Against an Uncritical Embrace of Gender

By Rachel / Deep Green Resistance Eugene

The following is a response to an open letter written by Bonnie Mann to Lierre Keith.

Hello Professor Mann,

You wrote an open letter recently to my friend and fellow activist Lierre Keith. You don’t know me, and I don’t know you, but as your letter discusses issues which are very important to me, and as I feel that you’ve gravely misconstrued those issues, it feels incumbent upon me to respond. You may choose to write me off as “uncritical,” since I share the views that you have dismissed as such in your letter, but I hope that you will instead choose to listen and reflect on my reasons for finding your letter uncritical at best, and in all truth, irresponsibly misleading at worst. At the risk of casting too wide a net, there are two things I’d like to address: the things you say in your letter, and the things you don’t say in your letter.

You write that you don’t support those who tried (and failed) to get Lierre’s invitation to speak rescinded, because “you don’t get ‘safe space’ in the public sense from not being subjected to attacks, or to the presence of those by whom you consider yourself to have been attacked.” You don’t specify whether by attacks you are referring to political disagreement, or the kind of rape and death threats, stalking, sexual harassment, and occasional physical assault to which I and other radical feminists are regularly subject. This ambiguity, which pervades your letter’s arguments, works to stymie direct discussion of the issues. If by “attacks” you mean “political disagreement,” then I agree. Contrary to the beliefs of many who try to blacklist radical feminist thought from the public sphere, I do not believe that mere disagreement is equivalent to physical violence.

You go on to say: “I think you get safe space, or as safe as space gets, from having your community stand by you in the face of attacks.” If that’s true, then “as safe as safe space gets” feels pretty damn unsafe when you dare to question the inevitability or the justice of gender. I and the radical feminists I know have formed a community that supports each other in the face of attacks. Unfortunately, supporting each other has not stopped the bullying, the rape and death threats, the intimidation and the stalking and the harassment. This is as safe as space gets for radical feminists who stick to their convictions instead of abandoning them. It’s disturbing to me that nowhere in your letter do you even acknowledge the reality of what we deal with every time we open our mouths to disagree with the currently popular ideology around gender.

You mention having watched a presentation of mine on gender that I wrote about a year ago, entitled “The End of Gender” (or alternatively “I Was a Teenage Liberal”), so I won’t waste time on details of my past that you, presumably, are already familiar with. Suffice it to say that my views on gender have taken the opposite trajectory from yours. One of the most easily challengeable and, frankly, one of the cheapest ways that you dismiss Lierre’s politics in your letter is by suggesting that they are less valuable because they are so old as to be archaic or outmoded. You imply this by describing how reading her arguments brings you “back in time,” and by mentioning several times that you also heard those same arguments from her thirty two years ago. That argument might seem slightly more viable if Lierre, or others in her and your generation, were the only ones who hold similar convictions today.

My very existence (much less my work as an activist) renders that line of criticism less-than-viable. You wrote that you last spoke to Lierre in 1989, but I was born in 1989, and women closer to my age are some of the most vocal and active gender-critical feminists I know. Some of us, the lucky ones, benefit from the support and guidance of women who have been feminists since before we were born. Others came to radicalism because they could see that the ideology we’ve been fed by academia and the dominant culture – individualist, neoliberal “feminism” – is actively working against the advancement of women’s human rights. Young women organize radical feminist conferences, write gender-critical analysis, fight to maintain the right of females to organize as a class, and support each other through the intimidation, threats, and ostracization that such work earns us. We do not appreciate being ignored by those who would take the easy way out in dismissing our politics.

You write that the ideology of gender that gave rise to today’s trans ideology and practice was “brand new” to you at the time you first encountered it, and that it “freaked you out” because it “didn’t match the analysis” that you held at the time, which you equate to the analysis that Lierre and I and so many others hold today. Your implication, and the dismissal it contains, is clear – radical feminist disagreement with liberal gender ideology stems from cognitive dissonance and unease toward unfamiliar ideas, not from reasoned analysis. You imply that radical feminism is an artifact from an earlier time, and that the only women who still cling to it do so because they are afraid of new ideas. Again, you write as if women of your and Lierre’s generation who share your early experience of feminism are the only radical feminists who still walk the Earth.

This argument falls completely flat for me and so many radical feminists of my generation. Liberal gender ideology has never been “brand new” for us. It is not unfamiliar to us; we grew up swimming in it. We’re not clinging to relics, we’re reaching for a politics that actually addresses the scope of the problems. It was gender-apologism that began to give us cognitive dissonance, after our experiences brought us to some uncomfortable and challenging conclusions: Female people are a distinct social class, and its members experience specific modes of oppression based on the fact that we’re female. All oppressed classes have the right to organize autonomously and define the boundaries of their own space. Gender is socially constructed; there are no modes of behavior necessarily associated with biological sex.  The norms of gender function to facilitate the extraction of resources from female bodies. The extraction of resources from female bodies forms the foundation of male supremacy, and thusly, male supremacy fundamentally depends on the maintenance of gender.

Like many of radical feminism’s detractors, you have chosen to focus your response to our politics on one statement, perceived belief, or piece of writing, which is taken as a representation of us as a group in order to make it easier to misconstrue and dismiss our views. This is called scapegoating, and Lierre’s email is an oft-selected target for it. I understand that your letter was addressed to Lierre, and so it makes sense that you would focus on her stated views. However, there are multiple other more recent and detailed pieces of writing from her on the subject that you chose to ignore. Maybe the choice to exclude these was “a symptom of not listening.” Maybe it “marks a distaste for complexity, ambiguity, nuance.” I don’t pretend to know, but it was clearly a choice that allowed you to sidestep direct engagement with the basic principles and broader conclusions of radical feminist politics.

In describing your views before you adopted your current ideology around gender, you write that “we weren’t afraid of the people so much as we were afraid of the phenomenon. Why? Because if gender is a sex-class system, and that’s all it is, there is no way to explain the existence of trans women at all. That’s like white people trying to get into the slavery of the 1840s. If gender is a sex-class system, and that’s all it is, then the only “trans” should be female to male, because everybody should be trying to get out and nobody should be trying to get in – yet it’s the transition from male to female that is cited as troubling.”

First of all, if you had bothered to take a broader and more accurate view of Lierre’s gender politics and her writing on the subject, you’d have found that she does not only cite the transition from male to female as troubling. She cites the entire system of enforced stereotypes called gender as troubling, including the trans ideology that justifies enforcing the categorization of qualities and behavior, and presents cutting up people’s bodies to fit those enforced stereotypes as a solution. I do appreciate that you actually engage with some of her arguments, since most who choose to scapegoat her usually skip directly to threats and insults. However, your analysis of the two analogies you chose to address leave some things to be desired. You begin with:

“I am a rich person stuck in a poor person’s body. I’ve always enjoyed champagne rather than beer, and always knew I belonged in first class not economy, and it just feels right when people wait on me.”

This is only a reverse analogy, as you call it, if you believe that she is only intending to address the phenomenon of male people identifying themselves as female. You’re correct that this example, when applied to gender, is analogous to a female person identifying themselves as male. I do not believe that this fact lessens its illustrative power. If this “rich person stuck in a poor person’s body” tried to “transition” to higher economic status based on their inner identification with wealth, how do you think they’d be treated by actual rich people? Might the treatment of this person mirror, say, the treatment of a trans man trying to join a group of men’s rights activists (MRAs)? Here’s a better question: Even if this person was able to “pass” as wealthy by appearing and acting to be so, would their passing have any affect at all on the capitalist structures of power that keeps them in poverty in the first place? Would passing as wealthy in appearance help them acquire actual financial power? Would it retroactively grant them a silver spoon at birth and a BMW on their sixteenth birthday?

You reverse the analogy (“I’m rich, but I’ve always identified as poor, so I divest myself of my wealth and go join the working class”) and say that it’s less powerful that way. I disagree. I think that the reversed version is extremely illustrative of the flaws in your argument, and in liberal thinking more generally. You write:

“Who wouldn’t welcome you, if you really divested yourself of your wealth and joined marches in the street to increase the minimum wage?”

Do you really think that someone can divest themselves not only of their material wealth, but of their history as a wealthy person? I don’t know about you, but if a rich person voluntarily gave up their wealth and said to me “Hey fellow member of the working class! I’m just like you, and there is no difference between our experiences of the world,” I’d tell them to fuck off. Becoming penniless now is not equivalent to going hungry as a kid, struggling to afford education throughout your life, watching your parents pour their lives into multiple underpaid jobs, or having to decide between rent and medical bills. It’s insulting to suggest that someone can shrug off years of privilege and entitlement and safety at will. In large part, growing up with privilege is the privilege. The punishment meted out to males who disobey the dictums of masculinity (a punishment that is yet another negative effect of the sex caste system) can be severe, and of course it’s indefensible.  However, it is distinct from the systematic exploitation that females experience because we are female.

You go on to the second analogy: “I am really native American. How do I know? I’ve always felt a special connection to animals, and started building tee pees in the backyard as soon as I was old enough. I insisted on wearing moccassins to school even though the other kids made fun of me and my parents punished me for it. I read everything I could on native people, started going to sweat lodges and pow wows as soon as I was old enough, and I knew that was the real me. And if you bio-Indians don’t accept us trans-Indians, then you are just as genocidal and oppressive as the Europeans.”

You respond: “Maybe we thought gender was a ‘a class condition created by a brutal arrangement of power,’ and only that, but we would never have made the same claim about being native American. Why? It’s blatently reductive. It’s reducing a rich set of histories, cultures, languages, religions, and practices to the effect of a brutal arrangement of power – which is of course a very important part of it. But “being native American” is not merely an effect of power, in the way we thought gender was.”

Your objections to these analogies consistently prove the points that you’re trying to challenge. Of course gender cannot be parallel to “being native American” in this or any other analogy. Gender is parallel to colonial ideology in this analogy. More specifically, male supremacy is parallel to the colonialial power relation in this analogy, and gender is parallel with the stereotypes that colonialism imposes onto the colonized. The “drunk Indian” stereotype, or the image of the “savage,” only have anything to do with “being native American” because the ideology and practice of white supremacy was and continues to be imposed by Europeans on an entire continent’s peoples in order to exploit them. The female stereotypes we call “femininity” (domestic laborer, mother, infantalized sex object) only have anything to do with being female because the ideology (gender) and practice (patriarchy) of male supremacy was and is imposed by males onto females in order to exploit them. Of course it’s reductive to condense an entire distinct, specific set of experiences, the good and bad and everything in between, into a brutal arrangement of power – and this is exactly what gender does.

Gender takes the lived experiences of being female or being male and reduces those experience to sets of stereotypes. Transgender ideology retains those same oppressive stereotypes, but liberalizes their application by asserting that anyone can embody either set of stereotypes, regardless of their biological sex. This does not take away the destructiveness and reductiveness of the stereotypes, and in fact it reinforces them. The existence of outlaws requires the law, and maintaining an identity as a “gender outlaw” requires that the law – the sex castes – be in full effect for the rest of us. If “twisting free” of gender and the power relations of male supremacy is possible for a few of us, doesn’t that mean that those of us who fail to twist free are choosing the oppression we experience under gender? Perhaps we’re not trying hard enough to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps. How about other oppressive power arrangements – do the colonized, the racially subjugated, or those in poverty ever get to “twist free” of the power relations they live within? Do racial stereotypes, for instance, “take on a life of their own in the imaginary domain”? To defend gender as even occasionally being estranged from the machinations of power is to defend male supremacy, and to argue that any aspect of society can be apolitical is to completely ignore the ways that hegemony actually functions.

The only other groups of people who have argued to me that gender stereotypes are natural, biological, or apolitical, aside from gender-apologists, are fundamentalist christians and MRA’s. Forgive me if I don’t see how this is remotely progressive. This represents an adjustment in the rhetoric of patriarchy – not resistance to it. These stereotypes are not arbitrary; just like the stereotype of the Indian “savage,” or of the lazy (brown) immigrant, or of the freeloading (brown) “welfare queen,” the stereotypes called gender function to facilitate the extraction of resources. In the case of the “savage” Indian stereotype, the resource in question was and still is land. In the case of women, the resources are labor, reproduction, and sex, and the stereotypes (housewife, mother, infantalized sex object) come to match. It’s not an accident that these stereotypes correspond with the resources that women are exploited for. This is the purpose of gender. What does it mean that those in the academy almost universally embrace the idea that these regressive stereotypes must be reformed, justified, normalized, fetishized, idealized, and extended – but never challenged at their root?

I think you’re right that misogyny is not the conscious reasoning of every male person who begins identifying themselves as female. When I was a high school teacher, I had male students who were told by counselors that they were sick with “gender dysphoria” and put on hormones by doctors because they failed to live up to masculine stereotypes. These boys aren’t consciously out to invade female space – but they, and the abuse that they receive at the hands of the medical and psychiatric establishments, certainly aren’t poster children for why gender castes deserve to be rationalized or maintained. The fact that some males have a negative experience of gender does not erase the fact that structurally, on the macro level, gender exists to facilitate the extraction of resources from female bodies.  Gender is the chain, and male supremacy is the ball.  Just because males sometimes trip over that chain does not erase the fact that the ankle it’s cuffed to is always female.

I think you’re right that when you say that we “negotiate and take up and resist and contest or affirm these structures in profoundly complex ways and sometimes deeply individual, creative, and unique ways,” but it sounds like you’re using the fact that individuals have varied experiences to dismiss or minimize the reality of the larger structures that those experiences occur within. Individual experiences may not always match up with the larger structures of exploitation, but this does not mean that those larger structures become irrelevant. I also think you’re right that each of us “seeks a way of living, a way of having the world that is bearable.” But this does not erase the fact that gender, the stereotypes that it is composed of, and the exploitation it facilitates, compose one of the oppressive systems preventing us from finding a bearable, much less a safe or just, way of having the world.

You end your letter by, yet again, expressing a patronizing disapproval that Lierre has held the same convictions for thirty two years. I agree that we should constantly be seeking new information, new perspectives, and actively incorporating them into our politics. However, holding consistent core convictions isn’t always an indication of stagnation or dogmatism – sometimes it’s called “having principles.” Would you use this argument against others who stick to their political guns in the face of backlash and opposition? Indigenous communities that have fought for sovereignty for centuries?  The women who struggled through the generations for suffrage?

Putting radical feminist principles (like the right of females to organize autonomously) into practice comes with a cost. I and others have come to accept that cost after challenging, painful analysis of radical feminism’s merits. You dismiss Lierre’s radical feminism as an “uncritical” relic from a simpler time, but for me and others in my position, radical feminism has been a lifeline of critical thought. We grew up within a “feminism” that uncritically accepted the inevitability and the naturalness of gender, the neoliberal primacy of individualism, and ultimately, the unchallengeability of male supremacy. You characterize those who hold firm to feminist political convictions as fetishizing clean lines, simplicity, and the safety of familiarity. I’m here to tell you that my worldview was a lot simpler and more familiar back when I believed that gender stereotypes were voluntary, natural, defensible, inevitable, even holy. My life was a lot simpler and safer when I was content to keep quiet and continue parroting liberal nonsense. You’re right that individual experiences of gender differ, and you’re right that the situation is complicated, but complexity does not have to derail the fight against male supremacy on behalf of women as a class – at least, it doesn’t have to for all of us.

-Rachel

17 thoughts on “Against an Uncritical Embrace of Gender”

  1. Rachel: I read the entire letter; but honestly; I’d say I probably understood about less than 5% of it (if I am lucky and interpreted correctly that which I did think I understood).

    Perhaps radical feminists (whatever you mean by that) may find more support, if you could express your views more simply. Less abstract, more concrete and descriptive. Just a thought or suggestion, not a demand.

    1. Hi Lara,

      This was written as a response to one, specific piece of writing. The letter I’m responding to is written with rather academic language, and in order to address her arguments in kind, I’m forced to use some of the original writer’s terminology. This was intended to respond to an individual, not to make radical feminism as accessible as possible. There are other sources that make an effort to fill that role, which is an important one. If you haven’t yet, reading the original letter I’m responding to could be helpful in making this response more understandable.

      1. Rachel: yes I did read the original letter – also academic. I prefer simple responses to such academic abstract stuff; and assumed you were interested in people understanding your perspective; and that did not help me understand at all. But maybe I was incorrect in my assumption. I shall check your radical feminist for dummies page. Thanks.

      1. I had a look. Ugh… no way way too abstract for me to get a handle on what you are trying to say. Could not find any simple definitions. No big deal; I just wanted to try and get a handle on what exactly you mean when you say radical feminist; but its no big deal. I mean like really really really ‘duh’ simple any redneck hillbilly could understand.

  2. as a 68 year old mother/grandmother of daughters and granddaughters i want to say thank you …it is complex but i am starting to get it and am feeling more alive and radical than ever!

  3. Thanks for this, its brilliant and quite clear as far as I’m concerned. I am a radical feminist since the 70’s because nothing and no one has ever convinced me its gut analysis was wrong. Years of experience and observation have deepened my commitment. Your paragraph about how transgender reinforces and reifies gender is spot on. It must be frustrating for young radical feminist to so invisible because the of official gender studies ingestion of postmodernism and LGBTQQA male and trans domination.

  4. Very well written but here’s a little nitpick: focusing a response based on an out-of-context statement in order to misconstrue and dismiss a group’s views is called “attacking a straw man,” not scapegoating. Scapegoating is the opposite, where an individual is held responsible and the group is considered innocent (e.g. the low level guards at Abu Ghraib). Just pointing this out because your arguments are otherwise very compelling. Will be distributing this widely. Feel free to delete this — just wanted to point out the grammatical/usage thing in case you wanted to edit.

    1. I had never before considered that distinction or, apparently, heard the exact definitions of those terms! I’m glad to learn them, thank you.

  5. The “rich becoming poor” analogy is a great one actually. No one could deny that “Wealth” is a social construct – not a description of a natural or inherent property of the world. Just like Gender.

    Just like gender you can’t lose your history of being rich before. But just like gender, once you transgress the boundaries of the construct – whether through surgery or giving away your money, it would take a strong ideologue to claim that “You are still rich”

    It would take an even stronger ideologue to say that to be “poor” has always meant “poor born poor” and a fanatic to declare that “poor means growing up poor – and always has – if you become poor late in life you lack the (universal – unless anyone challenges us on this obvious falsehood) experience of growing up poor and can never really know what it means to be poor.

  6. Hi, very well-written response. The professor doesn’t seem to have thought through her metaphors at all. And how strange to attack someone simply for having long-held principles. I’ve held those same principles for at least that long. One lifetime, as you point out, is not necessarily enough to promulgate those principles, as happened with the suffrage movement.

    Wise statements: ” The norms of gender function to facilitate the extraction of resources from female bodies.” And, “The existence of outlaws requires the law, and maintaining an identity as a “gender outlaw” requires that the law – the sex castes – be in full effect for the rest of us.”

    As for transgender activists, I can’t understand why they spend so much energy verbally attacking radical feminists, when it is men who are injuring and murdering them and in general discriminating against them. I wish them a good and safe life, but that doesn’t mean I am willing to allow anyone to harm me by preventing me from gathering with other women in furtherance of women’s liberation. I do assert the right of women to delineate specific boundaries for our class/caste, based on historical oppression that continues to this day. That historical oppression is based on our reproductive capacities, primarily, and therefore liberation efforts focus on those who are part of this class.

  7. Thank you very much, Rachel, for your response to Bonnie Mann. I’m only perplexed by one thing: Is this the same Bonnie Mann who wrote the introduction/appendix to Mary Daly’s “Gyn/Ecology: The Metaethics of Radical Feminism”? What happened??!!

    1. She operates in academia, which has very few principled people who are willing to stand up against the prevailing liberal winds. Daly spent her professional life fighting those structures, and suffered for it. Mann lacks the courage or principles to do the same.

  8. Just felt I needed to throw in a few simple words of support. Keep on keepin’ on Rachel!!!!! This 47 year old woman thinks you are doing great things and is in awe of how you speak and write. You have taught me much! Thank you for doing what you do for women everywhere!

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