"What do you mean by ‘What do you mean?’?"

// 4 April 2008

I’m still struggling with the questions I was asking in my previous post What is transfeminism? and wonder if it’s actually possible to combine the two in some sort of pragmatic symbiosis. What if – despite my personal conviction that there are immense areas of overlap between trans* issues and feminism – what if it really is a case of ‘east is east, west is west and never the twain shall meet’. That’s quite a depressing thought, actually, now I see it written down…

It’s entirely possible, I think (and, like all of us, I reserve the right to change my mind!), that my experiences as a trans woman, including my questions about my gender identity and expression and so on, are such personal things that maybe it really isn’t possible for me to do a Vulcan mind-meld with feminism. Transitioning is primarily about surviving, I believe, and sometimes that makes it difficult for me to raise my head and look for the bigger picture.

But feminism? My old friend Wikipedia would have me believe that "Feminism is a collection of social theories, political movements, and moral philosophies largely motivated by or concerned with the liberation of women". Nice soundbite – but is that really the whole story?

So I thought I’d turn it around and ask the TFW readership the questions: how do you define feminism? What does feminism mean to you? How do you reconcile your feminist views and beliefs with living in what seems to be an inherently anti-feminist patriarchal society?

I realise that feminism means different things to different people and that asking the question is not going to produce one single definition that works for everyone everywhere, but maybe the vox pop responses of The F Word’s readers will help give me a better general understanding.

"Feminism is…"

"I’m a feminist because…"

Comments From You

Juliet // Posted 4 April 2008 at 1:19 pm

I’ve been wanting someone to ask this question!

My perfect definition of feminism comes from Marilyn French, who said that feminism is simply (!) believing that women matter as much as men. And Rebecca West said she always “got accused” of being a feminist whenever she evinced sentiments that differentiated her from a doormat!

So feminism defined as women matter as much as men can include anyone and everyone who believes and acts on that.

I can imagine (well, no I can’t, I can only try) that for you, Helen, transitioning is first and foremost about surviving, as you say. As a cis woman, I can’t of course speak for transwomen, but I would hope that it definitely isn’t a case of never the twain meeting etc, because we face the same issues, i.e. coping with living in a patriarchal society and trying to get more rights and freedoms. That’s what the big picture of feminism is about for me.

I don’t think you as a transwoman should feel you have to try and do a “Vulcan mind meld” with feminism. Your own questions about your gender identity and expression etc, are of course incredibly personal, and they come first. You shouldn’t have to put pressure on yourself (or be pressurised by anyone else) to try and mind meld those with anything. And it shouldn’t be necessary. You’re a feminist – you think women matter as much as men. End of. (well, not, but you see what I mean…).

Hope all that’s not too jumbled!

Steph Jones // Posted 4 April 2008 at 1:34 pm

Surely, you reconcile your Feminist beliefs *because* of the injustices you see, hear, read and encounter of “inherently anti-feminist and patriarchal society?” Is that not enough of a motivativing factor for us to be Feminists? To stand-up against such abuses by the patriarchal society around us? That to this day still shapes so much of the attitudes that by being a woman, you are somehow inferior?

It seems to me, that transitioning as a Transsexual works in the same ways as Feminist philosophy – we all have *personal* experiences, circumstances and attitudes that contribute to our own Feminism – but we all share very much the same underlying principles of why we are Feminists? And this is based on all of us observing and experiencing ways in which patriarchal and male-dominated society and culture continually regards and treats us, because we are women – whether we be female by birth, or transsexual?

Feminism is relevant to me on these accounts…

that because I was never able to accept my birth sex of being male, and that I renounced being male and subsequently transitioned to what I inately feel to be my actual sex of female, I have experienced prejudice, discrimination and violence, because of both being a woman and a transsexual woman;

that of being transsexual (that I was born with male genitals for me is irrelevant – my ‘penis’ was never anything more than a method of draining urine from my body), I did not experience male privilege that other males were afforded (see my previous post on your “What is transfeminism?” blog);

that, along with transitioning, was an utter liberation – not just a discovery of something I agreed or sympathised with, but something I could understand and relate to *personally*.

Very simply, I’m a Feminist because…

… it speaks about my entire personal existence in this World – as a woman, and as a transsexual woman.

glitzfrau // Posted 4 April 2008 at 1:55 pm

I’m a feminist because I believe that women are structurally discriminated against, oppressed, silenced and exploited, in all human societies, and I believe that this should be changed. That’s feminism for me in a nutshell.

I find your posts really thought-provoking, Helen, because my understanding of feminism – like that of Steph above – is of analysing my own experience, connecting that to the experience of other women, and trying to use that joint experience and communication to change something about our shared experience of discrimination. So in that sense, transfeminism makes complete sense to me. That said, I do always have to check my own privilege as white, middle-class, European and cis-gendered. For me, there’s a difficult line between being in solidarity with the different experience of others, and listening to that experience without presuming to appropriate it and assimilate it to my own. So yes, I agree with Juliet – I would like to think that feminists and transwomen and transfeminist can make common cause in battling the patriarchy, but at the same time I recognise that the most well-meaning and liberal of feminists can also be a source of oppression for transwomen. So for me, I feel honoured if you want to share your story and make common cause with me, but I wouldn’t presume to appropriate your cause for mine, because that might entail erasing the specificity of your experience, and refusing to acknowledge how I, as cis-gendered and middle-class, might have been complicit in making survival as a transwoman more difficult. I hope that makes sense!

Female Engineer // Posted 4 April 2008 at 2:40 pm

Im sorry I cant be as descriptive as the previous comments, but I am an engineer, and therefore find it difficult to describe what Im thinking, but being a female engineer is also one reasons why I am feminist. I love the quote “whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat!” And everyday at work I find I have to prove to somebody that I am intelligent engineer and not just the secretary. Feminism, to me means women who believe they are equal to men and maybe even better than men in someways. And we acknowledge that we live in a patriarchal society and fight to change it. I think it is a shame that some women dont believe that they live in a patriarchal society and if they do they just roll over and give in because “obviously thats the way it is supposd to be”. Feminists on the otherhand hope they can change the world and become equal to men.

Leigh Woosey // Posted 4 April 2008 at 3:08 pm

For me:

Feminism is…The broad and diverse project to establish and preserve freedom from patriarchal social norms, beliefs and practices.

I’m a feminist because… I abhor the injustices that are practiced against women in the contemporary world.

glitzfrau // Posted 4 April 2008 at 3:54 pm

Just an aside – I know that Rebecca West quote is strong and appealing, but unfortunately the full quote runs, “I myself have never been able to find out what feminism is; I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat or a prostitute.”

I don’t like the implied belittling of sex workers there, nor the exclusion of them from the definition of “feminism”, so alas, it’s a quote I’ve decided to retire from my repertoire of pithy sayings.

Samara // Posted 4 April 2008 at 4:52 pm

Feminism to me means:

1 – Recognising that men and women are created equally and deserve equal rights and opportunities

2 – Recognising that men and women do not yet have equal rights and opportunities

3 – Wanting this to change

Lynne Miles // Posted 4 April 2008 at 4:58 pm

Feminism to me is purely and simply equal rights, and recognising that we don’t yet have them. But the tricky part, and the part where we all disagree often and fall out sometimes is not identifying the goal (equality) but the method of getting there (and, sometimes, what ‘there’ looks like).

Carol // Posted 4 April 2008 at 7:51 pm

For me feminism has a lot to do with the way females are treated as being lower status than and less powerful and less valued than males. To me part of the problem is that patriarchal society works by constructing binary definitions and then giving one of the terms higher status: male vs female, masculine vs feminine, heterosexual vs homosexual etc. A kind of divide and conquer.

It seems to me that by their very existence transwomen de-stabalise this binary system, because, for patriarchy, male and female differences are set at birth and the divide cannot be crossed.

Yet many people are born straddling this divide e.g. intersex people, and people who do not identify with their biology of birth.

For me the motivation to become feminist goes way back to growing up in the 50s when many of the things I wanted to do were classified as masculine/male activities and ways of behaving. I also grew up feeling unhappy having a female body. Whether this was something I was born with or the result of patriarchal oppression, I have no idea. Changing my body was not an option then, but even if it was I don’t know if I would have opted for it. In many ways I have long felt I didn’t want to be classified as male or female or masculine or feminism. So I can’t really identify as being a cis woman either.

For me feminism is about challenging and doing away with the patriarchal system of unequal power-laden binary definitions. But it doesn’t mean doing away with all the differences between us – just doing away with a way of giving some differences higher status and more power than others.

Under patriarchy the male/female, masculine/feminine power binary is a central one. In my book, anyone who is working to dismantle that system, as a transwoman, intersex person, female or male or undifferentiated sex/gender is feminist.

Laura // Posted 4 April 2008 at 7:58 pm

For me, feminism is not just about equality; it’s about liberation and an end to patriarchy. I can have the same rights and opportunities as men, but that doesn’t mean I am free from the stifling gender norms and roles that perpetuate patriarchy.

A focus on equal rights also fails to take into account the ways in which men are both (often unwitting) perpetrators and victims of patriarchy. If we simply aim to have what men currently have, then we place no onus on men to change, nor do we enable them to escape from the patriarchal gender norms and roles that stifle them, albeit in different ways.

Anne Onne // Posted 4 April 2008 at 9:23 pm

Feminism is about believing that all people should be treated equally, that they currently are not. Feminism is another branch of the same tree as anti-racism and LGBTQ activism, so complements their ideas and concerns, but focuses on the oppressions of women. You could use the different names, or any combination thereof depending on the issue at hand, and they are all closely interlinked.

It’s the idea that we need legal equality, but also an end to repressive social constructs that rob us of half the choice any legal equality currently gives us or could give us in the future.

I wouldn’t say that feminism isn’t about transpeople, rather that I’d use the term feminist to relate to any issue about women, which may or may not also include ‘trans issues’.

Carol // Posted 4 April 2008 at 10:11 pm

For me feminism is also strongly bound up with a critique of, and resistance to, the extremes of free-market, neo-conservative capitalism. ie it’s positioned somewhere on the left of politics. But it also seems to me that this is not a significant part of feminist debates these days. IMO the commodification of everything hasn’t been that great for women and girls.

Austin // Posted 5 April 2008 at 10:54 am

I am a feminist because I believe in individualism and that people should not be discriminated against for choices in self definition.

Cruella // Posted 5 April 2008 at 8:01 pm

Feminism is the belief that men and women deserve the same rights and opportunities.

I’m a feminist because I believe that.

And actually in case it needed saying – I believe that all people should be treated equally regardless of their gender, including those who have changed gender or are between genders or who define as “other” gender. As I think Germaine Greer said: We’ll know when we’ve achieved real equality when on hearing of a new baby’s birth no-one says “is it a boy or a girl?”.

Helen G // Posted 5 April 2008 at 9:46 pm

My thanks to all who commented; your posts make fascinating reading. I was particularly encouraged by the sense that feminism is not exclusive to only one part of the gender continuum.

There seems to be an agreement that the most important thing is how the power imbalance in society manifests itself as the unequal treatment and oppression of women. Maybe we’ll return to the vexatious question of the definition of ‘woman’ (and the related discussion of ‘gender’) at a later time – and maybe we won’t ;) Suffice to say that I would need a lot of convincing that I’m not a woman. Hmm… A trans woman who says she’s a feminist, eh? Obviously a trouble-maker!

Moving swiftly on: I was very interested in this part of Laura’s comment: "[…] feminism is not just about equality; it’s about liberation and an end to patriarchy". Okay, so we’ve identified that there is a fundamental problem with the way society is structured; the question now is how we redress the balance. Yes? No? Maybe?

Back to wikipedia: "Radical feminism considers the capitalist hierarchy, which it describes as sexist, as the defining feature of women’s oppression. Radical feminists believe that women can free themselves only when they have done away with what they consider an inherently oppressive and dominating system. Radical feminists feel that there is a male-based authority and power structure and that it is responsible for oppression and inequality, and that as long as the system and its values are in place, society will not be able to be reformed in any significant way. Radical feminists see capitalism as one of the most important barriers to ending oppression. Most radical feminists see no alternatives other than the total uprooting and reconstruction of society in order to achieve their goals".

Which seems eminently sensible to me. So, if this definition is largely accurate – and it certainly seems very plausible, at least – then my next question has to be: how is ‘the total uprooting and reconstruction of society’ to be carried out?

Time for a little more reading, I think – starting with Wikipedia on the subject of radical feminism

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