Radical Feminism is for Sisters, Not Just Cisters:
Why We Need an Overtly Trans-Inclusive Radical Feminist Resurgence
This paper engages with the idea that radical feminism is inherently transphobic and exclusionary, exploring gray areas in what some have criticized as radical feminism’s promotion of a biologically essentialist position on the concepts of sex and gender. It places current discourse on transphobia within feminist communities in conversation with early and later radical feminist thought in order argue that radical feminism is not inherently transphobic and that discourse between communities is possible and should be fostered in order to move toward the trans-inclusive healing of a deep conceptual wound across communities. The paper argues that the claim that radical feminism is inherently transphobic is problematic and inaccurate because it collapses all of radical feminism and because it fails to consider parts of radical feminism that are gender-inclusive, such as the writings of Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde, and Andrea Dworkin, who embrace a more open and socially constructed conceptualization of gender while concurrently critiquing masculinity, misogyny, and patriarchy. Ultimately, the article argues for a trans-inclusive radical feminism as a resolution to current tensions between radical feminists and transgender activists and allies.
Radical Feminism is for Sisters, Not Just Cisters:
Why We Need an Overtly Trans-Inclusive Radical Feminist Resurgence
Thanks to social media, something uncomfortable has surfaced during the last couple of years: a cyber war of words over transgender inclusion within the radical feminist community. On the surface, this debate appears to be between radical feminists and the transgender community. Beneath the surface of what has manifested as name-calling and excessive anger and misunderstanding, however, are the real lives of transgender women and cisgender women, and the valid and sometimes questionable theoretical and philosophical positions held by them. Even further beneath the surface of this debate between trans-exclusionary feminists and transgender and ally activists is a history of radical thought and activism that is being lost and twisted in the heat of the war of words. This history, richly available to us in the form of radical feminist theory and activist narratives, needs to be revisited in order to help us make sense of this debate, treat all of those within it with dignity, and come to a radical feminist resolution. The radical feminist resolution we need is one that that takes into strong consideration radical feminism’s roots, clarifies the difference between essentialist radical feminism and non-essentialist radical feminism, stresses the difference between transphobic radical feminism and transinclusive radical feminism, and begins to pave a path for a new overtly trans-inclusive radical feminism.
In order to come to a starting-point radical feminist resolution-of-(trans)inclusion, it is necessary to address whether or not radical feminism is universally and unequivocally essentialist with regard to definitions of sex and gender. In this paper, I will approach the issue in two ways. I will argue that many of the early theories produced by radical feminists reveal that radical feminism is not an entirely essentialist form of feminism and demonstrate that radical feminism allows for non-essentialist (social constructionist) definitions of sex and gender that are compatible with transinclusion (note: it is a problematically and ironically essentializing position to place all of radical feminist thought under the umbrella of ‘essentialism’). I will also argue that while transphobia can be the result of essentialism, essentialism does not always result in transphobia – there can be essentializing feminist ideas that are not also overtly transphobic ones, as it is possible to engage in criticisms of patriarchal sex/gender practices without engaging in transphobia. By examining a range of radical feminist perspectives, I hope to establish that radical feminism is not inherently transphobic and that biological essentialism is (a) more nuanced than it appears and (b) is not a defining characteristic of all radical feminist ideas.
Following the example of Greta Gaard’s 2011 attempt to unearth and bring ecofeminism back into feminist conversations around environmentalism, in “Ecofeminism Revisited: Rejecting Essentialism and Re-Placing Species in Material Feminist Environmentalism,” radical feminists need to bring radical feminism back into feminist conversations around issues related to identity, gender-based violence, and power. We can follow Gaard’s example because the criticisms of essentialism that were directed toward ecofeminism are similar to the criticisms that are being launched against radical feminism – ecofeminism was a radical branch of feminism to begin with, and so Gaard’s approach is especially pertinent. Gaard argues that “recuperating ecofeminist insights… provides feminist foundations for current liberatory theories and activisms” (2011, p. 27). In order to address the way radical feminism has come under fire, rightly or wrongly so, in the debate about trans inclusion within the feminist community, attention needs to be paid to radical feminist origins, wherein there is evidence that, while some radical feminists took overtly transphobic biologically essentializing positions, many radical feminists did not. In fact, a number of trailblazing radical feminists, whose contributions define radical feminism, produced theory that demonstrates openness to social constructionist definitions of sex/gender.
While I will not be able to recuperate insights over the past thirty years of radical feminism in this paper, I will engage the long-time debate over whether or not radical feminism is essentialist as well as with the current debate over whether radical feminism is inherently transphobic, a debate that has become so charged it’s not currently functioning toward diplomacy and the improvement of radical feminism. Disagreements and intellectual debates are healthy within any movement, but when they become vitriolic, everyone loses. In the case of this debate over terminology and inclusion, especially with the insult slinging that has been taking place on social media, for many radical feminists, “the fear of contamination” in speaking out “is just too strong” for them to actually do so, regardless of their beliefs— or their confusion. But it is unconscionable not to speak out when “charges of gender essentialism” are being made again, in a contemporary context (Gaard, 2011, p. 27). It is important to try to understand why these charges are being made and how theory can be used to speak back to them.
The anti-radical-feminist sentiment as well as the transphobia that has come out of this debate is desperately in need of theoretical attention and sensitive responses, responses that are not charged by fear and that direct the fury at the correct target: namely, misogyny. My intention in this essay is to contextualize a cyber debate within a theoretical debate in order to initiate what I hope will be an effort to encourage a more inclusive, and therefore, expansive, radical feminist conversation on the navigation of gender/sex at a time when patriarchal sexual violence remains prevalent, affecting both transgender and cisgender women’s lives.
Because a lot of this debate has taken place on social media, carried out anonymously by internet users who conceal their identities, it is difficult to trace the lineage of its development into its current manifestation, but the debate is not unconnected to debates that have been going on within the radical feminist community for decades. In fact, it is infused with all of the intensity and urgency for which radical feminism is known. The debate boils down to the issue of the way in which radical feminism defines gender/sex. For many years, the sex/gender distinction, in which sex is equated with biology/bodily organs and gender is considered a social construction, has been part of both radical feminist and post-modern feminist thought. The question of whether or not radical feminism is biologically essentialist has been addressed perhaps most notably by Judith Butler, whose Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity names and addresses the issue of essentialism in radical feminism. Butler opens the book by stating that “contemporary feminist debates over the meanings of gender lead time and again to a certain sense of trouble, as if the indeterminacy of gender might eventually culminate in the failure of feminism” (Butler, 1990, p. ix). With this, Butler identifies a radical feminist phobia of disintegration that is tied to definitions of sex/gender. Butler continues their criticism of what they characterizes as an almost-paranoid feminist stance by signaling a major departure from the essentialism that they have identified, offering a path out of its limitations.
The post-modern theoretical path Butler constructs is generated from the point of the criticism that “for the most part, feminist theory has assumed that there is some existing identity, understood through the category of women, who not only initiates feminist interests and goals within discourse, but constitutes the subject for whom political representation is pursued” (Butler, 1990, p. 1). This unfolds in an examination of the role of the subject, which Butler characterizes as part of a “foundationalist fiction” of a “common identity” (p. 3). The radical feminist ideas to which Butler refers in Gender Trouble are present in the writings of Adrienne Rich (who wrote The Dream of a Common Language), Mary Daly, Audre Lorde, and others, whose theoretical contributions, not anticipating Butler’s work but certainly speaking against criticisms of their own work, sought to establish communities built around common identities. The need for identification, which resulted at times in forms of essentialism, produced work that has come to be associated with past and present criticisms of radical feminism. Mary Daly’s Gyn/Ecology is a striking example of a work that asserts a biologically essentialist position in some respects and that takes on criticisms of that position, but that does so in a nuanced way. In this book, Daly in no uncertain terms “names the enemy” in an essentializing way, primarily in terms of maleness. Her basis for doing so is that “we live in a profoundly anti-female society, a misogynistic ‘civilization’ in which men collectively victimize women” (Daly, 1978, p. 29). She is careful to note that throughout the book, she does not place the terms ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ in quotes— that she uses “both of these terms to refer to roles/stereotypes/sets of characteristics which are essentially distorted and destructive to the Self and to her process and environment” (p. 26). Here, Daly makes a bold essentialist move, but it is not one that denies social constructionism altogether, as it is obvious that her position acknowledges gender in terms of roles as well as sex, at least where she feels it is pertinent to make such a distinction.
In her footnotes, Daly states that she “reserve[s] the term Lesbian to describe women who are woman-identified, having rejected false loyalties to men on all levels” and she states that “the terms gay or female homosexual more accurately describe women who… give their allegiance to men and male myths” (Daly, 1978, p. 26). Daly’s position is a reactionary one – politically motivated. Her resistance against hetero-centric and male-centric patriarchal culture manifests in an oppositional lesbian radical feminism that attempts to reject all forms of one side of the heteropatriarchal binary by seeking refuge in lesbian-exclusivity. Although not speaking directly to Daly’s work, Butler does problematize the categorical essentialism inherent in it, but they situate this within the larger debate rather that dealing with Daly’s and others’ ideas, stating that “the notion of a universal patriarchy has been widely criticized in recent years” (Butler, 1990, p. 3). Butler offers a criticism of what they call a “premature insistence on a stable subject of feminism, understood as a seamless category of women,” claiming that this forms “domains of exclusion” that “reveal the coercive and regulatory consequences of that construction, even when the construction has been elaborated for emancipatory purposes” (p. 4). Butler’s global criticisms of the essentialist limitations of the (radical) feminist agenda are important but Butler’s work, though it opens up many theoretical doors, is not directly and solely an attack on radical feminist ideas – their theoretical contributions do not represent an effort to destroy radical feminist thought; the ideas represent an expansion of the existing paradigms and movement in a new, more fluid and inclusive direction, one that doesn’t erase issues around the enforcement of gender stereotypes but that looks at them through a different lens.
Butler’s work takes on the same issues to which the work of radical feminists such as Mary Daly attends, and they concede in Gender Trouble that “within a language pervasively masculinist, a phallogocentric language, women constitute the unrepresentable… the sex that cannot be thought, a linguistic absence and opacity (with reference to Luce Irigaray’s 1985 This Sex Which is Not One). Butler moves forward from this discussion by locating women in multiplicity and engages with the work philosophically, a departure from the approach taken to address the same issue by radical feminists. Butler establishes the need for a shift in approach when they write that feminist critiques “ought to explore the totalizing claims of a masculinist signifying economy, but also remain self-critical with respect to the totalizing gestures of feminism” (Butler, 1990, p.13). Their criticisms of radical feminism’s “totalizing gestures” represent larger, more widespread criticisms that radical feminism received in the 80s, and this wave of criticism continues to follow radical feminism and manifest in conversations about sex/gender that are taking place today, particularly in social media battles.
Butler is careful in making their criticisms of radical feminism not to collapse radical feminism into a stereotype while still pointing to an essentialist pattern of limitation within the work, across the board. Butler’s goal, it is obvious, is not to throw away or condemn the work of radical feminists to an oblivion of triviality; it is to shed new light on an area still in need to attention but also in need of a more expansive means of exploration. Butler’s work does not work against radical feminism; it works with it, but moves in new direction, reshaping it and moving beyond it. It is a mischaracterization of Butler’s criticisms of feminist scholarship to take it purely as a replacement. Their criticism of radical feminism’s “totalizing gestures,” aimed at calling out the re-inscription of gender stereotypes as a basis for a phenomenological alternative, does not address specifically the work of those who might be called radical feminists, outside of Luce Irigaray, Simone de Beauvoir, Monique Wittig, and a couple of others, such as Denise Riley and Nancy Cott, whose work Butler gestures toward in a somewhat cursory way (directing us toward their work at the end of Gender Trouble, in their Notes section). The criticisms are offered globally, but references to the work of Dworkin, Mackinnon, and others are absent. This is not a criticism of Butler’s work in the book because Butler’s task was not to lambast radical feminism but to fill a gap in an area of it that they and others found limiting or missing.
What might be missing in Butler’s work that is present in the work of various radical feminists is specific attention to the issue of power. Radical feminists, such as Dworkin, Daly, Lorde, and hooks, are very much concerned about the role of authority and power: specifically, the power held by men and the patriarchy. Gayle Rubin comes forth more directly and pointedly than Butler in her criticisms of radical feminism and in making the claim that radical feminism promotes an unreasonable and unhelpful essentialism that is contingent on the erasure of difference. Rubin’s criticisms of radical feminist ideas come out of her own association with radical feminism just as much as they come out of her departure from that association. In “Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality,” Rubin addresses the issue of power, mapping out diagrams of sex hierarchies in an attempt to stand up to the demonization of alternative sexualities and sexual practices. Within this essay is a section titled “The Limits of Feminism” in which Rubin argues for a more radical theory of sex by pointing out the flaws in (radical) feminism. While her primary focus in this essay is on sexuality (sex as an act rather than sex as reproductive anatomy and gender identity), her argument touches on the debate over biologizing essentialism within radical feminism.
Rubin criticizes feminism for its demonizing of sexuality, its antiporn rhetoric, and its scapegoating, and she claims that “this demon sexology [imparted by feminists] directs legitimate anger at women’s lack of personal safety against individuals, practices, and communities” (Rubin, 2011, p. 172). Rubin demonstrates that she is able to identify both legitimacy and limitations within radical feminist thinking. Interestingly, there seems to be a pattern within Rubin’s and Butler’s work of speaking holistically about feminism without a great deal of engagement with specific textual errors in logic within radical feminism. Yet Rubin does recognize the issue of power as an important one to which radical feminism earnestly and continually responds. Rubin names Catherine MacKinnon and Sheila Jeffreys as points of radical feminist reference in addressing “The Limits of Feminism.” Her focus on MacKinnon is important to what is currently going on in social media conversations because it has to do with challenging what she calls MacKinnon’s “definitional fusion” of sex and gender. She credits MacKinnon with making “the most explicit theoretical attempt to subsume sexuality under feminist thought,” and quotes MacKinnon’s claim that sexuality, through a feminist lens, is “what organizes society into two sexes, women and men” (qtd. in Rubin, p. 179). While Rubin finds this organization troubling, she also recognizes that its focus on sexual oppression reflects radical feminism’s attempts to develop conceptual tools to “detect and analyze gender-based hierarchies” and she acknowledges that with regard to “erotic stratifications” feminist theory has “some explanatory power” (Rubin, 2011, p. 180). Rubin’s point in making these claims is to shift the focus from gender toward sexuality so that critiques of gender hierarchy are part of a radical sexual theory, but she believes “feminist thought simply lacks angles of vision that can encompass fully the social organization of sexuality” (p. 180). Rubin’s concerns are answered within her own work, but they focus specifically on sexuality and don’t touch as much as would be helpful on definitions of sex.
It is hard to see in these critiques a damnation of radical feminism, although Rubin clearly points to an area that hasn’t adequately been developed or addressed (or at least updated). While Rubin may turn outside of and away from radical feminist theory in addressing the gap, it is possible to look to it for possible avenues of development to fill in the gap. There needs to be a recognition that the work that was and is being done outside of radical feminist theory was and is, to varying degrees, the result of the work of radical feminists. Without the contributions of radical feminists, and their differing degrees of essentialism, there would not be a conversation about moving beyond that essentialism. While certain forms of radical feminist theory might lack the “angles of vision” that Rubin wishes to encounter, there are forms of it that offer complex angles of vision, ones that have not adequately been drawn upon and, instead, have been abandoned or dismissed because of the stigma attached to the category that frames the work.
MacKinnon’s work might not offer an avenue for the development of a radical feminist theory of sexual pluralism that is critical and aware of hierarchies and power but not reductionist in that criticism and awareness, but there are avenues for radical feminist angles of vision that can conceive of the spectrums of identity and sexuality while remaining critical of the hierarchies within them. This can be seen in the work of Dworkin, Rich, and Lorde, and it challenges the notions put forth by Rubin and others that “radical (mostly feminist) writing [on S/M or otherwise] is a hopeless muddle of bad assumptions, inaccurate information, and a thick-headed refusal to accept evidence which contravenes preconceptions” (Rubin, 2011, p. 135). Rubin’s general criticisms of radical feminism are echoed in the social media debates taking place today; except on social media, the attempt to theorize is replaced by attack-mode rhetorical attempts to instigate, shame, and divide. By looking more closely at work by radical feminists that contradicts this globalizing characterization and by producing radical feminist theoretical work in the present that poses a challenge to this characterization, it may be possible to expand the field and to diffuse some of the harmful aspects of the social media wars between transphobic rad femmes and transgender activists.
Some of the “bad rap” associated with radical feminism and what’s behind the essentialist subsuming of a diverse array of radical feminist ideas into one category comes out of the work of trans-critical feminist writers Janice Raymond and Sheila Jeffreys. Raymond wrote The Transsexual Empire in 1979 and Jeffreys wrote The Spinster and Her Enemies in 1985, and both books have been criticized widely for harboring hostilities toward sexual liberation and expression, as well as for promoting transphobia. Work produced by both has been scrutinized and lambasted by both critical theorists and the public who accuse the writers of being transphobic and of perpetuating transphobia. What is most problematic about this is that one strain of extremist radical feminist writing is being inaccurately used to represent a diverse range of thought with a foundation that is not inherently transphobic. Much of the social media debates, as well as what is calling itself and being called radical feminism on social media, seems to be grounded in the pattern of thought associated with Raymond and Jeffreys, at the expense of the larger scope of work that comprises radical feminism.
At the beginning of her 2014 book, Gender Hurts: A Feminist Analysis of the Politics of Transgenderism, Sheila Jeffreys offers a global characterization of her work, stating that it “offers a feminist perspective on the ideology and practice of transgenderism, which the author sees as harmful” and “argues for the abolition of ‘gender,’ which would remove the rationale for transgenderism.” This global characterization accurately describes Jeffrey’s unpopular view; it is, indeed a (as in one, singular) feminist perspective, but it is not a direct reflection of feminism or of radical feminism, as there are many feminisms and many forms of radical feminism, and Jeffrey’s extreme transphobic view is a minority view. When Jeffreys’ writes that her book “argues, from a feminist perspective” the way in which ‘gender’ “hurts people and societies” (Jeffreys, 2014, p. 1), she is engaging in the blatant over-generalizing essentialism of which radical feminists have been and continue to be accused. To say that Jeffreys’ approach is biologically essentialist is accurate but to say that it represents radical feminism or that radical feminism is biologically essentialist is inaccurate. If one is able to look past the painful transphobia and gross over-generalizations inherent in Jeffreys’ work, there are traces of legitimate concerns that have been misdirected into transphobia and mischaracterized, such as the concern that all people, trans and cisgender, “give authority to outdated notions of essential differences” (Jeffreys, 2014, p. 2). Jeffreys’ locates her concern over the reification of essential gender stereotypes within queer theory and what she calls “gender/transgender feminism.” She denies the existence of gender as an essentialist category, but fails to take into consideration that not all trans or cisgendered people consider their gender to be an inherent and essentialist expression of the self (some do, but not all do).
Because Jeffreys’ work does rely on the notion that biology is the basis of women’s subordination by men, in fulfillment of the radical feminist stereotype, she places all of gender within the category of “social construction” but she problematically does so in order to maintain sex as the primary and only category of “real” (i.e., biological) selfhood and to relegate gender as a form of social construction that is harmful. Jeffreys’ contends that “transgender theory and practice contradict the very basis of feminism, since feminism is a political movement based on the experience of persons who are women, born female and raised in the female sex caste” (Jeffreys, 2014, p. 36). This is a highly problematic claim about the definition of feminism, and it produces a false idea of a feminism that acts primarily as a biological gate-keeping tool. As a defense mechanism, Jeffreys attempts to situate and justify her stance by citing a few moments of trans-exclusion and division among feminists over trans-inclusion that took place during the 70s.
Almost all of the references in Jeffreys’ chapter on transgenderism and feminism center on works produced by Janice Raymond and Robin Morgan, although at times she appropriates the work of Kate Millet in defense of her position, as well. Jeffreys refers to Morgan and Raymond when she claims that “at the height of second wave feminism in the 1970s… there was a quite general political rejection of the practice [of transgenderism] by feminists on the grounds that [it], called transsexualism at the time, replicated sex role stereotypes… that were seen as the building blocks of the subordination of women” (Jeffreys, 2014, p. 36). She cites Robin Morgan’s account of a 1973 West Coast Lesbian Conference in which the conference was divided over the attendance of “a male transvestite who insisted that he was (1) an invited participant, (2) really a woman, and (3) at heart a lesbian” (qtd. in Jeffreys, p. 37). The reaction to what was seen by some as an intrusion and others as a welcome presence is described by Jeffreys in support of a transphobic position that denies the existence and validity of transgenderism/transvestitism and that equates both with caricatures of gender stereotypes engaged in by members of the trans community for “their own amusement or pleasure” (Jeffreys, 2014, p. 37). This is a gross reduction and misrepresentation of transgenderism. Jeffreys might be on point in describing the divisiveness that a transgender lesbian’s presence at a lesbian conference in the 70s caused, at a time when the climate was hostile toward transgender people and when linguistic apparatuses for the assertion of selfhood were unavailable, but she refers to this example as if it is laudable and evidence of the validity of the transphobic reactionary response that ensued. It is also important to note, as Morgan’s transphobic remarks convey, that while “more than half the women there Friday evening demanded he be forced to leave… others… defended him as their ‘sister’ (qtd. in Jeffreys, p. 37). Taking this one example of transphobic exclusion as evidence of radical feminism’s stance on transgenderism is unfair: the reactionary chaos that ensued at the conference, however, does mirror some of the reactionary chaos that is ensuing on social media today.
In 1978 at the WCLC conference, the individual who was ousted from the conference was a minority of one – the treatment of that individual, one hopes, would never repeat itself today at a feminist conference. The tides have turned in the conversation and the balance of viewpoints has shifted so that transphobic radical feminists would be much more likely to be ousted at a conference than would be transgender individuals, yet this dynamic of inclusion/exclusion continues to be harmful, both as a paradigm and a practice, regardless of underlying perspective. Jeffreys supports her assertion that “transgender ‘feminism’” is based on the views of “men who consider themselves transgender” and she refers to Kate Millet’s work to promote distrust of what she claims it argues: that “gender difference and femininity must be protected from the feminists who seek to demolish them” (Jeffreys, 2014, p. 48). The concern that Jeffreys locates in Millet’s work is that denial of transgenderism is an extension of second wave feminism’s commitment to “wrench[ing] the idea of what a woman is away from patriarchal ideologies and institutions” (48). While Jeffrey’s characterization of “the heady days of the 1970s, when the feminist project was to eliminate what were then called sex roles” (188), this project of 70s radical feminism that Jeffreys describes is more complex and nuanced than her assertion indicates – and the word “eliminate” might be contestable. Various radical feminist writers have addressed sex roles in unique ways, raising valid concerns and criticisms about patriarchally-determined sex roles without doing so for the purpose of eliminating them all together or of promoting transphobia and the elimination of gender.
Contrary to what Jeffreys posits throughout much of her book, there are ways of critiquing patriarchal ideologies and institutions without purposely excluding transgender individuals and others in the process. Concerns about the re-inscription of strict binaristic gender roles are legitimate concerns but the way to address these concerns is not to throw away gender altogether or to exclude and deny transgender and other queer or non-binary identities. Jeffreys’ work represents one strain of thought within radical feminism, but this strain is being confused in contemporary conversations on social media with radical feminism as a whole. It is not that transphobic radical feminists should be ousted from radical feminist and other feminist conversations, but neither should trans-inclusive radical feminists be blamed for the transphobia inherent in the work of some radical feminists. What needs to happen is for trans-inclusive feminists to respond to transphobic feminists, and to raise their voices up in support of the transgender community in order to dispel false notions about radical feminism and challenge transphobic forms of radical feminism— with new inclusive radical feminist theory.
While it is important to recognize and be aware of the work of transphobic radical feminists, and to remain in conversation with them, this is not the direction in which radical feminism should be moving. One of the main issues of the debate is that the rhetoric being used is so inflammatory (see Appendix I & II) that it is breaking down our capacity to engage in diplomatic and productive conversation. Legitimate concerns are being suppressed by charged rhetoric. Name-calling and fear of it has made it hard for those on the cyber frontlines to be rational and fair, let alone engaged in a sustainable way. But name-calling and its use to weaken the movement to end patriarchal oppression is not something new for feminist debates. Name-calling has been something women who call themselves feminists or who have been called feminists have faced since the 1400s, when the movement of feminism is said to have taken shape. It is important to consider some of the basic ideas between 1400 and 1789 that formed a foundation for various strands of feminist thought and movements to come because they help us to understand the gender debate and the positions asserted within it. Joan Kelly, in her 1982 essay “Early Feminist Theory and the Querelle des Femmes” describes a core tenet of the origins of feminism as the “belief that the sexes are culturally, and not just biologically, formed; a belief that women were a social group shaped to fit male notions about a defective sex” (Treichler, 2005, p. 7). Here, even in this earliest historically accounted for conception of feminism, we see articulated some of the elements of the incendiary debate that continues today. While gender was not a term being used by those working for the liberation of women in the 15th through the 18th centuries, Kelly’s summation of early feminism’s beliefs about sex acknowledge a definitional notion of sex that is complex and that is both biological and beyond biology – the notion of a cultural construction of sex, which proliferated and sometimes troubled contemporary feminist communities with the advent of post-modern feminism, especially the work of Judith Butler.
The debate over how to define sex and gender, and over the way in which definitions of each function in individuals’ lives and communities, affecting and being affected by issues and other identity differences, continues to develop; however, in the cyber world, lately, this debate has become so vehement and destructive that feminist scholars need to become involved with, rather than avoid, it. Here is what needs to happen:
Revisiting Rad Fem Theory:
We need to revisit radical feminist theory. Not just once, not just twice, but regularly. It is not dead. It is not a thing of the past disjointed from today. It is not just for feminist lesbian old timers. It is not just for cisgender women; it is an ongoing theoretical conversation for women: transwomen and ciswomen and for queer and non-binary folx. We need radical feminist theory to be part of our cyber and face-to-face conversations on issues related to how sex and gender are defined. And we need people to be talking about the ideas of feminist theory rather than using terms like “rad fem” strictly as a pejorative term for a transphobic woman.
Listen and Respond to Both Rad Fem and Trans Communities:
Some of the concerns that radical feminists have expressed over trans-inclusion are rooted in feminist theoretical definitions of notions surrounding sexual violence and misogyny; others are rooted in transphobia. It is important to distinguish between the two, and to respond critically to the legitimate concerns as well as the phobic prejudices. Similarly, the complex concerns and radical feminist phobias of the transgender community need to be considered and addressed.
Engaging in Trans-Safer Rad Fem Conversations:
We need to have a theoretical conversation that is charged but also sensitive, radical but also respectful, one that seeks to radicalize feminist ideas in a way that honors the realities of trans, cis, and queer women’s lives, one that tries not to essentialize except when it is necessary, and one that takes into consideration developments in thinking that arose out of post-modern and other feminisms, and to utilize them in the development of new radical feminist ideas.
Writing New Trans-Positive Rad Fem Theory:
We need to write new radical feminist theory. We cannot advance this conversation in a productive way without taking its social media shitstorm seriously and seeing what is happening on social media as being a substantive event, one that needs to be considered theoretically, and one that reflects and affects the current state of things. We need to develop safer dialogues between transgender women and cisgender women, and we need to begin to create a space for a queer- and trans-positive radical feminist theory.
We need to develop a queer and trans-inclusive radical feminism, and to include trans women’s voices and non-binary queer radical feminist voices, but this cannot happen without looking at some of what radical feminists have had to say about sex/gender, as well as what post-modern feminism contributes to our modern uses of radical feminist ideas. Contemporary accusations of essentialism that have been re-made against radical feminists need to be understood historically. It is simply not true that all modern radical feminists believe that sex/gender is universal and inextricably tied to biology. Even those radical feminists who adopt the belief that sex and gender are inextricably tied or that sex should be given priority over gender in legal and community definitions of gender have reasons for adopting these beliefs, and while they may be disagreeable ones, they should be given consideration. The trans-hatred and trans-phobia that often frames these beliefs makes them so difficult and uncomfortable to navigate that they are often either avoided or dismissed altogether. It is certainly understandable for the transgender community to not want to navigate a conversation that is framed by and infused with transphobic hatred, and this is why it is the responsibility of radical feminists who wish to act as allies to the transgender community to do this work.
Transphobia and violence against transgender people is a problem within the radical feminist community, just as it is a problem in the larger world community, but it is one that radical feminists committed to being allies can help alleviate by being outspoken advocates. Problematically, in a backlash against radical feminist transphobia, radical feminist phobia (phobic hatred directed toward radical feminists, often lesbians) has spread, and along with it misinformation about what radical feminism was and is and a resurgence of hatred toward the radical feminist community. While the phobic element, generating hatred on both sides – and inciting rhetorical oversimplifications that result in further divides – continues to spread rampantly on social media, trans-positive radical feminists can and should come together to address the issue in written theoretical mediums as well as at conferences and in community organizing contexts.
The oversimplification of what radical feminist thought encompasses arises out of defensiveness from the trans community that feels it has been harmed by exclusion from radical feminist spaces and consciousness. Setting the oversimplification aside as a matter of a defensive/protective mechanism necessitated by a history of victimization, we can consider the issue of exclusion by turning to radical feminist theory and its early definitions of sex/gender, making contemporary sense and adjustments where needed. Adrienne Rich begins her exploration of motherhood, in the foreword to her Of Woman Born, by making the claim that “All human life on the planet is born of woman” (Rich, 1976, p. 11). She begins with a biologizing trope but its meaning and the intentionality behind the statement are more expansive than the line itself suggests. Read in context, in light of the entirety of the book and in light of her other work, the line is meant to de-center the patriarchal notion of creation – to dismantle the myth of the father and to liberate women’s consciousness from patriarchal entrapment. Neither the line nor the book were written in a vacuum; they were written in response to patriarchal beliefs and practices that hijacked women’s biology, their bodies, especially the bodies of women of color, for men’s pleasure, sexual and labor exploitation, and commodification.
Rich was attempting to engage in consciousness raising by liberating the trope of the mother from its bondage to the trope of the father. The biological metaphor was an emancipatory one at the time, and it was not written solely to reify a sexual divide, even if it had that effect. It was intended to liberate women’s consciousness from an ideological patriarchal dominion that affects women’s bodies, and to deepen our understanding of “the division of labor according to gender” established by “the makers…of culture, the names, [who] have been the songs of the mothers” (Rich, 1976, p. 11). The essentialism was a response to essentialism, needed at the time, but it was also more than that because in order to understand Rich’s words you need to understand the depth of her understanding of language and its metaphoric capacities.
Rich’s work on motherhood, womanhood, and lesbian consciousness was not created to act as a rhetorical biological prison for feminists; it was meant to deepen our understanding of the sociopolitical status of women’s bodies and the exploitations of these bodies. She expresses, at the end of the book, that she is reaching toward an unknown destination, toward ‘ways of thinking that we don’t yet know about’ (Rich, 1976, p. 283). Rooting this in the female body, which she describes as having been “both territory and machine, virgin wilderness to be exploited and assembly-line turning out life” is not to discount the experiences of transgender women but to give tangibility to the experiences of cisgender women whose biology, for centuries, has been used to subjugate and harm them. By trying to convince readers to “imagine a world in which every woman is the presiding genius of her own body,” Rich encourages women, those who reproduce and those who do not, to claim the powers that be of the body (p. 285). While written historically with cisgender women in mind, these words and many ideas expressed in Of Woman Born are relevant to both trans- and cis- gender women. Rich’s references to “creating life” are metaphorical and the metaphorical possibilities of the book supersede its biological references – life can be created in so many ways by women. Rich would not have ended her book with the call for the transformation of thinking through the “visions and the thinking necessary to sustain, console, and alter human existence” if this were not the case (p. 286). We need to return to Rich’s words and see in them a response to socially-conscious history and an invitation into a new trans-inclusive conversation.
Consider part of Rich’s poem, “Dialogue” which is excerpted at the beginning of Catharine MacKinnon’s essay “Sexuality”:
then she says (and this is what I live through over and over)— she says: I do not know
if sex is an illusion
I do not know
who I was when I did those things
or who I was when I said I was
or whether I willed to feel
what I read about
or who in fact was there with me
or whether I knew, even then
that there was doubt about these things (qtd. in MacKinnon, 2005, p. 475)
Rich, as a poet attuned to the infinite capacities of language but also aware of how language can be used by ourselves and others to trap us, and as a respected thinker and radical feminist, was opening up possibilities for gender, beyond biology, with these words. The question of who, which the poem raises, is a question of identity – and the questioning of the self is an emancipation from strictly biological definitions of the self, in terms of both gender and sexual identity. The poem, arising from the consciousness of a radical lesbian feminist, is not a biologizing exploration of identity; it is, rather, a poetic philosophizing gesture that connects identity to the ineffable, pointing to the performative and connecting with Judith Butler’s post-modern notion of identity as “tenuously constituted in time” and “instituted through a stylized repetition of acts” (MacKinnon, 2005, p. 519).
Read and understood in this context, Rich’s poem is many things at once, including an expression of lesbian consciousness, a representation of radical feminist thinking, and a phenomenological approach to dealing with sex/gender. It is a mistake to consider Rich’s radical feminist work, including her poetry, as only promoting “naturalistic explanations of sex and sexuality that assume that the meaning of women’s social existence can be derived from some fact of their physiology” (Butler 520). Considered holistically, Rich’s work developed and made space for alternative ways of identifying and relating in an attempt to broaden our understanding of women, not to limit or constrain it. Likewise, her radical feminist essay, “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence,” published in 1980, does not mandate a strictly biologized definition of sex/gender, but it does locate sex/gender in primarily biological terms: using “female” and “male” in referencing sex/gender. Her biologizing terms, with which she locates the source of women’s subjugation in compulsory heterosexuality and to which she sees lesbian existence as an alternative, is not an attempt to leave transgender individuals bereft of a theory to which they can relate and find empowerment.
It must be understood that at the time the essay was written, ‘transgender’ as an identity was just beginning to come into consciousness. Biology was what had, preceding this work, been used to disempower women and keep them laboring for the benefit of men, and the crisis in the treatment of women produced feminist work that was immediate and drastic, and that employed biological terms in the struggle against disempowerment. So much of the exploitation of women is tied to the use of their bodies for reproduction. Given this fact, a focus on the biological experience of women is not off-base and has a place in feminist theory. That this necessary focus on biology should either (a) serve as a grounds for the exclusion of transgender women from the radical feminist movement by transphobic radical feminists or (b) serve as the grounds for the vilification and oversimplification of radical feminism by the trans community is unacceptable and detrimental to the work that had been and is being done for the liberation of those most harmed by misogyny and patriarchal institutions and politics. The radical feminist community and the transgender community should be working together for the recognition of our rights, for our bodily and psychic autonomy, and for the recognition of our ideas and identities in public policy.
Rich’s efforts aimed to create a safe space for what at the time needed to be a biologized female consciousness, but her necessarily historically located words should not be taken out of their original context for the purpose of excluding transgender women. This would be a perversion of the role of the text, which was meant to empower women and not to disempower them. Rich writes in the essay that she “perceive[s] the lesbian experience as being, like motherhood, a profoundly female experience” and encourages her readers to “discover the erotic in female terms” in order to identify a “history of female resistance” (Rich, 2005, pgs. 349-355). While her conception of female leaves out transgender women, we can insert transgender women into the equation. To use Rich’s words to exclude transgender women by decontextualizing and recontextualizing Rich’s use of “female” is a terrible thing to do; it enacts a misreading of her work and produces a misuse of it that leads to harm. Instead, we should, understanding the historical context that produced Rich’s omission, include trans women in the category of female as it is used in the essay. Here, the divide between sex and gender matters and should be avoided for the purpose of engaging in trans-inclusive readings of Rich’s work and the work of other radical feminists. Here, also, sex and gender should be seen as one, and transgender women should read as females. Though this was not necessarily Rich’s intention, her later work and the entirety of her body of work suggest that to do so would absolutely be to act according to her outlook and intent.
Lesbian existence is for transgender women and non-binary folx just as much as it is for cisgender women. To try to exclude trans women from Rich’s radical notion of lesbian existence would be to enact the very thing her essay tries to combat: “the denial of reality and visibility of women’s passion for women, women’s choice of women as allies, life companions, and community” (Rich, 2005, p. 353). Trans women are a vital part of the still-relevant lesbian continuum that provides a space for women to “delight in each other’s company and attraction to each other’s minds and character” while also “undo[ing] the power” cisgendered white “men everywhere wield over women” (Rich, 2005, p. 355). Rich’s work addresses the construct of ‘woman’ as a sex-based concept but she does not deny phenomenological accounts of the body as, in the Merleau-Pontian sense, a “historical idea.” There is room within her biological references to females to move beyond a naturalizing approach (Butler, 1988, p. 520).
Similar to the way in which Butler finds in Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex an occasion for a phenomenological interpretation of the concept of gender, we can find in Rich’s work an occasion for a phenomenological reading of lesbian existence, one that considers femaleness as a “historical situation rather than natural fact” and that also includes trans female experience as part of the continuum of lesbian existence. We can do this and still work within a radical feminist perspective because radical feminism encompasses a diverse range of thought, and we need to continually work to recognize, honor, and maintain this. Just as Andrea Dworkin noted, in the introduction to Woman Hating, that most of the women involved in articulating the oppression of women were white and middle class” (Dworkin, 1976, p. 21), we should consider Rich’s role in speaking out and filling the gap of lesbian experience at the time. We should also consider what has been left out of her contributions based on her social location and identity as a cisgendered white lesbian woman. Radical feminist theory needs to seek to fill the gap in perspective so that we can curb our tendency to enact a homogenized form of feminism and our tendency to act as act “as oppressors of other people” (Dworkin, 1976, p. 21).
At the time that Dworkin was writing Woman Hating, it was especially necessary to identify violence and misogyny in terms of maleness. It is still necessary to do so, although we can use more specific language. When Dworkin states that “the commitment to ending male violence as a fundamental psychological, political, and cultural reality of earth-lived life is the fundamental revolutionary commitment,” she is not referring to transgender men (Dworkin, 1976, p. 17). The violence she speaks of is attached to a specific sex – the male sex. Understood historically, this makes sense; women were fighting for their lives against a misogyny so pervasive that identifying it in a tangible form in order to call it out was necessary. And from the standpoint of many women, trans and cis, who are survivors of sexual violence and abuse perpetrated by men, this approach still makes sense.
Despite Dworkin’s biologizing and scathing criticisms of male acts of domination over female bodies in Intercourse, some of the subjects in the book raise questions about how sex might be considered as gender rather than merely biology. Given that Dworkin’s work is some of the most extreme work produced by radical feminism, this is significant. Her discussion of Joan of Arc, in the chapter “Virginity,” suggests that there might be room in Dworkin’s work for development in a more expansive direction. For Dworkin in the context of this book, sex primarily refers to fucking: being fucked or fucking – as manifestations of male violence. She writes that “Joan rejected the status and the sex as one thing… she refused to be fucked and she refused civil insignificance” (Dworkin, 1987, p. 85). Later in this discussion, however, she turns to Joan’s gender transgressions: her virginity and her refusal to wear women’s clothing/ decision to wear men’s clothing – her rejection of the female identity, as it were, in its various manifestations. Joan’s refusal to wear women’s clothing when she was in prison, Dworkin asserts, was the last straw in the events that led to her death. Dworkin writes that “Joan’s unselfconscious and unrepentant assumption of a male role (both martial and heroic) was the crime against male supremacy that cost her life” (Dworkin, 1987, p. 100). She acknowledges a separation between sex and gender, and reveals a social constructionist reading of Joan of Arc. Dworkin then goes on to offer a sympathetic and close reading of Joan’s gender-non-conformity, stating that she “became an exile from gender” and was “essentially seen as a transvestite by scholars and artists who came after her” (Dworkin, p. 100). She also notes that characterizations of Joan’s gender nonconformity trivialized it as a “sexual kink, more style than substance” but points out that Joan was so unwilling to wear women’s clothes that she would rather be burned alive.
Dworkin’s treatment of Joan of Arc is an indication that she does not essentialize gender and equate it with sex but, rather, is capable of holding up gender non-conformity as a form of subversive radical feminist heroism. Joan of Arc identifies as a man, and this is liberation, according to Dworkin, from having to engage in intercourse, a stance that Dworkin lauds. Given this, transgender men and transgender women who are conscious of cisgender male violence can relate – and can also see that radical feminist theory is not inherently transphobic. In the above examples, it is obvious that Andrea Dworkin, a well-known figure and theorist within the radical feminist movement, is not a proponent of biological essentialism and makes room in her work for social constructivist treatments of gender.
The biologizing reference to maleness in Dworkin’s work becomes problematic when it is used to deny the validity of trans existence – which is practiced by transphobic feminists. The main complaint made by transphobic radical feminists is that transgender women are still males and, therefore, still part of and perpetuators of the system of “male dominance” to which Dworkin refers. Within this framework, the dismissal of gender and essentializing of identity as sex is done in an effort to keep spaces, such as bathrooms, safe from male violence. The equating of sex and gender for this purpose is done specifically to literally keep the penis out of the bathroom. But it also assumes an essentialism that goes beyond the penis because it persists even when the penis is not present. Radical feminist transphobia assumes that maleness cannot be changed and that it comes with a patriarchal male privilege that cannot be removed, regardless of the presence or absence of a penis. It does not take into consideration that radical feminist womyn- or women-only spaces were not created because of violence perpetrated by transgender women (who may or may not have penises). It holds as its essentializing truth that maleness is a condition that cannot be changed, and in doing so denies the existence of transgender women’s lives. It also fails to take into account the enormous patriarchal violence that has been committed against trans men and women – perpetrated primarily by cisgender men. This position is a hard one to dismantle, just as hard to dismantle as transphobia practiced by non-feminists and homophobia practiced by heterosexuals (and sometimes by homosexuals themselves).
Transphobia, like homophobia, is ingrained in our cultural psyche and is established and promoted in our social policies and institutions. It affects every kind of feminist, but because of radical feminism’s concerns over gender-specific violence, it seems unfortunately to have made a show of itself within the radical feminist community. This needs to be addressed, as transphobia is neither a radical feminist practice nor is it promoted by radical feminist theory— however, it is a practice that has emerged within the radical feminist community and so it needs to be combated by radical feminists, especially through the use of feminist theory using the very ideologies that are producing the radical feminist strain of transphobia. Radical feminists need to acknowledge that the “male domination” of Dworkin’s work, and referred to in the work of other radical feminists, is not trans domination. Privilege is privilege, and can be experienced to varying degrees, but if the question is one pertaining to the safety of women against male violence, then radical feminists should be considering the safety of trans women, because trans women are particularly vulnerable to the consequences of cis-male violence and domination.
Dworkin’s work troubles the current social media practice of lumping all radical feminists into an essentialist category, and it also reveals the way Dworkin was positioning herself within debates about essentialism that were taking place during the late seventies and eighties. Right around the time during which Intercourse was published, debates over definitions of “woman” and over essentialism within the feminist movement were shaping the feminist movement and dividing its members. Annamarie Jagose notes in her article, “Feminism’s Queer Theory,” that feminist work in the 1980s was “organized as a critique of essentialism, of the notion that there was an isolable specificity to the business of being a woman” (Jagose, 2009, p. 160). This critique was arising out of the work of feminists like Mary Daly whose writing focused on scoping out the category of “woman” and of liberating it from patriarchal narratives produced men, sometimes essentializing the category in order to do this. The insistence on biological femaleness as a category was intended to concretize women’s lived experiences in order to combat misogyny and carve out a new space for self-definition. When considering theory produced by Daly, a self-proclaimed (early) radical feminist lesbian theorist and scathing critic of the patriarchy, essentialism could and should be seen as a response to patriarchal essentialism that already existed and ruled over women for centuries. Yet Daly’s work and the way in which it is read today, like all theoretical work, is affected by limitations resulting from the period in which it was written. Gayle Rubin addresses these limitations in “Sex, Gender, Politics,” when she states that “texts are produced in particular historical moments and with specific horizons of possibility.” She notes the tendency “to treat a large body of texts as if they all exist on the same temporal plane” but urges readers of theory away from this practice when she notes that it is important to acknowledge and be aware of “specific moments” and “conditions” in order to “understand texts in their times” (Rubin, 2011, p. 1). Rubin’s introduction warns us against the practice of ignoring the nuance of temporality when engaging with theoretical ideas.
When considering the criticisms of biological essentialism made against and stereotyping of radical feminism as essentialist, one easy place to superficially target, or locate, those claims is in Mary Daly’s book, titled Gyn/Ecology: The Metaethics of Radical Feminism. An important place to test whether these claims are founded is in Daly’s preface, in which she refers to “the Female self and her Sisters” (Daly, 1978, p. xlvii). These biologizing references do not exist in a vacuum; Daly was using them to create an outsider space: one of community, one that is antithetical to patriarchy on some plane but that also reaches beyond it. Reading Daly’s references to biology without understanding her work as a language-disrupter, language-creator, and spiritual theorist responding to a loaded moment in time, one rich with nuance, is an unfair treatment of her work. Daly begins her 1978 book defensively, anticipating criticisms and mischaracterizations of her work, by announcing that she chooses to write “gynomorphically” because “God represents the necrophilia of patriarchy, whereas Goddess affirms the life-loving be-ing of women and nature.” In this introduction she states that she will avoid using the words God, androgyny, and homosexuality, the last of which she calls a “treacherous term” because, she asserts, it “reductionistically includes” and “excludes gynocentric be-ing/Lesbianism” (Daly, p. xlv). Daly’s criticism of the term ‘homosexuality’ for its essentializing-through-reductionist-inclusiveness is her warning to her readers against essentialist conflations of identities of differences. Her concern was that lesbianism would be lost, ignored, or brushed under the umbrella term of “homosexuality,” that is would play second fiddle, theoretically, to gay homosexuality, because of male patriarchal privilege. Daly was expressing a concern over difference not being acknowledged, and her essentialism is produced by this concern.
Patriarchal inclusion-as-invisibility and the exclusion of lesbian perspectives were Daly’s concerns, expressed at a moment in which lesbianism’s expression in radical feminist theory was fragile, and they need to be considered in context. These were and are legitimate concerns, even though the essentialism that accompanies them can be problematic, depending on the context. Daly’s concerns are not a far cry from the concerns that transphobic radical feminists on social media are expressing, though their ways of expressing those concerns are damaging. Trans-phobic radical feminists engaged in current social media conversations on gender have reasons behind the manifestations of their phobias that need to be considered. Radical feminist Tina Minkowitz roots her criticism of “the transgender or gender identity movement” in the failure of gender identity laws “to recognize women as a political class and women’s liberation as a fundamental component of the human rights project” (“Women’s Liberation, Gender Identity, and the State”). Minkowitz considers the fight against “the gender identity movement” to be a fight against male domination. Underlying this particular expression of radical feminism is the fear of the dissolution of women as a distinct category and the fear of assumed catastrophic consequences that such a dissolving of a biologically based category might have on the rights and lives of women who struggle for recognition by society and the law. The underlying concern is not an off-base one, and it is one raised by earlier radical feminists, such as Daly, who used biological terms to combat social problems that were literally killing women (they still are), but the concerns are misdirected and they rely too heavily on assumptions that are reductionist.
Daly takes on criticisms of her biologizing position in Gyn/Ecology when she states that “women continue to be intimidated by the label anti-male” (Daly, 1978, p. 28). She does not argue against the essentialist criticism of her work; instead, she embraces the essentialism. She notes that some feel a “false need to draw distinctions, for example: ‘I am anti-patriarchal but not anti-male’” but then she criticizes this practice by encouraging the anti-male position, claiming that it corresponds to a reality of male violence. “The courage to be logical—the courage to name—,” she writes, “would require that we admit to ourselves that males and only males are the originators, planners, controllers, and legitimators of patriarchy. Patriarchy the homeland of males; it is Father Land; and men are its agents” (Daly, 1978, p. 28). Daly’s insistence on a biologizing essentialist framework was one produced by its historical context, in which feminism was subject to a dualistic fate of invisibility or condemnation. This is not a foreign concept to feminists today who are seen as hateful while at the same time being hated – the subjects of misogynistic hate. To embrace labels that were used against feminists in the 70s and 80s, such as “manhaters,” was an important subversive radical linguistic practice, and Daly’s assertions, while yes: essentializing, were not entirely off-base or unfounded. But neither were her assertions without their limitations. Daly saw the “I am anti-patriarchal but not anti-male” as an attempt to cater to a patriarchal Catch 22: either blame men for patriarchal violence and be blamed for blaming men while also continuing to suffer the consequences of patriarchal violence or blame patriarchy for patriarchal violence, without a biologized subject, and be ignored by those in authority while also continuing to suffer from patriarchal violence. Her stance makes clear that she saw the former as a preferable unpleasant option to the latter, both produced, she points out, by a patriarchy that is not detached from biological sexual affiliation.
Despite the limitations of essentialism, Daly’s linking of maleness with patriarchal violence was done for the purpose of identifying a subject in order for gender violence (here: violence against women) to be recognizable and taken seriously. Daly was not writing the book with transgender men or women in mind but the issues raised are serious ones that need to be addressed today. In modern contexts and re-appropriations of Daly’s work today by radical feminists, it is important to recognize that biological essentialism in theory has a context of concerns that are not irrelevant and should not be dismissed. It is also important to recognize that Daly’s identification of a specifically male patriarchal violence was not used to deny trans men and women their gender identities and it does not define radical feminism in the present as inherently transphobic. Although it does reveal that part of radical feminism’s history has appealed to essentialism, Daly’s biologically essentialist radical feminist tendencies are not inherently nor overtly transphobic. Her introduction makes clear that while she employs biology as a trope, she is not unilaterally tied to the biological – Daly was a metaphysical writer, and much of the focus of her writing is on liberating the physical via the metaphysical. She theorizes using metaphysical metaphors and linguistic substitutions, and herself admits that “She is many verbs” and that Gyn/Ecology is about lesbian separation… but (she qualifies) “not in a simple way” (Daly, 1978, p. xlvi). It is that warning against oversimplification and the acknowledgment of multiplicity that leaves room in Daly’s work and calls for a deeper, more complex reading of what appears, on the surface, to be merely essentialist.
Contemporary radical feminists need to turn to early radical feminist writing and bring it into the present in order to combat the denial by some radical feminists of the existence of trans women’s lives, of their woman-ness. It is not up to cisgender radical feminists to make decisions about trans-ness, about whether or not it exists, nor is it right for cis women to speak for trans women. It is right, however, for cisgender trans-inclusive radical feminists to work to make a safer space for trans women within radical feminism and to educate those calling themselves radical feminists but actively spreading the misconception that a radical feminist stance is a trans-exclusive one. It is not. It is merely a transphobic stance. Safer spaces already exist for trans women within radical feminist theory; we just have to look for them and use them to combat transphobia. Consider the radical feminist contributions of Audre Lorde, who encouraged us to work against political institutions that rely on the “rejection of difference” to maintain a “profit economy” by using “outsiders as surplus people” (Lorde, 2007, p. 115). Transgender women, like the gay, lesbian, “black and Third World” people to which Lorde refers in Sister Outsider, are such sister outsiders. We cannot create a cisterhood that participates in this economically-sustaining practice of the creation of outsiders; what we need is a sisterhood that joins together transgender women, cisgender women, and non-binary folx in the fight against oppression. In joining together, we do not erase one another’s differences, we do not see ourselves as reflections of one another; we recognize and honor our differences, and we understand the way that privilege works in our lives, depending on those differences.
Lorde writes that it is not the “very real differences between us” that are “separating us” but “our refusal to recognize those differences, to examine the distortions which result from our misnaming them and their effects upon human behavior and expectation” (Lorde, 2007, p. 115). Lorde’s words can be applied to what is happening within some segments of the LGBTQ+ and feminist populations over the issue of radical feminist cisgender women’s lack of acceptance of the differences between themselves and transgender women. Radical feminists who are trans-inclusive need to defend the differences of trans women and to examine the distortions that have resulted from the transphobic misnaming of them within certain segments of the radical feminist community. It has, unfortunately, reached the point where conversation across differences has become difficult – but, though there is a great deal of hurt and feelings of being misunderstood on both sides, conversation is not impossible. It needs to happen. We need to heed Lorde’s warning against “the distortion of relationship which says ‘I disagree with you, so I must destroy you’ and avoid what she warns is a “prevalent error among oppressed peoples”: “the false notion that there is only a limited and particular amount of freedom that must be divided up between us” (Lorde, 2007, p. 51). Lorde, here, acknowledges difference as a strength that is necessary and should be fostered. Her words imply that her view of the role of radical feminism is an inclusive one. They also serve as a warning against allowing our differences to divide us. Critiques of masculinity, misogyny, and patriarchy can be a common focus for radical feminists and transgender activists, and a point of collaboration rather than division, if we move away from divisions driven by fear of differences.
Name calling on both sides needs to subside so that listening and attempts at understanding can emerge. The use of the acronym TERF (Trans-Exclusive Radical Feminist) is the central example of the battle of charged rhetoric – it was created on social media in response to transphobia and the denial of the legitimacy of trans women’s lives and identities. While the term itself may be an accurate description of some radical feminists, it is certainly not an accurate description of all of them. The use of the acronym “TERF” as a pejorative word is not doing anything to diffuse the disagreements or to explicate the misunderstandings that caused the acronym to be used in the first place. The damaging effect of the term ‘TERF’ has become so powerful on social media that the fear of being labeled with it has caused many radical feminists to remain silent and to not want to call themselves radical feminists, even if they are trans-inclusive radical feminists (TIRFs?). The term, though used haphazardly, to the detriment of diplomacy, and to the harm of radical feminism/feminists, is not completely disjointed from radical feminism. There are radical feminists who are transphobic and who ground their ideologies and writing in critiques of transgenderism.
TERF-ing someone is labeling them transphobic: it is a public form of shaming that one-dimensionalizes an individual for the purpose of trying to punish said individual. The punishment, ironically, might come in the form of exclusion – from public speaking events or from having one’s work published in a journal. It is a reputation-staining/ruining word. While it originated as something meant to protect trans women and trans men from being subjected to having their identities denied or mocked, or having to be subjected to the torment of being excluded and harassed, the term is now used as a weapon in social media combat that has a fallout effect that goes beyond its originally intended function. To be friends with a ‘TERF’ in the feminist community is to be suspected of being a ‘TERF.’ A “guilt by association phenomenon” has manifested in the careless and hurtful use of this term. Protecting one population from harm should not require the destruction of another. Cisgender radical feminists need to come to the defense of transgender folx and handle transphobia within the community without resorting to name-calling and exclusion. Excluding transphobic feminists as punishment for their exclusion of transgender individuals may seem fair and just in an Old Testament sense but that kind of moral operation only produces more war, more misunderstanding, and more exclusion. Dehumanizing the dehumanizer is a non-productive way of addressing what is a complex problem. It also disregards individual differences in perspective – the name alone poisons it. Dehumanization and exclusion are also problematic in the sense that they rely upon a form of essentialism: the lumping of all radical feminists into a transphobic category and the subsequent equating of transphobia with radical feminism.
Labels like ‘TERF’ distance us diplomacy, but even more than this, they distance us from developing an understanding of the problem and from radical feminist theory. Many of those who make up the general audience of these cyber wars have never read any radical feminist theory, and, as a result, dimensionality collapses. Part of the damage from the fallout of this heated debate is that radical feminism is being emptied of its meaning and detached from its history – if it wasn’t already a hated and misunderstood phrase, surely now it is. If radical feminism were one-dimensional and comprised primarily of biologically essentialist transphobic theories, then it should be cast off, but radical feminism is neither one-dimensional nor inherently transphobic. This is why it is imperative that trans-inclusive radical feminists speak out and write theory that revisits early radical feminist theory for the purpose of demonstrating that radical feminist theory can offer a safer space to trans women and cis women alike. It is not the responsibility of transgender folx to resolve this issue; it is the responsibility of radical feminists who care about the theory behind and history of radical feminism and who care about transgender equality. Because transphobia has come out of radical feminism to a striking degree, it needs to be addressed primarily by radical feminism – not to demonize transphobic radical feminists, not to exclude them from participating in events and being invited speakers, but to engage in conversations with them in order to understand their position and challenge it diplomatically, addressing the problem, treating transphobic feminists with dignity, and acting as allies to the transgender community while doing so.
Just as each side of the social media debate over definitions of sex/gender accuses the other of spreading hate and exclusion, each side also blames the other side for practicing misogyny. Both transgender activists and radical feminist cisgender activists agree on one thing: misogyny and patriarchy are loathsome. Unfortunately, each also believes the other is perpetuating misogyny. According to transphobic radical feminists, the equating of sex and gender is a misogynistic practice: because they see transgender women as male, and not female, they believe that male transgender women are treated as men legally and otherwise and benefit from male privilege. They believe that transgender women are still males, almost as if they are men in disguise, and that by claiming to be transgender women they are exercising patriarchal dominance. Maleness is biological to transphobic radical feminists; it is in the DNA and cannot be transcended, no matter what. But this essentialism is not a byproduct of most of radical feminism or radical feminist theory; it is a byproduct of transphobic radical feminism, present in writing produced by a small number of radical feminists, including Sheila Jeffreys and Janice Raymond. A line needs to be drawn between transexclusive and transinclusive radical feminism, and trans-supportive radical feminists need to speak out on the subject: in theory, urgently, in order for concerns legitimate about misogyny to be addressed. A concern among some transgender activists against TERFs is that transphobic radical feminist denial of trans existence is a form of misogyny – a manifestation of patriarchy and patriarchal domination. There are serious problems with this assertion, especially the reductiveness of it, but it is part of a larger effort to combat transphobia by reducing radical feminism in its complex entirety to a transphobic trope.
It is not radical feminism that has to go; it is transphobia that has to be challenged. Likewise, radical feminist phobia (i.e., phobias against radical feminists) must be challenged, too. While Catherine MacKinnon, in her 1989 essay, “Sexuality, Pornography, and Method: ‘Pleasure Under Patriarchy,’” states that “a feminist theory of sexuality would locate sexuality within a theory of gender inequality, meaning the social hierarchy of men over women,” her statement does not take into consideration transgender lives. What it does, though, is treat sexuality as a social construct of a power afforded by gender: specifically of cisgender maleness. Transwomen and ciswomen are both negatively affected by the patriarchy and both are harmed by misogyny. Charlotte Bunch considers feminist theory to begin with “the immediate need to end women’s oppression” and says that it is also “a way of viewing the world” (Bunch, 1979, p. 242). Insofar as the former statement is concerned, yes, there is still an immediate need to end women’s oppression – both transgender women’s oppression and cisgender women’s oppression. We need to continue scoping out what this “way of viewing the world” entails, drawing upon feminist theory of the past but also building on that evolving view. At the same time, we must be careful not to assume that all radical feminists share the same view of the world; differences in perspective exist within any kind of feminist theory and that is why theory exists.
The debate over the definitions of sex and gender are imbedded in the issue of safe spaces – and how to create them. One way that radical feminists can create a safer space –for transgender folx to see that radical feminism is for them and a safer space for transphobic feminists to learn how to combat their transphobia– is by bringing radical feminist theory back into view. Rather than watching it flash before us in the context of a debate that could very well extinguish it, it would be better to set it alight again, and to illuminate its ideas for the purpose of radically transforming transgender and cisgender women’s and non-binary folx’s lives in a positive way. If, as Peggy Kornegger wrote in 1979, feminism is “a many-headed monster which cannot be destroyed by singular decapitation,” then we need to nurture the many heads of the movement so that they do not turn on each other. We need to be able to do so in order to “spread and grow in ways that are incomprehensible to a hierarchical mentality” (Treichler, 2005, p. 7).
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