An old friend of mine has become a hard-line Radfem. Donna asked if we could stop and visit with her on our way from New York to Cape Ann (she lives in the feminist stronghold of Northampton), and she said no.
She said a lot more than no. She’d read Gender Hurts by Sheila Jeffreys and agreed with everything in it. I sat on the beach, surfed the internet, and downloaded a copy (see notes below). I wanted to understand what I was up against.
If you are unfamiliar with the Radfem perspective, this is my brief summary based on reading the book:
- Gender is a caste system constructed by the patriarchy to oppress women.
- Gender should be abolished.
- There are only two sexes – men and women. It doesn’t matter how you identify, what hormones you take, and what surgeries you have; there is no escaping your original genitals and chromosomes.
- Changing your sex (Radfems don’t believe in gender) is an illusion, a delusion, or a fantasy.
- Trans women are not women; they are men who claim they are women. They are out to destroy feminism and lesbian/women only spaces (by invading them and insisting on their right to be in them). Radfems believe that only “women born women” can know what it feels like or what it means to be a woman.
- Trans men are women who claim they are men. They have mutilated themselves to gain male privilege. They are unwittingly destroying feminism and lesbian/women only spaces (by leaving the community and taking their partners with them).
- Radfems do not recognize/use the terms gender binary, cisgender, non-binary, or genderqueer; you are either a Radfem or a dupe/puppet of the patriarchy. They consider the word cisgender to be a slur because they believe that women are by definition “women born women.”
- Women should choose, as a political act, to be lesbians or remain celibate.
Whew. Radfems are a small (tiny) segment of feminism. I would say fringe, but I know that many mainstream feminists also sit in judgement. They doubt the authenticity of trans women’s lives (without demonizing them) and think that trans men are butch lesbians who drank the Kool Aid. On a really bad day, when I am wracked with self-doubt, those thoughts cross my mind, but then I talk myself out of it. All gender identities are valid, including mine.
Some Radfems, called TERFs (Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists) by people outside their movement, are very angry and can get very ugly about trans women insisting that they are women, and especially at trans women who identify as lesbian. My friend falls into this camp. It is hard for me to reconcile my view of her as my friend with her view of herself as the defender of lesbian sovereignty.
Both of us were tomboys, both of us rejected the female gender roles that we were expected to follow, and both of us were lesbians. However, she is increasingly woman identified while I identify as both butch and trans. She recommended that I read Dirt’s blog (which is virulently anti-trans) quoting “Why not change the world instead of changing your body?”
I don’t know how to answer this question except to say that I have chosen to do both. I have also changed how I think about sex, gender, language, and identity. I am less rigid, more accepting, and happier because of it.
Notes: Normally I believe in supporting writers by buying their work or borrowing it from the library. However, in the spirit of Abbie Hoffman, you can download Gender Hurts here. Please be aware that it is a transphobic screed, but interesting if you want to know what Sheila Jeffreys really thinks. She lets it all out, including lots of half-truths and misrepresentations.
Jeffreys’ arguments are bitter and abrasive. It was hard to hold onto my sense of self in the face of all that hate. I’m sad that my friend believes it.
I also found three affirmative pieces that I think are worth reading on this issue: first an interview in Trans Advocate with Judith Butler that critiques Radfem theory, second Roz Kaveney’s review of Gender Hurts originally published in the Times Literary Supplement, and third “Erasing transgender women doesn’t erase gender” by Juliana Qian, published in Overland.