bell hooks, starting with Feminism is for Everybody. She writes in a way that is both direct and accessible about interracial dynamics in feminism, discomfort, and how to achieve sustainable solidarity. Another important work to consider is Angela Davis’ autobiography – in her struggle against all forms of structural oppression, Davis worked alongside people of both sexes, people of all colours and creeds. That she was receptive to this is attributed to the influence of her mother, Sallye Davis, who taught a young Angela the importance of marginalised groups being able to unite. In terms of fiction, the writings of Zadie Smith, Helen Oyeyemi, and Jackie Kay all offer a great deal of insight into how race works in practical and social terms.

Question: What is your view on political Blackness?

The idea has been a part of British activism since the 1970s at least, so I’m slightly puzzled as to why this has only just become a controversy. Initially, political Blackness was used in much the same sense that people of colour is used now – an umbrella term to denote solidarity based on shared experience resulting from where we are positioned by race.

I first encountered the term with my research into Black British feminist activism that took place during the early 1980s. When I met with my supervisor to discuss my placement, she asked – as a number of Black groups I encountered were in fact women of colour – if the scope of my research included political Blackness. I explained that I wanted to focus specifically on Black women’s work. To her credit, she (a white woman) did not try to persuade me otherwise and simply reminded me to outline the parameters of my research, including a justification of how and why I shaped them. That was that. Although bemused by the term on occasion, sometimes concerned by its implications, I was mainly impressed by what women of colour achieved together. Wrongly, I assumed it had faded from the activist lexicon over time and so did not give its subsequent use a great deal of thought. I had imagined it was like when an old person says coloured instead of Black – disquieting, but not representative of how things are typically described: an unfortunate throwback.

Although I fully support interracial solidarity between people of colour, the term political Blackness glosses over nuances that need to be fully explored for that solidarity to exist. It conceals anti-Black racism. It erases the cultures and identities of non-Black people of colour. The idea of political Blackness also makes me uncomfortable, because Blackness isn’t something I can opt in and out of – it’s an inherent part of me that shapes every aspect of my life, overtly political or not. If we flipped it and had Black people describing ourselves as politically Asian, that would be both ludicrous and deeply inappropriate. Black people have no right to claim the experiences or identities of Asian people as our own, for any purpose. The end doesn’t justify the means, especially not when we can use unifying terms like people of colour to describe ourselves collectively.

As is the case with colourism, this is one of those subjects that white journalists are going to write poorly informed think-pieces about that only serve to muddy the water. This is a discussion that needs to take place between people of colour – a conversation that is vital, but cannot be used by whites to undermine our solidarity or collective political action.

Question: Should we [women of colour] take a global approach? Join forces? How do you see feminism creating that bridge?

Absolutely! A global feminist movement is essential to driving any meaningful cultural shift away from white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. Feminism is capable of creating that bridge, of connecting all women, but to do so it must cease prioritising white, middle-class, and corporate women above their less privileged sisters – actively challenge all forms of oppression beyond gender. Quite a lot of Black feminist theory provides a blueprint for this. I would recommend starting with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED talk, We Should All be Feminists, which has also been adapted into a short book. It’s very accessible, but deals with complex themes – structural inequality, feminism in a global context, how different prejudices can overlap. The work of Chandra Talpade Mohanty is also essential when considering visions of global feminism.

Question: How do I talk to white people about intersectionality? How do I make them understand that teaching on women’s leadership entirely through the white lens doesn’t deal with people of colour’s experiences? That there are people coming from a different social environment?

That’s an excellent question, and one that I’m still grappling with. If a white person has never before been expected to consider their own privilege in relation to a person of colour, to explore the idea that their reality is cushioned by a layer or privilege that comes at the expense of another, it can be a very difficult conversation. Rather than engage with what you are saying, quite a lot of white people will reframe the discussion as personal attack, making their hurt feelings the centre of that conversation. Initiating this dialogue has the unfortunate side-effect of providing you with a masterclass on white fragility – by the time it’s through, you’ll be an expert in how that works. Yet, despite how tiring gets explaining that those hurt feelings are a luxury compared to life under structural, systematic racism, it is vital that we speak out. I respect you for taking a stand, sister.

If there is a perfect method, I am yet to find it, but this is how I talk to white people about intersectionality. Initially, I avoid using words like ‘privilege’ or ‘oppression’ in order to keep them from going on the defensive – that all comes into play once you establish a dialogue with them. Find some mutual ground and work with them from there. With white women, I talk with them about our experiences of misogyny until we have an understanding of sorts and then link in how racism overlaps with that in relation to sexual harassment (white men’s assumption that Black women are hypersexual savages), gendered perceptions of my emotions (being written off as an Angry Black Woman), etc. Mostly that works. With men of colour, I reverse that process and transition from our shared experience of racism to my co-existing experiences of racism and sexism. With white men, it can be more difficult because there is less common understanding of oppression. In queer spaces, it varies. Some gay white men are open to that discussion, capable of applying the logic of their own situation to yours. Other white gay men are utterly convinced that nobody has ever been more oppressed than they are, and nothing you can say will change that level of irrational belief. It’s difficult.

Being personal will help with conversations on power and privilege. It demonstrates the practical application of intersectionality, and makes it seem more relevant – an approachable concept rather than abstract feminist jargon. It also makes the whole thing seem more human.

Online Misogyny – a speech

On the 25th of October 2015, I spoke at the conference Feminism in London. The subject was online misogyny, and I was honoured to share the panel with Connie St. Louis, Dr. Emily Grossman, and Alison Boydell. The following is a transcript of my speech.

Hello and thank you for having me to speak at Feminism in London. I’m Claire, and it’s an honour to be here, and to be discussing something so relevant to women’s experiences both in terms of activism and in a more personal capacity. I wonder if I could start with a show of hands – how many people here have experienced misogyny online? Thank you. [Vast majority of hands raised.]

That’s sad, but not at all surprising.

If anybody is going to quote me on Twitter, please make it this: I believe that misogyny is endemic. It’s true that the Internet has revolutionised almost every aspect of our lives, but it hasn’t fundamentally changed the nature of people’s values. From behind a screen, perhaps from a position of anonymity, men are harassing women, swearing at women, abusing women, threatening women, stalking women. The internet, much like the Force, can be used either for good or bad. It has never been easier to sign and share a petition but, equally, the odds are signing one the one the old fashioned way with ink and paper is far less likely to result in you being called scum and told to die. 

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As is the case offline, women speaking out can attract a lot of abuse – it’s not usually the opinions being shared that generate this anger in these men, but rather that the person sharing them happens to be female. Where the internet differs, with particular regard to social media, is the variety of tactics used to harass women. Men – and, in my experience, it is almost always men – say things to women that you hope they would never even consider saying offline. Yet, online misogyny has me wondering, how many of them think like that? Even if it’s generally not expressed quite so explicitly in person, those feelings of misogyny are still there. 

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Though she is now controversial, I’m going to paraphrase Germaine Greer here. Germaine Greer is of the opinion that women don’t realise just how much men hate us. I would suggest that the Twitter feed of any known feminist or prominent woman provides a clear demonstration. The men who sent rape and death threats to Caroline Criado-Perez, the men that intimidated Sue Perkins into deactivating her Twitter account, they exist and operate offline, presumably interacting with women outside of the digital world. How does it translate?

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There seems to be a distinction between conduct offline and on, lines which the perpetrators of online misogyny consider it acceptable to cross from behind a screen, but not in the flesh. I think that a cultural shift is essential if we are going to live in a society where women are not abused or threatened for speaking out, online and off. But, until we get to that point, how do we as women cope with online misogyny? How do we go on living our digital lives in such a potentially hostile environment? 

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Firstly, and most importantly, I suggest solidarity. This applies offline as well as on, though in some ways it’s easier to connect face-to-face. I know that things can get a bit fraught when we’re trying to make a complex and detailed point in 140 characters, especially when the conversation relates to our experiences and our identities. But other women aren’t behind the misogyny we experience, nor are they responsible for upholding a system in which it flourishes. Audre Lorde described it as horizontal hostility – wasting our time and energy on people also disadvantaged by a racist, classist patriarchy, instead of challenging vertical power structures. 

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A pattern I’ve noticed and experienced is that misogynistic comments often overlap with another aspect of a woman’s identity. Older feminists are treated as irrelevant, called crones and dinosaurs. Like Andrea Dworkin observed, their human worth to men is often entirely rooted in their perceived fuckability. Working class women are dismissed and dehumanised, which allows for their lived reality to be conveniently ignored. Women of Colour are relentlessly Othered, made to feel insignificant on grounds of race and sex.

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Obviously there are disparities in privilege, along the lines of class, race, sexuality, etc. I’m very much of the opinion that, like bell hooks says, true solidarity can only exist when these differences are acknowledged. And once that solidarity exists, it is strong. Sisterhood is powerful. Without the encouragement and support of women I am proud to call sister, I would have grown so weary of online activism. For every man who calls me dirty nigger bitch, there are a hundred moments of support and understanding with other women. It makes a real difference.

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Secondly, I encourage women to point out misogyny whenever it is realistically possible. There will, of course, be times when it is better for you to avoid engaging. Self-care matters. The digital world is often contrasted with ‘the real world’, but it is a real world in which real people interact with one another. Those threats, that abuse, can have a strong impact on us. It’s naive to pretend otherwise. But, when you are comfortable doing so, point out that some sexism has taken place. Highlight why the comments are wrong, what their implications are. Don’t accept misogyny. Have other women’s backs. Make those sexist comments less and less acceptable, show that there is no place for them. 

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I can’t claim to have all the answers but, in my experience, an incredible amount can be achieved when women work together.