Abigail Favale untangles the strands of a constantly evolving debate which risks turning into an Armageddon moment for feminism.
Since its inception in the 19th century, feminism has been roiled by in-house quarrels. In the movement’s first wave, centred on the fight for suffrage, feminists disagreed among themselves about temperance and birth control. The second wave swirled into even more disparate eddies – Marxist feminists, liberal feminists, lesbian separatists, pro- and anti-abortion feminists – before crashing dramatically into the feminist sex wars of the 1980s.
Today, we are witnessing yet another feminist schism over the definition of woman: is a transgender woman a woman, or is a transgender woman a man?
Against this historical backdrop, the clash over the categorical boundaries of ‘woman’ is nothing new. It’s simply the latest skirmish in a long civil war between shifting factions. From another angle, however, this latest conflict reveals itself to be more than just another domestic dispute.
I believe we are witnessing a kind of last battle, a feminist Armageddon that will determine whether feminism, as a movement centred on the well-being of women and girls, will endure into the future or self-immolate.
On one front, we have the RadFems: radical feminists who claim that women are adult human females, and feminism should be committed to combating the world-wide oppression of females by males.
According to the activist group Radfem Collective, the central tenet of radical feminism is ‘that women as a biological class are globally oppressed by men as a biological class’. Patriarchy, the systematic institutionalisation of male supremacy, has produced the fiction of gender, a ‘socially constructed hierarchy which functions to repress female autonomy and has no basis in biology’.
Radical feminists seek to preserve female-only spaces from which to develop theory and action based on the ‘lived reality of females who have been socialised into womanhood’.
Squaring off against the RadFems are trans-inclusive feminists, those who claim that ‘woman’ is not a sex-based category, but rooted in gender identity, one’s inner sense of self. The rallying cry of trans-inclusive feminists is this: trans women are women.
The Human Rights Council, a prominent LGBT+ advocacy organization, provides tips on how to make feminism trans-inclusive, and defines a woman’s gender identity as ‘her innermost concept of being female’. Not only is it possible, from this perspective, for a biological male to be a woman; a male who becomes a woman was never truly male in the first place, but always female. Feminism, then, should be the champion of anyone who identifies as a woman, regardless of sex. (For the sake of convenience, I’ll call this faction TransFems, with the understanding that TransFems are not necessarily transgender, but trans-inclusive.)
While the conflict is now reaching a fever pitch, it has been simmering for decades. At the root is the contested relationship between the terms ‘woman’ and ‘female’. Since the second wave, feminism has had a tense relationship with essentialism – the idea that all women share some intrinsic property that characterizes ‘woman-ness’, making it thus possible to speak of women as a universal category.
Essentialism is usually contrasted with constructionism, the belief that the categories of man and woman are not rooted in nature or ontology, but produced by interconnected societal forces. An essentialist perspective does not deny the shaping influence of culture, but rather claims that ‘the natural provides the raw material and determinative starting point for the practices and laws of the social’.
Early feminists were unapologetic essentialists. In arguing for women’s legal equality with men, they appealed to nature: both human nature and its inalienable dignity and rights, as well as female nature specifically,citing, for example, the natural bond between mother and child to support women’s custodial rights.
In her 1854 address to the New York Legislature, leading suffragette Elizabeth Cady Stanton described women’s wisdom, virtues, moral influence, and relationality, without a sense that those traits were mere constructs or imposed cultural scripts.
Early feminists like Stanton pushed back mightily against oppressive social forces, but never argued that womanhood itself is produced by those forces.
In the quiet interim between the first and second waves, Simone de Beauvoir published The Second Sex. Nestled in its 800 pages is a line that would entirely reshape feminist thought: “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.”
This sentence is an explicit rejection of essentialism, a reframing of ‘woman’ as a product of society rather than nature. De Beauvoir never uses the term gender, but this sentence is the seed of what would later become the sex/gender split in feminist theory.
In the 1970s, feminists began distinguishing between biological sex and gender, a word referring to the cultural trappings of sex – norms and expressions associated with maleness and femaleness that are social in origin rather than biologically determined. While the word ‘female’ maintained sex as a referent in feminist literature, ‘woman’ became linked to gender, and any appeals to woman as a natural or universal category were now verboten.
This dogmatic rejection of essentialism introduced a troubling tension into the feminist movement: how can feminism both depend on and deny the universal category of woman?
To wriggle out of this contradiction, feminist theorists by and large adopted nominalism – the disavowal of ‘real’ essences in favor of ‘nominal’ or name-only essences: linguistic categories used for political convenience. Yet the nominalist duck-and-roll offers little help in resolving the feud between RadFems and Transfems.
Only a return to realism can provide a stable definition of woman, the requisite ground for effective feminism.
Behind the activist slogans lurk more substantive theoretical frameworks that provide a particular view of reality and the origins of oppression. Catharine MacKinnon, a prominent feminist lawyer and theorist, gives a robust account of the radical feminist perspective in her book Feminism Unmodified.
MacKinnon wrote in the 1980s, in the ebbing of the second wave, amid the ‘sex wars’ between feminists who oppose pornography and prostitution as inherently misogynist and the so-called ‘sex-positive’ feminists who see them as potentially liberating for women.
MacKinnon is decidedly on the anti-porn side. In these pages, she critiques aspects of second-wave feminism, namely, the tacit assumption that women must be as much like men as possible in order to achieve social equality. She argues that sex equality law has not given women what they need, namely ‘a chance at productive lives of reasonable physical security, self-expression, individuation, and minimal respect and dignity’.
According to MacKinnon, second-wave feminism adopted what she calls ‘the difference approach’, an approach that treats sex equality as a matter of sameness and difference. Take that very phrase, ‘sex equality’, she writes, and examine its foundations. Equality presupposes sameness, and sex presupposes difference. The difference approach opens two possible paths for women: be the same as men, or be different from them. The problem with both of these paths is that men are always the standard; women must measure themselves against men. “We’re as good as you!” argued second-wave feminists.
MacKinnon admits that this approach yielded some positive results, such as access to employment, education, and the military. However, she asserts, women still do not have equal pay, equal work, or equal pay for equal work. Moreover, the stress on ‘equality’ or women’s similitude to men threatens the existence of women-only spaces and leads to the conclusion that it would be discriminatory for laws to take women’s unique biological needs into account.
MacKinnon proposes a different way of defining equality. Instead of focusing on difference, she advocates looking at dominance. Equality is not a question of sameness and differences, she argues, but a question of the distribution of power.
MacKinnon pushes back against so-called ‘difference feminists’, like Carol Gilligan, who tried to cast apparent gender differences in a positive light. Gilligan is most famous for her ‘ethics of care’, an approach that accepts the common belief that women are more caring and nurturing, and presents this as an asset women have that should be valued more highly by society.
MacKinnon rejects Gilligan’s approach, asserting that the very idea of ‘sex difference’ is a creation of male supremacy. Women are not inherently more caring, she writes. Rather, ‘women value care because men have valued us according to the care we give them’. For MacKinnon, difference is simply sexism, reified.
To clearly distinguish her dominance model from the difference approach, MacKinnon provides two contrasting origin stories. The difference narrative appeals to a pre-social original difference between men and women; this ‘original difference’ is the ground from which division and domination spring. For MacKinnon, domination is primary. Domination leads to division, which then creates the illusion of original difference.
The Difference Approach: original difference → division → domination
The Dominance Approach: domination → division → difference
In MacKinnon’s framework, social problems caused by male domination masquerade as mere differences and thus overlook problems exclusive to women, such as violence against women, sexual assault and abuse, prostitution, and pornography. These ills, she argues, do not have a biological or evolutionary basis, but are socio-political in origin. The difference approach should be rejected, because it uncritically accepts the social status quo and is fundamentally masculinist, rather than feminist. For MacKinnon, only the dominance approach, which takes female subordination as its starting point, can truly be deemed feminist.
Because the ground of a RadFem worldview is male domination, the notion that a male could opt into a female identity is just another iteration of male entitlement and supremacy. RadFems are biological realists, but not biological determinists. It is not merely biology per se that defines the category of woman – that would be biological essentialism. For RadFems, what unites and defines women as a group is the pervasive social oppression experienced by biologically female human beings.
MacKinnon’s book was published near the end of the second wave. Around this same time, two theorists rolled out concepts that would usher feminism into a new phase and forge the way toward trans-inclusive feminism.
The first of these was Judith Butler, the godmother of gender theory. Butler’s most famous contribution to gender theory is her concept of gender as a socially compelled performance. As soon as we are born, she argues, we are co-opted into pre-written scripts about gender, scripts we continually and unconsciously enact in the world. This performance of gender creates the illusion of an essence, the mirage of some a priori ground of man-ness and woman-ness.
For the second-wave feminist, including radical feminists like MacKinnon, gender is a social construct, a product of patriarchal domination, whereas sex is a matter of biology. Butler rejects this neat distinction, arguing that sex is just as much a construct as gender: ‘female’ no longer appears to be a stable notion, its meaning is as troubled and unfixed as ‘woman’.
Butler’s primary aim is to dismantle heteronormativity – the view that heterosexual sex and relationships are natural – and this project requires interrogating the very concepts of maleness and femaleness. For Butler, there is no pre-social facticity; any meaning or interpretation we ascribe to the body or human biology is a cultural fabrication.
Butler’s early writings on gender do not seamlessly align with typical TransFem rhetoric. For one thing, Butler is emphatically anti-essentialist, whereas trans activists regularly make essentialist claims, such as the assertion that trans women are women. In addition, the concept of ‘gender identity’ can sometimes sound like a fixed state of the soul or psyche, an inner essence that serves as the ground of gender. Nonetheless, Butler’s notion that biological sex itself is socially constructed formed a key stepping stone along the path to trans-inclusive feminism.
To better understand how Butlerian categories apparently gave rise to a newfound gender essentialism, we need to turn to a second prominent theorist, Kimberlé Crenshaw, whose concept of intersectionality has become a fundamental tenet in trans-inclusive feminism, and in American identity politics writ large.
In Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color, Crenshaw, a legal theorist, expounds in detail on her concept of intersectionality, an understanding of identity as location – namely, one’s position amid intersecting matrices of social power.
In this article, Crenshaw focuses on the social location of black women, arguing that their unique experiences at the intersection of race and gender are neglected by feminists and antiracists alike. According to Crenshaw, feminist efforts focus implicitly on white women, downplaying the dimension of race, while antiracist efforts implicitly centre on black men, downplaying the dimension of misogyny. “The identity of women of color,” she writes, is “a location that resists telling.”
Over the course of her extensive analysis, Crenshaw describes two kinds of anti-essentialism. First, that ‘vulgar constructionist’ who argues that identity categories are socially constructed and should thus be disregarded. This is the approach of the liberal antiracist, who seeks to cultivate a post-racial society. Opposed to this is the identity politics position, which likewise acknowledges the social contingency of identity categories, but nonetheless seeks to preserve them as sites of political resistance.
Crenshaw rejects the solutions of liberalism, which empties identity categories of significance. Instead, she proposes leaning further into those categories as a means of social empowerment. The best strategy for disempowered groups, Crenshaw argues, is to occupy and defend a politics of social location, rather than vacate and dismantle it.
Crenshaw’s intersectional approach is an explicit attempt to link contemporary politics with postmodern theory. She is working from the underlying postmodernist assumption that the ‘categories we consider natural or merely representational are actually socially constructed in a linguistic economy of difference’.
In other words, she shares the same basic understanding of reality as Judith Butler,namely, that what we take to be ‘real’ is a social construct. Yet, unlike early Butler, Crenshaw reifies identity categories for political purposes. (I say ‘early Butler’, because by the time Butler wrote Undoing Gender in 2004, she was walking back her concept of performativity a bit to make room for transgender identification, and in this work she adopted the rhetoric of intersectionality.)
There’s an important pivot that’s happening here, a tactical sleight of hand: first denying that identity categories have any natural basis and then redeploying those categories as real for political purposes.
This is why TransFem rhetoric can often sound quite essentialist, even though the implicit worldview it is promoting is fundamentally anti-realist.
Crenshaw states that she is not attempting to offer some new, totalizing theory of identity, but that is precisely what has unfolded. TransFem activist rhetoric leans heavily on intersectionality, and through its multifaceted prism, the feminist bugbear of male supremacy morphs into the conglomerate of cisheteropatriarchy. With a renewed focus on cisgender oppression and heteronormativity in addition to patriarchy, the univocal focus on male supremacy is diluted and redirected.
RadFem activists also incorporate intersectionality in their analyses, acknowledging how women’s oppression can be confounded by classism and racism, but the bedrock of their worldview remains the all-pervasive sex-based domination by males of females.
Trans-inclusive feminism is radical feminism’s offspring – and it’s proving to be an Oedipal one.
RadFems and TransFems are currently locked in a death grapple, each vying for dominance over language, law, and public opinion.
Given this struggle, it might be easy to assume that they represent two opposing understandings of reality.
This is not the case. The current wave of feminism is simply an extension of second-wave radical feminism, the latest updated model of a movement that veered away from realism over five decades ago.
Second-wave feminists, in the spirit of Simone de Beauvoir, embraced the idea that ‘woman’ is an oppression-based identity, rather than a natural category. That idea, enshrined in the gender/sex split, has ultimately facilitated the conclusion that transwomen are women. It is difficult to lead the charge against essentialism, and then pivot to hold the line against men identifying as women.
Both forms of feminism depend on a postmodern, anti-realist foundation, an understanding of reality as constituted by power.
In almost all forms of contemporary feminism, one can see the spectre of Michel Foucault hovering in the background, the French postmodernist theorist who posited an extreme social constructionism that has since become normative in the humanities and social sciences, particularly in gender studies.
Butler, a dyed-in-the-wool Foucauldian, credits Foucault with exposing how ‘power dissimulates as ontology’. In other words, what we perceive to be ‘real’ is a machination of social and institutional power.
TransFems, via trickle-down Judith Butler, implicitly adopt a Foucauldian perspective in their argument that the male-female sex binary is a construct of medical science, rather than a categorization of a natural phenomenon.
Crenshaw’s intersectional approach explicitly relies on the postmodern view that presumably ‘’natural’ categories are actually social constructs. MacKinnon’s dominance thesis likewise has a Foucauldian flavour, as she asserts that ostensible differences between men and women are not real, but fabricated by patriarchal power and then taken as fact.
Trans-inclusive feminism simply extends this analysis to include ‘femaleness’ itself as a product of domination, and there is no clear reason why that could not be the case if, as MacKinnon argues, difference is always a reification of dominance.
This gender-equality paradox indicates that when women are given more freedom to make choices, on average those choices still differ from the choices of men.
Both feminist camps are, to one degree or another, anti-realists. Does this, however, mean they are anti-essentialist? In truth, the notion that RadFems and TransFems have resisted imbibing the poison of essentialism, save for carefully titered doses of nominalism, is a fantasy.
In classic Aristotelian essentialism, the ‘essence’ of any physical entity is a combination of matter (hyle) and form (morphe). The form gives shape, coherence, and purpose to mere matter, and the union of both constitutes the whole entity.
Thomas Aquinas draws on Aristotle to give a hylomorphic account of human identity, arguing that the human person is a unity of body (matter) and soul (form). This Thomist-Aristotelian essentialism is rejected wholesale in feminist theory.
As it turns out, however, Foucauldian feminism is also essentialist: but in this case, the morph that gives shape and meaning to the body is social power. This is an externalized essentialism, a Nietzschean hylomorphism. Externalizing the essence of ‘woman’ as social oppression is to concede that ‘woman’ is fundamentally a social construct, rather than a state of being, and this leaves it open to appropriation.
RadFem’s dominance thesis has additional flaws, such as the assumption that true social equality will result in fewer discernible differences between the sexes.
If domination is what leads to difference, then reducing male supremacy will presumably decrease the difference. MacKinnon is explicit about this assumption, but it has proven not to be accurate.
In the wealthiest and most egalitarian societies, such as Scandinavian countries, certain sex differences, like opting to study STEM, have become more pronounced, not less. This gender-equality paradox indicates that when women are given more freedom to make choices, on average those choices still differ from the choices of men.
Some feminists will offer a pretzel-twist response to this apparent paradox, arguing that male domination must still be at work. In this way, the dominance thesis often functions as an unquestioned premise in RadFem thought, a first principle: no matter how many advances women make in society, they are still as oppressed as ever.
This makes it possible for MacKinnon, a highly successful lawyer and member of the academic elite, to argue that she is nonetheless a victim of an all-pervasive male supremacy.
A narrative that posits women as already always oppressed is self-defeating and self-perpetuating.
To even speak about ‘woman’,a category created by oppression, is to re-entrench her subjugation.
Despite these shortcomings, RadFem critiques of trans-inclusive feminism have merit. MacKinnon rightly recognizes that when women do suffer oppression – as they still do worldwide, even if not in every circumstance – this oppression is linked to the bodily reality of femaleness. Female physiology and the capacity for pregnancy make women more vulnerable to rape, exploitation, and control.
Unlike trans-inclusive feminism, radical feminism at least acknowledges the material reality of female embodiment, rejecting the notion that femaleness is a mere construct.
Trans-inclusive feminism regards femaleness as an aesthetic, a style of embodiment that is focused on appearance, on ‘passing’, entirely ignoring innate procreative potential, and often mimicking regressive stereotypes that feminists have long sought to undo. By keeping a tether between woman and female, radical feminism retains a connection to reality that its nemesis has abandoned. However, the female body in RadFem thought tends to be mute, inert, a site of perpetual domination, but never itself an origin of difference.
Feminism needs a serious reality check. In a Foucauldian framework that views reality as constructed by power, one must oppose reality in order to resist oppression.
If the feminist movement hopes to endure and effectively advocate the dignity of women and girls worldwide, it must depart from the anti-realist path that led to this bloody battleground.
To survive the pending Armageddon, feminism must lose its paranoid rejection of essential differences between the sexes. This does not mean a reversion to cartoonish, reductive caricatures. Men and women are different, but they are not polarized opposites; our difference is asymmetrical, consonant with a shared humanity and individual inimitability.
Only from a realist ground can we successfully discern which differences are a consequence of sexism, and which are not. Only from a realist ground can one make the confident argument that a man cannot merely opt into womanhood, because there is a pre-social givenness to womanness, a nature that is shaped by nurture, but not wholly conjured by it.
Institutional power and language profoundly influence how we perceive reality; that’s something the postmodernists get right. But to assert that power creates reality is to concede that woman is a construct – a concession that, for the feminist movement, will ultimately prove to be fatal.
This is a slightly edited version of an article published by the Witherspoon Institute in July 2021, which you can find here.
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