This article owes much to Kes Sparhawk, who gave me the inspiration to begin writing as well as a number of constructive hints and suggestions as things progressed. Also, I would to thank my sisters Barbara Ruth, Arlene Istar Lev, Laura Rifkin, Joan Annsfire, and others for their ideas and questions. Additionally, I have learned much from the writings of Max Dashu, a dedicated radical Lesbian feminist and theorist, chronicler of "Suppressed Histories," and bold advocate of free speech and open dialogue. To my appreciation, I must add the customary disclaimer that while these sisters have contributed immensely to whatever virtues this article may have, I alone am responsible for any errors, misconceptions, or infelicities.
An inevitable complication in any discussion of "radical feminism" is that the term may carry many meanings, often with undue emphasis given to extreme views voiced or published in the name of this or any other progressive perspective on theory and practice. Thus Marx's famous disavowal of certain (mis)understandings of his actual views: "I am not a Marxist."
Radical feminism in a modern sense arose out of what is known, at least in the English-speaking world, as Second Wave feminism, a movement of the 1960's and 1970's which beginning around 1970 embraced the current of Lesbian feminism. Radical feminism, in many of its classic forms, challenges patriarchy or male domination as a social aberration of the past several millennia which exists not because of biology, but indeed operates through biology.
The French radical Lesbian feminist Monique Wittig perhaps best exemplifies the way that this tradition in its classic form is critical of patriarchal notions of sex and gender alike. While sex differentiation itself is a natural phenomenon, Wittig maintains that the patriarchal concepts described below as "sex caste" and "sex class" are social inventions for the purpose of defining and then enslaving a category of "females." Other theorists such as Christine Delphy have further developed this analysis in explaining both the origins and ongoing nature of patriarchal oppression.
Wittig also offers a radical critique of the patriarchal gender binary ("man/woman"), arguing that the category of "woman" makes sense only in a system of sexist subordination, and that, most strikingly, Lesbians are outside this system, and thus not women! While many radical Lesbian feminists, including myself, do identify proudly as "women-identified women" (also the title of a germinal manifesto by Radicalesbians in 1970), the search for alternative spellings such as "womyn" reflects a continuing and widespread desire to declare independence from the patriarchal gender binary.
Classic radical feminism is gynocentric, that is centering the female sex caste whose members experience lifelong oppression. At the same time, in writers such as Kate Millett and especially Andrea Dworkin, it is also "inclusive" in the current sense, recognizing the existence and needs of intersex and transsexual people whose marginalization often constitutes what Dworkin calls a "primary emergency" (Woman Hating, 1974) analogous to the crisis of the Maafa or African and African American Slave Holocaust for the Black women involved, or to the Shoah or European Holocaust for the Jewish women involved.
More generally, Dworkin asserts that the patriarchal sex and gender binaries are "real" in the sense that the patriarchy defines and acts on them with very concrete consequences; but not "true," because humans are in truth a "multisexual" and "androgynous" species. (See Woman Hating and also "The Root Cause," a lecture delivered at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1975.) Thus a recognition of intersex and transsexual people is part of the struggle for the emancipation of women.
What radical feminists such as Millett and Dworkin do not fully explore in their writings is the place of transsexual women in feminist and more specifically Lesbian feminist communities. This was a topic sometimes causing considerable controversy in the 1970's, where the understanding that each women's group, event, or community could define its own boundaries was widespread, but sadly not universal.
There was also a widespread understanding at that time that the Lesbian feminist movement as a whole should remain what I will term gynocentric or female-centered: that is, centered on women's concerns, and especially those that pertain to women who have lived their entire lives as female. Many but not all of these issues also pertain to transsexual women; and also, one might add, to intersex women who were deemed male at birth, and later transition to female, whether or not they identify as "transsexual" or more generally "trans."
In subsequent decades, especially the 1990's and since, the conflict has become more visible and widespread. Inevitably, the term "radical feminist" has been used as a self-description for a range of views more or less closely related to what I might term the sex-critical and gender-critical radical feminism of the 1970's. At the same time, there has been a growth in forms of "transactivist" ideology which do not center the female sex caste and sex class (see below), but seek to shift the focus of analysis through such concepts as the "cis/trans" binary.
The result in certain recent literature on various "sides" is a loss of the classic radical feminist focus on patriarchy as a social phenomenon, which operates at once through biology and through the internalized psychology of those socialized as female or male under its oppressive arrangements. Thus some versions of "radical feminism" focus on maxims such as "Biology is not Bigotry," naturalizing the sex binary as a simple matter of "XX/XY," and in the process marginalizing and pathologizing intersex people, as well as transsexual people who may have lived for decades in a sex other than that assigned or designated at birth.
A well-informed and vibrant radical feminism can handle the reality of people with mixed or variant sex characteristics, natural or resulting from consensual medical transition; and of people with mixed socialization (e.g. transsexual women socialized as boys, and transsexual men socialized as girls, who are then (re)socialized as adults).
In contrast, "transactivist" theory often relegates feminist concerns to secondary importance at best, and focuses on simple "identity" as the test of reality, without taking into account the social and often medical aspects of transition. It is asserted that self-identified "trans women," for example, "have always been girls and women," even when being socialized as boys and enjoying various male privileges. Further, the focus on an alleged "cis/trans" binary tends to shift the focus from how the patriarchy oppresses natal and transsexual women alike (with sex-class solidarity as a radical feminist response), to how "cis people" in general &mdash over half of them women! &mdash oppress "trans people."
Radical feminists such as Catharine MacKinnon hold that "being a woman" has a social as well as purely subjective aspect: for those raised as male, I might say that this involves not merely a statement of personal identification, but a process of immigration and naturalization. This is neither trivial nor instantaneous, but plays out over months, years, and decades. Further, as the immigration and naturalization analogy, although imperfect, may suggest, natal women are the elder sisters in women's and Lesbian communities, having lived their entire lives under sex-caste oppression: as native speakers of the language of feminism, they exemplify a women's culture which newcomers can and should learn.
While my concept of a gynocentric or female-centered radical feminism is meant to emphasize the importance of natal women's experiences and leadership, it is also meant to celebrate a culture in which transsexual women like myself can and should participate, as I have done since 1973.
It is also important to recognize that no woman will be welcome in all women's communities and spaces: this is true whether one is a young or old woman in reference to age-related feminist groups; to women's groups organized around the intersectional issues of racism and colorism; to affectional preference; to pregnancy and childbirth; to experiences such as childhood physical or specifically sexual abuse which many but not all women share; to political perspectives within feminism; to intersex concerns; and to one's experience as a natal or transsexual woman. Some spaces may seek to bring together women sharing certain common experiences, while others may seek sisterhood across differences. A truly inclusive feminist movement will embrace a diversity of such women's spaces and niches.
In what follows, one of my purposes is to suggest a respectful language of feminist sex/gender solidarity which can maintain a gynocentric or female-centered perspective while including intersex and transsexual women. Such language is intended not as a definitive solution, but as a starting point for constructive and compassionate dialogue.
Finally, I should explain that much of this article was written as part of an online dialogue with my radical feminist sister Kes Sparhawk, and that it feels authentic to me to keep some of the conversational allusions. As Barbara Deming famously affirmed as a champion of nonviolent revolutionary struggle and also a Lesbian of the Second Wave era: "We are all part of one another."return to top
First, Kes, I absolutely agree that Second Wave feminism was a great step forward for women. My own perspective may be more of a radical feminist one, although I certainly favor socialism also.
As you mentioned, the Neolithic Era and advent of large-scale agriculture might mark a likely point for the advent or expansion of patriarchy. Pastoral stock-breeding, making animals into breeding machines, together with the development of large-scale warfare, may have contributed to patriarchy's origin &mdash with the new patriarchs also enslaving women as breeding machines. From a viewpoint of radical feminism, Paola Tabet shows how pre-patriarchal human birthrates were dramatically lower than under this reproductive servitude. That may also tie in with Mary Jane Sherfey's speculation that under pre-patriarchy &mdash or what Max Dashu has called "matrix culture" (matrix in part meaning womb) &mdash female sexuality was free, and the patriarchs at once sought strictly to confine it and to tie it to reproduction. Our bonobo sisters, with their frequent female-on-female sexual contact and friendships, might be one parallel for this matrix culture that the patriarchs sought to destroy.
As radical feminists such as Monique Wittig emphasize, patriarchy and the oppression of women exist not because of biology, but absolutely through biology, and more specifically reproductive servitude. The problem isn't biology itself, but aberrant societal (de)volution, known as patriarchy. Of course, whether one takes a radical feminist or Marxist feminist view or the like, patriarchy gets associated with a host of other oppressions.
Actually I'm a Sex And Gender Critical Inclusive Radical Feminist, or SAGCIRF for short. That means being critical both of patriarchal gender as an enforced hierarchy, and of the patriarchal construing of physical sex as an immutable binary. I take gender as indeed a social construction, in contrast to various essentialisms seeking to naturalize gender, up to and including now "brain sex."
Physical sex differentiation in humans is a natural phenomenon which is socially construed or interpreted. While reproductive dimorphism, ova and sperm as distinct without many intermediate forms, is a reality, physical sex as it matters to humans is more of a continuum or spectrum. About 1.7% of the population is intersex, fitting neither "standard female" nor "standard male." Intersex people since the 1990's have been waging a human rights campaign against Intersex Genital Mutilation (IGM) and other childhood medical abuse to "normalize" a child before they have a chance to discover their own identity and make informed decisions about any interventions to their bodies &mdash which most intersex people spared IGM don't want.
When I say that "physical sex is socially construed," this means for example the kind of situation noted by Anne Fausto-Sterling and others where a baby with a given intersex variation might be deemed female in the "developed world," but deemed male in a place like Saudi Arabia where the patriarchal preference for sons is especially strong. By the way, some intersex people can reproduce &mdash and, of course, some endosex (nonintersex) people are infertile, with myself as an example (before as well as after my medical transition began).
While in my view, the main focus of feminism and especially radical feminism must be on the female sex caste and sex class, the vast majority of whose members are born endosex females (I might guess at least 97%-98%), an inclusive radical feminism will also include intersex and/or transsexual women as part of the larger female sex class. At the same time, it must recognize the special sex-caste oppressions that only women deemed female at birth, endosex or intersex, experience.
This leads to a second meaning of "inclusive": a feminism with room for different women's groups, spaces, and organizing strategies. Thus Women Born Female only (WBF-only) spaces are legitimate and should have their boundaries respected and protected by all women, including transsexual women. Terfing, harassment, and like ugly things directed at women who prefer WBF-only groups and organizing strategies are themselves the antithesis of "inclusion," and one definition of "exclusionary."
Yet another meaning of "inclusive" is this: a truly radical feminism must include, and indeed center, the concerns of the vast majority of women who do experience reproductive capability or at least its expectation, and therefore under patriarchy reproductive vulnerability and servitude. Here transsexual women, who at no point in our lives either can bear children or expect to do so, must support our sisters and the struggle for women's reproductive rights in sex-class solidarity. And we must also support women like Z Budapest and Ruth Barrett who lead WBF-only gatherings to explore these experiences we do not ourselves share.
What you have written, Kes, suggests to me that we both hold socialization, rather than biology per se, to be the main issue in the dilemmas you have addressed and to which I will next turn.return to top
Kes, borrowing a bit from Marxism and related currents in socialist thought, I'd like to make a distinction in what follows between sex caste and sex class. To be a member of the female sex caste, one must be deemed female at birth &mdash again, whether endosex or intersex. A caste, by definition, is something one is born into and socialized accordingly.
In contrast, the female sex class is more like the proletariat, an analogy I recall Engels may have made (please correct me if I'm wrong). While the vast majority of the female sex class were also born into the female sex caste, there are a few of us who migrate into it physically and culturally, in my case at age 22. This process of transition for transsexual women, rather like immigration and naturalization, is an intricate and prolonged process, with social and cultural immersion as absolutely central, to amplify your words.
Before getting into that immigration and naturalization process, so to speak, I'd like to emphasize the material reality of sex-based oppression for those born into the female sex caste. Two closely related examples inflicted on infants and young girls are FGM and IGM. More specifically, the first and often the second are targeted by the patriarchy at a child deemed female whose clitoris is either seen as an inconvenient fact on general principle (FGM), or is seen as inconveniently "too large" because of a natural intersex variation (IGM).
Likewise, as you have said, menstruation and pregnancy are material realities, rather than "performative" in any sense I know. Of course, the ways these female experiences are honored in Max Dashu's matrix cultures, and considered "unclean" by the patriarchy as well as made the basis of sex-based enslavement (in French feminism, sexage), are social phenomena. As feminist Ruth Herschberger declares in 1948, "Society Writes Biology"; but, as Marx might add, it does not weave it out of whole cloth &mdash although the patriarchy often writes it on female bodies with the equivalent of Kafka's harrow ("In the Penal Colony").
Very quickly, to illustrate how the natural fact of sex differentiation in humans is socially construed, I might mention a very rare case of a person not a member of the female sex caste who gave birth: Daniel Burghammer, a soldier stationed in Italy in 1601. He confessed that he had slept with a Spanish man, with the pregnancy and birth as the evident consequence. From the surviving account, we learn that Burghammer had what appeared to be a male penis "for passing water," and also, as revealed by the birth, internal female reproductive organs. We are also told that he could nurse the child, named Elizabeth and welcomed as a miracle, with his "female" breast on one side, but not the other. This raises the possibility of an intersex variation of the kind now described as involving genetic mosaicism or chimerism, with cells showing a mixture of genotypes (e.g. 46-XX and 46-XY).
The pregnancy and birth on the part of someone who had been born and raised as a member the male sex caste were material realities. Deciding on Burghammer's legal sex in light of this occurrence, deemed a happy miracle, was a question for society. We know only that Burghammer, who had some kind of intersex variation, was divorced by his wife; not bearing children was considered one test of a proper husband.
If Burghammer, after living and reaching maturity as a male, had chosen or been directed to live henceforth as female, then resocialization would have been required &mdash a matter itself mainly not of biology, but of social experience. We can describe Burghammer as reproductively female, more generally as having naturally mixed sex characteristics leading to his being assigned male at birth and raised as a boy; and undergoing socialization as a boy and man, at least up to giving birth and being divorced by his wife (at which point I am aware of no further records).
Now I would like to get more personal. From my perspective, there are four aspects of transition or "immigration and naturalization" which I have experienced in becoming a woman, after being deemed an endosex male at birth, expressing a desire to transition at age 4, and having the freedom as a university student at ages 20-22 to prepare myself for and then realize this transition:
Physical or medical transition, including hormone treatments and (long after my social transition was complete at age 22) Sex Reassignment Surgery (SRS). I should emphasize that in my neofemale state, as I might call it, I remain with mixed or variant sex characteristics.
Social transition in the sense of a change of legal and social status, for example obtaining new identity documents and the like, and living now for not quite 45 years in this new status as a women.
Female and for me specifically feminist (re)socialization, or in other words learning from and with other women in the feminist and specifically Lesbian feminist movements, practicing feminist process in small groups, etc.
Feminist (re)education, studying and sharing women's herstory and culture, and also specifically Lesbian culture.
Like many naturalized immigrants, I treasure my new citizenship as a woman and (neo)female &mdash but that does not make me a natural born citizen! Native speakers, women from birth, remain the best authorities on the language of feminism.
Also, I do not need every woman I meet to stamp my citizenship papers with her personal seal of approval, so to speak, if my transsexual history in some way becomes a consideration. A good perspective is to consider the many women denied a rightful title such as "Doctor" or "Professor" by those, often men, who address them or introduce them on occasions where these honorifics are appropriate. The woman's credentials and qualifications nevertheless remain.
What sometimes gets lost in these dialogues is that neither a natural born citizen nor a naturalized citizen can expect acceptance in all of a society's venues and niches. A club in Chicago for people who grew up there is not showing "xenophobia" when an immigrant from Prague learns that this group was not intended for her &mdash and likewise that a 40-year old newcomer from Detroit would not be welcome. Nor need there be long discourses about "Chicago oppression" or "Detroit privilege" to justify these boundaries.
While my experience fits more or less the "classic" model of transitioning from one binary status to the other, I should emphasize that there are many variations. For example, not everyone desiring surgery can obtain it: certain health problems may contraindicate it, and the expenses may be prohibitive in places where universal healthcare coverage or more limited public or private insurance is not available to finance it, unless one has the personal resources to do so.
Additionally, some trans people may go through hormone treatment and social transition without desiring surgery. This "softer" approach to transition still involves many of the steps and experiences I have outlined above. Those of us who do get surgery may spend years living in our new statuses before this happens. Genital sex will obviously be relevant in a range of medical situations, and also to potential intimate partners; and also in spaces where nudity is expected.
We can also speak of physical sex characteristics as ranging on a continuum from "standard female" to "standard male" with many intersex variations, while recognizing a person's social status. Thus a trans woman who has had hormone treatment for eight years, and has lived in a female status for six years but has not to this point had surgery, may be called a woman, while recognizing that she still has a "male penis" as a sex characteristic. For an intersex perspective suggesting an approach like this to sex characteristics, see How Intersex People Identify by Hida Viloria and Dana Zzyym.Even in a transsexual woman such as myself after surgery, the male sex characteristic of a prostate gland is still generally present, since its removal would risk various complications. When we recognize the reality of people with mixed or variant sex characteristics, natural (intersex) or through consensual medical treatment (transsexual), we can describe both biological and social reality both accurately and compassionately. Such an approach is not only kind to those who do not fit the patriarchal sex and gender binaries, but, if used with a feminist focus and discernment, serves to weaken the patriarchy and emancipate all women.
I should also caution that while the main focus here is on female oppression and the question of solidarity between natal and transsexual women, another group of people who experience female sex-caste oppression are transsexual or more generally trans men. Aided in their transitions by hormone therapy, and often by surgery, many report gaining male privilege, albeit with intersectional differences in experience linked to race: thus Black trans men tell of heightened concerns about harassment and violence from the police as compared to their previous experience as Black women. Some trans men, based in part on their own personal knowledge of sex-caste oppression before transitioning, seek to be feminist allies, taking a critical look both at the prerogatives and expectations of "masculinity," and at their everyday interactions with women.
The next section explores further the distinction between sex-caste and more general sex-class oppression. This will lead to a consideration of how the class concept (with Marxist roots, of course) might have some interesting ramifications in addressing the issue of how transsexual inclusion might threaten the gynocentric focus of radical feminism, and some strategies for a feminism that wishes to be both gynocentric and inclusive.return to top
As discussed above, women who were deemed female at birth, or Women Born Female (WBF), experience a lifetime of sex-caste oppression, the term "caste" referring to a group or status into which one must be born. This oppression, synonymous with patriarchy, is closely linked to and often operates through the reproductive biology that most although not all members of the female sex-caste share. Thus most can bear children for some decades of their lives, and a very large majority experience menstruation and the negative attitudes with which the patriarchy views it, and the women who experience it.
Childhood female socialization, or girlhood under patriarchy, is another distinctive dimension of sex-caste oppression affecting all lifelong women, but not transsexual women or Women Reassigned Female (WRF) who transition as adults. For children who are deemed male at birth but socially transition earlier, this distinction is somewhat blurred. However, for now let us focus on WBF and WRF who transition as adults.
In addition to sex-caste oppression experienced by WBF but not WRF who transition as adults, there is what I shall call sex-class oppression, the common oppressions that all women, female or neofemale, share. These range from various forms of sex role stereotyping and discrimination to sexual harassment and sexual assault; mansplaining; and, for women who are Lesbians, Lesbophobia.
A critically important point is that for natal women or WBF, sex-class oppression is a continuation of lifelong sex-caste oppression. For WRF, however, it represents, to borrow your words, Kes, one aspect of a "change of center of gravity." Curiously, when I transitioned at age 22, I did not experience a loss of male privilege, but a liberation. Yet this was doubtless in part because I was transitioning as a Lesbian feminist, and had help both from many treasured sisters, and from the very rich feminist literature of the Second Wave, in learning about the everyday hazards and joys of the road on which I was embarking. My white privilege and academic privilege, exercised in relatively tolerant university settings, were also, of course, very helpful.
Like sex-caste oppression, sex-class oppression is a social phenomenon which at times operates through biology, although we who are transsexual or WRF do not share the reproductive oppression that defines and typifies patriarchy from its likely origins on. Thus women who are either WBF or WRF can experience the concrete embodied as well as psychological violence of sexual assault, for example.
Some recent theory calling itself "radical feminist" &mdash but quite distinct from the radical feminism of the Second Wave &mdash holds that being a transsexual woman is a question of "gender" (i.e. the patriarchal system of gender or social status and roles) but not "sex" (which I take to mean, among other things, sexed embodiment). In questioning such dualism, I might focus on a very personal experience of my own.
This was an experience not of sex-class oppression, but what I would call sex-class vulnerability. At a medical clinic with what I suspected might be a urinary tract infection (UTI), I was examined by a compassionate and skillful doctor. She explained that as part of her examination, she would like to get a view with a speculum of my vulva and vagina. Feeling the unyielding metal on my sensitive flesh and nerves, I appreciated her skill and caring, and at the same time understood how a less caring doctor, presumably often male, could turn this experience of sexed embodiment and vulnerability into one of oppression.
What I might add, to emphasize that biological details must be placed in social context, is that the doctor commented on my lack of vaginal depth, an aspect of the less invasive surgical procedure I had chosen. Thus from a purely physical viewpoint, my anatomy might not appear too different from that of a natal woman born with an intersex variation resulting in a vulva and little if any vaginal depth. However, this woman would have experienced both lifelong sex-caste oppression, and also intersex oppression, likely including pressures to obtain surgery in order to make her body more heteronormative. In addition, she would have been at risk for and in this case have fortunately avoided Intersex Genital Mutilation (IGM) to "normalize" her body before she was old enough to consent or resist.
The feminist response to sex-caste and sex-class oppression is sex-class consciousness and sex-class solidarity: in which women recognize and support each other as sisters. As a transsexual woman, I would emphasize that an awareness of sex-caste oppression, as it operates through biology and girlhood socialization, is essential in building such consciousness and solidarity. For transsexual women or WRF, this means an acknowledgement of our past male privilege, and a commitment to support our WBF sisters in their important concerns we do not share through personal experience, as well as the common ground of female sex-class oppression we share.
Thus a truly inclusive feminism recognizes both sex-caste and sex-class oppression, and allows room for WBF-only spaces where women subject to both, and directly experiencing reproductive vulnerability (which can include endosex and intersex women dealing with infertility), can share their common experiences. I would emphasize that these experiences should also be centered in groups and spaces for WBF and WRF together.
In short, the concept of sex caste centers the experiences of those women who have lived their entire lives as female, and typify the category "woman." At the same time, in an inclusive radical feminism, the concept of sex class acknowledges that there are women, or neofemales, with past male privilege who currently share in some although not all forms of sex-based oppression, and may as feminists share in sex-class consciousness and solidarity.
The sex-class concept, developed by feminists such as Andrea Dworkin and Nicole-Claude Mathieu, may also suggest concerns about the inclusion of women who have transitioned into that status. Some of these I will address in the next section.return to top
Recognizing the presence in the women's and Lesbian communities of Women Reassigned Female (WRF), who have known past male privilege, raises reasonable concerns about the potential consequences for feminism. Happily, some of the same techniques and approaches that can serve to avert these undesirable consequences can also make feminism a more generally equitable and effective movement for the emancipation of the female sex class.
The first concern might draw its metaphor from the experience of societies where sometimes complex racial caste systems developed during colonialism, as movements for national liberation develop. In these struggles, there may be an Indigenous or Native caste with the most oppressed or least privileged position; and a "half-caste" group with mixed ancestry and the benefits of a more European-oriented education (provided by the colonizers). The "half-caste" group may take a leadership role, and itself become a new privileged group, continuing the oppression of the Indigenous caste even in the name of "revolution" or "liberation."
Among other things, this scenario may illustrate how oppression need not always be based on a binary concept, with the racial categories of apartheid South Africa as an illustration. Likewise, in sex/gender politics, simply having more than two categories of sex or gender does not guarantee equality: natal women may still be oppressed.
We can thus see how transsexual women, and more especially those of us drawn to active participation in feminist politics, may have certain advantages through past male privilege. Acknowledging rather than denying this past privilege is thus a critical first step in averting the possible consequences of this privilege if not recognized and "checked."
A related concern, more closely connected to the class concept in its Marxist or more generally socialist setting, is that transsexual women might function as a kind of formerly male-privileged elite within the female sex class. Friedrich Engels may have set the stage for this kind of class metaphor when he compared the husband in a patriarchal marriage to the bourgeoisie and the wife to the proletariat.
Following the metaphor, transsexual women, or specifically those likely to become involved in feminist politics, might see ourselves as a kind of "vanguard" of a feminist revolution, not having ourselves been subject to sex-caste oppression. Rather than a true emancipation of the female sex class, the vast majority of whose members have known this lifelong oppression, we might therefore effectively establish a "dictatorship over the proletariat" in the name of feminism &mdash rather as Stalin did in the name of "socialism."
It is not wrong or "transphobic" for both natal and transsexual women to consider these scenarios and seek to avert them. There are a number of preventative and corrective measures to this purpose, which also address other important concerns of feminism.
A remedy of paramount importance is feminist process, especially connected in the Second Wave tradition with small women's groups such as consciousness-raising groups. Feminist process was originally developed to address differences in power and privilege between natal women, who had experienced how differences in race, class, academic privilege, temperament, etc., could make some women much more readily articulate and heard than others. The discipline of turn-taking, active listening, and seeking equal or comparable participation from all members of a women's group evolved as a check and balance on these differences in privilege, and became a vital part of Second Wave feminist culture.
Feminist process was one answer to the concern of early Second Wave radical feminist groups &mdash before the presence of transsexual women became a visible issue around 1972-1973 &mdash that there was a risk of a few women dominating this or that organization, a kind of "cult of personality," to borrow a phrase from Marxism. Indeed sex-caste oppression does not prevent the emergence of dynamic and empowered personalities among natal women, as the writings of, for example, Joreen (Jo Freeman) in this era well document!
Feminist process can also answer concerns about dynamic and empowered personalities among transsexual women, where past male privilege might make such a sense of empowerment more likely. In part, this may be a question of exercising self-restraint and internally acknowledging one's own past male privilege on the part of a transsexual woman (whether or not her history is known to the group); and, in good part, it is a shared aspect of group culture, which now as half a century ago is needed as an "equalizer" to address many intersections of privilege and oppression.More generally, a key remedy to these concerns is what I will term a gynocentric or female-centered feminism, one that always keeps a focus on sex-caste oppression under patriarchy and its operation through the reproductive exploitation and servitude of the overall female sex class. We can recognize transsexual women as the exception which does not erase the rule, any more than recognizing the rule requires erasing the exception of transsexual women as members of the female sex class (although not the female sex caste).
In contrast, current "transactivist" politics often do threaten to decenter a gynocentric feminism, by changing the axis of oppression from the sex-caste and sex-class systems of patriarchy, where females (WBF) and neofemales (WRF) are oppressed, to some "cis/trans" binary or the like. This "trans-centered" politics distracts from a focus on women being subjugated and oppressed as women, however gender conforming or otherwise we may be. It also tends to promote a stance where natal women or WBF are relegated to the category of "cis people" with "cis privilege," decentering the bond of sex-class solidarity between natal and transsexual women as elder and younger sisters.
In addition to feminist process and gynocentric focus, a feminist movement may prevent or correct the potential bad consequences of including transsexual women through at least two other means.
The first, interestingly, is the presence of WBF-only spaces, events, and communities made up of women who are survivors of lifelong sex-caste oppression, and can hold up to the larger radical feminist or more generally feminist movement an understanding that represents this perspective. Such WBF-only spaces and niches could serve a purpose much like that of the Combahee River Collective in the 1970's, a group of Black and mostly Lesbian feminists who analysed their experiences of intersecting sexism and racism, and issued a famous statement at once affirming their own perspective and offering guidance for feminists with white privilege.
Another reason for WBF-only spaces and institutions is to demonstrate the self-sufficiency of natal women as a telling refutation of sex-caste stereotypes: lifelong women can very well build events and communities such as the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival (Michfest for short) without the need for male or formerly-male assistance. For transsexual Lesbian feminists who feel sex-class solidarity, such spaces should be a welcome check on whatever undue or disproportional influence we might otherwise have. They in no way conflict with our ability to participate in many other feminist, and more specifically radical Lesbian feminist, spaces.
In certain settings, especially those involving leadership positions, another means of averting or minimizing possible undesirable consequences of including transsexual women is to ask that candidates for such positions have either been deemed female at birth, or lived a certain number of years as women. Common lived experiences are an important element in sex-class consciousness and solidarity, and increase confidence that a given woman with past male privilege can now represent a women's community based on some of these shared experiences. More time in the women's community also permits more thorough immersion in the feminist culture and ethics that an elected or appointed leader must embody and apply in decisionmaking.
To sum up: acknowledgement and "checking" of past male privilege by transsexual women ourselves; feminist process; keeping a gynocentric or female-centered focus; WBF-only spaces and institutions within the wider women's and Lesbian communities; and standards regarding a minimum number of years of lived experience as a woman for certain positions are all safeguards against the dystopian scenarios for feminism presented at the beginning of this section.
Such scenarios are, sadly, not a purely speculative threat. At the San Francisco Dyke March (23 June 2018), a group of self-identified "Dykes" (evidently including various "Queer," nonbinary, and trans-identified elements) shouted at and then physically assaulted a small group of about ten older Lesbians who had their signs grabbed from them, with some being knocked to the ground. This is not the way to resolve differences on sex/gender issues in any feminist community worthy of the name, and serves as a warning of what can happen when the gynocentric focus of feminism is lost.
However, the inclusion of transsexual women in women's and Lesbian communities, and also of intersex women (including the majority who are WBF, and also the minority deemed male at birth who later transitioned), can enrich radical feminism in many ways, and present a challenge to patriarchal concepts of sex and gender used also to practice and justify sex-caste oppression against natal women and sex-class oppression against all women.
A movement at once gynocentric and inclusive &mdash that is, including intersex and transsexual women, and also WBF-only spaces and institutions &mdash maximizes both justice and effectiveness in advancing the struggle for women's emancipation and ultimately the liberation of all human beings.return to top
My purpose in this article is not to offer answers to all the problems of a gynocentric and inclusive radical feminism, but to raise some important questions and suggest starting points for further dialogue. While I have lived for almost 45 years as a woman and member of the Lesbian feminist community, I have not survived lifelong sex-caste oppression; any special firsthand knowledge I have, if it be such, may relate to my experience as a transsexual woman within the larger realm of feminism.
One question raised in discussions associated with the writing of this article is whether transsexual women, having ourselves chosen our sexed embodiment, may, after medical transition (a privilege by no means accessible to all who seek it!), have a sense of "sex/gender euphoria" rare in natal women. If so, might this be one of the noteworthy differences between natal and transsexual women that needs to be recognized?
Speaking for myself, I can say that I do have a sense of fitting (neo)female embodiment, and can identify with the protagonists of such celebratory Lesbian fiction as Elena Dykewomon's Riverfinger Women, Noretta Koertge's Valley of the Amazons, or Rita Mae Brown's Rubyfruit Jungle and Six of One. It has been suggested that such "body euphoria" is rare among natal women, because of patriarchal socialization including beauty and glamour culture; and also likely rare among transsexual women, because of the financial and other obstacles to transitioning as one would like. Obviously my white privilege, academic privilege, and situation of having Virginia Woolf's "room of one's own" &mdash or actually an apartment of my own &mdash have all been helpful in facilitating my feeling of fitting sexed embodiment.
This line of thought leads to a situation where natal woman report similar feelings: transformative experiences in WBF-only spaces and communities such as Michfest during its long herstory from 1976 to 2015. If these spaces promote experiences parallel to mine, this is another reason why I am heartily in favor of them, apart from the general feminist tradition of supporting the boundaries of each autonomous women's space.
The Michfest experience may have another lesson to teach us: if a model is attractive, let us seek not to change its chosen boundaries (for Michfest, the WBF-only policy or intention), but to create new spaces and institutions adapted to different boundaries. From what I have read, the first years of dialogue about Michfest's previously little-discussed WBF-only boundaries, 1991-1994, were mostly sisterly and respectful, and based on a shared commitment to Lesbian feminism. However, when the Michfest community did not change these boundaries, those seeking a different approach could have and should have taken as their motto: "Two, three, four, many Michfests," and accordingly have founded new Lesbian festivals intended for a community of WBF and WRF sisters.
Instead, starting in 1999, the demands for "trans inclusion" became increasingly disruptive, with tensions escalated on all sides. In 2014, after 15 years of these unhappy developments, I became involved in an online Michfest community dialogue, "Allies in Understanding," prompted by a new Michfest statement affirming that some "trans womyn and trans men" came to Fest as "supporters of, rather than detractors from, our female-focused culture." If this was a way of inviting transsexual women who supported the culture of Fest to attend the event, then I wanted to do what I could to support both this Second Wave institution and its "female-focused culture," which I did not want to see diluted or compromised in the process.
However, it became clear to me that there was in fact no consensus around this interpretation of the statement: some of the most fervent and experienced participants at Michfest definitely wanted a WBF-only event. At that time, I looked at it as a failure of a politics of mutual recognition and accommodation. Today, I see this experience as reflecting a larger mistake going back at least 15 years: seeking to change the intention of Michfest rather than to create new Lesbian feminist events and communities which could continue the tradition of Michfest, free to set their own intentions and boundaries &mdash and leaving Michfest itself free to evolve in its own way.
When it comes to spaces and events such as Michfest, one unfortunate misconception is that in order to be recognized as women, transsexual women must be welcome in all women's and Lesbian spaces. This mistaken idea can, ironically, make it more difficult for feminists, and especially radical feminists, to extend this recognition. If the issue is framed so that being a woman means an unquestioning welcome to all women's spaces, then natal women may feel, adopting this flawed reasoning, that in order to maintain WBF-only spaces they must demonstrate that WRF are "not women."
The humorous upshot is that, by this same flawed logic, natal women are "not women" either! For example, when I was in my twenties, a group called Older Women's Liberation (OWL) was for women over 30, a standard I did not yet meet. Today, however, let us assume that a group called Younger Women's Liberation with an upper limit of age 30 were to form. Neither I at 67, not the natal women of comparable age attacked at the San Francisco Dyke March, would be welcome to join this group &mdash although its members might delight to join with us in many types of intergenerational women's spaces.
Are there better or more comprehensible ways of expressing the WBF/WRF distinction in terms of "different types of women" rather than "Who is a woman?" Such a happy solution might help us to move beyond two harmful stereotypes: that transsexual women are either infinitely fragile creatures to whom it is devastating to learn that we are outside the intentions of a given women's space or event; or that we are agents of the patriarchy set on intimidating, harassing, or outright invading any women's space that will not welcome us.
Also, are there ways of reaching out to young transsexual women, or "trans women" as is often now the current term, and assisting them through their transitions from the perspective of feminism &mdash and for those who are Lesbian, Lesbian feminism? Many of the undesirable and potentially or sometimes actually violent tendencies in "Queer" culture &mdash including the practice of terfing women, posting violent insults on social media such as "Die in a Fire," and even assaulting older Lesbians at a Dyke March &mdash may reflect the lack of constructive feminist role models.
Further, are there ways we can more intelligibly communicate feminist theory? For example, might it be better to say that sex differentiation is a natural phenomenon that is "socially construed" (i.e. interpreted) rather than "socially constructed" (which can sound like "socially invented" or "socially created"). To borrow Kes Sparhawk's self-description, a "grammar Dalek" like she or I may understand that "construction" here properly relates to the verb "construe," i.e. "interpret"; but "construing" or "construal" (suggested by another feminist) may better convey what we seek to get across.
The nonbinary movement which has played an important part in sex/gender politics and theory since the 1990's is another ground for mutual outreach and encounter. Some WBF-only communities such as Michfest have had a policy of flexibility and welcome to nonbinary "gender outlaws" who were deemed female at birth and still identify at least in part as women, so that they would feel at home in a community based on sisterhood. And some nonbinary people express a strong affinity for the women's or specifically Lesbian community.
This raises the question of whether nonbinary may eventually become the dominant social and legal status as one possible scenario for the end of the patriarchal sex-caste and sex-class system. Again, it would be important to bear in mind a feminist truth with reference to new social settings as well as some Indigenous and traditional ones: we must look not only to the number of sex or gender categories, but to the treatment of people deemed simple or ordinary "women," as long as such a category exists in practice.
There is also the open question, in the long term, as to whether the end of patriarchal sex caste and sex class will lead to "the abolition of gender" (a goal shared by some radical feminists and by certain trans women poets and authors such as kari edwards), or to its transformation in some other way, as suggested by Max Dashu. Dashu argues that gender exists in all known human societies, but is radically different in "matrix cultures" existing either before patriarchy, or in the post=patriarchal future. Dashu prefers "matrix culture" to "matriarchy," which may suggest an inversion of patriarchy in which women oppress men: in her writings she explores some known models and possibilities for an emancipated future.
Finally, are there ways we can be more aware of a certain tendency to define problems in zero-sum terms, which are the terms that often best promote a patriarchal goal of dividing and conquering the Women's Liberation movement? For example, I recently saw a very dedicated feminist express the view that Sex Reassignment Surgery (SRS) should not be publicly funded when cancer treatments were being cut back and hospitals closed. At least in reference to the USA, of course, the real issue is gaining a universal healthcare system, since there are more than ample resources to meet these needs. One possible solution, required by sex-class solidarity in any event, is for transsexual women like myself to be especially sensitive to disparities in women's health, such as a reported situation where insurance was covering breast augmentation surgery as part of transition care, but not breast reconstruction for natal women after a mastectomy to treat breast cancer. Sex-class solidarity is of the essence!
To conclude, my purpose in this article has been to sketch out some ideas for a radical feminism both gynocentric or female-focused, and inclusive of intersex and transsexual women who are deemed male at birth and later transition. Especially, I want to show that it is possible to include transsexual women or Women Reassigned Female in the realm of women, while at the same time recognizing and analyzing the unique lifelong sex-caste oppression that Women Born Female, endosex and intersex, share under patriarchy.
It is also fitting to acknowledge that WBF Lesbian feminists like Lisa Vogel, founder of Michfest, have developed the WBF concept and the idea that there are different types of women who may at once share common ground and create many kinds of women's spaces to meet specific needs. These insights may provide a more sound foundation for the modest but useful goal of "live and let live" among feminists, as well as the more encompassing goal of fuller understanding and cooperation growing out of this mutual respect for women's personal and collective autonomy, spaces, and boundaries.return to top
1-7 August 2018