What radical women want

it's time for a radical conversation

When I launched PWMR a couple months ago, I had no intention of centering gender politics. I defended Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie because I saw a prolifically wise woman getting shut down by her sisters. Trans allies were saying, ‘Trans women are women. Period.’ and I wrote about why rational, informed and compassionate radical women might disagree.

That post got far and away the most views and shares (look Ma, I’m famous!) So clearly we need another way when talking about gender and biological sex.

I’d love to devote more time to less divisive, less potentially hurtful women’s issues. But I personally believe that if we don’t defend women’s rights to speak out freely, then we risk all the progress of feminists before us.

So why are gender politics so important to so many?

Here are three of my concerns (in no particular order) out in the sunlight. I don’t claim to speak for all women, or all gender-critical people, or even all radical feminists. Others will want to add or respond to this list–please comment or tweet me @pwmroundup.

The radical feminist perspective has never been popular. We’re asking for the same thing that women have always asked: to have our concerns taken seriously. Trans allies can help by acknowledging and owning the problems emerging on the fringes of the trans advocacy movement.

1. Our children deserve a fair shot at growing up without surgery and a lifelong dependence on hormones.

A liberal feminist friend asserted that doctors wouldn’t advocate transition if they weren’t ‘1000% sure’ a kid was trans. But that’s not how it works today. More and more doctors and ‘gender therapists’ advocate hormones & surgery for teens.

I was a dysphoric kid myself. I grew up to be a happy, healthy, and reproductively in-tact bisexual woman (as many do.) We need to be cautious about the narratives we employ. We need to support research and understand implications for kids.

Oh, and we definitely need to stop shaming parents who resist the ‘trans’ label for their gender-non-conforming kids.

2. Protect the definition of ‘woman.’

By changing legal protections to enforce them per gender identity, rather than sex, you disempower women from challenging men who enter their spaces. You risk the legal protections and the space we’ve created for girls to compete in sports. Regardless of the intentions of most, certain males will always take advantage.

3. Lesbian women deserve respect.

Challenge people who shame lesbians who aren’t attracted to male genitals. Would you tell a gay man he has to have sex in or around a vagina, and like it? It’s homophobic.

And please, stop reclaiming the identities of lesbians for the trans movement simply because they didn’t perform to gender stereotypes.

Conclusion: the caricature of radical women

Trans allies regularly equate denial of free access to women’s language and spaces as a denial of human rights and bodily autonomy for trans people.

That’s disingenuous. It paints a caricature of radical feminists, it discredits us as ‘TERFs’ and ‘bigots’ and ‘transphobic’ worthy of the same scorn applied to bigots and sociopaths.

There must be a third way that respects the experience of trans women without dismissing the valid concerns of women. If you’re an ally, be bold enough to help us find it.

WEP to women: get in line

Women's Equality Party??

You almost have to feel sorry for the Women’s Equality Party. Somebody from WEP Bath typed “InterSectional” [sic] into Google and stumbled onto Everyday Feminism. She was lured in by the soft-focus “diversity” stock photos. She felt a rush of self-righteous inspiration that numbed her capacity for critical thought, and she took to social media.

Who among us hasn’t been there? Benefit of the doubt. But then WEP Bath’s Facebook account had to go and respond to the concerns and frustrations of their base.

Here’s some of WEP’s text from the (now-deleted) Facebook thread:

“Really I see a bunch of man  haters labeling trans people as frauds, I mean really?!? demonising a minority is awful!! all of you are so blind”
“… this page is not a breeding ground for Trans Exclusionary feminists to have a tea party”
“I am revolted to see so much hate on this page”
“The comments on this post are incredibly offensive and go against our values as an intersectional, inclusive party. So you are all aware I am going to delete this thread.”

Look: some feminists are concerned about granting males unchallenged access to women’s spaces. You can absolutely respect trans people without erasing the biological basis of womanhood, or vilifying your sisters who do. WEP chose to erase and to vilify.

TERF is a slur

Just to be clear: the use of aggressive slurs is a male tactic to silence “uppity” women who insist on defining their rights and boundaries. 

Of course, being an outspoken feminist has never been popular. Just ask Hillary Clinton. Or Germaine Greer. Or Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Maybe a political party must make certain concessions in the interest of broadening its base.

But whether or not it was a strategic decision, there is no call to shout down and shame the measured concerns of your membership. WEP, of all organisations, should know better.

Making amends?

WEP Bath did issue an apology to its membership. Although, they stopped short of condemning the term ‘trans-exclusionary feminists.’

Reading further down in the comments, not only did this apparently rogue moderator delete the thread, she banned the members involved. Those members have since been restored.

Hopefully WEP’s future actions include not only social media training, but educating activist volunteers on opposing views. And, maybe someday, even a space to debate these issues in the light of day.


Ed. note: this post updated 14.4.17 to include WEP Bath’s response on their FB page. Thanks Helen Saxby for the heads up.

Hands up if you’ve got a “complicated relationship with gender”

When I was twelve, I wanted to be a man. Out loud, grinning, I told teachers and friends that I would grow up to be a wrinkly old chap in a leather armchair, beside the mahogany mantle of some Trumpian country club, swilling scotch and ashing my cigar. Even then I knew where the power in this world lies.

But I wanted to be a man in more quiet ways, too, ways I never told my best friend, or my mother, or even the therapist she sent me to see when the panic attacks wouldn’t stop. After I spent the night at my best friend’s house and realised I wanted to touch her how I had never touched anyone. To hold her. No, that can’t be right. I’m not a lesbian. I can’t be. I was twelve: I was obsessed with making myself normal.

For the same reason, I did not permit the word “transgender” between my ears. But I remember looking down at my lap, wondering if something else ought to be there. Feeling like it already was there. Something powerful was. What if I was just born wrong?

Nobody ever told me a cunt could be powerful.

I was six feet of angles and limbs. I remember prodding my pitiful budding breasts in the mirror, willing them to grow voluptuously huge, like a porn star’s, or not at all. What woman hasn’t stared in the mirror, hating pieces of herself? Feeling like a prisoner in her own body?

Myself, it took me a very long time to feel okay here.

Will fluidity set us free?

An LGBT+ meeting on campus brought my personal past to a public head: could we theme our conference around gender? The ways it constrains us, the way fluidity sets us free? What if we can all be whatever we want to be?

That always-passive verb, “triggered,” is such a cliché.

My chest tightened. If that is our theme, I said, then I would respectfully recuse myself. Gender is a topic between me and my therapist.

I can’t help it. My face always grows hot to hear people talk about how liberating and freeing it is to call themselves a woman–a real woman, a woman who knows the fullest extent of what womanhood means. A trans woman giddy to tell me she’d been interrupted in a meeting and mistaken for a secretary. I try to feel happy that so many have found peace in femininity.

In modern, liberal feminism, it’s not up for debate: womanhood is not about biology. I tried hard to support this line. The worst fight my ex and I ever had was triggered by his deadnaming Caitlyn Jenner. But I witnessed lesbians worrying about their own transmisogyny for not being keen on girl dick. It was starting to feel a whole lot like gaslighting. How well can we support women when we erase “female biology” from our collective vocabulary? The erasure of these realities has had dire consequences already for women’s health in the U.S.

I believe the intention of allies has been pure. Dysphoria is painful. I know. I am fortunate that mine went away on its own, like it does for a vast majority of teenagers, many of whom grow up to be well-adjusted homosexual or, like me, bisexual adults. To come to terms with womanhood took me much longer.

“Gender isn’t something I chose. Gender is something that was done to me.”

Gender is why I didn’t think I ought to study computer science in college. Gender is why I wasn’t allowed offshore on the rig sometimes, because they didn’t have the “female bedspace” or didn’t want some yankee bitch hanging around. Gender is why my performance reviews five years running commented that I was “too aggressive,” in the same breath commending me that I got the job done that nobody else could. Why my friends and I ran across campus from the new football recruits, and then blamed ourselves for having danced too close. Why my mom prepared dinner for my dad every night. He woke up from a nap just in time to lead my siblings in a chorus of ridicule against her. Why my exboyfriends were right to slut-shame me for the sex I’d had, for the sex I wanted.

Further back in time, that rail-thin teen, always awkward in groups of girls. Sisterhood was out of reach, incomprehensible if I could not master wearing makeup and chasing boys and gossiping over magazines: the performance of womanhood. My mother wasn’t any good at it, either. I hated her for not possessing a tangible femininity nor passing one down to me.

Feminism finally taught me that it was patriarchy to blame; only then could I place disappointment where it belonged. Femininity was no evidence of womanhood. It was gender, not women, who had let me down.

I cannot overstate how liberating it has been for me to recognise the biological basis of women’s oppression. Because in naming it, we can fight it.

The gender of violence

In many ways being born a woman today in the West is better than it’s ever been. Any talk about the oppression of women (those of us born with XX chromosomes who still identify as women) must be tempered by the acknowledgement of “cis privilege.” It’s well-meaning. I understand: I don’t want anyone to hurt anymore, either. But I don’t feel “cis.” I didn’t always feel happy in the gender I was born into. I thank God now nobody ever gave me another choice.

Nobody gives another choice to girls in India, who are living through a national epidemic of rape. Nobody gave that choice to girls in Nigeria who were kidnapped as political pawns. Nobody gives that choice to daughters in China, abandoned for dead because their parents value sons. None of these women, if they live to be women, get to opt in or out of their gendered oppression.

Violence against the transgender community is a vast problem, too, one perpetuated almost entirely by men. We do a disservice to the trans community, and to women born women, when we fail to adequately interrogate the nature of all the crimes committed under patriarchy.

Insisting that “trans women are women” will not make transphobia disappear, any more than insisting that “women can have it all” will make misogyny itself disappear.

Where misogyny comes from

If a woman is anyone who looks or feels like a woman, then misogyny is a response to feminine manner or presentation. But the gendered concept of femininity is itself a social construction rooted in misogyny. Femininity is weaponised by patriarchy. Men are hostile to anyone, male or female, who challenges the supposed natural dichotomy that man = masculine and woman = feminine. That’s why Dan Savage is fond of saying that homophobia is misogyny’s little brother. The nature of transphobia is indeed rooted in misogyny, but it is critical to acknowledge this fold of nuance.

To pretend otherwise is dismissive of the struggles of women, and disingenuous to the reality of gender dysphoria. Every individual ought to be free to craft an identity that feels true to him or herself. But forgive me if I am wary of a trans advocacy movement that encourages boys and girls to change their bodies and pronouns in response to dysphoria, the causes of which are manifold and ever-changing (especially in puberty.) Does ideology that espouses hormones and surgery help us, as feminists, challenge the construct that passive and self-conscious belongs to her and powerful and assertive belongs to him? To abolish, rather than expand, the role gender plays in defining us?

Where we go from here

Believe it or not, I do want to stand beside the trans movement. I want individuals suffering from gender dysphoria to have access to real dialogue and reliable statistics on the success and side effects of hormone therapy and/or gender affirming surgery, and I hope they can come to the decision to transition as informed adults, under the guidance of qualified and compassionate medical and mental health professionals.

But I won’t abide by a movement that fights to make potentially-sterilising hormones available for young girls and boys. Or one that shouts down respected feminists like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie for asserting evidence that biological females face unique injustices.

If a woman is anybody who calls herself a woman, then I suppose I opted into the same identity I used want out of desperately. But does everyone have the privilege of opting in or out? And if we all did, who would be left to speak for the women, born as girls, who never got to make that choice?

Feminist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has forgotten more about feminism than you’ll ever know

Feminist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Prolific feminist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie came under fire this weekend for voicing an opinion on trans women. Her statement may not sound particularly controversial to people who don’t spend the bulk of their time in modern feminist spaces:

“It’s about the way the world treats us, and I think if you’ve lived in the world as a man with the privileges that the world accords to men and then sort of change gender, it’s difficult for me to accept that then we can equate your experience with the experience of a woman who has lived from the beginning as a woman and who has not been accorded those privileges that men are.”

But this is very controversial within modern feminism, where “trans women are women” is gospel. Males and well-meaning allies rushed to discredit Chimamanda. Some went as far as to call her “transphobic,” or even a “white feminist.”

Talking about gender and privilege

A lot of the criticism of Chimamanda’s interview rests on the assumption that being a woman born as a woman is a form of privilege. Some feminists hold a radical perspective: that the basis for women’s oppression is our biology; that male sexuality has been historically weaponised to control women and withhold economic empowerment; that “femininity” is a social construct to keep women subjugated in a patriarchal system; and that feminism is centrally about elevating women beyond all of that to achieve our potential as equal human beings. This isn’t a new opinion (holla atcha girl de Beauvoir) but it also isn’t mainstream. It certainly has potential to conflict with the notion of womanhood as privilege.

I want to write more about my personal experiences with gender dysphoria and discovering radical feminism another day. For now I will just say: it is vitally important to be able to engage in thoughtful, even controversial discussion about the nature of gender and its relation to biological sex and patriarchal power structures. And that just isn’t happening today.

Freedom to speak as a feminist

I believe that dysphoria is really hard and really shitty, and allies shouldn’t do anything to make it harder. But I don’t believe in bullying women who want to talk about “women’s issues” relating to biology. And I don’t believe that entertaining the unscientific delusion that biological sex is a mere construct is productive for feminists and trans allies. There is an important place for trans women within feminism. It doesn’t have to come at the expense of women’s freedom to talk about ourselves as pussy-havers or menstruators or whatever else is lately in vogue.

When I look at the vitriol directed towards Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in the wake of her statements, I worry. It’s so important that feminists create a space where women feel safe to be who are they are, but also to question dominant paradigms of gender and sex. And remember: