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.

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