Monthly Archives: September 2018

Trans Women are Women

(Possibly a work in progress)

A common question asked by TERFs (Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists) is “what is a woman?” They often ask this with an answer already in mind, that woman is a adult human female. This is meant to exclude trans women from belonging to women as a class. Since the exclusion of trans women appears to be their primary motivation in how they define women, they reject any other answer, often claiming that the only other answer available is circular and rests only on self definition. This is blatantly false, and one can find other definitions easily even within radical feminism.

While woman and female are commonly used interchangeably, there is no reason to believe that they must share a definition, or that they should. In fact for decades feminists have argued that they mean very different things, with female reflecting biology and woman reflecting gender. There are exceptions as it can be difficult to fully separate the two, but often within feminist circles the thinking is opposite of what TERFs claim, in which female is just another way of referring to one’s gender (social position) rather than the other way around. Catharine MacKinnon and Christine Delphy are two prominent examples of feminists who have such beliefs.

Before moving on, I think it’s important to address why the question is important at all. Feminists claim to be fighting for women, as a social group or class. Determining who belongs to such a social group is necessary for feminist analysis and activism as it gives us a way to discover what the issues are and focus on plans of action to rectify them. This is where the issue of self definition comes in if there is nothing to ground it. If woman can mean anything, and anyone can be a woman, there is concern that feminism will be obfuscated; women harmed under patriarchy will then be ignored. I think the fear here is unwarranted. There are many instances of feminist action that do not apply to all women, but are still considered important. Feminists recognize (or should recognize) that women consist of individuals with differences. Ignoring those differences and how misogyny and sexism manifests itself within different contexts does a disservice to women, only fighting for some women rather than all. Classifying women as adult human females may seem like an easy way to address the above fear, but there’s also the concern that doing so hinders feminist analysis and ignores the plight of some women.

This is of course all only within the context of trying to determine who is oppressed and who is oppressing in relation to sex/gender hierarchies. A feminist definition of man and woman isn’t necessarily the only definition available. One could be a woman under a feminist understanding while being another gender in a different context. What I’m most interested in however is the feminist understanding of gender and my focus here will be providing a feminist definition that is inclusive to trans women.

I believe a much better definition of what constitutes a woman is what is implied above. Woman is a social position, that social position being one of subordination within a patriarchal context. Haslanger provides a materialist account of this, in which a person is a woman if they are observed or imagined to have certain physical characteristics related to being female and this is used to mark them as a member of the subordinate gender (woman). I would argue however that markers don’t necessarily need to be physical characteristics even if the case most of the time.

Sveinsdóttir gives a broader account in what she calls a conferralist framework. Here, woman is a conferred property. Similar to Haslanger, this is dependent on perception, but it differs in which physical characteristics are only one of the grounding properties that might be tracked. This, in my view, gives a much better account of our social reality allowing for differences in people’s perceptions of gender.

Using Sveinsdóttir’s framework, we can say that a woman under a feminist context is one that is oppressed as a woman, as that is the grounding property feminists seek to track. What it means to be oppressed as a woman however would differ depending on the context and what is being tracked and conferred by members of the dominant group. The grounding property then could be a number of things including reproductive potential, sexual roles, or even self identification.

I will likely expand on this post with future blog posts, but I hope I have achieved my goal in this post of providing a non-circular definition of woman that is inclusive to trans women and is better suited towards feminist aims than the definition TERFs advocate for.

The Exaggeration of Trans Identities in Ancient and Indigenous Cultures

There’s no question that Western colonialism (and non-Western colonialism, which also exists by the way) was bad and is bad.  I am also not so much of a Western cultural imperialist to suggest that Western culture has, necessarily, been a net benefit to anyone where it has been foisted upon them violently and where it has displaced a native culture.  However, one of the decolonization talking points that has always struck me as odd is the following indictment: if it were not for Western colonialism, the idea of a gender binary would not exist in many cultures today.

I confess to a certain amount of ignorance about a wide array of cultures, both ancient and modern, but this claim has always struck me as specious.  I am not necessarily doubting that some ancient and indigenous cultures have had room for a proverbial “third sex” or a flexibility of gender roles.  There are a few notable examples that come to mind: the Galli priest(esse)s of the ancient Mediterranean and the similar eunuch priest(esse)s of the cult of Atar’atheh in the Levant, the “two-soul” people of certain Native American cultures, the hijra of Indian, the fa’afafine of Samoa, and so forth.  There are some that could be offered as well that are much more of a stretch, like the ergi men of Scandinavian lore, who may better be described as men accused of effeminacy rather than a separate gender identity.  Perhaps even the castrati associated mostly with 16th, 17th, and 18th century operatic male soprano practice could be considered another stretch, depending on how loosely one chooses to define a third sex.  However, were these third sexes really all that common?  Furthermore, when and where they existed, are they at all comparable to the modern notion of transgender and nonbinary identities?

I honestly don’t know the answer to that first question, and I fully admit that I’m not particularly interested in taking the time to track down every possibility.  I feel that most of what I would find may be exaggerated anyway, much like my examples of the ergi and castrati above, both of which can only disingenuously be called gender roles of their own and are not comparable to a third sex or a trans identity.  (And indeed, since castrati are very clearly part of a relatively modern Western European tradition, it would mean that even “the West” has had a messier view of gender than the oppressive and absolute binary which it is blamed for propagating.)  The second question, however, is much easier to answer, and it becomes quite easy to dispute the decolonizer talking point that the West is responsible for a rigid gender binary that is practiced throughout the world.

For one, I think it’s safe to say that most world cultures have practiced a relatively strict gender binary throughout human history, and the examples usually proffered are the exception, not the rule.  Let’s be honest: what percentage of human cultures that have existed have truly had a third (or fourth or fifth) gender role that was an accepted part of their societies?  Is it even ten percent?  Five percent?  Less?  Secondly, how many cultures with additional gender roles gave those roles dignity?  The hijra, for example, have a history of merely being tolerated, an otherwise unwanted part of society that was nevertheless deemed useful in certain kinds of religious rites.  Indeed, it seems that a lot of third sex roles in societies were subject more to toleration than to anything resembling true acceptance, and these people represented the fringe of their society’s generally accepted behavior at best.  Perhaps there’s something to be said for a culture that allows the existence of these folks at all rather than denying or erasing them entirely the way the Protestant West has had a history of doing, but the irony is that it’s probably the progressive West that is now beginning to make strides for those third sex individuals.  (I’m not trying to say that this makes colonization ok by any means, and it’s impossible to know how these cultures would have fared in terms of trans acceptance if they had been allowed to continue uninterrupted.)

It should also be noted that third sex roles can almost never be considered comparable to the modern and mostly Western idea of transgender identities.  For one, many third sex people in such societies seem to have been placed there without their consent, which is no different than being assigned male or female at birth.  If you behaved a certain way or showed certain traits, you were pushed into a role that you may not have wanted in the first place.  Just because there’s more than two gender roles, it doesn’t mean that the gender roles themselves were any less strict or more fluid or that individuals had the right to assert their identities without censure or persecution.  It’s actually kind of comical in its absurdity to imagine a third sex individual being “transgender” themself, i.e., being forced into a third sex identity but wishing they were a man or a woman instead.  Second, the idea of trans identities is still more or less a modern, Western concept.  Many third sex roles are contingent upon certain kinds of social structures (which, by the way, were universally patriarchal despite an additional gender role being added to the society) or even religious beliefs.  In fact, the use of third sex people as priest(esse)s, healers, or prophet(esse)s and mystics seems to make up the bulk of third sex roles I’ve seen proposed by decolonizer folks.  Without intending to be glib, it’s kind of like calling celibate Catholic clergy a third gender simply because their existence is solely predicated upon the completion of religious rites and not on the normal patriarchal binary of fathering and mothering children (i.e., the binary identities of man and woman, respectively, in a strongly patriarchal society).  Were the Galli really a third sex, or just homosexual eunuchs who were tolerated as necessary for the sake of Cybeline rites?  Did such “trans” people as the Galli, if they were indeed such, take on that identity for devout religious purposes, or was the Cybeline cult simply a haven for them to express their gender identities in a society that was otherwise hostile to them?  We can only speculate, and therein lies the problem with many of the proposed examples of historical third sex roles in these societies.

I think the discussion of third sex roles and supposedly nonbinary identities in non-Western cultures leaves us with more questions than answers.  I think it’s pretty clear that the supposedly trans and nonbinary identities found in (a very small amount of) indigenous and pre-modern cultures were not at all comparable to the modern idea of being transgender or nonbinary, and, in the very least, were probably just as restrictive considering the patriarchal cultures in which they existed.  In short, I think the rumors that the sex binary is a particularly Western Protestant invention foisted upon the world, and that the gender constructs of other societies were/are less oppressive (especially to trans-identifying people today, such as they are), are greatly exaggerated . . .

Magickal Thinking: The Modern Origins of Witchcraft and Its Tenuous Politicization by the Contemporary Feminist Left

I’m going to start this out by saying this: witchcraft isn’t real.  That’s not to say that there isn’t a modern religion known as Wicca or Witchcraft and various offshoots of it within the “New Age”, “Earth-based” new religious movements of the nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first centuries.  Those are most certainly real religions.  Some of them even enjoy the same legal status in some countries that other major world religions have.  As I understand it, U.S. Army personnel can even have their religious designation on their dog tags refer to them as practicing Witches/Wiccans and can request Wiccan chaplains.  For the purposes of this post, I’m going to refer to the real, modern religion as Witchcraft and its practitioners as Witches (with a capital W) and distinguish it from the historical phenomenon of the oft-maligned witch and accusations of witchcraft (with a lowercase W).  So again: witchcraft, and witches, are not real, and never were.

There isn’t any historical evidence that anyone has ever actually been a witch.  Surely people have been accused of being witches in Western Europe and have been tried, convicted, and executed for the supposed offense of practicing witchcraft, but this doesn’t mean that any of these people were ever witches.  And, of course, by witches I mean individuals who engaged in some kind of unorthodox religious/spiritual tradition that may have included such things as casting spells, summoning demons, being in league with Lucifer, dancing naked in the moonlight during a Black Mass, or anything else you might have seen in television or movies or read in a New Age book in the spiritualist section of Barnes & Noble or at your local neo-pagan trinket store.  The people executed for witchcraft were almost universally practicing Christians in their own communities.  (The exceptions to these Christian “witches” were usually Jews, who we should note were also not witches because they were, well, Jews, i.e., practitioners of Judaism.)  For historians and scholars, the verdict is quite clear: the witch was a Protestant bogeyman, and accusations of being one were not unlike those accusations seen in the medieval Catholic purges of supposed (and occasionally actual) heretics.  And it seems that almost anyone could be accused of being a witch: men and women, the elderly and children, high-born and low-born.  There are some cases of spouses even accusing each other.  At its height, the Protestant witch hysteria is the exemplar of a moral panic taken to its extremes.  And like nearly all moral panics, there was nary a kernel of truth to any of it.

Some will disagree with me (and historians) on this point and conflate pre-Christian European paganism with witchcraft, suggesting that, somehow, there was a minority of actual, practicing pagans that navigated their way through the centuries of a Christianized Europe.  They might even suggest that some of the witches who were executed during the moral panics actually were these crypto-pagans, and therefore “witch” is just a Christian pejorative for some kind of real, practicing pagan.  There are two problems with this view.  The first is that European paganism wasn’t witchcraft and did not resemble what modern Witches consider historical witchcraft to be.  For example, one probably would not argue that the Vestals of ancient Rome, who were pagan priestesses dedicated to the rites associated with the goddess Vesta, were witches.  No Roman would have viewed them that way, and I doubt even modern Witches would suggest it even to bite the bullet.  Priestesses are not witches.  Paganism doesn’t share the cosmology, ethics, belief-system, or ritual action of Witchcraft or even alleged witchcraft, according to modern Witches.  (N.B.: Modern neo-paganism, which is often influenced by Wicca/Witchcraft, may share considerable common ground, but that is not what we’re talking about.  So-called neo-paganism has no real historical connection to pre-Christian religious beliefs either other than appropriating some of its mythos to various degrees.)

The second problem with conflating witchcraft with pre-Christian European religious practices is that even European pagans accused people of being witches, though the terminology may vary from place to place.  The pagan Germanic peoples, for example, looked down upon men practicing divination and even outlawed such people upon pain of death.  So even in pagan communities you could be executed for being a little too “witchy” for their liking, so to speak.  So it’s clear that the kinds of practices associated with witches—spellcraft, divination, augury, etc.—were not part of mainstream pagan society in many parts of Europe.  There is no evidence that suggests, however, that such “witches” considered themselves practitioners of a separate religion from their pagan neighbors.  It seems that they just engaged in taboo religious practices that were viewed as unseemly, but shared the religious worldviews, cosmologies, beliefs, and general practices of other pagans.

I should also note that I think it’s disingenuous to suggest that indigenous religions outside of Europe constitute witchcraft.  This is a point that can be used against everything stated above.  If witchcraft was never a thing in Europe, then what about the “witchcraft” native to Africa or the Americas?  Well, that’s just not the same thing.  There’s a difference between a European Christian being executed for being a “witch” and an Afro-Caribbean being executed by colonial Christian authorities for practicing his native Vodun.  Such a person is practicing Vodun, not witchcraft, and to call it witchcraft is factually inaccurate and enforces a Western Protestant view of other religious traditions.  So no, Africans (or any others) were not practicing witchcraft either.  There simply was no such thing except in the minds of pious Protestants in the midst of a moral panic or as a racist, colonialist view of indigenous, non-Christian religious traditions.

Where does this leave us?  There was no such thing as witchcraft.  It was never a spiritual tradition practiced by anyone, though admittedly there may have been some people in Europe engaging in taboo and “magical” arts.  But there’s no evidence that this was considered a separate, native religious tradition, and invariably these people all identified with the dominant religious culture of their communities.  If, at most, a witch was just a woman who knew how to use herbal remedies, then I think it’s safe to say that witchcraft was never real in the first place.  However, it was an accusation meant to marginalize and persecute people.  In that sense, it is understandable why the cultural symbol of the witch is one with which marginalized people can identify.  And since up to three quarters of accused witches were women (as far as we know), it’s also understandable why young feminist women today are identifying with the historical symbol of the witch and why books like this exist:


That said, what exactly is my problem, and why am I talking about this at all?  To be honest, this entire post is just setting me up to say this: internet leftists need to stop accusing people of “culturally appropriating” witchcraft!

You can’t appropriate the symbols of a religious tradition that never belonged to anyone. It never existed.  There’s nothing to appropriate.  And even if someone appropriates from Witchcraft (i.e., modern, New Age Witchcraft actually practiced as a new religious movement by some people), then maybe that’s in poor taste, but it still isn’t appropriating from indigenous people.  Modern Witchcraft was invented at the earliest in the nineteenth century by Victorian occultists/spiritualists.  Surely you don’t think that white Victorian-era people count as an “indigenous people”.  (And again, you can’t move the goalposts to call witchcraft some non-European indigenous religious tradition because that’s inaccurate and most certainly racist, and it also makes the connection to the trope of the persecuted “witch” of the European witch hysterias meaningless since it can’t be both.)  Maybe it is in poor taste that Sephora, for example, might be commodifying  (modern) Witchcraft with their “witch bundles” as I saw many people say with “woke” glee.  I can understand why that might upset some actual Wiccans, just as I understand why a Catholic might get upset if Sephora started selling Virgin Mary branded white eyeliner for that extra pure and bright waterline all the girls want.  I won’t begrudge anyone from commenting on the grotesque nature of capitalist commodification.  But it’s not any kind of cultural appropriation, and certainly not from any indigenous culture.

There’s no such thing as witchcraft and you can’t appropriate from any kind of traditional “witch culture”.  And as a final note, there’s nothing inherently feminine about witchcraft either because, again, it isn’t real and never was, but also because plenty of men were accused of being witches too.  Maybe there’s something feminist about being a Witch/Wiccan in its modern imagining, but there’s nothing feminist about being a witch in the real, historical sense of what they were (and, incidentally, were not).  It turns out innocent Christian and Jewish men and women burn at the stake in pretty much the same manner and there’s nothing particularly subversive in that worth celebrating to me.  Don’t get woke.  Get educated.