You’ll totally wanna catch up – go catch up! Caught up? Good.
So this is all about whether or not so-called Trans Exclusive Radical Feminists (I’ll use TERFs hereinafter for convenience) should be understood as existing within a larger community of feminists and, by extension, whether the ideology or guiding principles of TERFs should be considered one feminism in a larger community of feminisms*1.
I think the only reasonable way to reach a solid conclusion on that question, if that’s all you care about, is to start out with a strong, specific definition of feminism which then enables an equally strong and specific definition of feminist. But I also don’t think that’s all we should care about. In fact the most interesting stuff here isn’t about the bare-bones yes-or-no question at all. Take this:
I’ll grant that they are “bad” feminists. But to say TERFs aren’t feminist is to sweep problems under the rug.
In general, I am wary of defining political identities in a way that restricts them only to “good” people. For example, if we define a “Christian” as someone who is morally righteous, compassionate and loving, then what happens when we find a Christian who isn’t? To say, “They weren’t a true Christian,” is to dodge all responsibility.
I am similarly suspicious. For instance, there are many ways in which the Jews who occupy the West Bank are not following Judaism. But if I simply declare them not Jewish, then in casting them out of my particular Jewish community I enable myself to ignore (or at least more easily ignore) the harms done by these folks who aren’t part of my community. If I wasn’t going to answer the question based on an a priori definition that is then applied to the particular case, this would be a reason to lean towards inclusion.
On the other hand, HjHornbeck has an observation which may be familiar to my readers and which I heartily endorse: many people who call themselves feminists don’t seem to be able to consistently relate any useful definition of “woman”. The definitions employed by some feminists change as circumstances and contexts change.
A certain amount of attitude in this way might be reasonable – say, if you’re using one consistent concept to determine what words you’re going to use, but choose the words differently depending on your audience’s familiarity with certain terminology. One would expect in this case that some of those definitions will be imperfect and thus create ambiguities that differ in different contexts. Taken together, these definitions can easily appear to be inconsistent even when the unspoken guiding concept remains unchanged.
However, if there is more than merely a confusingly shifting location of ambiguity that raises questions, if there is actual, demonstrable contradiction, it’s reasonable to ask if it’s possible to advocate for the good of women (or the end of sexism) while articulating directly contradictory definitions of “woman”. With enough contradictions, one can ask if the person simply knows too little about the topic to be called a feminist at all. One can hardly be a proponent of a philosophy which one does not understand – save rarely and by accident.
But I’ve argued here and elsewhere – many, many times – that very few of us are able to consistently use only non-contradictory definitions of “woman”. Doctors will speak of female patients to colleagues, then as women in health-education contexts. (Do “women” need pap smears every so often, or do “female persons”?) The contradictions in such definitions are often obvious when interrogated, but since the definition itself is rarely fully spelled out it is only the observant person who will notice that saying “Every woman should get a pap smear every X months/years” is a different statement than “Every female person should get a pap smear every X months/years.” Not only that, but the first statement is actually, factually false…unless you’re using a trans-exclusive definition. The second statement meanwhile is … actually, factually false if you’re using a trans-inclusive definition of “female person” that is common in certain trans-supportive communities.
Given that as humans we’re really, really fucking bad at using only non-contradictory definitions for “woman” and related words like female, sex, and gender, if we start kicking people out of the feminist club for fucking this shit up, the club is going to get really, really small. And it’s going do that shrinking really, really quickly. (
Of course, HjHornbeck has gone further, and doesn’t simply stop at inconsistency = not feminist, but that’s in the post Hj linked, which includes this important finding: “I have yet to see a single TERF with a self-coherent view of sex/gender. That’s because their “criticism” isn’t actually a critique, based on solid evidence and analysis, but a fig leaf to disguise their bigotry.” So perhaps Hj’s point is better expressed that inconsistency can and should be a reason to investigate further.
So the fundamental point of HjHornbeck is well taken, but what is the standard of ignorance or inconsistency that we’re going to establish as the threshold sufficient to establish feminism?
Nor is Siggy’s observation without its problems. Do we include Christina Hoff Summers within the set feminists on the basis that we have to include her in the community of feminism in order to prevent the risk of feminist complacency to the harms she causes? We might be suspicious of throwing people out of the club because we disagree with them, but surely ideological groups (rather than, say, groups established by the presence of physical characteristics like “all people with a total of two thumbs”) are nothing if they are not founded upon a certain amount of agreement to uphold a specific ideology. If two people each agree to uphold different ideologies, they aren’t in the same small-ideology group and may very well not be members of the same larger umbrella-ideology group either. So Siggy as well is using an important observation not in a definitional way, but as a test to decide whether further investigation is warranted.
Both Siggy and HjHornbeck are pursuing these more complicated strategies in part because they seem to agree (as Siggy directly asserts) that
we have a difficult task, finding a definition for feminism that includes TERFs, and yet excludes equity feminists
But the thing is that I’m not sure we do. I proposed in comments on Siggy’s piece that
If ending all sexism is your most important goal or at least one of your most important goals, and if you believe that feminism must attack sexism at its roots, then while you may hold any number of other values and fight for any number of other goals, you’re probably a radical feminist.
Embedded in this articulation of the identifying qualities of radical feminists is an unstated definition of a feminist: feminists are those who have as one of their important goals “ending all sexism”.
There are ambiguities between people in identifying the sexism (potentially) found within a given act or circumstance, but even allowing for these I don’t think Hoff Summers would be a feminist. While TERFs believe that sexism exists and we must act to end it, they do not identify as sexism some things that I identify as sexism (and vice versa). Hoff Summers*2, on the other hand, not only differs from me in the acts and circumstances she will identify as sexist, but she also believes that systemic sexism has been ended and that individual prejudice, to the extent that it exists, either should be allowed to exist (those forms of sexism which Hoff Summers should be tolerated lest – in her view – we implement a cure far more injurious to freedom than the disease) or need no action to end, as the unguided free markets of money and ideas will end any injurious sexism without overt or directed effort.
While I think anyone interested in feminism should consider the perspectives of both Siggy and HjHornbeck, my own view is guided by this: if you work to end sexism, you’re probably a feminist. You might be bad at it or a genius at it, but you’re some kind of feminist. If you work to end feminism, as Hoff Summers frequently does, you’re probably not a feminist regardless of how well you’ve articulated your theory of sex or your theory of gender.
Now the next questions are related to the exceptions: if you only accidentally work to end sexism, are you still a feminist? What if you only accidentally work to the detriment of feminism? Finally, what if you’re intentionally working to end feminism as we know it, but only to replace it with something that many would recognize as a better feminism? To be more specific, if you meet the minimal definition of a feminist but attack feminists who (you believe) are doing bad feminism, especially if in your view that’s a lot of feminists, but you only attack them to the extent that it is necessary or useful to eliminate a certain problem or problems from feminism, are your anti-(specific-)feminist critiques enough to remove you from the club? When Emma Goldman critiqued non-socialist feminisms, did she stop being feminist? When Audre Lorde critiqued white feminism, did she stop being feminist? What about Camille Paglia, is she still a feminist if she does believe that sexism still exists and still requires actual opposition but who seems to spend the majority of her time dissing feminists who believe sexism is more pervasive and requires more opposition than Paglia will concede?
Have at it folks.
*1: Few people like to wrestle with the utility of feminisms as a plural noun, but I think using it this way is incredibly valuable and in my experience helps people engage in certain neglected forms of critical thinking about feminism in a fashion similar to how the plural noun Christianities can help many people engage in certain neglected forms of critical thinking about the Christianity as a larger phenomenon as well as critical thinking about individual Christianities.
*2: In my limited understanding of Hoff Summers, though I’m not a fan and thus haven’t read her thoroughly enough to guarantee that my perceptions are accurate ones.