Trans Activism and Intersectional Feminism

This is a kind of half-thread/half-essay that I posted on the twits earlier today, and some people have asked me to repost it in an easier-to-read form.

So, here we goes….

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As many of you know, there was an act of vandalism by trans activists on an historic building where women were meeting to discuss the GRA proposals.

One of the posters the TRAs stuck up was this, which got me thinking (again) about the connection between trans activism and intersectional feminism.

intersect

When trans ideology first came on the radar (or my radar) around 2011/12, it came in a kind of trans activism/intersectional feminism pincer movement. This wasn’t an accident. So, my question is: what work is intersectional feminism doing to support trans ideology?

So, first off – CAVEAT. Nothing I’m about to say really has much to do with Crenshaw’s original thought. Intersectionality as an analytic method is basically unimpeachable. FEMINISTS – PAY ATTENTION TO HOW OTHER AXES OF OPPRESSION INFLECT THE THING YOU’RE LOOKING AT. As I say, unimpeachable. That’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about what I call ‘Tumblrized Intersectionality.’ And that’s not a method – it’s a dogma. In fact, it’s a catechism.

The first thing that’s really noticeable about that catechism, is how un-intersectional it is. It’s not about looking at any particular thing and trying to understand how all the axes interact. It’s a rigid set of views (pro-trans, pro-sex-work, anti-White Feminism TM etc) and a rigid point-scoring table which produces a hierarchy of who is allowed to speak and who must listen. According to this hierarchy, trans people are more oppressed than everyone else, and hence, their oppression must be prioritized over everyone else. In the context of feminism (and particularly in connection to the leveraging of the cis/trans binary) this produces the thought that feminism should centre the oppression of trans women over the oppression of non-trans women. That is, intersectional feminism functions to displace women’s oppression from the centre of feminism.

Pinkie

The second related thing is that intersectionality is used to bolster and reinforce trans activism’s efforts to undermine woman as a political category. We have trans activist’s argument that sex does not exist, and hence woman is nothing to do with femaleness, in concert with the intersectional argument that because of the intersection of axes, there is nothing meaningful about the axis of sex-based oppression in itself. This is just bullshit. It’s one thing to say that different axes impact women differently and we need to attend to that. It’s quite another to say that because of those different axes, there is nothing we can say about the oppression of women as a class. And note – this intersectional argument could easily be used to undermine all political categories. It hasn’t been. Funny that.

Thirdly, there is something utterly (neo)liberal about both intersectionality and trans activism as they are put to work. And what I mean by that is that while they are, ostensibly, using the discourse of structural analysis (oppression/privilege etc.), the understanding of that oppression is entirely individualized. Oppression isn’t a matter of a set of structural material conditions, and how those material conditions are held in place using certain kinds of discourse and certain kinds of attitudes. The material analysis has completely dropped out of the picture. Oppression is just a matter of people having bad attitudes (BIGOT! NAZI! INSERT-PHOBE-HERE! etc. etc.) And if we can just change (or bully) people into right-thinking, oppression will just disappear.

Yesterday, someone pointed me to this article, which contains a version of the poster that was used to deface Odd Fellows Hall. It’s a pretty interesting example of what gets lost in intersectional/trans discourse from a feminist perspective. The sociologist in question spends a lot of time talking about ‘doing gender’ and how that relates to inequalities, and to women’s inequality. But there is absolutely no recognition that the system of gender inequality didn’t just arise ex nihilo out of the ground one day, that it is motivated, and that is has something to do with the sex-based oppression of women, and with the extraction of reproductive, domestic and emotional labour from female people by male people. In obscuring the material and sex-based nature of women’s oppression, trans activism and intersectional feminism are working as one.

Lastly, intersectional feminism is doing very important work obscuring this central part of feminist analysis through the way it’s being used to discredit pretty much the whole of Second Wave feminist thought. This is being done by collapsing the Second Wave into the thought of ‘White Feminism TM.’ Now, if we go off into a long analysis of White Feminism we’ll be here all day. First, let’s just say, it is true that many of the present thought leaders of feminism are women of socio-economic and racial privilege, and it is also true that some of those women do not have great class and race analyses to go with their feminism. And that’s something that should rightly be called out.

That said, it is an absolute ahistorical lie that no feminist ever thought about this until a bunch of people starting pointing it out 5 years ago, or that feminism has always been a movement that was only interested in the things that bother middle-class white women (tell that to Dworkin or Firestone or Lorde, srsly). The Second Wave was a massive and diverse tradition – there was radical feminism and lesbian feminism and socialist feminism and environmental feminism and sexual difference feminism and maternal feminism and there was also, importantly, Black feminism and womanism. The negotiation of issues of race within feminism is crucial, complex, and often, not easy. But it has been going on the whole time (which is not to say we’re good at it, we’re often really not).

It’s worth here, for example, looking at Notes from the First, Second and Third Year – the magazines published by New York Radical Women, under Firestone’s editorship, from 1968 onwards. I’m not going to claim that the treatment of the relation between race and women’s oppression in these magazines is in no way, to use that now-almost-loathed phrase, ‘problematic.’ But I do think it’s important to note that it’s there, right from the start. There are articles on Black feminism by Black feminists (p21, Third Year), there are discussions of how feminist consciousness-raising involves understanding racial and class privilege (p80, Second Year), and there is, pretty interestingly, a critique (p106, Third Year), of the way left-wing men try to discredit the women’s movement by claiming it’s run by a “bunch of white, middle-class women.” So, that’s a new one then.

third year

My point here is not that intersectional issues shouldn’t be constantly acknowledged, discussed, and struggled with. My point is that they are being ahistorically leveraged by ‘Intersectional Feminism’ to position the entire Second Wave as morally and intellectually bankrupt and worthless. And that’s political, and directly serves the interests of trans activism – because it facilitates the wholesale erasure of the feminist analysis of patriarchy as a hierarchical system of material sex-based oppression. And that, strategically, is the point.

 

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3 comments

  1. Thanks for this excellent analysis. It’s hard work to thinkk a subject like this through because obscurantism and glossing is the name of the game. You make a difficult subject very understandable.

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