“Political Lesbianism” is Identity Politics

Identity politics is, in part, the act of adopting an identity for the purpose of making a political point. In the case of “political lesbianism,” lesbian is reduced to a social identity that informs others of your political ideology, rather than a factual description of a woman’s private sexual behavior.  As with all identities, “political lesbian” demands external recognition in order to exist. If others do not acknowledge or understand you as a “political lesbian,” there cannot be any resulting social influence. “Political lesbian,” then, functions primarily as a social performance.

First, how does one make herself as a “political lesbian” known to others? Is it accomplished by name, deed, appearance, or some combination thereof? Well, if by name alone, then “political lesbianism” is truly nothing more than a label, a performative utterance.[i] I think even self-identified “political lesbians” would agree it requires more. If “political lesbianism” comes into being by sexual deed alone, it may remain entirely confidential. If women have sex but no one knows it, their deed cannot possibly affect the wider political climate. Publication of oneself as a “political lesbian” is necessary for social influence and political relevancy. So deed may be necessary, but it too is insufficient. Ultimately, appearance may be the most effective method of ensuring that one’s announcement of herself as a “political lesbian” is coherently received by her social audience. Yet “political lesbianism” is not a fashion movement and does not prescribe particular garments or colored hankies for visibility.[ii] I have read as many definitions of “political lesbian” as I can find; there is no consensus on what it means.

Secondly, the efficacy of “political lesbianism” as a political action depends on the same rationale as every other form of identity politics: the loyal volunteers are expected to behave in a certain way that supposedly effectuates positive social change. I’ve made jokes about what “political lesbians” think the best sexual positions for fighting patriarchy are, but it’s not entirely funny. We cannot fuck our way to liberation. I learned that from queer theory. In practice, being a lesbian- “political” or otherwise- does not decrease, but actually increases, women’s experiences of discrimination and social denigration. It is arguably sadistic to encourage women to deliberately expose themselves to oppression in order to advance the collective status of other women.

More broadly, a social performance methodology of politics evades confrontation of forces beyond the immediate realm of one’s personal life. Political activism is not a self-help movement; it is the intellectual and material deconstruction of unequal class-based power dynamics that give rise to oppression. As I have explained elsewhere, oppressed people have not created their own oppression with “bad identity choices,” nor are women’s “bad sexuality choices” the cause of our sexual oppression as females.[iii] The ostensibly feminist theory of “political lesbianism,” however, focuses on the personal choices of women privileged enough to exercise control over their own sexual expression. Unfortunately, most women in the world do not have this liberty.

One’s sexuality should never be in service to her politics. If you’re lesbian, that’s just great. If you’re not a lesbian, who cares? Not me. I don’t care who you have sex with or what you call yourself; that’s your business. Market-constructed, phallocentric sexuality can and should be critiqued. Compulsory heterosexuality must be critiqued.[iv] This critique does not grant feminists license to prescribe certain kinds of sexual behavior, identities, or desires as more “feminist” than others.

Patriarchy manipulates women’s sexuality towards men and heteronormativity. “Political lesbianism” does something similar in the reverse. Here’s how: the theory of “political lesbianism” asserts that sexuality is entirely socially constructed. This framing renders women who are not lesbians—in name or deed, it doesn’t matter seem to matter—as being male-identified. Similarly, the statement “any women can be lesbian” posits lesbianism as a state of being that women should aspire to as a form of feminist consciousness. “Political lesbianism” thereby casts lesbianism as aspirational, not neutral or incidental.

The very definition of hierarchy is “a system or organization in which people or groups are ranked one above the other according to status or authority.”[v] It is therefore inevitable that a hierarchy is created when one form of sexual expression is viewed as better, more enlightened, or more politically effective than another. Through the establishment of this hierarchy, pressure to alter ones sexual identity is generated regardless of whether the pressure is intended or not. The positive suggestion of change is inherent to the idea that lesbianism is a (politically) superior or preferred way of being.

Glorifying lesbianism through the lens of feminist politics projects a fantasy onto those women who are “lesbians” regardless of their political views. It abstracts women’s experiences of loving women as if all lesbians were feminists.[vi] This is not fair to the lesbians who bear the burden of the unrealistic expectations of this “political” theory. It is also a demonstrably false assessment of lesbianism in the real world. There are endless examples of lesbians who prioritize men over women, who are abusive to other women, or who do not understand women as oppressed people. I’m not sure that “political lesbians” appreciate the sometimes unpleasant realities of lesbian community, presently and historically. Further, in some areas of the world it is now possible for lesbians to become almost completely assimilated into social norms. As a married lesbian in the great Commonwealth of Massachusetts, I can’t remember the last time someone bristled at our public displays of affection. No one cares that I am a lesbian. It is clearly not a threat to their heterosexuality or anything else they hold dear.

Leveraging a “lesbian” identity for the purpose of political warfare against patriarchy effectively turns some women’s desire into other women’s attempts at retaliation. The classic feminist text Woman Identified Woman states, “A lesbian is the rage of all women condensed to the point of explosion.”[vii] This definition uses “lesbian” as a message directed at men, an insult. It is the absolute opposite of how I feel about my lesbian partner. Adopting the identity “political lesbian” in reaction to patriarchy is not an expression of love or desire, nor is it even about women. It is fundamentally about men; it uses an identity to “radically” transgress social norms of heterosexuality. We cannot use a social identity to effectuate “liberation” any more than we can gender-fuck ourselves out of patriarchy’s power dynamics. We need to change the system itself, not our individual behavior or identities within this system.

“Political lesbianism” has a long and distinguished feminist history. Some theorists continue to argue that it deserves a place at the “radical feminist” table. But this appeal to tradition does not persuade me. Identity-as-social-performance is not politically effective because it is an individualist approach to a systemic problem. “Political lesbianism” instructs us to view lesbianism from the perspective of an external observer: it is essentially a social I-dentity through which we can and should subvert the dominant paradigm of heterosexuality. Those who support “political lesbianism” as effective feminist political action have allowed identity politics to infect their ideology.

I identify as an anti-political-lesbian lesbian.

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[i] See “I Say It, Therefore It Is” regarding performative verbs here: http://rootveg.wordpress.com/2013/10/24/i-say-it-therefore-it-is-so/

[ii] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Handkerchief_code

[iii] More on identity as politics here: http://liberationcollective.wordpress.com/2013/05/20/socialization-matters-why-identity-libertarianism-is-failed-politics/

[iv] Compulsory Heterosexuality and the Lesbian Experience, by Adrienne Rich http://www.terry.uga.edu/~dawndba/4500compulsoryhet.htm

[v] Google for “hierarchy.”

[vi] See previous entry “Lesbian and feminist are not synonyms, expanded” at https://revolutionarycombustion.wordpress.com/2012/08/08/lesbian-and-feminist-are-not-synonyms-expanded/

[vii] Woman Identified Woman by Radicalesbians: http://library.duke.edu/rubenstein/scriptorium/wlm/womid/

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.

UndercoverPunk_header

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.

___________________________

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?

Joelle Ruby Ryan DEMANDS OUR SILENCE!

JRR_femaleisoffensive_2

JRR is NOT JOKING, y’all! Not above and not below. But neither are we.

Attention: YOUR PUBLIC CONTENT IS FAIR GAME FOR ALL COMMENTARY AND CRITIQUE. Any academic worth half her salary knows this.

GT_what-it-looks-like-when-wordpress-com-hides-your-post

JUST THE FACTS.

From Gender Trender earlier this morning:

…………………………..

Here is a copy of the University of New Hampshire’s Dr. Ryan’s false DMCA claim [sic]:

Email Address: Joelle.Ryan@unh.edu
Location of copyrighted work (where your original material is located):http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gZ7eeRCdX9k
First Name: Dr. Joelle Ruby
Last Name: Ryan
Company Name: Univesity of New Hampshire (UNH)
Address Line 1: 73 Main Street
Address Line 2: 203 Huddleston Hall
City: Durham
State/Region/Province: NH
Zip/Postal Code: 03820
Country: USA
Telephone Number: 603-862-0272
Copyright holder you represent (if other than yourself): Self and UNH
Please describe the copyrighted work so that it may be easily identified: The film itself is embedded without my or the university’s permission, along with a copyrighted still from the film, and both are placed on a vicious hate blog which has a long history of defamation, hate-mongering, bigotry and threats against members of the transgender and transsexual community. I would never give permission for my film or stills from said film to be used on a hate site. Please remove the blog entry immediately.
Location (URL) of the unauthorized material on a WordPress.com site (NOT simply the primary URL of the site – example.wordpress.com; you must provide the full and exact permalink of the post, page, or image where the content appears, one per line) :http://gendertrender.wordpress.com/2013/03/07/transilience-hilar/
If the infringement described above is represented by a third-party link to a downloadable file (e.g. http://rapidshare.com/files/…), please provide the URL of the file (one per line):
I have a good faith belief that use of the copyrighted materials described above as allegedly infringing is not authorized by the copyright owner, its agent, or the law.: Yes
I swear, under penalty of perjury, that the information in the notification is accurate and that I am the copyright owner or am authorized to act on behalf of the owner of an exclusive right that is allegedly infringed.: Yes
Signed on this date of (today’s date, MM/DD/YYYY): 03/09/2013
Signature (your digital signature is legally binding): Dr. Joelle Ruby Ryan

You will immediately note a few things.

Joelle Ruby Ryan identifies himself as University of New Hampshire representative

  1. Joelle Ruby Ryan identifies himself as a designated representative of the University of New Hampshire who is acting on authority of that institution.
  2. Ryan claims that using the “embed” function on YouTube videos is a form of copyright infringement. That is simply false. Not only false, but absurd. When University of New Hampshire Health (or anyone else) posts an embeddable public video: anyone, anywhere can embed that video on any site for any reason. You can read about that in an article titled “Court Rules That Embedding A Video Isn’t Copyright Violation” here:http://www.geekosystem.com/embedding-video-copyright-infringement/
  3. Dr. Ryan also claims that a still image from a public video, used for purposes of critique and discussion of that public media, is a form of copyright infringement. Again, an absurd claim that runs in opposition to all known First Amendment law. You can read about that here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fair_use

You can also read YouTube’s standard terms of service which state:

http://www.youtube.com/static?gl=US&template=terms

Section 6 (C)

6. Your Content and Conduct

“You also hereby grant each user of the Service a non-exclusive license to access your Content through the Service, and to use, reproduce, distribute, display and perform such Content as permitted through the functionality of the Service and under these Terms of Service.”

…………………………..

There is no copyright violation.

So here, again, is the video. Enjoy!

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.

beer_goggles_2

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.

____________________

Feminists using misogynist insults toward other women

I have a problem with leveraging misogynist insults at other women. Yeah, I do. And I am especially disturbed when these insults come from the mouths (or fingers) of women who actually consider themselves feminists or who believe that they are engaged in feminist discourse, analysis, and/or commentary while doing so. That’s funny, amIright? Tragically ironic is more like it. So I want to quickly address:

…the rising problem of ‘radical feminists’ using misogynist methods to refer to feminists with whom they disagree. Especially that they think it’s ok to publicly declare that some women are ‘male-identified’ (because *they* identify them with males) and then, basically, punish them on the grounds of that characterisation, by calling them ‘dick-pleasers’ or something similar. ~liberationislife

Sexualized insults are expressions of misogyny. Referring to a woman’s sexual behavior, her sexuality, or her appearance as a way to discredit her political efforts or speech is the lowest kind of insult I can imagine. It has no place in the mind of any self-I-dentified feminist. First, it blames women for their relations to males as if there were no such thing as structural and compulsory heteronormativity. It also seems to ignore the unfortunate reality that power and material resources are concentrated in the hands of males who must be appealed to under certain circumstances (remember, isolationism justified by delusions of revolutionary combustion is not an effective political strategy for improving the lives of women as a class here and now). Next, these insults characterize relations to males as an unconditional source of personal corruption (as if women are not capable of maintaining their integrity in the presence of males). Finally, this trend frames women’s value and feminist credibility as dependent on our relations to males (or lack thereof).

What kind of lazy hypocrisy is this? I know we’re living under The Patriarchy where cognitive dissonance and reversals are a way of life, but come on already, this is a no-brainer! A woman’s political value is in her ideas, not in her personal relations to males or male-controlled institutions. These kinds of insults are obviously unacceptable in ‘feminist’ discourse.

I wish to specifically include use of the malicious term handmaiden in my complaint. A handmaiden is a female servant. She is specifically female. And she is in service to male authority. Even dikipedia knows that ‘handmaiden’ is a sexualized insult:

A man might use a handmaiden as a concubine to bear his child if his wife was infertile. For example, the biblical Rachel, the childless wife of Jacob, gave her handmaid Bilhah to her husband to produce children. Jacob’s first wife Leah later did the same.[2] The Virgin Mary referred to herself as “the handmaid of the Lord” in acceptance of becoming pregnant by the Holy Spirit.[3]

Unless y’all think you’re reclaiming ‘handmaiden’ like some ‘feminists’ want to reclaim ‘slut,’ it is completely inappropriate in feminist discourse. Please stop.

I will be moderating comments like the tyrant that I am. My blog, my speech.

handmaiden

For further discussion of female-female dynamics, see Rainsinger’s recent review of Phyllis Chesler’s book, Woman’s Inhumanity to Woman, here.

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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