Politics makes for strange bedfellows. This insight is no less true when it comes to political matters of the bedroom. Issues of gender and sexuality have long been the focus of the Marxist left, and for equally as long the inspiration for some employing the label of “Marxist analysis” to produce arguments that are in key aspects indistinguishable from those of Victorian moralists or Pentecostal prudes. After many decades of debate and struggle, virtually all Marxists extend at least rhetorical support for the equality of women, and of gays and lesbians.
It would seem at first glance, then, that Marxists have reached an uneasy consensus about how, in terms of general principles, to present a historical-materialist worldview inclusive of oppressed gender and sexual minorities. Not so with transgender politics. On those issues people claiming to march under the banner of Marxism actually find themselves in bed with reactionaries. It is high time that these “Marxists” wake up to the folly of their methodology and pry themselves from the embrace of far-right political assumptions.
Rotten Fruits of the Gender Con Game
The stakes are big. Last year a record-high 26 people were murdered simply because they were transgender. When they are not being targeted by others, transgender people are harming themselves at an alarming rate. Recent studies have confirmed that they are one of the most at-risk populations when it comes to suicide and other forms of self-harm.
Transgender people, individuals who identify with a gender identity different than the one to which they were assigned at birth on the basis of their reproductive biology, experience this violence because their very existence stands squarely at the center of one of the densest transfer points of power in class societies. Gender – how societies structure and give meaning to reproductive differences in the human body – is a profound dimension to human life, filtering and shaping how we understand ourselves and the world around us in the most intimate as well as in the most public ways. It is a social process involving bodies; it is not a set of biological facts. Or as Pat Benatar might suggest, gender is a battlefield.
Transgenderism lays bare the ideological sleight of hand that conflates “woman” or “man” with the presence or absence of certain sexual characteristics. In so doing, it demonstrates that gender, far from a timeless biological truth, comprises social relationships that degrade and devalue women. To put it differently, it lays bare that gender is a kind of con-game: a system of cultural meanings that depends upon and must reinforce the confidence of its participants for it to continue to exist. As with all cons, people end up being hurt, sometimes even the game’s most self-serving promoters. In class society, the political content of this con game is determined in the first instance by capitalism’s need to reproduce labor power as well as a new generation of exploiters and workers. These processes occur at present through a rigid system into which transgender people do not neatly fit, and which obscures the range of experiences and subjectivities that gender occludes by tying reproductive anatomy to supposedly “natural” oppressive social roles and relations. Transgenderism short-circuits how these processes occur, causing what one scholar has famously called “gender trouble.”
None of this discussion is to dispute the reality of biological sex. A materialist would be foolish to deny that sexual dimorphism is a meaningful and real structure by which to understand the human body in certain contexts (e.g., medical). Male and female bodies develop differently and function differently on the basis of hormonal and genetic differences that, while they certainly vary phenotypically in regards to sexual characteristics among members of the same sex, mark a dramatic enough distinction in relation to differently sexed individuals and occur pervasively enough to merit classification as a “natural kind” category.
Intersex people, those who have a combination or ambiguous expression of sex-specific characteristics (e.g., an XY chromosome or the presence of a uterus or testes, etc.) fall within a tiny and benign spectrum that blend together biological markers of the male and female sexes. The existence of an intersex population is what one would expect in a complex and open system where variables in the natural processes of sexual differential can create blurred boundaries. Their sexual ambiguity creates confused and sometimes (medically) violent responses that entail doctors attempting to reshape bodies so as to fit in materially with bourgeois society’s dominant and dichotomous understandings of gender. Far from being pathological or “disordered,” these bodies serve as important reminders that the dual-gender paradigm prevalent in capitalist society is not the logical and necessary extension of the sex characteristics of human bodies. Rather, said paradigm requires dramatically re-sculpting or simply ignoring the sexual characteristics of actual bodies.
Whatever else might be said of biological sex, the point cannot be stressed enough that sex is not gender and does not “create” the gender system. Humans do. Even if, to paraphrase a famous phrase from Marx, humans do not create it exactly as we please, but in a world where physical (including sexual) and socio-cultural structures shape the creative process. As humans over thousands of years have developed a progressive command over the natural world, so too has it created a liberating potential for humanity to overcome the significance that the body’s natural characteristics, including sexual characteristics, might play in determining the life-course of any given individual or group. In the hunter-gatherer bands from the Upper Paleolithic period on through the development of settled agriculture, population pressure and relative scarcity of resources encouraged the adoption of more specialized and wider-ranging tasks to meet collective caloric needs. The result was the creation of what was to become a near-universal sexual division of labor in which males tended to do the big game hunting and females concentrated more on gathering plants and fishing. At that stage of human development, biological sex played a much greater role in determining the content of gender roles and expectations.
But in the present epoch, technological advancement in automation and mechanization have rendered almost entirely obsolete biological sex determinants for who can or cannot perform certain tasks necessary to meet society’s needs. Still, a sexual division of labor persists (leading to such things as the pay gap). Why? Certainly not because of a necessary and biologically based arrangement to maximize humanity’s collective ability to meet needs. In fact, Marxists recognize that such maximization can only occur through the supplanting of capitalism by socialism. The root cause is the way in which capitalism inherited the sexual division of labor of pre-capitalist times and employed it as the most efficient and least disruptive of available means for reproducing exploitable labor power as well as for cultivating the ideological dimensions of its hegemony (racism, xenophobia, heteronormativity, respect for arbitrary diktat, etc.).
The problem of gender oppression, in other words, is not a problem of biology or sexual difference. It is a purely political problem that requires eliminating class exploitation, the alienation of people from one another and from the natural world. In one sense, then, postmodern feminists and queer theorists are correct. Gender, while it does not create biological sex, does in the present world-historical context make biological sex a socially efficacious dividing line that carries any substantial weight. In that respect it does “create sex” in a way. The Marxist goal would be to allow all humans to draw from all desirable human qualities and behaviors, regardless of their traditional biological associations, in order to craft their own modes of gender expression and comportment, to change and blend them as they see fit, in ways that would render gender categories moot as a fault line of social oppression or stigmatization. Eventually, this process would culminate in the withering away of gender itself, as people of the communist future cease constructing meanings for biological sex differences that do not directly flow from the physical functioning of those bodies in the highly limited span of relevant contexts. At that point, society would be left with sex, not gender.
The Gender Conservatives: The Blessed Mothers
Like any confidence game, gender requires true believers. They are gender conservatives, people convinced that gender is the byproduct of biological sex differences. Religious and conservative notables, like Phyllis Schlafly or Pope John Paul II, come to mind quickly as personae whose gender assumptions are consistent with their larger worldview. Less intuitive are the gender conservatives on the ostensible political left, the most infamous of whom are “Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminists” (or TERFs).
Their lineage traces back to a peculiar strain of 1960s feminism. Some women within the New Left radicalization of the period shared their milieu’s desire to overturn “the system” but believed existing praxis fell short. They perceived a glaring discrepancy between the bold aspirations for a fundamentally transformed and egalitarian society, on the one hand, and the way the existing movement marginalized women, relegating them in many cases to secretaries and errand-runners.
Robin Morgan, an early feminist critic in the New Left, described the dissatisfaction: “Thinking we were involved in the struggle to build a new society, it was a slowly dawning and depressing realization that we were doing the same work in the movement as out of it: typing the speeches men delivered, making coffee but not policy, being accessories to the men whose politics would supposedly replace the Old Order” (p. xx of Sisterhood is Powerful). Whether in the household or in the realm of politics, women were subordinate to men.
Radical feminists concluded that, when incorporating personal life in the family as a dimension and even source of how politics functioned outside the home, “the system” of oppression they were all fighting was at its core not imperialism or racism or even capitalism. It was patriarchy, man’s domination of women, from which sprang all the other social ills. Though they disagreed on a host of issues – like whether women entered relationships with men out of an economic dependence or due to brainwashing by patriarchal society – they shared the implicit view that men’s oppression of women represented the central axis of social oppression. It was in their view a universal form of oppression and the first form historically. Their solution of smashing patriarchy and de-gendering society, while apparently identical to the goal espoused above, required a much different political project. A united sisterhood had to struggle as a class against the oppressor class of men.
The problems with radical feminism, both theoretical and practical, flowed from its fetishization of gender. They wanted to break from the “patriarchal” Marxist view that economic exploitation lay at the root of gendered power disparities, so they sought the cause of their oppression in something more historically universal, as well as something that was co-extensive with the political battle lines they had drawn. That something was male biology. As Susan Brownmiller explained it in one of many variations on the radical feminist precept:
“From the humblest beginnings of the social order based on a primitive system of retaliatory force—the lex talionis: an eye for an eye-woman was unequal before the law. By anatomical fiat—the inescapable construction of their genital organs—the human male was a natural predator and the human female served as his natural prey” (Against Our Will, p. 6).
Similar to arguments later espoused by Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon, Brownmiller’s account traces the source of men’s power over women to how differently sexed anatomies permit the use of rape as a process by which men keep women in a state of fear and intimidation. Only, how could women ever achieve equality with men, how could they eliminate rape, if the male sex always had the option of using rape as a tool of subordination? As MacKinnon herself concluded, “Over and over again, the state protects male power through embodying and ensuring existing male control over women at every level — cushioning, qualifying or de jure appearing to prohibit its excesses when necessary to its normalization” (Toward a Feminist Theory of the State, p. 257).
The contradiction is clear. Any attempt by women to use a “patriarchal” state to end women’s oppression would fall just as flat as any attempt to end it through categorically “patriarchal” coitus – or, for that matter, any attempt by workers to use the capitalist state to overthrow capitalism. If the radical feminist understanding of the biological origins and substrate of gender oppression and its political dimensions were correct, legislating protections for women into the state would necessarily fall short—men would simply prevent it as the oppressor class with the interests and biologically underwritten political power to stop it. In a vision where biological sex and its sexual use are thought to be originator and reproducer of social power rather than the constantly recreated product of an anterior force, the option of separating from (or “eliminating”) men would seem the only plausible solution. But even here the solution begs the question of how more powerful men would enable women to “escape” in social-liberatory numbers.
While some radical feminists honed in on rape and sexuality as the site of focal point for overthrowing patriarchy, other radical feminists foregrounded childbearing. The classic, perhaps most brilliant, example of this strain of radical feminism is the work of Shulamith Firestone. In her 1970 classic The Dialectic of Sex, she expressed hope for a society in which “genital distinctions between the sexes would no longer matter culturally.” Unlocking this paradise, in her estimation, would require “[t]he freeing of women from the tyranny of their reproductive biology by every means available, and the diffusion of the childbearing and childrearing role to the society as a whole, men as well as women” (p. 206). Firestone suggested that this would occur through the development of technology to gestate fetuses outside of the womb – the linchpin to what she termed “cybernetic socialism.”
But if technology could permit women to abolish men’s oppression over them, the problem seemed to be not one of primordial sexual differences, but rather how sexually constituted bodies related to one another and assigned meanings to one another in response to definite social systems made possible by the existing level of the forces and relations of production. The contrary explanation – that men’s biology (or as some radical feminists would suggest, men’s collective psychology) was paramount – points to the same quandary in Brownmiller’s and MacKinnon’s work. A “class” of men, wielding political supremacy supposedly because of their socially and historically universal set of shared sexual characteristics, would be unlikely candidates to permit the creation or dissemination of technology that would deprive them of the basis of their preponderant hold on power.
If women’s sexual biology vis-à-vis men was supposedly the central factor responsible for their political subordination, if it necessarily had to serve as the basis for their political organizing, it likewise had to function as the key to their salvation. Yet no radical feminist has ever developed a concrete plan for how that would or could take place. Firestone, one of the great minds of second-wave feminism, made the boldest attempt at doing so, but accomplished little more than shining the brightest light of all on their foremost political contradiction.
Revolution requires gaps and openings in the dominant order. In socialist revolution, eliminating capitalist power is possible because, as the product of alienated social relations rather than the “will” of any group, that power is external to the direct control of any class. Capitalism can be eliminated only because its objectively driven systemic breakdown, unpreventable by the bourgeoisie or anybody else, permits vanguard workers to pry the proletariat from capitalist ideological and political subordination. Radical feminism, by contrast, has no such external political space on which to build its program of liberation—patriarchal political consciousness emanates from and reinforces patriarchally situated bodies in a symbiosis that extends back to time immemorial and cannot be explained by reference to other, mutable and historically delimited systems.
In the face of this and other political impasses, radical feminism dissipated as an organized political force in the late 1980s and 1990s. Some in the milieu shifted to sex-separatist communal projects. Others retreated to the academy, where they produced obscure monographs for tiny groups of receptive colleagues. Still other veterans drifted uneasily back to liberal politics, clinging idiosyncratically to fragments of their earlier commitments, even as they practiced a politics functionally indistinguishable from the feminism embraced in Clinton-era liberal circles. In the latter category, cachet from participating in the 1970s feminist counterculture produced especially lucrative careers.
Though it dissipated, the movement bestowed to future generations a framework for using sexual biology to explain politics. Yet the movement was not as vehemently and visibly transphobic as it is at present. The reason may be that in the 1970s and early 1980s, transgender politics did not exist to any significant degree. The language around gender variance was rudimentary and inexact. Popular culture and even activists on the left used words like “transvestite” and “transsexual” interchangeably. There was no need to go on the offensive against a phenomenon that existed only on the most distant margins of political consciousness. While there were vehemently transphobic radical feminists like Janice Raymond, whose Transsexual Empire must stand second only to the Malleus Maleficarum in its anti-humanism and policing of women’s bodies, others like Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon – to the extent that they engaged with transgender politics – exhibited a modicum of sympathy and civility if nothing else. For radical feminism to veer away from MacKinnon and toward Raymond on the issue, transgender politics had to enter the mainstream of sexual political culture. And enter it did in the 1990s and 2000s.
Gender Conservatives: The Latter-Day (Online) Saints
The result are the TERFs of today, the successors to Brownmiller et al. Like their founding blessed mothers, these feminists argue that female biology or its sexual objectification are the root cause of gender oppression. They therefore share many of their positions, including a desire to criminalize prostitution and pornography (usually and misleadingly characterized with the increasingly ubiquitous moral-panic term “sex trafficking”). What’s relatively new is their fixation on protecting “true women” (people born biologically female) from those who would dare separate womanhood from the presence or absence of certain sexual characteristics.
Many of them draw on the work of Sheila Jeffreys, who has undergone something of a special beatification in recent years. In a series of books, mostly published in the 1990 and 2000s, Jeffreys has argued that transgenderism is a “practice” (note the similarity to how homophobes have described homosexuality as a “lifestyle” or “[sinful] practice,” wiping psychology from the slate altogether). Not just a practice, but a practice that reinforces and “essentializes” gender, and therefore the existing patriarchal gender order that colonizes women’s bodies with oppressive expectations regarding beauty (it is “self-mutilation” for a woman to get a tattoo, according to Jeffreys). Also a practice that conflates womanhood with identity, erasing the oppression and internalization of social norms that women undergo as girls – and which, supposedly, are avoided by transgender women who were not raised as girls (but whose own gender-imposed oppression escapes Jeffreys’ concern).
Simplified versions of Jeffreys’ arguments have filtered into the TERF rank and file, and will likely be encountered by anybody who engages one in discussion. What follows are the most common arguments they publish online, thankfully the only place their politics finds expression. As it turns out, a surprising number of these arguments have been repeated by otherwise good Marxists who have not performed the necessary intellectual or theoretical heavy lifting to pierce through the shroud of hateful lies, distortions, and poor logic that infuse these arguments.
“What is a woman? I bet whatever your definition is, that it relies on some kind of ‘essentialism’ that you attempt to condemn us for using!”
The most heavily relied upon weapon in the arsenal of TERFs is, believe it or not, the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, which defines “woman” as “an adult female person.” If you have a penis, the argument goes, you cannot be a woman. And if one suggests otherwise, they are guilty of absurd logic that flies in the face of something so obvious even the dictionary gets it. The problem here is that the dictionary is not a theoretical guide, but rather a repository of the meanings that words have in their popular, day-to-day usage. Most people, though, aren’t gender theorists, left activists fighting gender oppression, or anti-capitalist. Which is why it would be equally absurd to depend on how Merriam-Webster defines “capitalism” (no reference to economic exploitation or the commoditization of labor power, but with the invocation of a “free market”) as the basis for criticizing Marxist theory. Dictionaries do not serve the purpose of providing theoretical understanding, and were never intended to do so.
So what is a woman? Not even radical feminists would argue that it is the state of being a female, full stop. Rather the meaning of womanhood (not to mention the meaning of adulthood) is historically variable and culturally contingent. To borrow Simone de Beauvoir’s famous line from The Second Sex, “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.” This process involves biological, psychological, and cultural variables that create different senses of what “being a woman” means both in terms of a society’s hegemonic prescriptions and in terms of an individual’s sense of self. Consequently, a good definition of “woman” would be any person whose identity or internal ‘map’ of one’s proper relation to the world is of the same category as somebody classed socially due to their perceived status as a sexually mature female. This definition could obviously be modified to define “man” as well as somebody who is agender or genderfluid. Most important of all is how the definition distinguishes between, but also connects, one’s inner sense of self in gender terms, and the often context-dependent assignment a person receives in social interactions (e.g., the way gender is “performed,” sometimes poorly). Certainly there is a definitional “essence” to womanhood here, one that relates to reproductive biology. But it’s not reproductive biology by itself—it is a sense of self molded by the constellation of meanings society assigns based on presumed reproductive biology.
“Transgender people reinforce the existence of gender, and gender oppresses women!”
This argument is like the argument that because the October Revolution was not able to eliminate capitalism with one fell swoop, and sometimes even introduced capitalist production into economic sectors that were dominated by subsistence production (like agriculture), it actually reinforced capitalism. The inroads on capitalist property relations and class power that were made in the subsequent years disappear from the equation. Similarly, transgender people who disrupt the process by which culture assigns gender, blending and bending and maneuvering within the gender spectrum, “reinforce” gender in the sense that they do not and cannot eliminate it – how could they, since doing so would require a socialist revolution and the maturation of a communist society? What they do is make inroads on the power of gender, which is in large part achieved through the way it naturalizes links between social norms and the body. Transgender people demonstrate that gender is not the product of innate biology, but rather a deeply felt sense of self regarding where one fits (or does not fit) in a society where everyone faces rigid expectations regarding behavior and appearance based on (assumed) reproductive biology. The same holds true for people who opt to undergo bodily modification to better express the gender (or lack thereof) with which they most closely relate.
“We are the true materialist feminists. Our feminism is grounded on the material reality of biological sex!”
True, the TERF understanding of womanhood as coextensive with certain sexual equipment is certainly a materialist definition. But it is a reductionist and vulgar materialism of the kind that Marx derided in many of his works. It collapses the socio-cultural, as well as the psychological, to the level of biology, without accounting for how all three levels are formative to the meaning of womanhood.
The reduction of womanhood to the biological level creates an incredibly problematic methodology for studying women’s oppression. If “womanhood” is assumed to be a transparent category that explains the different life chances women, as a social category, experience vis-à-vis non-women, the opportunity is lost to examine the real mechanisms responsible for women’s oppression. Not biology, not even self-identification with one gender or another, but rather the assignment of sexist gender expectations and norms. And that process, like the imposition of “racial” expectations and norms, occurs differently in different contexts, sometimes leading to assignments that violate the cultural “rules” of the (con) game (e.g., mistaking a man for a woman, or a South Asian for an Arab). In other words, the task of studying sexism – and racism – entails isolating and analyzing what social theorist Andrew Sayer has called “identity-sensitive mechanisms,” processes that predicate their efficaciousness on a social actor being actively identified as belonging to a particular category, even if that identification is wrong. After all, sexism, like racism, is a social process and not the natural outgrowth of biological difference. An identifiably Marxist approach would acknowledge this fact as a starting point.
“We’re not transphobic—we don’t fear, or seek to impose violence on, trans people!”
One need not be subjectively afraid of or hateful of trans people to express transphobic views, any more than somebody need to identify as a white supremacist to make racist arguments. This point is so obvious that it need not be explained at length. Needless to say, if a person calls into question aspects of other people’s identities as psychologically and emotionally significant as gender, that person is contributing to a social environment responsible for the duress, violence, and fearful encounters that unfortunately characterize the daily experiences of trans people. No wicked intentions are required.
“I can understand some people feel disconnected from the gendered expectations that have been assigned to them based on their reproductive biology, but gender reassignment surgery is just self-mutilation. There’s no other word for it.”
This incredibly hateful and ignorant argument juxtaposes surgically or cosmetically modified bodies with “natural” bodies, and suggests that there is somehow something superior about the latter. One is entitled to wonder whether the same standard of “human modified” versus “natural” applies to the larger ecosystem, where human modification is categorically harmful. There’s a word for such views: primitivism. “Body primitivists” is an appropriate description of the feminists and others who make this type of argument. Such body primitivists are strangely inconsistent in their logic: rarely will you find one denigrate the cosmetic acts of cutting one’s hair, of clipping one’s finger- and toenails, or of wearing deodorant. One version of body primitivism found its way into the pages of the U.S. Socialist Workers Party in 1954, under the similar guise of “opposing sexist practices.” Joseph Hansen (writing under the name Jack Bustelo) penned a paean to the “hardy, ax-swinging pioneer women of America,” suggesting socialist women should not wear make-up — a kind of lifestylist approach to fighting the undoubtedly sexist beauty culture that pervades capitalist society.
The Marxist approach to fighting beauty culture is class struggle that targets the material basis of sexism while speaking out against the ills it creates, including beauty culture. The idea that we fight it by not wearing make-up, or buying other commodities which are targeted at or relate to features that are interwoven with sexism, is to buy into consumer politics. And that is not to say anything about the highly questionable assumption that things like make-up or other cosmetic enhancements (or physical-aesthetic romantic preferences) will not exist in a communist society.
The same principle carries over to the issue of gender reassignment surgery or hormone replacement therapy. Even if we pretend these practices are similar to ear-piercing by bracketing aside that their profound meaningfulness to the people undergoing them, in what sense can these bodily modifications be considered undesirable instances of “mutilation”—or that some of the physical modifications they produce will not, for some reason or another, also be desired by some people under communism? Curiously enough, actual harmful physical modifications – like cutting or even outright suicide – seem to evade the attention of these “Marxists” even as they hone in on a far rarer practice that is benign. The end goal of Marxism is to render one’s biological sex as irrelevant to their sense of self regarding what under capitalism are gendered traits, so a Marxist would hope that, to the extent aspects of what we now call gender reassignment continue to exist, they will be pursued not because of a disconnect between gender norms and the individual’s sense of self. Until then, stigmatizing or pushing to make the procedure more difficult to access betrays not only a consumer-oriented approach to politics (one that would harm mostly the proletarian trans individuals who cannot afford to pay out of pocket for these procedures), but also a viciously insensitive and transphobic tendency that has no place in revolutionary socialist politics.
On issue after issue, TERFs and the Marxists who unwittingly recycle their talking points line up with the most religiously reactionary and conservative elements of society. The long-standing right-wing argument that humans were supposedly created “Adam and Eve” rather than “Adam and Steve” should signal a clear warning to self-proclaimed Marxists who fall into the trap of attempting to read the legitimacy or desirability of social categories and practices directly from reproductive anatomy. Yet they persist nevertheless, unwilling to scrutinize how their shared conclusions are the byproduct of shared political assumptions and overlapping methodologies. Hopefully they take this wake-up call in the spirit in which it is intended.
 The reason for this difference within the radical feminism in the 1970s and 1980s is the divide on whether it is sex or sexuality that serves as the basis of patriarchy. Those like MacKinnon, who view sexuality as the driving force behind patriarchy, are far more inclined to be sympathetic to trans people who identify as a gender that transgresses social norms tying gender to biological sex, since being trans or gender fluid does not imply a specific relationship to sexuality as a practice. For those in the Susan Brownmiller and Janice Raymond wing, who believe that female biology produces patriarchy with its attendant sexual ideologies and practices, biological males identifying as women is a conspiracy to silence the voices and erase the experiences of “real women.” For more on MacKinnon’s and Dworkin’s views on this issue, see this interview and Dworkin’s comments about publicly funded gender reassignment surgery in her 1974 book Woman Hating. Unfortunately, radical feminism today – largely an online phenomenon stridently repackaging serious but deeply problematic theoretical works from decades ago – have assimilated Dworkin’s and MacKinnon’s puritanical views toward sexuality, while jettisoning their openness on the transgender issue, combining the worst aspects of both wings.