Transwomen, class and feminist solidarity

I started this blog just over ten years ago by talking about a feminist article I’d read. So it seems appropriate to celebrate the anniversary by looking at another one, dealing with an issue that seems to have become a hot button topic within feminism. How can trans women be fitted into a feminism that focuses on patriarchy? I’ve come across an article by Jane Clare Jones, who expresses anti-transwomen views in such a context, but tries to argue that this is a moderate position. Jones discusses various kinds of oppression, focusing on what she sees as the function of the oppression:

Women are oppressed as women because that oppression enables men to extract resources — in the form of reproductive, domestic, sexual and emotional labour — from women. Similarly, class- and race-based oppression is structured around the extraction of labour-resources from the oppressed group.

In contrast, she sees “the restrictions on homosexuality” as a variant of patriarchal oppression, part of a wider system of heteronormativity predominantly designed “to naturalise men’s appropriation of women’s bodies”.

Based on this, Jones goes on to argue that while trans people are oppressed, they are oppressed as the result of patriarchy and not by women. To her, discussions of cis-privilege are wrongly positioning non-trans women as the oppressors of trans people:

There can be no question of to what end non-trans women are invested in the oppression of trans-women. As the oppressor, non-trans women are not permitted to question this: we must understand that the only just course of action is to acquiesce without a murmur to the stated needs of the oppressed. And so the possibility of solidarity between non-trans and trans women, based on the recognition that we are equally—though differently—constrained by heteronormative ideologies of gender, is thoroughly blocked. There is no acknowledgement that we are both suffering under the same system, and there can be no negotiation of how to accommodate our varying needs within feminism as a political movement.

It’s certainly perfectly possible to see some of the oppression of trans people as resulting from patriarchal systems. The problem is that it’s hard to see the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival as a hotbed of patriarchal thought. Some strands of feminist thought are also hostile to or exclusionary of trans women, and pretending they’re not isn’t very helpful. It also isn’t simply a matter of the old claim that trans women embody stereotypes of femininity. What we’ve seen as more trans people come out is how varied they and their experiences are: no-one’s going to put Deidre McCloskey on the cover of Vanity Fair. So I want to go back to Jones’ question: to what end are non-trans women/cis women invested in the oppression of trans-women?

In one way that’s the wrong question to ask, because systems of oppression don’t actually require much investment by most people. Race-based oppression (especially in the US) may have started as being structured around the extraction of resources of land and labour from particular races. But racism is still a structural problem in the UK and the US (in different ways), even though many white people aren’t deeply invested in it. Instead, such structural racism in white-dominant societies relies on relatively small groups eagerly enforcing white superiority and the much wider indifference/passivity of most white people (in which I’d include myself), which means that the system doesn’t get changed. In the same way, I don’t think most cis women are actively oppressing trans women. But there are a small group that are and I think the end for much of this is paradoxical: they’re trying to maintain feminist solidarity.

I’d argue that feminism has had more problems with solidarity than any other social movement. The oppression of women has been going on for millennia and yet feminist movements are a very recent phenomena. And the main reason for this is class: women from higher classes have not felt they have much in common with women from the lower classes and vice versa.

The historical evidence suggests that class is the primary division blocking solidarity between women, not race or sexuality. In particular, feminist movements didn’t grow up substantially more quickly in societies that were relatively racially homogeneous (such as nineteenth-century Britain) than in ones that were more racially mixed (such as the US or New Zealand). And while arguments over sexuality did divide the women’s movement in second-wave feminism, they weren’t prominent before then. BAME women or lesbians can still feel alienated by the priorities of modern day feminism. But I’d argue that class is still by far the most difficult issue in feminism (and in social justice circles generally).

The key problem is that for a feminist campaign to have real political impact, it needs to deal with issues that matter personally, if not to all women, at least the majority of them. In particular, a lot of all forms of political activity is carried out by students and middle-class professional women. They have the combination of the skills and networks to get political attention and also (often) more free time for campaigning than working-class women.

This doesn’t mean that working-class women can’t play an important role in feminist movements, but I can’t think of many feminist groups that were/are predominantly working-class. And the most successful feminist campaigns have tended to focus on issues that affect both middle-class and working-class women.

The classic example of an issue that cuts across class lines is women’s suffrage. Campaigns for sexual discrimination laws have also been able to draw on cross-class solidarity. But there are other feminist campaigns that have gradually run into the sands, at least partly because of class differences. The most obvious one is equal pay. Yes, it’s discriminatory if bankers who are women don’t get the same multimillion pound bonuses as their male counterparts do. But it’s hard to feel solidarity with women who miss out on that (or on being in the boardroom) when you and all your male friends/relatives are working in minimum wage jobs.

Campaigns about childcare have also tended to run into issues of class. Available childcare for middle-class women is increasingly about ensuring that their career path isn’t blocked; an alternative option is simply not to have children or to have them relatively late in life. My impression is that in contrast, childcare for working women is more about being able to hold down any job in order to earn a little more money. And there’s also the hidden issue of who is doing the childcare: in most cases, it’s done by poorly-paid working-class women, because it’s a low-status feminised job. Solidarity around this issue is hard to maintain across class lines.

If you look at the hot feminist topics of the moment, meanwhile, they’re abortion (in the US), sexual harassment and sexual violence. These, again, are experiences that affect all classes of women and that also have resonance across boundaries of race, age and sexuality. It’s not surprising that feminists in the media tend to focus on them.

And it’s here that issues about trans people come up: what are the bases on which such cross-class solidarities rely? Abortion as an issue relies very heavily on the distinctiveness of female bodies: women can get pregnant and men can’t. In fact, that’s a simplification, but a lot of female solidarity has always been based on shared bodily experiences. Trans people, by indicating that being a women may not be based purely on body sex, are potentially a threat to this solidarity.

Does the inclusion of trans women in feminist groups/movements threaten the ability of all women in them to be able to talk about shared bodily experiences? That seems to be at the basis of a lot of feminist hostility towards trans women. But I think, as with lesbians before them, what trans women speaking out reveal is that not all women have the same experiences. Lesbians speaking up within feminism reminded straight women that not every woman’s life involved sexual desire for men. Similarly, trans women aren’t the only women whose bodily experiences are ‘atypical’: there are ‘born women’ who from an early age know they’re infertile or don’t have periods etc. We need to work towards a feminist solidarity that can cope with both common and unusual bodily experiences via empathy: this specifically may not have happened to me, but I can imagine how positive/negative it would make me feel if it did.

The significance of sexual harassment and violence to the feminist movement, meanwhile, is another paradoxical reason why some feminists are hostile to trans people. Some definitions of patriarchy put such violence at the heart of it, such as this one by bell hooks:

Patriarchy is a political-social system that insists that males are inherently dominating, superior to everything and everyone deemed weak, especially females, and endowed with the right to dominate and rule over the weak and to maintain that dominance through various forms of psychological terrorism and violence.

But hooks goes on to show this theory as something taught to her by both her mother and her father. The perpetrators of patriarchy are not just men. And those suffering patriarchal-based “terrorism” and violence are not just women: Jones herself admits that gay men and trans people also suffer from this.

The problem is that political campaigns need both to simplify their aims and to solidify their supporters. A binary between those suffering from the patriarchy and those benefiting from it can’t be easily summed up in a slogan. So just as fights against capitalism become simplified to being about “workers” versus “bosses” (or the 99% versus the 1%), a fight against patriarchy as a system which focuses on sexual harassment and violence become simplified to women as victims of harassment and men as perpetrators. The logic is summed up in the hashtag #YesAllWomen. All women are supposedly subject to misogyny and sexual violence and this becomes their defining experience. Following binary logic, therefore, men/some men are the perpetrators of misogyny and sexual violence.

The experiences of trans women, however, don’t easily fit into this simplified understanding of patriarchy. They are regarded socially as male (at least in their early years) and yet they’re also subject to patriarchal violence. And again, the enforcement of their masculinity is often done by their mothers as well as their fathers.

Trans women are therefore a complicating element in the simple political binary of them-and-us radical feminism, in which #YesAllWomen has implicitly become #YesOnlyWomen. A feminism supposedly based on shared experience of sexism ends up having to deny the experiences that trans women and cis women potentially share. Yet as with bodily experiences, it ought to be possible to find enough overlap of social experiences to build bonds of solidarity which includes trans women within a feminist movement. It’s not just trans women, after all, who stuff their bra to give themselves cleavage or get the wrong sort of toys taken away from them.

As I’ve said earlier, feminism has always found solidarity difficult, but the movement has nevertheless over the years achieved something not just for middle-class women, but also working-class women, black women and lesbians. In the same way, despite all the current fractiousness over the role of trans women in feminism, I expect that more and more they will come to be accepted as part of it: we just need to remain aware that the necessary simplifications of political slogans don’t match the messy complexities of real life.


2 thoughts on “Transwomen, class and feminist solidarity

  1. Thank you for such a thoughtful essay. I am not clear how culture changes the arguments given, as it undoubtedly will.

    You make the important point that assumptions and theories were made from limited samples, there being so few people whose sexual orientation would be known. Is there enough ethnography to introduce strong assumptions and generate theories for our current multicultural multi ethnic society?


    • You’re right that it is very hard to discuss sex/gender systems and systems of oppression in general terms because they are so culture-bound. But I think even within our multicultural British society there is still a dominant culture and most people are influenced by it. The vast majority of children still attend schools that are either non-religious or Anglican, for example. And I don’t think there are many people in Britain who don’t watch UK/US TV programmes regularly.

      So while what I’m talking about is probably most applicable to white people in the UK (and I know that race relations are very different in the US), I suspect that many other ethnic groups have similar responses to transpeople.

      Although one culture-specific example that often comes up is the Native American idea of the two-spirit people, which has some parallels to transpeople.


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