TERF Wars, Boundary Settings and Sisterhood

Right now the feminist movement is tearing itself apart over theoretical differences in the way that sex and gender are constructed.  I have my own views on that construction, but that isn’t the point of this post.  This is a plea for all feminists to get back to the main point of feminism – patriarchy smashing.  I appreciate that there are different ways in which people may think that patriarchy smashing is best done, but the venom with which women are attacking each other over this matter is deeply depressing.   Teh menz have a vested interest in seeing this continue, for as long as we are attacking each other, they can sit back and watch the show, maybe giving one or other of the sides a little prod from time to time.

In May, another battle in this war erupted at the “Law and Disorder Conference” in Portland, USA.  Much heat and little light has surrounded this incident.  But from piecing it together from various sources what appears to have happened is that some of the participants took exception to some of the contents of material being displayed on the Deep Green Resistance stall; defaced it and in the process ended up scribbling over one of the stallholders’ hands.  In the history of left-wing interfighting this was hardly Kronstadt, but the tinder is dry within the feminist movement and one small spark can generate an awful lot of flame wars.

The position DGR takes is one which some sections of the Radical Feminist tradition follow, that females must necessarily, and by definition, be women and males must necessarily, and by definition, be men.  Not all Radical Feminists follow that line, but it is a very vocal current within the Radical Feminist movement.  Conversely, a substantial section of the feminist movement  – possibly the majority – disagree, and accept that sex and gender are not necessarily entwined.  The third section couldn’t give a flying fuck about it all and just retreat into spaces where no-one asks what precise genitalia others fighting the patriarchy have – they tend to bypass the issue by welcoming men into the feminist movement in a neat little sidestep, mainly – in my opinion – because they are sick of the infighting.

The latest TERF war has just erupted within the Glasgow Feminist Network.  Where the administrator positions of an online group were unilaterally taken over by radical feminists who were unhappy that some of the blatent transphobia on its page were being deleted.  Rather than discuss or debate, they effectively enacted a coup – seizing control of the space from the established organisers, claiming that they were reinvigorating it.

The trans exclusive radical feminist position that female and women are synonyms is not a universal within radical feminist theory.  Shulamith Firestone in the classic “Dialectic of Sex” actively looks forward to the day when trans sexual families raise no eyebrows and considers…

“…the end goal of feminist revolution must be…not just the elimination of male privilage but of the sex distinction itself: genital differences between human beings would no longer matter culturally.”

Shulamith Firestone, The Dialectic of Sex

Additionally, there is a strain of radical feminist thought – particularly in political lesbianism which does not consider lesbians women, but as a different, specific, gender of “lesbian”.

In so far as the virtuality “woman” becomes reality for an individual only in relation to an individual of the opposing class – men – and particularly through marriage, lesbians, because they do not enter this category, are not “women.”  Besides, it is not as “women” that lesbians are oppressed,but rather in that they are not “women.” (They are, of course, not “men” either).  And it is not “women” (victims of heterosexuality) that lesbians love and desire but lesbians

Monique Whittig, Paradigm

Consequently the minimalist definition of woman is cishet women only – the maximalist definition of woman includes women of all sexes and sexual orientations, with many permutations of sex and sexuality inbetween.  Additionally, cisnormativity and heteronormativity both impact on non-cis and/or non-het women.  The only logical way round this is caucusing – to have overarching organisations where people respect the maximalist position of women, yet within it to accept that there are those who wish to organise in a separate manner, in the hope that they can be respectful in a maximalist space.

There is a validity in a female only women only space, as an intersection between the dual oppressions of having a female sex and a gender of woman, although not, it has to be said in unilaterally taking over an inclusive space that many women have worked hard to build.  Despite the transphobia which calls for a female women only space are usually based on, it is none the less worthwhile as a means of stopping the terf wars, through which women are leaving the feminist field in droves, battle scarred and weary.

Such female women spaces could start to explore what it means to be a female woman – for example, to experience pregnancy in a body which is sexually objectified.  There will be trans hostility, something which has gone on this long and has been this divisive will not simply disappear overnight, however a refocusing on what unifies female women within an exclusive space may be one way to explore how sex and gender both interact and differ, rather than a continual attack mode on other women and perhaps some heat can be taken out of the atmosphere to allow more light to get through.

And then all women can get back to what we should be doing all along – smashing the patriarchy with as many tools as we can muster and from every angle we can find.

Sisters is probably the most competitive relationship within the family, but once the sisters are grown, it becomes the strongest relationship.

Margaret Mead



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