Kes Sparhawk on WHAT IS A WOMAN?

WHAT IS A WOMAN? A non-essentialist view (response to my gender crit friends)

Imagine, if you will, that on a world far from Earth, there are a series of islands. On each of these lives a different tribe which, owing to various factors, are at peace with each other. They use outriggers for trade, and make alliance when dangerous strangers show too much interest in their land and its possible uses, and once a year there is a great gathering at the central island to feast, exchange the results of their arts, and look for likely mates. Because this is a peaceful area, there are no rules about mating except what the individuals make for themselves. One or two outlying islands have some taboos about certain people marrying each other – they’re focused intensely on building a sparse population – but the result since these taboos have been made is to actually slightly go down in population. Several members have chosen to move to other islands with their mates. The rumor is that this tribe will be modifying their rules soon. None of the others much care; it’s none of their business. Those who wish to leave will be welcomed.

To these islands one day comes a wooden boat; large enough to survive the swelling seas as long as there are no typhoons. This one has achieved it. There are only two crew members on the ship; one a member of the Mahalo tribe, and the other a most peculiar looking person, with pasty skin and hair on their chest. The returning Mahalo explains that this is how people look on the other side of the world, and this person has been a good friend – helping steer the ship safely home. The friend, called Bundi, has not enjoyed life in that other nation, and was glad to leave.

As has been true many places on Earth, Bundi is viewed with some suspicion at first. Strangers have seldom come with goodwill. On the other hand, neither have they come singly, with a friend to vouch for them. Bundi is quite good with making ropes stronger than most; it’s in the knotting. Slowly, Bundi becomes familiar; not like the rest of them in appearance, but striving to learn the language and the customs and to be trustworthy. After a time, the Old Ones of the Mahalo declare Bundi welcome, and a member.

As is customary, Bundi comes with them to the Great Gathering. There is some suspicion there. A few people object. Bundi meekly stays among the accepting Mahalo. Over the years, people come to accept Bundi as one of them; but because some still are hesitant, having been invaded the most recently, the tribes decide that Bundi should not come to the gathering. A few friends stay with Bundi every year to have a party of their own. On their island, Bundi belongs. But it would be wrong to push others to accept what they do not wish to accept. When strangers can be enemies, why destroy the pleasures of the Great Gathering? There are alternatives. Because Bundi is an outsider for most of them, Bundi accepts these rules.

A few grumble that Bundi should not live among them, that the hairy ones will always be enemies. But they’re told off pretty quickly. It’s none of their business. They don’t have to come to the island where Bundi lives with the tribe. Since these complainers are usually the hardest to get along with, the consensus is that they’re welcome to come to the great gatherings and otherwise live with their own, rather unfriendly tribe anyway. No one will force them; they cannot decide for others who is welcome.

The moral of the story, if there is one, can only be that groups have the right to choose their own members, on any criterion they prefer. If Bundi had shown hostility, probably fewer would have been welcoming. Nonetheless, Bundi became a member of the tribe once the Old Ones decided. In other tribes, it might have been by consensus. In others yet, the lack of discussion would have been the decision. Just as no one intervenes with tribal decisions, so no other tribe would have had a say about who was a member of Mahalo.

    How Power and Oppression Work

When considering trans people, I think the first consensus radical and socialist feminists need to come to is that different groups have different needs. Each has the right of association. Others have every right to condemn with whom they associate, even distrusting the decisions of the group, but the base must be what the group does; how it makes decisions, how it lives its life.

When groups come together to fight oppression – and as I’ll discuss, women are oppressed and need to come together – they can decide if they wish to include certain groups for any reason. They may not like their politics, they may not trust them to stay nonviolent, they may decide that only people born to the oppressed class should participate for whatever reason. Whatever the reason, the fundamental right to justice is to decide whom to trust, and at whose side you will fight.

People raised in the oppressed group – no matter how badly they felt they did not fit in – have a responsibility to accept this. If, as a group, one side has more power and control, the endangered group has the right to make rules for their safety. No member of an oppressor group can judge this unless they are given permission to judge.

Trans “women” have ignored this rule from the beginning. As a result, the likelihood of permission is far lower than it otherwise would be. When a group declares the oppressed group’s feelings irrelevant, offers no compromise, and uses physical and emotional manipulation to get their way, they are demonstrating ill will. When they use the power of the state to back them, they are underlining their intention of having their way over another, less powerful group. Add to that more economic resources for the group, more propaganda while blocking the voices of the other, and it’s pretty clear that the ones raised as oppressors have, despite verbally rejecting their privilege, cling to it despite the result to the lives and rights of others – rights they try to remove, including the right to a livelihood and the right to speak.

In short, to say trans women are women begs the most elemental of questions: can oppressors by fiat join an oppressed class? Can white people who grew up members of a colonizing population simply declare one day that they are not white? Can the ablebodied buy a wheelchair and claim membership among the disabled? Can those who learn sign language, but who are not deaf, join a community which only speaks by sign language and considers itself a community? Can the wealthy, while not giving up their wealth, declare themselves by goodwill members of the working class? And if they do give it up, do they then have full presumption to speak for the workers, despite the fact they learned a different way of speaking, body language, arts and scientific study?

When women ask such questions, others dismiss them, saying that the cases are not parallel for whatever reason. By tacitly accepting that some marginalized people have the right to make their own definition of who belongs with them, and explicitly making clear that women are not among those marginalized people, one belief becomes very clear: as far as other groups are concerned, women, as a class, are not oppressed, and are not Other. Fifty years of analysis, the development of an understanding of patriarchy, the demonstration that no matter how privileged at other intersections some women are they can’t buy out of the assumption that their body is the entitlement of men, mean nothing. The result is an absolute denial that women have the right to defend themselves if others decide to invade. Women are not given the right of naming their own oppression. When they try to do so, they are attacked. We are again living in the 1950s.

    How Women Developed Women’s Liberation and Lost It Again

Now, part of this comes from the rise of identity politics through the civil rights movement. Both the first and second waves arose out of civil rights movements primarily focused on color and ethnicity. What gets hidden in that narrative is that women of color, like their white sisters, began to notice that they were not equal in their own movements. They began, more and more, to define themselves.

Since whites were a majority in Western countries, it was easy for white women to focus primarily on issues which affected them. Since middle class white women – the ones privileged to go to college – had the leisure to go to meetings and spend weekends at protests, they had the additional privilege of standing up without fear of anything more than harassment, threats, and some physical violence. (Please note that they were subject to that, especially lesbians, who were viewed as an embarrassing deviation by the left; gay rights was rejected by every left-leaning group I knew in 1970 or so.) Only radical feminist groups stood up for the right to choose one’s sexual partner, as a logical extension of the right to control one’s own body.

The third wave has largely made this reality invisible, but it made a huge difference, since not all lesbians were white. The second wave was in fact arguably more mixed in their push for women’s rights because of the extreme marginalization of lesbians of color in their own communities. Adding to their invisibility was their determination to continue loyalties with the rest of their people – so their silencing began in struggles within groups of color, where women had little say, but much to say. At the same time, they were attracted to women’s liberation, because it spoke to them in ways their male-dominated culture did not. But white women, who coming out of the civil rights movement had commitment but coming out of white culture had limited knowledge, often needed more educated than women of color had energy for.

The betrayal of this struggle is best illustrated by the “inventor” of the third wave, Rebecca Walker. Rebecca was the daughter of Alice Walker, one of the most notable Black feminists of the second wave, and a white father. She wrote dismissively of the failures of the second wave to care about black women, even though her mother spent most of her life as a black feminist. Alice Walker for the rest of her life wrote painfully about her daughter, trying to understand how they had become estranged. Rebecca became a well-known “third wave” feminist by using her mother’s fame to be published in a second wave publication (Ms) and gaining a writer’s contract. In other words, she used the resources her parents had acquired and the credibility of her mother to attack her. And since, the failure to understand that women of color were involved in the women’s struggle from the beginning, despite error and unconscious racism, has been used to dismiss feminists as feminist, labeling them as “white” and therefore oppressor class only (no intersections for women!) is Rebecca Walker’s legacy to identity politics.

    How Postmodern Theory contributed to the Destruction of Women’s Liberation

The history of the feminist movement has not been fully told. When Women Studies shifted to Gender Studies, the material base of feminism was lost. Queer theorists are not feminists, coming mostly out of the embrace of postmodernism, a literary theory without a material base. Postmodernism is influenced the most by textual critics who argue that the texts themselves are what imprison people; that changing the texts will therefore liberate them.

This is the precise opposite of Marxist theory, and goes against most radical feminist theory. These groups can be described as materialist progressives. Those dependent on postmodernism are not; they are liberals, committed to language and ideas as the source of status quo and change as all liberals are, just as their predecessors in feudal times were committed to God as the source of the status quo and change. Materialists/progressives ascribe oppression and liberation to changes in the material conditions of life. One does not “enact” oppression; one attacks it with physical resistance and economic change. And one analyzes it via power: who has control? For whose benefit do most laws exist? What do educational systems perpetuate? What do majority religions value? If there are contradictions to overall power, do they operate to overthrow or to teach acceptance?

To “enact” reality is to assume that material conditions are not the base of power. As such, the theory is embraced by people who have achieved economic and state power, or see it in their grasp, and wish to keep it. Academics, for example, can obtain great status with a theory whose actual fundamentals require careful study to find what’s missing; a theory which celebrates obscurity by its own definition of erasing master narratives as a way to end oppression. Marxian scholars – from Marx through Gramsci to Paolo Freire and the present day – view theory and praxis as dialectical, each informing the other and guiding a culture to resistance and revolution. As such, ideas must be accessible to those who are oppressed; the obscuration (?) of ideas is a deliberate ruling class tactic. Postmodernism – even to some extent its more material sisters in poststructuralism – illustrates how that obscuring works. The status quo cannot be challenged, let alone overthrown, by symbolic means. It can only perpetuate those already in power.

In short, the oppressed have always been defined as Other, and marginalized, by those who benefit from the system. The oppressors have control of the structures which keep people unquestioning, or at least obedient. But within each group, marginalized or central, a particular way of doing things, a method of interpretation, develops. Some of these are higher status – a ruling class will define the nature of art, what are the highest status foods, and so forth. But every group develops its own culture. And that culture is partly passed down with tacit assumptions – of course no one wears bright colors to work; of course one doesn’t raise one’s voice when excited. They are passed on by each cultural group.

This communication is useful for maintaining structures of . It’s inevitable in a hierarchical society that the powerful communicate with the less powerful in a certain way which maintains that power. On the other side, the marginalized, who have more to lose when moving among the powerful, have their own code; ways to avoid triggering entitlement rage, for example. They also have customs and ways of speaking among themselves which builds relationships – highly necessary for survival in a marginalized population.

    Culture and Meaning in Women’s Community

These communicative behaviors have been well-established among communication scholars, linguistics, and others who pay attention to difference.

It should go without saying that any definition of woman needs to include both the biological and the material consequences of being female. At the same time, a materialist does not embrace the religious aspects of gender; mystical abilities assigned to one sex or other proceeding from biology, for example. “Woman” is most important for its social implications; that is, the dynamics of power and control. In other words, the “body” of a woman is the site of struggle on which political dynamics play themselves out. It has meaning, and those meanings have consequences.

Without meaning, a body is… just a body. Some have abilities many have not got. In a social world, individual interpretation of one’s body is no one else’s business, unless of course there are medical or other implications in certain specialties. In such a case, a body is only relevant to its owner and the professionals s/he engages in adjusting it for a better physical or mental personal life.

But meaning is universal to humans, except a few extremely brain-damaged individuals. Meaning is culture, and culture is meaning. As Edward Hall says, culture teaches us what to pay attention to and what to ignore. All humans have feet, but only particular cultures assign the feet meaning , so that pointing a foot at an object is a deadly insult. All humans have right and left hands, but some cultures view the use of those hands with awe or disdain. Whether a human is sinister or not may well be which hand they use as dominant.

Cultures may acquire these meanings almost at random, from other power dynamics. But one tendency of bodies is universally noticed historically: the ability to produce children from inside them. And, once noted, culture has assigned meanings to that.

Those meanings are called “gender.” Without going into the early worship of the female for its ability to produce children, I will summarize what gender has meant since the rise of agriculture at least: a division of labor, a particular place in the acquisition of resources, and a constant awareness that culturally men and women are not the same because of reproductive distinctions.

–Kes Sparhawk

2 thoughts on “Kes Sparhawk on WHAT IS A WOMAN?

  1. kestrel sparhawk December 8, 2018 at 20:45

    Nice to see it! Thanks.

  2. sbt42 December 11, 2018 at 06:38

    One question, regarding the section about post-modern theory. Looks like a typo. A paragraph begins, “This communication is useful for maintaining structures of .”

    What’s the missing word at the end of that sentence? “Oppression”? “Hierarchy”? “Power”?

    Just checking in about what I otherwise think of as a stellar essay.

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