Within feminism there has been for decades an often divisive debate about transgenderism. With increasing mainstream news media and pop culture attention focused on the issue, understanding that feminist debate is more important than ever.
Two new feminist books that analyze transgenderism (Sheila Jeffreys’ Gender Hurts: A Feminist Analysis of the Politics of Transgenderism and Michael Schwalbe’s Manhood Acts: Gender and the Practices of Domination, which includes a chapter on “The Limits of Trans Liberalism”) are helpful for those who are concerned about the harms that result from the imposition of traditional gender roles but do not embrace the ideological assumptions and assertions of the transgender movement.
The propositions below are not taken directly from those books, whose authors may not agree with my phrasings. I am not trying to summarize their arguments but instead hope to bring greater clarity to the debate with a concise account of my position, which is rooted in a radical feminist analysis of sex and gender. I present these ideas as a series of propositions to make it easier for readers to identify where they may agree or disagree.
Biological and Cultural
We are a sexually dimorphic species, male and female. Although there is variation, the vast majority of humans are born with distinctly male or female reproductive systems, sexual characteristics, and/or chromosomal structure. Intersex people are born with reproductive or sexual anatomy that does not fit the definitions of female or male; the number of people in this category depends on the degree of ambiguity used to mark the category. Intersex conditions are distinct from transgenderism.
The biological differences between males and females that are tied to reproduction are not trivial; no species can ignore reproductive realities. Not all females have children, but only females can bear and breastfeed children, which no male can do. Therefore, human communities have always, and will always, recognize two distinct sex categories, male and female. There has always been, and always will be, some sex-role differentiation in human communities.
Other observable or measureable physical differences (average height, muscle mass, etc.) between males and females may be socially relevant depending on circumstances. Sex-role differentiation based on those differences may be appropriate if it can be shown to be necessary in the interests of everyone in a society. This claim is asserted far more often that is demonstrated.
People from varying ideological positions also claim that these biological differences give rise to significant differences in moral, intellectual, or emotional characteristics between males and females. While it is plausible that differences in reproductive organs and hormones could result in these kinds of differences, there is no clear evidence for these claims. Given the complexity of the human organism and the limits of contemporary research, it’s unlikely we will gain definitive understanding of these questions in the foreseeable future. In the absence of evidence of the biological bases for moral, intellectual, or emotional differences, we should assume that all or part of any differences in observed behavior between males and females in these matters are a product of cultural training, while remaining open to alternative explanations.
In short: males and females are far more similar than different.
Today’s existing sex-role differentiation is the product of a patriarchal society based on male dominance. In that system, males are socialized into patriarchal masculinity to become men, and females are socialized into patriarchal femininity to become women.
In patriarchy, sex-role differentiation supports male power and helps make the system’s domination/subordination dynamic seem natural and normal. Moral, intellectual, and emotional traits are assigned differentially to each sex, creating what we today typically call gender roles. This patriarchal system of control—which is complex, adapting to changing conditions and to resistance—is designed to justify and perpetuate male dominance.
The gender roles in patriarchy are rigid, repressive, and reactionary. These roles constrain the healthy flourishing of both males and females, but females experience by far the most significant psychological and physical injuries from the system.
In patriarchy, gender is a category that functions to establish and reinforce inequality.
In contemporary culture, “radical” is often used dismissively as a synonym for “crazy” or “extreme.” In this context, it describes an analysis that seeks to understand, address, and eventually eliminate the root causes of inequality.
Radical feminism opposes patriarchy and male dominance. Radical feminism, which challenges the naturalizing of the process by which patriarchal societies turn male/female into man/woman, rejects patriarchy’s rigid, repressive, and reactionary gender roles.
Radical feminist politics addresses a wide range of issues, including men’s violence and sexual exploitation of women and children. Many radical feminists critique the gendered dress/grooming/presentation norms imposed on females in patriarchy, such as hyper-sexualized clothing, make-up, and ritualized behaviors of subordination, arguing for the elimination of these practices, not for males to adopt them as well.
The goal of radical feminism is a world without hierarchy, in which males and females would be free to explore the range of human experiences—especially experiences of love, whether sexual or not—in an egalitarian context.
Transgender is defined as “A term for people whose gender identity, expression or behavior is different from those typically associated with their assigned sex at birth.” The transgender movement rejects the automatic sorting of males and females into the categories of man and woman, but does not necessarily reject gender roles. Some in the transgender movement embrace patriarchal gender roles typically attached to the cultural categories of masculinity and femininity.
While not all people who identify as transgender have sex-reassignment surgery or use hormones or other treatments to modify their bodies, the transgender movement as a whole accepts and/or embraces these practices.
Most radical feminists, who seek to eliminate patriarchy and patriarchal gender ideology, disagree with this transgender approach. Most radical feminists believe liberation is achieved through a political project that transcends patriarchal gender, rather than accepting those gender roles and merely seeking to allow people to move between the categories. Radical feminist politics focuses on challenging the patriarchal gender ideology that restricts the freedom of most individuals, especially women and others who lack power, to explore the fullest range of human experiences.
Nothing in a radical feminist analysis minimizes the social and/or psychological struggles of—nor provides support for violence against—people who identify as transgender or people who do not conform to patriarchal gender norms but do not identify as transgender. Radical feminism is not the cause of those struggles or the source of that violence but rather advocates for an egalitarian society with maximal freedom without violence.
Many people, whether radical feminist or not, are critical of high-tech medicine’s manipulation of the body through the reckless use of hormones and chemicals (which rarely have been proved to be safe) or the destruction of healthy tissue to conform to arbitrary beauty standards (cosmetic surgery such as breast augmentation, nose jobs, etc.).
From this ecological approach, such medical practices are part of a deeper problem in the industrial era of our failing to understand ourselves as organisms, shaped by an evolutionary history, and part of ecosystems that impose limits on all organisms.
People are not machines, and treating the human body like a machine is inconsistent with an ecological understanding of ourselves as living beings who are part of a larger living world.
The state should not limit people’s freedom to choose, when those choices do not harm others. Disagreements can, and do, arise over identifying and assessing harms.
Transgender claims have led to a variety of policy debates, especially concerning the integrity of female-only spaces that are designed to foster a sense of safety and expressive freedom for females generally (such as cultural institutions) and particularly to create safety for females who have been victims of male violence (such as rape crisis and domestic violence centers). Forcing female-only spaces to accommodate people who identify as transgender reinforces patriarchy as a system and harms individual females.
Public funding for sex-reassignment surgery (such as through Medicare) raises serious public health questions that cannot be resolved by simplistic freedom-to-choose arguments.
Transgender practices involving children that are questionable on public health grounds (such as the use of puberty blockers) raise serious moral questions about our collective obligation for children’s welfare.
Intellectual Practice and Rhetoric
As in any contentious political debate, angry and uncivil words have been exchanged. People on all sides should be respectful and careful in choices of language.
Labeling a radical feminist position on these public policy issues as inherently “transphobic” or describing radical feminist arguments on the issues as “hate speech” are diversionary tactics that undermine productive intellectual and political discussion. A critique of an idea is not a personal attack on any individual who holds the idea.
This critical analysis does not demand that people accept these principles in constructing an individual sense of self. These propositions are relevant to such individual decisions, but are presented in the context of collective decision-making about public policy.
Transgenderism is a liberal, individualist, medicalized response to the problem of patriarchy’s rigid, repressive, and reactionary gender norms. Radical feminism is a radical, structural, politicized response. On the surface, transgenderism may seem to be a more revolutionary approach, but radical feminism offers a deeper critique of the domination/subordination dynamic at the heart of patriarchy and a more promising path to liberation.
Robert Jensen is a professor in the School of Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin. His books include Arguing for Our Lives: A User’s Guide to Constructive Dialogue (City Lights, 2013) and Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity (South End Press, 2007).