Are Trans Politics Feminist?

Are Transgender Politics Feminist? Can a movement organized to contest the legal, medical and social constructions of gender also advance a feminist politics centered on improving women’s lives? As trans studies dismantles the imperatives of the gender binary, how can we ensure its practitioners not lose sight of the long history of gender oppression and the continued existence of gender inequality? And why don’t transgender politics seem feminist to some people? As they say on Facebook, it’s complicated.

To hear the longer answer, come to my talk TONIGHT at the CUNY Graduate Center: Thursday, November 12, 2015 6:30-8:00 Skylight Room, 9100.  In addition to laying out the current tensions between trans politics and feminism, I’ll talk about oppositions  internal to each of these umbrella-like political formations and how they add to the confusion. I’ll be covering a lot of ground (quickly though), including: presumably settled debates between difference vs. equality feminism, women’s colleges, the language of abortion advocacy, misogyny, the difference between political projects based on recognition and those focused on (re)distribution, trans exceptionalism, the transgender umbrella, gender pluralism, and yes, of course, Caitlin Jenner.

Sponsored by the Center for the Study of Women in Society and co-sponsored by CLAGS, The Center for LGBTQ Studies.

The conversation, distilled

Feminist leftist: I dislike what Clinton has done in the past and her politics now. Let me be clear, I do not support her campaign and I will not vote for her, I will vote for Sanders. But I would like to point out that there is still a lot of sexism circulating around her.

Regular leftist: You’re wrong to support Hillary because she is a woman. That’s identity politics of the worst kind.

Feminist leftist: I didn’t say anyone should support her just because she is a woman. I just said misogyny still matters.

Regular leftist: You’re trying to silence me by calling me sexist. I will not be silenced. Let me tell you why you shouldn’t support Hillary.

Meanwhile, on the right: “…ruthless hag…”

Regular leftist: [Silence].


Some support Clinton precisely because she is a woman. When this conversation appears in their newsfeed, when they hear the regular left argue against her candidacy by saying misogyny doesn’t matter, it just doesn’t ring true to them. When they hear that no one should vote for a woman simply because she would be the first woman president, that we should vote for the best person, they are reminded of how sex-blindness has worked out for them in their workplace. These supporters have probably paid little attention to how her actual politics might affect women, people living in poverty, working people, potential victims of US militarism during a Clinton presidency, Africans (“We’ve got to get over what happened 50, 100, 200 years ago and let’s make money for everybody,” said Clinton about the continent). But any potential to change some of these supporters’ minds by talking about how Clinton’s positions would not be good for most women has evaporated. For them, the regular leftist has no credibility. Clinton’s campaign benefits from discussions of sexism and by its denial.

It’s really not so hard or labor intensive to acknowledge the continued presence of misogyny in politics. So why not do it? Given that effect of these regular leftists’ arguments might be to increase or consolidate support for Clinton’s campaign, those of a more conspiracy minded bent might wonder if some of them were on the her payroll. A less paranoid explanation: misogyny.

Disappearing women

In her most recent column, “Who Has Abortions?,” Katha Pollitt  says, “We can, and should, support trans men and other gender-non-conforming people without erasing women from the fight for reproductive rights.”  I agree.  I’ve got a draft of quite a few fragments and links for a long blog post on feminism and trans politics–on reproductive rights, on women’s colleges, on how TERFS have derailed real conversations about feminism in trans communities, and on the outsized role those on the trans-masculine side of the gender spectrum play in setting out the official gender line for trans politics. I’ve not had the time to pull it all together, so instead, I’m just posting bits and pieces.  Pollitt’s column today prodded me into posting the first bit.

But yes, I think Pollitt is right on this one.  Here’s part of her explanation:

The real damage of abolishing “women” in abortion contexts, though, is to our political analysis. What happens to Dr. Tiller’s motto, “Trust Women”? There was a whole feminist philosophy expressed in those two words: women are competent moral actors and they, not men, clergy or the state, are the experts on their own lives, and should be the ones to decide how to shape them. It is because abortion gives power specifically to women that it was criminalized. How did Selina Meyer put it on Veep? If men got pregnant, you could get an abortion at an ATM. Restricting abortion is all about keeping women under the male thumb: controlling women’s sexual and reproductive capacities is what patriarchy is all about. Indeed, that women should decide for themselves is controversial even now. Although the Supreme Court ruled decades ago that men were not entitled to be notified if their wife was planning to end a pregnancy, some polls show large majorities of Americans believe husbands have a right to know. Once you start talking about “people,” not “women,” you lose what abortion means historically, symbolically and socially.

I think it’s entirely possible to point out that it’s not just women who become pregnant and still keep in focus the bare political fact that abortion rights and access are gender issues, that it’s almost only women who get pregnant and who need abortions, and that abortion rights and access are under assault all over the US precisely because it’s primarily a “women’s issue.” Obviously abortion access shouldn’t be restricted by gender identity and providers should clearly communicate this in the messaging. Trans men need to know they can access to these services.

That said, taking “women” out of abortion rights rhetoric,  putting “vagina” on the list of unacceptable words, has the faint reek of misogyny.  Pollitt doesn’t call it by that name, but she writes:

But a feminism that can’t say “women”—or “vagina” or “sisterhood” or even the cutesy “ladyparts”— is cutting the ground from under itself. It’s not just about slogans like “the War on Women“ or “Stand with Texas Women, “ important as they are and challenging as it would be to replace them with gender-neutral language that carried the same emotional charge. How do you even talk about women’s being underrepresented politically, or earning less than men, or being victims of rape and domestic violence? In an era where politics is all about identity, as a tool for organizing and claiming public space, are women about to lose theirs?

It’s not just reproductive rights language that is fast being “de-gendered.” Women’s colleges are also being asked to get rid of that exclusionary category.  Many of us have long argued that women’s colleges need to admit trans women, regardless of the gender listed on their identity documents. And students who were admitted to women’s colleges as women and whose gender identity shifts during their college years need to be allowed to stay, and supported in their transition. But some of the discussions about changing who counts as a woman for college admission have morphed into an argument that everyone but cisgender men should be eligible to apply. Monica Potts, at the New Republic, says this is simply misogyny.

Feminist blogger and prison abolitionist Emma Caterine sees it differently. As she argues in a piece bluntly titled, “Trans Women are Not Agents of the Patriarchy”:

One of Potts’ main concerns is the push on women’s campuses to eradicate words like “sisterhood” from use. But this isn’t an example of trans activism, as Potts puts it, being “indistinguishable from old-school misogyny”; that’s just old-school misogyny disguised as trans activism. Trans activism fights to make a world that is better for trans people, and while trans men are an important part of that, the fight to make a place for themselves at women’s colleges has nothing to do with them being trans and everything to do with them being entitled men.

Trans women are on the precipice of being recognized as women at women’s-only institutions.  I don’t think it’s a coincidence that now is also the moment when those institutions are being asked to retreat from their historic mission of educating women.   It’s certainly not the intention of the activists calling for the all-but cis men rule, but the effect is to suggest that once trans women gain entrance, all bets are off, everything is up for grabs. The unstated but inescapable implication of all this–that trans women aren’t women.  That’s trans-misogyny.