THINK OF ME AS LOVING YOU STILL by @_ssml

Cross-posted from: Fish Without a Bicycle
Originally published: 15.10.15

My second to last day on the land I threw away the black leather jacket that I had been wearing to shoot the Night Stage in for the last five years. A very persistent mother mouse had established a nest in an inside pocket and in the process destroyed the lining of my beloved (and iconic, to me) jacket. That jacket was one of the last personal items I let go of on the Land this year, but it was far from being the only. In fact, this year on the Land I ended up losing many things that I knew I would never see again.  I lost the labrys that I wore in the lapel of my jacket on Saturday night, my brand new Michfest hoodie, a one-of-a-kind hand crafted metal earring, a beautiful bouquet of feathers that a Sister presented me with as a gift of gratitude for my work, at least two lens caps, some brand new socks and finally the tent a friend had gifted to me seven years ago – the year my daughter came to the Land as a four month old infant. My tent was badly damaged by the aforementioned persistent mother mouse and a tree that fell on top of the tent, resulting in a ripped rainfly. The mouse came through the bottom of my tent and the tree came through the top. No, the tent was not tarped, I know, I know, I know. My point is,  there were few days that some part of my mind was not occupied by my relationship to the things I had to let go of. I was given plenty of opportunity to remind myself that the most magical, comforting and even practical of “my” things have the potential to pass right through my hands and that both possession and permanence are illusions of my heart and mind. Everything changes. Every single thing reaches a moment of completion. In big ways and small ways we are always moving through and toward and away from the things, the places and the people we have loved, cherished and tried to hold on to in our lifetimes. 
Read more THINK OF ME AS LOVING YOU STILL by @_ssml

The Science Museum and the Brain Sex game

Cross-posted from: Young Crone

Like many feminists, I was appalled to learn recently that the Science Museum has a long-term, permanent exhibition about gender aimed at children entitled Who Am I? Photos and reports from women who have visited recently paint a very alarming picture of an exhibition not only full of supposed statements of fact that are, in fact, pure junk science, conjecture, and illogicality, but inappropriate displays, including items presented at child’s eye level that in any other context would constitute a crime, such as a ‘packer’ (a fake penis which looks like a sex toy and which is worn in the underwear of females who wish to be/believe they are male, and increasingly bought for children as young as 3 by parents for whom the term ‘misguided’ is woefully inadequate). The newspapers have had a field day at the ridiculous ‘What colour is your brain?’ game, yet this is possibly one of the least troubling aspects of the exhibition, and none of the papers cared, dared, or had the brain power sufficient to also discuss the rest of the exhibition and make the link between this stupid, outdated game and how the trans ideology being presented in the rest of the exhibition relies utterly on exactly that kind of absurd belief, and that children are being transed by parents and (un)professionals on similar flimsy and silly ideas. 
Read more The Science Museum and the Brain Sex game

Gaslighting Culture by @smashesthep

Cross-posted from: Smashes the P
Originally published: 05.11.15

gaslight-anthem_00289562

Lately I am really coming to terms with the fact that patriarchy is a gaslighting culture, and for the most part, messages do not need to be true in order to be consistently believed by a large number of people, or to be actively disseminated by the media. In fact, I’d go far enough to say that truth is often considered irrelevant in the media. I used to get angry when these messages veered so far off course from the truth, but I’m starting to see that as a feature and not a bug. That is, they never were meant to convey truths or reality- they were meant as wide spread propaganda.

For example, neo-liberal culture frames personal individual negative impacts in terms of “choice” and “consent” rather than systems of power that constrain groups of people, even though choice has very little to do with whether, say, impoverished inner city kids succeed in school. The same is true with the hidden-in-plain-sight fact about the toxic nature of masculinity and male pattern violence. The fear of taking sides or being too radical by *naming the problem* shapes the thinking patterns of almost the entire world.
Read more Gaslighting Culture by @smashesthep

Florynce “Flo” Kennedy – A Black Radical Feminist

Cross-posted from: Carolyn Gage
Originally published: 28.04.16

Florynce Kennedy… The first and only time I ever saw her on camera was in the cameo role of “Zella Wylie” in the Lizzie Borden film, Born in Flames. A kind of women’s liberation “Obi-Wan Kenobi,” Zella mentors the young female militants who are engaged in overthrowing the patriarchy and taking over the world in this feminist, science fiction classic.  Here’s “Zella,” addressing an age-old feminist concern:

“All oppressed people have a right to violence. It’s like the right to pee: you’ve gotta have the right place, you’ve gotta have the right time, you’ve gotta have the appropriate situation. And believe me, this is the appropriate situation.”

And Florynce would know. She had organized a “pee-in” at Harvard University to protest the lack of women’s bathrooms.  …

 

You can read the full post here. 

 

How is a lack of feminist analysis within domestic violence and contemporary services contributing to a reproduction of women’s and children’s homelessness and continued risk of domestic violence victimisation?

Cross-posted from: Mairi Voice
Originally published: 24.02.16

This is an article that WEAVE  wrote for Parity in 2013. Still very pertinent for today.

How is a lack of feminist analysis within domestic violence and contemporary services contributing to a reproduction of women’s and children’s homelessness and continued risk of domestic violence victimisation?

By Marie Hume, Dr. Elspeth McInnes, Kathryn Rendell, and Betty Green (Women Everywhere Advocating Violence Elimination Inc.)

 

It is well established that a significant percentage of homeless people in Australia are women and children escaping male violence. According to Homelessness Australia, just over two in every five of the estimated homeless population are women. More women than men seek assistance from the homeless service system each year. Two-thirds of the children who accompanied an adult to a homeless service last year were in the care of a woman, usually their mother, escaping domestic violence. Domestic violence is the most often cited reason given by women presenting to specialist homelessness services for seeking assistance.

The majority of people turned away from specialist homelessness services are women and their children. One in two people who request immediate accommodation are turned away each night due to high demand and under-resourcing.
Read more How is a lack of feminist analysis within domestic violence and contemporary services contributing to a reproduction of women’s and children’s homelessness and continued risk of domestic violence victimisation?

Your Silence Will Not Protect You: Racism in the Feminist Movement by @ClaireShrugged

Cross-posted from: Sister Outrider
Originally published: 18.04.16

A brief foreword: This is the first in a series of blog posts on race and racism in the feminist movement. It is not a feel-good piece. Equally, it is not a reprimand. It is a wake-up call – one which I hope will be answered. Part two of the series The Outsider Within: Racism in the Feminist Movement is available here


 

Solidarity between women is vital for liberation. If the feminist movement is to succeed, feminist principles must be applied in deed as well as in word. Although intersectionality is used as a buzzword in contemporary activism, in many ways we have deviated from Crenshaw’s intended purpose: bringing marginalised voices from the periphery to the centre of the feminist movement by highlighting the coexistence of oppressions. White women with liberal politics routinely describe themselves as being intersectional feminists before proceeding to speak over and disregard those women negotiating marginalised identities of race, class, and sexuality in addition to sex. Intersectionality as virtue-signalling is diametrically opposed to intersectional praxis. The theory did not emerge in order to aid white women in their search for cookies – it was developed predominantly by Black feminists with a view to giving women of colour voice.

White feminists of all stripes are falling down at the intersection of race. Liberal feminists frequently fail to consider racism in terms of structural power. Radical feminists are often unwilling to apply the same principles of structural analysis to oppression rooted in race as in sex.
Read more Your Silence Will Not Protect You: Racism in the Feminist Movement by @ClaireShrugged

Ruled Over by a Male Figure (RObaMF) by @SmashesTheP

Cross-posted from: Smashes The P: Women's Liberationist
Originally published: 26.12.12

I cooked the holiday meal yesterday. It was a lot of work, but it was fun.

This was my first time hosting Xmas. For various reasons, Mom was invited to the festivities this year, but dad was not.

As we sat down to enjoy the meal I had just made, Mom addressed my partner.

“[smash’s nigel], why don’t you come over here and sit at the head of the table.”

Whoa.

Mom knows I’m a feminist, but this came so naturally to her that she said it anyway.

I informed her that we don’t do “head of the table” at my house, and that she herself might as well sit where she had been indicating, since there is nothing special in my house about plopping oneself in one part of the rectangular table versus another.

But, even if we did do “head of the table” bullsh*t at my house, one might think that the person who had cooked the meal should sit at the “head”—not the dude who is dating the person who cooked the entire meal. 
Read more Ruled Over by a Male Figure (RObaMF) by @SmashesTheP

On the question of radical feminism and women as an underclass by @saramsalem

Cross-posted from: Neocolonial thoughts and it's discontents
Originally published: 29.07.15

41ggc7o4IFL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Radical feminism has always been a strand of feminism that I have been uncomfortable around. Part of this is because of my own internalized sexism that makes me shy away from very radical demands, especially in the realm of personal relationships, beauty standards, and so on. But a bigger issue I have had with it is its blatant Euro/US-centrism that makes it almost useless in contexts such as Egypt. I finally had a chance to read one of radical feminism’s most famous texts, “A Dialectic of Sex” by Shulamith Firestone. I have to admit that I was very pleasantly surprised, even as the text confirmed many of my problems with radical feminists. On the one hand, I see clear benefits in these kinds of texts – they are very clear in terms of identifying who is responsible for patriarchy and because of this they are able to make clear demands that movements can organize around. They also touch on parts of gender relations that other feminist strands tend to leave under-theorized, notably questions of love, relationships, and psychology. On the other hand, it is clear that these texts use European and American societies as the norm, and when they do mention non-Western societies it is usually to say that they are “more primitive” or that they are headed in the same direction as Western forms of patriarchy once they develop a little more. Some of the key differences I see between radical feminism and postcolonial feminism, for example, are in the ways that men are conceptualised, and how the family and culture are conceptualised. Another difference is that in texts such as Firestone’s that use Freud so heavily, there is bound to be the question of whether we can generalize about the “female psyche” across space and time. These are some of the questions I want to think through in this post.

A major problem I found was her ethnocentrism, which becomes clear at specific moments in the text. One example is when she writes about how turning to “primitive matriarchies of the past” as examples of times where patriarchy did not exist was “too facile.” She then goes on to quote Simone de Beauvoir to make her point. Her discussion of Black Power as well as the sexism of Black men in America is another moment that made me pause. Her heavily Freudian analysis seems to somewhat hide the more clearly racialized political and economic aspects of the Black question in America. In her attempt to argue that “racism is a sexual phenomenon” she seems to emphasize the sexual at the expense of the racial. So while she raises important questions about the ways in which Black men relate to Black women, for example, her attempt to answer these using Freud is problematic.


Read more On the question of radical feminism and women as an underclass by @saramsalem

You are killing me: On hate speech and feminist silencing by @strifejournal

Cross-posted from: Trouble & Strife
Originally published: 17.05.15

Radical feminists are regularly accused of denying trans people’s right to exist, or even of wanting them dead. Here Jane Clare Jones takes a closer look at these charges. Where do they come from and what do they mean? Is there a way to move towards a more constructive discussion?

The claim that certain forms of feminist speech should be silenced has recently become common currency. Notable instances include the ongoing NUS no-platforming of Julie Bindelthe cancellation of a performance by the comedian Kate Smurthwaite (which prompted a letter to the Observer), and, in the last month, the demand that a progressive Canadian website end its association with the feminist writer Meghan Murphy.

The basis of this claim is the assertion that a certain strand of feminist thought is hate speech. Versions of that assertion have circulated on social media for a number of years — complete with obligatory analogies between Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists (TERFs) and Nazis, the BNP or the Ku Klux Klan. But its effectiveness in excising speech from the public sphere was really brought home to me in August 2014, when the journalist and trans activist Paris Lees pulled out of a Newsnight debate with the gender-critical trans woman Miranda Yardley, saying she was ‘not prepared to enter into a fabricated debate about trans people’s right to exist.’


Read more You are killing me: On hate speech and feminist silencing by @strifejournal

Free Choice Does Not Exist by @umlolidunno

Cross-posted from: Root Veg
Originally published: 14.03.14

What does Free Choice mean? If someone makes a Free Choice, what kind of choice have they made? Is it one free from coercion? One that is not impacted by external forces? One where the decision has not been weighted by anything? I suggest that this is a ridiculous concept.

I’m going to try and illustrate with a brief (and kinda weird) detour. I’d like you to imagine an animal. Any animal. It looks the way it does because it has evolved in a particular environment, it eats particular things, it moves competently across a particular terrain, and its body holds together according to whether it is on the land or in the water. Perhaps it has to contend with particular predators, and has features that allow it to protect itself. Perhaps it eats particular prey, and has features that allow it to hunt and kill. Perhaps it has vestigial features that only make sense at an earlier time in the animal’s evolutionary history. If the animal had emerged on a planet with a different gravitational pull to that of the Earth, features like its skeleton (if it has one) would look different. So far, so obvious. Now I’d like you to try and imagine an animal that Evolved Freely, without any input from those parameters. It doesn’t have a particular atmosphere to determine its respiratory system, it doesn’t have to contend with any particular gravitational force, the terrain it moves across doesn’t have a value, and neither does its food. What does this animal look like? It’s impossible to tell. It quickly becomes absurd to even try; without knowing these values, we can’t make any predictions about what this animal is like. It’s baffling to try and imagine that such an animal could exist at all.
Read more Free Choice Does Not Exist by @umlolidunno

I am Woman Hear Me Roar

Cross-posted from: Mairi Voice
Originally published: 29.10.15

feminist signHelen Reddy sang this song in the 1970’s and it became an anthem for Women’s Liberation.

I sang it loudly and proudly. I was a University student in the early ‘70’s and I was just beginning to learn about Women’s Liberation. I cannot say that I was part of the so-called ‘Second Wave’ of feminism. I was not actually involved in the movement. But I was inspired by it and benefited from it.

It enabled me to reject the notion of becoming a wife, mother and housewife and to recognise that I could have a career.

It wasn’t until I began working in the field of social work that I began to realise that women’s liberation meant more than achieving equality and individual choices. This was when I began to learn about the true extent of male violence against women and children – child sexual abuse, domestic violence, rape, and sexual harassment. I learnt this through talking to and working with women and children who had been traumatised and victimised by male violence – their lived experiences of surviving in a patriarchal world.
Read more I am Woman Hear Me Roar

White people critiquing “White Feminism” perpetuate white privilege

If you are involved in feminist discourse online, the chances are that you will have noticed a particular phrase becoming increasingly common: White Feminism. Sometimes, a trademark logo will even be added for emphasis. The term White Feminism has become shorthand for certain failings within the feminist movement; of women with a particular degree of privilege failing to listen to their more marginalised sisters; of women with a particular degree of privilege speaking over those sisters; of women with a particular degree of privilege centering the movement around issues falling within their own range of experience. Originally, the term White Feminism was used by Women of Colour to address racism within the feminist movement – a necessary and valid critique.


Read more White people critiquing “White Feminism” perpetuate white privilege

Gender Is Socially Constructed (Upon Material Reality) by @umlolidunno

Cross-posted from: RootVeg
Originally published: 15.01.14

Feminists talk a lot about social constructs. A while ago, I did a poll asking what people thought ‘social construct’ meant. The answers were interesting and varied: “it’s the stuff that isn’t ‘real’”; “social conventions”; “ideas that constitute your frame of reference for understanding the world”; and so on. This post is my attempt to share how I tend to think about social constructs, in the hopes that someone might find it interesting.
TRIGGER WARNING: LONG

I. Patriarchy Is Socially Constructed
Culture is not special to humans. Most social species have culture. One way to think of culture is: any information and behaviour that is transmitted and maintained in a population by social learning, as opposed to biological inheritance. A noticable feature of lots of culture is convergence: it makes sure that guppies all go the same route to the same feeding spot; that capuchins get the right kinds of rocks to bash nuts with; that meerkats learn how to kill scorpions and not get their asses handed to them; that migrating birds learn the right route; that songbirds don’t completely embarrass themselves with tone-deaf nonsense, and so on. It’s a set of information that members of a population all get access to, and it tends to coordinate the behaviour of the population. What makes human culture different from that of guppies is its sheer scale, richness and complexity.
Read more Gender Is Socially Constructed (Upon Material Reality) by @umlolidunno

No-Platforming: The Neo-Liberal Fascism by Victoria A. Brownworth

The University of Manchester Student Union thinks lesbian feminist writer and activist Julie Bindel is worse than ISIS.

If that sounds extreme, it is. Manchester SU could not come to a conclusion on whether or not ISIS, unarguably the world’s worst terror group, should be sanctioned by MSU, but they were unanimous that Bindel should be.

Take that in for a moment.

Manchester University’s Free Speech and Secular Society had asked Bindel to speak on a panel, “From liberation to censorship: does modern feminism have a problem with free speech?”


Read more No-Platforming: The Neo-Liberal Fascism by Victoria A. Brownworth

The Truth about Cats and Dogs by @strifejournal

Cross-posted from: Trouble & Strife
Originally published: 14.12.14

Planet Cath: ‘Dogs are the number one companion for feminists’

Traditionally, feminists have been drawn to our feline friends. We believe that cats have all the qualities a feminist needs. They present as independent, aloof yet affectionate when needed. They aren’t needy, or demanding of your time, or wanting more than you can give. I say we’re kidding ourselves. Cats are not a feminist pet. They have no sense of community or sisterhood. They will destroy anything and everything to sharpen their claws, not caring that it’s a much loved piece of furniture. Cats don’t care. They don’t care about other cats, and they don’t care about you.

Feminists need to face the truth. We kid ourselves that our cats love us, wait for us, are happy when we return home from work. Not so. Cats are only interested in food and heat stealing.

In fact, the best pet for a feminist is a dog.

I stand before you a long time cat owner, but recent dog convert.

I have to nail my animal colours to the mast now; it’s all about the dog.
Read more The Truth about Cats and Dogs by @strifejournal

Talking about gender by @strifejournal

(cross-posted from Trouble & Strife)

At the London Feminist Network’s ‘Feminar’ in May 2010, Debbie Cameron and Joan Scanlon spoke about gender and what it means for radical feminism. What follows is an edited transcript of their remarks. 

Debbie Cameron: The purpose of today’s discussion is to try to cut through some of the theoretical and political confusion which now surrounds the concept of gender, and it’s probably useful to start by asking what’s causing that confusion.

Conversations about ‘gender’ nowadays often run into problems because the people involved are using the same word, to mean somewhat the same thing, but on closer examination they aren’t talking about the same set of issues from the same point of view. For instance, when we launched the T&S Reader at the Edinburgh radical bookfair, some women students came up to us afterwards and said they were very pleased we’d produced the book, but surprised it didn’t have much in it about gender. Actually it’s all about gender in the radical feminist sense–power relations between women and men–so this comment did not make much sense to us. Joan was initially completely baffled by it; I realised what they must be getting at only because I’m still an academic, and in the academy you hear ‘gender’ used this way a lot.

What’s going on here is that during the 1990s, queer theorists and queer activists developed a new way of talking about gender: it did have points of overlap with the older feminist way of talking, but the emphasis was different, the theory behind it was different (basically it was the postmodernist theory of identity associated with the philosopher Judith Butler, though I don’t think Butler herself would say that feminists had no critical analysis of gender), and the politics that came out of it were very different. For people whose ideas were formed either by encounter with academic feminist theory or by involvement in queer politics and activism, that became the meaning of ‘gender’. They believed what they’d been told, that feminists in the 70s and 80s didn’t have a critical analysis of gender, or that they had the wrong analysis because their ideas about gender were ‘essentialist’ rather than ‘social constructionist’.

We don’t believe that, and in a minute we’ll explain why. But first it’s worth doing a general ‘compare and contrast’ on the ‘old’ feminist view of gender and the newer version that came out of 1990s queer theory/politics.

‘Old’ gender ‘New’ gender
What is gender? A system of social/power relations structured by a binary division between ‘men’ and ‘women’. Categorization is usually on the basis of biological sex, but gender as we know it is a social rather than biological thing (e.g. masculinity and femininity are defined differently in different times and places) An aspect of personal/social identity, usually ascribed to you at birth on the basis of biological sex (but this ‘natural’ connection is an illusion—as is the idea that there have to be two genders because there are two sexes)
What’s oppressive about it?  The fact that it’s based on the subordination of one gender (women) by the other (men) The fact that it’s a rigid binary system. It forces every person to identify as either a man or a woman (not neither, both at once, something in between or something else entirely) and punishes anyone who doesn’t conform. (This oppresses both men and women, especially those who don’t fully identify with the prescribed model for their gender)
What would be a radical gender politics?  Feminism: women organize to overthrow male power and thus the entire gender system. (For radical feminists, the ideal number of genders would be… none.) ‘Genderqueer’: women and men reject the binary system, identify as ‘gender outlaws’ (e.g. queer, trans) and demand recognition for a range of gender identities. (From this perspective, the ideal number of genders would be… infinite?)

There are both similarities and differences between the two versions. For both, gender is connected to, but not the same as, sex; for both, gender as we know it is a binary system (there are, basically, two genders); and both approaches would probably agree that gender is about power AND identity, but their emphasis on one or the other differs. They also differ because supporters of the queer version don’t think in terms of men oppressing women, they think gender norms as such are more oppressive than power hierarchy, and want ‘more’ gender rather than less or none.

To make sense of these ideas and decide what you think of them, it’s helpful to understand a bit of history—the history of feminist and sexual radical ideas. There are three main questions we think it’s worth pursuing in more detail:

  1. Is it true that radical feminism is/was ‘essentialist’ in its view of gender?
  2. What is, and what was, the relationship between the politics of gender and sexuality?
  3. What do radical feminism and queer or ‘genderqueer’ politics have in common, and what are the key differences, and what are their respective political goals?

Is/was radical feminism essentialist?

Let’s get one thing out of the way: there are essentialist varieties of feminism, currents of thought in which, for instance, mystical powers are ascribed to the female body or men are believed to be naturally evil,  and some of the women who subscribe to these ideas might use or be given the label ‘radical feminist’.  But if we consider radical feminism as a political tradition which has produced, among other things, a body of feminist texts which have come to be regarded as ‘classics’, it’s surprising (given how often the accusation of essentialism has been made) how consistently un-essentialist their view of gender has been.

As a way of illustrating the point, I’ve put together a few quotations from the writing of women who are generally considered as archetypal radical feminists—along with Simone de Beauvoir, often thought of as the founding foremother of modern ‘second wave’ feminism, which her book The Second Sex (first published in French in 1949) pre-dated by 20 years. Beauvoir was no essentialist, and though she did not use a term equivalent to gender (this still isn’t common in French), she makes many comments which depend on distinguishing the biological from the social aspects of being a woman. One of my favourites, because of its drily sarcastic tone, is this: ‘Every female human being is not necessarily a woman; to be so considered she must share in that mysterious and threatened reality known as femininity’.

One early second wave feminist who has often been castigated for essentialism (because she suggested that the subordination of women must originally have been due to their role in reproduction and nurturance) is Shulamith Firestone, author of The Dialectic of Sex (1970). Yet in fact Firestone did not see a social hierarchy built on sex-difference as natural and inevitable. On the contrary, she states in Dialectic that

just as the end goal of socialist revolution was not only the elimination of the economic class privilege but of the economic class distinction itself, so the end goal of feminist revolution must be… not just the elimination of male privilegebut of the sex distinction itself:  genital differences between human beings would no longer matter culturally.

In the slightly later writing of the French radical materialist feminist Christine Delphy, gender is theorised as nothing but the product of hierarchical power relations; it is not a pre-existing difference on which those relations are then superimposed. Delphy’s is a view which less radical thinkers find extreme, but whatever else anyone thinks of it, it could hardly be less essentialist. As Delphy herself says:

We do not know what the values, individual personality traits or culture of a non-hierarchical society would be like, and we have great difficulty imagining it. ….perhaps we will only be able to think about gender on the day when we can imagine non-gender.

All the writers I have just quoted are women who ‘can (and do) imagine non-gender’. This willingness to think seriously about what for most people, including many feminists, is the unthinkable—that a truly feminist world would not just operate without gender inequalities but actually without gender distinctions—is, we would argue, one of the hallmarks of radical feminism, one of the ways it stands out as ‘radical’.

Another thing that makes radical feminism stand out is the way it connects gender to sexuality and both to power. Catharine MacKinnon’s writings make the connection particularly strongly, as in the following passage taken from Feminism Unmodified (1987):

The feminist theory of power is that sexuality is gendered as gender is sexualised.  In other words, feminism is a theory of how the eroticization of dominance and submission creates  gender, creates women and man in the social form in which we know them.  Thus the sex difference and dominance-submission dynamic define each other.  The erotic is what defines sex as inequality, hence as meaningful difference. This is, in my view, the social meaning of sexuality, and the distinctly feminist account of gender inequality.

This shows that some well-known radical feminists have taken a non-essentialist view of sexuality as well as gender. Indeed, one of the most radically un- or anti-essentialist accounts of sexuality we can think of—as radical as any queer theorist’s work in rejecting the idea of fixed and finite sexual identities—comes from the radical feminist Susanne Kappeler in her book The Pornography of Representation (1986):

In a political perspective, sexuality, like language, might fall into the category of intersubjective relations:  exchange and communication.  Sexual relations – the dialogue between two subjects – would determine, articulate, a sexuality of the subjects as speech interaction generates communicative roles in the interlocutors.  Sexuality would thus not so much be a question of identity, of a fixed role in the absence of a praxis, but a possibility with the potential of diversity and interchangeability, and a possibility crucially depending on and codetermined by an interlocutor, another subject.

Later on we will explain why we think these radical feminist ideas about gender, sexuality, identity and power actually pose a far more radical challenge to the status quo than the ideas of queer politics.

Joan Scanlon: As Debbie said earlier, I was completely bewildered when the two young women in Edinburgh asked why The Trouble & Strife Reader (2009) didn’t have more in it about gender.  I rang Su Kappeler (see the quotation from her above) and she said:  “The thing is Joan: it’s like what Roland Barthes wrote somewhere, that if you have a guide book to Italy you won’t find Italy in the index – you’ll find Milan, Naples or the Vatican…” So I thought about this, and realised that while this was certainly true, there was something else going on:  it was as if the map of Italy had disappeared (quite useful as a way of connecting Milan, Naples and the Vatican), and instead, the geographical, political and economic reality of Italy had been replaced by a virtual space in which Italy could be a masked ball, a tricolour flag, an ice-cream parlour – or any combination of free floating signifiers.  And so, returning to the concept of gender, I realised that we need reconstruct that map, and that we needed to look at the question historically to make sense of this shift in meaning.

Of course maps change, as political boundaries change – but you won’t get far without one.  We need therefore to look at why feminists adopted the term gender to describe a material reality – the systematic enforcement of male power – and as a tool for political change.  I am going to start with a few definitions, then talk briefly about the history of sexuality, the relationship between gender and sexuality, and how the relationship between those two constructions has changed since the beginning of the last century.  I am also going to look briefly at what feminism has in common with queer politics, and at where the key differences lie.

Definitions: feminism, gender, sexuality

When I was writing something with Liz Kelly in the late 1980s, we decided that with the proliferation of ‘feminisms’ we needed to assert that the term feminism was meaningless if it just meant whatever any individual wanted it to mean.  In other words:  You can’t have a plural without a singular – so we defined feminism simply as “a recognition that women are oppressed, and a commitment to changing that”. Beyond this, you can have any number of differences of opinion about why women are oppressed and any number of differences about strategies for changing that.

In our 1993 tenth anniversary issue of T&S we then asked several women to define radical feminismand the definitions all have this in common:  they take as central that gender is a system of oppression, and that men and women are two socially constructed groups which exist precisely because of the unequal power relationship between them. Also, they all assert that radical feminism is radical because it challenges all relationships of power, including extreme forms such as male violence and the sex industry (which has always been extremely controversial within the women’s movement and an extremely unpopular issue to campaign against). Instead of tinkering around the edges of the question of gender, radical feminism addresses the structural problem which underlies it.

To define gender, therefore, seems a necessary step in understanding the proliferation of meanings which have come about in its now plural usage.  Gender, as radical feminists have always understood it, is a term which describes the systematic oppression of women, as a subordinate group, for the advantage of the dominant group, men.  This is not an abstract concept – it describes the material circumstances of oppression, including institutionalised male power and power within personal relationships – for example, the unequal division of labour, the criminal justice system, motherhood, the family, sexual violence… and so on.  I should say here that very few feminists would argue that gender is not socially constructed;   I think radical feminism is only accused of biological essentialism because it has been so central in the campaign against male violence, and for some reason we are therefore accused of thinking that all men are innately violent – which I have never understood.  If you are involved in a politics of change, it would be fairly pointless to think that anything you were seeking to change was innate or immutable.

If gender is seen, under patriarchy, as emanating from biological sex –  sexuality is essentialised if anything even more – as it is seen to emanate from our very nature, from desires and feelings which are quite outside of our control, even if our sexual behaviour can be regulated by moral and social codes.  And so to conclude with definitions, I will borrow Catherine MacKinnon’s definition of sexualityas ‘a social process which creates, organises, directs, and expresses desire’. Apart from pointing out that this clearly indicates that radical feminists  understand sexuality to be socially constructed, I won’t unpick this further here, as I hope it will become clear from what I go on to say.

A brief history of sexuality:

It is only from around 1870 onwards that medical, scientific and legal discourse began to classify and categorise individuals by sexual type – and produced what historians would now recognise as a specifically homosexual or lesbian identity.    Prior to the late 19th century sexual behaviour was conceived in terms of sin and crime – in terms of sexual acts not sexual identities. In the UK, male homosexuality was criminalised until 1967, and lesbianism, although never illegal, was repressed by other means; it was not an economic option for more than a tiny number of privileged women of independent means until after the Second World War.   Female sexuality has always been controlled by physical coercion, by economic dependence on men, and not least by ideology, and Adrienne Rich’s essay on ‘On Compulsory Heterosexuality’ (1979) shows the range and inventiveness of these means of control.

Gender is one of the ways in which sexuality is most effectively policed:  given the constant reinforcement of the binary gender system as a means of social control, if you step outside of your allocated gender role you are likely to be stigmatised as homosexual, and vice versa.  In other words, if you eschew the rewards of femininity by for example, becoming a plumber, not shaving your legs, telling a man who is harassing you to fuck off – you are likely to be accused of being a lesbian. (A man who does not conform to the conventions of masculinity, and is seen pushing a pram, wears pink, or who doesn’t like football, is equally likely to be accused of being gay.)  And similarly if you actually are a lesbian you are likely to be expected to behave like a man, to exhibit male desire – and heterosexual women are likely to be worried you might fancy them, and are encouraged to avoid women-only spaces in case there is a risk of being pounced on (this may be less true now, but was always an issue regarding women only events when I first got involved in feminism – i.e. that heterosexual women thought that women-only meant lesbian, and therefore assumed that all such spaces/events would be sexualised.)  Anyway, this is partly what Catherine MacKinnon meant when she said that ‘gender is sexualised, and sexuality is gendered’ – in other words, the power difference between men and women is eroticised, and we wouldn’t recognise something as sexual if it wasn’t about power – so anything that is perceived as sexual – such as gay and lesbian identity – is read through that lens, and thus gendered.

Early sexologists played a significant role in creating and consolidating this myth that lesbians were  inherently masculinised women, and homosexual men were innately feminine.  It is also here, in the work of for example Richard von Krafft Ebing, that you first find the idea of a man born into a woman’s body and vice versa.  Although the early sexologists dispelled a lot of other myths about sexual behaviour, and were instrumental in challenging the criminalisation of homosexuality by presenting it as ‘natural’ and innate, in so doing, they also confirmed the idea that sexuality was an essential part of human nature that was either dangerous and needed to be controlled by medical intervention, or a positive force which needed to be liberated from the repressive constraints of civilisation.  They often disagreed with each other, and contradicted themselves, but collectively they created and confirmed the myth that we all have a ‘true sexual identity’, which sexual science can help to reveal.  Some of their writings now read like complete nonsense, but it is impossible to underestimate the significance of these texts on literature and the popular imagination of the time.

Just to give you one example:  Richard von Krafft Ebing (on whose case studies Radclyffe Hall based her characters in the Well of Loneliness) argued that homosexuals were neither mentally ill nor morally depraved – since they suffered from a congenital inversion of the brain during the gestation of the embryo.  Moreover, he was convinced that you could find evidence of masculinity in female ‘inverts’ to confirm the genetic cause of their condition.  Havelock Ellis, who wrote the preface to the Well, agreed with this position, and went on to argue that you could distinguish between true female ‘inverts’ whose nature was permanent and innate, and those women who were attracted to ‘inverts’ because, although they were more womanly, they ‘were not well adapted for childbearing’ and therefore not suited for heterosexual procreative sex.   A more enlightened view was articulated by Edward Carpenter, socialist reformer and utopian philosopher: Carpenter, who used the term Uranian(of the heavens) to describe individuals who were attracted to others of the same sex,  had a more mystical and lyrical view of the whole subject (he is easily ridiculed because he had a kind of cult following and not only made his own sandals but also made them for the rest of his community, who lived in a commune near Sheffield) – but he is in many ways the most radical of them all.  He was much more interested in temperament and sensibility than in outward (biological) signs of deviation from the conventions of masculinity and femininity, and he also believed that those who belonged to ‘the intermediate sex’ could bridge differences of class and race, and be interpreters between men and women, as they shared the characteristics of both.  Economists and politicians of the movement thought Carpenter’s views were sentimental nonsense, but he comes closest of all the sexologists to saying that the gender itself is the problem, and the extremes of the binary gender system are detrimental to the kind of ideal society he imagines.

I’m not going to plough my way through all the sexologists of the 20th century – no doubt you are all more familiar with the laboratory experiments of Masters and Johnson, and the best-selling surveys of sexual behaviour by Alfred Kinsey and Shere Hite in the 1950s and 1980s respectively, which rocked the establishment in showing, amongst other things, the diversity of sexual behaviour and prevalence of homosexual desire amongst the heterosexual population at large in the US.  The main point about the later sexologists, what they have in common, is that they made sex the subject of scientific study, and very few of them looked at gender per se, or at the social context and meaning of sexuality.

The relation of gender to sexuality changed in the late 60s and 1970s, largely because of the emergence of the women’s movement and the gay liberation movement.  With the rise of feminism, and the publication of numerous key texts such as Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics(1970), lesbianism was no longer seen as a subcategory of male homosexuality, and not just as a sexual identity, but as political identity, within the context of gendered power relations – in other words it was possible to see being a lesbian as about being a woman, challenging heterosexuality as an institution, and challenging power within personal relationships.  I do think of myself as extraordinarily fortunate to have found feminism in the late 1970s (when I was in my early 20s) – as I would otherwise have been completely persuaded that I was an invert, or god forbid, a Uranian, or whatever, if I had been born in an earlier era.  The women’s movement of the late 60s and 70s offered many women an unprecedented opportunity to make sense of their experience as women, theorise about it, and do something about it.

We often forget that thinkers within the gay liberation movement in the early days had much in common with feminism: deconstructing masculinity, questioning the nuclear family, challenging misogyny, and seeking a sexuality of equality.  Although feminists continued to work very much in coalition with gay men, against a common oppression – institutionalised heterosexuality – we also found that our focus on the social construction of sexuality was at odds with the predominant view in the gay movement that sexuality was innate.   For example, in the late 1980s, during the campaign against clause 28 of the local government bill (which banned local authorities from ‘promoting’ homosexuality, and ‘pretended’ ie same sex families, in schools) the main argument from within the gay movement was that you couldn’t make someone gay, that gays only represented 10% of the population, that you were born gay, and therefore represented no threat to the establishment.  And of course, as feminists we were arguing the opposite, that you could indeed change your sexuality, and we did indeed seek to be a threat to the establishment. The AIDS epidemic politicised large numbers of gay men around sexuality, defending individual sexual freedom against the repressive politics of the far right, but in resorting once again to a plea for tolerance from the heterosexual world, and a request for inclusion in heterosexual privilege (civil partnerships etc) – which was strategically successful in achieving those goals precisely because they were not perceived as threatening to the liberal establishment –  it is possible that this movement paved the way for a politics which not only challenged heteronormative behaviour, but sought to create a space for all the casualties of gender who fall outside of the binary gender system and outside of a parallel binary conception of sexuality. You may well say that feminism seemed to offer precisely such a politics, and such a space, so it is important to look, therefore, at the differences between feminism and the queer politics.

What radical feminism has in common with queer politics is

  • An understanding that gender and sexuality are socially constructed
  • A recognition that binary gender roles are oppressive
  • An understanding that gender roles are produced through performance, and confirmed by their constant re-enactment
  • A commitment to challenging heteronormative assumptions and practices

The differences between radical feminism and queer politics are

  • Radical feminism is a materialist analysis which argues that gender is not produced merely through discourse and performance, but is a system within which one gender (male) has economic and political power, and the other (female) does not – and the dominant group has an investment in keeping it that way.
  • Radical feminism involves an understanding that you cannot produce (or challenge) the system of gender merely through discourse or individual performance – by adopting certain clothes, language, or even changing your anatomical body.  Outside of certain limited contexts, the dominant culture will still read these gestures according to the dominant social codes – and seek to categorise you as a man or woman.  (In other words, on the tube, in the supermarket, at work, these individual gestures or performative statements will be unintelligible, and quite ineffectual as a challenge to the system of gender).
  • Judith Butler argues that feminism, by asserting that women are a group with common characteristics and interests, has reinforced the binary view of gender, in which masculine and feminine genders are built on male and female bodies.  Feminists do indeed argue that women have a common political interest (rather than exhibiting common characteristics), and that women suffer from a common oppression (which they experience in different ways according to other forms of power relationships, including race and class), and that women’s bodies are the site of much of that oppression – but this is not to argue that the category woman is an undifferentiated category.  It is simply to argue that so long as women are oppressed as women, there is a need for a common political identity, in order to organise effectively to resist that oppression.
  • Radical feminism is committed to changing the gender system, and challenging oppression in all its forms.   We thus have no investment in being outlaws, which comes from a romanticised notion of oppression.  Moreover, feeling oppressed is not the same as being oppressed.  In order to celebrate your identity as an outlaw, you have to have an investment in the system which makes you an outlaw.  Queer seems to me to encompass the most extreme casualties of the gender system, and to create an umbrella which covers those who are unwilling social outlaws (usually from the poorest and most disenfranchised groups in society, with no buffer against social prejudice – i.e. those who are outlawed without choice),  and those for whom playing at being outlaws is a privileged intellectual game rather than a hard lived reality.
  • Queer is by its own definition whatever is at odds with the normal, the legitimate, the dominant.  Queer then, demarcates “not a positivity but a positionality vis-à-vis the normative”. It follows from this that Queer politics has no particular political goals, apart from challenging the dominant normative discourses, and if they change, Queer politics would then have to change its position in opposition to whatever is currently normative.  It’s not clear to me therefore, what its specific political goals are.
  • Queer embraces a wide array of non-normative sexual identities and practices, including some that are heterosexual:: “Sadism and masochism, prostitution, sexual inversion, transgender, bisexuality, asexuality, intersexuality are seen by queer theorists as opportunities for investigations into differences of class, race and ethnicity, and as opportunities to reconfigure understandings of pleasure and desire.” For example, Pat Califia,  in Feminism and Sadomasochism writes about how sadomasochism encourages fluidity, and questions the naturalness of binary dichotomies in society:

The dynamic between a top and a bottom is quite different from the dynamic between men and women, blacks and whites, or upper- and working- class people. That system is unjust because it assigns privileges based on race, gender, and social class. During a S/M encounter, roles are acquired and used in very different ways. If you don’t like being a top or bottom, you switch your keys. Try doing that to your biological sex or your race or your socioeconomic status.

  • This point of view places these scholars of Queer theory in conflict with the radical feminist view that sadomasochism, prostitution and pornography,  are all oppressive practices.
  • Radical feminism argues that all power differences are sexualised, including those constructed through race and ethnicity, class and disability, and that pornography and the sex industry as a whole is one of the clearest and most pernicious manifestations of that – eroticised power difference is the stuff of porn, and this is acted out on real bodies, not in the imagination of the consumer. Moreover, we need to be clear about whose pleasure and desire we are talking about – in an industry based on sexual exploitation and abuse.   S&M was the subject of much heated debate within feminism in the 1980s, and here again, radical feminism saw nothing new or radical about recreating the dominance and subordination dynamic – already prevalent within heterosexuality – within non-heteronormative relationships.  All of these phenomena, embraced as anti-heteronormative – by queer politics, are already embraced by patriarchy, so there’s no great revolution here.  Radical feminists seek not merely to challenge but to dismantle the structures of patriarchy; the challenge that queer offers to the normative culture is a provocation with no political aim to dismantle the normative, on which, by its own definition, it depends for its existence as an oppositional position.  It appears that queer is thus not attempting to seek liberation from the system of gender difference, but simply to take liberties with it.
  • In order to change the social system that creates gender difference as we know it, you have to address the underlying structures that produce and sustain gender difference – and you have to seek to eradicate gender itself.

Without gender, without power difference, sexuality could simply be the expression of desire between equal subjects.  (see Su’s quote in the handout).

At the beginning of this talk, Debbie quoted Shulamith Firestone, and it seems entirely appropriate therefore for me to conclude by returning to a central argument of ‘The Dialectic of Sex’, one which encapsulates the radical feminist approach to gender: ( I paraphrase):  The intellectual and theoretical task of feminism is to understand gender as a system which creates and maintains inequality.  The political task of feminism is to eradicate gender.

Trouble & Strife is a British-based radical feminist magazine. It appeared in print between 1983 and 2002, and is now a blog hosted by WordPress. We publish topical short posts, long-form articles and reviews, some of them illustrated by the feminist cartoonists whose work was a popular feature of the printed magazine. The website also gives visitors free access to a complete archive of our 43 print issues. T&S is edited by an all-women collective. We welcome enquiries from women who want to contribute posts, articles or reviews on topics of interest to a radical feminist readership (please note that we don’t publish fiction, poetry or artwork except if it illustrates an article). Our Facebook page is at www.facebook.com/troubleandstrifemagazine Our Twitter account is @strifejournal.

Who owns gender by @StrifeJournal

(Cross-posted from Trouble & Strife)

Delilah Campbell reflects on the deeper meaning of recent conflicts between feminists and transgender activists.

For a couple of weeks in early 2013, it seemed as if you couldn’t open a newspaper, or your Facebook newsfeed, without encountering some new contribution to a war of words that pitted transgender activists and their supporters against allegedly ‘transphobic’ feminists.

It had started when the columnist Suzanne Moore wrote a piece that included a passing reference to ‘Brazilian transsexuals’. Moore began to receive abuse and threats on Twitter, which subsequently escalated to the point that she announced she was closing her account. Then Julie Burchill came to Moore’s defence with a column in the Sunday Observer newspaper, which attacked not only the Twitter trolls, but the trans community in general. Burchill’s contribution was intemperate in both its sentiments and its language—not exactly a surprise, since that’s essentially what editors go to her for. If what you want is balanced commentary on the issues of the day, you don’t commission Julie Burchill. Nevertheless, when the predictable deluge of protests arrived, the Observer decided to remove the piece from its website. The following week’s edition carried a lengthy apology for having published it in the first place. Senior staff, it promised, would be meeting representatives of the trans community for a full discussion of their concerns.

Liberal consensus

This was a notable climbdown by one of the bastions of British liberal journalism. Only a couple of weeks earlier, another such bastion, the Observer‘s sister-paper The Guardian, had published an opinion piece on ‘paedophilia’ (aka the sexual abuse of children), which argued for more understanding and less condemnation. In the wake of the Jimmy Savile affair that was certainly controversial, and plenty of readers found it offensive. But it wasn’t removed from the website, nor followed by a grovelling apology. Evidently it was put in the category of unpopular opinions which have a right to be aired on the principle that ‘comment is free’. But when it comes to offending trans people, it seems the same principle does not apply.

It’s not just the liberal press: a blogger who re-posted Burchill’s piece, along with examples of the abuse Suzanne Moore had received on Twitter, found she had been blocked from accessing her own blog by the overseers of the site that hosted it. Meanwhile, the radical feminist activist and journalist Julie Bindel, whose criticisms of trans take the form of political analysis rather than personal abuse, has for some time been ‘no platformed’ by the National Union of Students—in other words, banned from speaking at events the NUS sponsors, or which take place on its premises.

More generally, if you want to hold a women-only event from which trans women are excluded, you are likely to encounter the objection that this exclusion is illegal discrimination, and also that the analysis which motivates it—the idea that certain aspects of women’s experience or oppression are not shared by trans women—is itself an example of transphobia. Expressed in public, this analysis gets labelled ‘hate-speech’, which there is not only a right but a responsibility to censor.

The expression of sentiments deemed ‘transphobic’ has quickly come to be perceived as one of those ‘red lines’ that speakers and writers may not cross. It’s remarkable, when you think about it: if you ask yourself what other views either may not be expressed on pain of legal sanction, or else are so thoroughly disapproved of that they would rarely if ever be permitted a public airing (and certainly not an unopposed one), you come up with examples like incitement to racial hatred and Holocaust denial. How did it come to be the case that taking issue with trans activists’ analyses of their situation (as Julie Bindel has) or hurling playground insults at trans people (as Julie Burchill did) automatically puts the commentator concerned in the same category as a Nick Griffin or a David Irving?

Silencing their critics, often with the active support of institutions that would normally deplore such illiberal restrictions on free speech, is not the only remarkable achievement the trans activists have to their credit. It’s also remarkable how quickly and easily trans people were added to the list of groups who are legally protected against discrimination, and even more remarkable that what was written into equality law was their own principle of self-definition—if you identify as a man/woman then you are entitled to be recognized as a man/woman. In a very short time, this tiny and previously marginal minority has managed to make trans equality a high profile issue, and support for it part of the liberal consensus.

Here what interests me is not primarily the rights and wrongs of this: rather I want to try to understand it, to analyse the underlying conditions which have enabled trans activists’ arguments to gain so much attention and credibility. Because initially, to be frank, I found it hard to understand why the issue generated such strong feelings, and why feminists were letting themselves get so preoccupied with it. Both the content and the tone of the argument reminded me of the so-called ‘sex wars’ of the 1980s, when huge amounts of time and energy were expended debating the rights and wrongs of lesbian sadomasochism and butch/femme relationships. ‘Debating’ is a euphemism: we tore ourselves and each other apart. I don’t want to say that nothing was at stake, but I do think we lost the plot for a while by getting so exercised about it. The trans debate seemed like another case where the agenda was being set by a few very vocal individuals, and where consequently an issue of peripheral importance for most women was getting far more attention from feminists than it deserved.

But as I followed the events described at the beginning of this piece, and read some of the copious discussion that has circulated via social media, I came to the conclusion that what’s going on is not just a debate about trans. There is such a debate, but it’s part of a much larger and more fundamental argument about the nature and meaning of gender, which pits feminists (especially the radical variety) against all kinds of other cultural and political forces. Trans is part of this, but it isn’t the whole story, nor in my view is it the root cause. Actually, I’m inclined to think that the opposite is true: it is the more general shift in mainstream understandings of gender which explains the remarkable success of trans activism.

Turf wars

It is notable that the policing of what can or cannot be said about trans in public is almost invariably directed against women who speak from a feminist, and especially a radical feminist, perspective. It might be thought that trans people have far more powerful adversaries (like religious conservatives, the right-wing press and some members of the medical establishment), and also far more dangerous ones (whatever radical feminists may say about trans people, they aren’t usually a threat to their physical safety). And yet a significant proportion of all the political energy expended by or on behalf of trans activism is expended on opposing and harassing radical feminists.

This has led some commentators to see the conflict as yet another example of the in-fighting and sectarianism that has always afflicted progressive politics—a case of oppressed groups turning on each other when they should be uniting against their common enemy. But in this case I don’t think that’s the explanation. When trans activists identify feminists as the enemy, they are not just being illogical or petty. Some trans activists refer to their feminist opponents as TERFs, meaning ‘trans-exclusive radical feminists’, or ‘trans-exterminating radical feminists’. The epithet is unpleasant, but the acronym is apt: this is very much a turf dispute, with gender as the contested territory.

At its core, the trans struggle is a battle for legitimacy. What activists want to get accepted is not just the claim of trans people for recognition and civil rights, but the whole view of gender and gender oppression on which that claim is based. To win this battle, the trans activists must displace the view of gender and gender oppression which is currently accorded most legitimacy in progressive/liberal circles: the one put forward by feminists since the late 1960s.

Here it might be objected that feminists themselves don’t have a single account of gender. True, and that’s one reason why trans activists target certain feminist currents more consistently than others [1]. But in fact, the two propositions about gender which trans activists are most opposed to are not confined to radical feminism: both go back to what is often regarded as the founding text of all modern feminism, Simone de Beauvoir’s 1949 classic The Second Sex, and they are still asserted, in some form or other, by almost everyone who claims any kind of feminist allegiance, be it radical, socialist or liberal. The first of these propositions is that gender as we know it is socially constructed rather than ‘natural’; the second is that gender relations are power relations, in which women are structurally unequal to men. On what exactly these statements mean and what they imply for feminist politics there is plenty of internal disagreement, but in themselves they have the status of core feminist beliefs. In the last 15 years, however, these propositions—especially the first one—have become the target of a sustained attack: a multi-pronged attempt to take the turf of gender back from feminism.

Trans activists are currently in the vanguard of this campaign, but they didn’t start the war. Some of its most important battles have been fought not in the arena of organized gender politics, but on the terrain of science, where opposition to feminism, or more exactly to feminist social constructionism, has been spearheaded by a new wave of biological essentialists. The scientists with the highest public profile, men like Stephen Pinker and Simon Baron-Cohen, are politically liberal rather than conservative, and claim to support gender equality and justice: what they oppose is any definition of those things based on the assumption that gender is a social construct. Their goal is to persuade their fellow-liberals that feminism got it wrong about gender, which is not socially constructed but ‘hard-wired’ in the human brain.

This attack on the first feminist proposition (‘gender is constructed’) leads to a reinterpretation of the second (‘gender relations are unequal power relations’). Liberals do not deny that women have suffered and may still suffer unjust treatment in male-dominated societies, but in their account difference takes precedence over power. What feminists denounce as sexism, and explain as the consequence of structural gender inequality, the new essentialists portray as just the inevitable consequence of natural sex-differences.

Meanwhile, in less liberal circles, we’ve seen the rise of a lobby which complains that men and boys are being damaged—miseducated, economically disadvantaged and marginalized within the family—by a society which has based its policies for the last 40 years on the feminist belief that gender is socially constructed: a belief, they say, which has now been discredited by objective scientific evidence. (Some pertinent feminist criticisms of this so-called ‘objective’ science have been aired in T&S: see here for more discussion.)

Another relevant cultural trend is the neo-liberal propensity to equate power and freedom, in their political senses, with personal freedom of choice. Across the political spectrum, it has become commonplace to argue that what really ‘empowers’ people is being able to choose: the more choices we have, and the freer we are to make them, the more powerful we will be. Applied to gender, what this produces is ‘post-feminism’, an ideology which dispenses with the idea of collective politics and instead equates the liberation of women with the exercise of individual agency. The headline in which this argument was once satirized by The Onion—‘women now empowered by anything a woman does’—is not even a parody: this is the attitude which underpins all those statements to the effect that if women choose to be housewives or prostitutes, then who is anyone (read: feminists) to criticize them?

This view has had an impact on the way people understand the idea that gender is socially constructed. To say that something is ‘constructed’ can now be taken as more or less equivalent to saying that in the final analysis it is—or should be—a matter of individual choice. It follows that individuals should be free to choose their own gender identity, and have that choice respected by others. I’ve heard several young (non trans-identified) people make this argument when explaining why they feel so strongly about trans equality: choice to them is sacrosanct, often they see it as ‘what feminism is all about’, and they are genuinely bewildered by the idea that anyone other than a right-wing authoritarian might take issue with an individual’s own definition of who they are.

The gender in transgender

Current trans politics, like feminism, cannot be thought of as an internally unified movement whose members all make exactly the same arguments. But although there are some dissenting voices, in general the views of gender and gender oppression which trans activists promote are strongly marked by the two tendencies just described.

In the first place, the trans account puts little if any emphasis on gender as a power relation in which one group (women) is subordinated to/oppressed by the other (men). In the trans account, gender in the ‘men and women’ sense is primarily a matter of individual identity: individuals have a sovereign right to define their gender, and have it recognized by society, on the basis of who they feel themselves to be. But I said ‘gender in the men and women sense’ because in trans politics, gender is understood in another sense as well: there is an overarching division between ‘cisgendered’ individuals, who identify with the gender assigned to them at birth, and ‘transgendered’ individuals, who do not identify with their assigned gender. Even if trans activists recognize the feminist concept of male power and privilege, it is secondary in their thinking to ‘cis’ power and privilege: what is considered to be fundamentally oppressive is the devaluing or non-recognition of ‘trans’ identities in a society which systematically privileges the ‘cis’ majority. Opposition to this takes the form of demanding recognition for ‘cis’ and ‘trans’ as categories, and for the right of any trans person to be treated as a member of the gender group they wish to be identified with.

At this point, though, there is a divergence of views. Some versions of the argument are based on the kind of biological essentialism which I described earlier: the gender with which a person identifies—and thus their status as either ‘cis’ or ‘trans’—is taken to be determined at or before birth. The old story about transsexuals—that they are ‘women trapped in men’s bodies’, or vice-versa—has morphed into a newer version which draws on contemporary neuroscience to argue that everyone has a gendered brain (thanks to a combination of genes and hormonal influences) which may or may not be congruent with their sexed body. In ‘trans’ individuals there is a disconnect between the sex of the body and the gender of the brain.

In other versions we see the influence of the second trend, where the main issue is individual freedom of choice. In some cases this is allied to a sort of postmodernist social utopianism: trans is presented as a radical political gesture, subverting the binary gender system by cutting gender loose from what are usually taken to be its ‘natural’, biological moorings. This opens up the possibility of a society where there will be many genders rather than just two (though no one who makes this argument ever seems to explain why that would be preferable to a society with no genders at all). In other cases, though, choice is presented not as a tactic in some larger struggle to make a better world, but merely as an individual right. People must be allowed to define their own identities, and their definitions must be respected by everyone else. On Twitter recently, in an argument about whether someone with a penis (and no plans to have it removed) could reasonably claim to be a woman, a proponent of this approach suggested that if the person concerned claimed to be a woman then they were a woman by definition, and had an absolute right to be recognized as such. In response, someone else tweeted: ‘I’m a squirrel’. Less Judith Butler, more Alice Through the Looking Glass. 

Proponents of the first, essentialist account are sometimes critical of those who make the second, and ironically their criticism is the same one I would make from a radical feminist perspective: this post-feminist understanding of social constructionism is trivializing and politically vacuous. What trans essentialists think feminists are saying when they say gender is socially constructed is that gender is nothing more than a superficial veneer. They reject this because it is at odds with their experience: it denies the reality of the alienation and discomfort which leads people to identify as trans. This is a reaction feminists ought to be able to understand, since it parallels our own response to the dismissal of issues like sexual harassment as trivial problems which we ought to be able to ‘get over’—we say that’s not how women experience it. But in this case it’s a reaction based on a misreading: for most feminists, ‘socially constructed’ does not imply ‘trivial and superficial’.

In the current of feminism T&S represents, which is radical and materialist, gender is theorized as a consequence of social oppression. Masculinity and femininity are produced through patriarchal social institutions (like marriage), practices (like the division of labour which makes women responsible for housework and childcare) and ideologies (like the idea of women being weak and emotional) which enable one gender to dominate and exploit the other. If these structures did not exist—if there were no gender—biological male/female differences would not be linked in the way they are now to identity and social status. The fact that they do continue to exist, however, and to be perceived by many or most people as ‘natural’ and immutable, is viewed by feminists (not only radical materialists but most feminists in the tradition of Beauvoir) as evidence that what is constructed is not only the external structures of society, but also the internalized feelings, desires and identities that individuals develop through their experience of living within those structures.

Radical feminists, then, would actually agree with the trans activists who say that gender is not just a superficial veneer which is easily stripped away. But they don’t agree that if something is ‘deep’ then it cannot be socially constructed, but must instead be attributed to innate biological characteristics. For feminists, the effects of lived social experience are not trivial, and you cannot transcend them by an individual act of will. Rather you have to change the nature of social experience through collective political action to change society.

The rainbow flag meets the double helix

When I first encountered trans politics, in the 1990s, it was dominated by people who, although their political goals differed from feminism’s, basically shared the feminist view that gender as we knew it was socially constructed, oppressive, and in need of change through collective action. This early version of trans politics was strongly allied with the queer activism of the time, emphasized its political subversiveness, and spoke in the language of queer theory and postmodernism. It still has some adherents today, but over time it has lost ground to the essentialist version that stresses the naturalness and timeless universality of the division between ‘trans’ and ‘cis’, and speaks in two other languages: on one hand, neurobabble (you can’t argue with the gender of my brain), and on the other, identity politics at their most neo-liberal (you can’t argue with my oppression, my account of my oppression, or the individual choices I make to deal with my oppression).

Once again, though, this development is not specific to trans politics. Trans activists are not the first group to have made the journey from radical social critique to essentialism and neoliberal individualism. It is a more general trend, seen not only in some ‘post-feminist’ campaigning by women, but also and perhaps most clearly in the recent history of gay and lesbian activism.

In the heyday of the Women’s and Gay Liberation Movements, the view was widely held that sexuality was socially constructed, and indeed relatively plastic: lesbianism, in particular, was presented by some feminists as a political choice. But in the last 20 years this view has largely withered away. Faced with well-organized opponents denouncing their perverted ‘lifestyle choices’, some prominent gay/lesbian activists and organizations began promoting the counter-argument that homosexuals are born, not made. Of course the ‘born that way’ argument had always had its supporters, but today it has hardened into an orthodoxy which you deviate from at your peril. Not long ago the actor Cynthia Nixon, who entered a lesbian relationship fairly late in life, made a comment in an interview which implied that she didn’t think she’d always been a lesbian. She took so much flak from those who thought she was letting the side down, she was forced to issue a ‘clarification’.

Since ‘born that way’ became the orthodox line, there has been more mainstream acceptance of and sympathy for the cause of gay/lesbian equality, as we’ve seen most recently in the success of campaigns for same-sex marriage. Though it is possible this shift in public attitudes would have happened anyway, it seems likely that the shift away from social constructionism helped, by making the demand for gay rights seem less of a political threat. The essentialist argument implies that the straight majority will always be both straight and in the majority, because that’s how nature has arranged things. No one need fear that granting rights to gay people will result in thousands of new ‘converts’ to their ‘lifestyle’: straight people won’t choose to be gay, just as gay people can’t choose to be straight.

If you adopt a social constructionist view of gender and sexuality, then lesbians, gay men and gender non-conformists are a challenge to the status quo: they represent the possibility that there are other ways for everyone to live their lives, and that society does not have to be organized around our current conceptions of what is ‘natural’ and ‘normal’. By contrast, if you make the essentialist argument that some people are just ‘born different’, then all gay men, lesbians or gender non-conformists represent is the more anodyne proposition that diversity should be respected. This message does not require ‘normal’ people to question who they are, or how society is structured. It just requires them to accept that what’s natural for them may not be natural for everyone. Die-hard bigots won’t be impressed with that argument, but for anyone vaguely liberal it is persuasive, appealing to basic principles of tolerance while reassuring the majority that support for minority rights will not impinge on their own prerogatives.

For radical feminists this will never be enough. Radical feminism aspires to be, well, radical. It wants to preserve the possibility that we can not only imagine but actually create a different, better, juster world. The attack on feminist social constructionism is ultimately an attack on that possibility. And when radical feminists take issue with trans activists, I think that is what we need to emphasize. What’s at stake isn’t just what certain individuals put on their birth certificates or whether they are welcome at certain conferences. The real issue is what we think gender politics is about: identity or power, personal choice or structural change, reshuffling the same old cards or radically changing the game.

[1] A more detailed discussion of feminist ideas about gender, which looks at their history and at what is or isn’t shared by different currents within feminism, can be found in Debbie Cameron and Joan Scanlon’s article ‘Talking about gender’.

Trouble & Strife is a British-based radical feminist magazine. It appeared in print between 1983 and 2002, and is now a blog hosted by WordPress. We publish topical short posts, long-form articles and reviews, some of them illustrated by the feminist cartoonists whose work was a popular feature of the printed magazine. The website also gives visitors free access to a complete archive of our 43 print issues. T&S is edited by an all-women collective. We welcome enquiries from women who want to contribute posts, articles or reviews on topics of interest to a radical feminist readership (please note that we don’t publish fiction, poetry or artwork except if it illustrates an article). Our Facebook page is at www.facebook.com/troubleandstrifemagazine Our Twitter account is @strifejournal.

Setting the Tone by @strifejournal

(Cross-posted from Trouble & Strife)

Delilah Campbell ponders Facebook’s new approach to gender

Heinz comes in 57 varieties, grey comes in fifty shades, and gender, according to Facebook, now comes in 51 different forms. The social media giant announced this month that in future, account-holders (at least, those whose language is English) will be able to choose from a menu of 51 terms describing gender identification. Subscribers in the US can already access the new options, which include ‘androgynous’, ‘bigender’, ‘genderfluid’ and ‘intersex’ as well as the more predictable ‘trans’, ‘trans*’, ‘transsexual’ and ‘man’/‘woman’ prefaced by ‘trans’ or ‘cis’.

Cartoon by Cath Jackson - 57 varieties of Facebook genderThis move towards greater diversity and inclusiveness has been hailed as—in the words of one source quoted by the Independent ‘a milestone step to allow countless people to more honestly and accurately represent themselves’. This speaker, described as a ‘human rights activist’, went on to express the hope that others would emulate the example set by Facebook in ‘supporting individuals’ multifaceted identities’.

I will pass over the question of what ‘supporting individuals’ multifaceted identities’ has to do with human rights, and ask instead if Facebook’s policy, overall, would actually qualify as ‘supporting individuals’ multifaceted identities’. To describe identity as ‘multifaceted’ is to acknowledge that gender is only one element of it, and that others are in principle no less important. But Facebook profiles are not constructed on that principle. Gender is the only personal characteristic that has to be specified explicitly, and displayed publicly, on a Facebook page. You do have to give your birthdate, but you can choose to keep it hidden. You are not asked to select a category from a menu of ethnic labels, or social class labels, though ethnicity and class are also facets of identity; and displaying your educational or relationship status is optional rather than compulsory. So, it’s hard to see the new policy as a sign of Facebook’s commitment to making users’ profiles more fully reflective of their multifaceted identities. It’s more a manifestation of the contemporary obsession with gender identity, gender categories and gender distinctions.

It’s also an illustration of another contemporary phenomenon, the power of the drop-down menu. In a world where we are constantly required to fill in online forms, where you can only proceed to the next screen if you click on one of the options provided (not several, not none, not an alternative of your own devising), there is a tendency to take those options as a map of reality. Like the boundaries marked on an actual map, the lines they draw between this category and that become reified, treated as objective facts to which we must try to fit our own subjective experience.

Facebook’s 51 gender labels are a case in point. There is nothing objective about them: they don’t represent a single conceptual scheme or comprise a scientific taxonomy, they just reproduce as many terms as the designers could think of which are currently used by some subset of English-speakers to describe some kind of non-traditional orientation to the traditional male/female binary. The glossaries which various ‘experts’ have hastily produced to explain them suggest that many of the new categories overlap or duplicate one another: ‘androgynous’, ‘bigender’ and ‘genderfluid’, for instance, all denote an identification with both masculinity and femininity. But once they appear as discrete options in a drop-down menu, there’s a good chance people will treat them as definitive, and if necessary create the semantic distinctions that are needed to make them coherent. Just as having the choice of ‘Miss’ ‘Mrs’ and ‘Ms’ has persuaded many English-speakers that ‘Ms’ must denote a distinct category of ‘others’ (older unmarried women, divorced women and lesbians) rather than subsuming (as it was meant to) the previous, marital status-based categories, so asking people to choose between ‘genderfluid’ and ‘bigender’ will prompt them to invent criteria for distinguishing the two. Meanwhile, some people will inevitably feel that the available options exclude them, or fail to represent them fully, and will lobby for new ones to be added. As if any nomenclature, however many terms it included, could possibly capture all the nuances of our lived and felt experience.

Facebook’s new nomenclature certainly doesn’t work for me, because it presupposes that there must be some form of gender that I feel a positive identification with. In fact, as a radical materialist feminist my position is that gender, like ‘race’ and class, is essentially a system of domination and subordination, and as such I am politically opposed to it. While I acknowledge its existence as a material social fact, and accept that it has shaped my own experience and sense of self, I do not identify positively with any form of gender, either actual or imaginable. Being willing to call myself a woman (again, in recognition of a material social fact) does not mean I have a positive identification with femininity. My relationship to both femininity and masculinity is entirely negative. Facebook doesn’t provide any terminology with which I could ‘honestly and accurately represent’ that position. It allows me to list my gender as ‘neither’, or the more arcane ‘neutrois’ (glossed as ‘people who do not identify within the binary gender system’), but the problem with those terms (also ‘gender non-conforming’ and ‘gender variant’) is that in this scheme they all denote identities: they define you as a certain kind of person, rather than as a person (of any kind) who takes a certain political stance.

Though from my point of view Facebook’s approach to gender is more or less apolitical, the company evidently wants to be seen as a champion of progressive attitudes. The spokesperson quoted in the Independent presented the new policy as part of the company’s commitment to equality and diversity, as well as a sign of its openness to concerns expressed by users (in this case, LGBT groups who campaigned for new terminology). However, anything Facebook does in the area of user profiling is liable to be interpreted in the light of our knowledge that its money is made by selling data to advertisers. I always assumed that the real reason why your profile had to specify whether you were male or female was the importance accorded to that information by Facebook’s real customers, the marketeers. Some commentators have suggested that the new gender nomenclature will serve their purposes even more effectively: by getting people to define themselves in less blandly generic terms (or as one comment put it, ‘finding 50 more ways to violate my privacy’), Facebook can help businesses to target a more specific market niche.

On that point, I’m slightly sceptical: it’s hard to see how this confusing set of labels could be mapped onto the consumer preferences that are of interest to the niche-marketers. Are there products which appeal more to the ‘gender variant’ than the ‘gender non-conforming’, or services for the ‘androgynous’ as opposed to the ‘bigendered’? If you identify as bigendered, will that just mean you get a double helping of spam?Cartoon by Cath Jackson - 57 varieties of Facebook gender

Yet at a deeper level I do think the revamping of Facebook’s gender options shows the influence of consumerism on what is now thought of as ‘political’ action—the idea is that people are empowered by having as much choice as possible, and that minorities in particular are empowered by the public validation of their choices. ‘Put my preferred gender identity label on your drop-down menu so that I can display it in my profile’ is the kind of political language that Facebook understands, but in the real world, arguably, the effect is pretty trivial. (How often does anyone even look at what genders their Facebook friends have specified?) Other political demands, for instance that Facebook should stop hosting pages which promote violence against women, have not been so easily accommodated (though they have sometimes been successful when accompanied by actions that threatened the site’s advertising revenue).

If Facebook had wanted to do something really radical, it could surely have gone for the simpler option of taking gender off the menu altogether. Instead of requiring every user to select a label from a predefined set of options, it could have said it was going to let individuals make their own decisions about how to define and present themselves—permitting them not only to use their own preferred terms, but also to decide how far to foreground their gender in their profiles.

I’d just as soon leave it in the background myself; but since that is apparently unthinkable, I’m considering setting up a Facebook group to lobby for some additional menu options—some boxes a radical feminist could tick, like ‘gender indifferent’, ‘gender resistant’, ‘gender hostile’ and ‘nowadays when I hear the word “gender” I reach for my medication’. Anyone want to join?

Cartoons by Cath Jackson

 

Trouble & Strife is a British-based radical feminist magazine. It appeared in print between 1983 and 2002, and is now a blog hosted by WordPress. We publish topical short posts, long-form articles and reviews, some of them illustrated by the feminist cartoonists whose work was a popular feature of the printed magazine. The website also gives visitors free access to a complete archive of our 43 print issues. T&S is edited by an all-women collective. We welcome enquiries from women who want to contribute posts, articles or reviews on topics of interest to a radical feminist readership (please note that we don’t publish fiction, poetry or artwork except if it illustrates an article). Our Facebook page is at www.facebook.com/troubleandstrifemagazine Our Twitter account is @strifejournal.

 

In the coming year, I have ambitious plans to expand AROOO, including a full professional blog redesign to increase accessibility and optimise sharing of individual bloggers’ writing across multiple social media platforms, as well as publishing feminist reviews of books, radio, television, and film. I also want to expand outside of traditional blogging platforms and start a chat forum. In order to do this, I need to raise £ 3000 so that I can pay the women web designers for their work. The work I do for AROOO is out of love for women and their writing, art, photography and lives. My tech skills simply aren’t adequate to develop AROOO to its full potential. The women involved with AROOO deserve to have their work shared to a larger audience and this requires financial support. This platform will remain non-profit, and advertising free, but the amount of work to redesign the site is substantial. Even one pound makes a huge difference to my ability to support feminist writing by creating a professional platform for feminists by feminists.



A Christmas Homily: On Being a Radical Christian AND a Radical Feminist by @VABVOX

A Christmas Homily: On Being a Radical Christian AND a Radical Feminist

by Victoria A. Brown worth

When I was a girl in Catholic school, I was told the early Christians spoke in code in order to protect themselves from arrest or being thrown into the lion’s den. Part of the code was to draw half a fish in the dirt. If the other person were a Christian, they would draw the rest of the fish and conversation could ensue without fear.

As a radical feminist who is also a Catholic and a Christian, I often feel the same way: The lion’s den of social media doesn’t compare with being eaten by actual lions, but it can feel quite brutal. Having been attacked by dozens of atheists at a time, I can attest to how exhausting these assaults can be.

I have also witnessed Muslim women I know–all of whom wear hijab–being badgered by both atheists and progressives telling them their religion is retrogressive and violent and abusive to women.

These attacks on religious women, nearly always by men, are often framed as atheist  mansplaining: “Don’t you know your religion oppresses women?”

A curious counterpoint follows these attacks: women direct message me with their confessions of being closet Christians–afraid even to state it publicly, instead drawing their half of the fish in my DM after seeing me affirm my own Christian beliefs. This happened most recently last week when a young woman I know–an outspoken feminist in real life–asked me how I was able to reconcile my feminism and my Catholicism.

“Teach me how to do this!” she implored.

My answer may seem simplistic, but if you have a belief system, there should never be a conflict. There is none for me–I believe strongly in most radical feminist tenets and I believe in most tenets of Catholicism. (Note, I say most.)

I get attacked just as often for being a radical feminist as I do for being a radical Christian. What is unsurprising is that those attacks are almost wholly from the same quarters: atheist men and liberal feminist women.

Both groups cite their concern for my mental health as well as my mental acuity. Am I, I have been asked, “insane” or “retarded”?

There is also concern about my lack of knowledge of the world and my own place in it, a marginalizing tactic straight out of Patriarchy 101.

The perception that only the ignorant believe in God is itself ignorant–and, I might add, classist, sexist and racist given that the overwhelming majority of the world’s believers are women of color. The perspective promulgated by atheists that atheism is somehow more evolved than belief in God is as offensive as it is inaccurate, ignoring as it does the vast array of scientists who also believe in God, from Galileo to Einstein to Hawking. Atheism is its own belief system, with its purveyors every bit as strident as any fundamentalist.

I was raised in a Socialist Catholic household by parents who were civil rights workers. In addition to the leaders of the black civil rights movement, my mentors were women who conflated their religious beliefs with their leftist politics, among them Susan B. Anthony, Jane Addams, Dorothy Day, Simone Weil and my patron saints, Teresa of Avila and Joan of Arc.

For me, feminism and Catholicism and leftist activism were always inextricably bound. Growing up in the era of Liberation Theology, I was fortunate to have models of feminist theologians from whom I learned a new way of viewing my own faith, starting with the work of the 19th century abolitionist women and their suffragist cohorts. But by the time I was in college, I had discovered–or rather, dis-covered–the work of Mary Daly and Sheila Collins, Rosemary Radford Reuther and all the many women in Latin America, nuns and lay women alike, who were melding their faith and their feminism.

These women validated the unarticulated reality that I had experienced as a girl in Catholic school: that women were the backbone of the Church. That women were the backbone of spirituality. That the activism of the female saints was not only just as impactful as that of their male peers, but in many respects they were the foremothers/foresisters of modern feminism.

Watching my parents civil rights work, much of which was inextricably bound to our parish and to the churches of the black men and women we (well, I was a small child, but our family) were working with and for clarified for me how integral God was to the work being done.

There is no writing by Martin Luther King, Jr. that doesn’t invoke Christ. Concomitantly the work of Malcolm X, often held up as King’s more radical brother in the battle for black equality in the U.S., was a follower of Islam.

For many, God propelled us into activism. For me personally, it was those female saints and Christ himself that made me a radical Christian feminist. Wooed by the literal fight in Joan of Arc and her refusal to bow to patriarchal mores, wooed by the refusal of St. Cecilia to become a concubine, wooed by the brilliant mystical writings of St. Teresa of Avila, I was certain that women played as keen a role in God’s plan as the male apostles whose names I seemed incapable of remembering past Peter and John.

As I delved deeper into the concept of feminist theology in college, meeting Mary Daly and interviewing her for the college radio station where I had the first lesbian feminist radio program in the U.S. for an hour on Sunday mornings, I saw that God was as much the divine feminine as the “He” we had been taught in catechism class. As Daly said, “Why indeed must ‘God’ be a noun? Why not a verb – the most active and dynamic of all.”

If our internalization of God–particularly for those of us who are radical feminists intent on smashing the patriarchy–is in activism, then how could feminism not be an outgrowth of faith? The synthesis of God and the work of making the world a livable place for women and girls, men and boys, was inextricable–Daly showed me that feminism did not requite that I  expunge it from my heart or my intellect. Rather she showed me that the two worked in tandem, each propelling the other–and me–forward into action, into the heart of the fray as Joan of Arc had done.

Activism drove me and Christ was my ultimate mentor. Jesus’s exquisite knowledge that the end of his activist journey was a slow, hideous and painful death from which he could not escape spurred me forward: if Christ could do this, how could I do less? How could I not fight every battle presented to me, work ceaselessly for a better world, a more equitable place, follow the dictates Christ presented in the Sermon on the Mount–a revolutionary treatise if ever there were one.

Following Christ means giving up a great deal. But following radical feminism demands the same. The over-arching thing that must be relinquished–the thing that contradicts every MRA, lib fem or atheist gunner–is ignorance. You can no longer ignore what is set in front of you. You cannot ignore the chasms between rich and poor, men and women, color of privilege and color of oppression. You cannot pretend.

Now perhaps in a fundamentalist religion or a male-centered feminism, ignorance is an imperative. If one acknowledges that we are all equal–which is the basic tenet of both radical Christianity/liberation theology Catholicism and radical feminism–then you cannot stand on the sidelines of either your faith or your feminism. You cannot ignore that people are dying in your very own city of starvation in the clear and abundant bounty of Western society. You cannot ignore that one billion women worldwide are victims of male violence. You cannot ignore the plight of the poor, the disabled, the oppressed. You have to be in not for a penny but for many, many pounds. You have to give up your life in service to your beliefs and you can never, ever take time off, because the criticality demands of your radicalism that you be invested 24/7. You can’t shrug off this rapist or that rapacious politician. You can’t flip past the photo of spikes being put in doorways to keep the homeless from sleeping there. You can’t pretend that FGM is a cultural thing that (white) Westerners should ignore.

You cannot ever stop fighting for what is right because you are not, as the atheists and MRAs and lib fems say, ignorant. You are ignorance’s obverse: you are keenly, hyper-vigilantly aware and you can never unsee all that is cruel and inhumane and immoral anywhere ever again. Mother Teresa explicated this clearly, “I have found the paradox, that if you love until it hurts, there can be no more hurt, only more love.”

I have always believed that God is love and I have always believed that feminism is love. How could those two loves not heal the world the way they have healed me?

Two weeks ago I had some surgery. It seemed to go well, but an infection set in almost immediately, hidden under the healing wound, showing little sign to either me in my own body or to my doctors. It spread rapidly and by Dec. 17 I was gravely ill. By Dec. 18, death was knocking. On Dec. 19 I had emergency surgery. Today, as I write this on Christmas Eve Day, I am home from the hospital and I am alive.

I am not saying that I prayed to be saved–although I did, madly–and I was saved, because millions pray every day to be saved from things as painful and horrible as what I experienced and are not saved. What I am saying is being on the brink of death yet again, I am reminded of the value of life, of the value of all that is left to be accomplished and that the purpose of our lives on this earth–whether we believe in an afterlife as I do, or not–is to work as diligently as we can to give to those who do not have what we have, to seek justice for those of us (including ourselves) who have been marginalized, to make a space for equity and equality for everyone, to end male violence. Mother Teresa said, “Let us touch the dying, the poor, the lonely and the unwanted according to the graces we have received and let us not be ashamed or slow to do the humble work.”

There is often no more “humble” work than feminism. But those of us who are feminists–true feminists–do it always and unflinchingly because lives depend on it. We cannot walk away. That work of feminism, or the work Mother Teresa spoke of, is how I put faith and feminism together in the same place.

No doubt some will come away from this saying I haven’t addressed individual issues that are fraught in both the Church and radical feminism. Perhaps not. But I reiterate that I said at the outset I didn’t believe in every tenet of either my religion or my feminism. But I believe in the construct of both my faith and my feminism. I believe that both work in a truly intersectional way to bolster my activism.

Every Sunday when I attend Mass, I am re-infused with activism–compelled to leave and do the work Christ set me here to do: save lives. Of women, of girls. Save men from their own violence. Save the marginalized from suffering and bigotry and oppression. This is my answer to the question of how do I meld my faith in God and my faith in feminism–through the example of Christ and the radical feminist theologians his pro-feminist activism spawned. The answer for me is the women who came before me, God and feminism inextricably bound together in their hearts and in their work. My admiration for all they achieved is immeasurable, as is my desire to follow in their footsteps. And those of their mentor, Christ.

 

Victoria A. Brownworth is an award-winning journalist, editor and writer and the author and editor of nearly 30 books. She has won the NLGJA and the Society of Professional Journalists awards, the Lambda Literary Award and has been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. She won the 2013 SPJ Award for Enterprise Reporting in May 2014. She is a regular contributor to The Advocate and SheWired, a blogger for Huffington Post and a columnist and contributing editor for Curve magazine and Lambda Literary Review. Her reporting and commentary has appeared in the New York Times, Village Voice, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe and Philadelphia Inquirer. Her book, From Where We Sit: Black Writers Write Black Youth won the 2012 Moonbeam Award for cultural & historical fiction. Her novel, Ordinary Mayhem will be published in February 2015. Her book Erasure: Silencing Lesbians will be published in June 2015.@VABVOX

 

Why feminism needs trans people and sex workers by @alisonphipps

Originally published in the New Statesman, 24th November 2014

There are several stories circulating about what happened at this year’s London Reclaim the Night march. The Sex Worker Open University have criticised the organisers for including a speaker from Object, a campaign group they claim oppresses those in the sex industry by picketing their workplaces and attempting to put them out of jobs. The SWOU have also alleged the distribution of transphobic leaflets by some march attendees. This has been corroborated from the other side of the political divide, with a group of radical feminists confirming that they carried a banner stating “Reclaim the Night is for WOMEN” and distributed leaflets “to raise awareness of violence perpetrated by male transgenders” [sic]. This group has also reprimanded RTN organisers for reiterating that trans women were welcome on the march.

What both accounts acknowledge is that many women at Reclaim the Night London spoke out and marched in solidarity with trans and sex-working sisters. They were right to do so. Feminist events must not make the most marginalised women among us feel unsafe. But over and above ideas about inclusion, we also need to recognise that trans people and sex workers* have much to offer feminist thought and activism.

What can trans people tell us about gender? Well, they do a pretty good jobdivesting it from what our culture calls biological sex.** Trans feminists – indeed, all trans people – share with cis feminists the desire to live lives that challenge gender essentialism, and the spectrum of trans and gender-fluid identities shows us a variety of ways of being which split apart our cultural binaries of male/female, man/woman, masculine/feminine. Trans people are under no obligation to share their personal journeys with the world at large, but when they do they crystallise the ways in which gender oppresses all of us.

Sex workers are part of an industry which, although diverse, is profoundly gendered and based on the commodification of sex and desire. From this position they have unique insights into how gendered power relations and sexual scripts work. Some sex workers may tell us how these can be reworked and resisted, perhaps more easily when an explicit transaction is taking place. Others may have harrowing stories about being the target of the worst misogynist impulses of our culture, compounded by social stigma. Or we may very likely hear from sex workers who have experienced both.

Contemporary feminists can be quite neoliberal in their emphasis on identity and choice, partly in answer to the co-option of 1970s radical feminism by reactionary forces. We need to hold on to the best of radical feminist thought – in particular, its analysis of gender as a structural and discursive hierarchy between “man” and “woman” (which, of course, doesn’t stop it also being a spectrum in terms of individual identities). But the gendered structures that radical feminism identified in the 1970s may have already become more complex and slippery in our postmodern world.

Surely, those most likely to understand these present-day structures are those oppressed by them the most. Feminists have long argued that due to their marginalised position, women have an unique perspective on how the world works. But feminists who are more privileged need to listen to others within our ranks when they tell us our own mindset is partial.

How can we appreciate the social construction of the gender binary without listening to people who live in the spaces in-between? And conversely, how can we fathom how deeply felt the binary can be without the help of those who know they have been assigned to the wrong side? How can we understand gendered objectification in isolation from those who handle it, in various ways, as part of their jobs? How can we debate how the sex industry should be regulated while ignoring people who work in it? And crucially, how can we understand and organise against gendered violence in isolation from those who are most at risk?

I have yet to come across a feminist who doesn’t have good intentions. Although our theories and methods differ, feminists of all stripes share a desire to make women’s lives better. But in order to do that, we need to listen to what all women have to say. Experience is not an end in itself – but we cannot theorise or organise in a vacuum or only in relation to our own personal stories, because in the eyes of the world some narratives – and some lives – matter more. This means that those of us who enjoy privilege have a lot to learn and a duty to refuse to see our own experience as universal.

Of course, it’s almost impossible to control or predict events sufficiently to guarantee completely safe spaces, and perhaps it would be dangerous to try. But it’s certainly possible – indeed essential – to create a welcoming atmosphere and a culture of zero tolerance around discrimination and abuse. A good place to start is to ensure that we centre and accept leadership from the women who can teach feminism the most. Trans women and sex workers should be marching at the front of the feminist bloc.

Alison Phipps is Director of Gender Studies at the University of Sussex. You can follow her on Twitter at @alisonphipps

* of course, there are many trans people working in the sex industry so the separation of these two categories is in some ways arbitrary.

** intersex people, of course, call this term into question – which could be the subject of a whole article in itself.

 

Alison Phipps: This blog presents some examples of my academic and non-academic writing, on issues around gendered bodies, politics, and contemporary sexual cultures. I’m currently Director of Gender Studies at Sussex University and my work encompasses sexual violence, sex work, childbirth, breastfeeding, and abortion. I also have a specific interest in ‘lad cultures’ amongst students and how they are shaped by both neoliberal themes and postfeminist sexual tropes. You can find me on Twitter at @alisonphipps and you can download some of my academic papers at http://sussex.academia.edu/AlisonPhipps.