A meme I discovered on Facebook, and reposted, resonated with a number of commentators. The author of the meme is indicated only as “Business Jump”, whoever that might be.
It encapsulates something I’ve been thinking about for a long time in relation to a lot of seemingly unrelated issues. What do we mean by “women’s rights”? What or who is feminism about? What have I and many other feminists over the last 50 years, or even 250 years, actually achieved? How does this relate to colonialism, Indigenous rights and our relationship to the Earth? To capitalism, economic development, technology, law, work, sex, sexuality, or planetary issues like climate change and the collapse of biodiversity making liveable conditions disappear for all living species, not just humans?
In response to one comment on the posted meme, I replied: “. . . the meme expresses a huge feminist failure, especially in the US, but replicated elsewhere. We (second wave feminists) won equality rights by accepting a male model as the standard we have to measure up to in order to work and get paid outside the home with some degree of fairness. But we sacrificed [ourselves as] mothers and children in the process. And did not actually achieve equality. The biggest revolution in human history – the struggle for women’s rights – is now being taken over by a patriarchal counter-revolution that will kill us all. This keeps me awake at night.”
The thoughts expressed in the meme and in my reply are not particularly original. The observation that we’re in the middle of a “patriarchal counter-revolution” has divided feminists, and the ongoing struggle for the rights of women and girls globally, to the point where there seems to be little or no common ground. The nexus at which the conflicts intersect involve transgender issues, sexual “liberation”, sexuality, sex work (prostitution), pornography, reproductive choices (including surrogacy) and children’s rights. The divide appears to be generational. Many, not all, younger feminists seem to have embraced a gendered approach to women’s rights deeply influenced by Critical Queer Theory, while older feminists (like myself who were part of the Second Wave) resist this theoretical approach as inconsistent with what we see as the core of women’s disempowerment – sex-based discrimination. This means discrimination on the basis of our biological sex (female) by or on behalf of men (adult males) in order to perpetuate men’s hold on power. This gendered system of patriarchy is particularly directed at women’s roles in sex, reproduction, childrearing, and caregiving more generally. Gender has been very closely tied to biological sex for millennia – perhaps for as long as humans have existed as a species – as either masculine (the proper way to be male) or feminine (the proper way to be female), or an indeterminate androgynous status (either homosexual or transgender, or both) in which biological sex is still recognized as binary, but diversity in gender roles is both permitted and restricted. I hope (with a lot of hesitation) that all feminists can agree that gender is the means by which sex-based discrimination and male oppression are normalized and enforced in societies globally. But the way in which “gender” is currently being defined and used leads me to think that there is more going on.
A second deep divide in feminist thinking which may again point to a failure within feminism, regardless of arguments over sex and gender, revolves around racial and cultural differences. These are indeed important in how gender and sex discrimination are reflected within a particular society, or in how gender is enforced within racial, cultural, ethnic, religious, sexual, or other groups outside of a normative white, male, middle-class, heterosexual model. But where and how these cultural differences impact women, or are reflected in feminist theory, depends very much on where you stand in relation to women’s rights. Although many women of colour participated in Second Wave feminism, their specific needs and rights were not necessarily addressed in what became a form of “mainstream feminism” adopted in most countries in Northwestern Europe and their former white settler colonies around the world. This model was promoted and adopted internationally, and deeply affected feminist movements outside of Europe. This in turn led many women who were not part of the dominant culture in Western countries, or who lived in countries that were not predominantly white, to question and often reject so-called “Western feminism” that had become the standard model. However, this “mainstream” feminist model was also extremely important in creating options for oppressed women around the world.
The “mainstream feminism” that won battles for women’s rights in the West seems to many observers to have overwhelmingly favoured white middle-class heterosexual women. The diversity that existed within second wave feminism seemed to slip away as the decades since 1960 passed, and often involved ignoring or neglecting strands of feminist thinking that were particularly challenging to an increasingly neo-liberal economic order and the social conservativism that developed from 1980 onwards. These strands of diversity within feminism, including Marxist/socialist and radical feminism, as well as what might be called eco-feminism, and feminist “herstories” of matriarchal societies predating patriarchy, did not become part of the “mainstream”. But they retained a loyal following which has grown in the last few years as “mainstream” liberal feminism has failed to address stubbornly persistent problems negatively effecting women and children.
The mainstreaming and consequent erasure of feminist history still haunts our ability to discuss divisions among feminists, or to centre the rights of women and girls within oppressively male-dominated agendas. The development of “intersectional” feminism in the US in the late 1980’s shifted some attention towards Black women in particular. It was a partially successful attempt to open up legal definitions of both sex and racial discrimination to include women who were falling through the cracks. Unfortunately, this attempt at legal inclusion has been captured by identity politics and postmodernist agendas to “include” a kaleidoscopic range of approved groups. White, middle-class, heterosexual women – the “Karens” of more social media memes with real-life consequences – seem to have been written out of feminism altogether. White women are now described as the oppressor, while men seem to have disappeared from, or appropriated, feminist discourse altogether. The #MeToo movement seems to have disappeared as quickly as it arose. This “mainstreaming” or “malestreaming” of Western feminism did benefit some of those women who were already contingently protected within parasitic relationships with powerful men (fathers, husbands, brothers, sons) = that is within Patriarchy. Most of those relationships were between white women and white men given the white supremist history of most Western societies . These women were able to expand their parasitic relationships within Patriarchy to include other powerful men in addition to family relationships (employers, colleagues, executives, managers, politicians, union officials, administrators). White women, heterosexual or not, and within all social classes, are still oppressed. Our position within Patriarchy is still contingent on male approval and protection. We can act as oppressors too, but only within the confines of our own problematic relationship to men. For most women, the gains we might have made within “mainstream” or “malestream” feminism have come at a heavy cost, one of which is to divide women against each other, and to centre a male model of humanness on women.
The bias within “mainstream” feminism also marginalizes poor women, women from working class backgrounds, and conservative women. The benefits of feminism seem to favour not only white women, but also middle-class women who have access to higher education. The class bias also exists within other forms of Western feminism. Although many Radical and Marxist feminists resist this accusation of bias, women are still often described as a class similar to an oppressed proletariat, or as a monolithic group with little regard for the very real problems dividing women. Women are not a class, although many are poor, or work under oppressive conditions. Women are not an identity, or collection of identities, but we do express the full range of human differences. Issues of class are no longer much discussed within any leftwing movement in Western countries, unfortunately, which gives rise to a whole range of difficult problems within feminism and within other progressive movements more generally. Indigenous women have a difficult time making their voices heard within any of these debates, leading many to reject feminism altogether as colonial thinking. They see problems of inequality and discrimination against women as something introduced by colonialism. They look to their own traditions of gender – many of which are matriarchal or matrilineal – to find solutions to the terrible problems so many Indigenous women face. Conservative women have been utterly marginalized within any strand of feminism. This is mostly a result of Western feminism attaching itself, or coming out of, the Left. This seems to be yet another form of parasitism. What do we do if the Left abandons us? Many feminists no longer feel they have a home within leftwing progressive movements because of what they see as male domination and capture of feminist agendas, and of feminists. Unless feminism can find some point of connection with all women, it cannot make any legitimate claims to universality. Although many conservative women have in fact benefited from “mainstream” feminism, they do not connect with many fundamental issues that most streams of feminism embrace. The most prominent among these is abortion.
Most feminists up until recently, whether “mainstream” or not, have seen gender as a social construct, the primary tool of Patriarchy in the subjugation of women that needs to be resisted or eliminated. Radical and Marxist feminists have attempted to recognize issues of race, culture and class within their own analyses much more so than more “liberal” or “mainstream” forms of feminism. However, all these overlapping theoretical approaches towards women’s subjugation tend to universalize women’s experience and approaches to that experience, in a way that many non-white women reject. Classical Liberalism and neo-liberalism (the primary theoretical bases of “mainstream” or Western feminism), Marxism, and socialism all tend to universalize human experience, usually based on a European male model, that is seen by both women and men outside Europe, or Indigenous peoples within European settler societies, as racist, and as a major aspect of colonization. Many radical feminists also tend to universalize human experience, based on a European model of male oppression, and a European model of female subjugation. I know many radical feminists will object strenuously to this as very unfair. Although women generally have many issues in common (reproductive health, control over fertility, maternal health, child rearing, caregiving, male violence against women, economic and political discrimination, issues specific to girls and elderly women), it is necessary not to universalize women’s experiences. The commonalities exist within very significant differences. The tendency to universalize women’s experience has the associated tendency of obscuring those differences, many of which are directly related to colonization, capitalist exploitation, and global violence inflicted by rich countries on the poor everywhere (women, children and men). Solidarity within class, racial or anti-colonial struggles often dismiss feminist approaches as a distraction at best, or a means of division and conquest at worst. This is a major problem for any feminist analysis.
The commonalities among women, in my view, are not based on class or gender. Women are neither. What we have in common as women is based on two things: 1) the fundamental biological reproductive distinction that divides the human species (like all other mammals) into male and female, and; 2) the ancient ongoing history of how those sexual differences are managed and controlled by human societies. Women are the female half of the human species – the half that bears, gives birth to, feeds, and largely cares for other humans – children, men, the sick and the elderly. We are not a subset of any definition of humanity in which the male model determines who is or is not human. That is how Patriarchy works. We are the half from which everything else comes.
This is true whether any woman has children or not, or is capable of having children. We are, first of all, sexed by our reproductive potential through genetics, chromosomes, hormones, pre-natal development in the womb (and only women have wombs), and the post-natal development of our physical bodies throughout our lives from birth to death. This sexual and reproductive potential cannot be altered. But, secondly, we are also socially constructed or gendered as mothers or “birthers”, and “caregivers”, regardless of how much choice we may or may not have had in actually giving birth to or caring for anyone.
I myself chose not to have children. But that did not exempt me from membership in the half of humanity largely responsible for creating and maintaining life. For caring. This is why a meme that says “we expect women to work like they don’t have children, and raise children as if they don’t work” is so deeply wrong on so many levels. It embeds social expectations of “women”, “work”, “having or not having children”, and “raising children” in a network of gendered expectations and biological sex-differences, neither of which are acknowledged. It makes it easy to conflate sex and gender, while also providing a neo-liberal “mainstream” model for disengaging them. “Women” to succeed at “work” have to gender ourselves as “men”. So gender can be, has to be, disengaged from sex in order for women to be “equal” outside their roles as mothers and caregivers. But it just doesn’t work – not even for those of us who choose not to have children, or are unable to do so. It doesn’t even really work for the privileged few who can hire mostly women of colour to do their birthing (surrogacy) and caregiving for them. Even the most privileged of women must still always put the needs of others, in particular the men in their lives, ahead of their own, because that is our role. So, although “mainstream”, “malestream” liberal feminism tried to make it possible to disengage gender from biological sex, it never really succeeds.
This confusion over sex and gender is not just a problem for women. It is also a very serious social problem in most industrial societies. The vast majority of people, women and men, understand that sex discrimination is based on biological sex and reproductive roles, and that gender is the form in which creating, maintaining and enforcing that discrimination is policed. Many women simply accept this as a fact of life in social contexts that make questioning or rebellion impossible. Or they embrace both sexual differences and patriarchal gender roles as “natural”, again confusing the sexual and reproductive roles, which are natural, from the gendered part, which is not. But many women do resist being seen as subordinate to men, identifying gender as the problem. Unfortunately, they may also conflate this with sex, thinking that if they can only change their gender identity or expression they can somehow also change their sex. So they identify as “non-binary”, which may be possible in a gendered sense, but is impossible as far as sex is concerned. Many girls are now turning to puberty blockers, cross-sex hormone treatments and surgeries to try and change their physical sex from female to male. Presenting with a male appearance is possible, but actually becoming male is not.
Most men seem to be uninterested in overturning a system that works for their benefit. And then of course, there are the children. Someone has to give birth to them, someone has to care for them, someone has to care for everyone. Some women work actively in support of gender distinctions based on their own cultural, religious or ideological understandings of the roles of women and men in their societies. This can range from very conservative women within rigidly patriarchal religions, to women actively involved in decriminalizing sex work, pornography, surrogacy, and who promote this as a combination of sexual liberation and the ultimate goal of equality in the workplace. Some men do more than simply accept the benefits of Patriarchy. Many are also actively involved in maintaining or strengthening traditional gender norms, whatever those might be. This includes those who are also part of extremely conservative religious communities. But, it also includes men who have adopted the idea that they can actually change their gender/sex from male to female by identifying themselves within stereotypical gender roles of the opposite gender/sex. This assumes that gender and sex are the same, or interchangeable, or that gender “trumps” sex within a multitude of identities that in fact consist of the only two these men can see – masculine and feminine genders in the most traditional and stereotypical of senses. It seems astonishingly radical, but it hides a very conservative neo-liberal agenda that fits well within our meme. Transwomen fit the meme’s definition of “woman” perfectly. They don’t have to pretend they don’t have children. They remain men, even where they adopt the full panoply of hormones and surgeries, stereotypical feminine appearance and behaviour. Men who identify as women, but don’t actually transition, are an even more perfect fit. They’re still men, but can be classified as members of the “caring” sex/gender so are therefore rendered “safe”. Of course they would never harm anyone – they’re the most marginalized, most discriminated against, least threatening type of woman there could possibly be! The stereotypical gender roles pose no threat to patriarchy, once men and women can be persuaded to believe that gender can replace sex, while at the same time hiding the reality that this is not possible.
Gender changes over time and is very different within different cultural, racial or social contexts. Sex can only change by way of physical causes working within biology – such as natural or sexual selection which might affect genetic inheritance. This might include random mutations, or environmental influences on sexual development within the womb which might cause more male fetuses to develop, for example. Gender as a social construct can also influence the proportion of females to males within different human populations, not by changing sex, but by eliminating girls. Sex selective abortions, female infanticide, neglect or abandonment of baby girls, less access to food, or poorer health care are some examples.
The divisions within “mainstream” feminism between heterosexual women and the LGB community has also led to divisions that still haunt us. Lesbians were forced out of “mainstream” feminism very early on by activists such as Betty Friedan who feared the “lavender peril”. Although lesbian feminists lobbied hard to remain part of the broader movement, many chose separatism and solidarity amongst themselves, and with gay men. By the turn of the 21st century some of these wounds had healed as feminists across the board joined in the fight to eliminate discrimination against the LGB community. Much of this was in reaction to the plague of HIV/AIDS that hit gay men in the Western world particularly hard. Feminists working on women’s rights in the international sphere could see that HIV/AIDS was also a disease that was killing women and children around the world. An effective cure, and the ultimate goal of creating a vaccine, was being impeded by the intense hostility towards gay men, especially within the Reagan administration and conservative circles in the US and elsewhere where much of this medical research was being conducted. This hostility has been partially driven underground in the West, but is still a major human rights issue internationally. The battle for gay rights culminated in the elimination of laws that discriminated against same-sex attraction in most Western democracies, particularly in marriage, family relations, and childcare. This was a major human rights victory that has not yet been replicated internationally. Unfortunately, the success of the LGB rights movement in some countries opened the door to transgender rights activists who have transformed both the LGBTQ communities, and women’s rights. Some countries which outlaw homosexuality (such as Iran) have actually embraced transgender as an acceptable alternative, especially for men. Transitioning medical and surgical treatment is now paid for by the Iranian state, while homosexuality still results in public hangings. It has become the new “conversion therapy” for many homophobic conservative groups around the world.
The opening up of sexuality as a legitimate expression of diversity and individual identity also unsettled the relationship between gender and biological sex. Feminists, in particular radical feminists, had been challenging this relationship for years, not as just as an expression of personal gender identity that could be altered at will (although personal choice in dress and lifestyle was definitely part of this), but as the practical enforcement mechanism of female domination – of Patriarchy. But “mainstream” feminism, particularly in the US, had already silenced much of this debate by putting personal individual success in a “malestream” world ahead of women’s rights as a human rights issue effecting one-half of the human species. Women had already been relegated to a class. From about 2015 onwards we have since been further relegated to an “identity” that can now include men. Many younger women and men see gender and sexuality as matters of personal choice, as fluid or capable of change – undermining the idea that sexuality at least is not a choice. An alternative theory maintains that gender is, like sexuality, not confined by sex. Some babies are born who look like girls, and are assigned the sex/gender of female at birth, but really they are boys. And vice versa. Thus children as young as two or three can express their “true” sex/gender.
Gender, sexual distinctions, and sexuality are intimately linked in a discourse, identified within Critical Queer Theory, that does not have to be binary or biologically determined. In fact the discourse of binary distinctions or “bioessentialism” needs to be challenged or transgressed in order to end the patriarchal system of white “cis-heteronormativity” that is oppressing all (non-white, non-“cis”, non-heterosexual) people everywhere. This phrase encapsulates the hegemonic language of white supremist patriarchy determining systemic racism, colonialism, sexism, masculine and feminine gender roles, heterosexuality and homosexuality. This “cis” (gender in alignment with birth sex), “hetero” (opposite sex attracted) “normativity” (ingrained and enforced societal perception of what is “normal” or acceptable) is where everyone’s oppression lies. Much of contemporary “mainstream”, liberal and neo-liberal feminism has adopted a postmodern critique of discourse as the foundation for challenging social problems surrounding sex, gender, race, and sexuality. This new feminist critique is heavily indebted to Queer Critical Theory, to the poststructuralist movements in mid-century French theory, to post-colonial studies, to American libertarianism and American Race Critical Theory. It has led to a rejection of “privileged” white feminism within a classical liberal, Marxist, socialist or radical tradition.
I would suggest that this is a serious problem.
I haven’t made it to the “this will kill us all” part – climate change, environmental destruction and a few other strange places to find an epiphany from a feminist meme. Part II will be coming shortly.