Oooh! It’s a Fiiiiiiiiiggghht, a NON-VIOLENT Fiiiiggghht on FtB


So there’s this great conversation about feminism and who gets to count as a feminist started by Siggy & extended by HjHornbeck right here on our very own FtB!

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.

 

 

Comments

  1. sonofrojblake says

    if we start kicking people out of the feminist club…

    The first rule of feminist club is you don’t get to say who’s in feminist club. It’s worth keeping in mind that the vast overwhelming majority of the public simply don’t give a monkey’s what individual feminists think. If it looks like a feminist and quacks like a feminist (or rather crucially, enough like one the average person is convinced) then, sorry, it’s a feminist, whether certain other “club members” agree or not. It’s not like there’s a membership fee. And crucially, if it doesn’t quack like a feminist, it’s massively patronising to think the average person can’t spot that without help. Steve Coogan did this 25 years ago: https://youtu.be/gV-kY9JuqDE?t=2m51s

    You have to trust people to judge for themselves.

    The “if you work to end sexism/end feminism” dichotomy is quite a good one, but it does implicitly recognise that 99% of the population, 99% of the time are not feminists. Here’s an addendum: “if you stop working to end sexism so you can spend time debating the ideological purity of other people who claim to be doing the same, you could be a better feminist”. The worst thing about being on the left is watching progressive movements eat themselves while the right munch popcorn.

  2. lumipuna says

    Now I imagine a brand of feminism called TERFEF, or trans-exclusive feminist exclusive feminism. How ironic would that be.

  3. Hj Hornbeck says

    It’s not a fight, we’re not fighting, I quite loudly roll over in that last paragraph:

    That may not be your opinion, and that’s cool! Whether we call TERFs bigots pretending to be feminists or bigoted feminists, we can all agree the stress should be on the “b.”

    Definitions of real-life things are hard, just ask any biologist, so I allow for a lot of play in the joints. Take your definition of feminism: “if you work to end sexism, you’re probably a feminist.” That’s great, but what is “sexism?” How we define that term has a dramatic effect on the definition of “feminism,” so you’ve effectively substituted one ill-defined term for another. It’s why I approach this sort of thing as a friendly table-tennis match.

    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.

    Shoot, I should have explained this point a little better. I don’t argue that having a consistent definition is necessary for being a feminist, instead working towards a consistent definition is the key. You can see this quite clearly with Judith Butler:

    Before Undoing Gender, Butler never addressed the T or the I (transgender and intersex) in GLBTQI in any sustained way. In turning her gaze toward what is unthinkable even for many gays and lesbians, Butler has continued to push against the boundaries of the field she had a large part in creating. Undoing Gender constitutes a thoughtful and provocative response to the new gender politics and elegantly employs psychoanalysis, philosophy, feminism, and queer theory in an effort to pry open the future of the human.

    Zavaletta, Atticus Schoch. “Undoing Gender.” The Comparatist 29.1 (2005): 152-153.

    Compare and contrast with this with TERFs. Confronted with evidence that their definition of “sex” is too simplistic, they discard the evidence rather than update the definition. Bigotry takes precedence over consistency, and we can exploit that to draw a dividing line.

  4. Pierce R. Butler says

    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”.

    And it still leaves totally assumed and undefined whatever one might mean by “radical”.

  5. Hj Hornbeck says

    sonofrojblake @1:

    If it looks like a feminist and quacks like a feminist (or rather crucially, enough like one the average person is convinced) then, sorry, it’s a feminist, whether certain other “club members” agree or not.

    What does a feminist look like? There must be some sort of division between them and non-feminists, otherwise we’d have no way to tell them apart from non-feminists. This sentence amounts to “feminists must be feminists,” which isn’t terribly helpful.

    Bear in mind there are different audiences here, too; it’s entirely possible for multiple definitions of “feminism” in be in play, some of which are synonymous and some of which are not. My hope is that we can all converge on a single consistent definition, and we can’t get there without a little friendly debate on those definitions.

    lumipuna @3:

    Now I imagine a brand of feminism called TERFEF, or trans-exclusive feminist exclusive feminism. How ironic would that be.

    Amusing story: back in the day I read a TERF arguing that all radical feminists were TERFs, because there was no such thing as a “TIRF” or trans-inclusionary radical feminist.

    I’m a mental arty queer glamour nerd. 🖍🌈💅🤓 I’ve invented the term “TIRF” (Trans Inclusionary Radical Feminist) because TERFs can fight me.

    Whoops. It also rather misses the point, because we already had a term for radical feminism that includes trans* people: “radical feminism.” Likewise, “TERFEF” comes across as unnecessarily baroque when we can use “TIRF” or “feminism” instead.

    I think there’s a bit of confusion over the term “exclusive,” too. TERF does not mean that trans* people are excluded from the category “radical feminists,” in reality TERFs are quite fond of their quislings. No, the “E” in TERF stands for a denial of the existence of gender identity, typically expressed as excluding trans* women from the category “woman.” This is quite different from the exclusion that happens when crafting a definition.

  6. says

    @Hj Hornbeck:

    It’s not a fight, we’re not fighting, I quite loudly roll over in that last paragraph:

    I apologize: I use sarcasm in quantities almost as large as I use garlic, so I thought it was understood that I was being facetious. Of course we’re not fighting. We’re having a really, really good and useful discussion and I wanted to contribute to that. My sarcasmic nature, however, wouldn’t allow me to do so without adding a little facetious humor.

    “if you work to end sexism, you’re probably a feminist.” That’s great, but what is “sexism?” How we define that term has a dramatic effect on the definition of “feminism,” so you’ve effectively substituted one ill-defined term for another.

    Yes! Exactly! Now we get to have an interesting and helpful conversation about the nature of sexism!

    It also rather misses the point, because we already had a term for radical feminism that includes trans* people: “radical feminism.”

    Well… sort of. Radical feminism – unqualified – would appear to include trans* folks. However in the same vein “feminism” is nominally inclusive of women of any race, but in practice if there’s no information to be found about how sexism manifests in Black communities or how white communities target Black women with different strategies than they target white women, then nominal inclusion is all you’ve got. At that point the creation of something like womanism becomes necessary. This new feminism is “inclusionary” (I would say “inclusive”) not in a token/default way the way that women firefighters of the 1970s were told “fireman” is already inclusive, but in a way that actually articulates the specific experiences of Black and other racialized women. A trans-inclusive radical feminism that is parallel to womanism is not the default state of radical feminism. Although I would also argue that we’ve been using the term “transfeminism” for over 2 decades now, and “radical transfeminism” makes more sense in many ways than TIRF, there was a specific point being made by the coiner of TIRF that easily can justify using that term in particular contexts.

  7. says

    In my reading of HJ, he was saying that feminism should have some sort of ideological test. TERFs are not feminists, because their ideas and actions are too far away from the feminist ideal.

    Part of the problem with this, is that seems to leave little room for feminists to make major mistakes. e.g. if Crip Dyke says something that I think is really wrong, I’d like the ability to criticize that without calling into question her feminism. So now enters Crip Dyke’s definition of feminism, which is not based on an ideological test, but based on working towards feminist goals. This correctly rules out Sommers, who definitely isn’t working towards feminist goals. As for TERFs, IMO there’s an open question of whether they’re working towards feminist goals and are just really bad at it, or if they’re working towards different goals entirely.

    I think my definition is rather different. It’s not based on holding any set of ideas or goals, it’s based on closeness to the feminist tradition. In some ways this is similar–if someone is too far away from feminist ideology, or isn’t even trying to fight sexism, then clearly they aren’t very close to the feminist tradition. On the other hand, I would say that if you took Andrea Dworkin’s ideas and dropped them into ancient Egypt, they would not count as feminist because there’s no continuity with the 20th century feminist tradition.

    Now here’s another proposal, a bit of a compromise. You could say that feminism is defined by closeness to a particular set of ideas or goals. But I doubt that, given all the feminist thinkers in the world, we’d be able to agree on a list of essential ideas/goals. So my proposal is that in order to judge between different definitions of feminism, we should be looking towards the tradition of feminism. That is, we look at feminist communities, we look at the history of feminism, and we say that a good definition of feminism is consistent with those things.

  8. Hj Hornbeck says

    Crip Dyke @8:

    I apologize: I use sarcasm in quantities almost as large as I use garlic, so I thought it was understood that I was being facetious.

    My bad, I’m usually decent at spotting sarcasm. At least I got to share my favourite lines from the post.

    However in the same vein “feminism” is nominally inclusive of women of any race, but in practice if there’s no information to be found about how sexism manifests in Black communities or how white communities target Black women with different strategies than they target white women, then nominal inclusion is all you’ve got. At that point the creation of something like womanism becomes necessary.

    Excellent point. Thankfully, I haven’t seen much invocation of “womanism” except as a subset of feminism, which suggests mainstream feminism may ever-so-slowly be shedding its racism. But I still agree that terms like “transfeminism” and “womanism” are useful, for when “feminism” fails to be as inclusive as it should be.

  9. Hj Hornbeck says

    Siggy @9:

    In my reading of HJ, he was saying that feminism should have some sort of ideological test. TERFs are not feminists, because their ideas and actions are too far away from the feminist ideal.

    Not quite, no. My definition is focused more on procedure than assertions. Let’s walk through your example:

    Part of the problem with this, is that seems to leave little room for feminists to make major mistakes. e.g. if Crip Dyke says something that I think is really wrong, I’d like the ability to criticize that without calling into question her feminism.

    Under my definition, Crip Dyke would still be a feminist if you said something wrong, and even as you critiqued her. Where that label could be revoked is when she deals with the critique: if she updates her existing beliefs and comes to a more consistent and complete understanding of sexism, she’s still a feminist. If she rejects your critique without consideration, we’re justified in yanking the label.

    This approach has quite a few advantages. It’s future-proof, so that if new types of sexism are discovered there’s no need to build consensus on a new ideological checklist. It’s also past-consistent, so feminists who didn’t know of this type can still be called feminists. It doesn’t require you to know all forms of sexism to be a feminist, so long as you don’t cross paths with that form.

    Of course, this also creates a very large tent to hang out under. Someone could legitimately be considered a feminist so long as they nothing about gender identity, and thanks to intersectionality could wind up causing more harm than good. Fortunately, our information age helps defeat the ignorance problem; it’s implied by the label that TERFs have been introduced to gender identity, and if I can bring up dozens of essays by trans* people within minutes I cannot stay ignorant of what it means unless I deliberately reject the information on offer.

    This definition is also quite science-y and rationalist, and that alone could be enough for most feminists to reject it. Nonetheless, most feminists would include activism, listening to others, and an openness to being wrong as core parts of feminism, all of which amount to an informal version of my definition. Again, I don’t see that as a major problem.

    What is a major problem is the problem of intent. Your status as a feminist depends on the state of your mind and what we define “sufficient evidence” as, so it’s quite possible for you to be satisfied that Crip Dyke is still a feminist, post-critique, while I claim she’s lost the label. “Feminism” will perpetually be fractured and ever-shifting under this definition, and may even regress. A definition of feminism that includes an ideological checklist fares far better here, as does your pseudo-genetic definition.

  10. lumipuna says

    Hj Hornbeck: I guess I meant that being merely trans-inclusive feminist is subtly different from pronouncing that TERFs are not really feminists, which would parallel the TERF tenet that trans women are not really women.

    I don’t really mean there should be a name for this TERF-exclusionary thought in femnism. TERFs themselves don’t seem to much care about their inclusion in feminism, as far as I’ve seen.

  11. anon1152 says

    I’m excited by these debates (I guess I can’t call it a “fight” now) and am trying to catch up. It might never happen so I should probably say nothing. But if I do say something I don’t know which of the three blogs to say it on. I wish there were some way all of these sentences and paragraphs could be easily cross-referenced.

  12. anon1152 says

    For some reason I feel safer on this blog (hm… are those famous last words?).

    Hj Hornbeck @11
    “If she rejects your critique without consideration, we’re justified in yanking the label. “

    What if she rejects the critique with/after extensive consideration?

    Do you think that if we just got clear on how we defined our terms and the basic rules of logical reasoning, we’d have no disagreement?

    Sometimes I get the impression that you think this. That if only we see the basic facts and clearly think through it we’d all agree on what’s right. I totally feel that way… at least when I’m arguing some point. If only you understood me you’d agree with me! I’m bending over backwards to help you understand. You still disagree! You disagree even more vehemently than in the beginning! You’ve clearly rejected all sense and reason! …and the other person/side has the same thoughts.

    But at other times I get the impression that you would agree with me when I say that we might agree on all of the basic facts and rules of reasoning and STILL have strong disagreements. Rawls said something about this… “the burdens of judgement”. I don’t have my books with me anymore so I can’t find the exact reference but if I had my copy of “Justice as Fairness” nearby this comment would be longer… or nonexistent.

  13. anon1152 says

    Hj Hornbeck @11
    A method that’s future proof and past consistent is appealing. But now what about the present (which was the past and is the future)?

    That sounds like gobbledygook. Let me try again, one step at a time.

    Are you saying that someone with a set of clear/strong beliefs could be considered a feminist in the past, but definitely not a feminist (perhaps the opposite) in the present/future?

    Could you answer simply “yes” or “no” to that question/sentence? If not, how would you change the sentence so that you could give a simple “yes” or “no” answer? (Is my sentence/question so garbled/crazy that it can’t be changed and has to be deleted and rewritten?)

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