Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Can second-generation feminism survive after Caitlyn Jenner?

For many that question will seem ludicrous. Most people will, I think, wonder why it's even an issue.

It is an issue and has been an issue for a number of years now. Transgender people in feminist circles have started to complain that some issues—most notably, abortion—don't apply to them. These transgender people want to be considered women and feel they have a right to be considered women and, therefore, they have been arguing that claiming that abortion is a feminist issue excludes them as women. More trivially, there was an Australian add for tampons a few years ago that featured a young woman and a transgender person competing in front of a mirror. The woman won the competition by pulling out a tampon. The ad was withdrawn after many complaints were received.

Most recently, there is a fascinating piece in the CS Monitor that attempts to solve the problem in a purely rationalist fashion, as is typical of that publication

Ultimately, though, the debate cannot be resolved because it is based not on any rational arguments about what it does or does not mean to be a woman but rather on competing denunciations of what ideologies that are condemned for imposing unfair notions of womanhood.

Radical feminists argue that Caitlyn Jenner values precisely the unfair standards imposed on women in the name of ideology, which is to say they are culturally imposed values. But the consequence of arguing only against what you feel is imposed and not for what you believe is defining is that it's now open to transgender people to argue that pregnancy, and therefore abortion and menstruation, are merely ideology, social constructs, culturally imposed notions of what it means to be a woman.

Second generation feminism, as Joan Didion noted long ago, was founded on the belief that women could be a revolutionary class. The idea, derived from Marx, was that an oppressed group could, out of their shared experience, come to see themselves as having a common class consciousness that would motivate them to act collectively to change society. On this model, the distinctions between classes would disappear after the revolution. As Didion also notes, most women, especially white university-educated women in the west, remain firmly committed to the ideals of liberal individualism in their personal lives and this causes deep tensions within feminism.

That is hardly unique to feminists. One reason western liberals have consistently failed to see why socialism is always brutally soul-crushing oppressive regimes is that fail to see that it just isn't compatible with individualism. The issue of transgender women drives this issue home with a vengeance.
“These societally defined traits of sex do not define a sex,” wrote Libby Emmons and David Marcus in a piece on the conservative culture site “The Federalist” last week. “Feminists have been fighting for decades, since the suffragettes, to vocalize the non-feminineness of females. We can vote, we can fight, we can wear pants and flats, we can boss a whole room of employees without demurring. To allow the trans movement to objectify women is to accept the oppression of the female sex by the male sex, and to further accept male definitions of what it is to be female.”
To which, the transgender advocate Cristan Williams replies
In many ways, this is a valid critique of culture, says Williams, and perhaps even a valid analysis of ideas of gender. But it’s not really a critique of who transgender people are – since, like biological males and females, there is a wide-ranging diversity of how people express their notions of gender. 
“I don’t take issue with a critique of this specific person, or this specific behavior,” Williams says. “As long as that critique is made of non-transgender women who engage in the exact same behavior.” 
In fact, she says, there are trans women who are very traditionally “fem,” like Jenner, and trans women, like herself, who ride a motorcycle and everything in between. “Somehow, in some way, if I ride a Harley then I’m colonizing dyke culture,” she says of the lesbian subculture that she might be associated with – and accused of culturally appropriating as an outsider. “If I wear a dress, then I’m just a caricature of a woman.”
Both these arguments are, as Alasdair MacIntyre would cheerfully point out, easily recognizable types that are very in our culture and they both appeal to sets of criteria that preclude there ever being any end to argument. All that can happen from here on in is that both sides keep repeating their arguments only more and more shrilly with each iteration.

Ultimately, they who shout loudest will win and I'd bet good money that second generation feminists will very soon learn they are heavily outgunned in this debate. And Williams obviously grasps this as indicated by the remark, "As long as that critique is made of non-transgender women who engage in the exact same behavior." Williams knows it probably won't be because the women to whom that critique might fairly be applied constitute the overwhelming majority of women.

To answer my own question, I think this is the final nail in second generation feminism's coffin. And I further think there is not really anything one could call third generation feminism. There could be such a thing but, as of right now, there are just a bunch of ideas that haven't really gelled. And so long as being a woman is pretty much anything anyone who feels they are a woman want it to be, there cannot be any such third generation feminism.

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