Still trashing

“Sisterhood is powerful. It kills. Mostly sisters.”

– Ti-Grace Atkinson

I was reminded of this essay today, first published in 1976. The author, writing in the middle of the Second Wave of feminist activism, describes in heartbreaking detail the long-lasting psychological damage inflicted on the women at the heart of that movement, by the very relationships that were supposed to nurture and sustain and liberate them. When I first encountered this essay, as an undergraduate with a vague interest in the history of the Second Wave but no direct experience of feminist activism of my own, I read it with a sort of bemused and detached fascination, unable to fathom how women could do this to one another, or what could explain these devastating dynamics. Today, having witnessed the latest round of brutal, relentless trashing of a much loved friend of mine, and having been subject to one myself only yesterday, the familiarity of it all makes it almost too painful to re-read.

There is some small comfort to be had from the realisation that none of this is new: that my generation is not uniquely unhealthy or dysfunctional, that we are not unusually incapable of demonstrating solidarity and sisterhood with one another, that these phenomenal, fearless, fearsome feminists whose writings and activism I admire so much suffered many of the same miseries as I do, and would empathise with my pain. But that is accompanied by a real sadness that in nearly forty years since Joreen’s article was published, we have made so little progress. We are repeating the mistakes of our foremothers. Another generation of bright, committed, impassioned women is being worn down. Being killed by the power of sisterhood.

All of the tendencies that Joreen describes still exist. We still trash women to their faces, as well as behind their backs. We still ostracise. We still denounce. We still give false reports about the horrible things other women have said or done. We still interpret each other uncharitably. We still hold ludicrously unreasonable expectations of each other and use these to justify anger and abuse when they are not met. We still judge one another guilty by association, and see friendships and relationships as a source of taint. We still join in the trashings of women like us, using them as a shield to deflect attention from ourselves. We still secretly whisper our support for today’s target via back channels, but say nothing publicly, for fear of being next in line. We still mask the real brutality of all this behind a veil of ‘legitimate critique’.

Of course now we have a whole host of new avenues through which to express these tendencies. We blog. We reblog. We tweet. We subtweet. We storify. We screenshot. We call out. We pile on. We mobilise our followers. We parody. We doxx. This trashing thing has got a whole lot more real-time, and a whole lot more inescapable. If you’ve been involved in online feminism over the past couple of years, you’ll almost certainly have experienced that surge of panic, the sickening dread and the racing pulse, as your phone explodes and your notifications go into overdrive, message after message tumbling in to tell you what an abominable human being you are. (We’ve developed a new irregular verb to describe what typically happens in the aftermath of these pile-ons: I take a twitter break; you deactivate for self-care; she flounces.)

Like Joreen, I am worried about airing our dirty linen in public – it makes me unhappy to think of the men laughing at us while they watch us tear ourselves apart. We’re all well versed in those sexist stereotypes about cat fights and bitchy women and “don’t you think that women are their own worst enemy?”, and we know that every one of these public trashings plays into and reinforces those stereotypes. But I want to reiterate the point that Joreen made in 1976 – nothing about this is peculiar to feminism. None of this is specific to women’s politics or relationships, and insofar as people think it is, it’s because they’ve accepted those sexist stereotypes, and have learned to dismiss women’s conflicts as hysterical cat fighting, while taking men’s conflicts to be indicative of serious substantive political disagreement. Many of these tendencies are exacerbated by the fact that we are women – our female socialisation often doesn’t prepare us for navigating conflict and disagreement smoothly, and our political marginalisation means we can be inexperienced at political organisation in comparison with men. (On the plus side, at least when we fall out with one another, nations don’t go to war). But the psychological and structural features that cause this political fracturing are present not just in feminist politics, but in leftist and progressive politics in general.

At the level of individual, what you find on the left are people who tend to be motivated by principle and conviction, and who have strong moral commitments underpinning their political stances. And so the kinds of women who are drawn to feminism are the kinds of women who have strong and firm political principles that they are passionately committed to, and that often constitute part of their identity and self-perception. For this reason, they are often unwilling to deviate from these principles in order to compromise with those who disagree with them. Since political principles are a matter of moral conviction and personal identity, many feminists, and leftists in general, would rather walk away from a movement, than water down their principles even slightly by cooperating with people whose principles are even marginally different to their own. This conviction – in conjunction with a large dollop of narcissism of small differences – results in an inevitable slide towards purity politics, as individuals become more concerned with keeping their hands clean and their souls of free of pollution, than actually effecting the real world change they claim to care about. And once your doctrine has become more a matter of personal salvation than a political theory, it becomes easy to see those who disagree with you as not just mistaken, but vicious, evil, dangerous. Denunciation and ostracism are justified, because the non-believer is a threat to the purity of the doctrine and to one’s own identity, and must be contained.

This combines with more structural features of the situation in which the leftist finds herself – namely, the fact that the system is so thoroughly unjust, the problems are so seemingly insurmountable and the change she wants to enact in the world seems so profoundly impossible to realise, that a form of despair and despondency sets in. Victory is so intangible and beyond the leftist’s grasp, given that the change desired is nothing less that the complete reshaping of the political and social landscape. As feminists, we want to end male violence against women, eliminate the exploitation of female labour, and abolish oppressive gender norms. These goals are a long way out of our reach, and victories often feel few and far between, so there’s not much opportunity for celebration, or the sense of satisfaction and gratification at a battle won. But while we can’t win the war against the patriarchy, we stand a reasonable shot of winning the battle against our friends. And whether we win those battles or not, we will certainly get a response of some kind; while the patriarchy remains unmoved by our raging against it, picking a fight with our sister over some small disagreement is guaranteed to elicit some kind of a reaction. No surprise then, that landing punches on our sister is a more satisfying and appealing option than continuing to flail helplessly and unnoticed at our mutual enemy.

So the result is that those on the left are frequently drawn to infighting and trashing, rather than working together to try to defeat their common enemy. And built into progressive politics is an ostensible justification for singling out a target, in the form of a deep commitment to egalitarianism and an inherent dislike of power and authority. One of the characteristic features of leftist political ideologies is a commitment to the equal distribution of power and the dismantling of established hierarchies, and feminism is no different in this respect – challenging male power over women, as well as challenging the power dynamics of race and class within our own movement, is essential feminist activism. But an implication of this egalitarianism and rejection of hierarchy is a creeping suspicion of any individual who obtains status or success outside of the movement. Any person of the left who manages to achieve some political influence thus instantly becomes a valid target for a trashing, because their influence (or ‘platform’) is seen as the kind of privilege the movement is dedicated to dismantling. For women, this is exacerbated by sexist stereotypes about the powerful woman: she is uppity, she is a ball-breaker, she is unfeminine and unfuckable.

So the upshot of all this is that any woman who demonstrates some talent and ambition and determination and tries to wield some power and influence in what is still a man’s world might as well be drawing a bullseye on her back. She is fair game for a trashing, because she has done what other women have not managed to do, and scratched out a little place for herself in this male-dominated environment. Nothing else can explain why so much more feminist vitriol is directed towards the handful of women with power and influence in the media or academia, than the men who hold the bulk of the power and the privilege. Never mind that she uses her position to help other women advance. Never mind that she acknowledges the role that luck and privilege played in her success. The woman with power and influence is fair game for a trashing, and will be accused of trampling on others on her way to the top, regardless of whether or not this is actually true. And in doing this, we are implicitly telling women that it is unfeminist to be successful, to hold power and influence, even if you might use that power and influence to advance feminist causes – the most feminist thing you can do is sit down and shut up. But the consequence of this is not the breaking down of established power. The consequence of this is that men keep hold of it.

I don’t have any solutions to any of this. I think these features explain why leftist movements in general are prone to internal conflict, fracturing and dissolution, and are part of the reason those on the left tear themselves to shreds, while those on the right just get on and consolidate their power. I also think that as feminists we are right to challenge established power relations and hierarchies, and to keep holding up our theories and our activism to critical scrutiny and reflection. But forty years after our feminist foremothers first wrote about this, we are still tearing each other apart, and our common enemy rejoices as we do. Clever, kind, compassionate women are being broken by this battle, and we will lose our brightest and best voices, as very few such women have the stomach for the endless, relentless trashing and character assassination from those on their own side.

Like Joreen, I’ve experienced this enough times that it’s damaged me psychologically, wounding me as a person and undermining my capacities as a feminist. Whether or not this is typical, I don’t know, but I’ve been the target of it enough times in the past that it now hurts me less when it’s directed at me personally; the thing that really hurts me now, the thing that causes me to shed tears of anger and frustration, is seeing it happen to the women I love. I’m not writing this to try to elicit sympathy and compassion. Nor am I about to end with a trite and simplistic call for solidarity and cohesion in our fractured movement. My guess is that you either feel the attraction of those kinds of ideas or you don’t; and if you don’t, no amount of anguished, despondent blogging is going to change your mind on that. I want to believe that despite our many differences and the multiplicity of experiences we all bring to the table, there is enough commonality among women to make us a coherent political class capable of working together and forming some community amongst ourselves.

If you don’t feel that about me, I respect your right to organise without me, and wish you well. But for my part, I hereby make the following pledges:

  • I will not participate in trashings, no matter how little I like the woman being targeted, or how much I disagree with her politics
  • I will assume good faith on the part of other women and interpret their position charitably
  • I will celebrate when a woman achieves success of any kind – and if I really can’t bring myself to celebrate, I will keep my disappointment to myself
  •  I will put the welfare of women and the progress of our shared goals above my personal purity

I expect this post will make me unpopular. Let my trashing commence!




A gender abolitionist in a non-ideal world

[I reproduce here a post I wrote wrote for a new blog run by some friends of mine. The Gender Apostates are a coalition of Women and Transwomen who believe in and are working together towards the abolition of gender. I wrote about why I believe there is nothing contradictory or hypocritical about gender critical feminists and transsexual women working together towards the goal of gender abolition. I’m proud and honoured to contribute to this project. Compromise and mutual understanding is impossible unless there can be open, good-faith, reasoned discussion about our differences and disagreements.]

It’s not an easy path to tread, being a gender apostate. As a feminist who thinks that female biology is real, that female socialization matters, but also that it is possible for male people to transition into the role of woman and therefore to live as women, I’m used to being unpopular. I’ve made my peace with the fact I’m simultaneously denounced both as a vicious exclusionary transphobe, and as a cowardly liberal quisling in thrall to men. So I’m not particularly concerned to defend myself against these claims. But I do think it’s important to explain, for those who may be in any doubt, why there is nothing inconsistent about this position I’ve arrived at, and why I believe there is nothing contradictory or hypocritical about gender critical feminists and transsexual women working together towards the goal of gender abolition.

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Standing up for all women: Statement in response to London Young Labour Summer Conference Motion 8

The London Young Labour summer conference takes place this Sunday. Among the motions to be voted on, motion 8 deserves particular scrutiny from feminists: it is titled “Standing up for sex workers’ rights, supporting the decriminalisation of sex work.” It is principally concerned with committing LYL to opposing the Nordic model. A number of feminist activists, academics and frontline service providers have collaborated to critique the claims and evidence offered in this motion.

As a feminist and a Labour Party member, I am publishing the full text of the document below and hope that any delegates attending the LYL conference will consider it carefully before voting. It is a detailed and thorough rebuttal of motion 8, and very much worth reading in full.

However, the conclusion is a particularly powerful explanation of why the Labour movement should never legitimise an industry founded in exploitative power relations:

as feminists we believe that women who sell sex are fellow human beings who operate under the constraints and limitations of all human life. Most of them are neither superior, sexually liberated entrepreneurs, nor weak and defenceless victims. They are responding to the demand created by men and catered to by pimps and traffickers (among others), a demand which can and should be delegitimised through the introduction of legislation that signals that sexual exploitation is not an acceptable “service” to purchase, even if the money exchanging hands seems to make it a “free” transaction on behalf of the class of people thus being exploited. The protection of those who sell should not be conflated with the legitimisation of those who buy. Those within the Labour movement who fail to distinguish or even acknowledge these two very different constituent elements of the sex industry, and who do not identify which holds the power, should explain their position better and more honestly than they have done in this motion.

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What I believe about sex and gender: part 6

How did we get here?

50. We have sleepwalked into a situation where the reality of female biology is routinely denied; the lived experience and the oppression of female-bodied persons is rendered invisible and unspeakable; and women are regularly harassed, threatened and defamed as bigots for continuing to insist that female biology exists, and female biology matters. Female-only spaces are under threat, as gender identity laws are enacted in many jurisdictions, granting any person the right to enter such spaces solely on the basis of self-identification as a woman. This leads to situations such as male-bodied, male-socialised persons having a legally protected right to enter female changing rooms, and rape crisis centres coming under attack and facing legal action for refusing to employ male-bodied members of staff. Lesbian women are criticised and accused of transphobia if they refuse to consider male-bodied people who identify as women as potential sexual partners. Children whose behaviour and preferences do not conform to traditional gender norms are being referred to Gender Identity Clinics and diagnosed with gender dysphoria in increasing numbers.

51. Any person who expresses unease or discomfort about any of this will inevitably attract accusations of transphobia, as well as potential threats to livelihood and even threats of violence. Many liberal, progressive-minded people – often men – who are not fully immersed in the huge complexity of this debate are willingly participating in the labelling of women as bigots and TERFs, and are perpetuating the idea that women who insist on the need for at least some female-only spaces are just nasty bigots who need to stop being unkind to transsexual women.

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What I believe about sex and gender: part 5

Political implications, continued

39. Women and trans women have some political concerns in common. Insofar as the injustices and oppressions that trans women experience are traceable to sexism or misogyny, as many are, they have common interests with women, and both groups would benefit from working together and organising together.

40. There is also some divergence in experience. Insofar as the injustices and oppressions that trans women experience are not shared with biological females, there may be a need for them to work and organise separately. On some issues – for instance, with respect to forms of discrimination and marginalisation traceable to transphobia, rather than sexism – trans women and trans men may have more in common with one another than do trans women and biologically female women, and so may benefit from organising together.

41. Some political issues will affect biological females only. These issues are usually of paramount importance to female persons. Reproduction, contraception, female diseases: these are only really issues of concern for biologically female people, and insofar as they don’t affect trans women, who are biologically male, it may sometimes be appropriate for them to be excluded from organising on this issue.

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What I believe about sex and gender: part 4

Political implications

29. People can and do experience oppression across numerous dimensions. The key theoretical insight and political contribution of feminism has been to highlight the various ways in which biological sex acts as an axis of oppression, and the ways in which living in a female body in a male-dominated society is accompanied by a range of injustices. Some of these injustices are directly connected to the material conditions of female biology, such as lack of access to contraception, abortion and obstetric healthcare, lack of research into and medical treatment for female diseases, under-provision of maternity benefits and employment rights, female genital mutilation. Some are less directly connected to female biology, but are a result of being read as female and living in the subordinate sex role, such as sexual and physical violence, sexual harassment, unequal pay, lack of political representation, unequal division of domestic labour, and many, many more. All are products of, and manifestations of, a social order organised to perpetuate male dominance and supremacy and female passivity and subordination – what feminists call patriarchy.

30. Sex-based oppression will intersect with other axes of oppression, including race, disability, and socio-economic class. So white women will be privileged in comparison to women of colour with respect to race, while being oppressed in comparison with men of all races on the axis of sex. We must always be sensitive to the ways in which various axes of oppression interact to produce unique experiences for different individuals, depending on the specific features of their identities. However, the fact that women of different races, classes or abilities will have different perspectives and experiences of injustice does not negate the fact that sex is an axis of oppression in its own right. Nobody suggests that because black men will have a different experience of racism to black women, this means that we cannot coherently talk about race as an axis of oppression. Feminism as a movement, and as a political label that individuals adopt, is predicated on the belief that there are some shared experiences among women, and that despite their differences and diversity, we can conceptualise women as a coherent political class. It makes little sense to refer to oneself as a feminist, if one does not believe that there is sufficient commonality and shared experience among women for them to constitute a coherent political class.

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What I believe about sex and gender: part 3

Trans issues and gender identity

18. While we will all experience unease and discomfort living under the constraints of gender to a greater or lesser degree, some persons experience this especially intensely and acutely, to the extent that they cannot tolerably live in the gender role associated with their biological sex. Further, a small percentage of persons experience what is usually called gender dysphoria but would be more accurately labelled sex dysphoria or sex dysmorphia, as it is a form of acute distress and discomfort caused by the experience of living in their sexed bodies. Although biological sex is immutable, residing in our chromosomes and expressed in physical and anatomical features, it is possible for persons with dysphoria to undergo treatment to make their bodies more closely resemble those of the opposite sex, and to enable them to live more easily in the gender role associated with the opposite sex.

19. Whereas the label “female” refers to a biological category, membership of which is fixed at birth and hence unalterable, the label “woman” refers to a social category. Being a woman is not so much a matter of having female biology, as it is a matter of being read as a person who has that biology, and being treated accordingly. What it means to be a member of the social class ‘woman’ is that one is read by others as female, and is treated in accordance with the gendered rules that prescribe feminine passivity and submission to members of the female sex class. The vast majority of persons occupying this class do so because they have female biology and so were inculcated into this class from birth, through the process of gendered socialisation. However, given that woman is a social rather than a biological category, it is therefore possible for biologically male persons to transition into the role of woman. Since being a woman is primarily a matter of being socially read and treated as female, it is possible for persons born male to undergo a process of transition, at the end of which they will be read and treated as female, and hence are women. This may or may not involve medical treatment in the form of hormone treatment and surgery. But what it will necessarily be is a process of social transition, which will involve, among other things, confronting and addressing the privilege that comes with being raised male and living as a male for a period of time. What such a process will involve and how long it will take are difficult and complex questions that will vary from case to case, and there is no simple or universal answer. But once such a process has been completed, those persons now occupy the category of woman, and it is appropriate and respectful to refer to such persons using feminine pronouns.

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