In 1980’s The Sceptical Feminist Janet Radcliffe Richards makes the simple but important point that “it is quite misleading to think of masculinity and femininity as similar sorts of things; equal degrees of adaptation to different situations”:
In fact masculinity has traditionally been no different from general success in whatever is valued by society, and virtually the only way any reference to women comes into the concept of masculinity is in the demand that no man should be subordinate or inferior to a woman.
The problem for the feminist – and for women in general – is not with femininity per se. It is not that taken individually, so-called “masculine” characteristics are in any way better or more useful than “feminine” ones. It is that femininity functions within a system that places women and men under very different social pressures, the primary aim of which is “to ensure that women should be in the power and service of men”.
This is basic feminism. It makes no judgment on what individual men and women are “really” like, rather it points out that the idea of inherent differences between men and women has been used to facilitate male people’s oppression of female people. As Richards puts it, “much of what is believed about women stems from what is wanted of women” (submission, chastity, unpaid reproductive, emotional and domestic work).
Fast-forward 36 years and it seems we’ve forgotten the basics. It’s not that we no longer use gender to extract resources and labour from one class of people for the benefit of another. Men still own the vast majority of the world’s material resources. Women still struggle for safety, visibility, education, reproductive autonomy, freedom from abuse. But for some reason we’ve stopped bothering to analyse gender as a social hierarchy. Perhaps it got too hard, or maybe it just got boring. Either way, these days it’s every woman – or non-man – for her/theirself.
In 2007’s Whipping Girl Julia Serano complains of “the scapegoating of femininity”:
Until feminists work to empower femininity and pry it away from the insipid, inferior meanings that plague it – weakness, helplessness, fragility, passivity, frivolity, and artificiality – those meanings will continue to haunt every person who is female and/or feminine.
Serano has little interest in analysing why femininity – encouraged rather than scapegoated in non-trans women – is classed as inferior to masculinity. Unlike Richards, she does not question the power structures that underpin it, or ask who benefits from these apparently free-floating “meanings”. To do so would require an acknowledgement of non-trans women not as a privileged subset of women in general, but as a specific class in their own right, the extraction of whose labour is patriarchy’s main aim. For Serano, “embracing femininity” is an aim in itself, regardless of whether this has any material consequences for millions of women still trapped in domestic and reproductive servitude.
Like many female people encountering Serano’s work, my first thought was “but my problem isn’t femininity – with which I don’t particularly identify – but being seen and treated as a woman. I don’t feel like or identify as a woman, but that’s the class in which I’ve been placed, and the whole point of feminism is surely the liberation of this class.” In response to this I was told by well-meaning liberal feminists “you don’t notice that you feel like a woman because you’re cis. You only prioritise class over identity because you have cis privilege.” But how could other people be so sure I had cis privilege? “Oh,” I was told, “not knowing you have it means you have it. It’s like having white privilege.” But, I countered, I know I have white privilege even if I don’t always recognise when I’m benefiting from it. As a woman, on the other hand, I know I am disadvantaged and I certainly don’t identify with my subordinate position. “Well,” I was told, “if it bothered you that much you’d identify as trans or non-binary or agender. As it is you’re cis.”
This never felt quite right. Looking back, I can see it was gaslighting of the highest order. Female people are so privileged they don’t even know they’re privileged. What kind of nonsense is that? And why was I being told that my only choice would be to identify my way out of womanhood? Sure, I could identify as non-binary. But what good would that do? I wasn’t sexually assaulted for being non-binary. I haven’t been asked about my pregnancies in job interviews for being non-binary. I’m not afraid of street harassment because it would mean someone had “mistaken” me for a cis woman. My primary problem is not that I am identified as a woman despite not feeling like one. My problem is that women are treated like shit.
Over 800 women die every day due to wholly preventable complications of pregnancy. In the UK alone two women die every week as a result of domestic violence. An estimated 85,000 UK women are raped every year. 47,000 women worldwide die each year due to unsafe abortion. A UN study of women worldwide indicated they do 75% of the work, receive 10% of the pay and own 1% of the property. None of this is to do with how these women identify. They could declare themselves non-binary and it would make not one jot of difference. Patriarchy would not think “ah, now you put it like that, it seems we got it wrong. Gender’s all about fluidity and inner feelings, not shoring up resources and power for one group at the expense of another. So hey, let’s share!” As if that’s how dominant groups operate. As if all it takes for male supremacy to end is for feminists to expose what we all already know to be a convenient lie.
Being misidentified is not our problem; being identified as feminine is not our problem; being identified as women and hence inferior and exploitable is our problem. Only we’re not allowed to say this. Today we must all pretend that the difference between, say, Richards and Serano is that Serano is “more inclusive”. We must pretend, as the Green Party are doing right now, that a class analysis of female oppression can coexist with an identity-based one, regardless of the fact that the latter contradicts the former. Indeed, when women question such an approach – when they point out the need for women to be identified as a class in their own right, not as “non-males” – they are accused of having taken things “out of context”:
Green Party Women are happy with uses of the term “non-male” as an umbrella term when gender balance practices are conducted. This umbrella term groups together all who face gendered oppression; women, transgender women and individuals of non-binary or no genders. We all deserve to be recognised and included.
But what is “gendered oppression”? Material exploitation? Misogyny? How do we categorise it? In what sense, if we are including “individuals of non-binary or no genders” in our group, are we assuming the remaining women to “have” gender? Is it not conceivable that many women – we used to call them feminists – have no inner sense of “being a woman” but feel class solidarity with everyone who is treated as one? Where do these women – who, on a desert island, would surely be non-binary, but within a class hierarchy wish to stand up and be counted as members of the oppressed sex class “woman” – find themselves represented? Nowhere in this fragmented, messy non-category.
Margaret Thatcher famously said “there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families.” Now the Green Party – who would surely condemn such sentiments – is saying “there is no such thing as a class hierarchy. There are individual non-male identities, and there is gendered oppression.” In both cases we are dealing with individualistic bullshit, coupled with an absolute refusal to ask why things are unequal and who is benefiting from whom.
Women – who exist, regardless of whether they feel like the creatures men tell them they are – deserve better than this.