The first thing I thought after reading Michelle Goldberg’s article in the New Yorker on trans-exclusive feminists (TERFs) was that I needed to stop calling myself a radical feminist. The second thing I thought was that we shouldn’t let them have a monopoly on the meaning of the term. The path from the view that women are an oppressed group to the view that transwomen are a threat is not the straight line Goldberg paints it to be.
Let’s start out by talking about what radical feminism is. The word “radical” means “root,” as in, “going to the root of the problem.” Radical feminists hold that society is organized patriarchally—so as to ensure men’s continued domination of women. Gender is a system of power, and femininity and masculinity are locations within it. As Goldberg gets right, radical feminists believe that being a member of a gender means occupying “a caste-position.” There is a dark side to socially prescribed femininity; “feminine” qualities (like inability to get angry, for instance) keep those who have them subordinate. We also hold that restrictions on sexuality and reproduction have been, and remain, important tools for locking women into a subordinate role.
Goldberg discusses the transphobia of the TERFS as though it is a logical outgrowth of these positions. But some of the TERF claims are not worth dignifying with the suggestion that they are justified by any theory; some verge on hate speech. For instance, Goldberg discusses Sheila Jeffreys’ claim that transwomen begin as straight men with so-called “autogynophilia,” the desire to have the body parts by which they are sexually aroused. But what Jeffreys ignores, and what Goldberg fails to mention, is that the autogynophilia explanation is widely empirically discredited. Worse still, Jeffreys insists on describing herself as opposed to “transgenderism.” Given that trans describes an identity category and not a theoretical position, opposing “transgenderism” amounts to opposing the existence of a group of people.
In trying to explain why TERFs view transwomen as a threat, Goldberg contrasts the radical feminist view with a view that invisibilizes women’s subjugation for the sake of being trans-inclusive. She notes only in passing that there are radical feminists who aren’t TERFs. Within the radical feminist repertoire are a number of ideas that push for the recognition of transpeople as experiencing sexist oppression. Here are few:
First, radical feminists pioneered the idea that making a person’s gender highly visible was a way of marking, and constantly reminding her of place in, the sexist hierarchy. Women’s fashion not only tells us who the women are; it paints us as sexually accessible. The famous example is the posture a woman is forced to adopt to walk in high heels. The view that people are targeted for domination on the basis of visible markers is not compatible with the view that only cisgender women are victims of sexist oppression. If gender operates through a set of visible markers, those who “pass” as women, appear to be trying to pass as women, or those who are perceived as “really” women trying to “pass” as something else, become vulnerable. And there is strong empirical evidence that transgender people are highly vulnerable to sexual violence. Studies consistently find that around 50% of transgender people report unwanted sexual activity.
Second, the view that “woman” refers to a position within a gender hierarchy can be interpreted to cut against the view that a woman is defined by her genital or chromosomal makeup. (And yes I know Jeffreys claims she thinks men are defined by their privilege, but that just doesn’t match up with the conclusions she draws.) Some important radical feminists, such as Shulamith Firestone, believed women’s bodies caused their oppression. But others suggested that placing the focus on women’s bodies was a ruse; it made oppression that was caused by contingent social relations appear biological. As Catherine Mackinnon puts it (in a passage defining radical feminist analysis, in fact), socially produced inequality “creates by force the status [women] are supposed to be destined for by anatomy (Toward a Feminist Theory of the State 90). In other words, it is a social interpretation of women’s bodies, and not simply their bodies, that causes women’s subordination. Pretending that it is the bodies themselves that cause oppression is a way of making women’s domination seem natural—like something that cannot be changed. Appealing to the view that transwomen are not women because they have the wrong bodies appeals to a naturalizing view of gender that radical feminists have reason to reject.
Third, radical feminists have advanced the view that patriarchal power works through medicalization and pathologization of sexuality and reproduction. Transpeople who are diagnosed with Gender Dsysphoria (formerly Gender Identity Disorder) are forced to rehearse pathologizing scripts in order to get medical attention. Intersex neonates, (some of whom identify as trans as adults and some of whom do not), have their bodies have their bodies surgically reshaped to fit the gender regime without their consent. The view of some people as unfit to make intimate decisions about their bodies is at work in the medicalization of pregnancy, denials of abortion rights, and the denial of transpeople’s rights to make decisions about whether and how they desire medical interventions.
It would be wrong for me to suggest that the TERFs’ view has no basis in radical feminist thought, however. If there’s one thing radical feminists have been historically bad at, it’s this: recognizing that sexist oppression is not the only oppression. Some radical feminists explicitly stated that other oppressions (like racial and class oppression) were modeled on gender oppression. In the 1960s and 70s some repudiated women who expressed forms of solidarity with men as collaborators—even when they were women of color whose futures were concretely bound up with struggles for racial justice.
We can see some difficulty grappling with the possibility of other oppressions in the narratives of some of the TERFs interviewed by Goldberg. As a woman of color, I couldn’t help but be struck by the portrayal of the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival as the world as though “we mattered”—as though all women’s oppression simply dissolves when men are not present.
I don’t think it’s hard to know what to do with this particular radical feminist inheritance. The view that sexism is the only oppression is one we should repudiate. It is simply a fact know that oppressions are multiple and intersectional. Cissexism is a real thing that interacts with sexism to shape the lives of transpeople. If TERFs refuse to acknowledge the reality of cissexism because they need sexism to be the only oppression, they are clinging to the very worst part of the radical feminist legacy. We should know better.