A gender abolitionist in a non-ideal world

It’s not an easy path to tread, being a gender apostate. As a feminist who thinks that female biology is real, that female socialization matters, but also that it is possible for male people to transition into the role of woman and therefore to live as women, I’m used to being unpopular. I’ve made my peace with the fact I’m simultaneously denounced both as a vicious exclusionary transphobe, and as a cowardly liberal quisling in thrall to men. So I’m not particularly concerned to defend myself against these claims. But I do think it’s important to explain, for those who may be in any doubt, why there is nothing inconsistent about this position I’ve arrived at, and why I believe there is nothing contradictory or hypocritical about gender critical feminists and transsexual women working together towards the goal of gender abolition.

***

I believe that gender is a socially constructed, externally imposed hierarchy that operates to prescribe and proscribe certain modes of behaviour, appearance and comportment for individuals of both sexes. I believe it limits human freedom and constrains our potential. It teaches girls that they must be weak, passive, decorative and submissive. It teaches boys that they must strong, active, dominant and aggressive. It imposes heavy sanctions on individuals for non-compliance. Given that it is a hierarchy that values maleness over femaleness, gender punishes those born female more severely than those born male, and punishes them whether they comply or not, since compliance with femininity just is to enact submission and subordination. But gender is a system that oppresses everybody, and males who cannot conform to norms of masculinity will be punished too.

As a gender critical feminist, the ideal world I envisage is one in which social norms governing behaviour, appearance and comportment are entirely decoupled from potential reproductive function. In an ideal world, regardless of what set of genitals they happen to possess, people would wear whatever clothes they want to wear, perform whatever roles and occupations they are inclined to perform, have romantic and sexual relationships with whomever they choose, without facing social censure in the form of discrimination, harassment or violence. It may be that in such a world, our language would shift to reflect this radically different value system; perhaps it would evolve new genderless pronouns to refer to all persons, instead of segregating them so clearly by reproductive function as it currently does. (I say nothing about whether such a world is feasible, because I don’t know the answer to this. It might not feasible; it might even be impossible. It doesn’t follow from that that it’s not desirable.)

In an ideal world, being female or male would have as little bearing on how one is expected to dress and behave, or on what one is expected to excel at and achieve, as other biological factors such as blood group or dominant-handedness currently have.

But this is not that ideal world.

***

We are saturated by gender in this non-ideal world. It is everywhere, so much so that most of us cannot see it: it’s the air we breathe, the water we swim in. Our entire social order is organised around the idea that different forms of behaviour and appearance are appropriate for male and female people. This idea has shaped our history and our politics. It is reflected in our language and embodied in our culture. It is the reason why gender non-conforming behaviour is still so heavily sanctioned: why homosexuality is still widely stigmatised; why rejection of feminine beauty norms comes at such a high price; why assertive, powerful women are socially shunned and ostracised.

As a feminist, I want to abolish gender. I desire a world without these social norms tying behaviour and personality to reproductive function.

But as a woman; as a human; as a person made of flesh and blood, with a lifetime of inculcation into this value system, and all the history of pain and trauma and emotional baggage that the average person accumulates on the way to adulthood; as me, as Rebecca, I want to live in this world in which I find myself without unnecessary struggle or discomfort. I don’t want to spend every waking moment in a battle, engaged in warfare against this monolithic structure under which I live and over which I had no say or control. I want to work with others to chip away at that structure, sure. I want to devote as much of my time and energy to the task of dismantling that structure as it is reasonable to ask of any individual. But I don’t want to sacrifice my entire wellbeing and my mental health and my only chance of happiness and survival in the attempt. I’ve got just this one life to live, and even if I stopped doing anything else for the rest it; even if I devoted my every waking thought and action to trying to tear down the gender monolith, for the rest of my days…it would still barely scratch the surface, still barely leave the tiniest chink in that structure, let alone shake its millennia-old foundations.

What to do then, as the gender abolitionist with just one life to live?

This is a question without a straightforward answer, because the answer lies in the murky grounds of compromise and personal reflection. The answer will require a great deal of wrestling with one’s own experiences and baggage to determine how much more weight one can reasonably be expected to carry. I don’t think there’s a universal answer to the question of how much rebellion is required and how much complicity is permitted in the face of oppressive structures that you alone cannot change. That’s going to depend on who you are, where you’ve come from and what you’ve come through, and how relatively thick or thin those things have left your skin. But one thing I am certain of is this: no individual is required to sacrifice themselves, their happiness, their peace of mind and their only chance of flourishing, all for the sake of some minuscule, intangible, and possibly negligible advance on the path towards our ideal world. Nobody is required to martyr themselves or surrender their wellbeing at the altar of principles or ideology, either to demonstrate their commitment to those principles, or to achieve some nebulous incremental gain in the path towards the perfect world.

The question of how we ought to behave in an ideal world is a very different one from the question of how we ought to behave before we get there, and it isn’t hypocritical or inconsistent to answer those questions differently. Every individual has a right to do what they need to do to survive and to flourish in this non-ideal world, even if some of those things they need to do setback our journey towards our ideal.

***

I don’t know what causes sex dysphoria in those who experience it. I don’t know whether it is a genetic or biological or socio-psychological condition. I do know that there are many individuals, both male and female, who find the constraints that gender imposes upon them painful and oppressive. And I know that for some people, this pain becomes especially acute and intense, so that they cannot tolerably live in the gender role associated with their biological sex. And some of these people come to the conclusion that they can live more comfortably, can more easily flourish and be happy, if they adopt the gender norms associated with the other biological sex.

This may be a non-ideal solution to a problem of a non-ideal world. Perhaps, in our genderless ideal world, nobody would experience this dysphoria, because these two rigid and diametrically opposed roles would not exist. Perhaps in this world, people would be free to pick and choose from the actions and forms of behaviour we currently associate with masculinity and femininity, without having to pick a team; without having to decide which of the two boxes, the pink one or the blue one, is less constrictive.

But this is not that ideal world.

In this non-ideal world, there are pink boxes and blue boxes, and we are all required to squash ourselves into one of them, or face heavy penalties. As a person with a female body who has been effectively socialized as female, I am able to live reasonably happily and comfortably in the role of woman. This is not to say it never brings me pain or distress; if it didn’t, I wouldn’t be a feminist, and I wouldn’t want to abolish gender. But while I want to abolish masculinity and femininity, I’m also pretty sure that if I’ve got to choose between the pink box and the blue one, I will do better in the pink one now. I don’t much like femininity, but I know I couldn’t conform to masculinity. I definitely can’t live as a man, but I can live and survive as a woman.

And so I do what I have to do to survive. I perform femininity in all sorts of ways. I wear makeup pretty much most days, and I dress in the ways that our culture tells women they ought to dress, and while I rail against the norms that impel women to be docile and submissive, I frequently fall back into those norms on occasions when being assertive and dominant would bring costs I can’t afford to bear. You can call me a hypocrite who fails to live her principles, if you think sincerity and conviction requires nothing less than perfect compliance with those principles at all times. But I think that’s an overly purist and zealous interpretation of political conviction. I have to live in this world as best I can, trying to work out how much of a political load I can bear before my back breaks.

 ***

So as a frequently gender-conforming woman, I am complicit in the perpetuation of gender in order to survive the brutality of a rigidly gendered world. And crucially, I don’t see this as being very different from the complicity of transsexual people. The only real difference is that they are trying to move from one colour box to another, while I am relatively content to stay put in mine. Since none of us alone can tear down the boxes, I reckon I’m better off with the one I’ve been in since birth. As gender non-conforming males, trans women feel they’d be better off in the opposite one from the one in which they started. Perhaps they are shoring up the boxes, making them a tiny bit harder to tear down; but then so am I, every time I wear mascara, or shave under my arms, or passively acquiesce when a man interrupts me for the sake of a quiet life. I want a gender free world, but every day I perform femininity to survive in a world with gender. So too do trans women. We are all damaged by the same structure, and we would all benefit from that structure being abolished.

Furthermore, the gender abolitionist trans women that I am friends with do not deny who they are. They make no claims to femaleness. They readily and openly acknowledge that they have male biology, that they were socialised as male, and that there are important differences between their experience of gender, and that of those born and raised female. What they say is that while they strive for a world without gender, in this non-ideal world they can live more comfortably and cope better with their dysphoria by performing femininity than they can performing masculinity. We have the same goals. And it would be oddly inconsistent and perverse of me to insist that I want to abolish gender – to insist that I want to decouple norms of behaviour and appearance from potential reproductive function – and then to complain when people who freely acknowledge that they are male adopt traditionally feminine names, clothing and modes of behaviour. They aren’t ‘appropriating’ womanhood, since this is not a vision of womanhood that belongs to any of us, or that any of us is invested in keeping. Since femininity is submission and subordination, I’m not about to get possessive or proprietorial about who performs it.

In an ideal world, nobody would perform it.

But this is not an ideal world.

 

19 Comments on “A gender abolitionist in a non-ideal world

  1. As you know, I disagree that male people can ever transition into women – they can transition into transwomen, and that act of transition is not only medical but more importantly social, and is no easy process. However, I still love this piece, and love, respect and support you and your writing.

    I feel constrained, demeaned and insulted by the pink box every day, but like you I feel sympathy for transsexual males because I would *never* want to live in the blue box, which seems like a terrifying place to me. I also feel like deconstructing that blue box is the most important next step in gender abolition, and that the backlash against feminism we are seeing now, of which transgender identity politics are only a part, serve to make that deconstruction even more difficult.

    I do think a gender-free world is possible. If Martin Luther King could envision a world wherein we do not judge our children by the color of their skin, then I can envision a world wherein we do not judge our children by the content of their pants. Like you said, we are not yet in that world – far from it. How to get there is the question, and I for one think that standing (or rather marching) shoulder to shoulder will get us the farthest towards our goal.

    1. I’m open to having my mind changed on whether it’s accurate to say that male people can transition to become women, or whether we ought to insist that they are transwomen, and therefore something different. The reason I’m inclined to say that they can transition to become women is because I think the category of “woman” is itself a social construction – a product of patriarchy, the creation of a gendered world. As Mill said “what is now called the nature of women is an eminently artificial thing” – I think that’s true, insofar as nothing in our natures, nothing in our female bodies, is the source of our womanhood. Furthermore, as an identity defined by its inferiority and submissiveness, I’m not going to get proprietorial or possessive about it. As long as people born male who transition to live in this role don’t seek to erase or invalidate the experiences of those who’ve been living in it since birth (for example by claiming that they have always been women, or that there is no such thing as a female body), then I don’t think there’s anything inherently appropriative or colonising about transitioning into the role of woman. The role of woman, when what this means is mother/whore/virgin/goddess/helpmeet, is not something I’m invested in preserving.

      1. “The reason I’m inclined to say that they can transition to become women is because I think the category of “woman” is itself a social construction ”

        “nothing in our female bodies, is the source of our womanhood.”

        Woman is a word that describes biological reality. It is most definitely not a social construct. The “source of our womanhood” always goes back to biology. No perceived reproductive potential, no sex-based oppression. Likewise, the word female and femaleness refer to a biological reality. Femininity is the performance of one of two flavors of gender and that is NOT biological but culturally inculcated. What MTTs are doing is performing femininity (not biological) They are not “transitioning” or becoming female because that is impossible. They are picking the pink box, as you point out. So who cares? Is the performance of woman-face offensive, apparently not. Personally, I’m kind of neutral about it but I never confound it with the real thing. I’m all for guys throwing off the shackles of masculinity though I do wonder if that is indeed what these men are doing. What rankles is the insistence that they are REALLY female and that they should have access to women’s (biologically segregated) spaces, including sports’ teams, locker rooms, scholarships, etc. The list is long.

        “as an identity defined by its inferiority and submissiveness, I’m not going to get proprietorial or possessive about it”

        Referring to woman-ness or womanhood as an identity is part of the problem. I was IDed female at birth, I am identifiable as female (biological). Identities are cultural, they are not biological. When it comes to biology it really doesn’t matter what you identify as. The difference between MTTs and bio-women (among many) is that they identify-as-female and that we are identified as female, at birth. Second, “inferiority and submissiveness” are learned, they are not genetically coded (as far as I can tell). So rejecting them is not tantamount to rejecting your femaleness (which is or isn’t and can not be changed). Likewise, embracing them is not tantamount to ‘becoming a woman’. Performing femininity is irrelevant to being or not being female. There are many women who have no interest in femininity, just like there are many men who don’t feel the need to be hyper-macho.

        1. Just a quick note: Everyone at Gender Apostates is familiar with radical feminist gender theory. Nobody here thinks transwomen are female, or that male people should have access to sex-segregated female spaces. Becca (who is a college professor) is using the word “woman” to mean a social construction. I disagree with this use of the word, so I’m glad she’s open to discussion. But lecturing her with theory that she already knows as if she is a wayward child is only going to waste the opportunity to change a mind, and quite frankly it is tedious.

          1. How would you define “woman,” then? Isn’t it redundant if it’s just another word for female?

          2. Is this a serious question? There are many female mammals. Woman is the word for an adult female *human*. See: the dictionary.

          3. I don’t know how you got “wayward child” out of all of that. I find that usage of woman, as “social construction”, to be confusing and misleading but I guess these are interesting times after all. I happen to think language and usage a really important. Redefining the word woman will never change biological reality, though I realize the frankendocs are working on just that. If you’re telling me I shouldn’t talk back to the professor or ask questions, well, good luck with that (you can ban me I guess). Gender Theory was born in the academy and has ruined a lot of lives, someone should talk back. It was an interesting post and I left a comment. I think that’s the way it’s supposed to work, right?

          4. Of course you can disagree with me, it’s not a matter of not talking back to the professor! I think Sass’s point was that you seemed more interested in scolding me for using the word ‘woman’ differently to how you use it, than actually having a dialogue with me, and that’s just a bit pointless. I’m familiar with your position; I just disagree with it. We can discuss our disagreement and try to see if there’s any common ground, or to see if it’s a disagreement that we are able to put to one side while we work together on other issues. But simply repeating at me something I already know and just don’t accept isn’t going to get us very far. The purpose of this space is to try to reason together and reach mutual understanding and compromise, not to steamroll other people into submission. (Perhaps that wasn’t your intention, but it was certainly how I interpreted your comment.)

          5. Here are my reasons for only ever using “woman” to mean “adult human female.” 1) We desperately, urgently need clear, precise language in public debate. Much like laypeople will use the word “gender” to mean “sex category” while feminists use it to mean “sex role hierarchy” and thus will be talking at very confusing cross purposes, laypeople do not see the “woman” in “transwomen are women” as a theoretical construct. So we get “transwomen are women so they belong in all women’s spaces, and transwomen are women and women are female so transwomen are female so penises are female and periods are not.” It’s ridiculous, but that’s where playing fast and loose with basic terminology has gotten us. 2) Using the word “woman” to mean the *male supremacist construct* forced on female people means a) autogynephiles are correct in saying they “feel like women;” b) young masculine female people are being pushed to see themselves as not-women and thus pushed to transition; 3) as long as we kowtow to men’s definition of women as defective men, they will use “woman” as a trash chute into which to push young feminine male people, not only harming those young feminine male people but putting off the necessary task of REDEFINING “MAN.”

  2. Yes, I understand that it’s the dictionary definition, but theory re-appropriates words all the time, and the author isn’t alone in using “female” to distinguish sex and “woman” to distinguish gender. I see your reasoning, but I think the larger problem is just that the public has seen the sex/gender distinction muddled beyond all comprehension.

    In my experience, when you draw the distinction and explain your terms they find using female and woman separately very intuitive.

  3. I’ve found both your comments really helpful and thought-provoking, Sass and voi che sapete. And I confess I’m still working this through and need to give it a lot more thought; I haven’t come to a settled position on it, although I currently seem to be resting somewhere nearer to voi che sapete’s view.

    Obviously being a professional pedant and someone who takes clarity of meaning and vocabulary very seriously, I am moved by your arguments Sass. I don’t like the confusion and misinterpretation that’s open to using “female” to refer to the biological category and “woman” to refer to the social construction, especially given that this is counter to everyday usage, and draws a technical distinction most people aren’t thinking about when they use those words.

    I don’t think defining woman as a social category allows males who “feel like women” to be women, because on this definition being a woman is not about how one feels about oneself; it’s about how others view you. It’s a matter of being read by others as female and treated accordingly, rather than having a subjective feeling in one’s head. You can’t identify your way into that category, because it’s a product of your material existence being read and interpreted by others in accordance with a set of norms and values that exists independently of you.

    I do take very seriously the concern that by defining all gender non-conforming males as women, woman simply becomes the Other, the category of Not-Man, the garbage can for all that don’t fit adequately into the blue box. I agree that we need to radically redefine manhood, and that’s not happening.

    What do you say about cases like the males with AIS who pass perfectly as female, Sass? Would you want to call them men, despite the fact they will have been raised as girls and treated as if they were female since birth, and will be treated as women everywhere they go?

    1. Well, first, to say that transwomen are women because they are perceived and treated as such presumes that transwomen are perceived and treated as women. However, transwomen who do not “pass” are not victims of sexism but of homophobia (whether or not they are actually gay.) Gay/feminine men are often treated with the same disgust and condescension women encounter, but for different reasons – to address their situation one must be honest about the cause.

      Metaphor: As a poor white kid I was often followed in stores/harassed by staff – this was an experience shared by black middle class classmates, but I was a victim of classism whereas they were victims of racism. That we both experienced similar harassment does not make me black.

      Second, it is dangerous to reduce womanhood to how one is currently perceived and treated, because that erases the inner lives of women, who have grown up as girls and gone through female puberty and will always be shaped by those experiences.

      It is one thing (and no small thing) for an adult to be *perceived* as vulnerable to pregnancy and thus treated in a sexist manner; it is another thing to have been put in the bottom sex class from birth, by one’s own family and community.

      Metaphor: Rachel Dolezal experienced a few years of being treated as a black person. She did not have to grow up as a black kid.

      It is one thing (and no small thing) to be *perceived* as vulnerable to pregnancy and thus treated in a sexist manner; it is another thing (and no small thing) to *actually be* vulnerable to pregnancy (most infertile women will not know they are infertile until they attempt to conceive, thus they will still have experienced PIV sex as a risk.)

      Metaphor: I am regularly perceived to be young and healthy when in fact I am 40 and have several chronic medical conditions; on the other hand I could start using a wheelchair and pass as disabled, but I would not be disabled.

      [I think it is also important to note that womanhood isn’t just about being a victim of sexism, it is also about being part of the class of people who have fought back against that sexism. Feminism is part of our heritage.]

      I don’t think that rare cases like AIS undermines the use of “woman” to mean adult human females anymore than the existence of albino Africans undermines the use of “black people” to describe people of African/Caribbean descent.

      1. P.S. even if you continue to disagree with me on this one matter where I am very clearly right, I will still continue to love you and respect your writing. :-)

  4. Ah, I love and respect you Sass, always :)

    So, with respect to your first point: I agree, and it seems to be undeniable that trans women are more likely to be treated as women and to receive the same social treatment that women do if they pass successfully as female. I agree that insofar as they do not pass as female and so are read as men, the prejudice and discrimination they experience is a form of homophobia rather than sexism (though I believe homophobia is still rooted in gender, because homosexuality is the paradigmatic form of gender non-conforming behaviour).

    Basically, the conclusion I am coming to is that the attempt to define “woman” by reference to a list of necessary and sufficient conditions is likely to be fruitless, because whatever list of criteria we draw up, we will find an example that we want to include that doesn’t mean the criteria, or that we want to exclude that does meet the criteria. That’s not the same as saying anything goes; that’s not to say that woman means whatever anyone wants it to mean. What it means is that it’s a category comprising beings with family resemblances, but with no feature that is shared by all (this is a Wittgensteinian idea). In that way, transsexual women are like female women in some respects but not like them in other respects. (Jane Clare Jones did a great series of tweets on that, which I loved https://storify.com/janeclarejones/how-things-mean-what-they-mean )

    And so then for me the question “are trans women women?” is just not a very interesting one. The answer is yes and no; in some ways yes, in some ways no. And I can’t manage to care very much about terminological issues, really, which is why I can’t get worked up about pronouns either. I don’t care what label we give to people, except insofar as this affects how we behave towards them and how we treat them. And philosophical wranglings on the question of “what is a woman?” are usually a distraction from the important political questions of what rights and liberties and resources members of different groups should be afforded. I don’t especially care whether we say that trans women are women or not; I only care that they receive the respect and fair treatment to which they are entitled, and that simultaneously the rights of females to self-organise and associate freely are respected.

  5. I agree that the semantics we use in re. the tiny percentage of males who suffer sex dysmorphia and undergo transition shouldn’t matter so much (and as you know I don’t draw hard lines on pronouns) – in fact, if the word “trans” hadn’t been so thoroughly emptied – to the point neither dysmorphia nor transition are required – we probably wouldn’t even be having this conversaton. I only care about these semantics because of how all this is playing out in the “real world,” in regards to destroying women’s boundaries — How can you ask those important political questions of what rights and liberties and resources members of different groups should be afforded, **if you cannot define those groups?** However, I’m happy to leave this be (for now, dun dun dun). (P.S. I won’t post again if you want to have the last word on what is, you know, your own darn post. That Sass person is rather mouthy, ain’t she?)

  6. Is all femininity reducible to submission and subordination? Or are these just the patri(hier)archical forms of cooperation and diplomacy, which are perhaps quintessential human traits necessary to a social species? I certainly wouldn’t want to place domination and lording-over — if by contrast we define these as “masculine” — in a superior position, or to suggest that those who don’t want to perform femininity ought occupy that box either.

    Are flowers masculine or feminine? They simply are, beautiful and adorned. But in our culture, flowers, and attention to flowers, is often glossed as feminine. So-called feminine dress has florate qualities ; except in very baroque periods, those assigned as men are segregated from such qualities. Is a florate quality, being part of a human being’s openness-to-being, only legitimate for one of the sexes? But should the florate quality be glossed under submission and subordination? To whom are flowers in their glory subordinate?

    It seems to me there are many qualities our culture glosses as feminine that have little to do with inferiority, that gender nonconforming males might be attracted to.

    What if feminine traits are primary, to which masculinity represents a reaction-formation as part of a strategy to dominate, which then in turn deforms and warps feminine traits towards submission and subordination? If biological females in the hominid line were largely responsible for our social nature, as many anthropologists suggest, then attitudes of gentleness, cooperation, diplomacy, and nurturing would be at a prime — amongst other qualities, of course. Women as leaders (in the sense of genuine leadership, not reified domination) would have demonstrated these qualities as well as qualities of initiative, perseverance, gumption, strength, endurance, and other leadership qualities. But those qualities were cut off from women by domination, even though they were and are equally female to traits now identified as feminine. What is not natural to this formation are qualities necessary to the S&M of patriarchal domination, whose “leadership” is more a lording-over. Here femininity becomes the traumatized versions of the feminine remainder (that which remains after genuine leadership qualities are usurped and forbidden). Cooperation does not have to mean demure but can coexist with assertiveness ; but under domination, it does come to mean that. But it occurs to me that some aspects of femininity might be grounded in female hominid nature (such “nature” as an ongoing evolutionary, historical co-creation) as leaders of sociality.

    The author of “Gender Wimp” suggests that the identity of a majority of men rests on a fundamental anxiety about not being perceived as feminine, and thus, in essence, their identity is mere negation : man = not-woman, a not very stable identity. We seem to be in the realm of Hegel’s master-slave dialectic. Was there a time before men defined themselves as not-woman? Those would be pre-patriarchal times.

    From this standpoint, if we abolish “men” as such, then we can all (males and females) return to being human, which is essentially feminine, but without the quarantine on all the strong, assertive qualities which primal femininity embraced before subjected to the master-slave dialectic.

    Then culture, as the elaboration of experience, could work up forms that would elaborate on all these various qualities, including florate qualities, without reinforcing the master-slave dialectic.

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