Labels and politics


There’s an interesting passage on the use of labels to define political classes in trans activist Julia Serano’s book Excluded: Making Feminist and Queer Movements More Inclusive – interesting, because while Serano rejects any definition of “woman” that she considers “essentialist” (i.e. that relates to human females rather than to a sense of individual identity), what she writes about the word “queer” actually tells us very clearly why we need words that describe the position accorded to groups in the social hierarchy based on politically pertinent traits held in common.

“One might ask: ‘If some people don’t identify with the word queer, why not use a different word entirely? Well for one thing there is about a twenty-year-long history of people using the word ‘queer’ in this way. And even if I were to invent a completely different word to describe this same group of people, there will always be some people who choose not to identify with that term.”

– Julia Serano, Excluded: Making Feminist and Queer Movements for Inclusive

The word “woman”, in the sense of “adult human female”, originates in Old English. That gives it a history of being used in this way substantially longer than 20 years. We could, of course, substitute the phrase “cis women”, but many adult human females would not recognise or identify with that term.

“Others might ask, ‘If people who fall under the queer umbrella are all different from one another, and many of them do not personally prefer the term ‘queer,’ then why bother lumping them all into the same category in the first place?’ My answer to this is simple: I am not the one lumping us all into the same category! It is society at large that makes a distinction between people who are deemed to be ‘normal’ with regard to sex, gender and sexuality (i.e., straight) and those deemed ‘abnormal’ (i.e., queer).”

When radical feminist analysis discusses women as a class, it is using the distinctions made by “society at large”. The fundamental social division between male and female humans is one that pre-exists feminism by millennia: feminism is not to be blamed for noticing and identifying this class system.

“More importantly, those who are deemed straight are generally viewed as more natural and legitimate than those who are deemed queer. This double standard constitutes a form of sexism, one that routinely marginalizes and injures those of us who are queer. If we were to stop using words such as ‘queer’ (on the basis that not all people who fall under that umbrella identify with the term) , it would do nothing to stop society at large from deeming us to be queer and treating us inferiorly as a result.”

Indeed. The word “woman” could be redefined by fiat to mean only “one who identifies as a woman” and the word “female” excised from discourse as stigmatising of transwomen, but that would not alter the way in which human females are treated in a system of male supremacy: domestic violence, rape, FGM, reproductive coercion, wage gap, wifework and all the multitudinous other forms that patriarchy takes would persist.

“Indeed, not having a word to describe people who are marginalized by this double standard makes it difficult, if not impossible, for sexual and gender minorities to organize and carry out activism to challenge this double standard.”

Women are marginalised under patriarchy, and they are marginalised because they are female. Transwomen are marginalised under patriarchy, either because they are read as female and so subject to the same class conditions as non-trans women, or because they are read as male and penalised for failing to behave in what is considered to be an appropriately masculine fashion. Neither form of discrimination repudiates the radical feminist analysis of gender.

In order to liberate women as a class, we must be able to describe women as a class. And conversely, removing the analytical language that lets us identify the position of the human female in society guarantees that we are hobbled when it comes to changing that position. Serano can see this is true for the word “queer”: why, then, is she determined that any use of the word “woman” to describe human females as a class be dismissed as “essentialism”?