DEBATING GENDER AND GENDER ABOLITION An overview of theories found in radical and trans-inclusionary feminisms
Claire Stenhouse 100944899 WGST 1909 A02 March 26th, 2014
One of the most controversial topics within feminist communities today is gender. The textbook definition of gender is “the state of being male or female (typically used with reference to social and cultural differences rather than biological ones) 1,” but a feminist understanding of gender includes both performance of gender roles and personal identity. And any feminist, regardless of ideology or background, will agree that forced gender roles are inherently harmful. So why the disagreement? Why is it that different feminists tackle the problem of gender with such a wide variety of methods, and how can one feminist’s personal beliefs end up being so problematic to others? This paper discusses two popular, yet highly contrasting feminist views of gender- radical feminism and trans-inclusionary feminism-and how different theories concerning gender abolition and proliferation, misogyny and transphobia, and sex and biology create unique stances on the problem of gender. Radical feminism- the name derived from the late Latin term ‘radicalis,’ meaning ‘from the root’is a feminist ideology that does exactly as the name suggests: fights the many problems women face by attacking the root cause, which could be patriarchy, white supremacy, capitalism, and yes, gender. Radical feminists believe that gender is “a social structural phenomenon” that “acts as a hierarchal division embedded in both social institutions and social practices” (Ingraham 2004). Radical feminists believe that gender is nothing more than gender roles, which are not only harmful to everyone, but systematically place females- who are given roles of subordination and passivity- below their male counterparts. They believe that “people are not only distinguished on the basis but discriminated against and harmed by the use of gender categories” (Morgan 1985). In order to tackle the problems that the hierarchy of gender creates, radical feminists seek to abolish gender completely since “because our lived experience of gender in patriarchy involves such multifarious domains and is such a systemic
1: definition found at www.oxforddictionaries.com
infection in our lives, gender must not only be deinstitutionalized, it must be abandoned altogetherâ€?
1: definition found at www.oxforddictionaries.com
(Morgan 1985). Since radical feminism is built not on gender equality, but female liberation, which they argue can only be brought upon by bringing down all oppressive institutions, the abolition of gender is an integral part of their agenda. Not surprisingly, trans-inclusionary feminists also believe in the harm of gender roles, as their movement is based on protecting the right to abandon given genders, or even sexes, assigned to a person at birth. However, unlike radical feminists, they believe that gender is not just gender roles, but also a personal identity, and that that identity is extremely important in today’s society. They argue that “an understanding of gender as a social construct or as performance does not resonate with trans people’s experiences” (Sjoberg 2012). In fact, trans-inclusionary feminists view gender identity as a crucial part of one’s personal identity and are “ultimately concerned with how people view themselves… individual’s inner feelings impact how they present themselves as a man or woman, or another gender” (Sjoberg 2012). Since gender identity is so important to trans-inclusionary feminists, it makes sense that they consider radical views as a direct attack on a person’s personal identity. They insist that “the desire to move to a point where ‘gender doesn’t matter’… through the abolition of gender (one of the goals of many versions of feminist politics) has wide appeal and credibility (including within the transgendered community), but is too often used as an excuse either to criticize or deny the experiences of transgendered people” (Macdonald 1998). One of the ways that trans-inclusionary feminists seek to destroy gender roles is through gender proliferation, or “to expand gender from only two categories into infinite gender expressions.” 2 In previous decades, the word ‘trans’ was applied to a person who had switched from one normalized gender to another- for example, male-to-female or female-to male. Now, it is used to describe anyone whose gender identity does not match up with the gender they were assigned at birth. This includes identities such as agender, bigender, polygender, genderqueer, third gender, and many more identities
2: definition found at www.colorado.edu/sasc/sub-scribe_s07/scholarship/cisn/request.doc
that fall under the category of ‘nonbinary.’ Trans-inclusionary feminists fight for the recognition of these identities as valid since they help people feel comfortable with themselves, and seek “not to transcend power relations, but to multiply their various configurations to that the juridical model of power as oppression and regulation is no longer hegemonic” (Butler 1985). Radical feminists do not like gender proliferation, and view it as merely an expansion of harmful gender roles, as each new gender identity created comes with its own gender laws and limits. An anonymous article found in Fuse magazine, written under the pseudonym Folie à Deux, claims that “many theorists who have called for the infinite proliferation of gender also fall into the trap of liberalism.” The author states that those who advocate for gender proliferation know “full well the intensity and persistence of gendered violence, the murderous policing of the boundaries around the gender binary… [they] increase and encourage the complex performance of myriad genders and gender identities…Such measures are essentially nothing more than liberatory individualism (‘express who you really are, however you want to!’” (Anonymous) Radical feminists do not wish to weaken the power imbalance through the destruction of hegemony, but abolish it all together. Another extremely controversial topic within these two communities is biology, and how it relates to gender. For as long as people have fought for their right to form non-normative gender identities, the saying ‘sex is what’s between your legs, gender is what’s between your ears’ has been widespread. But both trans-inclusionary feminists and radical feminists have begun to move past that way of thinking, and have differing opinions as to whether sex or gender is more important, and how favouring one over the other may lead to transphobia or misogyny. In the beginning, “gender was introduced as a concept to supplement sex, not replace it” (Nicholson 1994). However, trans-inclusionary feminists argue that gender should replace sex in many ways, due to the fact that genitalia is not more important than the thoughts, feelings, and experiences
that help shape a person’s identity. They also agree that putting biological sex over gender is usually transphobic- one case of this being ‘the cotton ceiling.’ This theory works “to explain the experiences that queer trans women have with simultaneous social inclusion and sexual exclusion within female spaces.” 3 In other words, the cotton ceiling refers to lesbian women who refuse to participate in sexual or even romantic acts with pre-op trans women. Trans-inclusionary feminists believe that this attitude promotes the idea that trans people are nothing more than their genitalia, and that trans women are viewed as real women until enter bedroom, where their ‘real women’ status goes out the window. Many trans-inclusionary feminists abhor the concept of ‘sex-based’ attraction because it places so much worth on genitalia and constantly neglects nonbinary individuals. On a popular blog that deals with gender issues, the author writes that “there is not a single term that accounts for nonbinaries except for pansexual. Lesbian, gay, and bi especially are based on a binary gender system and these phrases completely erase nonbinaries in every way and form.” The author makes their opinion on the cotton ceiling very clear when they write “if you’re attracted to women, then that means you’re attracted to women. Not vaginas. Not tits. Being attracted to individuals with vaginas and tits is fine… that’s just not conceptual sexuality. That’s physical based sexual orientation and a huge component of the cis LGB zone… and really physical sexuality in and of itself is so heavily based on the poorly structured terminology of male and female that the whole set of terms are likely a giant clusterfuck of cissexism.”4 This brings us to the next concept concerning sex vs. gender: the trans-inclusionary belief that biological sex, much like gender, is a construct. This ideology is built on the malleability and variety of human bodies, and though “we often think of sex as fixed: people are ‘male’ and ‘female… ambiguity and the potential to change sexes means that bodies are not fixed (sexually or otherwise)” (Sjoberg 2012). Two doctorate students at University of British Columbia, Joy Johnson and Robin Repta, focused
3: definition found at http://www.divamag.co.uk/category/comment/the-cotton-ceiling-trans-sexual-politics.aspx 4: the blog mentioned is titled “genderbitch.” AN- the author does not condone any material found on this blog.
their research on this topic, and argued that “sex is a biological construct that encapsulates the anatomical, physiological, genetic, and hormonal variation that exists in species.” They stated that “our knowledge and understanding of sex has changed…For example, previous conceptions of sex assumed chromosomal arrangements XX and XY as the typical makeup for women and men, respectively, while we now understand that chromosomal configurations XXX, XXY, XYY, and XO exist, as well as XX males and XY females… Within and across sex categories, variation also exists with respect to metabolic rate, bone size, brain function, stress response, and lung capacity. This variation cannot be captured by simple “male” and “female” designations, which is why it is important to think about sex in more than binary term” (Johnson and Repta 2012). Both in regards to transphobic practices that limit trans individuals to their genitalia, and the new concept of sex being more than a binary itself, transinclusionary feminists have come to the conclusion that gender is more important than sex, and should be treated of such. Trans-inclusionary feminists suggest that “taking trans-theory seriously might encourage rethinking the role of the biological in a way that acknowledges the strong role that it plays in some gender narratives (particularly those of many trans-people) without falling into the traps of essentialism” (Sjoberg 2012). This includes rethinking usages of common sexed terms. For example, ‘people with uteruses’ could replace ‘women’ when discussing reproductive rights, as men can get pregnant too, and ‘female’ and ‘male’ as they are used to describe genitalia should be eliminated altogether. Radical feminists have a problem with all of this, as they believe that biological sex as it is commonly known (male-female-intersex) is not only a biological fact, but essential in reaching their goal of female liberation. They also have problems with many of the trans-inclusionary feminist beliefs discussed in the previous paragraph. First of all, radical feminists are highly critical of the concept of the ‘cotton ceiling.’ They argue that sex-based attraction is relevant. No one should have to examine why or why not they aren’t attracted to a certain genitalia, and suggesting that a person should have sex with
someone they don’t want to in order to be more trans-inclusionary promotes rape culture. They state that it not only could be harmful to survivors who may be triggered by a certain genitalia, but also normalizes the idea of ‘corrective rape.’ This is true especially in the case of lesbians, who are already told constantly that they can be fixed or cured by having sex with someone with a penis. Radical feminists find the concept blatantly lesbophobic in other ways, as well. The ‘cotton ceiling’ doesn’t mention straight women or gay men who refuse to have sex with biologically female people, or straight men who refuse to have sex with biologically male people, but instead attacks lesbians for choosing not to engage in sexual activity with a penis. Lesbianism is a fundamental part of radical feminism, as lesbians are not only an oppressed group of women, but lesbian supremacy, the act of fully separating oneself from males in every way, is considered highly revolutionary. Therefore, they do not condone the phallocentrism or lesbophobia they find in these theories. Radical feminists also believe that trans activism continually puts male bodied people above female bodied people- just like the patriarchy. Furthermore, biological sex is an essential part of radical feminist ideologies. Radical feminists are sometimes referred to as ‘vagina feminists’ in their attack against sex-based rather than gender-based oppression. Radical feminists refuse to drop the word female from their vocabulary, as the ability to talk freely about their anatomy is extremely liberating. In a world where the word ‘vagina’ is taboo, periods are disgusting and tampons must be hidden, 3 million girls undergo female genital mutilation per year 5, and 13 year olds have begun asking for labiaplasties 6, radical feminists say that having a place to discuss female anatomy is mandatory, and saying otherwise, reducing women to ‘people with vaginas,’ or silencing women is misogynistic. Radical feminist’s primary mandate says it all- female liberation. After all, how could male supremacy be defeated where males are the ones being defended and policing vocabulary? Radical feminists insist that trans-activism “demonstrates that men have the
5: statistics found on http://www.unicef.org/publications/index_29994.html 6: information found on http://www.abc.net.au/worldtoday/content/2012/s3603589.htm
power to define what ‘woman’ is, and that women are powerless to define their sex outside of male definitions” (Sweeney 2004). Radical feminists argue that there is a lot more to being a woman than just deciding to identify as such, and that a male hyper-performing femininity in order to pass as a woman is actually an insult to the experiences of women-born-women and a perpetuation of the idea that gender stereotypes are the only thing that defines what a woman is. They believe that female and male socialization must also be taken into consideration. Linda Nicholson writes: “we are women who are born with female chromosomes and anatomy, and that whether or not we are socialized to be so-called women, patriarchy has treated and will treat us like women. Transsexuals have not had this same history. No man can have the history of being born and located in this culture as a woman. He can have the history of wishing to be a woman and of acting, but this gender experience is that of a transsexual, not of a woman” (Nicholson 1994).7 Many radical feminists define women as “those who do not have a penis; those who do not have power” (Lugones 2007) and argue that males, regardless of gender identity, will always have the power in a patriarchal society. Radical feminists argue that females do not have ‘cis privilege’ because it is impossible to be privileged on the same axis of that which a person is oppressed. They consider trans activism’s claim that gender oppression is more important than sex-based oppression merely a case of the Opression Olympics 8, and trying “to place trans women as the ‘deserving’ minority by exerting pressure on feminists to incorporate and embrace trans women into women only spaces” (Sweeney 2004) is highly problematic. The concept of ‘women’s only spaces’ has caused much debate within feminist communities. For radical feminists, “the notion that trans women would assume that they may enter a women-only space demonstrates the inability of trans women to empathize with women’s experiences” (Sweeney 2004). They argue that “If male-to-constructed- female transsexuals had any comprehension of what it
7: this quote misgenders male-to-female transgender individuals. The author does not approve of purposeful misgendering in any way, shape, or form. 8: defined as “a term used when two or more groups compete to prove themselves more oppressed than eachother” at http://geekfeminism.wikia.com/wiki/Oppression_Olympics
is to be a woman in patriarchy, they would have understood what a horrific violation it would be for a woman to be confronted with a strange naked biological male, penis and all” (Sweeney 2004). Radical feminists also argue that the entire debate “of transphobia regarding women-only spaces is strategically manipulated in trans-activists’ campaign to get ‘gender identity’ discrimination recognized as a human right’s violation. As a result, the right of women to autonomous space is perceived as an unwarranted barrier to the legitimacy of transwomen’s gender identity” (Sweeney 2004). A more radical concept is that “the loss of male genitalia, or the external appearance of maleness, ‘does not mean that they [transsexuals] have lost their ability to penetrate women—women’s mind, women’s space, women’s sexuality’” (Sweeney 2004). Trans-inclusionary feminists agree that this way of thinking is completely transphobic. Their ideology lies on viewing trans women as women- and therefore, there is no reason why they wouldn’t be allowed in a woman’s space. Trans-inclusionary feminists also believe that sex-based oppression cannot compare to the oppression trans individuals face. A study done shows that 45% of all hate murders in America in 2011 were trans women, and people who are transgender are ‘28% more likely to experience physical violence than those who are gender normative.’ 9 Trans feminists argue that trans women are also “well acquainted with the mechanics of sexism and sexual violence to which they may fall pray, precisely because trans women are recognized as women” (Sjoberg 2012), and that this proves that trans women are less privileged than cis woman due to a combination of prejudice for being women and prejudice for being non gender normative. 10 These are just a few of the many topics that radical feminists and trans-inclusionary feminists cannot seem to agree on. And will they ever? Can the quest for female liberation and trans rights ever come together in order to uphold the rights of all? Or are trans activism and female liberation doomed to clash forever?
10: known as transmisogyny
The facts are these 1) that those fighting for female liberation refuse to accept the harmful construct of gender and do not accept trans women who perform stereotypically feminine gender roles and call it ‘womanhood,’ or invade and silence women, and 2) that those fighting for gender equality do not accept the idea of sex-based oppression being more important than gender-based oppression and refuse to take part in the feminist movements upheld by transphobic women. Radical feminists and trans-inclusionary feminists want the same thing: a world free from oppressive and confining gender roles. After all, “there is not a feminist in the world who wouldn’t emphatically argue that gender roles are harmful to both men and women” (Morgan 1985). But the difference will always be in the how. Trans-inclusionary feminists “challenge their appropriation of femininity and masculinity, and thus, the dynamics of subordination and dominance” (Sweeney 2014), and radical feminists insist that “we cannot step outside of gender, wish or will it away… the overcoming of gender will be the revolution” (Sweeney 2014). Both versions of feminism discussed in this paper have good intentions, and only time will tell which method will be most effective in dissolving the gender roles that hold each and every person in place. An understanding of the ways radical feminist and trans-inclusionary feminist theories differ and contrast is crucial in understanding the framework of gender discussions in feminist circles as they exist today.
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