Posted on 8.30.2012 by Chantal
My familiarity with radical feminism started out in college. I might as well out myself now... My senior thesis would have been (if I had actually finished the damn thing) about representations of masculinity socioeconomic class in Larry Flynt's oft-reviled rag, Hustler. Part of my thesis research included an in-depth exploration into feminist critiques of pornography. This was my first real exposure to seminal radfem writers Andrea Dworkin and Catherine MacKinnon. Now keep in mind, my theoretical roots were already firmly planted in the land of postmodern and queer theory, after all I graduated from college in 2009, not 1979. The whole anti-pornography thing seemed wildly outdated, a relic of a bygone era that I like to call “the bad old days.” Regardless of how I felt about pornography (I happen to be in favor. Are you shocked?), what rankled me the most about radical feminists is the way they treated women. Any woman who disagrees with their incredibly narrow perspective is dismissed as a brainwashed dupe, tricked by the patriarchy into participating in her own oppression. This includes, of course, sex workers (who Dworkin describes as “poor, desperate, homeless, pimped women who were sexually abused as children”), women who watch porn, women who make porn, and really any and all women who have sex with men. Because at its core, radfem is profoundly second-wave, I dismissed it as just another thing that feminist movements got wrong. (You know, along with ignoring race and class and selling out anyone who isn't willing to compromise with those in power.) But what if the bad old days aren't over?
A few months ago, while exploring the tumblrsphere, I unwittingly stumbled upon Radfem 2012, a conference that took place in London in July. The space was meant to be a gathering for radical feminists. By the time I heard about it, the uproar had already begun. Radfem 2012 had been declared by its organizers to be a “woman-only space,” specifically for “women born women and living as women.” To put it bluntly, as many radfems do, no transwomen allowed. Needless to say, the outright rejection of transwomen didn't sit well with trans activists and their allies. The blogosphere exploded in a mess of vitriol and name-calling.
As an interesting side note, when radfems aren't dismissing the trans community as if it's some sort of monolithic whole, they tend to focus specifically on transwomen. Perhaps the very idea that someone biologically marked as a woman might transition to a male gender identity is more than they can swallow. But if transwomen aren't welcome in radfem spaces because they're “really men,” aren't transmen by the same token “really women?” Why weren't transmen welcomed at Radfem 2012? I suppose it's a mistake to look for consistency here.
My research led me to www.radicalhub.com, a blog that seems to be a center of radfem thought on the internet. Exploring the site was like stepping back in time. Almost all of the radfem theory, if you can call it that, that I've encountered so far as been rooted in the idea of biological determinism. Either you're a man or a woman, the oppressor or the oppressed. Some radfems even advocate dismantling the term gender all together, in favor of biological sex, claiming that gender obscures the fundamental truth of male dominance. I guess I shouldn't have been so surprised that trans identities, transwoman identities in particular, would garner such vehement and mean-spirited opposition from a group that refuses to accept anything other than black and white.
In the simplistic radfem worldview, trans identities are seen as pathological and transwomen are targeted as infiltrators seeking to thwart the progress of “real” women's liberation. As with any community that's most prominent on the internet, read the comments on just about any radfem blogpost and you're likely to find a whole lot of nastiness, name-calling, and bigotry.
But perhaps my favorite nugget of radfem wisdom is the idea that cis-gendered women don't have privilege over transwomen. Radfems argue that because cis-women are oppressed and devalued in a society controlled by cis-men, they can't possibly have any type of privilege whatsoever. They cite the high rates of sexualized violence and social/economic inequality that cis-women face as examples of their utter lack of privilege. Of course, I would never claim that women aren't oppressed by patriarchy. But to claim that women don't receive some benefit from conforming to gender norms is just absurd. There is privilege that comes with living your gender in accordance with the biological sex assigned to you at birth. This privilege doesn't erase patriarchy and women's subjugation. Similar to how middle class white women have privilege over working class black women. Similar to how heterosexual women can use their privilege to actively oppress lesbians. So-called “women born women” (WBWs is the cutesy acronym radfems use) do have privilege over transwomen, whose very existence and humanity is repeatedly denied by mainstream society. In fact, the humanity of transwomen is denied most vocally by radfems themselves! And why? I'm left wondering what the radfem community has to gain from this. They've already solidified their place as a movement with very little political or social relevance. (The two issues I see discussed in most detail on radfem websites are about the dangers of pornography and transgenderism. With nary a mention of anything else that's going on in the world.)
At the end of the day, I'm left feeling angry and frustrated. I'm still not convinced that radfem communities exist in any significant or coherent fashion outside of the internet. Nonetheless, it's disheartening, especially given the unprecedented violent attacks on trans and genderqueer women that we've seen this year alone, to now see the transhatred being propped up in the name of feminism. Does that word mean anything anymore? Did it ever?