In my interactions with individuals who are hostile to feminism, one phrase that I encounter repeatedly, either verbatim or in similar iterations, is
“The problem with modern feminism is…”
I’ve been thinking about this a bit lately and very clearly there is a perception out there, however misinformed it may be, that “modern feminism” is something that is deviant from an idealized version of feminism that existed at some point in the past, where it was more legitimate (because in their minds equality has already been achieved) and that now those who proudly wear the feminist label are merely “too sensitive” about things or “take things to seriously” or are just “too radical”.
For those of us who actually have even a cursory knowledge of feminism, we know that such notions are silly, to put it kindly. Feminism as a movement has only become more aware of intersectionality and more mindful of inclusion as a goal over time, and the feminism of the past was severely lacking in that area – leading to necessary movements such as womanism springing forth to fill the gaps that first and second wave feminism left unfilled in their push for equality. This can only be a good thing. We need to include a diverse range of experiences in our push for equality in society if we wish to be able to tackle the broad systemic oppression that we face, which cuts across boundaries of race, gender identity, sexual orientation, able-bodiedness, and class.
Granted, there are some issues in modern feminism which are problematic, and there are spaces for legitimate criticism that we should address – the trans-exclusionary radical feminists (often called TERFs, who self-identify as radfems), the lack of respect and inclusion for sex workers, paternalistic, first-world centric attitudes, etc.
Feminists aren’t perfect, and they never claim to be. Similarly, like any social movement, feminism is one that has necessarily evolved over time as more and more individuals have identified with it and brought their experiences to the table. We all have blind spots and having people remind us of those is helpful in pushing the movement forward rather than having it remain stagnant and unable to take on evolving oppression.
I think at the root of this, partially, is a concept called the straw feminist. One of my heroes, Anita Sarkeesian, made a wonderful video analyzing what is not only a social conception that many unfortunately have of feminists and feminism, but it’s one that is a common cliché in popular forms of media, thus constantly reinforced and validated.
Like Anita points out, the straw feminist is not an accurate representation of feminism as a movement or feminists in general, but merely a means by which detractors of feminism are able to create a division between their idealized, toothless feminism that never really existed at all and a “straw man” feminist that is hyper-aggressive, tilts at windmills, and is altogether unnecessary in our age of equality.
Nevertheless, despite what they may think, we do not live in an age of equality, and women DO face oppression, even in the first world. Just with regard to some of the things that I’ve written about, Rape culture and sexual violence are at epidemic levels and the perpetrators are rarely charged, let alone convicted – and all the while blaming the victims for their assault is normalized. Access to reproductive health and contraception is under constant assault. Transgender women face even higher rates of violence, sexual or otherwise, than cisgender women, especially if they are trans women of color, and their oppression and lack of acceptance in society even extends to forcing them out of public restrooms.
Despite increases in earnings, the gender pay gap, which cannot be explained away by lack of ambition or biological determinism, persists. Women are underrepresented in tech jobs , gaming (both of which fields in which women are not only underrepresented but face severe, organized harassment campaigns for speaking out) , STEM fields, politics, and really any upper level positions across industries. This is the oft-referenced “glass ceiling”, which Hillary Clinton famously alluded to as recently as the 2008 elections.
Feminism is not a movement whose time has come and gone, it is a movement whose time is now, and the only thing that is “too radical” in our society is the broad, systemic, unrelenting oppression that women face across the globe. Identifying with feminism is an identification with the overall broad goal of an increasingly inclusive and mindful movement actively engaged in dismantling this system of oppression, and a milquetoast, toothless version of feminism that neither acknowledges nor is willing to aggressively confront this oppression is so pointless that if it ever existed, it would beg the question of why it even exists at all.
These critiques, which I hesitate to even refer to them as, are ignorant excuses to uphold the status quo and insulate their complicity in perpetuating it from receiving any criticism. Frankly, in my opinion, if these “critics” aren’t going to lead or follow, then it’s time they get out of our way. We’ve got work to do.
Last week, the New York Times posted article about more universities’ healthcare plans beginning to cover transition for transgender students, at least to some extent. As someone who has long thought such measures needed to be implemented, I was pleased.
Unfortunately, a number of the universities involved, which is only a handful to begin with, only help to cover hormone replacement therapy, which is just one part of the equation necessary for health for many transgender individuals. As the article notes:
“…since 2008, the American Medical Association has advocated the same thing, for treatment of gender identity disorder. Other medical groups, like the American Psychiatric Association, have taken the same position. Several major insurers have taken the stance that the treatment, including surgery, can be considered medically necessary. The Internal Revenue Service considers the expenses tax-deductible.”
Even though “gender identity disorder” has been removed from the DSM in an effort to stop “pathologiz[ing] all expressions of gender variance just because they were not common or made someone uncomfortable,” for transgender individuals, transition remains the only viable option for treatment of their gender dysphoria. It is absolutely a medical necessity; the attempted suicide rates for transgender individuals are nearly 41% according to a survey by the Lesbian Task Force and the National Center for Transgender Equality.
Medical transition, usually including sexual reassignment surgery, an often prohibitively expensive procedure that is difficult to access even with sufficient funds, is also quite often required for transgender individuals to be legally recognized as being the gender with which they identify. While universities are, on the whole, becoming more inclusive and accepting of transgender individuals, the lack of means to access proper identification that matches their identity and expression not only keeps the avenue open for uncomfortable situations and unnecessary hurdles that transgender students would have to face – not only on campus but after they graduate and enter the workforce.
At a time in their lives when most people are realizing their own identities, transgender individuals must come to terms with theirs in a social arena which has conditioned them to repress theirs, or feel shame because of it, or simply to deny it altogether. The gains in equality at universities have been largely due to transgender visibility and transgender students asserting their rights to live fulfilling and healthy lives and to be safe in their environments. The coverage of transition is thus not only a necessarily medical component of transgender health, but a necessary component of transgender inclusion in the university.
“It is often more a knowledge and will gap than a mechanics and cost issue,” said Deena Fidas, deputy director of the Human Rights Campaign’s workplace project. “You have to start with Transgender 101, if you will, and demystify.”
”Demystification” of the transgender experience, muddled by a social narrative in which gender variance is viciously stigmatized, ridiculed, and even made into a justification for violence, requires visibility, and for transgender individuals to be able to be healthy, comfortable, and visible as they are, they must have access to the healthcare that they need. We have to close this knowledge and will gap, and part of that involves targeting the destructive narrative that stigmatizes gender variance in society at large.
We have to recognize the sexist gender essentialism in our discourse which stigmatizes the feminine, the rejection of a prescriptive, dominant form of masculinity, and forces women into narrowly defined patriarchal gender roles. We have to stop the sexist objectification of women which reduces them to their sexual instrumentality, cis and trans women alike. We have to combat the culture of sexual violence in which women, and to a greater extent transgender women, and to an even greater extent transgender women of color are likely to become victims. We have to value the gender expression and sexual orientation of all individuals, be they cis or trans, and work to end the gender policing which leads to bullying and hate crimes. To “demystify” what we view as deviant we have to “demystify” what is familiar to us – which means understanding and analyzing it critically and in turn working to change the system.
The United Nations recognizes access to healthcare as a universal human right, and our universities of all places should aspire toward meeting that standard. If we intend to better the world around us through promoting education, we have to make sure that we promote a safe and healthy environment for that education in the process.
NYTimes article: “College Health Plans Respond as Transgender Students Gain Visibility”
By Katharine Hughes
President Barack Obama, in his second inaugural address, said, “Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law, for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal, as well.” It’s a nice sentiment, and while equality for gay and lesbian individuals and the legalization of same-gender marriage would be a significant step forward on our journey, we would unfortunately still be far from the end.
What Obama’s statement failed to mention was the ongoing struggle for equality faced by transgender and non-gender conforming individuals in our society. This sort of erasure, deliberate or otherwise, is nothing new to trans* 1 individuals, and in fact trans* invisibility is often a lesser problem than the discrimination and hurdles that trans* individuals face when they are recognized. Trans* individuals live every day in a hostile environment simply by navigating through our society. To be trans* in America means living with a greatly increased risk of becoming a victim of violence, sexual or otherwise, being fired or harassed on the job (if one can even get a job to begin with), increased likelihood of poverty (which only becomes more likely if a trans* individual is a person of color), increased risk of harassment, increased discrimination and violence from law enforcement, increased likelihood of discrimination by government authorities, inability to obtain up-to-date identification, increased likelihood of abuse in prison, and less likelihood to have access to healthcare, among many other problems.
Casual transphobia remains socially acceptable in nearly every sphere of public life. Transphobic slurs are commonplace. To watch television as a transgender person is to walk through a minefield, as one never knows when to expect the next assault upon one’s identity in the name of “humor” or inaccurate portrayals of one’s identity. Even when using public restroom facilities, trans* individuals face anxiety knowing that if they are “found out” for using the restroom corresponding to their gender identities, they face the possibility of violence or other social punishment. Politicians have even attempted to craft so-called “bathroom bills” which would, among other things, force individuals identifying as women to use men’s restrooms at the risk of their own safety. In the case of Tennessee’s proposed “bathroom bill”, the state senator that proposed the bill also threatened to “stomp a mudhole” in any trans* individuals who were in the proximity of his family.
These are not harmless words. These are not small problems. These are not idle threats. These things have real, profound, and lasting effects on the lives of trans* individuals every day. These words and actions reinforce societal narratives about who is valid in their gender identity, reinforce an environment of violence against trans* individuals, reinforce the dehumanization of trans* individuals only trying to live unashamed and comfortably in their skin, and reinforce the acceptability of the exclusion of a trans* individuals from participating equally in society.
One thing is clear. Our journey is long, and we still have miles to go before we can rest. Steps forward in equality are important, but only if they achieve equality for all, and trans* individuals are far from equal in our society. It is imperative to recognize their struggle if we truly believe in the promise of America. We must speak out against transphobia in word and deed. We must end the stigma against gender non-conformity. We must make it clear that violence is not an acceptable response to what our socialization has programmed us to interpret as “deviant”. We must affirm the right of all individuals to feel secure not only in their bodies but everywhere in our society. We cannot erase the story of trans* people from our history or neglect to mention their struggles. We must recognize their contributions when we mention Stonewall, and we must commit equal love as well in working to achieve equality for all. Then, and only then, will our journey be complete.
1 The use of trans* with an asterisk is meant to be an umbrella term encompassing not only transgender individuals, but all individuals of non-binary gender identities.