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Strengthening Anarchism's Gender Analysis

category international | gender | feature author Thursday August 13, 2009 17:28author by J. Rogue - Common Action, Workers Solidarity Alliance Report this post to the editors

Lessons From The Transfeminist Movement

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Transfeminism developed out of a critique of the mainstream and radical feminist movements. The feminist movement has a history of internal hierarchies. There are many examples of women of color, working class women, lesbians and others speaking out against the tendency of the white, affluent- dominated women’s movement to silence them and overlook their needs. Instead of honoring these marginalized voices, the mainstream feminist movement has prioritized struggling for rights primarily in the interests of white affluent women.

While the feminist movement as a whole has not resolved these hierarchal tendencies, various groups have continued to speak up regarding their own marginalization – in particular, transgendered women. The process of developing a broader understanding of systems of oppression and how they interact has advanced feminism and is key to building on the theory of anarchist feminism.


Strengthening Anarchism's Gender Analysis

Lessons From The Transfeminist Movement


Transfeminism developed out of a critique of the mainstream and radical feminist movements. The feminist movement has a history of internal hierarchies. There are many examples of women of color, working class women, lesbians and others speaking out against the tendency of the white, affluent- dominated women’s movement to silence them and overlook their needs. Instead of honoring these marginalized voices, the mainstream feminist movement has prioritized struggling for rights primarily in the interests of white affluent women. While the feminist movement as a whole has not resolved these hierarchal tendencies, various groups have continued to speak up regarding their own marginalization – in particular, transgendered women. The process of developing a broader understanding of systems of oppression and how they interact has advanced feminism and is key to building on the theory of anarchist feminism.

Transfeminism builds on the work that came out of the multiracial feminist movement, and in particular, the work of Black feminists. Frequently, when confronted with allegations of racism, classism, or homophobia, the women’s movement dismisses these issues as divisive. The more prominent voices promote the idea of a homogenous “universal female experience,” which, as it is based on commonality between women, theoretically promotes a sense of sisterhood. In reality, it means pruning the definition of “woman” and trying to fit all women into a mold reflecting the dominant demographic of the women’s movement: white, affluent, heterosexual, and non-disabled. This “policing” of identity, whether conscious or not, reinforces systems of oppression and exploitation. When women who do not fit this mold have challenged it, they have frequently been accused of being divisive and disloyal to the sisterhood. The hierarchy of womanhood created by the women’s movement reflects, in many ways, the dominant culture of racism, capitalism and heteronormativity.

Mainstream feminist organizing frequently tries to find the common ground shared by women, and therefore focuses on what the most vocal members decide are “women’s issues” – as if the female experience existed in vacuum outside of other forms of oppression and exploitation. However, using an intersectional approach to analyzing and organizing around oppression, as advocated by multiracial feminism and transfeminism, we can discuss these differences rather than dismiss them. The multiracial feminist movement developed this approach, which argues that one cannot address the position of women without also addressing their class, race, sexuality, ability, and all other aspects of their identity and experiences. Forms of oppression and exploitation do not exist separately. They are intimately related and reinforce each other, and so trying to address them singly (i.e. “sexism” divorced from racism, capitalism, etc) does not lead to a clear understanding of the patriarchal system. This is in accordance with the anarchist view that we must fight all forms of hierarchy, oppression, and exploitation simultaneously; abolishing capitalism and the state does not ensure that white supremacy and patriarchy will be somehow magically dismantled.

Tied to this assumption of a “universal female experience” is the idea that that if a woman surrounds herself with those that embody that “universal” woman, then she is safe from patriarchy and oppression. The concept of “women’s safe spaces” (being women-only) date back to the early lesbian feminist movement, which was largely comprised of white, middle-class women who prioritized addressing sexism over other forms of oppression. This notion that an all-women space is inherently safe not only discounts the intimate violence that can occur between women, but also ignores or de-prioritizes the other types of violence that women can experience; racism, poverty, incarceration and other forms of state, economic and social brutality.

The Transfeminist Manifesto states: “Transfeminism believes that we construct our own gender identities based on what feels genuine, comfortable and sincere to us as we live and relate to others within given social and cultural constraint. (1)” The notion that gender is a social construct is a key concept in transfeminism, and are also essential (no pun intended) to an anarchist approach to feminism. Transfeminism also criticizes the idea of a “universal female experience” and argues against the biologically essentialist view that one’s gender is defined by one’s genitalia. Other feminisms have embraced the essentialist argument, seeing the idea of “women’s unity” as being built off a sameness, some kind of core “woman-ness.” This definition of woman is generally reliant on what is between a person’s legs. Yet what specifically about the definition of woman is intrinsic to two X chromosomes? If it is defined as being in possession of a womb, does that mean women who have had hysterectomies are somehow less of a woman? Perhaps, if we reduce the definition of “woman” to the role of child-bearer. That seems rather antithetical to feminism. Gender roles have long been under scrutiny in radical communities. The idea that women are born to be mothers, are more sensitive and peaceful, are predisposed to wearing the color pink and all the other stereotypes out there are socially constructed, not biological. If the (repressive) gender role does not define what a woman is, and if the organs one is born with do not define gender either, the next logical step is to recognize that gender can only be defined by the individual, for themselves. While this concept may cause some to panic, that does not make it any less legitimate with regards to a person’s identity.

It is important to note that not all transgender people chose to physically transition, and that each person’s decision to do so or not is their own. The decision is highly personal and generally irrelevant to theoretical conceptions of gender. There are many reasons to physically change one’s body, from getting a haircut to taking hormones. Some reasons might be to feel more at ease in a world with strict definitions of male and female. Another is to look in the mirror and see on the outside (the popular understanding of) the gender one feels on the inside. Surely, for some, it is the belief that gender is defined by the physical construction of one’s genitalia. But rather than draw from speculation as to the motivations for the personal decisions of trans people (as if they where not vast and varied), it is more productive to note the challenge to the idea that biology is destiny.

Thus far, gender and feminist theory that includes trans experiences exists almost solely in academia. There are very few working class intellectuals in the field, and the academic language used is not particularly accessible to the average person. This is unfortunate, since the issues that transfeminism addresses affect all people. Capitalism, racism, the state, patriarchy and the medical field mediate the way everyone experiences gender. There is a significant amount of coercion employed by these institutions to police human experiences, which applies to everyone, trans and non-trans alike. Capitalism and the state play a very direct role in the experiences of trans people. Access to hormones and surgery, if desired, costs a significant amount of money, and people are often forced to jump through bureaucratic hoops in order to acquire them. Trans people are disproportionately likely to be members of the working and under classes. However, within the radical queer and transfeminist communities, while there may be discussions of class, they are generally framed around identity – arguing for “anti-classist” politics, but not necessarily anti-capitalist.

The concepts espoused by transfeminism help us understand gender, but there is a need for the theory to break out of academia and to develop praxis amongst the working class and social movements. This is not to say that there are no examples of transfeminist organizing, but rather that there needs to be an incorporation of transfeminist principles into broad based movements. Even gay and lesbian movements have a history of leaving trans people behind. For example, the Employment Non-Discrimination Act does not protect gender identity. Again we see a hierarchy of importance; the gay and lesbian movement compromises (throwing trans folks under the bus), rather than employing an inclusive strategy for liberation. There is frequently a sense of a “scarcity of liberation” within reformist social movements, the feeling that the possibilities for freedom are so limited that we must fight against other marginalized groups for a piece of the pie. This is in direct opposition to the concept of intersectionality, since it often requires people to betray one aspect of their identity in order to politically prioritize another. How can a person be expected to engage in a fight against gender oppression if it ignores or worsens their racial oppression? Where does one aspect of their identity and experiences end and another begin? Anarchism offers a possible society in which liberation is anything but scarce. It provides a theoretical framework that calls for an end to all hierarchies, and, as stated by Martha Ackelsberg, “It offers a perspective on the nature and process of social revolutionary transformation (e.g. the insistence that means must be consistent with ends, and that economic issues are critical, but not the only source of hierarchal power relations) that can be extremely valuable to/ for women’s emancipation. (2)”
Anarchists need to be developing working class theory that includes an awareness of the diversity of the working class. The anarchist movement can benefit from the development of a working class, anarchist approach to gender issues that incorporates the lessons of transfeminism and intersectionality. It is not so much a matter of asking anarchists to become active in the transfeminist movement as it is a need for anarchists to take a page from the Mujeres Libres and integrate the principles of (trans)feminism into our organizing within the working class and social movements. Continuing to develop contemporary anarchist theory of gender rooted in the working class requires a real and integrated understanding of transfeminism.

This article neglects to address another important concept: the idea that biological sex is somewhat socially constructed as well. Given the high prevalence of intersex folks, it is worth re-evaluating whether or not there are only two supposed biological sexes. This is a whole additional discussion, and one that would require a bit more research. Recommended sites for more information are www.isna.org and www.eminism.org.


Notes

1. The Transfeminist Manifesto by Emi Koyama (2000)

2. Lessons from the Free Women of Spain an interview with Martha Ackelsberg
by Geert Dhont (2004)

This article appears in the latest issue of the Northeastern Anarchist

author by jjwpublication date Thu Aug 06, 2009 04:33Report this post to the editors

Just an FYI, the bill that passed in the house in 2007 wasn't trans inclusive.

The bill just introduced into both the House and the Senate is.

Related Link: http://merkley.senate.gov/newsroom/press/release/?id=4e...7aaaf
author by CatMushroompublication date Fri Aug 14, 2009 03:19Report this post to the editors

Last years ENDA started out as inclusive also, and then in the middle of the legislative session it got switched, and they removed protections for trans and gender variant people.
Being introduced as inclusive is exactly what happened last year, so it means nothing.
If we decide to care about legislation (as a tactic), then we need to be active and vigilant, to prevent a repeat of last year.
We need to keep up pressure to Boycott and Divest from the HRC, and we need to watch the legislation to make sure that it doesn't get messed with.

author by Waynepublication date Sat Aug 15, 2009 11:36Report this post to the editors

This essay by Rogue makes a real contribution to the discussion. Let me comment on one, peripheral, point. Rogue refers to " the anarchist view that we must fight all forms of hierarchy, oppression, and exploitation simultaneously; abolishing capitalism and the state does not ensure that white supremacy and patriarchy will be somehow magically dismantled."

I completely agree with this anarchist viewof the need for simultaneous struggles. But I think it contradicts the end of the statement, which implies that it is possible to abolish the state and capitalism while leaving white supremacy and patriarchy still to be fought. It is the opposite of Rogue's intentions, I know, but this could be read as saying that it is possible to have a two-stage strategy, first abolish capitalism and then deal with patriarchy. This may be better than the old quasi-Marxist view that after we abolish capitalism, patriarchy and other evils will wither away by themselves, but still leads to a two-stage approach.

It would be better to say, "unless we abolish white supremacy and partriarchy, it is not possible to abolish capitalism and the state."

The formumlation which Roque uses is inwidespread use, and it originally arose out of a more-or-less Stalinist milieu; radical woman accepted (wrongly) that the Soviet Union, etc. had "abolished capitalism," but noticed that it continued to oppress women. Therefore they concluded that "socialism" (really state capitalism!) did not necessarily abolish patriarchy but that women needed to organize and fight for their rights and not make them subservient to the struggle for so-called "socialism." This was an advance, but anarchists would go further and say that the fact that the Soviet Union, Cuba, etc., did not abosish patriarchy proves that they are not really socialist countries at all--not that women's liberation is a separate issue from the socialist class struggle.

This is not a political difference with Rogue, understand, but a comment on one formulation in an excellent discussion.

author by Tompublication date Wed Aug 19, 2009 09:17Report this post to the editors

Wayne says it isn't possible to abolish capitalism without abolishing racism and patriarchy. I think this isn't clear. I think capitalism was abolished in the Soviet Union under Stalin, but racism and patriarchy persisted. It's not so clear that there is an essential relationship between patriarchy and capitalism. I think we could imagine an extreme circumstance in which equality between the sexes could be made consistent with capitalism surviving...an extreme concesion from the elite classes in some period of struggle in which various social supports to equalizing caring work between men and women occurs. In fact women have been able to secure major reductions in gender inequality over the past century in the industrial countries so this is not entirely out of the question. But at the same time, a post-capitalism that retains inequalities could easily build on various inequalities. Gender inequality is something to oppose in itself, not just because it's needed to unify the working class to get rid of capitalism, and the same can be said for racism.

author by p.publication date Wed Aug 19, 2009 23:20Report this post to the editors

The problem of the relation between capitalism and feminism can be seen with the light of another revolution, the spanish one of 1936-1939. In it, collectivization and socialization achieved its widest and throughliest development but sexism was not abolished even in its economic formal aspects and even in places where a unified familiar salary (which took into account different needs for establishing different salaries for people doing the same job, a communist principle and a great show of justice). In those places, the records show in every case different standards for men and for women. In that way we can say that capitalism (as class exploitation) had been abolished (altough the battle was still raging on and was to be lost) but sexism was alive and healthy inside the anti-fascist camp and even inside the revolutionary organizations. Maybe you are using an ampler definition of capitalism but that would make the concept useless to me, maybe inequality is a more appropiate word for that, but we need the concept of capitalism as class exploitation of the proletariat by the burgeoise in the form of wage-labour. Just as we need the concept of state capitalism to describe the different form it took in the Soviet Unions or Cubas system after the statist take-over of the Revolution.

author by Waynepublication date Tue Aug 25, 2009 11:29Report this post to the editors

To p.: You answer yourself when you say, of 30s Spain, "capitalism (as class exploitation) had been abolished (altough the battle was still raging on and was to be lost)." Capitalism (by which I also mean a system of class exploitation) was NOT abolished in Spain, and it was a weakness of the anarchists that they thought that collectiviisation of land and industry in some areas had abolished capitalism. Steps had been taken toward the abolition of capitalism and blows had been struck against capitalism, in revolutionary Spain, but "the battle was still raging." The blows against capitalism had also weakened male supremacy but the continuation of male supremacy also continued to strengthen capitalism (including the limits on the inclusion of women in industry and in the militia).

To Tom: Of course, as you know, when I speak of the abolition of capitalism I am speaking of the creation of libertarian socialism. I am not discussng the possibility of a noncapitalist but still exploitative collectivizing ruling class which would maintain male supremacy. While I do not think that such a noncapitalist modern ruling class ever existed or could exist, this is another discussion. The point is that maintaining male supremacy was part of the reason why the Soviet Union ended up as an exploitative class society, whatever you want to call it.

Whether capitalism could exist while ending male supremacy (the program of liberal feminists, after all) is something I would deny, not in the most abstract way, but in this world of the epoch of capitalism's decay and monopoly finance capital. Things are going to be getting worse from here on, not better. Clearly it woiuld take a lot more space to argue this out than we have available here.

author by mitch - W.S.A.publication date Sun Aug 30, 2009 22:23Report this post to the editors

Interesting stuff. Thanks alot Rogue!

author by Roguepublication date Mon Mar 15, 2010 07:32Report this post to the editors

Here is the translation into Serbian: http://www.kontra-punkt.info/modules.php?op=modload&nam...lang=

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