A radical feminist plan for the dissolution of gender

[Update 15 September 2014] Since writing this, I’ve come to see it as a deeply unfair blast of sarcasm against a group which I did not pay the courtesy of engaging in good faith. Having done so since, I now appreciate that my understanding of sex and gender as concepts was deeply flawed when I wrote this. My assumption that the transgender movement is one that will automatically further the aims of the feminist movement is no longer one I consider supportable. Furthermore, I regard the impulse to attack women for “trans exclusion” when they wish to organise on the basis of sex as a political class to be a form of antifeminism and misogyny. I continue to support civil rights and freedom from abuse and harassment for trans people: however, I no longer tolerate the proposition that trans rights entail the destruction of female as a category and the pretense that male supremacy does not exist. In summary, I’m painfully embarrassed whenever this post resurfaces. However, I’m leaving it up because I think it’s important that I take responsibility for the things I’ve said, including (especially) the stupid things. More than that, though, I think it’s a demonstration of the generosity and intellectual rigour of radical feminists that they responded to this with persuasive discussion and ultimately by welcoming me to the movement I once dismissed so unkindly. tl;dr I was a dick once and probably will be again, evidence of dickery below.

Hey, it looks like radical feminism has got this sexism thing licked! All we have to do is effect a total social transformation in which gender as we know it will completely cease to exist, and then we can get on with our egalitarian business.

Now, I’m not against ambitious projects, but it may seem to some of you that this is an almost impracticably gargantuan aim, which is why I’m pleased to report that the Radfem 2012 conference has already got the fundamentals of gender smashing in place. Here’s how it goes:

  1. Establish a woman only space to discuss the dismantling of patriarchal culture
  2. Ensure the women in that space are restricted to “women born women living as women
  3. Watch patriarchy tumble in the face of rigorously policed gender identity!
  4. Er, really?

OK, here’s the bit where I confess myself baffled. If the Radfem conference’s ultimate aim is the dissolution of gender, why is it starting by instituting a definition of gender that explicitly excludes women with a non-standard experience of gender? According to Radfem 2012, you’re only fit to participate in feminist discussion and activism if you were identified female at birth, and have subsequently experienced female self-identity.

Identified as male at birth (that is “born a man”, although given that radical feminism is supposed to be about dismantling the socialised aspects of gender, the idea that anyone could be born with an adult gender identity seems a teeny-tiny bit problematic) but recognise your own gender as female? Skip the sign-up process, because transwomen are not welcome at Radfem 2012.

Identified as female at birth, but recognise your own gender as male? I think you’ll find you’ve failed to put the lifetime investment in “being a woman” required to qualify for patriarchy smashing. Doors are barred, you’re not coming in.

Identified female at birth, recognise your own gender as female, yet find that other people interpret your appearance and behaviour as male? Again, I have to ask – are you really living as a woman? And if you’re not living according to the social demands of the sex assigned to you at birth, how are you going to smash the gender binary?

Because apparently Radfem 2012 is some sort of social homeopathy. It’s a teeny-tiny drop of gender essentialist thinking that will (by a mechanism to be confirmed at a later date) ultimately destroy gender essentialism in culture at large. And if you think that sounds absurd, it’s probably because you’re some sort of fun-feminist dilettante pandering to patriarchy.

There are three really good reasons to object to Radfem 2012’s exclusion of transgender people. The first is a simple matter of justice: trans people experience violence and objectification based on their gender. Any feminism worth supporting recognises that, and embraces trans rights as part of its own mission.

The second is an issue of logical consistency: you can’t claim to be destroying gender, while bitterly enforcing it in its most limited sense through your attendance criteria.

And the third is pure self-interest: as a cis woman (that is, born female, identified by others as female and experiencing my own gender as female), the testament of trans women is one of the best guides I have to the social and biological vagaries of gender.

Anyone who’s interested in how gender is formed and functions (as the radfems claim to be) should be paying sympathetic attention to trans voices. (For starters, I’d strongly recommend reading Whipping Girl by Julia Serano.) That feels to me like the truly radical side of gender politics. Insisting that your doctrinaire view of other people’s identities is the right one, and strictly policing it? I think the guys who did that used to be called the patriarchy.

Text © Sarah Ditum, 2012; photo of customised girl/boy Blythe dolls by betsyjean79, used under Creative Commons

13 thoughts on “A radical feminist plan for the dissolution of gender

  1. In all fairness (and it’s tempting to be unfair, given how strongly I disagree with the exclusion of trans women from this event), the RadFem 2012 page you linked to does not state the dissolution of gender is its aim. It seeks “the liberation of all women from patriarchal oppression” and “total social transformation”, neither of which, as far as I can tell, involve the end of gender. Unless it’s stated elsewhere as an aim, or unless we assume radical feminism inherently involves the aim of dissolving gender, much of your argument here seems to fall away.

  2. Julie Bindel has said that radical feminists want to “end the charade of gender“. A RadFem 2012 apologist told me on Twitter today, “We want to eradicate [gender], not have it reinforced through trans.” And “eradicate gender” seems like a reasonable summary of whatever the opposite to “seeking ‘equality’ with men within a fundamentally oppressive system” might be. In any case, I take the eradication of traditional gender roles to be implicit in radical feminism. So there we go.

  3. Hello Sarah. I am confused as to why you have used an example of my writing/views to back up your point about the radfem conference when I have had nothing whatsoever to do with organising it. Do you think that is fair?

    Best, Julie

  4. Hi Julie. Haven’t suggested you’re involved with RadFem 2012, just used a quote from you as an example of a radical feminist approach to gender. Best, Sarah.

  5. Hi Sarah

    Interesting account. Yet, the destruction of “traditional gender roles” is not the eradication of gender. Tis true, biological gender rituals are essential in maintaining physical and psychological wellbeing. “Traditional” gender roles are what all feminists acknowledge as the patriarchal constructs of oppression (it may seem vague in the UK, but the extreme of patriarchal oppression is seen in Africa and the Arab World).

    Women, based on this oppression have a right to assume places and spaces of safety. Transwomen experience the same kind of oppression, therefore RadFem should have included them. But, I think it diminishes the idea of womanhood to say: “the testament of transwomen is one of the best guides I have to the social and biological vagaries of gender”. You contradict your argument: Gender is not vague, for either cis or trans women.

    I direct you to the Femficatio article: Is Political Space Necessary, or Unnecessarily Divisive: #RadFem2012 http://wp.me/p2nDBT-1B

    It is a bit lengthy, I warn.

    Thank you for your article.

    Malkia Charlee NoCry

  6. Vagaries doesn’t mean vague, it means “sudden or nexpected change”, and I used it in the sense of gender being a thing not in control of the person it’s applied to. I don’t care much for the suggestion that attending to transwomen’s experience “diminishes womanhood”, though: transwomem are women, according to there own experience of gender (which I think deserves primacy over the expectations of third parties), amd given that womanhood is not defined by reproductive function, I don’t see anything problematic about counting transwomen into discussions about feminism – after all, transwomen arguably suffer particularly sharply from the cultural disdain for feminine traits. Thanks for the link.

  7. >>But, I think it diminishes the idea of womanhood to say: “the testament of transwomen is one of the best guides I have to the social and biological vagaries of gender”.

    Malkia, I’m not sure whether you’ll see this question, but I would be interested in hearing how you think the testament of transwomen “diminishes the idea of womanhood”. Like Sarah, I am a cis woman who feels that the testament of transwomen hugely enhances my understanding of womanhood, and I am proud to stand alongside transwomen, hear their experiences and fight against their oppression. What do you think womanhood is that it is diminished by transwomen’s inclusion?

  8. Good column, but why on earth do you write cis women as two words and trans women as one? Surely you’ve seen this degendering portmanteau used by the MCRFs (misogynistically cissexist “radical feminists”) before.

  9. Because – honestly – I don’t know better. I’m very new to trans politics and the vocabulary that goes with it, and in this case have obviously been betrayed by a personal editorial preference for making portmanteaus. But I’m also very happy to learn more, and glad to be corrected in this place. I’ll change the copy. Thank you for the comment.

  10. Radical feminists don’t think Trans MtoF are women. The RadFem Conference is a women only conference to discuss female liberation. That doesn’t mean Trans MtoF don’t have some things in common – they do. So if you pass for example, you may experience sexual harassment as many women do. But women also have things in common that they don’t have with Trans people. Just as Trans people experience some things that women don’t.

  11. Hi Sarah and Mary

    I never said transwomen are not women. I will reiterate – it is gender deconstructionist speak that says you learn more about being a woman from transwoman. That statement negates the biological imperative of womanhood – which is not the only thing that makes you a woman, but it is not realistic to say it doesn’t play a key role. Where many transwomen are forced to acknowledge womanhood through symbols that aren’t necessarily feminist (such as Drag Pageants, Beauty Pageants, Modeling, walking in drag balls) they stand at a particular disadvantage that ciswomen don’t have. Conversely, the ciswoman learns a lot as you say – but that is in the universal that all women are teachers – despite class, colour, creed, religion etc.

    I exalt the transwoman as a statement of freedom, but to act as though they don’t have much to learn about feminism is a lie. It is fact transwomen are women, I don’t have to debate that. But they are not perfect women – nor more than any other women that buy into patriarchal constructions, cis or otherwise.

    I do invite you to actually read my article so we can discuss the points.


    Malkia Charlee NoCry

  12. Malkia,

    I found the courage to be who I am in my 20’s and now I’m in my 60’s.
    I’ve never in my life been to a drag ball, participated in a pageant, or done modelling. Instead I was at Greenham Common airbase with many sisters, protesting the presence of cruise missiles. I was involved with many Women’s organisations through the 1970’s and helped to set up CR groups and Women’s support networks. I’ve been a Women’s Studies lecturer in my local university since 1999. To say I have a lot to learn about feminism (when other younger women presumably don’t), I regard as an insult. I assure you I don’t “…buy into patriarchal constructions” as you suggest.
    Don’t you think you’re rather stereotyping trans women as being all the same?

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