Politics Not From Any Dictionary: Theorizing (and Living) a Trans-Welcoming Feminist Movement

Over at Signs is the most recent Feminist Frictions piece: Exploring Transgender Law and Politics by Catharine A. MacKinnon, with Finn Mackay, Mischa Schuman, Sandra Fredman, and Ruth Chang. It contains some very important insights from the authors, especially Professor MacKinnon, on feminism’s capaciousness:

For the first time in over thirty years, it makes sense to me to reconsider what feminism means. Trans people have been illuminating sex and gender in new and insightful ways. And for some time, escalating since 2004 with the proposed revisions in the UK Gender Recognition Act, a substantial cohort of self-identified feminists have opposed trans peoples’ existence as trans. Male power, which seldom takes seriously anything feminists say, has weaponized the feminist critique against trans people in both the US and the UK. In the process, many issues central to the status of the sexes have been newly opened or sharpened; many are unresolved. I hope to learn from our discussion. My thoughts are provisional and could be subtitled “what I’ve learned so far.”

Much of the current debate has centered on (endlessly obsessed over, actually) whether trans women are women. Honestly, seeing “women” as a turf to be defended, as opposed to a set of imperatives and limitations to be criticized, challenged, changed, or transcended, has been pretty startling. One might think that trans women—assigned male at birth, leaving masculinity behind, drawn to and embracing womanhood for themselves—would be welcomed. Yet a group of philosophers purporting feminism slide sloppily from “female sex” through “feminine gender” straight to “women” as if no move has been made, eventually reverting to the dictionary: a woman is an “adult human female.” Defining women by biology—adult is biological age, human is biological species, female is biological sex—used to be criticized as biological essentialism. Those winging to the Right are thrilled by this putatively feminist reduction of women to female body parts, preferably chromosomes and reproductive apparatus, qualities chosen so that whatever is considered definitive of sex is not only physical but cannot be physically changed into.

Feminism, by contrast, is a political movement. If some imagine a movement for female body parts, the rest of us are part of some other movement, one to end the subordination of women in all our diversity. In other words, what women “are” does not necessarily define the woman question: our inequality, our resulting oppression. Those of us who do not take our politics from the dictionary want to know: Why are women unequal to men? What keeps women second-class citizens? How are women distinctively subordinated? The important question for a political movement for the liberation of women is thus not what a woman is, I think, but what accounts for the oppression of women: who is oppressed as a woman, in the way women are distinctively oppressed?

Women are not, in fact, subordinated or oppressed by our bodies. We do not need to be liberated from our chromosomes or our ovaries. It is core male-dominant ideology that attributes the source of women’s inequality to our nature, our biological sex, which for male dominance makes it inevitable, immutable, unchangeable, on us. As if our bodies, rather than male dominant social systems, do it to us. It is as if Black people’s melanin content is the cause of police violence against them, rather than the meaning police attribute to their appearance (racial markers in this instance) and the law and culture of impunity for their actions. If women’s oppression is defined by what defines women, and that is our sexed biology as this group defines it, the very most we can change is the excesses of male power. Never male power itself.

In reality, women’s inequality—with the oppressive practices that inequality makes possible and that reinforce it through gender, specifically gender hierarchy—has long been recognized as a social and political, not biological, arrangement. Inferiority, not difference, is the issue of hierarchy, including gender hierarchy. On the technical meaning of sex as physical and gender as its social meaning, sex is equal. It is gender that is unequal. Women are not men’s biological inferiors; we are constrained to be men’s social inferiors. Who knew we would have to keep repeating this. It is gender that constructs women as men’s inferiors, as valued less to worthless, as weak and dependent, as stupid and illogical and emotional, as soft and yielding and receptive, as bitchy and ditsy, whiny, seductive, and manipulative, destined only to reproduce. These attributions, this power division, not our bodies, is what makes women a political group, caste, or class; resistance to them is what makes the women’s movement a political movement.

(Citations omitted.) Read the full piece here. It’s very worthwhile.

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