For your perusal, a new Gender Workshop post by Crip Dyke. Herein we discuss how feminists, in particular Katha Pollitt, can fail to recognize feminism when it comes in the form of transfeminism. The readers themselves will have to judge the applicability of the title. For more active exercises in the workshop series, this here is a link back.
CaitieCat, a regular commenter here, recently brought to my attention this article, which discusses trans* persons’ reproductive rights in the context of feminist reproductive rights activism.
Along the way, it mentions a recent Katha Pollitt piece in the Nation. Together, these pieces have created a good opportunity to explore transfeminism’s role in current feminisms.
Transfeminism, as I have defined it in my teaching, is the integration of feminism into trans* advocacy simultaneously and in coordination with the integration of trans* advocacy into feminism. It is of necessity something that is often labeled “intersectional feminism” (though we’ll critique that in another post). Here I won’t go much further into what transfeminism is. Rather, we’ll take a look at how current feminism demonstrates the need for a strong transfeminist response.
It is important to acknowledge that trans* advocacy has every bit the same potential for sexism and sexist misogyny that feminism has for cissexism and cissexist loathing of trans* folk. It is inevitable that in a world of many, many trans* folk, some of these/us (even most of these/us) will have engaged in deeply misogynistic and sexist actions. Therefore we can’t dismiss feminist critiques of trans* activism or advocacy out of hand, however understandable that might be for those of us who waited a decade for “The Empire Strikes Back.” The need for transfeminist responses to trans* advocacy is also real, if not at all demonstrated by the reproductive rights writings we’re discussing today.
Neither, however, should we assume any feminist critique in this new, intersectional age as an advanced form that has successfully thrown off the legacies of Mary Daly, Janice Raymond, and other anti-trans* feminists of the existentialist sort. No, intersectional feminism is not synonymous with feminism done well, nor with feminism that re-centers the marginalized.
Pollitt’s article will be our starting place, our prime example, and our focus in exploring feminism that isn’t done particularly well. In her essay, she struggles with a growing trend to frame reproductive rights as issues of concern to multiple genders, in particular as a response to trans* criticisms. She begins:
Who has abortions? For most of human history, the answer was obvious: women have abortions. Girls have abortions. Not any more. People have abortions. Patients have abortions. Men have abortions. …
…Such claims may sound arcane to most people. One area in which they have been quietly effective, though, is in reproductive-rights activism. …
…[A number of] [a]bortion funds, which offer help paying for an abortion when Medicaid or insurance won’t …have quietly removed references to “women” from their messaging in order to be more welcoming to trans men and others who do not identify as women but can still become pregnant.
I appreciate Katha Pollitt’s obvious and open struggle. However, it soon becomes very, very clear that she is dramatically missing the point. Citing incidents like a particular twitter exchange around Night of A Thousand Vaginas but without ever actually quoting the crucial claims (this lack itself showing feminism at less than its best), Pollitt takes an introduction factually observing a trend in the language of service providers attempting to ease barriers for the marginalized and turns it into a trans* led war of absurdity.
The following paragraph shows Pollitt beginning to leave sound footing. It is full of good things and some seriously intense wrong:
I’m going to argue here that removing “women” from the language of abortion is a mistake. We can, and should, support trans men and other gender-non-conforming people. But we can do that without rendering invisible half of humanity and 99.999 percent of those who get pregnant. I know I’ll offend, hurt and disappoint some people, including abortion-fund activists I love dearly. That is why I’ve started this column many times over many months and put it aside. I tell myself I might be wrong—it’s happened before. “Most of the pressure [to shift language] comes from young people,” said one abortion-fund head I interviewed, whose fund, like many, has “Women” in its name. “The role of people in our generation is to give money and get out of the way.” (Like many of the people I interviewed for this column, she asked to remain anonymous.) Maybe in ten years, it will seem perfectly natural to me to talk about abortion in a gender-neutral way. Right now, though, it feels as if abortion language is becoming a bit like French, where one man in a group of no matter how many women means “elles” becomes “ils.”
First the good: she’s right that removing “women” from the language of abortion is a mistake. Even better, it’s generous and helpful that she identifies feelings of un/naturalness as a central issue.
However the bad much outweighs this, especially as Pollitt seems unaware of the importance of identifying the fact that discussing some people is “natural” and discussing other people is, presumably, “unnatural” for her [and, though she doesn’t say so, for many other feminists]. Saying “people” is not the same as saying, “ils”. Fighting the entire divide between elle and il is not an anti-feminist fight to invisibilize people. Pardon my French, but I’m old enough to recall a time when gendered words much more closely related to “ils” were the targets of feminist campaigns for replacement with “people” and its non-gendered synonyms. Moreover, “woman” and “women” haven’t been removed from “the language of abortion”. Based on the sources we have from Pollitt, they’ve been removed from the language of abortion eligibility.
Based on her writing here and elsewhere, I’m sure Pollitt would decry the denial of abortion or abortion funds on the basis of (trans)gender. Her concern then isn’t with the correct use of a gender neutral. No, her concern is also her greatest error: she thinks this effort invisibilizes women. Of course it doesn’t. For one, the vast majority of people will go on making the same cissexist assumptions about abortion as Pollitt for many years to come. For another, women are much more frequently an unquestioned component of “people” than trans* folk. (Witness the ubiquitous, trans*-hating insult “it”.)
To the extent it invisibilizes anything (and, really, this is a marginal argument at best because of the current cissexist assumptions of the general audience), it renders invisible the fact that risks of pregnancy are sexed, and given the way that gender is imposed on the basis of sex, those risks are also gendered. This is a fact about the gender system. It is not a person. The women getting abortions aren’t invisibilized by talking about people getting abortions. They are rendered visible by same.
If, however, one is concerned about the somewhat-marginal elision of this fact as it occurs on the websites and eligibility forms of certain providers, critique the elision. The problem here is that Pollitt can’t: the same providers that care enough about gendered and sexed discrimination to empathize with the plight of trans* folk and who have sufficient facility with language to recognize and respond to gendered omissions are exactly the same groups that are perfectly able and motivated to discuss the realities of sex- and gender- disparities in power, wealth, and health. I certainly do.
This truth, however, is insufficient to justify Pollitt’s nebulous anxiety; that anxiety sufficient to make her unable to distinguish between a shift toward gender neutral inclusion when gendered words constitute a service barrier and a supremacist default to the importance of masculinity. So, instead of discussing the actual implications of the particular arguments made by trans* folk discussing reproductive rights and reproductive services – and how those arguments are limited by their context – she leaps from the provider’s office to the picket line:
From the perspective of providing care, I understand it. “The focus should be on access,” NYAAF board member Rye Young told me over the phone. The primary purpose of abortion funds is to provide immediate financial and other help to individuals in crisis, whom funders usually know only as voices on the phone. If wording on a website makes people feel they can’t make that phone call, that’s not good. …
…The real damage of abolishing “women” in abortion contexts, though, is to our political analysis. What happens to Dr. Tiller’s motto, “Trust Women”? There was a whole feminist philosophy expressed in those two words: women are competent moral actors and they, not men, clergy or the state, are the experts on their own lives, and should be the ones to decide how to shape them.
First notice that “removing ‘women'” has now become “abolishing ‘women'”. Really, Pollitt?
But my, oh, my, her use of the past tense is both amazing and revealing. There was a whole feminist philosophy expressed in Trust Women? Was? There is a whole feminist philosophy expressed in that phrase.
Pollitt seems unable to extend the analysis to trans* folk’s dismissal as self-expert by non-trans* folk. Notice how this fits very well with Trust Women being a philosophy in the past tense. No need to interrogate it now. There was a philosophy. There remains only a slogan. To truly understand and embrace the philosophy in the present would suggest that Pollitt herself could do with a little more trust. Trust her fear apparently denies her.
I understand the fear that talking about abortion access using gender neutral terms fails to make current gendered abortion-injustices visible as gendered.
a) I’m not willing to throw trans* seekers of medical care under the bus to make it easier for Pollitt to use language that comes more naturally to her mind
b) there are lots of ways to make gender injustice visible without assuming one knows the genders of each and every person who belongs to X group or seeks Y service.
unless, of course,
c) you’re just trying to make gender injustice visible by example.
Sigh. Pollitt has an important point about politics, but it is terribly misplaced. Even as she frames the issue as one of “political analysis” it is revealed that her actual concern is political rhetoric. How do I know? She herself is still able to articulate the philosophy she values. There’s nothing about the use of this language by these providers that will, 1984-style, control language in such a way as to limit the thoughts people can think. Moreover, it happens as part of an effort for gender liberation which specifically encourages thinking about the ways power is gendered, used, and abused. So long as the effort is, in fact, working for gender liberation and not a mere front for regressive infiltration of feminism, political analysis can only continue…and continue to improve.
What’s at stake here is Pollitt’s ability to discuss people naturally. She herself envisions the possibility of discussing abortion and reproductive rights in a gender complex context, perhaps 10 years down the road. Her political analysis won’t suffer during that time. Rather, her concern about political analysis is much like theocratic straight men’s concern about marriage: theirs can go on blithely unaffected, should they so choose, while others make their own choices in the light of new information. But if her political analysis is free to remain unaffected, her political rhetoric isn’t: if people begin to hear that not all women have the capacity for pregnancy and not all persons with the capacity for pregnancy are women, she will have to consider her audience’s understandings when crafting her future words.
To put it mildly, this is an offensively trivial concern when compared with the efforts Pollitt deems problematic. Consider her own column:
From the perspective of providing care, I understand it. “The focus should be on access….”
So, Pollitt agrees that the people she actually cites as making the shift are making the right shift, but the point that this compels her to make is to worry that her rhetoric will come less naturally, be less pithy?
a) color me fucking concerned.
b) how does it hurt trans* folk in any way if you use the slogan “Trust Women”?
On its own, absent a context implying that abortions are only for women and trans* folk need not bother trying to find a provider or seeking assistance with funding, there simply is no issue of cissexism. Women should be trusted as the authority on their own lives. Trans* people, including trans* men, trans* women and other trans* folks, embrace the principle but broaden it. This is transfeminism in action: learning from Pollitt’s valued feminist philosophy, but in embracing it fully, becoming willing to see what wisdom it holds for situations previously unconsidered.
Pollitt acts as if the Black Panthers never said, “Young power to the young people” because the Panthers once said, “Black power to the Black people”. Trust Women is not in dispute. What is in dispute is whether Pollitt and others are willing to Trust Trans* People.
And here is where we get to the crux of the conflicts that have so injured trans*/feminist interactions while simultaneously providing such a rich opportunity to identify the value of transfeminist philosophy.
Non-trans* feminists today routinely deny the idea of non-trans* women’s accountability for cissexism. Pollitt, then, is refusing to integrate (or, more charitably, having difficulty integrating) trans* advocacy or trans* liberation with feminism. At the same time, she argues passionately for trans* advocacy to incorporate feminism.
Undoubtedly trans* liberation/ trans* advocacy has an ethical duty to anti-oppression work writ broadly. Of course that includes feminism. Pollitt isn’t wrong for preferring transfeminism to mere trans* advocacy. Pollitt is wrong to deny the basic analogies that actually undergird transfeminism, however.
When “chairperson” and “chair” were advocated by feminists over “chairman,” men could and did argue that the miniscule number of women holding important chairs (and/or the fact that a man held a particular chair) was reason enough to continue using gendered language that excluded women from the imagery of power. This, now, is the same argument Pollitt uses against gender neutral language in abortion services provision. How can this be missed by Pollitt?
Well, consider this section:
I don’t see how it denies “the existence and humanity of trans people” to use language that describes the vast majority of those who seek to end a pregnancy. Why can’t references to people who don’t identify as women simply be added to references to women?
Her quoted phrase is excerpted from a quote her article earlier included from Fund Texas Women co-founder Lenzi Scheible: “with a name like Fund Texas Women, we were publicly excluding trans* people who needed to get an abortion but were not women. We refuse to deny the existence and humanity of trans* people any longer.”
While a name like “Fund Texas Women” doesn’t inherently deny “existence and humanity” to trans* people, if
1) your group’s mission is to assist all who need abortion,
2) you are aware of the existence of trans* people
3) you are aware that trans* people are not magically immune to pregnancy
4) publicly branding yourself as a source of aid for “all” who need abortion and limiting the “all” to women logically involves denying the known existence of trans* people and/or that trans* people have the same humanity -and thus the same human needs- as others, including at times and for some the need for abortion.
This is a tactic that Pollitt repeatedly uses in her writing, though she is far from the only feminist to do so.
Mary Elizabeth Williams, in an essay for Salon, writes of the Night of A Thousand Vaginas dustup:
Critics argued that the emphasis on “vagina” was not inclusive of trans men, “who don’t want their reproductive organs coded as female.” Abortion and transgender health provider DrJaneChi, for instance, called it “hurtful language” …
…On Jezebel this week, NinjaCate commented, “…they are not exclusive to women, nor do all women have them, and using the word in this context is trans exclusionary.”
However, in the very next paragraph Williams says:
I was still surprised that the word vagina would be considered “hurtful” to anybody who supports feminist issues
Note that the transfeminist critique was that the emphasis on vagina isn’t inclusive of certain trans* men, and the word’s use “in this context is trans exclusionary.” The transfeminist critique is not, and never was, that the word “vagina” itself is hurtful. Even when normally good writers, an excercise which typically requires clear thinking, go to the bother of specifically quoting critiques, it seems unfortunately common to distort the actual critiques beyond recognition.
Worse, this goes hand-in-hand with the long-running feminist trope that insists trans* people are “silencing” feminists. “Silencing” here is intended to mean both, “The critiques of trans* people cause us to stop and think about whether or not we are hurting others, and, lacking a coherent answer due to a woeful comprehension of cissexism, occasionally cause a feminist to choose not to speak rather than say something that is possibly both negligently contributing to the disussion and hurtful to others,” and “Certain trans* people are jerks and express their anger in inappropriate, hurtful ways, and no one wants to be a target of jerks. This occasionally causes a feminist to choose not to speak rather than saying something that is possibly very significantly contributing to the discussion, but brings the attention of such jerks”.
As bad as the latter is, the unfortunate truth is that writing like Pollitt’s and Williams’ makes it terribly frustrating to document. Are there any trans* people anywhere that react with anger and vitriol at the mere presence of the word vagina? Williams would have us believe that there are, but she only cites examples of careful, context-dependent arguments…and thus conflates the “former” situation of feminists’ ignorance making them justly cautious with the “latter” situation of internet abuse. If Williams can’t tell the difference between calling the word vagina offensive and calling a particular use of the word vagina offensive, and if Pollitt can’t tell the difference between broadening the activist base through gender-neutral language and embracing the masculine-supremacist bros-before-hos use of ils, how can we trust any of our larger feminist outlets, even in essays written by our more respected writers, to have faithfully portrayed the trans* advocacy threat (to pithy political deployment of rhetoric)?
Indeed, if one of our better feminist writers cannot tell the difference between calling the word vagina offensive and calling a particular use of the word vagina offensive, how can we trust these feminist outlets to faithfully portray feminism?
In the end, Pollitt’s article is mostly wasted, but nonetheless carries a small amount of utility, if only as a guide to the egocentric fears we each must overcome if we are to truly understand the point of view of any other, and especially of any other.
Feminism has been challenged before on the use of exclusionary language, most famously on the use racist language of exclusion. We came out of that with a stronger, more relevant feminism. We feminists will also come out of the transfeminist critique of mainstream feminisms with better, stronger analyses and tactics.
Despite what Pollitt fears, that will mean even better, stronger language as well. We should be glad and proud of “Trust Women”. But Pollitt not only is offensively dismissive of the human need for broader gender liberation by portraying a concern for pithy rhetoric as something to be weighed against efforts to expand abortion access to all who need it; she also seriously underestimates the persuasive power of liberation if her worries are sincere that our best slogans are behind us.