Feminism and Transgender Identity
Florence Lubash & Rachel Simon
Undergraduate Research Final Report
The goal at the outset of this paper was to understand how different feminist ideologies may view issues facing transgender people. In order to achieve this goal, I looked at primary source documents from individual feminist scholars and theorists. To contextualize their work, I read anthologies and analysis of their work. Often, these texts seemed antiquated and many were written in terms of the issues of their day, but most of the texts felt live and malleable in their ideas. These texts are about issues impacting society, and their goals and views of society varied radically, but in the end, I was able to gleam one central idea. Feminism is the basis for transgender liberation, and transgender liberation is a key aspect of contemporary feminism.
Coming to that conclusion brought me to the second goal of this project, to answer the question, can feminist frameworks be reconstructed to accommodate transgender people? Originally, I had assumed that some feminist ideologies (radical feminism in particular) would be too closely linked to transphobic sentiments to create any basis for a trans inclusive feminism.
Learning about feminist politics is difficult because in comparison to any other political ideology, feminism is deeply fractured and constantly in flux. It is difficult to analyze history while it is being made. The goal of full understanding of feminist ideology in only two semesters was clearly a fool’s errand. For this reason, I chose to limit my analysis to only those ideologies which are most pressing and represented in contemporary feminist discourse.
Literature Review / Research Summary
In “Feminist Thought: A More Comprehensive Introduction” Rosemarie Tong and Tina Fernandes Botts, divide feminism into several different types of ideologies – liberal feminism, radical feminism, Marxist/ socialist feminism, women-of-color feminism, psychoanalytic feminism, care-focused feminism, ecofeminism, existentialist, poststructural, postmodern feminism, and third-wave or queer feminism. Each of these feminist ideologies view the oppression of women as having different root causes, impacts and requiring different solutions (Tong and Botts). Tong and Botts only specifically address transgender issues in an analysis of queer and third wave feminism (270).
In “Transgender History” Susan Stryker lays out the historical dynamics between transgender communities and feminist activism, theory, and practice (3-5). These dynamics are best understood through further analysis of primary texts from distinct time periods and written by authors across the feminist ideological spectrum.
Liberal feminism’s core tenants during first wave feminism can be found in Mary
Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women, Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s “Declaration of Sentiments,” and Susan B. Anthony’s Speech after Arrest for Illegal Voting. These readings all show that the concerns of bourgeois white women were placed above those of working class and poor women, especially women of color. This is a problem which would not begin being addressed until third wave liberal feminism (Tong and Botts 35). The concerns in second wave became, according to Tong and Botts “gender equality and equal opportunity for women” (11). This tendency to focus on bourgeois white women lead to critiques by Marxist feminist and the creation of feminist movement for specific women of color.
Marxist feminism’s influences have been more ideologically consistent through the waves than liberal feminism, beginning with Engels The Origin of Family, Private Property and The State (106-109). Contemporary socialist feminism in both the end of the second and beginning of the third wave start with Haraway’s “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist- Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century.” Marxist feminism has focused on the plights of working women and the functions of capitalism as a system to oppress women (73).
Women of color feminism is different depending on the specific women of color a particular group of women in question, for example feminist movements exist for undocumented domestic laborers in a different way than for African American women at the forefront of the Black Panther movement (105). The tenants of Women of Color feminism can be found in the writings of Truth’s “Ain’t I A Woman” which addresses how often first wave feminism, specifically suffrage, focused on the rights and needs of rich white women. The evolution of this has been continued into third wave feminism and was specifically critiqued by Crenshaw in “Intersectionality and Identity Politics: Learning from Violence against Women of Color.”
Radical feminism was a phenomenon of second wave feminism which focused on lesbianism and reproduction (Tong and Botts 39). Radical feminism can be divided into cultural and libertarian, and each make very different conclusions about patriarchy and how best to dismantle it.
Existentialist, poststructural, and postmodern feminisms are important to transgender issues because they are the basis of the theory of gender as a social construction (231). This theory has enabled a lot of transgender theory to come into existence, a topic which Susan Stryker explores in “Transgender History.”
Third wave and queer feminism are movements which are related to each other, the rise of intersectionality gave rise to the need for contemporary queer feminist movements and the creation of transgender specific feminism (Tong and Botts 234,247). .
Conclusions Drawn from Research / Research Accomplishments
Although feminist movements have not always viewed transgender issues as feminist concerns, there is no basis for a contemporary feminist movement which does not incorporate the concerns of transgender people. While this is a contentious belief, it is not one without rigorous historical and ideological precedent. To understand the role trans people play in feminism, one must examine how systems oppressing cisgender women often also oppress trans people. The systems of oppression which impact the lives of cisgender women, such as patriarchy, capitalism, reproductive healthcare, often manifest in similar ways in the lives of transgender people. The systems of patriarchy can be understood as linked to the gender binary as systems which oppress anyone who is not a cisgender men. Deconstruction of the gender binary is in many ways a struggle parallel to the deconstruction of patriarchy. For this reason, all feminist ideologies and their goals can be used as a basis for understanding and dismantling systems which marginalize transgender people.
Radical feminism is one of the feminist ideologies which on its face may appear to be in the most tension with affirming transgender people. Radical feminism can be separated into libertarian and cultural radical feminism. Radical libertarian feminism views gender as something which should, ideally, join male and female to create an androgynous gender identity. Both of these would seem to assert a gender binary and an inheren “womanly” essence of certain people. However, the goals of both cultural and libertarian radical feminism benefit from trans inclusion.
Radical Libertarian feminism’s idea of an androgynous gender identity being an ideal one is something which can become part of culture which does not strictly divide gender into male and female. Constructing more gender identities and more labels for gender identities helps both transgender people and libertarian feminists critique of patriarchy. If women are oppressed because “feminine” gender identities are treated as lesser, and the best solution is for women to partake in the best aspects of masculinity and femininity, having people who exist as neither male nor female, man nor woman, allows cisgender women’s androgyny to be more socially acceptable.
Radical cultural feminism has evolved into movements which are hostile towards transgender people, especially transgender women, this is because a central conceit of radical cultural feminism being that women’s oppression stems from a “inherently woman nature.” This nature, according to many radical cultural feminists, is their reproductive capacity. While this may seem as something inherently opposed to an understanding of womanhood as a socially constructed phenomenon, the end goals of radical cultural feminism can be achieved within such a framework. According to both radical cultural and libertarian feminists, one of the central pieces of women’s marginalization is that they are required for all reproduction, and men can be mostly absent from the birthing and rearing of children. In a world where trans men are seen as men, and the biological binary of gender is overthrown and all bodies become capable of giving birth through both biological and technological means, then everyone can become part of the responsibility of reproduction.
In contrast to radical feminism, contemporary liberal feminism is trans inclusive. Liberal feminism in the modern day derives largely from Crenshaw’s essay on intersectionality, and ways of understanding interlocking oppression and privilege. Therefore the marginalization of transgender people must be understood as one form of oppression which is compounded with race, class, sexuality, ability, and other forms of marginalization.
Marxist feminism is also more inherently trans inclusive, but for different reasons than liberal feminism. Marxist feminism focuses on the class based oppression of people, and since most transgender people are working class, there issues are largely the concerns of the proletariat. Here, one must note that women are not, in the classic Marxist conception, a class. Rather, their oppression exists both as bourgeois women and proletarian women, and the same is true of transgender people. The oppression of transgender people exists regardless of class, but the advancement of working class trans people can not be won through those means which benefit rich transgender people. From a Marxist perspective, there must be an overthrow of classes entirely for their to be liberation, and without class, transgender people’s personhood would be affirmed and accepted, and those institutions both medical and legal would no longer be exclusive to bourgeois transgender people.
Women of color feminism is arguably the most analogous to transgender feminism or queer feminism as they both exist as critiques of contemporary feminism, and seek to address the concerns of specific people. The use of intersectionality allows women of color feminism and queer feminism to become ideologically connected movements, and not compete for resources. This is necessary for many transgender women of color especially because they are oppressed both as transgender people and people of color.
Existentialist, poststructural, and postmodern feminism are important starting points for transgender theory and the conception of gender as a social construction. Although not all people who believe gender is socially constructed affirm transgender existence, many of the most influential figures like Judith Butler do. For this reason, existentialist, poststructural, and postmodern feminism can be seen as base framework to build off of to analyze how we think about gender and how transgender people change those societal conceptions.
The research project I have done has been a great lesson in terms of research. I have learned how to do research more efficiently and manage my time, and I am extremely happy with the research aspect of this project.
The aspect of this project I am most disappointed in by far is the paper. I should have been working on a final product for far longer than I have. I ended up writing a report with a few weeks before the due date, and the result has been far less than what I had hoped for at the outset. I do not reference my sources nearly as much as I wanted to, and my lit review is the only section I really reference my sources effectively. As such, I want to continue working on this paper individually because I believe I have the start of a genuinely valuable idea.
The experience has also given me insight into how to work with other people who are knowledgeable in a topic. Rachel Simon, my faculty advisor, helped me navigate research in capacities I had not tried before. She helped me get in contact with other members of faculty who had expertise and could help with my research.
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