Some Second Wave Feminists and Transphobia

As someone who counts herself as too young to be a baby boomer, too old to be Gen X, I came of age as a feminist at the end of the Second Wave. (I’m also never sure how useful the “wave” talk is but that’s another issue.) And while I think I understand the limits that the lack of race, class, and disability analysis had on second wave work, I think I can also understand how focussing on one form of oppression might make others less obvious or visible. In the case of race, class, and disability, the main problem, it seems to me, was one of exclusion. But in the case of trans issues, it’s much more than that. One sometimes finds a kind of hostility verging on hate that I just can’t fathom. This came to mind recently reading a piece in the Guardian by Germain Greer on Caster Semenya. In it Greer writes, “Nowadays we are all likely to meet people who think they are women, have women’s names, and feminine clothes and lots of eyeshadow, who seem to us to be… some kind of ghastly parody, though it isn’t polite to say so. We pretend that all the people passing for female really are. Other delusions may be challenged, but not a man’s delusion that he is female.” I thought the days of sex essentialism were long gone but I guess not. Kate Bornstein has a response here.

15 thoughts on “Some Second Wave Feminists and Transphobia

  1. It’s been a bad week for 2nd wave feminists’ utterances. Here’s Fay Weldon: (1) “The recession is “dreadful, of course it is,” she says, but Weldon…also believes it is a chance to remake society, particularly in a way that will benefit women. “Women exhausting themselves with useless jobs instead of looking after children couldn’t be sustained”. In fact, her clarification is perfectly sensible and quite different from the quote, but guess which gets pulled out as tagline? And why would she put it that way in the first place? Sigh. (2) “I’m probably the one, the only feminist there is and the others are all out of step.” Want more words of wisdom?

  2. I thought the days of sex essentialism were long gone but I guess not.

    This is a very puzzling remark to me. I would have thought that the rising presence of psych-evo-esque sex essentialism within the popular culture over the past decade or so is a readily apparent and undeniable phenomenon ( –whether or not it is to be deplored for its consequences, or for resulting from an alleged status-quo-supporting pseudo-science).

  3. Very interesting blog…kudos. You and I are members of Generation Jones (born 1954-1965, between the Boomers and Generation X). GenJones women have really been the footsoldiers of second wave feminism…entering the work force en masse (while relatively few Boomer women did). GenJones women like Susan Faludi and Naomi Wolf grew up to be key members of third wave feminism.

    Google Generation Jones, and you’ll see it’s gotten a ton of media attention, and many top commentators from many top publications and networks (Washington Post, Time magazine, NBC, Newsweek, ABC, etc.) now specifically use this term. In fact, the Associated Press’ annual Trend Report forecast the Rise of Generation Jones as the #1 trend of 2009. Here’s a page with a good overview of recent media interest in GenJones:

    It is important to distinguish between the post-WWII demographic boom in births vs. the cultural generations born during that era. Generations are a function of the common formative experiences of its members, not the fertility rates of its parents. Many experts now believe it breaks down more or less this way:

    DEMOGRAPHIC boom in babies: 1946-1964
    Baby Boom GENERATION: 1942-1953
    Generation Jones: 1954-1965
    Generation X: 1966-1978

    Here is an op-ed about GenJones as the new generation of leadership in USA TODAY:

  4. @Rob:I meant gone as in no longer a theoretical commitment of feminism. Of course, the rest of the world is full of essentialist nonsense. Thanks for getting me to clarify that.

  5. Weldon and Greer make a dismal duo today at least. In terms of generations, they’re both pre-boomers, with 1939 and 1931 their DOB respectively. And Friedan was born in 1921.

    Is that significant? Well, one can easily suppose they had far fewer people to make common cause with when they were young. They might be susceptible to a lingering Queen Bee syndrome if they actually were, as it were, the only one of their kind in the hive.

    I suggest we don’t follow that metaphor …

  6. There might be something valuable in Greer’s comments. While I don’t think name-calling has much value, it might be fair to be wary of transgendered persons. Many – especially transwomen – have been socialized and privileged as men, even if they don’t/didn’t identify as men, which creates a gap between them and even the most conservative biological woman.

  7. But there isn’t a whole lot of privilege to being raised as a man while wanting to be (and feeling oneself to be) all the things that are considered feminine (and stigmatised as such), To put it bluntly, there’s not a whole lot of privilege to getting beaten up for not being masculine enough, then not being fully accepted as a woman either. And the most conservative biological woman? Let’s take Sarah Palin as an example. Yes, there are differences between her and a transwoman. But I’ll bet pretty much any transwoman you pick has far more sophisticated and feminist-friendly thoughts about gender than Palin does.

  8. Jay, from a slightly different direction: You can really mean what you said, surely. “it might be fair to be wary of transgendered persons.”

    This recommends treating as suspicious a whole group of people who really have already had difficulty lives. That isn’t morally right.

    Now, having said that, I was reminded vividly of how differently men and women may be socialized when I was in a crowded Whole Foods on Saturday. Most women were slinking along the sides of the aisles, making some (frequently small) effort to lessen the amount of space they take up. Not so the men, who would stand right in the middle of an aisle talking!! One guy manage to occupy a crossway and block two aisles.

    In fact, as I understand it from friends who deal with “communication disorders,” (e.g., kids who can’t transition by themselves to grammatically complex speech) a fair proportion of men who are transitioning to women seek out training in the new role behavior. It makes a lot of sense.

  9. Well, everyone has a difficult life at some level. I don’t want to discount anyone’s oppression. I’m just noting that falling under the “LGBT” heading doesn’t automatically absolve one of having been (or being) part of the problem. It may be that I just disagree with you, Jender: in my view, being raised as a man confers privilege (and a sense thereof) with very little wiggle room for qualifiers. It’s not clear to me, for instance, that suffering at the hands of a masculine system makes one more likely to reject such a system than he who is at the top of the food chain, as it were.

  10. redeyedtreefrog: I see now that it was my mistake in not reading your post more carefully. Sorry. Still, I guess I’m puzzled as to why a combination of sex essentialism and gender constructionism — i.e., critical acceptance of some psych-evo stuff and sexual psychophysiological stuff a la Chivers, et al and commitment to political and social gender equality — wouldn’t be more characteristic of contemporary feminism than is apparently the case.

  11. Here’s a first for me: defending Germaine Greer!

    To begin with, it’s not clear she’s arguing for sex-essentialism. Her second-last paragraph acknowledges that determining Caster Semenya’s sex (‘her’ sex Greer writes – without scare quotes) will be a complex process. Bizarre to many women, but it’s not obvious she’s mocking the process.

    Moreover, Greer suggests, if the outcome of this process is that Semenya’s gender is ‘trans’ the way gender is understood in the majority of cases and best understood as mentally female/physically male, other female athletes might need to accustom themselves to the disadvantage as they do other disadvantages in sport. Now perhaps these remarks are all tongue-in-cheek, but she doesn’t make that explicit.

    Her earlier remarks about parody are also not clear. Personally, I have always found the misogyny in some gay male cultures and its manifestation in drag queens very offensive. Some drag queens do mock and disparage women and it’s not nice. Distinguishing this transvestism from transgendered men who experience genuine conflict might be difficult to do for some (especially since gay men are also often experience oppression) but it is important for obvious reasons. Maybe Greer has failed to do this.

    I think Greer’s piece isn’t clearly offensive (it just isn’t clear simpliciter, it just skirts around some issues), so we shouldn’t jump to the conclusion that it is.

    However I do agree she should be more careful lest she cause offense (especially with a word like ‘ghastly’), since it’s clear she has. (That’s a lesson she’s failed to heed on many occasions in the past.)

  12. @Clare: Greer may be making some more complicated points about sex and gender but I was just gobsmacked by the hateful language. The passage I quoted–““Nowadays we are all likely to meet people who think they are women, have women’s names, and feminine clothes and lots of eyeshadow, who seem to us to be… some kind of ghastly parody, though it isn’t polite to say so. We pretend that all the people passing for female really are. Other delusions may be challenged, but not a man’s delusion that he is female”–strikes me as nasty and hateful. I didn’t mean to be taking on her whole column, merely noting the obvious transphobia it contained. Removing “ghastly” and calling transwomen mere “parodies” wouldn’t be a big improvement.

  13. Jay, I don’t understand your argument. Exactly what form do you suppose privilege takes in the actual experience of transfolk? Can you give an example of a view or behavior consistently exhibited by transfolk which is most plausibly explained by the operation of privilege?

    Frankly, this sounds to me a bit too much like a conceptual theory (of the psychological mechanisms of privilege) that meets empirical data (the actual experience of transfolk) insistent that the data must conform, whatever hurtful and unfair things that might require one say about an already oppressed population. The views and related experiences of the transfolk I know simply do not fit with these claims, so I must ask about Jay’s grounds.

    Meanwhile, it’s worth noting something about the example jj raises – the apparently socialized supermarket aisle behavior of men and women, and the fact that many transfolk “seek out training in the new role behavior”. The point here seems to be a partial concession that the behavior of transfolk reflects socialization consistent with the assigned gender role – hence the retraining.

    There is an alternative explanation available: transfolk are under immense pressure to exhibit behavior as unambiguously affiliated with the target gender role as possible. Cisgendered women, as a group, may exhibit quite a range of gendered behavior – some do stand in the center of the market aisle and take up space – without thereby being challenged on their gender identity. Transwomen do not have this privilege. Transwomen who exhibit behavior that falls even within an entirely normal range for cisgendered women are prone to being challenged on their femininity. (There is even a hint of that in jj’s having raised the example in this context.) Hence the pressure to be ‘as female as possible’, hence the need for retraining. Quite a few cisgendered women would need retraining too, were they compelled to narrow their behavior to the most stereotypically feminine.

    Which returns us to the topic of this post. Part of the reason, I think, why some second-wavers like Greer react so badly to trans folk is that their somewhat dated experience recalls transwomen of the 1960s and 70s. Then, as now, transwomen who wanted medical assistance for transition were required to obtain the permission of gatekeeper psychiatrists, many of whom demanded to see patients conform to their own notion of femininity. At that time (and even now for some more benighted psychiatrists) this meant exactly the sort of “ghastly parody” Greer scolds: constant frills, dresses, heels, lots of makeup, adamantly heterosexual orientation. In short, the male-dominated psycho-medical profession compelled transwomen to conform to a stereotyped notion of femininity, on pain of being denied treatment. Blaming the transwomen for this – as Greer implicitly does – is not only unfair, but also now rather behind the times. In the better places, psychiatric gatekeepers at least no longer require such absolute conformity among their charges. (Although, as I noted above, transfolk still face immense informal pressure to restrict their behavior to a narrow range of gender expectations.)

    And, as usual, transmen seem to be entirely absent from this discussion. It’s not at all clear how Greer’s quasi-argument – or Jay’s point about socialization – is supposed to apply to them, and yet the claims are framed as applicable to transfolk generally.

  14. transDefense, thanks for your input on this issues. I’m inclined just to concede everything, but I think the experiences cisgendered women have may been a bit different, even if there is now more room, as it were. Since my experiences and those of my friends provide the context for my remarks, let me explain. At least when I grew up as a boomer, training in behavior appropriate to one’s gender role was pretty rigorous and pretty explcitly about being properly female. It was as though there was a fairly clear grading system and one was definitely severely criticized for behavior that wasn’t feminine enough. I could write a very great deal about the nasty insinuating remarks and sometimes real public humiliations one could get for not behaving like a girl, lady, woman. I think a lot of this still goes on, and it may be linked to questions about whether one is a “real woman.”

    Since both my height (I was about 2 inches over average height) and intelligence made me suspect, I am pretty sure I could tell you a lot of really shocking stories..

    For what it’s worth, I think I was myself a bit confused about the WF example, because I don’t think it is necessarily a directly gendered thing; clearly anyone can rudely inconvenience others, and I suppose public thoughtlessness is increasing all around. Still, a lot more women than men seemed to have learned the behavior appropriate to that context, if nothing else by having lots of experience of being glared at. Too many Saturday dads haven’t learned it.

  15. Exactly what form do you suppose privilege takes in the actual experience of transfolk?

    I don’t suppose it’s particularly different than in any of us. Transfolk are certainly in a unique position to be able to appreciate gender issues, but so is Sarah Palin. Like Palin, just being a member of an oppressed class isn’t enough to make one a feminist, nor is it enough to prevent her from oppressing those over whom she does have power. As an example, I’d be surprised if pornography consumption patterns differ much between cisgendered men, transgendered men or pre-transition transmen (is there a word for this state?).

    The idea that the transgendered feel added pressure to embody a particular gender role is very interesting. I haven’t noticed that in my experience, but it does make sense (and my experience is pretty slim).

    Thanks for your comments!

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