Feminism and Humanism: Does Our Advocacy Go Far Enough?

Feminism and Humanism: Does Our Advocacy Go Far Enough? June 21, 2020

Lindsey LaMont, Unsplash.com, CC0 Licensing

Let’s begin with a story. This one is about someone in a community of queer women back in Canada. We’re going to call her “Thomas,” because she used she/her pronouns but kept a similarly masculine name; and had no interest in physical transitioning; and dressed in a decidedly masculinized manner.

Amid the ongoing flurry of “gender-critical” discourse on social media, I find myself thinking about Thomas a lot… because, in many ways, she was exactly the sort of threat that advocates for sex-essentialism elevate in their discourse.

Yes, we have had instances of highly masculinized persons being placed in women’s prisons and doing harm to the inmates there. (And we’ve had instances of trans persons undergoing unconscionably long stints in solitary because the alternative is brutalization in gen-pop. The answer to this issue, as we’ll get to, is massive carceral reform.)

And yes, we also have instances of trans persons committing sexual assault, whether upon minors or adults, in bathrooms or in other public spaces. (Along with far more non-trans persons who commit sexual assault in public spaces; and plenty of trans persons who are victims of public sexual assault, battery, and murder themselves.)

But the political divide really comes down to how the “gender-critical” elevate these incidents of trans persons in feminized spaces to the point of distorting the statistics for violence. In so doing, they paint a profoundly essentialist image of how violence is enacted: suggesting, for instance, that it’s the presence of a penis in a group of women that automatically makes the group unsafe… when the vast majority of queer persons (or, heck, most straight women who have been around women for any length of time) can absolutely tell you about the sexual, physical, and other forms of controlling violence that feminized persons perpetuate amongst one another, too.

“Gender-critical feminism” is an ideology, in other words, with such a distorted focus on outlier cases that it ends up suggesting a division between male- and female-sexed bodies is the issue for women’s safety.

Which is why I find myself thinking about Thomas.

Simply put, Thomas was creepy. Thomas made feminized persons in our queer community feel incredibly uncomfortable. She would stalk them. She would manipulate them. She would make them feel unsafe.

And we all knew it, and warned one another, and as a collective kept an eye on her. We didn’t know if she was early in a transition process and just finding herself, but it also didn’t matter, because her actions around romantic interests were unacceptable.

But the thing was, she was also hardly the first person in our community to make other people feel unsafe. The very centers of our queer community were women who believed that bisexuals were just transitioning to lesbianism (not unlike the gender-criticals who think non-binary people are just trying to escape the trauma of our biological sex) — and so we warned each another about them, and were on careful lookout for more biphobia in our shared community.

Likewise, some of the women in our community were “handsy” — as in, indifferently committing sexual harassment and sometimes full-on sexual assault, often under the cover of being drunk — or worse, of their targets being drunk.

And others were violent. Some were even domestic abusers whose jealousy led them to stalk people they saw even hanging out with “their” girls.

The queer-feminized community handled all this chaos as best it could, by keeping everyone informed, developing stronger support networks around those hurting, de-centering those who had caused harm, and re-centering the work around different community leaders. But declarative, line-in-the-sand excision from the community on whole? No. There were better tools in our toolkit.

Which is why I find “gender-critical” feminism to be highly reductive: because it doesn’t have a more systemically just world in mind. Gender-critical feminism is operating, rather, with a strong reliance on existing institutions: judicial and state bodies, in particular, which it wants to favour the creation of a line drawn as firmly as possible between one class of persons that will always be victims, and one class of persons that will always be perpetrators. Whether it’s tackling prostitution, pornography, or trans discourse, that always seems to be the end of its vision. Use the state — wield the state — to compel an eradication of crimes against women through the legal acknowledgement of more crimes, each with a clear carceral threat and strongly sex-essentialist formation.

(Again, though, there is coherence here. Just, frustratingly limited in its scope, and highly detrimental in its practice.)

That said, “gender-critical” feminism is hardly alone in being so reductive. We’re in a tedious era, that is, wherein the mere existence of a prominent female-sexed body in a film will lead to academic scholarship and mainstream entertainment-media calling the film “feminist”; and where people go around calling themselves “feminist” simply for living in female-sexed bodies, or with a feminine gender identity.

It’s not enough. Not for the underlying systems that need to be reimagined for the creation of a more just world for all.

So, just as I indicted progressivism in general for not being sufficiently humanist… now it’s time to turn a fuller, harder gaze upon the unjust status-quo that many feminist movements often unwittingly support.

Feminism as Neoliberal Catch-All

I remember struggling with the difference between humanism and feminism in my early twenties, back when there was a lot of pressure to use the word “feminism” instead of “humanism,” because if you refused to use the word “feminist” you were “anti-feminist.” This was back in university days, when terminology had such tremendous import, and quarrelling over banners was the height of activism: whether between religion and atheism, or “moral” conservatism and sexism/racism/homophobia.

Meanwhile, I was struck by the Penn & Teller skit where they burn a U.S. flag to illustrate the danger of putting any object before the thing it is supposed to represent. I’d heard all the arguments about “feminism” being the correct term for the advancement of a more just society, even though its linguistics were skewed to one side, on the grounds that one needed to focus on women to achieve that more just society.

And, okay: that was a coherent argument, at least.

I just didn’t agree with it, even as I of course used the term to fit the milieu. But I was having an especially hard time with this concept when I’d listen — in white middle-class campus spaces — to women use the term to establish themselves within the neoliberal paradigm: not to deconstruct that space, but to live more comfortably within it. I wasn’t happy, either, with many fellow feminists’ “let the pendulum swing the other way for once” approach to justice: the retributive side of it, that is. I didn’t want to wield the law against anyone. I wanted a more just law, full stop.

Like many other feminists, then, I instead argued that a more just world would also see male persons freed from their own traps in the gender paradigm. I argued that a better world had to take into account the need for male persons to be freed from gendered expectations, too — such as being compelled to serve in the military during wartime; to shut up and deal with their mental health issues alone while supporting their families; to “man up” and never play around with self-expression in any way that looked “soft”; and to put career before time with their families/kids.

And there was a term for that — egalitarianism — which I used for a bit, until I saw that one of its main advocates was herself so beleaguered by criticism within the feminist sphere that she started to go on the attack against them instead of continuing to focus on the issues that mattered most. (Just like, today, “gender-critical” activists have poured a significant slice of their attention into how they’re treated for denying trans and non-binary persons’ gender identities.)

Simply put, I didn’t want to get embroiled in any activist politics predicated on how “victimized” one has been by other activists.

I just wanted to talk seriously about what will actually bring us to a better world.

Systems, Systems, Systems

In that work, of course, there are an immense number of brilliant thinkers, feminist and otherwise. But I was going to find most of them in communities of Black, Indigenous, and Other Persons of Colour: places, that is, where the profound overlap between issues of gender, class, and ethnicity is more fully brought to bear on ideas about what a more just world requires.

On Juneteenth, even, I listened to a splendid interview with Dr. Angela Y. Davis, who spoke with optimism at the end of a long and storied academic-activist career, about the rise of feminisms tackling systemic injustice along economic and structural lines: intersectional feminisms that would go where the fight was most urgent, to target a system’s failings on whole. Dr. Davis doesn’t pander to the university set, either; she knows that a great deal of vital thinking and action happens far from those who have already benefited from the system by being educated within its preferred parameters.

The problem is, public intellectuals like Dr. Davis are speaking within a commercialized and commodified world that has handily woven many notions of activist resistance right into itself. Women’s Studies has a place at the table in universities that leverage student debt for others’ profit. Major parent companies, having monopolized a given marketplace, promote gender equality with some of their brand names — the ones most likely to see an increase in consumers — while others still use sexist ads to grab that marketshare, too. And politicians know perfectly well how to stir up a frenzy of support by fabricating gendered crises that take time and attention away from the underlying issues truly diminishing our share of human dignity.

How do we cut through the noise?

It’s not easy, because when a group like the “gender-critical” feminists decides to target so distended a notion of the most critical sites of violence against women, they aren’t alone in their reductive focus. Rather, those who come to the defense of trans and non-binary persons are also then pouring their time and attention into these distorted fields of discourse. (We saw this recently with how much whole communities were focussed on responding to one children’s author’s “gender-critical” feminism.)

What we need instead is something… very difficult to achieve. But also critical, when seeing the world through a humanist lens:

1) We need to recognize when we are advocating for a more just world from a place of reaction to current policies and dominant points of view. Why? Because when we’re reacting to current policies and dominant points of view, we are accepting them as the terms of our debate. This means the solutions that we’ll be pushing for are more likely to be solutions within given systems — not solutions that necessarily take into account the possibility that a more just world lies outside the selected site of debate entirely.

And then

2) We need to remind ourselves what baseline of justice we’re trying to achieve, and then measure our reactions to current policies and dominant points of view against that aspirational baseline. Only then can we be sure that we haven’t tacitly accepted foundational premises that themselves reflect other aspects of the system’s injustice.

(NB: Be wary, though, of anyone who wants to achieve that aspirational baseline without making restitution along the way; restitution for past injustice is a necessary part of trying to achieve that better world. It simply has to be done in a way that is more equitable: for instance, in a way that would see Breonna Taylor’s killers brought up on charges, and hundreds of others, too; and not just the killers for those whose post-mortem social-media campaigns happen to inspire the most support.)

Aspirational Justice (Gendered and Otherwise) in Practice

One good example of the above comes, again, from the way that “gender-critical” feminists argue that trans persons are not intrinsically a more vulnerable demographic, because of well-worn anecdotes pertaining to prison and bathroom rape. It’s a fascinating sleight-of-hand, because it not only allows them to feel completely vindicated when mainstream feminists ignore their concrete data*; it also allows them to force debate into societal spheres that should not be taken as intrinsically just.

*This speaks to a general struggle with the inclusion of anecdote, because you can bet your bippy that those same gender-critical activists are just as dismissive of outliers when it comes to, say, the matter of women who fabricate rape claims. Both gender-critical and mainstream feminism have not yet figured out a good way to talk about anecdotal outliers when advancing better public policy — and indeed, I have seen very few examples of any activist community handling such nuance well. (Another essay for another day.)

And so the fight becomes, say, “how to reinforce a strict male/female bathroom divide” instead of questioning a bathroom system that itself is not universal (unisex and single-stall are perfectly valid alternatives) and that has a long history of reinforcing sexist notions of how to share public space.

Likewise, the fight becomes “how to to reinforce a strict male/female prison system” instead of questioning the brutal ineffectiveness of our carceral model on whole, as a means of rehabilitating persons for eventual reintegration within society (or, for the very rare few who cannot be rehabilitated, the humane division of said persons for life).

Where else does this sleight-of-hand occur in contemporary feminisms?

Oh, just about everywhere. When a U.S. state finds itself slapped with another challenge to Roe v. Wade, the debate about reproductive health finds itself oriented around the last part of the process — the extreme situation of abortion (and often late-term abortion, at that), instead of advancing policies for universal contraceptive access and comprehensive sex ed in schools, along with other community-care and medical-research investments that would nip this entire crisis in the bud.

When an issue of wage-discrimination comes to a head, too, we find ourselves poring over columns of comparative salaries… with a profound skewing toward white-women’s issues. While we’re chewing over how to make white women equal earners in colonial capitalism, we’re ignoring the massive indictments of our economic system that would become blatantly obvious if we centered BIPOC wage gaps in our feminism instead.

The Take-Away

Fifteen years on, then, I still find it fairly exhausting to be a humanist in the feminist sphere… because so many of us (in white feminist spaces especially) are so caught up in fighting our fight, defending our points of view, that the most vital work necessary for building a better world escapes us all. We’re too busy reacting to one another, that is, to question the justice of the world we’re currently vying for personal safety within; to establish a clearer sense of what a more just world for all would really look like; and to determine a course of action through present-day society to achieve those better ends.

And I think we can do better. I do. But even if we can’t — even if, fifty years on, future thinkers find themselves wrangling with the same tedious problems in the activist sub-spheres of their own day and age — I think a more compassionate humanism, a humanism better suited to the needs of the 21st Century, still has a responsibility to try.

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