Sunday, February 21, 2016

"Andrea Dworkin's Woman Hating and the Priority of Sisterhood" -- a new guest post by Margo Schulter

image is from here

What follows was submitted as a comment to a recent post. It concerns a predominantly white-centered battle between some people identified as radical feminist, and some identified as transgender. But as its length would have required breaking it up into several sections, I decided I would post it here as a separate entry, with permission. Margo is white and has been directly involved in Radical and Lesbian Feminist community. -- Julian

Andrea Dworkin's Woman Hating And 
The Priority Of Sisterhood

by Margo Schulter

As a transsexual Lesbian feminist who has been seeking to help build inclusive women's and Lesbian communities based on radical feminist values for 42 years, I can hardly consider the meaning of Andrea Dworkin's writings on intersex and transsexual people in _Woman Hating_ (1974), and on "multisexuality" both there and in _The Root Cause_ (1975), as a mere academic question. As a Second Waver myself, I will here try to offer a bit of perspective both on the current context in which these issues arise, and on why Andrea Dworkin might later have mixed feelings about some of what she said in _Woman Hating_.

Indeed, anyone acquainted with the achievements of Dr. Helen O'Connell, for example, would know that some of what Dworkin presented in 1974 is now outdated science; while other portions might be strongly dependent on the specific backdrop of 1960's counterculture, or open to dangerous misunderstandings that Dworkin might have preferred not to highlight when choosing the best passages for an online library of her writings. I'll address some of these points below, and argue that her views on intersex and trans people very likely do not fall in these categories, a conclusion I share with her close colleague and uncompromising radical feminist Catharine MacKinnon, as well as her partner John Stoltenberg.

This dialogue about _Woman Hating_ grows in good part out of a courageous act of John Stoltenberg in 2013: analyzing and defending the ethics of Chelsea Manning in exposing war crimes of the colonialist patriarchy. <>. In the process, because he correctly gendered Chelsea Manning, he attracted considerable negative attention from feminists who hold the view that trans women either are men and should be gendered accordingly, or at least are "males" or "nonfemales" with no place in the women's and Lesbian communities.

In response, Stoltenberg in 2014 wrote a piece for the _Feminist Times_ theme of #GenderWeek, "Andrea was not transphobic." <>. This was a powerful act of allyship with trans women in general and transsexual radical Lesbian feminists coming from Andrea's Second Wave roots in particular. And for some "true believers" that it is possible to be a zealous follower of the feminism of Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon and at the same time seek the systematic exclusion of transsexual women from feminist and Lesbian communities, Stoltenberg's arguments pointed to an anomaly. Given Dworkin's position that all transsexual people are in "primary emergency" (a condition she had earlier defined as applying, for example, to Africans and African-Americans in the Maafa, Indigenous people in the Turtle Island Holocaust starting soon after 1492, and Jews in the Shoah), how could a follower of Dworkin seek the general exclusion or marginalization of transsexual women as a subgroup of the sex class female?

What I would emphasize is that accepting what Dworkin said in 1974 and 1975 about intersex and transsexual people and "multisexuality" leaves open a vast range of questions about how feminists in 2016 should approach real differences in experiences and vulnerabilities among women at many intersections of oppression. Thus private groups and spaces for either women who are Assigned Female At Birth (AFAB) or women who are trans may sometimes serve valuable purposes. But I do see Dworkin's views as incompatible not only with a general rejection or exclusion of transsexual women from the women's and Lesbian communities, but equally with the attitude of some trans women who distrust or devalue all women who are AFAB, often based on a supposed "cis/trans" binary, which I find as misleading as the sex and gender binaries that Dworkin challenged. If I ask for inclusion and solidarity as a Lesbian woman who enjoyed some male privilege until I transitioned at age 22, as well as a survivor of trans oppression, I surely must stand shoulder to shoulder in solidarity with women who have never enjoyed male privilege and are survivors of AFAB socialization. As Audre Lorde and other Women of Color have especially shown, sisterhood is a multidimensional reality: but surely it must be a two-way street on the elementary level that I acknowledge the 99% and more of my sisters in the female sex class who have indeed survived AFAB socialization, and have experienced things I cannot imagine. They are my older sisters, not my "cis oppressors"; rather, the patriarchy is our common oppressor.

Here I should also point to something that dyadic (nonintersex) people like Andrea Dworkin and Janice Raymond, and also on a humbler level myself, got wrong at least by omission in the 1970's: the vital intersex issue of childhood medical abuse. The practice of Intersex Genital Mutilation (IGM), optional surgery performed on nonconsenting infants and children to bring them into conformity with the patriarchal sex binary and its heteronormative obsession with the penetrative sexual act that Andrea Dworkin would address in _Intercourse_ (1987), should have attracted the passionate condemnation of all feminists for a number of reasons. In reality, however, it only happened when intersex people themselves very visibly spoke out, starting in the mid-1990's. Yet _Woman Hating_ beautifully expresses some of the feminist values fulfilled by the militant intersex movement starting some two decades later, with IGM still very much an issue in many parts of the world.

As you note, Julian, Andrea Dworkin later indicated her own misgivings with some portions of _Woman Hating_. Should we take this to include the passages on intersex and transsexual people? Here I would suggest a reasoned approach in weighing the probabilities of what she may have intended.

First, as I mentioned, there are statements she made or cited in 1974 that we now know to be wrong in ways very, very, important for Lesbian feminists and feminists in general, as with this: "the clitoris is a vestigial penis."

In fact, as Dr. Helen O'Connell of Australia has shown in paradigm-changing research, the clitoris is far larger and more complex than the external and visible portion homologous to the glans penis: that is only, as the African-American feminist Sophia Wallace puts it, "the tip of the iceberg" of the internal clitoris, including the shaft, the crura or legs, and the bulbs (formerly called "vestibular bulbs"). In short, the clitoris overall is about the same size as the penis, except that it is mostly internalized -- and yet more richly innervated (supplied with nerves) and intricate! Thus the human phalloclitoris (as it is often termed in the intersex community) or virga (a medieval Latin term that can apply to clitoris or penis, and I would propose also the range of intermediate forms), differs along the female-male continuum not so much in size as in the degree of internalization or externalization. Here _Woman Hating_ needs an update which I am sure that Dworkin would support, whether or not she was aware of this issue when she chose for other portions of her work to have priority in an online archive.

She might have yet more serious concerns about portions of her chapter on "multisexuality" that addressed the incest taboo, for example, or "bestiality." Here I agree with at least one other commentator that from a truly radical perspective that values human empathy and respectful touch, the "erotic" may embrace many forms of affection that the patriarchal mindset simply cannot comprehend. But such words, in the context of a culture where physical and sexual child abuse are rife, may have later struck her as, to say the least, inapposite. She may have realized that she had looked too far ahead of her times in a way which might endanger those she most wanted to protect: abused women and children. And I will add my conviction that her concern in this regard embraces not only the vast majority of women and girls who are AFAB, but also trans women subject to rape and other crimes of violence.

In contrast, her words about intersex and transsexual people do not pose a similar risk. As long as transsexual Lesbian feminists and other transsexual women who participate in feminist groups behave as sisters, understand that women who have survived AFAB socialization are in this sense our seniors, and respect the basic rule of enthusiastic consent and noncoercion that no Lesbian owes sex to any other Lesbian, regardless of birth assignment, there should be no insoluble problems. And members of feminist communities who do not meet these expectations, regardless of birth assignment, can and should be asked to leave.

Julian, you also raise a point where there has been a rather heated dialectic of conflict, as I might say, but a ready synthesis is available. You are absolutely right that it is implicit in Dworkin that the vast majority of women are AFAB, and are indeed oppressed under the brutal patriarchal hierarchy of gender because of their actual or perceived reproductive capabilities -- which, under patriarchy, become vulnerabilities.

Thus transsexual women who are good feminists recognize that in that sense, within the female sex class we are the exception rather than the rule, which makes it all the more important for us to show sex-class consciousness and solidarity by supporting women's reproductive rights as a women's issue and feminist issue. What hurts our sisters, hurts ourselves.

Although Andrea does not address the details of how transsexual women might interact with other women in the feminist movement, a discussion early in _Woman Hating_ about "primary emergency" indicates that women who have special oppressions -- and, for me, AFAB oppression as well as trans or intersex oppression amply qualifies here -- have a responsibility also to look to the general experience and interests of the female sex class. That means at once recognizing, for example, that negative menstrual stereotypes and insulting language demean all women, include those of us who never ourselves have periods, and that discussions of menstruation and allied health concerns should be welcome in inclusive women's groups; and also that women who share the experience of menstruation may sometimes want to have rituals of a kind led by Z Budapest for themselves only.

From this perspective of interpreting Andrea's views from 1974 in an inclusive and flexible way, John Stoltenberg's arguments for the spirit of inclusion are powerfully supported by Catharine MacKinnon, whose opposition to pornography and what she terms prostitution and I term sexage work (from the French _sexage_, a feminist concept meaning sex-based servitude or slavery) is well known. She speaks best for herself: <>

As a Second Wave feminist, I would add that recognizing a continuum of physical sex (with intersex people representing natural variations rather than pathological cases) and of what we perceive under patriarchy as gender identities and styles of gender expression, in no way makes the gender hierarchy of patriarchy less real or oppressive! Andrea shows that we can use common sense and hirstorical experience to recognize both what is brutally "real" under patriarchy, and what is ultimately "true" about feminist possibilities, without any need for "postmodernism." Kate Millett and Andrea Dworkin had it right: while "gender identity" or "sex identity" develops in the first years of life in a given social context as a basic reality for an individual, transsexual or otherwise, the patriarchal system of gender is not just a "performance," or an even playing field with equally valid "choices." Being raped, or facing an unwanted pregnancy, is not just a theatrical scene; the playing field of gender roles and expressions under patriarchy is not level ground, but has a twisted topology of threatened and too often realized violence. This violence, as it affects women who are AFAB, transsexual, and/or intersex, is something that _Woman Hating_ calls on all women to oppose in common sisterhood.

The way I like to phrase an inclusive feminist approach is this: "The rule does not exclude the exceptions, and neither do the exceptions exclude the rule." Thus the vast majority of women are AFAB, and a large portion of this majority face the risk of unwanted pregnancy -- facts essential in understanding the origins and nature of patriarchy as enforced reproductive labor and slavery, and the need of all women, including intersex and transsexual women, to unite in order to liberate our sex class. The presence of a relatively few acculturated transsexual women in the feminist and Lesbian communities need in no way decenter the concerns of women who are AFAB, and good feminist process will maintain balance. Such process, of course, depends on the acknowledgment of privileges and immunities, including, for those of us who are transsexual women, past male privilege and also immunity from childhood AFAB socialization.

A Second Wave tradition which I strongly support is the principle that each affinity group within the greater feminist and Lesbian communities can set its own boundaries. Thus a group like the Women's Liberation Front (WoLF) has every right to define itself as AFAB only. In fact, I admire many of the declared rules and guidelines of this group on conduct both online and in the larger world, and would see an effort to build similar groups and communities including women regardless of birth assignment as a sisterly response. Thus WoLF is free to set its own boundaries, and other affinity groups are free to do the same. Radical feminism is large enough to have room for both types of groups and private spaces.

In short, as I hope to have suggested by this point, living by Andrea Dworkin's radical feminist values as expressed in _Woman Hating_ is a high challenge for transsexual women as well as women who are AFAB, including intersex women regardless of birth assignment. It means recognizing the material reality of women's reproductive slavery, and the psychological oppression of AFAB socialization, that we too need to center early and often. In short, if we identify _as_ women, we must identify _with_ women, so that sisterhood overcomes the illusory "cis/trans" binary. Sisterhood first and foremost! That seems to me implicit in everything that Andrea Dworkin has written.

1 comment:

Julian Real said...

A primary concern about this post is the way it centralises one of the most liberal facets of Andrea's work, and remains detached from the many radical points she made about male supremacist sexual politics.

I do not think such selective extraction honors her life or her legacy.