Multnomah County Library in Portland, Oregon: May 24th, 2014
My name is Rachel, and like most people who survive adolescence, I know what it feels like to be politically surprised. I’ve learned what it feels like to be so convinced, so sure of my convictions, only to have some new piece of information throw my whole conception of the world into doubt, and trigger the realization that I don’t understand the world as well as I thought I did. And as painful and humbling as this experience can be, I think it’s really healthy and important – our understanding of the world should shift and change to accommodate new information. A stagnant worldview becomes dogma. When faced with the pain of cognitive dissonance, you have two choices: you can either dig in your heels, and try to maintain your carefully ordered universe by ignoring the conflict, or you can choose to critically reexamine your views in light of the available evidence.
Cynthia Enloe is a feminist who wrote a book called The Curious Feminist, and in a chapter called The Surprised Feminist, she says: “I have come to think that the capacity to be surprised – and to admit it – is an undervalued feminist attribute. To be surprised is to have one’s current explanatory notions, and thus one’s predictive assumptions, thrown into confusion. In both academic life and activist public life in most cultures, one is socialized to deny surprise. It is as if admitting surprise jeopardizes one’s hard-earned credibility. And credibility, something necessarily bestowed by others, is the bedrock of status.”
A few years ago, I encountered some information that surprised me. It was a conception of gender that was new to me, and differed from anything I’d heard before. My existing conception of gender at the time sounded something like this:
Gender (often called ‘gender identity’) is a personal, individual quality possessed by each person. Gender identity is the subjective perception by an individual of their position on a spectrum between masculine and feminine, which are both neutral attributes.
Gender is performed outwardly through choice of markers or symbols like demeanor, body language, aesthetic choices like hair, clothing, presence or absence of makeup, etc. These outward markers are what govern whether another individual regards you as male or female.
Each person has an innate gender identity (masculine, feminine) which is independent of their biological sex. Each person is born with a biological sex (male, female, intersex) which is also apolitical. Sex and gender are not necessarily connected.
What is oppressive about it? The fact that it’s a rigid binary system. It forces every person to identify as either a man or a woman (not neither, both at once, something in between or something else entirely) and punishes anyone who doesn’t conform. (This oppresses both men and women, especially those who don’t fully identify with the prescribed model for their gender)
How can we resist? ‘Genderqueer’: women and men reject the binary system, identify as ‘gender outlaws’ (e.g. queer, trans) and demand recognition for a range of gender identities. (From this perspective, the ideal number of genders would be… infinite?) (troubleandstrife.org)
Like most of the feminists of my generation, I was not taught to question the existence of the system called gender. The dominant, patriarchal culture and the mainstream feminism I considered myself a part of were at odds with regard to how exactly we should treat gender, but they were both in agreement that gender was natural, inevitable, and eternal. Sure, we could bend traditional gender norms, we could try and reform the gender system, make a little more bearable to live within, a little more inclusive of nonconformity – but questioning the reason for it all, asking WHY gender exists in order to question the necessity of its existence, was unthinkable to me.
But I couldn’t avoid the question forever. By chance, I was introduced to an alternative conception of what gender is and what gender is for, and that alternative conception was this:
Gender is a hierarchical system which maintains the subordination of females as a class to males as a class through force.
Gender is a material system of power which uses violence and psychological coercion to exploit female labor, sex, reproduction, emotional support, for the benefit of men.
Gender is not natural or voluntary, since no person is naturally subordinate to another. Biological sex is a physical feature of each person, and those deemed female at birth are socialized by the culture into femininity (in other words, ritualized displays of submission to males).
Why is it oppressive? It’s based on the subordination of one sex class (women) by the other (men)
How can we resist? Women organize to overthrow male power and thus the entire gender system. (For radical feminists, the ideal number of genders would be… none.) Without patriarchy, there would be no need for gender.
These ideas were completely new to me, and they flung into chaos my understanding of gender, and of feminism, and of the culture I was living in. As Enloe puts it, my “current explanatory notions, and thus one’s predictive assumptions, thrown into confusion.” And at that point I was faced with the choice. I could ignore these new ideas, dismiss them, pretend I was unchanged and continue business as usual – or I could critically reexamine my feminism in light of this new information. I chose the latter.
And because of that choice I’ve lost friends, and seen other friends pressured to publicly cut ties with me under threat of social and professional consequences because of my politics. I’ve been stalked, intimidated, yelled at and ridiculed. More lies have been printed about me than I can count. I’ve been bullied, I’ve been harassed, threatened, and organizations and individuals who have dared to work with me has been harassed and pressured. I’ve seen my friends attacked and physically bullied for questioning the current dogma around gender.
Whatever I’ve gone through this last year, let me be clear that I’ve gotten off real easy in comparison to so many. I am by no means the first woman to face this kind of backlash for questioning gender. The current trend we’re seeing in action here today of trying to silence dissent against gender is just the latest outgrowth of misogyny that has been metastisizing for millenia. I’ve gotten off easy because I have a community that has supported me through the backlash, and guidance from women who have been fighting this fight since before I was born. Most women in my generation don’t have that kind of support on this issue.
Women have written to me, or come up to me after talks, and thanked me for speaking out publicly, but told me that they could never be so public about their convictions. And I don’t blame them– they’re afraid of losing their jobs, afraid of losing their communities, afraid of getting the death threats and the stalking and the bullying, and they don’t all have the support that I’ve been lucky enough to rely on. So when I list the things that have happened to me because of my choice to critically reexamine my worldview, and then to speak up about the conclusions I reached, I don’t do it to complain – I knew exactly what was going to happen, and I regret nothing. I do it to let other women know that they are not alone in the backlash and the hatred they’re experiencing, and I do it because I know that not everyone has the luxury of being able to speak up publicly and withstand the consequences.
So my feminist framework was thrown into confusion in response to that new information, the radical conception of gender. In response and in tribute to my own cognitive dissonance, and to the new conclusions to which it led me, I wrote a presentation called The End of Gender, in which I attempted to explain how and why my conception of gender shifted from liberal to radical. So that talk got put up online a year ago this month, and the last year since that talk came out has been extremely, and sometimes excrutiatingly, educational for me. In particular, this year has taught me the difference between what we are allowed to say, and the ideas we are allowed to have about gender, and the questions we are not allowed to ask; the ideas we will be punished for stating out loud. In that presentation, I tried to get across two main ideas:
1. Female people are a distinct social class with unique experiences, and members of that class experience specific forms of oppression under male supremacy based on the fact that we are female.
2. Gender is an inherently oppressive caste system that serves to facilitate and maintain the exploitation of female people under male supremacy.
In the last year, my experiences have made it clear to me that these two ideas are tantamount to Orwellian thoughtcrime in our current political climate around gender. And my question – yet again – is why. What is it about these two ideas that justifies the level of threats, backlash, and silencing that we receive just for daring to speak them out loud?
With each of these, I want to talk about their significance to feminism – the reasons that I think it’s important that we state them out loud despite the consequences – and I also want to honestly address some of the criticisms that I’ve heard directed at them.
Of course, most of radical feminism’s detractors don’t even bother to engage with this discussion. It’s a lot easier to threaten women, to make us afraid, than to actually have a constructive adult conversation. It’s a lot easier to dismiss radical feminism as outdated, a relic from an earlier time, as many choose to, than to acknowledge and engage with our points. This argument, if it can even be called an argument, falls completely flat for me and so many radical feminists of my generation. We’re not clinging to relics, we’re reaching for a politics that actually addresses the scope of the misogyny and male supremacy that we are forced to live within.
Young women organize radical feminist conferences, write gender-critical analysis, fight to maintain the right of female people to organize as a class, and support each other through the intimidation, threats, and ostracization that such work earns us. Some of us, the lucky ones, benefit from the support and guidance of women who have been feminists since before we were born. Other young women came to radicalism because they could see that the ideology we’ve been fed by academia and the dominant culture – individualist, neoliberal “feminism” – is actively working against the advancement of women’s human rights. We do not appreciate being ignored by those who would take the easy way out in dismissing our politics.
So let’s start with the first one – female people are a distinct social class with unique experiences. Now, proponents of the liberal conception of gender would have you believe that the idea of female biology itself is passe, or old fashioned. No one IS female, they say, female is just a voluntarily chosen category that anyone can choose to occupy, or not, regardless of the realities of our bodies. The problem with this view is that it renders female-specific forms of exploitation utterly invisible and unspeakable. One glaring example here, one of many, is reproductive exploitation, which happens to female people because we are female. Male people are not reproductively exploited, no matter how they identify. Male people are never forced to carry their rapists babies to term. Male people are not jailed, as increasing numbers of female people are, imprisoned for miscarrying or otherwise failing to bring pregnancies to term. Male people are not forcibly sterilized, a practice that women, particularly women of color, are still subjected to today. Physical sex matters, and shapes our experiences of exploitation.
One criticism I’ve gotten for saying this, a criticism that initially gave me pause, is the idea that by saying that female experience is unique and distinct, I’m somehow saying it is uniform, and that all female people share the same experiences. But I think this criticism is a leap, and that people who use that argument are responding to an argument that I, and other radical feminists, have never made, because I’ve never said that. I am not postulating the there is a universal experience of being female, because there is not. Female experience is as diverse as female people are. What those of us in male supremacist cultures share, despite the huge differences in experience depending on other factors in our lives, like race, and class, and culture, is the fact that we are exploited because we are female. Our experiences are distinct from that which is experienced by male bodied people, and that remains true no matter how specific male people identify.
Its no secret that much of the the backlash to the radical conception of gender centers around its relationship to transgenderism, and to people who identify themselves as trans. Here’s some background for the uninitiated, the conflict is this – some people, myself included, believe that female experience is unique – that being born in a genetically female body comes with certain experiences that are not shared by people who are not female. For others, to say that female bodied people and male trans people have different experiences of the world amounts to blasphemy, and is punished as such. Today, to even use the word female to describe ourselves and our experiences is often shouted down as “transphobic.” But if we can’t talk about female people as a distinct social class, with distinct experiences, the reality of our lives becomes unspeakable, erased. Ask yourself – what system, is served by erasing the reality of female experience? The answer, of course, is male supremacy. We cannot fight what we cannot even name.
A logical corolary of the fact the female people have unique experiences is that female people have the right to claim their own space, set boundaries of who can enter that space, and as a distinctly oppressed class, female people have the right to organize and meet autonomously from male people if we choose. I believe that all oppressed groups have the right to meet autonomously. There’s a conference tomorrow called New Narratives that is for male trans and male detransitioned people. That meeting excludes everyone else because the goal is to focus on that specific group – but female people are not afforded that same freedom. When we have meetings specifically designed to serve people with the unique experience of being female, we get death threats. And my questions again are why, and what system does that serve? The answer, again, is male supremacy – we cannot fight what we are not allowed to organize against.
Next one – Gender is an oppressive caste system. This goes back to those two definitions of gender that I talked about at the start, and Lierre covered this even more extensively earlier this morning. Gender liberals make two arguments to defend gender – sometimes they say that gender is natural, innate, biologically essential – and sometimes they say it’s voluntary and freely chosen. I and other radical feminists disagree with both of these justifications.
Proponents of the liberal definition of gender believe that gender is something we are born with, and if a person’s inborn gender doesn’t match up with the accepted stereotypes for the body we’re born with, then it means that that person was born in the wrong body. This definition of gender is being used to tell children, toddlers, that they were born in the wrong body if they don’t conform to gender. This is an oppressive form of biological essentialism. The only groups of people whom I’ve heard defend gender as a natural, inevitable quality that we’re born with, other than gender liberals who call themselves progressive, are men’s rights activists and conservative religious fundamentalists, so forgive me for not understanding how this belief is remotely progressive. This represents an adjustment, a repackaging of the rhetoric of male supremacy – not resistance to it.
The idea that gender is natural is conservative, and the idea that gender is voluntarily chosen is insulting. Tell a victim of corrective rape that gender is voluntary. Tell any survivor of rape, the overwhelming majority of which are female, that being a woman is a fun set of clothing and behavior choices that she could reject identification with if she chose. Tell a preteen girl whose body is beginning to develop that the constant sexual assault at school, the constant leering and harassment from grown men, and the constant cultural messages telling her to starve herself, they’re all just part of her freely chosen identity as a woman.
No. Gender takes the lived experiences of being female or being male and reduces those experience to sets of stereotypes. Transgender ideology retains those same oppressive stereotypes, but liberalizes their application by asserting that anyone can embody either set of stereotypes, regardless of their biological sex. This does not take away the destructiveness and reductiveness of the stereotypes, and in fact it reinforces them. Gender itself is a set of stereotypes, and I don’t want to reform those stereotypes, I want to abolish them along with their destructive and toxic effects on our lives. The only way out of a double bind is to smash it.
I don’t personally believe that misogyny is the conscious reasoning of every male person who begins identifying themselves as female. When I was a high school teacher, I had male students that were told by counselors that they were sick with “gender dysphoria” and put on hormones by doctors because they failed to live up to masculine stereotypes. These boys aren’t consciously out to invade female space – but they, and the abuse that they receive at the hands of the medical and psychiatric establishments, certainly aren’t poster children for why gender castes deserve to be rationalized or maintained. The fact that some males have a negative experience of gender does not erase the fact that structurally, on the macro level, gender exists to facilitate the extraction of resources from female bodies. Gender is the chain, and male supremacy is the ball. Just because males sometimes trip over that chain does not erase that fact that the ankle it’s cuffed to is always female. The punishment meted out to males who disobey the dictums of masculinity (a punishment that is yet another negative affect of the sex caste system) can be severe, and of course it’s indefensible. However, it is distinct from the systematic exploitation that females experience because we are female.
The stereotypes of gender are not neutral, they’re not random, they’re not arbitrary. Just like the stereotype of the indigenous “savage,” which was created in order to exploit indigenous populations for their land, just like the stereotype of the “lazy immigrant” or the “welfare queen,” both created to exploit communities of color for their labor, the stereotypes called gender are created and recreated by patriarchy for a specific purpose, and that purpose is to is to facilitate and justify the systematic exploitation of women, the mining of female bodies for resources.
Oppression is always tied to resource extraction.In a culture that treats reproduction, labor, and sexual gratification as resources that can be bought, the female body is an extraction site. Gender facilitates and justifies the exploitation that male supremacy depends on. It is no coincidence that the male stereotypes we call masculinity reward aggressive, cruel, boundary-breaking behavior, because those are the behaviors required from male people in order to maintain male supremacy. It is not a coincidence that the set of stereotypes called “femininity” include physical weakness and compliance with male demands. It is not a coincidence that the dominant stereotypes within femininity – domestic laborer, selfless mother, and infantalized sex object – correspond with the resources that female people are exploited for under male supremacy – cheap labor, reproduction, and male sexual gratiication.
I don’t need or expect everyone to agree with me. The scare tactics, the bullying and the threats – they are loud, and flashy, and they’re intended to take up a lot of space in the conversation. But despite the best efforts of the bullies, those kind of attacks do not make up the whole of the conversation. In the last year my views have also simply been criticized, with varying degrees of respect and sincerity, sometimes by people that I very much respect. I’ve been questioned and challenged. Again and again, I’ve been told that I am wrong. The reason I still hold these convictions, despite the criticisms I’ve received, is that none of those criticisms have presented any evidence that these two basic principles are incorrect. If you want me to stop organizing around radical feminist goals, to stop challenging gender, to stop being a radical feminist – which seems to be what many people want, and want badly enough to threaten and harass me to get their way – then your work is cut out for you. Convince me that these principles are false, and I will have to reevaluate my feminist framework. I agree with Enloe, again: “Admitting my surprise is the only way I’m going to be able to take fresh stock of my feminist analyses of developments both far afield and close to home.”
So come on and surprise me. Threats, slurs, smears, and uninformed dismissals are what I’ve come to expect – constructive, sincere, adult conversation would be quite a surprise to me, at this point.
I didn’t choose these politics for the hell of it. Naming the reality of male supremacy, naming gender as inherently oppressive, and defending the right of female people to organize autonomously, comes with a cost. I and many others have come to accept that cost after challenging, painful analysis of radical feminism’s merits. For me and others in my position, radical feminism has been a lifeline of critical thought. We grew up within a version of “feminism” that uncritically accepted the inevitability and the naturalness of gender, the neoliberal primacy of individualism, and ultimately, the unchallengeability of male supremacy. We deserve better. Gender is not a binary, it is a hierarchy, and it exists to facilitate exploitation.
This is the fact that we are not allowed to notice, much less speak out loud. We cannot fight what we cannot even describe, and that is why it’s so important that we do speak this truth out loud, in public, every chance we get. Gender is an inherently oppressive caste system. It cannot, should not, be reformed, extended, or embraced. If we want to end male supremacy, gender and the exploitation it serves must be abolished.