Friday, 21 March 2008

The Post-modernist and the Womyn-Only Space.

The Carnival of Radical Feminists is up at Burning Times and it is very thought provoking. In many respects, it is a call to remember the women of second-wave feminism, who after-all are still among us, and the lessons that they have to teach us. This is absolutely right and laudable. I teach second-wave feminism to my first years, introducing them to the range of texts feminists produced, not least of which was Valerie Solanas’ SCUM manifesto. Yet, much of the writing celebrating the second-wave movement compares it with a third-wave feminism that is seen as stifling, pro-porn and anti-revolutionary. Third-wave feminism is defined by its link to postmodernist theories of gender and identity, and, as someone who is a feminist and who actively uses post-modernist theory, I would like to defend my revolutionary credentials. In doing so, I would like to engage with a number of posts, by writers whose blogs I read and whose opinions I respect, in order to discuss the possibility of a revolutionary third-wave.

One of the areas of discussion that has come up in a few times in the festival is the importance of ‘women-only spaces’, whether they still serve a purpose and the place of transwomen within them. Much of this discussion has surrounded real-life (not just theoretical) demands by men and transpeople to enter women-only spaces. A number of bloggers have defended the right to have women-only spaces and, although not exclusively, are defining those spaces as ‘women-born women’ spaces. I have a number of problems with this discussion, but I would like to preface it by saying that I think that there is a place for women-only spaces.

Because as Michelle at Lonergrrrl, says:

Because it is in women-only space that a woman’s voice can be heard on her own terms. In women-only space she is free of the ‘male gaze’, free of the spectre of patriarchal judgement, that in mixed space- aka the ‘real world’- threatens to denounce, silence, talk over, appropriate, or ridicule her voice.

I recognise that the patriarchy is not gone and the revolution has not been won. We need women-only spaces because we live in a world where women are hurt and abused by men and need a safe space. (I will get back to this later).

But I have few issues with this debate. First, I take issue that the questioning of women-only spaces from a post-modernist perspective is anti-revolutionary, as is noted by Michelle:

But this doesn’t relate to most women’s reality. And getting bogged down in these academic arguments, accounting for every subversion/fragmentation, as postmodernists like to do, prevents ACTION. It prevents women from organising because we’ve been curtailed and distracted by academics/postmodernists, who would rather sit there and denounce and ridicule feminist women for giving a shit and wanting to DO something, stalling the very revolution they purport to be striving for.

I take issue with the idea that third-wave feminists within academia are not interested in revolutionary change, as is noted by Dis-Senter:

Allecto’s answer was: that feminism has been leached of power by universities which have made feminism into an academic abstraction, and that feminism has to get back to being a real, grass-roots movement about real women’s lives and experiences, not academics sitting around in grand isolation spouting theories without knowing what the majority of women’s lived realities are.

And I would like to question the notion that I was born a woman, because as that famous second-wave feminist Simone de Beauvoir: ‘One is not born, but becomes a woman’.

I see postmodernism as potentially revolutionary, although just like not all people are feminists, neither are all postmodernists. But post-modernists feminists are feminist and they are revolutionary. For me being post-modernist is about recognising that all experience is viewed through a lens that shapes how we interpret it. It does not deny physical experience. It does not deny that women are raped; that their bodies bleed; that the live in a world where they suffer pain and horror. It says that the meaning placed on that experience is entirely socially-constructed. It says there is no ’truth’ or ‘nature’ that defines who you are or what you will become. It says that who you are is a product of your society and culture and that even your physical experience is given meaning by the social.

This is not stifling, but liberating. Postmodernist feminism says that, if we could destroy patriarchal society, you could become somebody different, somebody who is not oppressed because of a socially constructed gender assignment, somebody with choice. It says that there is no structure restricting our potential. It says that the way the world is, in all its unfairness and inequality, is not inevitable. It is able to change, because what we are and how we view ourselves and the rest of the world is learned. It also says that how we construct our world is through language. That how we define terms and the meaning we give to words, things and people in our language is recreated in society and in the way we behave. It says that we need to think about ideology or discourse, which is also created through language, but which is much larger and is the over-arching theories, or systems of logic, that help us make sense of the world. Patriarchy is a great example of an ideology or discourse that shapes how we see the world.

Postmodernism can be seen as stifling because it points out that patriarchy is not a thing, but a way of looking at the world. It points out that there are no easy choices, because in almost all situations you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. The pro/anti porn debate which I discussed below is a case in point. BUT postmodernist feminism does not have to stop there. Postmodernist feminism says you need to recognise that ‘you’re damned if you do’, but that if it makes women’s lives better then it is for the good. It recognises that there are differences between the long-term, when we will transform how we understand the world through removing gender distinctions and all forms of privilege, and the short-term where we live in a state of war and have to do the best under the circumstances.

Women-only spaces have to be seen in this light. Women-only spaces reinforce gender distinctions by their very nature. For the postmodernist in me, this is problematic. We need to work towards a world where gender distinctions are removed and so we need to be very careful of how and why we use such spaces. But, we do live in a world where women are hurt and abused and need to regroup and plan for change. In this time of war, we need women-only spaces.

However, as a post-modernist feminist, I think we need to be very careful how we use them. Women-only spaces not only reinforce gender distinctions, that we are trying to overcome, but can act to privilege certain groups and exclude others, and, by doing so, they are re-enacting the same male behaviour that has been happening for hundreds of years. Defining women by their genitals is essentialist and it is what men do to us every day when they treat us badly and exclude us. There has to be a place within the feminist movement for transwomen, because otherwise we are just another privileged group telling other women what they are or are not.

Now I have to say that I sympathise with Charliegrrrl’s protest against certain individuals, in the name of trans* politics, who insist on entering women-only spaces:

The very reason why they force themselves into our women only spaces is indicative of their political aims, not for the liberation of trans and queer people under patriarchy, but for the colonisation of women only spaces [...].

The purpose of women-only spaces is to allow women to regroup and feel safe in a space where male domination is limited, and such behavior, whether by a man or a woman, removes their purpose. This is about power and domination, but so is excluding women who do not meet an arbitrary definition of womanhood that was a creation of patriarchal culture. Every time we create a woman-only space, we need to question its purpose, who it includes and who it excludes and seriously consider the political consequences of our actions. We need to ask whether the needs of the women in that group at that moment are bigger than the needs and aims of the movement as a whole. This may well be the case, but we should be careful that such rules and definitions should not be arbitrary or for all time. Furthermore, we need to be very careful of what groups have a narrow definition of women-only. The feminist movement has came a long way and certain groups, especially those that organise large events and have political clout, can be influential in wider society and impact on government policy. Excluding women, and perhaps even occasionally men, from the right to have a voice in that political process is highly problematic and needs to be carefully considered.

Feminism does not need to have absolutes, rights or wrongs in all and every circumstances. That is a lie fed to us by philosophy that relies on essentialist notions of gender; that sees a ‘true’ and a ‘false’, a weak and a strong, a powerful and a powerless. Context is everything.


queen emily said...

The problem is, of course, that the discussion sees "women" - as with Michelle's comments - ends up meaning, only and ever cis women.

"Because it is in women-only space that a woman’s voice can be heard on her own terms. In women-only space she is free of the ‘male gaze’, free of the spectre of patriarchal judgement, that in mixed space- aka the ‘real world’- threatens to denounce, silence, talk over, appropriate, or ridicule her voice."

Given the context of the discussion re: womyn's space and the midst of Trans Wars Round 100, this is nonsensical unless you accept from the start that trans women are representative of the patriarchy.

It really is a *highly* essentialist discussion that always-already excludes trans women from the category of women, and it's frustrating trying to debate that because it comes down to an ontological question of gender for a lot of people. "Really" a man is a spectre that never disappears in these discussions, and "safe space" becomes less an in-process, negotiated contextual practice than an ontological principle to be defended to the death.

Anyway, thanks for the post, it's thoughtful and interesting.

Feminist Avatar said...

I was quite shocked at how anti-trans some of the discussions in the rad fem carnival were. Perhaps, I spend too much time in my little circle of pomo feminists!

I personally think that ALL women-only spaces should include trans-women, because I really don't think we can start drawing lines about who is and isn't a woman. Actually, when I wrote this I was thinking about black women's orgs and their right to refuse entry to white women, which I absolutely support. So I then thought well... white women should have the same rights about how they define their woman-only spaces, but I have just realised there is a substantial difference. White women exercise privilege over black women. I think its an act of the imagination to think that trans-women have more social privilege than cis-women. Hmm I might blog this.

polly styrene said...

Would I define myself as post modernist in that I agree with Judith Butler's views on the performativity of gender - absolutely. But please note that Butler herself has explored since 'Gender Trouble' the theory of performativity further and explained that one does not choose one's gender and revised considerably her views on the potential of subversive repetition for deconstructing (or more accurately fragmenting) gender.

Gender is a social construct. And Simone De Beauvoir, writing in 1950was not a post modernist - rad fems got there first, sorry. But in a patriarchal society although gender is a social construct the effects of misogyny are real, just as in a racist society, race is a social construct, but the effects of racism are real.

In a patriarchal society, the truth is that for many women the only safe space is one free of the male bodied. And those assigned female at birth have a radically different life experience from those who do not. For this reason spaces for those assigned female at birth are justified - that is not transphobic, it's a simple fact. The only other criteria by which such a space could be defined would be to allow in anyone who self defines as a woman, which in practice means anyone at all.

Feminist Avatar said...

I absolutely agree that patriarchy and misogyny are real. And I know that De Bouvoir is not a pomo- but I actually think that the Third Wave is a natural extension of the Second, building on its foundations, rather than being in opposition to it. And that much of what is said by the Third Wave is just a rehashing of what has been said earlier.

I also think because misogyny is real that women would should get to define their women-only spaces- but that they should be careful about how exclusionary they are because it is a dangerous line between regrouping and the exercise of privilege.

I, personally, would allow transwomen into my women-only space and, because of my colonising impulses, think that in an ideal world I would like if all women could do this- this is what I meant in my last comment. I also think that if we are working towards the removal of gender distinction that we need to get over our fear of transwomen, as it threatens our aim. And that I think that this fear is wrongly situated as transwomen do not have more power than ciswomen, which would be our usual definition for exclusion. But, as I said in my post, I do realise that this is a time of war and sometimes women need to be allowed to define their spaces to feel safe.

queen emily said...

Polly: Yes, and Butler in Undoing Gender is quite clear on the need for trans acceptance. If you accept that gender is an in-process performance, then surely the logical conclusion is, what matters is who you are now, and how you are being read? Trans women are as much becoming women as any other woman. A passing trans woman is hardly more exempt from misogyny and violence because of her mystical "male energy."

Maybe trans women don't need (or even want) to be subversive. Maybe we just want to be accrued the same respect and safety as anyone else, and to have our voices be one of the many heard in the feminist movement.

>>>In a patriarchal society, the truth is that for many women the only safe space is one free of the male bodied.

You've just slipped from a discussion of trans women to "male bodied." Tsk. That's nonsensical when applied to any but pre or no hormonal trans women. But telling.

>>>And those assigned female at birth have a radically different life experience from those who do not.

So? What's your point? What's that got to do with safety?

Furthermore, how is women-born-women exactly an inherently safe space? My best (cis) friend works in a women's domestic violence shelter, and one of the main issues there is lesbian abusers who can come in under the women-only rule and further traumatise their partners. Women can and do have the capacity to oppress each other, in personal and institutional senses (eg het women over queer women, able-bodied women over disabled women, white women over women of colour and so one).

Given that, and if we're not believing in essences, what *is* the problem with making gender self-identified? Why is it so hard to police behaviour, rather than some rigid abstract essentialist notion of gender categories?

If a trans woman is behaving badly, kick her out. And do the same for non trans women. It's not that hard, honestly.

Anonymous said...

hi there,

i am a "transwoman" by most definitions.. though to me I am just a woman.

I welcome women only space, but am scared of being outed from these safe havens due some peoples discrimination.

I really and truly appreciate this blog entry - my identity as woman is absolute and I go through the same issues as all my sisters out there.

There are times that women really need a little nook they can be safe in.. a lot of the time this is acheived by hanging out with other girls.. but if you are alone or there is some persistant guy for example.. eek! run away!

I will add, that during my transition I had some truly lovely sisters help me and support me, despite knowing I was lesbian they kept with me the whole time and to me they will always be very close sisters.