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.
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.
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.
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.