A Note from the Turf War Zone: Second Wave Erasure

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Please note that in this opinion piece, I am speaking only for myself; but at times I use “we” to say that I am speaking in the environment and social context of The Conversations Project, and am voicing my own sense of what some of the values and purposes of this wonderful community may be. Each participant has a voice which is equally valid on these questions, and many of my siblings who share in this process have confronted and survived forms of oppression I cannot myself imagine. May their voices be heard.

Editor’s Note: This opinion piece comes from a Conversation Project group member who read an article critical of the project’s existence.


A Note from the Turf War Zone: Second Wave Erasure
BY Margo Schulter

sub1bFirst, as a Second Wave Lesbian feminist and a transsexual woman, I will agree with this post on one point: the glossary, in its discussion of the Second Wave, should fully spell out Women’s Liberation. I apologize for not recognizing and querying this point before, and would emphasize that I see no intent here to belittle or demean. But Women’s Liberation, at its best, did and does recognize intersectionality: a connection with Black Liberation, and various anti-colonial or “National Liberation” movements. The African-American feminist Kimberlé Crenshaw hadn’t yet coined the term “intersectionality” with its special focus on the interaction of sexism and racism confronted by Women of Color, but the reality was there, if not often enough heeded and acted on by those of us with white privilege. And so Women’s Liberation does merit fully spelling out.

Having said that, I will say that this article makes me feel erased as a Second Wave Lesbian feminist who is also transsexual, and faced the kinds of attitudes on a smaller and less dramatic scale in 1973-1975 that would do such devastating harm to the Olivia collective and its Assigned Female At Birth (AFAB) women, as well as their transsexual sister Sandy Stone, in 1976-1978. It’s time for truth and reconciliation, which disappearing me and my supportive sisters of the Second Wave, AFAB and trans, won’t bring about.

As I’ve declared on Twitter and elsewhere, I’m against the T**F label, not because it was originally intended to be negative or defamatory, but because it is often now used as highly derogatory, and also because, as correctly pointed out in the article, it has not been accepted and adopted by the people to whom it refers. I will use Gender Critical Feminism or GCF at times, and Sex Essentialist Theory (SET) as my own chosen term, which definitely refers to patriarchy as usual, as well as what I see as some misguided trends in feminism since at least 1973 that reach conclusions on the sex binary too much like those of the patriarchy.

John Stoltenberg has courageously stood by Andrea Dworkin’s writings and views, including her absolutely central views in 1974 on the “primary emergency” that transsexual people face under patriarchy, as well as the need to challenge the sex binary and recognize intersex people as manifesting the diversity of nature rather than some “disorder” violating the supposedly natural rules of the patriarchy. “Primary emergency” for Andrea Dworkin applies also to the persecution and genocide faced by African and African-American slaves during what we now call the Maafa or African/African-American Slave Holocaust; Indigenous Nations and peoples during the likewise ongoing Turtle Island Genocide that started with the Taino Nation in the years after 1492; Jews (and Roma) during the European Holocaust; and, she might have added, the Vietnamese, Laotian, and Cambodian victims of what was pleasantly called “US foreign policy” in those years (1956-1975) not quite yet over when Woman Hating saw the light of day in 1974.

To erase or disregard what Andrea Dworkin said about transsexual people and intersex people in 1974 is not what John Stoltenberg or I or the other women, men, and nonbinary people –including intersex people who face their own unique oppressions while also representing all of these overlapping and intersecting categories– in The Conversations Project are about. Nor do we seek to erase what she said in 1975, the following year, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in “The Root Cause.” There she very clearly restated and lent additional force to her views in Woman Hating: that the patriarchal sex binary is “real” as a social phenomenon, but not “true,” because humans are actually “multisexual,” with what we know under patriarchy as transsexual and intersex people as part of that larger truth. As a transsexual Lesbian feminist, I will affirm that our lives and experiences, too, are refracted through the distorted lens of patriarchy, even as we seek in Women’s Liberation to build sex-class consciousness and ultimately move beyond the binaries into the realm of emancipation.

The term “Gender Critical Feminism” (GCF) may be a sincere identification, but to some of us who are intersex and/or trans, it seems like a faithfulness to the patriarchal sex binary that oppresses us is a main feature of the ideology often advocated under this label. And so Sex Essentialist Theory (SET) is a better description, and one that focuses on what is being promoted, rather than the unfortunate association of this ideology with feminism.

Very simply, we join Andrea Dworkin in saying that intersex people are part of the natural continuum of human physical sex, not an exception or a marginalized and pathologized phenomenon as the patriarchy might wish. We say that trans people, binary in either direction or nonbinary/genderqueer/intergender, have the right to resolve our different dilemmas of “primary emergency” through social and/or medical transition, if this is our informed choice, and have our identities and affiliations in our new binary or nonbinary gender status accepted.

Our identities, like those of people who happen not to be intersex or trans or nonbinary, are hirstorically contingent: we make hirstory, but not out of whole cloth, as Marx and Dworkin might concur. Being a radical feminist, of the Second Wave or any other, can be paradoxical in a way, as when Radicalesbians in 1970 affirmed the Lesbian identity that many of us in this group also affirm and embrace, while asserting that in a world without patriarchy, “the categories of homosexuality and heterosexuality would disappear.” And so also the categories of sex/gender that are often in contention in these feminist dialogues and debates.

There have been episodes of uncivil conduct, unsisterly exchanges between women who should be sisters and allies, and dubious lines of theory and practice advanced on various “sides” of the controversy for the last four decades and more. As a Second Wave activist myself, I’ve seen and lamented lots of it. One of the saddest aspects is that radical feminism to me, as to brilliant feminist philosophers such as Nicole Claude-Mathieu, means sex-class consciousness and solidarity among women. Catharine MacKinnon, although using different terminology, acts as a true sister of Andrea Dworkin in likewise seeking this solidarity as central to the feminist project of emancipation, and including trans women as women who can be and should be engaged in this common struggle against the patriarchy.

As was already clear in the 1970s, sex-class consciousness among women includes a recognition of differences: that AFAB women are survivors of childhood female socialization and oppression, as its direct targets, in a way that trans women aren’t, who at once enjoy a measure of male privilege before transitioning, and also experience certain unique trans oppressions. We also recognized then, and do now, the reality of oppression against Butch Lesbians and other gender nonconforming (GNC) women who are AFAB.

In the 1990s and after, Andrea Dworkin’s recognition of intersex people took on added and concrete significance as intersex people themselves stepped forward and challenged the medical profession’s practice of Intersex Genital Mutilation (IGM) on infants and children able neither to consent nor to resist. The rise of the Intersex Society of North America (ISNA), and then the Organization Intersex International (OII), represented a feminist uprising against the patriarchal sex binary at a most fundamental level, as well as a response to the immediate “primary emergency” of medical abuse against infants and children. As a dyadic (nonintersex) Lesbian feminist and transsexual, I will say that this movement has been a humbling and enlightening experience for me.

Recognizing that intersex people exist, as Andrea Dworkin and others of us who are dyadic did in the 1970s, is one thing: but to focus on the crisis of IGM and medical and psychological abuse, it took the intersex community itself very rightly to define and lead the struggle. The Maltese legislation of 2015 banning IGM is one landmark step, but the rest of the world remains to be made safe for intersex children and adults, and ultimately for us all. And all of us who are dyadic radical feminists, of whatever wave, should be good allies!

In the 1990’s also, the nonbinary/genderqueer movement raised new issues, with nonbinary AFAB Lesbians, sometimes identifying as “transgender Butches,” playing a central role, and drawing connections between the sex and gender binaries and other social movements. Leslie Feinberg in Stone Butch Blues (1993), and Jack Halberstam in Female Masculinity (1998), challenge us to expand our vision of what is radical and feminist and emancipating. There is, it seems to me, a creative dialectic here between the theory of the Second Wave feminism we know and love, and the renewed life of cultural and political movements we could not have envisioned back in 1975. Reading Feinberg and Halberstam has made me a better human being and a better feminist activist, and this kind of dialectic is also central to The Conversations Project.

Andrea Dworkin has called on us all to be Gender and Sex Critical Feminists, centering the sex class female, including intersex and trans women, and also recognizing that intersex, trans, and nonbinary people represent at this point in hirstory aspects of human “multisexuality” that signal the larger human truth that transcends the false reality and false consciousness of patriarchy.

And as Dworkin also rightly reminds us, Women of Color were and are absolutely central to the genius and compelling force of the Second Wave, now and then: from Angela Davis and Jeanne Cordova to the Combahee River Collective and Audre Lorde. As a woman with white privilege, I am here to listen. There is a link between Andrea Dworkin’s concept of “primary emergency,” and the concept of bell hooks: “Intersectionality allows us to focus on what is most important at a given point in time.”

As radical feminists of the Second Wave or any wave, we can walk and chew gum at the same time. We can recognize the central importance in the likely origin and known practice of patriarchy of the enslavement of women’s reproductive labor, as documented in often gruesome detail by Paola Tabet, even while also recognizing that there are intersex and trans members of the sex class female, among others, who do not directly experience this reproductive exploitation. We nevertheless unite to oppose it, because what hurts one sister, let alone a very large majority of sisters, hurts us all.

Back in 1975, I was maybe a bit overdramatic when I referred to the AFAB/trans controversies within the Lesbian feminist community as “sororicidal”: back then, there weren’t threats of death or rape or violence, although sadly those have since arisen on various sides, and always wrongly. But I see this division between women as counterproductive, and seek peace, with Andrea Dworkin offering a way of reconciliation.

That is also the spirit in which I participate in The Conversations Project, an intergenerational community that seeks to carry the wisdom and determination of Andrea Dworkin into a 21st-century world that needs radical feminism now more than ever.

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