Turning the tide

I owe a huge proportion of my identity and lifestyle to ‘feminism’. It has taught me, challenged me, comforted me, and introduced me to inspiring sisters who encourage me in every aspect of my life. Without ‘feminism’ I suspect I would sink into a world of disabling fear and far less hope. Yet I say ‘feminism’ in inverted commas because it is as diverse as any ideology or movement, and with its different interpretations come different obstacles. I propose the current stutters in our movements are born of a lack of intersectionality, but also an inherited paranoia of the past, that we need to continuously fight the back bite of the second wave, and sweeten our demands to make our feminism gentler to men.

I don’t suppose it is particularly helpful to stubbornly align with any specific strand of feminism, in that first and foremost my feminism influences my broader politics. What I mean to say is that, I am feminist; therefore I oppose capitalism and all oppression, perpetuated by the existence of states. I believe that fundamentally feminism has always been of the left, and always opposed hierarchy, which should be demolished in all structures and relationships.

A frequent topic of dispute is the role of men. Whilst all liberation movements must be open to communicate with those who do not define within said oppressed group, it seems feminism still lives in a shadow of obsession with previous waves. We are silenced from the fear of being branded ‘man-haters’, and told our raw honesty is segregationist. Whilst it is frequently useful to receive the input and perspectives of pro-feminist men, we must consider the impact this has on the strength of safe spaces for women. Consider then, the ‘apathy staircase’ (we experience, we reflect, we act) in that many feminists will be moved to action from their own personal experiences. It is important that these stories can be shared and discussed, without continuously having to justify or moderate emotions for fear of offending, by generalizing, men. Indeed I have just justified myself.

I would suggest that it is somewhat rare to attend mixed gender meetings and hear truly honest and open discussions of personal experiences. I believe this can be achieved by more women-only spaces. In actuality, for a man, or other feminists to oppose this on the basis of excluding men is failing to appreciate the privilege pro-feminist men still enjoy – women do not have access to the same methods, resources or spaces as men do on a daily basis. The Guardian for example, in December 2010 reported that 78% of newspaper articles are written by men – the media being a major opportunity for discussion, debate and influence. It should be appreciated that many women have suffered severe violence and abuse, often on more than one occasion, and thus may find it extremely difficult to discuss this in front of men, and that no amount of ‘vouching’ will ease such nerves. I, for one, would not feel at ease to openly address my experiences in the hope of supporting, or building a relationship with other women (who may or may not have had similar experiences), in the presence of a man, whom I could reasonably fear to take a defensive reaction, turn the focus to ‘there are some good men out there’, ‘men experience that too’, or struggle to empathize with what is a daily struggle for women. Whether individual pro-feminists are guilty of this is not the point – what I mean to emphasize is that whether right or wrong, these feelings of distrust do exist, because women are still unequal and do suffer frequently at the hands of men.

Not all meetings need be absent of men, but allowing some to be ensures that women have the opportunity to empower themselves through honest and open discussion, to build a sisterhood with other feminists, and to speak freely without male or misogynist judgement.

If it is problematic to consider BME only spaces unfair or unreasonable to white people, why is it that feminism must so frequently and continuously provide spaces for male participation? Should heterosexuality be represented within all LGBT discussion? I remember clearly a female poet requesting she perform to a women only space and being uninvited because so much noise was made in support of welcoming men. The result? A woman was denied an opportunity to participate, so that men instead, could. Still today, I find a depressing amount of blogs, literature and meetings are so focused on representing a unity between men and women, they’ve forgotten what the cause is – empowering the women.

Yet on the other hand, where these spaces are provided, they have frequently fallen into a vicious trap of oppressive exclusivity: most predominantly of trans women. As the ‘RadFem’ Conference approached, it was encouraging to see so much outrage at the explicit exclusion of trans women. This in itself is an example of failing to understand privilege, and also the inequality within women as a definition. Not all women are automatically equal amongst other women, which is why there is such an essential focus on the priority of intersectionality. Take for example, a working class woman and a rich woman. Whilst they may both struggle for gender liberation, structures used to oppress fall heavier on the working woman. On the issue of childcare – whilst both women may fall under the expectation to be maternal and self-sacrificing, fundamentally the rich women is more likely to have the financial means to remove herself from that role, through child-minding perhaps. Or she could maybe afford to avoid the frustration of working long hours and then having to effectively work for free within the home as a cleaner/minder/superwoman. Now consider transwomen are likely to suffer suicide, sexual intimidation and attack, and prejudice within the workplace and the home in a different and possibly more frequently extreme way than a cis woman. All oppression is connected, but the further away you are from the white, cis man, the further tip the scales of equality.

Many feminists argue that trans women blur the distinction between gender and sex, but this is a shallow reaction, which completely dismisses the impact of patriarchy on trans women akin to cis women. If, for example, a trans woman does display stereotypical ‘feminine’ traits (shaving, clothing, make up), this does not mean to say she considers this the epitome of womanhood (as many RadFems would have you believe) – merely that she may suffer the same societal pressures as any other women. And surely as feminists, we oppose such stereotypes of beauty as a product of male dominance in the first place, so why use it either way as a value of women?

Transphobia is a huge detriment to feminism and it must be opposed wherever we find it. All women only spaces must be accommodating for trans women. How is it that self defining women are so frequently shunned from spaces whilst men are accepted? If the transphobic argument is that transwomen are anti-feminist because they supposedly equate sex and gender, is this not the same as some feminist movements insisting that ones gender must be reflected by their sex? To say that a woman can only be a woman should she be born with a vagina is the same as saying her sex is her gender. This is insulting to the achievements of our sisters before us.

So it becomes clear that there is often no good direction of mobilization or inclusion/exclusion currently. It can feel like feminism is stuck in a rut. If there is one thing the last few years have shown us (not only in feminist movements), it is that diverse, engaging and flexible organisation works. Not every feminist is active, not every apathetic individual is misogynist – we need to find ways of stimulating fresh ideas and new dialogue. No revolution was born of repetition. People are tired of the same meetings, with the same speakers, for the same papers to focus on the same recruitment drive. Whatever we may think about the actual politics of Occupy, or SlutWalk or UKUncut, people are interested and want to be involved. Once you can take the first step to get attention, and mobilize on a mass scale, then the real evolution of movement begins. The beauty of recent protests is that they are organic and, at least initially, aim to be more autonomous and mass led.

I do not think we are lacking the drive, nor anger to act. The problem comes when this raw energy is dampened by parties and groups contorting into political vultures, that rip apart and pressurize individuals, until the day comes when they are so exhausted and so alienated that they become disengaged. This can also mean that wherein somebody does not adhere to the same beliefs or structures as those already set up; there is little alternative to explore.

Why do we need activists to be so categorized? Why is the left so devastatingly sectarian that it becomes almost impossible for genuinely united fronts? Is this in part responsible for damaging feminist action? Many activists would not identify themselves initially as feminist, but as socialist, Marxist, anti-capitalist, anarchist, and argue that feminism is incorporated within that. The issue with this is the lack of priority on the women’s movement, which probably has less controversial demands and a relative consensus across the board, but is blown aside because of a fixation on party politics, and the screams of over-dramatic insults across a battlefield of fangs bared, sign-up sheets ready. Let’s talk before we get the debit cards out.

For feminism to evolve and progress, we need to ensure there is room for diversity and spaces to explore our pasts and our direction. We are cursed by failings of the old waves – being sold back to us the tools of our liberation (apparently now, sexual liberation can be bought in Ann Summers). We become stuck and disjointed. As radicals we should radicalize our perceptions of everything, not only in language, gender, sexuality and how we organize – but also our relationships between each other. To discover new waves and further our emancipation, we must remember to continue turning the tide.

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4 Comments

  1. Kim
    August 23, 2012 at 4:24 am · Reply

    I disagree quite vociferously that saying the trans concept is anti-feminist means saying that sex and gender are the same. That’s a baffling idea. The entire concept of trans says there is a “female” way of being and a “male” way of being. It is stuck in binary gender. Stuck hard. I believe that gender is much more fluid than that, and “trans” refuses to admit that. I have a young son who is autistic. This means he knows nothing of the foolish notion of socially-constructed binary gender. That one is either “feminine” or “masculine”. In many ways, he acts like a typical boy. Aggressive. Highly active. On the other, he identifies strongly with the Disney princesses. Not, “They are so pretty.” Instead, “I want to BE Snow White.” He doesn’t care what “gender” says he should be or with whom he should identify. He just IS. That is what the concept of transgender refuses to get. There is no hard-and-fast “masculine” and “feminine”. There is just human.

    Not only does the trans community ignore that, but they have come to demand inclusion at the expense of women. I have actually seen the pro-trans feminist claim that we can’t discuss attacks on women’s reproductive rights because it’s exclusionary. What in the hell does that say? That we reject the real, historic problems of women so we can make the trans community feel included. How the hell does that idea even sound right in someone’s head?

  2. Kim
    August 23, 2012 at 4:38 am · Reply

    I can’t edit, so I will have to just add another post. Thinking more on this, the entire thesis of this piece makes even less sense. First, radical feminists have always been the ones to argue for women-only spaces. They argue against men who identify as men and men who identify as trans. So, that entire argument is just meaningless.

    Second, the radical feminist idea is that having a vagina makes you a woman, which is YOUR SEX, not your gender. I’m just not sure what isn’t getting through about that. The radical feminist position denies that gender is binary, which is something that the trans community insists it is.

    If someone who identifies as trans buys into the stereotype of female beauty, it is because he wants to. He has not been brought up being told that he must meet that standard. He has chosen to revel in it and buy in. Both he and the drag queen choose the stereotype of “feminine”. He is the enemy of a truly open concept of what it is to be a woman. He tries to force women into the stereotype of feminine, which he himself buys into. THAT is anti-female and anti-feminist. That concept has no place in feminism.

    If you’re going to refute something, make sure you understand it first. The major points in this piece make no sense whatsoever to anyone who understands radical feminist positions.

    • Dan Fisher
      August 23, 2012 at 7:54 pm · Reply

      “I have actually seen the pro-trans feminist claim that we can’t discuss attacks on women’s reproductive rights because it’s exclusionary.”

      – Evidence please?

      Frankly I feel your whole argument about trans* people is flawed.

      You say
      “If someone who identifies as trans buys into the stereotype of female beauty, it is because he wants to. He has not been brought up being told that he must meet that standard.”
      and yet
      “he identifies strongly with the Disney princesses. Not, “They are so pretty.” Instead, “I want to BE Snow White.””

      Someone who identifies with a female character, someone who identifies as a woman, will inevitably feel the media pressure to conform to the ideal of a woman. Sure, they may also feel social pressure to conform to the ideal of a man. But is that better? I would say being pulled in two directions would rip someone apart. What irks me about certain so-called ‘radical feminists’ is that they choose to target and condemn one of the most vulnerable groups for not standing up to the forces of oppression enough, or in ‘the right way’.

      The fact of the matter is that the situation on the ground for trans* people is far worse than the situation for cis people. That means when accommodating them makes things more difficult for you – tough!

      You think anyone would choose to go through the horrific things that trans* people endure? Genital mutilation and surgery? Constant fear of humiliation and rejection from everyone around them, including their own family? People like yourself who attack them simply for existing the way they do, for expressing their feelings? You say you can’t be tans* and feminist? You know nothing.

      Personally, I believe in dismantling the concept of gender entirely. That made it difficult for me to come to terms with trans* people. But now I see acceptance of trans* people as a step along the route to destroying gender, and destroying patriarchy. Being asked whether you identify as male or female is at least better than having the roles assigned at birth.

      Your problem with trans* people exemplifies my argument about the kyriarchy. You elevate your own personal struggle to such a level that you no longer care about anyone else’s suffering. The only injustice you want to stop is the one against your chosen group. In the end all you can accomplish is the perpetuation of oppression and turning away potential allies from progressive causes.

      In another world we might be comrades fighting together against the same enemies. But your contempt for those who are unlike yourself, for those with their own problems who unintentionally make things more awkward for you, means that, right now, you are better suited to the other side of the battlefield.

  3. August 26, 2012 at 11:51 am · Reply

    “Not only does the trans community ignore that, but they have come to demand inclusion at the expense of women. I have actually seen the pro-trans feminist claim that we can’t discuss attacks on women’s reproductive rights because it’s exclusionary. What in the hell does that say? That we reject the real, historic problems of women so we can make the trans community feel included.”

    In absolutely any group of humans EVER, there are going to be a few people making ridiculous claims. A small minority with problematic views aren’t a reason to dismiss the entire group – by that logic, untenable arguments from individual feminists delegitimize the entire feminist agenda.

    “Personally, I believe in dismantling the concept of gender entirely. That made it difficult for me to come to terms with trans* people. But now I see acceptance of trans* people as a step along the route to destroying gender, and destroying patriarchy. Being asked whether you identify as male or female is at least better than having the roles assigned at birth.

    Your problem with trans* people exemplifies my argument about the kyriarchy. You elevate your own personal struggle to such a level that you no longer care about anyone else’s suffering. The only injustice you want to stop is the one against your chosen group. In the end all you can accomplish is the perpetuation of oppression and turning away potential allies from progressive causes.”

    This – so much this. Maybe in an ideal world, gender wouldn’t matter, but since we don’t live in that world, it does, and the ways in which this significance manifests vary hugely between individuals. We’re not going to overhaul patriarchy in our lifetime – maybe not ever. Hopefully, a lot will change about the way people think of gender in the future – I would very much like to see a world in which no one felt the need for gender reassignment because it just doesn’t really matter (although I have no idea if that’s feasible). But how can patriarchy be reshaped if you ignore the voices of women who know full well what it means to break the taboo of challenging their assigned gender role, in a way that society does not largely support them on and which depends entirely upon their own autonomy?

    RF argues that this is not autonomy, and that trans women have in fact perpetuated, given in to, and/or been duped by the patriarchal gender binary by opting to become biologically female. And whether they are seen as victims or as Uncle Toms, they are ultimately viewed as accomplices of patriarchy, acting in a way that hurts ‘real’ women. The problem I have with this view is that it assume trans folk have missed the boat on RF’s more enlightened view: “gender roles are socially constructed, therefore if you are a man who identifies as a woman, you just need to realise that your junk doesn’t matter because it needn’t affect your gender identity.” Thing is, if it were that easy – don’t you think they’d just DO that instead? A gay man is far more readily accepted in mainstream society than a trans woman.

    A little girl who plays with the boys is a tomboy; a little boy who plays with the girls is a sissy. A little girl who wants to BE a boy is still a tomboy – but a little boy who wants to BE a girl is statistically far more likely to be taken for psychiatric evaluation. Society unconsciously believes that male is better than female, so it at least understands women wanting to be like men (even if it also judges and censures them for it). But a man who wants to be a woman is falling from grace; a male who does not behave like a male is one thing, but a male trying BE female is beneath even female.

    So this idea that trans women are just mindlessly conforming to the gender binary of patriarchy is just plain ridic; if they COULD just “accept that they’re gay instead”, or some other such facile suggestion of the kind RFs often give , they would. In fact, they would have a MUCH easier life of it doing so. But they don’t, so clearly, it isn’t that simple. How on earth can RF hope to dismantle gender, if it isn’t prepared to work with others who understand full well the effects it has on people’s lives and identities?

    Feminism acknowledges the role of conditioning in gender construction, and seeks ways to help women understand and come to terms with it in their own lives. I don’t see how it’s helpful to dismiss women whose need for this is as powerful as that of any woman who was born biologically female, on the basis that they’re standing in the way of these ‘real’ women. As Dan points out, you’re alienating potential allies from a struggle that EVERYONE here has a stake in. And what’s more, by positioning them as antagonists for challenging your own beliefs about gender, you’re basically throwing a fellow oppressed group under the bus to further your own group’s advancement.

    It wasn’t that long ago that the medical industry was pathologizing women who didn’t conform to the gender binary as mentally unstable. Seems to me that certain RFs are now doing the same thing, with an already-even more oppressed group than themselves. And frankly, it doesn’t hold up; if gender is more than physical, then it doesn’t matter if that woman at the meeting used to be a man – what matters is her experience as a woman. RF’s insistence that her possible erstwhile junk invalidates this is incompatible with its thesis that gender is a social construct; it denies the biological determinism of gender, while using it to exclude others when it suits.

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