How to Be a Gender Critical Feminist – Rachel Anne Williams

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Reddit’s infamous /r/gendercritical forum, a haven for self-described “gender critical feminists,” describes their basic belief system as follows:

Feminism is the movement to liberate women from patriarchy. We stand up for the rights of women to control our own bodies as individuals and to control women-only spaces as a class.

Women are adult human females. We do not believe that men can become women by ‘feeling’ like women. We do not condone the erasure of females and female-only spaces, the silencing of critical thinking, the denial of biological reality and of sex-based oppression. We oppose the ‘cotton ceiling’ and the pressure on lesbians to have sex with men. We resist efforts to limit women’s reproductive autonomy. We condemn the men who exploit and abuse women in prostitution and pornography.

“Women do not decide at some point in adulthood that they would like other people to understand them to be women, because being a woman is not an ‘identity.’ Women’s experience does not resemble that of men who adopt the ‘gender identity’ of being female or being women in any respect. The idea of ‘gender identity’ disappears biology and all the experiences that those with female biology have of being reared in a caste system based on sex.” — Sheila Jeffreys, Gender Hurts

They encapsulate their belief system in the following graphic:

how /r/gendercritical describes its belief system

This is not how to be a gender critical feminist

Take their first statement, for instance:

Feminism is the movement to liberate women from patriarchy.

Wrong: feminism is the movement to liberate everyone affected by patriarchy. Trans men,cis men, and nonbinary people are also harmed by patriarchy.

We stand up for the rights of women to control our own bodies as individuals and to control women-only spaces as a class.

I absolutely agree that women should have the right to control their own bodies. In fact everyone of every gender should have bodily autonomy. This is the fundamental basis of abortion rights.

And controlling women-only spaces as a class? That sounds nice in theory until you come to /r/gendercritical’s definition of “woman”:

Women are adult human females.

In other words, trans men are women, trans women are men, and nonbinary people are confused.

Thus, we come to the first fundamental claim of “gender critical” feminism: trans people are not who we say we are.

But is this position truly critical of gender? Or merely reactionary? I maintain that it is not critical of gender because gender itself includes the systems of power that have been maintained by cisgender (non-trans) people for hundreds if not thousands of years to marginalize trans people and deny them the legitimacy of their identities.

If “gender critical” feminists were truly critical of gender they would recognize that patriarchy also enforces cis sexism, the discriminatory belief system that trans people’s identities are not as valid as cis people’s. Thus, to be critical of gender would entail also being critical of these cis-sexist systems of power.

We do not believe that men can become women by ‘feeling’ like women.

Let’s not forget Simone de Beauvoir’s famous statement that “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.” On the “gender critical” view one is born a woman in virtue of your reproductive capacities. On a truly gender critical view, we can recognize that a trans man is a man because of the identification processes critical to his authentic self-becoming. It is not about merely “feeling” one way or another in the loose sense one “feels” hungry or “feels” tired. It is a nonreductive phenomenon that cannot be reduced to any particular set of “feelings” but encompasses one’s entire mode of being.

We do not condone the erasure of females and female-only spaces, the silencing of critical thinking, the denial of biological reality and of sex-based oppression.

“Gender critical” feminists hold that recognizing that trans men are men is a “denial of biological reality.” I would hold this is not a truly gender critical position because denying the legitimacy of trans people’s identities is a denial of phenomenological reality, of the primacy of identity in determining how we come to understand our own genders. To be critical of gender requires us to recognize how cis normativity operates in society to tie gender to a rigid biological determinism that says how you were born dictates your gender, rather than recognizing the plasticity of the human mind to break free of the rigid rules of how you must identify depending on how you were born.

To be critical of gender requires us to decouple gender from reductive physiological systems like whether or not we can get pregnant. Patriarchal gender involves rules and norms that dictate that the genitals you have at birth determine what gender you can have and how you can express your gender. Any valid criticism of gender requires the recognition that this is a biological essentialism that has no place in modern society.

Recognizing the reality of trans identities does not include a denial that people with certain reproductive systems are targeted in certain forms of oppression. But criticizing gender in a systematic fashion also requires recognizing that trans people are oppressed by a cis-normative system of power that attempts to deny we are who we say we are.

We oppose the ‘cotton ceiling’ and the pressure on lesbians to have sex with men.

Recognizing that cis lesbians can fall in love with trans women and vice versa does not entail lesbians are being “pressured to have sex with men.” Furthermore, two trans lesbians can be in a relationship together and that is a valid lesbian relationship. Lesbian means “woman who loves women”. Trans women are women and so lesbians can love trans women and still hold onto their lesbian identity without having to admit they are “actually bisexual.” To deny otherwise is an erasure of lesbian identity from cis lesbians who love trans women.

Women do not decide at some point in adulthood that they would like other people to understand them to be women, because being a woman is not an ‘identity.’

This is not a properly gender critical statement. It in fact reinforces centuries of oppressive norms that being a woman is tied into your capacity for reproduction rather than being a matter of how you understand self, a matter of self-determination. Criticizing the gender system recognizes that identity trumps whether or not you can make babies.

The idea of ‘gender identity’ disappears biology and all the experiences that those with female biology have of being reared in a caste system based on sex.

This statement “disappears” the reality of trans men who have “female biology” but who are not women, who repudiate the entirety of femaleness, who are affected by their physical sex but cannot be reduced to it. Gender identity does not “disappear biology” it overcomes it, separates itself from it, but does not render it invisible. Just like the phenomenology of consciousness not being reducible to neurological activity does not “disappear” the brain, recognizing the independence of gender of reproductive systems does not “disappear” biological systems and how they are operated on in society.

Any properly critical feminist philosophy recognizes this. But “gender critical” feminism as conceived by these trans-exclusionary-radical-feminists (“TERFs”) is more concerned with formulating a belief system that is grounded in deliberately attacking and harassing trans people, in misgendering trans people, and denying the legitimacy of our identities.

How can you claim to be critical of gender while at the same time engaging in campaigns of hatred that cruelly target trans people, especially trans women? A truly gender critical feminist would recognize that trans identity is but one axis through which patriarchal oppression operates along with gender, class, race, disability, etc.

In reality, if you want to be critical of gender you need to be critical of the systems of power that operate to harm all gender minorities, which include trans people. It is no coincidence that “gender critical” feminists have aligned themselves with the far right in order to attack trans people. That’s because they are both reactionaries, operating on a conservative mindset of holding people to regressive ideologies of gender that reduce women to walking-talking reproductive systems.

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