Two bloggers who I like quite a lot, QueerCoup (who is a comrade of mine) and Twisty have engaged in a dialogue about femininity and what it means in the context of a revolutionary feminism, and how that relates to transwomen and cissupremacy. As a radical feminist transperson I’m naturally interested in this. Whereas QueerCoup argues that “the rejection of femininity is a male-centred way of thinking. The assumption that femininity is for attracting men” and that we should strive to “put the feminine back in feminism”, according to Twisty “No spinster aunt who isn’t trippin on acid would ever reject femininity on the grounds that it is ‘for attracting men.’ Spinster aunts know that femininity is not for attracting men. We reject it, of course, because we know it is actually for smushing women,” and “The practice of femininity impedes the revolution.” I’d like to use their discussion as a jumping board to express some of my own ideas on the subject and perhaps foster dialogue, as it’s an important subject. I want to apologize in advance for not being as funny or witty as Twisty, as neither of these things is my forte. Judging by the length of this post, my forte is babbling on and on ad nauseam. I also want to apologize for a lot of this being very 101 level stuff, familiar to anyone who has read Firestone or Dworkin. I am using this post as an introduction to where I am coming from in terms of radical feminism, much like I used my first post on this blog to share where I am politically.
I’m quoted at QueerCoup’s blog as saying, “I was initially a little concerned over what you were saying because I see so many expectations pushed onto transwomen. Be more feminine or you won’t pass and your identity as a woman will be further called into question; be less feminine or you’re just reinforcing patriarchy. Be less masculine or you’re making women feel unsafe, be more masculine or you’re merely performing a pathetic caricature of femininity. There is no safe way to be a woman if you are trans, it is always poisoned by cissupremacy.” I stand by this. I should add that there is no safe way to be a woman if you are cis either, because it is always poisoned by the patriarchy. All women must deal with the patriarchy, the oldest and most pervasive of all oppressive systems. What I said on QueerCoup’s blog was not an endorsement of femininity or even an apology for it. It was an attack on the use, by more privileged (in this case cis)women, of femininity and other things as a means of excluding less privileged (in this case trans)women from women only spaces. I am naturally weary of anything that could be used to exclude the oppressed, and I was initially fearful that what QC was saying could be used by enemies of transwomen to justify further entrenching cissupremacy in certain parts of the women’s movement. That was a misunderstanding on my part.
All that said, I do not agree with QueerCoup when they say that we ought to stress that femininity is a choice, or that femininity can be for women. I do not believe that within coercive systems such as patriarchy, white supremacy, cissupremacy, and capitalism that for the underclass there can be any free choice, any real agency. The options in oppressive systems are almost all loaded ones, because the systematic force that is asking the questions is also providing the answers, and that force hates you passionately.
I think QueerCoup makes a mistake at the same place where many “sex-positive” feminists do, including Julia Serano, who they quote extensively in their post. In seeking to uplift women, and to protect what options they do have from further encroachment, they unnecessarily decide that one or more of those options as it exists is in fact a good thing, or that it can be entered into without coercion. They elevate choice, they privilege it above all things, but this elevation of choice erases the fact that for most women, there is not a choice. For women forced into prostitution and pornography to survive, it is not a choice. For women in the capitalist workforce who must “behave” or risk being fired it is not a choice. For women who, because of the dual powers of capitalism and patriarchy, must sell themselves daily to their husbands, both through unremunerated housework and sex work, it is not a choice. For nearly every woman on earth, femininity is not a choice, or at least a freely made one. “Perform your gender as you should or risk starvation, homelessness, rape, murder, and social and familial exclusion” is as coercion free as saying “Perform your gender as you should or this gun I have against your head will go off.”
Another problem is that these kinds of feminists often seem to believe that if we are critical of femininity we must be endorsing masculinity. Serano is guilty of this lack of imagination and nuance when she says “In feminism and in the queer community, there’s a strong anti-feminine attitude. If you look at the gay male community, masculinity is praised, femininity is suspect. If you look at the lesbian community, masculinity is praised, femininity is suspect. We have to get that out of our heads.” By get that out of our heads, she means “rehabilitate femininity” or “put the feminine back in feminism”. But here’s the problem I have with this dichotomous view. Whereas femininity is a cluster of behaviors that have been selectively packaged together over time by the Patriarchy to make women submit, masculinity is a cluster of behaviors that have been selectively packaged together over time by the patriarchy to make men dominate. You will get no argument from me if you say that we should viciously attack masculinity. It is a toxic set of behaviors that’s primary role is to secure privilege, through the violent use of force and rape as well as through less visible but no less real or dangerous social behaviors (how a man carries himself, how a man takes up space, how a man knows he has a right, always and everywhere, to voice his opinion). But just because masculinity is bad does not make femininity good.
These gender roles are not something innate, they only exist as the result of a certain set of material and social conditions, the major player here being the patriarchy. The desire trans and cis women have towards femininity, when they do have such a desire, is learned. Under another set of conditions, there would be no such desire. The failure of most “sex-positive” feminists is that they do not approach the problem of patriarchy dialectically. They see an oppressive set of conditions and, rather than seeking to abolish those conditions and contradictions, seek to reform them or lessen their impact by elevating choice and free agency. You cannot end or “fix” patriarchy by softening the contradiction of male and female, of masculine and feminine, any more than you can end or “fix” capitalism by softening the contradiction of bourgeoisie and proletariat. You must abolish the classes for the revolution to succeed.
Which is not to say that, post-revolution and post-patriarchy, everyone will be the same androgynous body double. I do not seek the elimination of all difference, merely the elimination of differentiation of sex. The end of gender does not mean the end of expression, rather, it means the liberating of many behaviors from their assigned cluster of masculine and feminine, male and female. It means that when men and women cease to exist as contradictory classes, there will be no expectation for men to do this, for women to do that. That dichotomy will no longer exist and such a statement will no longer make sense. Not all behaviors will survive, thank goodness, but I believe many can be liberated from the binary.
Now that that’s out of the way, I want to urge caution and care that we do not turn this critique of femininity into a critique of the women who perform femininity. It is easy for women, especially Western women privileged by being cis, or white, or able-bodied, or of a certain economic class, to say that less privileged women who perform their gender as they ought are holding back feminism, or are not true feminists, or are antifeminist. I do not mean to imply that Twisty is saying any of these things in her post, simply that many do say these things. It’s important to remember that the ways in which women of color, disabled women, homosexual women, and transwomen hold back feminism, sell out feminism, and backstab feminism are, all of them, the same ways in which more privileged women hold back feminism, sell out feminism, and backstab feminism. For example, the feminist ciswoman is far rarer than the antifeminist ciswoman, non-feminine ciswomen are so uncommon compared to feminine ciswomen. And yet I have never seen the practice of femininity used to exclude ciswomen from women only spaces, but countless times I have seen it used to exclude transwomen. The more vulnerable a woman is, the more reason, in the short term, she has to perform femininity. Her survival usually depends on it.
I believe that talking about how transwomen “ought” to act in women only spaces, when those spaces are by default primarily comprised of ciswomen, of more privileged women, is fraught with danger and that we must tread carefully. An important dialogue can and should be had on this topic, and I hope people will respond to this with their own understanding of the situation, but it must not devolve into an exclusionary reinforcement of cissupremacy. After all, when the revolution comes, and I hope it will come soon, it will be the most oppressed women on the front lines, pushing forward and changing history. It has always been the place of the downtrodden and oppressed to reinvent the world, and it will always be thus.