Some feminist reflections

// 30 April 2008

Not mine for a change…. Jessica Valenti, over at Feministing, has been reflecting on the recent racism issues in the blogosphere and publishing worlds. It includes this admission.

But I think that I’ve been focusing so hard on changing mainstream feminist institutions, organizations that I saw as the ones with power, I ignored how a blog (or a book, or a person) could have that same power and do the same harm that I was working so hard to stop. For that, I am truly sorry.

From Feministing

At first I wanted to say well done but then realised the inherently problematic dimensions of a white (albeit UK, working class, queer) feminist congratulating another white feminism over their take on racism. See challenging white supremacy is an ongoing thing. So I’ll leave it at hoping the words transform to actions too.

Meanwhile Jack at Feministe has been reflecting on what does and doesn’t constitute “feminist”. This interests me greatly because (whilst we’re on self-reflection) I had very conflicted feelings about the recent post on transmen. As a queer activist I am completely behind supporting trans-communities but I found myself thinking “well I see the point to discuss and work around inclusion of transwomen but if feminism has to be responsible/involved with transmen too, people who have eschewed their female identities then I wonder whether we’re going to end up with a notion of feminism and women’s issues which is irrationally broad and meaningless”. I’m not, by the way, saying this to be provocative, I’m merely being honest about my responses.

I’m happy and excited to be joining an explicitly feminist and feminist-centric blog. But I wouldn’t be if my participation was predicated at leaving parts of my self – my identities and my politics – at the door. I live and function in this world in large part a as a woman, but also as a person of color, a Puerto Rican, a queer person, a genderqueer butch. These identities don’t merely intersect; they overlap, and they change each other in the overlapping. As I said over in that ill-fated comments thread, my entire identity is more than the sum of its parts; the overlap creates something new, something intrinsically meshed that can’t just be spliced apart into neat, discrete categories. Likewise, my politics are interconnected. I can look at my politics and point out some different, distinct threads – “Oh, that’s a feminist politic right there; and that one, that’s anti-racist; and this one here’s trans positive.” But things aren’t always so discrete. I find few issues to be purely feminist, or purely about race or class or anything else.

From Feministe

I completely agree with this, absolutely and without reservation (as I do with her reminder that, after recent controversies, racism and race exclusion isn’t dead in feminism). But am still left disquieted about the transmen issue and my response to it. I don’t have any easy answers here, just questions I guess…

Comments From You

Shev // Posted 30 April 2008 at 4:36 pm

HI Louise,

I am quite disquieted by your response as well, although totally understand it.

So what does exactly qualify one to be included within a feminism’s boundaries (I say A feminism, as I totally dispute this notion of a global ‘sisterhood’ – the idea of one feminism for all has long been debunked, and recent events show how true this still is)?

A transman can be strongly affected by issues WELL within feminism’s remit – punishment from society for not acting out a gender role that society considers normative within a biological sex. Fertility issues (note: Thomas Beattie). Rape. Heterorthodoxy and heterosexism. Violence from men wishing to assert their own masculine dominance.

Great, we should create spaces that are safe for women identified women, and these should always be available. But if we do this at the expense of people who do not fit neatly into our society’s binary categories, then we are no better than the patriarchy that we claim to oppose. The feminism that I see at work today, whilst it does much good work, totally fails to address the needs of many it (falsely) claims to represent.

My own gf, who identifies as genderqueer, has long had issues with feminism for precisely this reason. Right from the beginning of the second wave, female masculinity has been a very sore subject within feminist circles, with many women claiming that butches, transguys, bois, etc. merely aim to ape and appropriate male power at the expense of their feminine sisters. As a result, masculine looking women have often had a really tough time in feminist circles, quite contrary to the popular image of butches, lesbians and feminists all being pretty much interchangeable.

It is really disappointing that the recent discussion of intersections of oppression has not led to a more nuanced study of the ways in which oppression affects people. Yeah, you’re a women, and therefore generally have less power within the patriarchy. I speak now, not to the author, but to anyone reading this blog, and yes, jump to sweeping conclusions (hey, at least it’s exercise). However, you are (probably) white, heterosexual, cisgendered, able-bodied, and you are almost definitely middle to upper class, with a strong enough socio-economic background to access the internet, and education enough to articulate yourself well. That puts you in a position of massive privilege, and not, therefore, the person to police the boundaries of feminisms.

chem_fem // Posted 30 April 2008 at 7:11 pm

Shev – That puts you in a position of massive privilege, and not, therefore, the person to police the boundaries of feminisms.

I don’t think I’m understanding what you are saying here. The thing I like about feminism is that it isn’t an organisation, but rather a group of ideas or ideologies. That means if I label myself as a feminist, then no other feminist can claim to speak for me on any issue because we aren’t all singing from the same song sheet (all the bloggers here admit that they are only really giving their own view or interpretation). It’s why the only other real label I give myself is athiest, because to me it is the same principle.

So then surely nobody can police it and the level of privilege of any one feminist is not even an issue, because you can’t police the boundaries of something that isn’t really an entity. Even if I consider something not to be feminist, it is still only my opinion and I may be at odds with or in agreement with all other feminists, but I can never ‘police’ it.

Louise Livesey // Posted 1 May 2008 at 9:56 am

Shev – I agree with the disquiet – I am disquieted by my own reaction as a member of the queer community and someone who has worked with transpeoples on transissues for over a decade. However, whilst I absolutely agree that transmen can be affected by some of the same issues that feminists are concerned with, I’m not sure I am convinced that that therefore makes transmen feminisms’ (I agree that there are multiple feminisms by the way) concern. I’m not saying there are not strong coalitions to be formed (indeed exactly the opposite) but it’s like that old gem about male rape. Male rape (that is rape where a man is the victim) is a big and important issue, it’s an issue which has strong links with feminist activism and thought but is it a feminist issue? For me no, men should take responsibility for this themselves. Which is not to say that feminists shouldn’t consider it, organise around it and coalesce with other groups who share viewpoints but that it can’t be considered to be something feminisms should be assumed to be interested in.

I’m working through this as I go and I completely agree that intellectual fetishisation of cisgender is ridiculous and redundant and that’s not what I aim to do. But for me I wonder about that appropriative instinct feminism has – surely to make transmen feminisms’ concern is, in some way, to deny transmen the right to speak out for themselves and organise for themselves? Just as white feminists did in the 1970s and 1980s with feminists of colour and developing world feminists? Indeed as some white feminists do now still, see recent controversies. I guess what I am grappling with is that feminisms cannot become responsible for every non-patriarchally invested group which doesn’t deny the fact that feminisms should offer coalition support to those groups (in my view).

As for female masculinity, that’s a different issue. Butch women don’t “give up” or “swap” their femaleness, transmen do. Genderqueer is something I am in favour of and interested by in the sense that it allows post-modern play and challenge to fixed dichotomies of gender. Challenging gender roles is a must but I guess one of the core problems I have is that I don’t necessarily see transpeople doing that, instead I have tended (from experience here, not theory based) to have seen transpeople reinscribing patriarchal notions of gender roles in ways which I find difficult to align with my feminist beliefs. Hyper-femininity or hyper-masculinity surely can’t be a goal for feminisms? Or maybe I’ve just hung out with the wrong transpeople! That’s entirely possible.

As for assumptions about our readership (or indeed our writing) – I wouldn’t be so hasty. Certainly speaking for myself (and myself alone) you’re wrong on four out of your seven points. Yes I have privileges, yes I interrogate them at every opportunity, and yes part of that was the discussion I started. But don’t dismiss writers and readers on the basis that you assume they fit into a particular model of feminism – surely that’s as bad a thing to do as assume a single “type” of any political or social grouping?

Louise Livesey // Posted 1 May 2008 at 11:34 am

I’ve just discovered this e-book by Julia Serrano On the Outside Looking In: A transwoman’s reflections on feminism and will be diligently reading it and thinking about this further. Any other recommendations for my reading?

Ariel Silvera // Posted 1 May 2008 at 4:17 pm


Your reservations are understandable. At the moment, I am grappling with this myself, being as I am of the trans/genderqueer persuation. It’s hard. It’s hard because of many reasons, such as the fact that a lot of passion we have as feminist (or pro-feminist) activists involves a number of complex emotions. Because feminist causes have been appropriated so much by those who are not feminists in the slightest.

However, personally, trans-feminism makes sense.

There are many feminisms, this is true. However, what feminisms have in common is a critique of the patriarchal order. From my personal feminist vantage point, I believe the theory of intersections applies still –we need only add “trans” and “gender identity” to the different vectors of oppression that may bear down on somebody.

I see feminism as a movement that attempts to dismantle the harmful oppressive element known as the patriarchy. I see heteronormativity as a strong pillar upon which patriarchal power is built. Not the main one, but an important one. As such, anything and anyone who challenges heteronormativity is concerned with feminism. Those whose nature does not challenge heteronormativity can be allies and help in the struggle. This includes anyone on the transgender spectrum, the transsexual spectrum(s), or the intersex spectrum.

Is appropriation a risk? Of course. It’s a risk any large, subversive social movement has. It’s happened before in feminism, it’s happened recently in the feminist blogosphere, and it WILL happen again. Because we are all human beings who make mistakes. Yet this is not enough of a reason to remove the struggles of transmen from Feminism, simply because some over-eager cisgender/cissexual feminist writer may err towards appropriation. At least, it’s not enough of a reason for me.

There is also the concern about feminism’s message being diluted. I do not believe this is the case. Has the inclusion of women of color diluted the cause of white women? Has the inclusion of queer women diluted the cause of non-queer women? The answer to these questions is no. And that is what makes feminism into such a fascinating, lively movement that just won’t quit.

I used to call myself a pro-feminist, because I still saw myself as male. I do not see myself as simply male anymore, and as such I am happy to call myself a feminist. I believe that if feminism is to fundamentally change what is wrong with society, then it must be built on strong alliances, maintaining a strong critique of the patriarchal system of oppression.

Just my 2 Euro Cent.


Ariel Silvera // Posted 1 May 2008 at 5:00 pm


Where I said:

“As such, anything and anyone who challenges heteronormativity is concerned with feminism. Those whose nature does not challenge heteronormativity can be allies and help in the struggle. This includes anyone on the transgender spectrum, the transsexual spectrum(s), or the intersex spectrum.”

The order came out wrong. Here is the sentence order that makes sense:

“As such, anything and anyone who challenges heteronormativity is concerned with feminism. This includes anyone on the transgender spectrum, the transsexual spectrum(s), or the intersex spectrum. Those whose nature does not challenge heteronormativity can be allies and help in the struggle.”

I did not mean those outside heteronormativity should be mere allies, but quite the opposite.

Louise Livesey // Posted 1 May 2008 at 5:05 pm

Dear Ariel,

Thanks for your thoughtful comments on this. I am not sure the paralells with women of colour or queer women really hold for me, because they inhabit the social identity of women. Whereas transmen inhabit the social identity of men. I agree that transmen can be pro-feminist (just as non-trans men can be) but don’t necessarily see trans-mens issues as necessarily feminist, in the same way that I don’t see gay men’s issues or straight men’s issues or father’s issues as necessarily feminist. (And to be clear I am *not* conflating the two categories, just making the analogy).

I agree that trans-activism and theory challenges the patriarchal order, absolutely, but I don’t necessarily think everything which does so should be labelled feminist. I firmly believe, for example, that the radical men’s movement should be labelled as just that, not as the pro-feminist men’s movement. Men have issues which aren’t related to women and to feminism and should be confident in that. (Just to be clear I am not referring to the conservative men’s movements to whom I have another, more profound response).

I am also not entirely convinced that being a trans-man necessarily means challenging the heterosexist or patriarchal order. Just as being a woman doesn’t necessarily mean the latter either. Yes those who do challenge the heterosexist and patriarchal order can be allies to the feminist movement, but just assuming this comes with the territory, to me, feels a little determinist.

And to be clear I have, and will continue to support transwomen as feminists, no problem there. It’s transmen’s role I’m questioning here.

Shev // Posted 1 May 2008 at 5:07 pm


I get that you were interrogating your own beliefs – and I really admire what I think you were doing with this post (i.e. examining ideas about the remits of feminism). I do really enjoy your writing, and my critique should not be taken as any kind of attack – more as a way to open what I think is sorely needed dialogue.

I really really really do not mean to denigrate the work done solely for women – even if feminism never addressed any non-female concerns, ever, that would be ok, because… (whisper it) all self-identified women have value in and of themselves, aside from any system within which they exist…

Additionally, I REALLY do not want to put forward the idea that feminism should speak ‘for’ transmen (hey, we’re all ‘other’, right?) – I was quite horrified to read recently a post from a young feminist (self-identified as having all the privileges) who was quite seriously putting forward the view that since WOC/working class women/alternative sexualities/delete as appropriate, do not have a voice in the mainstream, it is white feminists’ *duty* (emphasis mine) to speak for them. I would be distraught to think that I had inadvertently put forward the same view. In any trans/queer activism I have been involved in, there has always been a clear distinction between feminism (although many called themselves feminists), gay rights, and queer/trans rights, so I certainly don’t believe that everyone should be under one patriarchy-fightin’ umberella.

I guess what I mean to say in a really short sentence is that feminism for me is a way to break down what society deems acceptable way of performing gender – and it is not just women who are affected by this (PHMT – lol). And a lot of feminists that I ahve come into contact with just aren’t interested in something that either does not affect them directly (street harassment, Hooters, advertising), or something happening very far away that we can all get around and say “How utterly awful” (see FGM, women’s education in Afghanistan, land rights in India etc). There doesn’t seem to be an in-depth exploration of the networks of power that we are ALL caught up in, and I am really glad you started this discussion.

Finally, if I at any point during my last post implied that Louise and chem-fem were purposefully stalking the ‘borders of feminism (which is a phrase I used on purpose, but now see I misused entirely), looking for non-feminists to exclude, then I apologise, I must have been sleep-writing again (it is possible, as I am at work)…

Louise Livesey // Posted 1 May 2008 at 5:28 pm

Dear Shev,

I didn’t take any offence at all – I was pleased by your probing response and by the fact that you felt able to post here. And I blush at the compliments on my writing – thank you.


chem_fem // Posted 2 May 2008 at 11:59 am

Sorry Chev. It’s ok, you didn’t make implications about me. I think my post perhaps was a tad too direct anyway.

I read all of your post and agreed and understood with all but the last line and I didn’t explain that in my comment. I write e-mails like that – write the point of the e-mail and then go back and put all the nice greeting bits in afterwards :)

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