I have complicated feelings about that: when feminism fails, part one

The other day I spent wrote a long, somewhat rambling, post about why it is important for me to call myself a feminist, and why I encourage others with feminist principles and ideals to use the word themselves. The backlash against feminism (and feminists) is real and it is damaging, and it is important that we talk about it, and that we do not fear the straw feminists. I stand by that post.

What that post wasn’t about was dissecting the problems that occur within feminist communities. I briefly hinted at the idea that hey, shit ain’t perfect and neither are people, but I didn’t delve. Actually, I don’t like the “of course no movement is perfect” stance because it avoids talking about the actual ways in which movements can be flawed, how important they are, and what we can do to change them. So, let’s talk about a few of the problems that I see cropping up in feminism. To be clear, these are not problems that all feminist movements or all feminists have, but they are themes. They can exist in more mainstream feminist circles, as well as more radical feminist circles, and they are damaging to us all when they happen.

I’m going to tackle different failures in separate posts, as they are getting kind of long.

1. “Feminism is the radical notion that women are people.”

From my perspective, feminism is about recognizing and opposing patriarchy. It is a little bit like “oh hey look, I see a patriarchy! I’m against it! Now what am I going to do?” This isn’t how a lot of people see feminism though, a lot of people see feminism as first and foremost a struggle for women.

And you know what? Patriarchy oppresses a whole lot of women, all of them, in fact! And there are a lot of women! And many, many, maybe most, people see the world in terms of a gender binary: there are two types of people, men and women. So I could see how easy it would be to think that opposing the patriarchy and wanting equal rights for women are one and the same thing, I can totally see that. Most of the early leaders of feminism framed their struggle in that sense, and that is literally where the word takes its meaning from.

However, patriarchy doesn’t just hurt women. I believe that if you are against oppression you are against oppression period, not just for people who look like you, live like you, or have bodies like yours (more on that later). There’s a pretty clear loser when we make feminism exclusively about women. Have you guessed it yet? It is so obvious. That’s right, it is our trans* and intersex friends and allies.

First of all, the wrath of patriarchy falls the hardest on folks who don’t fit into the heteronormitive, male-female, binary framework upon which it is built. Trans* people, almost be definition, are hated by patriarchy. They receive the brunt of the abuse, and often the dominant patriarchal narrative would seek to either ignore their existence, or make them actually not exist. The rate at which trans people are murdered should terrify you. If we are against patriarchy, we need to be these people’s champions. When we sweep them under the rug saying “oh well it’s such a small percentage, when we’re done with equal rights for women we will totally work on that” we fail.

Secondly, we need to talk about reproductive health. And when I say reproductive health, I mean everyone’s reproductive health, not just people who identify as women. I am sick and tired of reading about the struggle for women to maintain reproductive rights. Maybe those on the other side of it think this is about women, but we need to be smarter and more inclusive than that. The reality is that some people who do not identify as – and simply are not – women have uteruses and vaginas. When we make having female reproductive equipment synonymous with being a woman we ignore and belittle the experiences of many people. People, who as we’ve already discussed, get stepped on by patriarchy even more than cis-gendered women do. Yes, access to birth control and pregnancy termination services are important things, but they are not important things for women alone.

Those things could just be mistakes made by well-meaning feminists who just aren’t thinking. Often they can be corrected simply by bringing the issue up. I’ve seen people make these mistakes, and hell I’ve made similar mistakes, and what I see is that in generally when they are pointed out, people are ready to wise up. When I say something about “women’s rights” and then catch the eye of a trans* friend who is just as affected by these issues as I am, I feel bad about that and I try to correct it. We can keep doing that, all of us. Let’s do that.

There is, however, something more sinister that we do need to talk about. I got the following comment on Facebook, from a close friend who I have a lot of respect for:

“But the extreme “feminists” that absolutely hate trans* people and don’t want us to have equality definitely exist.”

Yep. This person is totally right. There are some feminists who aren’t making an honest mistake when they talk about feminism in terms of women, there are feminists who really want feminism to be exclusively about helping women. I’m not going to unpack the reasons behind their prejudices completely, because frankly, it doesn’t all make sense to me. This is going to come up again and again, but in my life, the experience of being oppressed always makes me more empathetic to other oppressed people. What it never does is make me feel competitive with other oppressed people, as if equality were a limited resources and I needed to try to get more of it than them. But there are people who seem to feel this way, and I keep not getting it. There are also some feminist, cis-gendered women, who seem to feel especially and particularly threatened by trans* women. These women seem to see trans* women as wolves in sheep’s clothing. It’s as if they live in a world where the major force in patriarchy is the penis and that by identifying as women and (possibly) having penises trans women are sneaking weapons into safe spaces. It probably goes without saying that they feel even more threatened by queer trans* women.

(Because, you know, that’s totally fair, I can totally see how you should try to kick people who suffer oppression from all different angles in our patriarchal society out of your club that is against patriarchy. I’m not sure, can everyone read the sarcasm on that?)

First of all, that just isn’t how it is. Patriarchy isn’t propagated by penises alone, in fact I would go so far as to say they aren’t even a major player in the propagation of patriarchy (although many a penis-having patriarch would like to think otherwise). Secondly, this idea, the idea that ones genitals are the most important thing and make a person good or bad, safe or unsafe. Oh hell. Do I even have to say it? You guys. THIS IS A SEXIST IDEA. It is contradictory to all of our ideology to say that we are in a special cis-ladies only club and no one with the wrong junk is allowed in. Unless of course your ideology is self-serving and doesn’t care about the suffering of others, doesn’t seek to end inequality but only to elevate yourself on the ladder of inequality. And if that is your ideology, than I (and all of my totally awesome non-binary friends) don’t want to play with you.

For this reason, many people who support not only women’s rights but trans* people’s rights refer to themselves as trans* feminists. I don’t do that most of the time for two reasons, I think that supporting the rights of trans* people should  be inherent in the definition of feminism, and also I think that it kind of is. Hating someone based on their genitals is sexism. Feminism is against sexism. I don’t want to cave to the crappy definition of sexism that a bunch of jerks have.

(I didn’t include a break down on the different between sex and gender in this post because I thought it was probably unnecessary. If I’m wrong about that, let me know in the comments, and I’ll try to write about it or point you in the right direction for further reading in the future.)

Next time: Anti-racism and Feminism! Wahoo!

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2 thoughts on “I have complicated feelings about that: when feminism fails, part one

  1. […] a little behind on writing this up (and I still owe you more installments on When Feminism Fails) but I want to talk to you briefly about some of the criticism of feminism, and when it comes from […]

  2. […] And maybe some of that made sense, but I still felt weird about being able to talk until I was blue in the face about the importance of feminism, but only making what felt like small nods towards the […]

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