Radical feminism or not, 5 years later

It’s been almost five years since I opened my first blog, Undercover Punk, in February of 2009. I have always written about feminism, but in the beginning, I didn’t even know that “radical feminism” was a thing. I just knew that my feminism was more “radical” than, like, everyone else’s. I was stumbling along, throwing half-baked rants at the wall, trying to make sense of men’s destructive behavior and the gender backlash. The process of sharing your thoughts with the world is not an easy one, even if done anonymously. In the past five years, some of my most deeply held beliefs have been shaken to the core, some ideas discarded, others adopted. I’ve made both friends and enemies…and maybe even a few frenemies. No joke. I have been applauded and maligned. I’ve been written about by other people; you can google me– the good, the bad, and the ugly. It’s been a wild ride and then some, that’s for sure.

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The subtitle to Undercover Punk was “Got AGENCY? Create. New. Values.” Sounds like a motto for #chooseychoice feminism, right? That sentiment no longer holds any feminist meaning for me. Not in terms of politics anyway. I think it’s all very nice and important for people to use their agency to express their values whenever possible. The proverbial Golden Rule is one of my favorites. But I cringe reading my old posts because I no longer think personal choices are politically interesting or relevant. Focusing on the “choices” women make necessarily undermines power analysis; power analysis that is fundamental to all class-based political theory including feminism.^1

I started writing criticism of political lesbianism on this blog a couple of years ago after I heard rumblings of the idea’s resurgence. I have been studying feminism for years, so it wasn’t my first exposure to the theory. In fact, when I initially encountered “lesbian feminism,”^2 it didn’t seem like such a bad idea. I even embraced it for a while and argued that rejection of males in one’s intimate life was a liberatory act. But this is a lifestyle-based argument, not a political one. No one can escape their own oppression, or effectively challenge the oppression of others, merely by making “better choices.” I know that now.^3

I don’t think “Leaning In” to corporate America (nor to a certain kind of sexuality: political lesbianism) is going to revolutionize the social status of women any more than Barack Obama’s presidency has revolutionized the social status of black people in America. We need a lot more than a few successful tokens demonstrating their sweet agency. We need strong structural analysis that will help us understand, articulate, and ultimately deconstruct the complexities of women’s oppression.

People ask me all the time if I’m a “radical feminist.” Maybe I am, maybe I’m not. I don’t know, if I ever did, what being a “radical feminist” requires. I am both pigeon-holed as a “radical feminist” by people who disagree with my gender criticism, and denied the same political identity by women who find my ideas too accommodating to males. I can be and not be a “radical feminist” on the same day to different people. Talk about making your head spin! Fortunately, being a “radical feminist” is not something I care about fighting over. Suit yourself, really.

When people ask me whether I’m a “radical feminist,” I am certain that don’t want to be associated with the term as a kind of (internet?) political I-dentity warfare. Because I am also certain that being a “radical feminist” does not require ignoring or denying the diversity of thought expressed by the foremothers of the “radical feminist” tradition. An increasing reliance on a “radical feminist” identity results in oversimplifying the ideology we claim to represent, but worse, it buries conflicts and silences criticism. The gist is that you can only be a Real Radical Feminist if you agree with the specific ideas currently in vogue. For example, male essentialism is very popular among women identifying as “radical feminists” on the internet. That’s fine, but it is intellectually dishonest to present this as The One True Radical Feminist Way. Andrea Dworkin wrote a scathing critique of biological superiority in feminist thought.^4 If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend taking the time to do so. Even her preamble is interesting. But presenting certain conclusions as foregone– such as the biological inevitability of male dominance, or that all heterosexual sex is rape– when these ideas were not universally accepted in the first place is historical revisionism. And nobody likes that except The Man.

In addition to being comforting, I think many people find political identities such as “radical feminist” so useful because they are discussion shortcuts and thought stoppers. If you are on the defense, you can hide behind the political identity, throwing it down as an explanation for your views: “I think xyz because I’m a radical feminist!” No more questions!^5 On the other hand, the careful introduction of a political identity question can force a conversational redirection while participants confirm, deny, or debate the political identity; effectively derailing the issue under examination. Another thought-stopper tactic is to leverage your opponent’s political identity to demand an explanation for an unrelated person’s behavior or statements. Now, instead of debating the issue, something entirely new is put on the table– just because the two parties share a political identity. Using political identities as discussion shortcuts may be convenient, but it is also counter productive to intellectual development and political understanding.

I sincerely do not care if other people consider me a “radical feminist”… as long as they don’t try to make me responsible for all “radical feminist” I-dentified people everywhere. Five years after I typed up my first post as anonymous blogger, I write almost exclusively about power analysis of gender and breaking down the double-speak of identity politics. What I write today wouldn’t make any sense in a different era– cis wasn’t a term used to explain gendered oppression and “gender identity” wasn’t a legally protected characteristic. Is my writing in the tradition of “radical feminism?” It doesn’t matter. It just needs to be done.

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https://revolutionarycombustion.wordpress.com/feminism-is/

2 The possibility of “lesbian feminism” and “political lesbianism” being different trains has occurred to me, but I don’t think that distinction matters here.

3 Socialization Matters: Why Identity Libertarianism is Failed Politics http://liberationcollective.wordpress.com/2013/05/20/socialization-matters-why-identity-libertarianism-is-failed-politics/

4 Biological Superiority: The World’s Most Dangerous and Deadly Idea http://www.nostatusquo.com/ACLU/dworkin/WarZoneChaptIIID.html

5 Wait. Wait a minute! Are you, like, a “Mary Daly” radical feminist? Or are you more of a “Catharine MacKinnon” radical feminist? Or maybe a “Sheila Jeffreys” radfem? Can you please clarify?

Femininity, revisited

Perhaps the greatest challenge to thinking women is the challenge to move from the desire for safety and approval to the most “unfeminine” quality of all — that of intellectual arrogance, the supreme hubris which asserts to itself the right to reorder the world.

— Gerda Lerner

What we ought to see in the agonies of puberty is the result of the conditioning that maims the female personality in creating the feminine.

— Germaine Greer

On my old blog, I had a series of posts entitled “In defense of femininity.” This was my round-about way of saying that it’s not sinful or necessarily anti-feminist to express certain forms of socially defined ‘femininity.’ It’s undeniably true that the constructs of femininity as a whole are central to female oppression.  I understand that it’s painful to think about the social roles and costumes used to constrain women’s behavior and define ‘woman’ as a particular kind of social actor. It may be easier to dismiss the whole mess and declare yourself radical. But this emotional short cut is not helpful to women. Total renunciation of all feminine characteristics is an oversimplification of a very complex phenomenon. It is theoretically lazy, but moreover, it is politically ineffective because it doesn’t offer women practical, real-life instruction.

Feminism should give us analytical tools that we can apply to own lives. In order to do this, we cannot treat femininity as a monolithic concept, experience, or alleged choice. Being a ‘woman’ is the cumulative effects and embodied experience of being molded by an entire lifetime of feminine social conditioning. It saturates every aspect of life under patriarchy. Expectations of feminine behavior and appearance taint every relationship, every social interaction, every professional opportunity, every fear, and every desire of humans socialized as girls from birth. It’s in our speech patterns, our hand writing, our laughter, our mannerisms and movements. It’s emotionally difficult to unpack. But this is a challenge we cannot turn away from. The extent to which female humans are conditioned to embody and internalize various forms of ‘femininity’ is exactly how seriously we must take feminist analysis of these practices. It will require much more than dismissing women for wearing mascara and leggings or for wanting to be nice and resolve conflict. Feminism should provide women with criteria that we can use to evaluate, form judgments, and make decisions about the potential value of ‘feminine’ conduct. One of feminism’s tasks is to interrogate the unique harms and benefits flowing from each and every different manifestation of ‘femininity.’

For example, it is undeniable that high heeled shoes are both uncomfortable and the direct cause of many wearers’ physical deformities. High heels should be avoided and criticized accordingly. It is objectively provable that certain “beauty” products contain dangerous carcinogens— especially when applied directly to our skin, lips, eyes, and scalp day after day, month after month, year after year. It is appropriate to criticize and resist the social coercion placed on women to wear make-up because it comes at our great personal expense. Sheila Jeffrey’s 2005 book Beauty and Misogyny offers an incisive critique of many practices associated with the “beauty” industry, from lipstick to labioplpasty. I highly recommend it.

By comparison, the color pink is objectively harmless. It is not pink itself, but the cultural association with women and femininity, that is dangerous because it marks the wearer as weak and, therefore, as a potential target for sexual harassment or attack. Women are also pressured to identify with the color pink. We are strongly encouraged to wrap ourselves in pink with everything from our underwear to our technological devices. But it doesn’t make pink bad; it is the judgment that is incorrect. Similarly, wearing long hair is no more or less healthy than short hair, but within our deeply gendered context, long hair is associated with people who are fussy, soft, dramatic, and emotional. In other words, it is associated with women. But we should not give this specious association very much importance for we know it is unsupported by reason and because it attaches to things with alternate, objective benefits.

Women’s collective health and understanding of femininity-as-oppression requires that feminist analysis be able to differentiate between physical versus cultural harms, and inevitable harms from conditional ones.

We can make a similar evaluation of the behavioral characteristics associated with femininity. This dissection is even more complicated and difficult because so-called feminine “virtues” have been systematically leveraged against women; they have been used to guilt women into subsuming our own needs and desires in the service of others. Girls are groomed from birth to act in passive, supporting social roles as wives and mothers to men and children. Women have been shamed, manipulated, coerced, physically beaten, and even raped into feminine submission. We have been told that our capacity and willingness to comply is a direct reflection of our worth as human beings. We have been told that ‘femininity’ is as natural as our genitals; femininity is divinely ordered; it is what humans in female bodies are born to Do and Be. Hooray!

Indeed, this is precisely why feminism rejects gender essentialism. That gendered social roles are the primary basis of female oppression is foundational to feminist theory. Femininity is not female destiny. In the words of Robin Morgan, “Women are not inherently passive or peaceful. We’re not inherently anything but human.” At the same time, and without conceding anything to the falsification of femininity, I don’t see why feminism– radical or otherwise– requires us to reject every little thing that has been culturally coded ‘for women.’ Again, I think feminism’s task here is to carefully analyze the contextual harms versus the contextual benefits, using criteria that function as objectively as possible.

So, let’s ask precisely how and why feminine behavior serves to benefit third parties. For example, domestically care-taking a male (and his children) obviously benefits him in material, concrete ways. But what if a female is the intended beneficiary of that same ‘feminine’ nurturing and domestic care-taking? What if two women take turns caring for each other, domestically and emotionally, as partners? Does such a care-taking arrangement cease to count as ‘femininity’? Why or why not? Do all expressions of ‘femininity’ necessarily have a beneficiary? If so, are there rightful or noble beneficiaries versus fraudulent beneficiaries? And finally, what role if any does the female actor’s intent play in the execution of the so-perceived ‘feminine’ behavior?

Feminist analysis should further ask what harm is caused to women and what sacrifices are made by women who voluntarily express feminine characteristics as clocked by external observers. Do women lose time, energy, money, care, attention, respect, or something else? Are we spending limited or unlimited resources? How much is too much? Do we gain anything in return? If I sacrifice time, energy, and life force attending to other women’s problems, but seem to get nothing in return, should I stop? After how long? Should I ignore the emotional distress of other women because my desire/compulsion to attend to their feelings is–or might be– a result of my own feminine social conditioning from birth? Most importantly, what would happen to our relationships with other women if we refused to engage in any ‘feminine’ interactions with them? I shudder to think.

Women often have stronger, more fulfilling relationships with other women than they do with men– including husbands, sons, and fathers. Women have been conditioned to practice sympathetic emotionalism, sensitivity, nurturing, listening, and care-taking. I believe that women – both individually and collectively– can and do benefit from each others’ practice of certain forms of ‘femininity.’ By asserting this, I don’t intend to idealize all women or even to suggest that these feminine practices are always entirely conscious or voluntary. I am merely suggesting that some interpersonal skills coded as ‘feminine’ can and do help women build and sustain strong, mutually nourishing relationships with each other. These are relationships that we depend on for our personal survival in a patriarchal world. See Janice Raymond’s A Passion for Friends.

Further, behaviors-associated-with-women may also help us avoid the devastation of an anarchistic society where conditions are necessarily such that only the strongest survive. At the very least, some amount of care-taking– including the ability to nurture children– is critical to our survival as a species. Humans lack the claws, thick fur, and carnivorous fangs of many other mammals. Understanding this, humans must generate the skills to share resources and build community solidarity in order to sustain ourselves. This endeavor will require communication and cooperation with other humans over long periods of time (years). The social practices enabling dynamic, egalitarian communities should not be avoided or treated as less-than merely because they are associated with women, or with ‘femininity.’ We need these skills and these characteristics as much as we need some of the corresponding ‘masculine’-assigned characteristics such as independence, assertiveness, and rationality. These are human traits. We need all of them in different doses; their expression should not be restricted to certain kinds of people by virtue of  ‘gender’ or ‘sex.’ Nor should we evaluate them solely on that basis. Certain ‘feminine’ attributes– including sensitivity and diplomatic problem solving– hold value to us as humans despite our woman-hating, feminine-exploiting context.

To be both relevant and effective, feminist analysis should make a closer examination of the many diverse harms and benefits of ‘femininity.’  A deeper and more nuanced evaluation could help us better negotiate conflicts and express the full range of human emotion. And maybe we could do this without dismissing other women as weak, attention-seeking, or as capitulating to men.

Expressions of femininity are not sinful or necessarily anti-feminist if they do not result in harm to the self or others; and especially if they allow us to create stronger, more sustainable community bonds and personal connections with other women.

Privilege Blinders REPOST

Originally published DECEMBER 6, 2010 (edited slightly to remove tangential content).

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I am going to talk briefly about what I call the “Privilege Blinders” method of discrediting other people’s arguments and opinions. It’s closely related to Oppression Olympics, where social I-dentities are vigilantly tracked for the purpose of evaluating the speaker’s perceived “qualifications” (by virtue of personal experience or I-dentity) to discuss particular topics. Both Oppression Olympics and Privilege Blinders fail to analyze the substance/content/meaning of the speaker’s words. Instead, legitimacy is determined by the speaker’s apparent location on the social hierarchy. These techniques are conversation stoppers. Which makes them very dangerous.

And yes, Privilege Blinders work just like beer goggles. When intoxicated with privilege, one cannot understand why she is sooooo Very Wrong about [insert contested socio-political issue here]. I am using the term BLINDERS in the cognitive sense; it (allegedly) prevents one from comprehending something important about social dynamics.

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BEER GOGGLES!!

Privilege Blinders is a persuasion technique often encountered in political discussions. It can be leveraged to discredit anyone who is positioned “above” you on any social hierarchy when you don’t like what they’re saying. Instead of identifying logical or reality-based inconsistencies in their assumptions, reasoning, or conclusion(s); you can simply accuse them of wearing Privilege Blinders and, viola!, you have  effectively discredited the other party’s entire argument. Because Privilege Blinders render the privileged person “blind” to a critical something (we’re usually not told exactly what–red flag!). This something is entirely obvious and/or self-evident from another, presumably “lower,” perspective on the social hierarchy. If not for Privilege Blinders, the other party would clearly agree with your Truth and submit to your righteousness. Further, alleging Privilege Blinders insinuates that the wearer is both insensitive and arrogant for not realizing that her assertions are flawed (because they are dependent on her specific hierarchical positioning).

You may notice that the Privilege Blinders defense is often used against women, who are more vulnerable (as a class) to accusations of emotional insensitivity than men are. Guilt tripping. Check out the second paragraph of Marilyn Frye’s Oppression essay. 

Privilege Blinders is, indeed, a favored technique of post-modern genderists. Their ideologies are completely unsustainable, but instead of confronting actual problems, they will greedily pounce on the opportunity to attack their detractors’ (personal characteristics). Trans sympathizers have a tendency to use the Privilege Blinders defense at every possible opportunity. They habitually instruct others to edumacate themselves on Trans 101 because cis-privilege is getting in the way. The suggestion is that if we simply took off those Privilege Blinders, we’d either suddenly comprehend their “logic” OR we’d just stop being so callously insensitive and start acting like Stereotypical Women™ who appropriately, femininely, STFU whenever someone’s precious feeeeelings are hurt! Either way, it’s a WIN!

See how that works? Yeah, it’s pretty effective. Unless you know what you’re dealing with. And I’m tired of it.

Stick to the issues, be specific, or go home. Thank you.

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Women are not like men.

Women are not like men. Even when women do terrible things, they don’t do them like men do them. Because women can’t. It isn’t possible. Women’s behavior may remind us of men’s behavior, but it is never the same as men’s behavior. Because we live under a system of pervasive institutionalized male supremacy.

To believe that certain women are just as bad as men is to have misunderstood the entire basis of feminism as a form of class-based political analysis and critique. Feminism is concerned with how females, as a class, are oppressed by males, as a class, on the basis of sex. From a feminist perspective, then, the power dynamics between males and females are qualitatively, significantly different than the power dynamics between females. Between females, the cross-sex hierarchy of sexualized politics simply does not exist. Yet between males and females, the politics of sex is always present. It is present regardless of financial status, race, culture, and/or sexuality. So even when women mimic the behavior of men under patriarchy, women are not like men and cannot achieve the same results.

What I’m arguing here, by analogy, is a fairly straightforward application of the fallacy of reverse racism principle: just as it isn’t possible for people of color to oppress white people (or their fellow people of color) in the way that white people can oppress people of color; it is not possible for women to oppress men (or other women) in the way that men oppress women. Women simply do not have the necessary sex-based social capital to do so. Women can not be like men in that way.

“Rape is a conscious process of intimidation by which all men keep all women in a state of fear.”

Susan Brownmiller, Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape, 1975

When a woman rapes, she does not have the power to rape like a man does. She does not have a penis with which to penetrate her victim. She cannot impregnate her victim. She does not wield the sexualized power that the penis represents in terms of male violence and global domination. She does not have the hegemony of male supremacy with which to intimidate her victim and to protect herself. She may have some protection, she may have some power, she may be shielded in other ways– even in ways that reflect her social location as a woman— but she does not have the institutional advantages that simply being male under patriarchy affords male sexual predators (see link).

When a woman uses her position within the family to control or abuse her family members, she does not abuse them like men do. Her power is always predicated on, even continuously dependent upon, her relation to a higher ranking male. Female roles within heterosexual family structures are always, by design, limited by sexual politics. Even in very large families, women’s range of influence is ultimately constrained by the patriarchal mandate on domestic privacy that demands separation between public and private social affairs. This zone of privacy acts as a built-in check on the power that females may exercise. Male authority, by contrast, relies heavily on non-familial social affirmation in the form of public associations with other men. Men routinely grant the benefit of the doubt to other men in the wider community. Men grant each other unearned authority and control over women strictly because of their shared maleness. As a result, men’s roles as the natural guardians and arbiters of all family-based (i.e., heterosexual) relations are both created and reinforced by this continuous feedback loop.

Women can be horribly destructive. Women can destroy other women. Individual women may accumulate certain kinds of social power on the basis of economic class, race, culture, or professional standing. Individual women can even destroy individual men. But women, as individuals, can only do so much damage.

Feminists who want to help women as a class must not become preoccupied with the failings of individual women; we must not spend our time condemning and making examples of women we perceive as handmaidens. When we spend our energy hunting down handmaidens and being self-righteously indignant about the awful behavior of handmaidens, we are distracted from our primary purpose as feminists. Because when all the Bad Women have finally been defanged and their wreckage cleared away, what are we left with? What have we accomplished as feminists? What have we accomplished for women? If institutionalized male supremacy rages on unfazed and we are still swimming upstream against the tide of inherently unequal sexualized politics, I don’t think we have accomplished much more than putting out one of a million tiny forest fires. We have not touched the inferno of patriarchy itself.

Feminism is a form of class-based political analysis. It asks questions about the big picture. It is concerned with how females, as a class, are oppressed by males, as a class. Feminists must stay focused on women as a class in order to help women as a class.

When a woman yells at you on the internet or undermines you in person, it’s not like sexual harassment from your male boss. It’s not like the verbal rage of your abusive father. It may trigger those memories, but it is not the same. She is not like a man. It is not sex-based oppression. If a woman has any power over you at all it is not because she is a woman, but in spite of her status as a woman. Feminists who want to help women as a class know that women can never treat other women like men treat women. Because women don’t have sex-based power over other women.

Smith College to be confronted by a trans test case

Well, I’m back on the tumblr.

For a singular purpose.* To respond to this:

Which I did here. And I’m not done.

Let’s review the original intent for the creation of Smith College. In Sophia Smith’s own words, her will bequest was for:

the establishment and maintenance of an Institution for the higher education of young women, with the design to furnish for my own sex means and facilities for education equal to those which are afforded now in our Colleges to young men.

(See: http://www.smith.edu/about_sophia.php).

Unfortunately, women are still in need of these safe harbors from male entitlement and classroom domination. Women remain significantly underrepresented in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math. Despite what Larry Summers might think, it’s not because women are stupid. It’s because of “…environmental and social barriers – including stereotypes, gender bias and the climate of science and engineering departments in colleges and universities – that continue to block women’s participation…”

As a result, single sexed educational institutions continue to offer critically valuable and unique opportunities to young women:

At Smith, there are no stereotypes about what women should do, but there are unlimited expectations about what women can do. Smith is a great training ground for careers that might still be considered non-traditional for women.

(See: http://www.smith.edu/about_whyissmith.php).

One does not become a woman by complying with the antiquated sex-based stereotypes that Smith College was established for the express purpose of combatting. A male does not become a female by identifying with, nor by expressing, what is traditionally understood as “femininity.”

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again:

Traits stereotypically assigned to females – such as care-taking, emotionalism, and weakness – have served as sufficient [] justification for women’s exclusion from employment, participation in government, and many other critical social functions.  Archaic stereotypes are directly responsible for the denial of female credibility and intellectual authority, in addition to causing the historical marginalization of females, lower social status vis-à-vis males, and lack of power to engage equally with males. Even where law has evolved to formally prohibit sex-stereotyping; women continue to suffer from the lingering effects of sexist ideologies about female inferiority. So although we support every individual’s right to freely express their gender identity, it is absolutely critical that [we] not confuse “feminine expression” with [sex].

Gender essentialism is NOT OK. It is regressive and it is counter-productive to female equality. I will never accept that gender expression is what fundamentally constitutes being a “woman.”

Please reblog, please tweet, please help make some anti-gender-essentialism NOISE about this attack on Smith College.

*Yes, I’m a Smith College graduate. Class of 2000. Philosophy: a major I would not have had the confidence to undertake but for the supportive, woman-centered environment and the encouraging words of my female peers and professors. I would have been too intimidated by the arrogance of male intellectual authority in a co-ed environment. I was still scared to take all those upper level philosophy courses, but at least I knew that I wouldn’t have to endure endless mansplaining in the classroom from other students.

Lesbian and feminist are not synonyms, expanded

On a previous episode of “lesbian and feminist are not synonyms,” I argued that the term lesbian should not be appropriated by women who reject heterosexual relations on a political basis, rather than a sexual one.

First, let’s review again what a “political lesbian” is. There are various interpretations, but one of the clearest  definitions is given on page 5 of the 1981 Love your Enemy? booklet– which, incidentally, makes an interesting read despite the pdf’s poor quality:

We do think that all feminists can and should be political lesbians. Our definition of a political lesbian is a woman-identified woman who does not fuck men. It does not mean compulsory sexual activity with women.

This would be better described as political celibacy. A feminist does not magically transform into a lesbian merely by forbidding herself to fuck men. Lesbians do not reject relations of heterosexuality for primarily political reasons, but emotive-sexual ones. Lesbianism is not about negative feelings regarding men, but the presence of positive, sexually charged relations between two women. It means eroticism between females; there is absolutely nothing lesbian about a woman who does not desire sexual engagement with other women. Lesbianism and feminist politics may be mutually reinforcing for those of us who are both, but they are different ways of be-ing: one does not necessarily lead to the other and they are in no way dependent on each other. Correlation is not causation.

To say that a woman choosing celibacy for political reasons is very much like a lesbian flattens the meaning of lesbian. It screens the experience of being a lesbian through a sanitizing political filter, reducing it to an analysis of how lesbians are treated by non-lesbians. External political observers of lesbianism see that unpartnered heterosexual women and lesbians– both refusing the domestic protection of men, often living alone or co-habitating with other women– violate the same patriarchal mandate of compulsory female sexual interest in males. Hetero-non-compliant women of all kinds are frequently accused of being lesbians in effort to shame them into more male-pleasing, submissive behavior. A celibate heterosexual woman may therefore believe that she can demonstrate solidarity-by-appropriation with existing lesbians by naming herself as one. Her well-intentioned political goal is to ultimately improve the sovereignty of women-as-a-class by increasing the visibility of, and thereby destigmatizing, women who do not have significant romantic relationships with men. From this point of view, calling oneself a “political lesbian,” as opposed to a spinster or a celibate feminist, might seem perfectly reasonable. Yet this is not the most significant thing about being a lesbian.

To be a lesbian is substantially experienced by lesbians as an internal phenomenon characterized by desire. Lesbians are lesbians because of the erotic and romantic quality of emotion that another woman can inspire in us (even when these feelings prove to be unrequited). It is to crave her company; to be intoxicated with her mere existence. It is a longing for her to be intimately entwined with you and your life because you believe the intimacy you can spin with her will reach a place in you that nothing and no one else can. It’s the aching in your chest when things are unsettled with her; the lightness in your step when things are well. Thoughts of her constantly running in the Background. And it happens between two women– or from one woman towards another– even when everyone else around her is conspiring, often violently, to prevent it from happening. That is to be a lesbian. It is a private, deeply woven, emotional experience. It is not a fundamentally political decision. Lesbians are not lesbians because we are concerned about the social position of women as a class; nor because we love all women equally. We are lesbians because we are viscerally attracted to other individual women; because we crave the immersion in desire and intimacy that we experience with particular women.

This is where I part ways with lesbian feminists such as Sheila Jeffreys. From The Lesbian Heresy:

In lesbian feminist philosophy the theory and practice of lesbianism is constructed through feminism. Thus the feminist understanding that the personal is political means that all aspects of lesbian life will be examined to see how they fit with the feminist project. A fundamental insight of feminism is the importance of holism and connectedness. Everything affects everything else. No one lives in a vacuum and no part of our lives is really quite separate from any other.

I may agree that a “fundamental insight of feminism is the importance of holism and connectedness.” Disassociation and emotional compartmentalization are hallmarks of patriarchy. I may also agree that many brilliant insights have been borne of women’s willingness to focus our attention on the political patterns that imprint themselves on our personal lives. Feminism has given many women the emotional fortitude and intellectual tools to make unflinching, 360 degree assessments of sex-based relations as they play out in all aspects of our personal and professional lives. An analysis of connectedness is both fundamental and necessary to a feminist politic.

At the same time, this political analysis is neither fundamental nor necessary to lesbianism. For many of us, the “theory and practice of lesbianism” is notconstructed through feminism.” Lesbianism is not an invention of feminism. It existed before “feminism” was a political ideology and it will exist in the magical post-feminist utopia as well. Deconstructing, then reimagining that lesbians should conform to feminism’s agenda is politically indefensible. Feminism may not prescribe the meaning of lesbian, define who lesbians are, nor dictate how we should behave as Good Lesbians ™. Lesbians have every right to insist on a semantic distinction between the organic and spontaneous romance of lesbianism and women who, through political deliberation and commitment to political values, consciously strive to devote their primary energies to other women.

Janice Raymond acknowledges this difference in her book A Passion for Friends:

While my Lesbian feminist sensibility wants to affirm any woman’s womanist existence and affection for other women as Lesbian, my philosophical and ethical faculties say otherwise.26 Philosophically, I have the gnawing intuition that this affirmation is logically incorrect, morally shortchanging to women who are Lesbians, and patronizing to women who are not Lesbians. We need to be clear about the meaning of Lesbian as contrasted with Gyn/affection. 

Lesbianism is fundamentally different than other forms of gyn/affection because it specifically invokes erotic attractions and romantic attentions between women.

The word Lesbian, in this work, connotes a knowledge of and will to affirm Lesbian living. Many women do not choose to live Lesbian lives (including some lesbians). They may move in the world of female friendship, and their affinity and struggles for women may be often characterized by intense Gyn/affection. However, to use the word Lesbian in these cases is false inclusion. Women who are Lesbian must have a history of perceiving their Selves as such and must have the will to assume responsibility for Lesbian acts, erotic and political.  

It is critical that lesbians retain the autonomy to define what “lesbian” means. Under no circumstances should other people, including radical feminists, believe they have the authority to name lesbians or to take our name for themselves because they consider it politically expedient. A lesbian may surely be a feminist; but a woman may not, through feminism and platonic gyn/affection alone, rightfully describe herself as a lesbian.

The experience of being a lesbian is fundamentally organic and emotional, not political or rational. Layering a thick blanket of feminist politics over lesbianism dampens the passion inherent to our love and lives. The idea of “political lesbianism” callously disregards the authenticity of spontaneous, unstudied lesbian eroticism. “Political lesbianism” appropriates, through ignorance, the name for women who defy heterosexuality as an unintended consequence of their deeply felt desire for particular individuals– desire that exists irrespective of men and patriarchal disgust.  Feminism is politics; lesbianism is sexual attraction to women. Please do not be confused.

_________________________

Special thanks to No Anodyne for helping me develop my thoughts on this over many, many discussions.

Form and function

I’ve most often encountered the form/function distinction in architectural and design contexts, but I’m going to try my hand at applying it to feminist analysis.[i]

Words and meaning

I started thinking about this problem because of feminism’s struggle to retain control of certain words such as ‘woman’ and ‘gender.’ The truth is that feminists want these words to mean certain things. In the context of language, words are the form and meaning is the function. We can utter all kinds of words, but if they don’t mean what we want them to mean, then they don’t function as we intend them to. I may even like the sound or feel of certain words’ forms, but I need not be dependent on particular syllables or letter patterns to convey my ideas; I need to be able to convey the ideas themselves.

If my goal is effective political communication, I need to be able to express the complexity and nuance of how particular details and variables interact. I’m not a poet (!) so it doesn’t actually matter what language I’m using– English, Spanish, Swahili, or American Sign Language– as long as my listener can readily absorb the concepts that my words represent. Particularly because of what feminists and females have at stake in the context of political discourse, I believe that terminology must ultimately take a back seat to meaning.

Woman

Feminists are currently struggling with some very serious communication challenges as a direct result of the trans*/queer movement’s appropriation of terms central to our political analysis, including ‘woman’ and ‘gender.’ These words have become disconnected from their traditional meaning and no longer function, or communicate, in the way that feminists intend them to. For example, saying that “trans women are women” renders the characteristic experience of girlhood– and all of the associated involuntary feminine grooming that it entails– unnecessary to understanding what a ‘woman’ is. It also negates the assumption that to be a ‘woman’ is an immutable characteristic, thereby opening the class ‘woman’ to anyone who wishes to join it (i.e., non-women/men).

If “trans women are women” then the condition of being a ‘woman’ no longer refers to the (1) lifelong from birth and (2) involuntary process of being exposed to and internalizing female-sex-specific social experiences. Instead, ‘woman’ now refers to a potentially temporary and/or freely chosen way of interacting with the world.  This meaning implies that to be a ‘woman’ is created out of the mere belief that one is a ‘woman’ (identity) and/or created when one appears to others to be in the form of a ‘woman’ (external perception, per-form-ance). Using this meaning of ‘woman,’ a drag queen who passes on Saturday night may be no less a woman than I am in that moment.

When we agree that “trans women are women,” we agree that (1) girlhood and (2) lack of choice about being named and treated as a ‘girl’ from birth are not relevant to the meaning of the term ‘woman;’ these experiential elements are deliberately removed from  future communications about ‘women.’ This shift in meaning causes the word ‘woman’ to function differently. It renders it more difficult for feminists to articulate and communicate the mechanics of women’s class-based oppression as an unbroken chain of sex-specific treatment that saturates the social trajectory of our lives with no beginning and no end.

Gender

Another excellent example of modifying semantic function can be demonstrated with the term ‘gender.’ Feminists have historically used this word to describe the normative social constructs of masculinity and femininity. For feminists, the word ‘gender’ functions as a reference to sex-based stereotypes whose sole purpose is to maintain a strictly ordered sex-based social hierarchy that systematically values males and masculinity over females and femininity. By contrast, trans*/queer appropriation of the term ‘gender’ divorces the concept from its social origins and, instead, locates ‘gender’ within individual desires. Now, ‘gender’ is private and personal. It is self-defined; it’s fluid and amorphous. It has nothing to do with hierarchical social orders, sex-based social roles, or class-based oppression. ‘Gender’ is simply a fun dress-up game to be celebrated! ‘Gender’ dysphoria is recast as pathology, rather than being understood as a reasonable reaction to oppressive sex-based stereotypes that control the lives of everyone. This shift in meaning causes the word ‘gender’ to function differently by communicating very different—even conflicting— concepts to the listener. Once again, feminists’ ability to communicate the harm caused to ‘women’ by externally enforced sex-based stereotypes that we understand as ‘gender’ is made more difficult.

Feminists should seriously consider how much it matters whether we use particular words to describe our meaning(s) and to analyze female experiences, or whether it’s actually more important that the meaning itself be well-understood even if it requires us to employ additional or different terminology. I understand that it shouldn’t be necessary to have this particular conversation in the first place; our words should never be appropriated to serve other people’s agendas. But if we are intent on communicating our ideas, if we want feminism and feminist analysis to be understood, we may have little choice but to take advantage of alternate semantic forms in order to remain functional and persuasive in the context of political discourse.

Bodies and reproduction

My favorite thing about using a form and function framework for feminist analysis is that it can be leveraged to illuminate many of the problems caused by the flatness of post-modern political ideology.[ii] For example, it can be applied to how we understand female bodies in two separate ways. First, the sexed form of a body dictates that body’s social function, roles, and treatment (that’s social determinism, not biological determinism, thank you). Secondly, how and whether any particular body form physically functions in terms of reproduction is relevant and important to the individual who is housed in that body.

Trans* activists and other people influenced by post-modern ideology often argue that ‘sex’ is reducible to that which is objectively observable (mere form) or less (subjective identity). This view fails to account for social functions as analyzed above in regard to the feminist meanings of ‘woman’ and ‘gender.’ Further, the physical functions of the female body, especially in terms of reproduction, are critically important to any conversation about ‘sex,’[iii] yet they are deliberately invisibilized by post-modern analysis.

As illustration, understanding the female experience of having breasts must include more than an analysis of the external social attention that the form of one’s breast receives from others; it must also address the physical experience of having breasts, including the potential and actual function of breasts as sources of biologically engineered nutrition for baby humans. Does that part of our female body function as we need and expect it to? Does it hurt; does it heal; and how does it impact female lives and physical possibilities?

It’s important to account for reproductive processes and functions because they operate regardless of whether ‘sex’ is clearly identifiable from apparent physical form and regardless of whether one socially functions as a ‘woman.’ Analyzing the physical functions of multiple female reproductive processes is necessary to developing feminist theory that fully reflects the conditions and experiences of humans living in female bodies. We must pay attention to the ways in which the female  form interacts with both the social and physical functions of female lives.

Additional application

There are many ways and contexts in which a focus on ‘form’ weakens feminist political analysis and hollows out female lives to that which may be externally observed by non-women, by men. We must not allow ourselves to be distracted by one-dimensional representations of women’s realities that fail to account for function. There are surely circumstances under which form is relevant to function, but form should not be seen as more important than function nor become a political substitute for it. Feminists must always keep our eyes on the function ball. We must prepare ourselves to explain why the flat, superficiality of post-modern forms are an inadequate basis on which to rest our understanding of women’s lives and, therefore, an inadequate basis from which to generate functional feminist political analysis.

….

up [i] Please note that there is, in some cases, there may be a further distinction between form and substance, as differentiated form and function.

up [ii] Thanks to Kathy Miriam for this related analysis:

http://kmiriam.wordpress.com/2009/12/02/one-dimensional-feminism-and-the-election-of-2008/

up [iii] This is what I’m trying to get at here:

https://revolutionarycombustion.wordpress.com/2012/04/27/what-is-sex/

FURTHER READING:

Clarke, Jessica A., Adverse Possession of Identity: Radical Theory, Conventional Practice (2005). Oregon Law Review, Vol. 84, No. 2, 2005. Available for download at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1458068

A feminist critique of “cisgender”

Consistent with common usage of the term “cisgender,” the graphic below explains that “…if you identify with the gender you were assigened [sic] at birth, you are cis.”

Another Trans 101: Cisgender webpage describes cis this way: “For example, if a doctor said “it’s a boy!” when you were born, and you identify as a man, then you could be described as cisgender.” [i] Likewise, girl-born people who identify as women are also considered cisgender. WBW are cis.

Framing gender as a medically determined assignment may seem like a good start to explaining gendered oppression because it purports to make a distinction between physical sex and gender. Feminism similarly understands masculinity and femininity (e.g., gender) as strictly enforced social constructs neither of which are the “normal” or inevitable result of one’s reproductive sex organs. Feminism and trans theory agree that coercive gender assignments are a significant source of oppression.

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“Cis” is a politically incomprehensible concept.

Cis is often used as a slur against anyone who dares to question the hegemony of trans identities. So accused, the cis person is presumed to be in possession of cis privilege, a condition which actively oppresses “trans” people.

Unfortunately, the meaning of cis is ambiguous and, as a result, belies its proponents’ ignorance of social operations (see also: Cis privilege does not exist. Male privilege does.).

CIS=NON-TRANS?

If cis is a word that simply refers to non-trans people (i.e., all people who have not subjectively adopted the term “trans” to describe themselves), then gender non-conforming butch women and feminine men must be included in the category of individuals who can be described as cis. Using this definition, cis privilege is not distributed according to whether one is gender conforming (or not), but rather, according to one’s internal I-dentity.

Significantly, oppression and privilege are functions of social perception, not reality. 

A non-trans definition of cis erroneously assumes that an external observer can accurately and consistently determine when someone subjectively considers herself to be “trans.”  “Trans” is not a magical word, nor does it appear on your forehead like the Scarlet Letter when you interact with others. Therefore, framing cis privilege as something that automatically inures to all people who do not subjectively identify themselves as “trans,” and never to those who do, is frustratingly simplistic and ignores the gendered oppression of gender non-conforming people. If “non-trans” is the intended definition of the term cis, I reject its usefulness as a concept to describe or to better understand the social dynamics of gender and related oppression.

So maybe…CIS=GENDER CONFORMING?

Alternatively, and this does seem to make somewhat more sense, cis may be used as shorthand for gender conformity (i.e., people who are comfortable with their gender role as assigned at birth). In this case, a person holding radical feminist views about gender could never be considered cis because she is, by definition of these views, uncomfortable with the social gender roles assigned to females at birth. More saliently, butch women and feminine men could not be considered cis under this definition, nor beneficiaries of cis privilege, because they do not benefit from social perceptions of their gender conformity.

Deviation from gender norms will result in the same kind of negative social treatment regardless of whether one considers herself internally “trans” or not. In many cases, a trans person who “passes” as her target sex will be treated by others as if she were not-trans; and a gender non-conforming cis person will be treated as if she were “trans.” Gender non-conformity oppression is not a phenomenon unique to subjectively identifying “trans” people.

A gender-conforming definition of cis further begs the question regarding what qualifies as “gender conformity” and where this cis line can reasonably be drawn. Is it measured by an individual’s appearance? Behavior? Or some of both? Many people express a mixture of masculine and feminine qualities– who decides whether they are cis and/or substantially benefiting from cis privilege? What about a person who changes their appearance, dressing femininely one day and masculine the next– can she be cis or cis privileged on some days but not others? What about a woman who is very aggressive and competitive in her professional life, but emotional and submissive in her personal life– is she cis privileged? And what about trans people who “pass” because they are compliant with the gendered stereotypes associated with their target sex– does being stealth render one functionally cis?

The ambiguity of gendered perception combined with the fluidity of gendered presentation renders the concept of cis confusing and largely incomprehensible when one attempts to apply the term in practice. Neither possible definition of cis brings clarity or new insights to the mechanics of gendered oppression. Just the opposite, by framing oppression as being caused by one’s internal identity, rather than by external social perceptions, a cis/trans binary actually erases the lives and experiences of many gender non-conforming people who refuse the label “trans” for themselves. Further, shoe-horning the concept of cis and cis privilege into conversations about gender as a rhetorical tool to explain how “trans” people’s experiences differ from non-trans people’s experiences, glosses over the complexities of how gender norms operate to create and maintain the still-pervasive system of male supremacy– also known as patriarchy (see: Cis privilege does not exist. Male privilege does.).

I reject cis as a workable political concept.

What is sex?

First, from a petition filed in NYC (Berkley v. Farley) that challenges the surgical sex-change requirement for birth certificate revisions:

7. In those forty years, the medical, scientific, legal, and psychological understandings of trans gender persons have progressed substantially. The mainstream view of these communities no longer equates sex with chromosomes or genitalia alone. Rather, it is now accepted that a person’s sex is determined by a host of factors, including
chromosomes, (4)
gonads (ovaries or testes), (3)
hormonal secretions, (5)
internal reproductive organs, (1)
external genitalia, (2)
secondary sexual characteristics, (6) and
the brain sex or one’s self-identified sex. (7)

Bold, numbers, and line spacing have been added to show consistency with the 2003 decision of The Court of Appeals in Maryland In re: Heilig (see page 8).

There is a recognized medical viewpoint that gender is not determined by any single criterion, but that the following seven factors may be relevant:

(1) Internal morphologic sex (seminal vesicles/prostate or vagina/uterus/fallopian tubes);
(2) External morphologic sex (genitalia);
(3) Gonadal sex (testes or ovaries);
(4) Chromosomal sex (presence or absence of Y chromosome);
(5) Hormonal sex (predominance of androgens or estrogens);
(6) Phenotypic sex (secondary sex characteristics, e.g. facial hair, breasts, body type); and
(7) Personal sexual identity.

Bold added to the terms medical and gender. Interestingly, the Berkley petition seeks to prove sex, while Heilig cites gender.

Of the seven factors, all but ONE refer to objectively demonstrable physical criteria. Yet, by promoting “gender identity” legislation, trans activists are arguing that the single subjective factor on the list (7)– the brain sex or one’s self-identified sex/personal sexual identity– should override the other six:

“Gender identity” means a gender-related identity, appearance, expression, or behavior of an individual, regardless of the individual’s assigned sex at birth.

I repeat, “regardless of the individual’s assigned sex at birth.

As a female and a feminist, I am opposed to the replacement of “sex” with any kind of subjectively asserted identity, appearance, expression, and/or behavior. “Sex” is not an identity or a choice. Sex is a physical reality.

No single factor can or should be dispositive of an individual’s sex. Visual evidence of secondary sex characteristics (6) is generally accepted as proof of an individual’s “sex” despite the fact that these physical markers can be constructed and/or modified through medical interventions. In other words, appearances can be deceiving. Additionally, because factors (2), (5), and (6)–genitals, hormones, and secondary sex characteristics–are more malleable than the other three physical indicators, one or more of them often serve as the only legally necessary proof that a transsexual has had a sex “change.”

By contrast, chromosomes (4) are immutable; and factors (1)  and (3)–internal morphologic sex (seminal vesicles/prostate or vagina/uterus/fallopian tubes) and gonadal sex (testes or ovaries)–can be removed from an individual’s body but medical technology is not able to construct functional facsimiles of them because they cannot be created by any force but “nature.” Either you are born with them, or you are not.  

The biological purpose of these “sex” organs is human reproduction.

From monthly menstruation to fetal gestation, female bodies bear the primary burden of human reproductive processes. This reality is not under human control. Recognizing this, therefore, humans should use the physical manifestations of female reproductive processes as the lens through which we establish the meaning and substance of “sex.” Female bodies and perspectives should be the default, not males’.