You’ve heard of J K Rowling. If you haven’t, I envy you. The famous and wealthy author of the Harry Potter series has been the subject of some controversy over the past several years as she has waged a campaign against the fight for trans rights, as well as trans teenagers access to puberty blockers.
Rowling says that she worries that the upsurge in trans activism poses some sort of threat to her own feminist philanthropy.
Leaving aside the fact that trans activism (though the terminology has obviously changed) has a history going back at least as far as the suffragette movement, trans- and gender-diverse activism does not pose a threat to feminism.
In fact, feminists should welcome the upsurge in trans and gender diverse activism as new allies.
To some, like Rowling, there appears to be a tension between feminism and the trans liberation movement. In the case of trans-exclusionary radical feminists (TERFs), for example, this tension comes from a view that the nature of a person is determined by whatever gender a doctor records on a birth certificate.
TERFs, and even some more reasonable feminists, have concerns about some forms of inclusive language such as “non-male”, or “people who menstruate”. The purpose, of course, to include those people who menstruate or aren’t men, but aren’t women either.
The fight for inclusive language has long been a feminist issue. Books on all sorts of topics have been written about “him” — the supposedly generic protagonist of history. I’m not talking about representation in creative writing; I’m talking about text books and research papers that have no need of such a specified protagonist. Feminists opposed this universal “he”, and now we have constructions like “(s)he” or “he/her” as the supposedly generic protagonist of history.
But there are still people, like me, who that language doesn’t include. Maybe the protagonist should be “they”. People might say that that’s not grammatically correct, but they are wrong and missing the point.
There is a minute chance that they’ll phrase their objection: “I don’t care what someone tells me their pronouns are, I’m going to call it like I see it”.
These feminists’ worries, typically phrased as some variation of “This sort of terminology will erase women and the biological history of women’s oppression”, is a valid concern.
For socialist feminists, the oppression of women is about more than biology. The traditional family structure, for example, places the onus of childcare, care of the elderly and domestic labour on women. Patriarchal capitalism insists that this is the “natural order”, thereby allowing the state to shirk its social responsibilities.
The supposed “natural” order is kept in place by an intense and complex series of stereotypes about both women’s and men’s roles.
While outdated, the old stereotypes of women being the demure “home-maker” still contribute to the notion that women are best placed in childcare or community work, or some caring profession. Today, of course, women can be company CEOs but they still have the main responsibility for domestic work in the home.
Men have to be “strong”, ought to be main bread-winners, and be whatever “masculine” means right now. They don’t need to be particularly good at the caring.
Historically, the feminist movement has fought against these stereotypes and argued that men and women must have equal rights to be treated the same. Women should be able to be butch mechanics without being threatened with sexual harassment or demeaning treatment. Similarly, men should be able to be childcare workers.
The oppression of trans and gender diverse people stems from capitalism’s same, family-preserving impulse.
Trans and gender diverse people pose an explicit threat to the gendered stereotypes that are used to support the idea of the family as “natural”.
If there’s no single definition of “woman”, who cares for the kids and does the washing? If there’s no single definition of “man”, who is the bread-winner? If there are no “men” or “women”, how can we have a family?
What if a person isn’t confined by whatever gender a doctor assigns them at birth? What if I have no gender at all?
The TERF answer to that is the same stereotype the patriarchy handed to me as a kid.
Rowling claims to fear that rights for trans people will somehow interfere with feminism’s goal of liberation. But the biological essentialist position that she holds — that people’s nature is determined by the gender they are assigned at birth – supports the same patriarchal capitalist system that prevents not only women’s liberation, but human liberation.
Trans and gender liberation share a central goal with feminism: we want a world where it doesn’t matter what gender you are, or a world where you don’t have to have a gender at all. TERFs, despite their claims to be feminist, actively work against this goal.