It’s still new, so please don’t get too disappointed when you see it. For the moment it’s only on a free service, but if it gets enough interest over time, we do plan on upgrading.
There seems to be common misconceptions among many online communities about what various branches within feminism mean. I’m sure most can agree on what they all have in common, in that feminism entails believing that women are oppressed for being women and we ought to bring that oppression to an end. The main disagreement feminists would have with how I have just defined it would be the extent of that oppression and preferring a more toned down phrasing to better reflect their own beliefs.
When it comes to branches within feminism, these are meant to distinguish specific strains based on what feminists believe to be the source of that oppression (e.g. male sexual dominance or ignorant individuals), and how best to solve it (e.g. restructuring society or reforming it). This is more specific than feminism as a whole, but is still quite vague so even within various branches one can find vastly different opinions when it comes to more specific issues (this is especially true within radical feminism).
It’s when we get down to specific issues where the misconceptions seem to rise; likely due to the fact that in many communities discussion is centered on specific political issues such as pornography, trans rights, etc. So it seems likely that people will notice trends in the stances various feminists make, and separate them based on those rather than why they have the stance that they do. But the why is what’s important. Liberal feminists can be anti-pornography and “gender critical” just as radical feminists can be. Similarly a radical feminist can be neither of those. What makes one a liberal or a radical feminist isn’t whether they hold positions that are commonly associated with a particular branch, but the analysis they used in order to reach their stance, stemming from the core beliefs described in the previous paragraph and the basic framework it provides.
Kathleen Stock published an article earlier this month on why she believes self identification isn’t sufficient to legally consider one a woman. Her primary objection is that allowing gender reassignment based on self identification without medical certification would harm those she considers to be the original occupants of the category woman.
Stock claims that it’s clear that women only spaces such as changing rooms, hostels, and prisons should be based on sex category, which she thinks is necessary for female* protection. But this is not clear. The only reasoning she provides is that most trans women don’t have bottom surgery, and that many have a sexual orientation towards females. Both of these should be rejected. The latter is straight up homophobic, and in fact has been used against lesbian cis women as well. If anything should be clear, it’s that attraction to women in itself doesn’t harm women. The former implies that male violence towards women stems at least partly from biology, or at best that we should discriminate against people based on sharing any similarities in physical features with groups more likely to commit violence, regardless if there’s any evidence that they themselves are a risk, and to date, there is little evidence to support the idea that trans women are at more risk to commit violence towards women. The only evidence given by those who do believe that trans women are more prone towards violence are anecdotes, some of which are difficult to even confirm if true or not. While there are few studies, there has been one (oddly popularized by TERFs) showing that trans women aren’t more of a risk than cis women. There has also been a study done comparing crime reports among cities that adopted trans friendly policies for public restrooms and those who hadn’t, showing that there was no difference in crime. We can also look to Ireland, which has allowed trans people to legally change their gender based on self declaration since 2015. Even if we were to agree that separation is necessary if there was a risk, we have no sufficient reason to believe there is one.
She also argues that allowing self identification would harm cis women by granting trans women access to women only resources and protections, assuming that these are in place only for females and ought to be that way. Under common objections to her position, she attempts to refute the claim that trans women are more at risk in certain spaces such as in men’s prisons and face discrimination in the workplace by linking murder rates in various countries, which says nothing about their high risk within those specific contexts. It’s comparable to saying there’s little evidence for female oppression because they have lower overall rates of being murdered compared to males. But even if she were to accept that trans women are abused and mistreated, she believes this isn’t adequate enough to allow them access to women only spaces and resources, saying that instead there should be funding for resources and spaces specifically to trans women. While I would agree that there should be resources specifically for trans people that trans women should have access to, there’s no reason why they shouldn’t have access to women’s resources and spaces as well.
I could cite various statistics showing that trans women face similar or higher risks than cis women, but I would agree that this alone doesn’t necessitate allowing access to women’s spaces and resources. Gay men face increased risk of rape and sexual assault in prison as well, however I have yet to see anyone advocating that they be moved to women’s prisons. If we accept segregated spaces based on the fact that one group is oppressed (Stock writes that if females weren’t systematically disadvantaged then self identification would not be an issue), then we would have to show anyone wanting access is oppressed similarly. Statistics are not enough as they can be interpreted in multiple ways. Here, listening to trans women would be vital. Much of feminist theory began with consciousness raising, listening to women, and drawing from their experiences and insights. When one includes trans women in their analysis of women’s oppression, one can easily see that that they are oppressed as women, just like any other woman, especially when one takes into consideration that not all women face oppression as women in the exact same way all the time. Women can face other oppressions, and sometimes those can combine in a way that can’t be separated. Trans women may face transphobia, but this does not exclude them from misogyny, and the two can’t always be separated so the misogyny they face may sometimes differ from the misogyny cis women face. Ignoring differences among women is what harms women. It prevents women from fully analyzing women’s oppression and it leaves many women left behind. Trans women rightfully deserve resources and protections as women, as that is how they are socially situated. It doesn’t matter if females are the majority of women. Nor would it matter if throughout much of history it was only females who were oppressed as women (this is doubtful but most anti trans feminists seem to believe so). Looking towards the past may be helpful, but it would be absurd to ignore what the current conditions are.
*I will be trying to use the word female in this post the same as Stock does. The way she uses it can be argued against, but focusing on that in this post would distract from the main argument.
(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.