J.K. Rowling and the radical feminist critique of gender and trans activism

After seeing some negative comments about it here, I was reading Rowling’s essay, and I thought it might be interesting to talk about a little more.

I referred to the “radical feminist critique of gender.” To be clear, the descriptive “radical feminist” is not meant to be pejorative. A subset of feminists have used this label to describe themselves since the 60s. I also am not sure that J.K. Rowling herself identifies as such, but reading her essay, it seems clear she is familiar with the core ideas of the movement, and much of what she wrote parallels arguments made by radical feminists. So that’s one reason why I’m situating her essay in that context.

I also think I need to say something about the motivations for this thread. As a heterosexual, cis, white, man I’m sure I’m not the ideal person to start this conversation. But the reason I think it’s worth discussing here, specifically, is because this is a forum inhabited mostly by other heterosexual, cis, white, men, on the political left. That is also why I think it’s useful to situate Rowling’s remarks in the context of radical feminism. My main motivation is that I think there’s a missed opportunity; that a forum of progressive men should not dismiss so quickly the perspective of radical feminist groups. I say that not because I entirely agree with the radfem perspective, but because I think it’s worthwhile to consider it a little more seriously, to understand it better and at least to disagree with it a little more knowledgeably and empathetically. I think it’s being dismissed as no different from right-wing bigotry, and I think that’s a mistake.

One more caveat and point of clarification: Trying to understand where Rowling is coming from doesn’t mean being anti-trans. Expanding civil rights for trans people and creating cultural change to bring about more inclusivity and understanding of trans identities are important goals.

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The core of the radical feminist critique of trans activism, and of the ascendancy of a particular view of gender, is just that it erases sex. This matters because sex really does exist, with important consequences, including for feminist politics. Here’s one summary, which I’ve reorganized a little to emphasize a few different elements:

a) Radical Feminist theory analyses the structures of power which oppress the female sex. Its central tenet is that women as a biological class are globally oppressed by men as a biological class.

b) Radical Feminists see that our oppression as females is closely linked to and bound up in our roles as the bearers of new life and male hatred of our female reproductive power. Radical Feminists take an unequivocal stance on the right to female reproductive justice.

c) Radical Feminists believe in an autonomous women’s movement as the path to women’s liberation. We believe in the importance of female only spaces where theory and action is developed from the lived reality of females who have been socialised into womanhood.

The importance of b) and c) in radfem thinking are, I think, the main source of disagreement with some theories of gender associated with trans activism. Although an entire conversation is also possible about feminist interpretations of Marxism, reflected in a). One explanation for this can be found in this open letter from 2013: The silencing of feminist criticism of gender

Language is a wonderful human tool for thinking, understanding, cooperation and progress, so it makes sense that when people fight for freedom and justice against those who are oppressing them, the use and misuse of words—of language—becomes part of the struggle. Originally the term “gender” may have been a useful way around the communication problem that the word “sex” in English has several meanings.

Using “gender” instead of “sex” allows feminists to make it clear that all kinds of social relations and differences between the sexes were unjust, not just sexual relations between the sexes. “Gender” also covers the artificial, socially-created differences between the human sexes, the overwhelming majority of which are politically, economically and culturally disadvantageous to female humans…

“Gender Studies” has displaced the grassroots women’s liberation analysis of the late 1960s and early 1970s… With a huge boost from the “new” academic theory coming out of those programs, heavily influenced by post-modernism, “gender identity” has overwhelmed—when not denying completely—the theory that biological women are oppressed and exploited as a class by men and by capitalists due to their reproductive capacity. Women often can no longer organize against our oppression in women-only groups without being pilloried with charges of transphobia.

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Much of the concern for female-only spaces, also reiterated by Rowling, is about the need for safe spaces for victims of sexual abuse from males. I think it’s pretty easy to be sympathetic to this desire, at the very least. But I also think the larger point is about the importance of social location. The differences in perspective made possible by differences in social location is the basis for my belief that liberal men ought to give more consideration to some of these views.

Rowling says it like this:

I’ve read all the arguments about femaleness not residing in the sexed body, and the assertions that biological women don’t have common experiences, and I find them, too, deeply misogynistic and regressive. It’s also clear that one of the objectives of denying the importance of sex is to erode what some seem to see as the cruelly segregationist idea of women having their own biological realities or – just as threatening – unifying realities that make them a cohesive political class. The hundreds of emails I’ve received in the last few days prove this erosion concerns many others just as much…

But, as many women have said before me, ‘woman’ is not a costume. ‘Woman’ is not an idea in a man’s head. ‘Woman’ is not a pink brain, a liking for Jimmy Choos or any of the other sexist ideas now somehow touted as progressive. Moreover, the ‘inclusive’ language that calls female people ‘menstruators’ and ‘people with vulvas’ strikes many women as dehumanising and demeaning. I understand why trans activists consider this language to be appropriate and kind, but for those of us who’ve had degrading slurs spat at us by violent men, it’s not neutral, it’s hostile and alienating…

I’ve been in the public eye now for over twenty years and have never talked publicly about being a domestic abuse and sexual assault survivor. This isn’t because I’m ashamed those things happened to me, but because they’re traumatic to revisit and remember…

I’m mentioning these things now not in an attempt to garner sympathy, but out of solidarity with the huge numbers of women who have histories like mine, who’ve been slurred as bigots for having concerns around single-sex spaces.

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I think ultimately there is a way to harmonize the goals of trans activists with the concerns that Rowling raises about gender and sex (leaving aside some of her other concerns).

When Rowling says that “‘woman’ is not a costume,” she’s referring to social location. When radical feminists say that to be born female and “socialized into womanhood” is different from being a trans woman, I think they are right, which is not to say that this particular social location is superior to the one occupied by trans women. Only that they are meaningfully different. Feminists have fought enormously hard to make women a politically powerful class. I think they are right that the successes they have won against male supremacy and patriarchy required the creation of solidarity around this notion of womanhood as a shared identity. Reproductive rights, tied to biological sex, are central to the entire history of the movement. I think understanding this makes it easier to understand where she’s coming from.

At the same time, trans women and men are also fighting for goals that are ultimately similar – to force society to make room for their lives as legitimate and valuable. This too requires the creation of solidarity around shared identity and the meaningfulness of trans social locations.

The conflict, then, is mostly because these two actually distinct experiences and political identities collide in the label “women,” and in the negotiation of what gender means, and all the political consequences downstream of any choice. The resolution then, I think, is in finding ways to recognize and legitimize both perspectives. But where I agree with Rowling and the radical feminist perspective is that I don’t think this can be done by eradicating the radfem perspective by erasing sex.

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JK Rowling is a transphobe, and apparently that particularly vile strain of British TERF (I have no idea why it’s so popular there-- maybe it’s a “protect the children” transference of guilt in a culture so steeped in pedophilia) and her arguments are the same shit people were saying about gay people 30 years ago.

Forbes of all places shredded her argument:

I think Rowling has some good points, this one is particularly good

Moreover, the ‘inclusive’ language that calls female people ‘menstruators’ and ‘people with vulvas’ strikes many women as dehumanising and demeaning. I understand why trans activists consider this language to be appropriate and kind, but for those of us who’ve had degrading slurs spat at us by violent men, it’s not neutral, it’s hostile and alienating…

Hard to argue with that.

I don’t agree with her concern over trans women being able to access woman-only spaces simply by saying they’re a trans woman, but I’m not a hypervigilant sexual assault survivor and hadn’t, until now, considered it from that perspective. I still don’t agree but I understand where she’s coming from.

On the other hand, my boy Glenn Greennwald is right that there’s a whiff of narcissism that runs through the whole essay. He uncharacteristically takes that a bit too far though. But yeah, if you’re going to be a famous author who decides she wants to Have Some Views online about trans issues, well, buckle up snowflake.

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I saw comments about this in your Nazi playground too, is this thread not topic-worthy for P&S? Are you thinking you won’t get interesting answers or good discussion over there? Hmm, wonder why that could be…

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Right. There are plenty of things in the essay I didn’t discuss, and don’t necessarily agree with, or care about. One of them is twitter abuse, which is unfortunate but it’s just like… the internet sucks and you know what you’re getting yourself into.

As far as female-only spaces, I’m more sympathetic to this in the context of feminist gatherings specifically. I’m not sympathetic when we’re talking about bathrooms.

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I posted this here because I want to talk about it with the Unstuck community specifically, for reasons I explained in the OP.

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Presumably that’s because you think dismissing right-wing bigotry is a mistake.

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I laughed.

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Someone could try to start a similar thread over there and see what happens, as an experiment.

Does Joe Biden coming out against discussion of racist and other horrible views change the way you think about P&S? Does it feel weird fostering a space that lots of people, even someone as old-fashioned as biden, think shouldn’t exist and does more harm than good?

WTF? Don’t start threads here. Eat shit.

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I’m confused. Are you claiming TERF = radical feminism, or just one faction of radical feminism among many other pro-trans radical feminist groups. In any case, TERF is a transphobic regressive feminism set on reversing the progress of radical feminism towards a trans-inclusive feminism.

But don’t just take my white cis male opinion, nor the opinion of my large group of radical feminist friends who are extremely pro-trans rights and would be disgusted by TERF

Hines, S. (2017). The feminist frontier: on trans and feminism. Journal of Gender Studies, 1–13.

The paper begins by exploring distinct feminist perspectives on transgender; mapping out the key area of contention as that of gendered authenticity, or the question of what, or who, constitutes ‘woman’. Here, I also consider the emergence, meanings and contestations of the term ‘trans exclusionary radical feminism’ (TERF), which, since its inception in 2008, has become an established yet controversial part of the lexicon of feminist and trans movements. The next section sets out its means of data collection and analysis, and addresses the use of digital methodologies. Subsequent parts of the paper address central areas of debate between feminism and transgender through case study material. The case studies focus on events that have occurred since the millennium and are used to highlight particular epistemological and political tensions. In conclusion, the paper stresses the importance of rejecting trans-exclusionary feminism and foregrounding the links between feminism and transgender as a key social justice project of our time.

https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/e155/8cc21df1f246741cbc71fe7c530e2cd9db47.pdf

Williams, C. (2016). Radical Inclusion: Recounting the Trans Inclusive History of Radical Feminism, TSQ3 (1-2): 254–258.

In this article, I will review some of the ways in which the inclusion and supportof trans people by radical feminists has been hidden from trans and feministdiscourse, thereby creating the perception that radical feminism isn’t supportiveof trans people. John Stoltenberg, a radical feminist author and long-term partnerof the pioneering radical feminist opinion leader Andrea Dworkin, wrote (pers.comm., February 13, 2015), “The notion that truly revolutionary radical feminismis trans-inclusive is a no brainer. I honestly do not understand how or why a strainof radical feminism has emerged that favors a biology-based/sex-essentialist the-ory of ‘sex caste’ over the theory of ‘sex class’ as set forth in the work of [Monique]Wittig, Andrea [Dworkin], and [Catharine] MacKinnon. Can radical feminism be‘reclaimed’ so that its trans-inclusivity—which is inherent—is made apparent? Ihope so.” It is to this hope that I wish to draw attention to in this article
https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/e155/8cc21df1f246741cbc71fe7c530e2cd9db47.pdf

Koyama, E. " Whose Feminism Is It Anyway? The Unspoken Racism of the Trans Inclusion Debate" in The Transgender Studies Reader

I used to think that feminists’ reluctance to accepting transsexual women was arising from their constant need to defend feminism against the patriarchy as well as from the plain old fear of the unknown. I confess that I have given transphobic feminists far greater benefi t of the doubt than I would to any other group of people exercising oppressive and exclusionary behaviors, and I regret that my inaction and silent complacency contributed to the maintenance of the culture that is hostile to transsexual people…

I no longer feel that continued education about trans issues within women’s communities would change their oppressive behaviors in any signifi cant degree, unless they are actually willing to change. It is not the lack of knowledge or information that keeps oppression going; it is the lack of feminist compassion, conscience and principle that is…

In her piece about racism and feminist identity politics, Elliott Femyne bat Tzedek discusses how threatening boundary-crossings are to those in the position of power and privilege. “Think about the phrase . . . ‘You people make me sick.’ Think of how the person screaming this phrase may commit physical violence against what so disturbs him/her . . . those in power do actually feel sick, feel their lives being threatened . . . Men protecting male power have a much clearer view than Feminists do of exactly how threatening crossing gender is.” By the same token, feminists who are vehemently anti-transsexual have much better understanding of how threatening transsexual existence is to their flawed ideology than do transsexual people themselves. Th e power is in consciously recognizing this unique positionality and making connections to the contributions of women of color and other groups of women who have been marginalized within the feminist movement. With this approach, I am hopeful that transsexual women, along with all other women who live complex lives, will be able to advance the feminist discussions about power, privilege and oppression.

https://transreads.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/2019-03-16_5c8d876134a16_susan-stryker-the-transgender-studies-reader.pdf#page=715

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No. I agree that not all radical feminists have exactly the same views. I was attempting to present one viewpoint from radical feminism that I think is worth taking seriously, without necessarily suggesting that you ought to adopt the entire worldview of the most strident or trans-exclusionary radical feminists. I didn’t mean to suggest that this viewpoint was universal within feminism or radical feminism either.

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Wait OP is the guy who mods the nazi adjacent politics forum? Lol wtf is this doing here?

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TERF are the Karens of radical feminism

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Ban OP

Trans rights are human rights

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To listen to Rowling and her ilk, you could be forgiven for thinking that the history of feminism is just the history of establishing female spaces. You see the same phrases being kicked around by anti-trans people almost universally, this disingenuous mock-horror that the feminist ship entire will be sunk if a transwoman facing intimate-partner violence can go to a shelter. In most cases, you don’t even need to look past the surface to see the negation of trans identity; a lot of them take great pleasure in misgendering people and frothing themselves up about ‘men in dresses’ etc. Rowling seems at pains to pay qualified lip-service to the trans experience - she has a b̶l̶a̶c̶k̶ trans friend - but I think it’s kind of telling that she’s only interested in online abuse in one direction.

Superficially, a lot of her essay seems quite inoccuous. But she implies that trans men, in large number if not in whole, transition because they are a species of hyper-oppressed woman. That’s prima-facie negating of trans experience. Much of the rest of what’s objectionable consists of gatekeeping: A man who intends to have no surgery and take no hormones may now secure himself a Gender Recognition Certificate and be a woman in the sight of the law presumably invites us to imagine a good, nice, post-op and comfortably gender-conforming transwoman who sits quietly and doesn’t go anywhere They Who Bleed have decided she shouldn’t. So I think it’s all the more objectionable in its insidiousness, frankly.

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I think this is a fair criticism.

I don’t agree that Rowling is signalling support for gender conformity in the way you are suggesting. I think she is voicing skepticism of the idea that sex and gender as social categories should be collapsed to matters of individual preference, and particularly of the notion of treating those preferences so nonchalantly. The distinction isn’t conformity and non-conformity, it’s more like commitment.

I agree that this distinction is problematic; neither Rowling nor anyone else can really sit in judgement of the decisions people make about whether or not to transition. And I think her mistrust of the motivations of trans-women probably veers into the prejudicial, in the same way that I think radfem mistrust of males in general often does. That is my biggest complaint with radical feminism.

I didn’t comment on specific law she references. I don’t know enough to have an opinion. I doubt it’s really very objectionable, and I think creating easier paths to legal recognition of trans people is a good idea, in general.

At the same time, conceptually, I’m not really convinced that the best path (culturally, legally) is to further reify the notion of gender as binary either. I think there’s a difficult problem here, but it also highlights what to me is this fundamental contradiction in the idea of “gender identity” as a strictly individual choice.

That is, our sense of ourselves is shaped by the socially constructed categories which we can’t choose. Part of the urgency trans people feel to be “a man” or “a woman” is because our entire society reinforces endlessly that those are the only two legitimate options. Identity is also a social thing, not just an individual thing. Gender Recognition Certificates try to solve the inclusion problem without challenging the taxonomy. That’s pragmatic, and probably a reasonable thing to do. But it seems like if we had more flexible notions of gender then the conflict would be lessened. It would also probably be truer to how humans actually are. So I think in many regards the better approach is to further deconstruct “gender conformity.”

I think this is pretty obnoxious.

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I thought that was the most interesting aspect of her essay. Questioning if people like herself, or tomboys who eventually grew out of it and became comfortable as women might today transition because it’s a more welcoming environment seems valid. I understand it’s still not a welcoming environment for trans women but it is certainly more welcoming than the 70s or 80s.

This is still just gatekeeping. You can only see it as more legitimate than frowning on ciswomen wearing trousers if, ultimately, you don’t accept that a transwoman is really a woman, imo. A ciswoman can wear trousers, smoke a pipe, get a buzzcut and wear a bowler hat with gay abandon; a transwoman better mind her Ps and Qs and will be scored out of ten by a panel of judges. No dice.

The GRCs probably do reinforce the gender binary, though culturally it hardly needs reinforcing so I don’t see that as a huge issue. It’s a step in the right direction in that it enshrines the sex/gender distinction in law - and the sex/gender distinction is, I would bet anything, what’s really on Rowling’s mind.

I agree ‘They Who Bleed’ is obnoxious, but it’s not my obnoxiousness. ‘Only Women Bleed’ is a slogan among TERFs (as well as a pretty naff Alice Cooper song), so I’m just throwing it back in their faces.

I don’t find this coherent, I have to say. I imagine it’s a more welcoming environment for tomboys also, you know? I’m not sure I’m buying that women generally had it better back then, either, which seems to be the implication.

And the characterisation of this welcoming environment as “persuading” these kids to transition is uncomfortable. It’s ambiguous, but could easily be interpreted as endorsing the trans-agenda fantasies common to anti-trans rhetoric; fanatical gender terrorists bullying kids into transitioning etc.