Bringing the utopian into our gender politics

tree at grand canyon

This piece was spurred by reading on-line comments from an anarchist feminist conference, in which an organiser was repeatedly attacked for being a TERF (a trans-exclusionary radical feminist). Conflict over the terms of gender politics has been mounting for decades. In the face of deepening disagreement, might there be some overlooked common ground worth building on? In particular, could new alliances be forged around the politics of gendered futures? In asking this question, I want to consider how we might hold onto a concern with the grievous ways gender operates for many different people today, while also making space for a more utopian politics.

What is this thing called gender?

I want to suggest we approach it as a concept. As such, gender can’t be correctly and conclusively identified – there is no single right way of determining what it is or means.

Consequently, we need to ask: what do different conceptions of gender do?  And who gets to dominate their terms?

Who gets to say what a woman is – what it is to be masculine or feminine?

For trans critics, intent on pluralising the possibilities of womanhood (of taking the hood, in a sense, from being female), radical (or “gender critical”) feminists appear aggressively and relentlessly engaged in a rearguard action, intent on re-anchoring gender to biology – where being a woman involves vaginas at birth, and menopause at middle-age.

And it does seem that many cis[1]-feminists, with very damaging effects, are insistently trying to retain control over gender’s designations, refusing to accept that people’s gender identities emerge and develop in multiple ways.

The argument that trans (but not cis) people’s gender identities necessarily depend on stereotypical assumptions of what it is to be male or female, or that all those designated male at birth are effectively socialised as male is, I think, wrong.

The comments of one gender critical feminist: “You can call yourself whatever you want; being a feminist does not require me to agree with you. You cannot force others to perceive you according to your own subjective construction of reality,” may make some kind of abstract sense, but it oversimplifies how gender is acquired. (It is also, I think, a dismissively unhelpful, and exclusionary, move in a project of creating a future-oriented gender politics – but more of that later).

Gender, for me, is more than a language of personal identification, but as a social process it doesn’t work through externally uniform, continuous gender signals, such that only those designated female at birth can be socialised and oppressed as women.

Gender governs from the “inside” as well as through external “constraints” – shaping desires, preferences, choices, conduct, and style. In this sense, it works through people’s gendered sense of themselves in ways that treating gender as an external “shock force”  may under-estimate.

But while radical feminists and trans advocates sharply disagree on what it is to be a woman, do they come together, or at least do some members of each “camp” share an analytical framework, based on interests and oppression? And is this a good thing?

Janet Halley’s formulation, developed in her provocative book Split Decisions, captures this paradigm.

Halley critically describes a certain kind of US feminism taking shape according to three moves: the distinction between male and female (m/f); males dominate females (m˃f); and opposing this domination as a matter of justice (carrying a brief for f).

We might identify an analogous paradigm in some gay politics, and perhaps in some trans-politics too, framed around the distinction t/c (trans and cis-genders), where c˃t (cis-genders dominate), and where a brief, in Halley’s terms, is carried for those who are transgendered.

I think of this as a “group axis” model, since it centres a relationship of oppression between two defined groups, whose interests and experiences come from their group-based identity as well as from their position in an oppressive relationship.

It’s a model that can then be understood “intersectionally” by adding other axes.

But while popular, and while it expresses something of how we experience social life, the framework has its problems. With its emphasis on existing groups unequal in their relation to each other, it underplays the social formation of subjectivities, separates people out and detracts from normative questions about those other aspects of social life with which inequalities are enmeshed.

Gender, in Britain where I live, continues to have important relationships to labour divisions, social reproduction, violence and the compartmentalisation between public and private worlds.

But these relationships aren’t just about men’s domination or exploitation of women.

How gender relates to other parts of our worlds  has become far more complicated.

And other inequalities, such as class, geography, and ethnicity, may also substitute for parts previously defined in gendered terms.

It’s hard to know how much of a difference changing gender makes to other social divisions and practices, to how care, for instance, is done over and above whether it’s women who largely perform it.

Yet, feminist politics, at different times, has tried to go beyond a concern just with women, to promote a different set of values and ways of doing things. Lesbian feminist politics in the 1980s, for instance, for all its problems tried to advance non-hierarchical, peace-oriented, consensual decision-making, where public and intimate life folded into each other rather than staying apart.

Today, many of these ideas are taken up in grass-roots anarchist-inspired activity.

But while gender politics may be impacting less significantly than some of us would like on levels of militarism or the privatisation of care, feminist and trans activists have, I think, unpicked, or at least eased, some of the disciplining force gender has on people’s lives.

Some radical feminists argue that trans-politics reinforces gender divisions and assumptions. But, while some feminists and trans activists may subscribe to a compartmentalised conception of gender, the stronger effect of both I think has been to open gender up.

Despite their political differences, trans, queer, lesbian feminist, bisexual and gay politics have made a difference by approaching gender as something that can be done differently.

Doing gender differently may involve embodying a gender other than that ascribed at birth (as many trans people do); or by refusing to be constrained by the conventions of one’s gendered birth while remaining nominally tied to it (as many cis-feminists have done).

I think, trans and lesbian feminists often miss this shared ground – that refusing to let your gender constrain you, as many lesbian feminists attempted, is not so entirely different from refusing to let your birth gender delimit you as trans-folk have pursued.

Both are ways of doing gender differently, making gender flexible by treating it as flexible.

Yet, this common ground is often discounted, including by those, such as Susan Stryker, who suggest that cis-lesbians (unlike trans people) share the gender constructions of dominant culture.

This claim is worth addressing because it draws a bright line between gender practices that I think are less dissimilar than conventionally assumed.

Yes, lesbian feminists have mostly adopted accepted notions of gender at the level of classification: the gender that people “are”.

At the same time, as a political and social project, lesbian feminism aimed to challenge, including by living otherwise, the many ways gender governed (and constituted) women’s lives: defining or narrowing their erotic tastes, their economic activities, practical capabilities, body presentation, speech and conversation.

Perhaps most publicly, in the 1970s and 80s, British lesbian feminists learned craft skills, sought economic independence from men, and left their body hair. These developments weren’t about changing gender so much as refusing to let gender conventions govern what they should be. And like others who have challenged the prevailing matrix of clear gender classifications, lesbian feminist lives generated violence, derision, exclusion and discrimination as women lost their jobs, lost familial respect and lost custody of their kids.

One aspect, which I think is now often forgotten, is that while some lesbian feminists sought to re-imagine and re-enact what it was to be a women, others argued that lesbians weren’t even women, since to be a woman was to be heterosexually available.

The idea of heterosexuality as a necessary component of womanhood no longer has much intellectual take-up. Still, its rise and fall reveals the flux and contingency in gender understandings (of what it takes to be understood as male or female or something else).

And in this rise and fall, we may find some incitement to re-consider what gender could come to mean.

What kinds of gender futures do radical gender politics seek?

Can we develop a politics that recognises people’s lived gender experiences – the unequal, acutely troubling, often violent social experiences people face as a result of both non-conforming and conforming genders: for instance, as dykes, sissies, trans-folk, racialised, poor,  migrant female or unintelligibly gendered, while also making room for a gender politics that exceeds what we now are?

In other words, what kind of politics would take us beyond a “group axis” account?

I want to think about this as bringing the ‘utopian’ into our politics.

Today, on the critical left there is tremendous scepticism about political rationalities which seek programmatically to bring about some idealised future, particularly when it happens in ways that are divorced from the lived experiences of subordinate peoples.

This refusal to discount people’s personal wants and desires for their lives is important. Otherwise, politics can become the crushing imposition of some people’s agendas on others.

But there’s also a risk in only working politically from present interests.

It can ignore the socially constituted character of these interests (that they emerge, however resistantly, from the unequal, exploitative, irresponsible societies in which we live), and it can narrow our political imaginations.

Thinking away from current interests and concerns is part of being political, creating a space for imagining how life could be, where ontological change, that is change in how we live, desire, and inhabit the world is also an important dimension.

From this perspective, I want to ask:

what might a more utopian gender politics look like?

  1. If we choose to treat our gender interests and identities as unstable anchors or bases around which our politics must pivot, what kinds of futures might we seek?
  2. Gender wars, for a long time, have revolved around defining, policing and distributing gender identities: who gets to count as a woman or a man. It seems to me this has been at the expense of exploring what gender could become. Given the different ways gender is understood – as a social order, set of regulatory norms, performance, practice, language, culture or personal identity – how do we politically explore new gender horizons? How do we bring different conceptions of gender into conversation with each other so that they do more than clash or struggle to prevail?
  3. Is gender equality possible and what might it mean? Raewyn Connell, a prominent and long-established gender theorist, writing from a transwoman perspective, talks in a 2009 Signs article about the need for gender equality and justice rather than gender’s abolition. But does equality assume gender’s stability: that there will always be different gendered groups among whom resources, opportunities and power are shared? And how deep can equality go if gender has already shaped our preferences, desires and interests in differentiated ways; what exactly is to be equalised?
  4. Does gender’s undoing seem more satisfactory – for it to become no more socially significant than the colour, for instance, of our eyes or hair?  Or is too much lost, as several gender theorists suggest? The trouble is, in making this claim for gender’s retention, it’s not clear what dimensions of gender are sought to be held onto. Presumably, gender theorists and activists are not referring to the unequal social divisions and arrangements that feminists have long critically associated with gender.
  5. I think the arguments for gender’s value depend on treating gender as a meaningful cultural category or as an individual means of expression, but too often this remains implicit in ways that cut down on the chance to talk about what (if anything) gender has that is worth salvaging. I remain equivocal, particularly while gender remains a relational formation – where one kind of gender takes its meaning from its opposition to others (where what it is to be male depends on what it is to be female and so on). But my ambivalence about gender coincides with a recognition that valid arguments might be made about how a politics of gender elimination would erase or deny the rich practical language gender has come to provide for expressing erotic, subjective or aesthetic differences (more complex than an oppositional imagination suggests); that gender discourse provides links to past, dissident and subversive gendered traditions; and that it identifies particular valuable attitudes and practices, as feminist care ethicists might claim.
  6. Arguments for gender’s undoing may also provide a gaze that is too universalising, ignoring gender’s multiple meanings and practices within different communities, and thus ignoring the capacity for gender to evolve into something radically different from what it is (in all its plurality) today.
  7. Might we think about gender detaching itself completely from m/f, so that the divisions and identities based on masculinity and femininity, whether cis or trans, no longer have a relationship to what gender has become? This is the terrain for political conversation about a more utopian gender politics.
  8. Gender politics, of course, is not just about conversation. It is about changing institutional practice and creating new gendered cultures. So much has been going on here for decades. But the temptation on many sides to write-off others’ actions as misguided, co-opted or reactionary can imply change is a straight knowable line moving from cause to effect. As with the legalisation of same-sex marriage, I don’t think we can know what the longer term social effects of different actions or strategies (such as transitioning, gender dissidence, or policy reform) will be, or the complex ways they will interact, except by looking back (and even then our conclusions will likely differ).

Exploring our gender imaginaries – what gender is and what it could become – isn’t a call for blueprints or programmes for action: a ten point schema for instituting a new gender regime. Whether we seek it or not, what it is to be gendered will change even as social life today shapes the terms for what will follow. This is a challenge for a radical gender politics – how to think beyond the present in ways that recognise not only the uncertain quality of the future, but the provisional quality of our present-day interests and identities also.

Thanks to Antu, Flora, Sarah, Kal and Didi for their helpful thoughts and suggestions.

Some of the ideas expressed in this post have been explored in more detail in Challenging Diversity: Rethinking Equality and the Value of Difference.


[1][1] The term ‘cis’ identifies having a gender identity that is in accordance with the gender assigned at birth.


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