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.

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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?

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.

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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