The kick-off of the second wave of feminism is often attributed to Betty Friedman’s “The Feminine Mystique “, which described “the problem which had no name” – a generation of well educated financially stable miserable women trapped in domesticity in suburban America. Reading that book nearly fifty years on, it now looks terribly dated – the problems of white middle class women, universalised with an intention to speak to all women; but nothing can be taken out of context. That book was a product of its time, in which the model of the suburban American housewife was held up as a model for the rest of America’s (and indeed the Globe’s) women to aspire to.
It was a universal, not that it accurately described all women’s lives, but that it described the hegemonic ideal of female satisfaction and fulfillment. A handsome secure husband, a nice house in the ‘burbs, filled with shiny, happy children. Only the dream that was being presented, once lived was a nightmare, creating busywork to keep themselves occupied and creating the illusion of a specialised “domestic career”, with women drugging themselves to cope with the boredom, monotony and alienation, while having unfulfilling sexual relationships to try to retain some kind of sense of identity. Although that book may have kicked off the second wave, in many respects it was still grounded in first wave thinking, the right of women to have a public role, rather than to be confined to the home.
What it did do, however, was get women thinking about their lives,their hopes and their ambitions, and moreover getting them talking to each other about them. Exploring what it was about “being a woman” that implied that domestic drudgery was your birthright, and sexual attractiveness your stock in value. And from that heady mix of shared experiences, the Lavender Menace was born.
The Lavender Menace
There had of course, always been lesbians, but as a political force, they burst onto the feminist scene in the 1970s….literally. At the Second Conference to Unite Women, a newly formed group called the “Radicalesbians stormed the stage, distributing the “Woman Identified Woman” manifesto to the gathering.
This was a reaction to the largely homophobic attitudes of the mainstream of feminist thought. The Redstockings – a well established feminist group – claimed that lesbians were trying to replace, dilute or even eliminate feminism, while Cell 16 claimed that argued that the point of feminism was to get women out of the bedroom, not just change the gender of their partners. Betty Frieden is credited with coining the phrase “The Lavender Menace” to describe these newly politicised lesbians, an intended slur gleefully taken up by the political lesbian contingent.
Several publications during the second wave linked heterosexuality to women’s oppression. Keodt, in “The Myth of the Vaginal Orgasm” suggested that the suppression of knowledge about the clitoris and its capacity for sexual pleasure was a suppression of the validity of lesbianism and consequently a binding of women to men in the belief that only through penetrative intercourse could they achieve orgasm; Adrienne Rich in “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Identity” identified eight ways in which male power was consolidated through heteronormativity and framed “lesbian existence” as a living challenge to the patriarchy. Mona Whittig in “The Lesbian Body”, possibly went furthest of all, stating that the concept of “woman” could only be conceived within a heteronormative framework, and that by adopting a lesbian identity, one could transcend the restrictions of “woman”, and become “not a woman”. Thus the challenge that political lesbianism brought to the table was a path for women (womyn?, wimmin?) to escape from the social role of “woman”, bound as it was to the heteronormative definition of “that which is fucked by men”.
As long as we cling to the idea of “being a woman”, we will sense some conflict with that incipient self, that sense of I, that sense of a whole person
The Woman Identified Woman
Within the feminist movement of the 70s, political lesbianism was contraversial. The end of the War saw the return of women to the domestic sphere and a consequent shoring up of heterosexual gender roles. In the 1950s, the lesbian gender roles of Butch and Femme, observable since the turn of the last century, had become solidified and enforced within lesbian culture. Many mainstream feminists, seeking to eradicate gender roles saw the identification of feminism with a community which had within it reproduced gender roles problematic. The new political lesbians coined the term “woman identified” to attempt to escape the baggage that the term “lesbian” had at the time. Insisting that the gender role-play of the lesbian community was a reaction to heteronormativity.
They clung to the idea that lesbianism, or more properly a refusal of sexual relations with men, was an escape from the gender role of “woman” , intrinsic to which was a subordination of women’s sexuality to the sexuality of men. Within certain sections of the womens’ movement, lesbianism became an imperative – a demonstration of committment to ending male supremacy, to quote Ti Grace Atkinson “Feminism is the theory; lesbianism is the practice”, a way of transforming “women” into “people”.
Essentialism and the Rise of Cultural Feminism
The increasing influence of lesbianism and “the woman identified woman” which saw seperatism, both in the sexual and public spheres as a political imperative, led on to the rise of “cultural feminism”. Starting in the late 1970s as political lesbianism gained a strong hold on the womens movement, existing practices within the traditional lesbian community, in particular the gender roles of Butch and Femme and the habitual practice of BDSM within the community, came under fire. Some attempted to explain this away through dilettante political lesbians – straight women who had embarked on lesbian relationships bringing the baggage of their heterosexuality along with them, polluting the lesbian community with heteromasculine practices, but both lesbian gender roles and BDSM practices pre-dated the influx of political lesbians and on the back of the Lesbian Sex Wars, cultural feminism gained a grip.
Cultural Feminism to some extent provided a bridge between lesbians and straight women by suggesting that it was not sexuality which was the key to a female identity, but women’s intrinsic nature. The “Fourth World Manifesto” produced by a collection of anti-imperialist women indicated the nascent emergence of cultural feminism. It positioned women globally as a colonised entity, not on the terms of territory, but of the body. It suggested that women were “naturally” anti-imperialist as war and domination was a male attribute.
Rather than suggesting that women escape the role of “woman”, the cultural feminists suggested that they embrace it as a superior entity. That woman’s essential nature was superior to that of men, political lesbianism was desirable as it centred around women, but not necessary – the critical element of feminism was to be woman centred, not only centred around an individual woman as a lover, but around the class of women – to prioritise their lost history and art. Probably the most influential statement of Cultural Feminism was Mary Daly’s “Gyn/Ecology: The Meta-ethics of Radical Feminism“. Written in a mytho-poetic style it extorted women to find their own culture within the patriarchy and rebuild it. To bypass male hegemony and immerse themselves in “Hagocracy” instead.
To those who are threatened…the presence of women to each other is experienced as an absence. Such women are no longer empty receptacles to be used as “The Other” and are no longer internalising the projections that cut off the flow of being. Men who need such projection screens experience the power of absence of such “objects” and are thrown into the situation of perceiving nothingness.
Throughout the 80s and 90s, cultural feminism, a belief in the inherent desirable nature of womankind and its suppression by patriarchy and male hegemony, was a strong current in feminist thought. The nurturing, caring and material values were seen to be an essential attribute of women, a product of their biological role as those who bring forth new life to be contrasted with an inherent male thanatos, which led to war, violence and destruction. It posited that there was an intrinsic nature to women, borne of their biology, which led to the nurturing social role which was ascribed. A form of female supremacy, that womens’ nature born of their reproductive capacities were suppressed by patriarchy and that the task of feminism was to (re-)assert control by women.
Thus, the suggestion that women should escape the designation of “woman” through lesbianism, was supplanted by a belief that they should embrace their feminine nature and the social role of “woman” as a desirable contrast to male supremacy.
Throughout cultural feminism ran a strong strain of transphobia, from Mary Daly’s assertion that transsexualism was “…an example of male surgical siring which invades the female world with substitutes” to her student Janice Redmond’s diatribe, “The Transsexual Empire”, the suggestion was made that trans women “raped female bodies” and suggests that transsexuals are modern day eunuchs, transported to the present to fulfil the traditional patriarchal role ascribed to them.
… eunuchs, to some extent, always attached themselves to women’s spaces and, most frequently, were used to supervise women’s freedom of movement and to harness women’s self-centeredness and self-government.”
Raymond asserts that “true women” (TM) are necessarily “encumbered by the scars of patriarchy that are unique to a woman’s personal and social history.” which leads to important differences between men and women as a result of “the total history of existing as a woman in a patriarchal society“. In the text, she references the biological differences of women which lead to their gender assignation and subsequent socialisation. In the introduction to the 1994 edition, reflecting the rise of trans gender discourse which was largely absent from discussions of transsexualism when the book was originally published in 1979, she emphasises the social conditioning over biological essentialism while retaining the position that only females can be considered “women”. In that introduction she also reviews Leslie Feinberg’s “Stone Butch Blues” noting disappointingly, that the main (female) protagonist eventually becomes “other identified” rather than “woman identified” implying that this is loss. Consequently the original ambitions of second wave feminism to escape the social role of “woman” by denying an essential link between that social role and biology was subsumed was redirected into shoring it up.
In 1990, Judith Butler’s “Gender Trouble”, explored not only how gender roles were constructed, but through an exploration of intersex and the multiple markers which comprise the declaration and assignation of people to the sexes “male” and “female”, suggested that sex was also performative, in as much that it was the declaration of the sex of a person which most properly determined whether they were male or female rather than any objective biological criteria.
Regardless of any fuzziness round the edges however, it must be recognised that there are still objectively the sexes of male and female and that each has a different relationship to the means of reproduction. While Butler’s views are interesting, and worth exploring the suggestion that the only proper means of determining sex is that which is declared has led to some sections of the trans* movement suggesting that if sex is declarative, then sex is properly declared only by the individual to which it relates.
The most notable advocate is Julie Serano in “Whipping Girl” who suggests that the best determinate for sex is neurological and gender is a natural consequence. While not wishing to dismiss Serano’s experience, such an assertion that the sex that one believes oneself to be is the best determinate of sex, is to deny the material differences between two particular types of bodies and the very specific differences in biological role that they play in relation to reproduction. Moreover the assertion that gender is a natural (although Serano considers it exaggerated) consequence of biology is, in its own way, as essentialist as Raymond.
Trans people have often been described as those whose physical sex does not match the gender of their mind or soul. … To say that one has a female mind or soul would mean there are male and female minds that are different from each other in some identifiable way, which in turn may be used to justify discrimination against women. Essentializing our gender identity can be just as dangerous as resorting to biological essentialism
The classic response to Raymond is “The Empire Strikes Back” by Sandy Stone. Written in 1987, it critiques the collusion between the medical establishment who acted as gatekeepers to the realm of women which trans women wanted to enter, whereby the official literature on what defined a transsexual was devoured by the community, who then replicated it in their interactions with the establishment, who then used it as confirmation of the righteousness of their reification of transsexuality. She looked forward to a post-transsexual future in which the compulsion which drives males seeking to be accepted into the community of women was no longer predicated on conforming to sexist narratives of what a woman “should” be.
Accepting that there is nothing “essential” about women which justifies the social role to which they are allocated means breaking the sex/gender link. At the moment, people are gendered from birth on the basis of their assigned biological sex. The first announcement of the sex of the baby sees a load of gender baggage being dumped. Verbally we use differential pronouns and words for male and female babies and afford them differential treatment. We teach them the gender that they are supposed to conform to, on the basis of their ascribed sex.
” There is every reason to think that the factors which are most influential in the formation of the habitus are transmitted without passing through language and consciousness, but through suggestions inscribed in the most apparently insignificant aspects of the things, situations and practices of everyday life. Thus the modalities of practices, the ways of looking, sitting, standing, keeping silent, or even of speaking (‘reproachful looks’ or ‘tones’, ‘disapproving glances’ and so on) are full of injunctions that are powerful and hard to resist precisely because they are silent and insidious, insistent and insinuating. … The power of suggestion which is exerted through things and persons and which, instead of telling the child what he must do, tells him what he is. and thus leads him to become durably what he has to be, is the condition for the effectiveness of all kinds of symbolic power that will subsequently be able to operate on a habitus predisposed to respond to them.”
Bordieu, Language and Symbolic Power
Just as compulsory heterosexuality trapped women into the box of “that which is fucked by men”, compulsory cissexuality traps women into the box of “that which has babies”. An exclusionary feminism, which rejects trans women on the basis of their biology, cannot escape this box, for as long as women and reproducers are synonymous, the differential treatment of social roles will persist on the basis of their reproductive status.
The original aims of the second wave feminist movement, sought to break the dogma that “biology is destiny” which was used to justify the confinement of women to the domestic sphere. Arguing that there was nothing inherant in a woman’s nature which made her like cupcakes and cleaning products, it sought to liberate women by elevating them to the status of “persons”, rather than to the sub-class of “woman”.
Political lesbianism, touted as a way for women to escape the social role of woman contained within it both a radical escape route, but also the seeds of essentialism. By arguing that androphilic sexuality was a necessary component of the social role of women, it suggested to women that they could escape the social role by refusing sexual relationships with men: to reject the gendering of “woman”, going beyond it to become a lesbian, out of the patriarchal reach.
The inclusion and prominence of lesbians within the feminist movement however led to gynocentrism, whereby the “woman-identified-woman” originally used as a euphemism for lesbian within a homophobic movement, offered a non-sexual woman centred identity. As such the “butch”, the most visibly obvious lesbian with a masculine coda originally vaulted became depreciated in favour of those who favoured “women’s values”. The issue became not that women were oppressed on the basis that the were socially constructed differently to men, or that they were differentially socially constructed in relation to men, but that women were oppressed on the basis that their differences were socially constructed as inferior to men.
The original construction of ”the transsexual”, as the definer of trans*, was most probably based on transsexuals being the most visibly obvious element of the trans* community, in that it was transsexuals who had most contact with the establishment, in particular the medical and psychiatric establishments, who constructed “the transsexual woman” in the patriarchal eyes of what they believed “a woman” should be. While other elements of the trans* community constructed their own identities within either gay or sexual sub-cultures without reference to establishment norms and were consequently more easily overlooked.
Until recently the assertion that “woman” and “adult female” were synonyms was relatively uncontraversial. The desire to “pass” as cis gender, saw trans wo/men meld into the gender roles that they had adopted, and as such the fear of being outed inhibited the development of a trans centric community. Within the LGB(T) community there was an affinity of sorts, a community of people who did not conform to the [sex=gender=sexuality] rigidity of the outside world. The alternate genders which had been constructed within the sexually deviant gay community dovetailed neatly with the deviant cross-gender expressions of the trans* community. With the increasing acceptance and assimilation of homosexuality, the trans* community were given both the confidence to explore a more public social role in a time when the “natural” link between sexuality and biological sex was being questioned, and also an impetus, given the increasing openness of the “gay scene” rendering them more visible.
The discussions over trans inclusion which started in the 1970s now resonate much more strongly within the feminist community, often bitterly. The fear that breaking the sex/gender link will see issues which are to do with the female sex and reproduction divorced, is cited as a source of concern, rather than as an opportunity for liberation.
Until now, the essentialist link between sex and gender meant that there was no conflict between fighting for the rights of women and fighting for the rights of females, for these were one and the same thing. Trans women, as living examples of the inessential character of the sex-gender link, provide a challenge to feminism. It asks us to look carefully at what the essential characteristics of “woman” is. Just as the Lavender Menance did 40 years ago. We concluded then that it was not an essential characteristic of a woman to be “that which is fucked by men”, and trans women offer us an opportunity to declare that it is not an essential characteristic of woman to be “that which produces babies”.
The answer is of course what makes a woman is the subjugation on the basis of gendering. The treatment that women recieve as soon as they are socially coded as such, and the assumptions that are made on the basis of their gender, the violence – structural and physical that is dished out to them, and the expectations that are loaded onto them, complete with cishet baggage of male sexual objects and baby producers.
We cannot fight against the social coding of women without fighting against its encodings of “baby producer” and “male sexual partner”. The moment that we accept that these are defining characteristics of women, we condemn women to their consequences: that it is natural for women to be fucked by men – any who refuse are devient; that it is natural for women to produce babies – any who refuse are devient, any who cannot are defective. By embracing these these attributes we are shoring up the patriarchal demands of women to fulful their destiny; by rejecting them, we are opening up the possibility for women to finally become people.