Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Radical Feminism, Feminists who are Radical, and Trans folks. (pt 1]

I understand that part of the risk of being on the internet is that many people who are also on the internet are so very wrong. In fact, the Internet has the tendency of bringing out the most vicious, least informed side of peoples personalities. At least, that is what it seems like to me. And of course, in the spirit of this blog, I am going to be energized to write something because I am indignant about a conversation that I recently had. And yes, I will just act like I the fact that I did not post for like a year and a half didnt happen. (NB. My keyboard is all sorts of messed up, so things like apostrophes and colons and question marks dont work. Also the end parenthesis].

So I have seen a couple of instances where someone says something about Radical Feminists, and a chorus of cis people, predominately but not exclusively women, appear to contend that no True Radical Feminist would be transphobic. And in one conversation, someone was trying to make the point that the SCUM Manifesto, is in fact trans positive. Or at the very least, not cissexist.

I think that there are a couple of things to tease out here before going straight to whether the SCUM Manifesto is trans positive or not (or whether a feminism informed by it can be]. The first thing that was very noticeable to me as a person who has spent too much time reading Radical Feminist work (and particularly, radical feminist opinions on trans people], is that a lot of people were thinking that any feminist that was not a liberal reformist was or is a Radical Feminist. So in this case, folks were saying that Judith Butler was a Radical Feminist, even though that is the first time that Ive ever heard of her being called that. And thats how terms like `third Wave Radical Feminism` got introduced into the conversation, another phrase that I find rather confusing.

So what I want to bring up is the fact that Radical Feminism, in the minds of many folks on the ground and even academic circles, is talking about a specific philosophy that started in the 70s and 80s, and continues to this day. A lot of times, we divide feminism into waves, and a lot of folks tend to equivocate what is called `second wave` with Radical Feminism, but I think thats actually a mistake. Radical Feminists were reacting against the early 70s feminists such as NOW and Gloria Steinem, while also differentiating themselves from the more Marxist influenced Socialist Feminists. Obviously there was less boundaries between these groups than I am saying, but for the most part they remain somewhat separate schools of thought.

Radical Feminists therefore, are a segment of feminists who are radical (that is, further left than liberal and reformist feminists] but are not in fact the same thing. Lets take another example from another scenario. The term `Evangelical Christian` is made up by many Christians who evangelize to other people. But then again, so do many, and perhaps even most Christian sects. So if someone is saying `Evangelical Christians are protestant` and someone says `No, because Catholics evangelize, and arent protestant`, they are missing the idea that `Evangelical Christianity` is a title to a philosophy or movement, even though it is also descriptive (and in the cases of Evangelical Christian, and Radical Feminist, frequently self applied].

Not all feminists who are leftward of liberals are not Radical Feminists in the sense of belonging to that philosophy and movement. That might raise the question of what Radical Feminism as a movement is, and what distinguishes it from feminists who are otherwise radical. Ellen Willis has a Chapter on such things called `Radical Feminism and Feminist Radicalism`, if one is interested.

Radical Feminism is based upon a couple of key ideas, in my estimation.

  1. The primary form of oppression is patriarchy or male domination of women. 
  2. Women can be constituted as a transhistorical, transcultural class because of this oppression.
  3. Some form of gender separatism is necessary, since spaces that include men will necessarily be toxic to women. This is either because of some essentially male quality, or because men cannot escape their socialization to dominate women.
So the sort of feminists who I would see as this segment of feminism would be folks like Susan Brownmiller, Robin Morgan, Mary Daly, Andrea Dworkin, and Janice Raymond. At least, those are the women who were the historical sources of it. As I said earlier, Radical Feminism as a movement has continued on until this day. This is because with a couple of exceptions, most of these women are still alive and active in doing work. To take an example, Janice Raymond is now active in anti trafficking (read, anti sex worker] activism. But even if you dont count those older voices, there are a crop of new Radical Feminists, such as Sheila Jeffreys, Julie Bindel, Cathy Brennan, Julie Burchill, and Roseanne Barr who ascribe to the same, if not very similar philosophies.

So when someone says `3rd wave Radical Feminism`, I get confused. Because Radical Feminism is still around, unencumbered by wave distinction, but also that the loose constellation of movements we lump together as `3rd wave feminism` (here Im thinking things like sex positive feminism, queer theory, trans feminism, transnational feminisms] were in direct reaction against the political and philosophical ideas of Radical Feminism. It seems contradictory to me. Sure, there are 3rd wave feminists who are Radical, but Radical Feminism as a movement doesnt really fit with the movements that are called 3rd wave.

I think that most people involved in feminist work who are not allied with Radical Feminist philosophy will see some of the limits of it. It is blind to race and class in a way that is very unhelpful (and has led to its critique by womanist scholars], and has a nasty streak of transphobia to it. In seeing the primary dividing line between men and women, with an insurmountable gulf between them, Radical Feminists are at a loss of how to understand transgender phenomena, except to disapprove of it. Futhermore, in such an `us vs. them` understanding of social relations, those who identify as genderqueer or nonbinary are either erased (in the best cases] or attacked as being delusional. Which, in the context of those three beliefs above, makes sense. The problem is that those three beliefs are simply not true. Race, class, sexuality, imperialism, ability, and many other factors are as equally at play in the world as patriarchy, and also make any argument for women as a transcultural class unbelievable.

The Radical Feminist arguments about trans people (and mostly regarding trans women] stem from the idea that trans women can never possibly be women, either because of their socialization, their anatomy, or their spiritual essence. I think that the latter can be set aside for other folks, but I do want to address the first two. To ascribe womanhood to anatomy (that is, whether one has a penis or not] goes against the entire basis of feminism, of not seeing women as only a set of vaginas and uteruses. It literally reduces women into genitals, which I feel is a shockingly antifeminist move. Why have a feminism that sees the most important aspect of womanhood as whether one can have children or not. And regarding socialization, it presupposes that all socializations of boys will be the same, and all girls. It ignores cultural context. Furthermore, for those trans girls who are young, they might absorb the things being said about girls and women, if they identify that way.

I think the best exemplary argument against anti transgender rhetoric from socialization comes from Julia Serano in Whipping Girl. She mentions that she tells a cisgender lesbian a hypothetical tale of a cisgender girl who is kidnapped and forced to live as a boy for her young life. What that girl escapes her kidnappers and lives on her own, she decides to live as a woman, even though she had been treated as a boy for her entire life. Most would agree that she should be, and Serrano points out that that is roughly analogous to what many trans women go through.

Whipping Girl makes the excellent point that trans women are not oppressed in a way that is completely separate from cisgender womens oppression, but as perhaps one particularly horrible extreme of it. The Denigration of femininity and womanhood is endemic in our whole society, and those who are seen as choosing feminity are seen as perverse. Even in queer and feminist communities (esp. Radical Feminist ones], femininity is seen as counter revolutionary. Trans women therefore bear just a particularly unfair burden because of generalized sexism.

Next, I am going to go into the SCUM Manifesto, and how it relates to the problems with Radical Feminism .