‘Female Erasure’ sheds light on contemporary misogyny and the value of women-only space

During a time when the popular focus on trans rights has led queer activists to question and ultimately condemn the concept of a biological woman, feminists need to pay attention. And this is exactly what the contributors to a recently published anthology, edited by Ruth Barrett, are doing.

In Female Erasure: What You Need To Know About Gender Politics’ War on Women, the Female Sex and Human Rights, writers from diverse backgrounds and ideological milieus examine the impact of gender politics on the women’s liberation movement. The rise of trans activism has generated numerous ideological shifts in society, including the idea that gender is a personal identity as opposed to a social invention, imposed on people based on their sex. Within this line of thought, biological realities (such as a women’s wombs, breasts, and vaginas) become irrelevant to womanhood — simply stating that one is female makes it so .

Female Erasure highlights numerous problems with this supposedly progressive approach to gender, one of those being the impact on women-only spaces. In “Queer Theory’s Suppression Of Feminist Consciousness,” Carol Downer discusses the Obama administration’s decision to open women’s bathrooms and changing facilities to males who claim the gender category “woman.” Downer argues that denying women their own spaces will adversely impact women’s self-image and group solidarity. Extending the issue beyond the sphere of the bathroom, she explains that women’s inability to maintain their own spaces where they can organize against oppression will adversely impact feminist consciousness. This is because feminist consciousness can only exist once women begin to identify with other women and center women’s interests in their politics, instead of men’s — something that is compromised when women cannot gather amongst themselves to discuss their oppression under patriarchy or the unique particularities of the female body.

Like Downer, Ava Park identifies the attack on women-only spaces as a trend that will impede women’s liberation. In “Female Erasure: A Sampler,” she argues that we must maintain woman-only space because “women in a dominator-model society need a place to speak freely to recover from oppression and erasure.” In order to ensure that patriarchy continues to function effectively, men who wish to dominate women must break down women’s boundaries. Park shows how this process is aided through fairy tales that teach girls and boys about “evil queens,” which demonize women who set boundaries. This lesson is later linked to societal anxieties about women who insist on having their own spaces. The outcome is women who, through being socialized not to have boundaries (because this makes them cruel), feel compelled to accept males who identify as “non-binary” or transwomen in their formerly women-only spaces. This acceptance means that women are likely to feel bad or anxious about discussing experiences unique to their female bodies.

In her essay, “Why Women’s Spaces Are Critical To Feminist Autonomy,” Patricia McFadden offers a historical analysis of how men have used space to support patriarchy. She says that allowing men into women’s spaces under the guise of “inclusion” is heterosexist and “serves an old nationalistic claim that women need to take care of men, no matter where they are located and or what they are engaged with.” Because women who are not attached to or associated with a man are considered dangerous in a patriarchy, McFadden concludes that the attempt to deny women their own spaces constitutes “backlash against women’s attempts to become autonomous of men in their personal/political relationships and interactions.”

While much of Female Erasure focuses on the role that modern efforts to deny women their own spaces plays in maintaining patriarchy, the anthology also addresses what is behind efforts to erase the material reality of sex-based oppression. In “The Girls and the Grasses,” Lierre Keith provides readers with a clear, concise definition of a term that has centered in feminist discourse: gender. While some claim gender is a binary, Keith argues that it is a hierarchy that determines “who gets to be human and who gets to be hurt.” She explains that gender is ultimately a system of male violence — one that is enabled not only by individual men, but by institutions. She writes:

“Behind the sadist are the institutions, the condensations of power that hand us to him. Every time a judge rules that women have no right to bodily integrity — that upskirt photos are legal, that miscarriages are murder, that women should expect to be beaten — he wins.”

Practical examples of how the violent gender system operates are imperative in terms of understanding its real life consequences for women and girls. Keith points to female genital mutilation (FGM) as an example that acts both as violence and a means for male boundary-breaking. She writes:

“In the most extreme forms of female genital mutilation (FGM), the labia are cut off and the vagina is sewn shut. On her wedding night, the girl’s husband will penetrate her with a knife before his penis.”

The idea that women exist “for men” is harmful in numerous ways, but one, Keith points out, is exemplified in the fact that “There are entire villages in India where all the women only have one kidney… because their husbands have sold the other one.”

The only solution is to abolish the gender system entirely, she concludes.

Female Erasure demonstrates how the ongoing war against women and the “progressive” attack on female-only spaces has become an integral component of the patriarchal project; something we must understand in order to address the particular misogyny operating within our contemporary landscape.

Jocelyn Crawley is a 32 year old radical feminist writer in Atlanta, Georgia.

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  • lauren raine

    Thank you for this intelligent and well researched article, and in the face of the rather incredible abuse people like Ruth Barret and colleagues have had to take for merely suggesting that one may not necessarily become a woman simply by saying he is one…..brave as well. To deny or erase the realities of being born and raised a woman in today’s world is indeed a feminist issue. As a young feminist in the early 60’s, there is a hell of a lot I remember that is very much still a reality of being a woman in a violent male dominated culture, among them, unwanted pregnancy, the constant predation and fear of male rape. sexual harrassment, domestic violence, struggle for birth control, the feminization of poverty, struggle for equal pay………so much, so much I have seen at least made visible, if not changed altogether. We didn’t have access to birth control or abortions in 1965, so we got pregnant, and had to give our babies away or become little girls with babies. We go raped and didn’t talk about it, because there was no where to go to where you could. Our partners beat us up, and there were no women’s shelters or support groups yet for refuge. Our bosses chased us around the office and grabbed our breasts and you just had to lose your job or put up with it. And then came consciousness raising groups, and women could talk about what they felt, they could see what they shared in common, they could empower themselves, deal with the ptsd of their lives, the belittlement and shutting up that most women are used to.

    So much……..I have sympathy for men who feel they want to become women, but the incredible violence with which so many “transwomen” are demanding entrance into the most intimate spaces of women, is so male. Can anyone tell me that a privileged man who has lived his life as a man, maybe with a wife and a career, for 20, 30, 40 years and now says he is a woman (because he says so)…….can know a damn thing about what I outlined above? Is it not possible that such a person might come to the table with a very male idea of what a woman is? The habit of entitlement, and of expectation of dominance, is deeply ingrained, and anyone leading a mixed group of any kind knows very well that the men, even if less qualified than other female members, will tend to dominate the group, and the women will shut up, because that’s what they are socialized to do.

    • oneclickboedicea

      Exactly, a man in a dress still acts like a man because they havent developed a surgery to remove hierarchical arrogance yet.

  • FierceMild

    Certainly it can’t do that. But physical reality won’t really be gainsaid so at the very least there is a time limit on transactivism.

  • FierceMild

    Very true, but if that same person were to where the tighter clothing and makeup without the claim to womanhood we’d be a long stride closer to disentangling sex and behavior.

  • FierceMild

    I think the relativism is (or could be) the growing pain. I don’t think the very same people – with the possible exception of children who are transed – who are today’s trans activists will be tomorrow’s gender abolitionists. I think the trajectory of gender ideology as a whole is providing an object lesson to society more broadly. The ludicrous absurdities of the trans activists will cause others to swerve toward a more sane response (like gender abolition) because they will have seen how gender ideology plays out. I am not saying the world at large will behave in an intentionally more rational manner; just that we will have the data set required for avoiding this same error.

    • oneclickboedicea

      I have wondered this too, but with Trump we may not live that long to see the pendulum swing anywhere!

      • FierceMild

        With Trump I feel like we’ve seen nothin’ but swinging pendulum!

  • susannunes

    I am currently reading it, along with some other books. There is a lot covered in the book, so I am taking my time with reading it.

  • susannunes

    Sex role (called gender) abolition, is key for women to be free of patriarchy. We need to bring back the terms sex roles and sex role stereotypes and stop using the word gender, for starters.

    • will

      “We need to bring back the terms sex roles and sex role stereotypes and stop using the word gender”

      YES! This x1000!

  • FierceMild

    It’s places like FC that make me feel more optimistic. There is nothing like being surrounded (even virtually) by brilliant, incisive, mentally tough women to make me feel hopeful about the world. For me it’s the isolation (or the illusion of isolation) that really gets me down.

  • About halfway through the book and loving it.

  • Sabine

    I went to a “womb blessing” workshop recently and was horrified to hear that, had men wanted to come along, they would have been allowed! As if that would be some great thing – cookies for the “open, right-on bros!” And we’re not even talking trans here…This kind of neo-liberal crap drives me up the wall. Fortunately it ended up being an all-women circle and we could freely talk and cry about past traumas experienced ONLY by those with biologically female bodies. The shame around starting periods and developing women’s bodies can never be experienced by somebody born male no matter how much they believe in their “identity” – which appears to be attaching to and fetishizing feminine stereotypes as opposed to having anything to do with actual female biology. You can bet when the day comes and MtT are booking onto this workshop and women voice their discomfort they will be drowned out by the hysterical accusations of transphobia and “literally” causing the suicides of trans folk. Someone I know told me about a belly-dancing workshop for women that a creepy guy she knew managed to barge his way into. Of course the women felt they had to include this “new-age”, 50+ year old perv and afterwards he told my friend that he’d found it a “real turn-on” and was going on about the smell of all the women…absolutely gross. Men – leave our spaces the fuck alone!!!

  • Sabine

    Yep! All these boys and men have are their (male – obviously!) IDEAS about what a woman is. And it seems to go no further than adhering to the very stereotypes feminists are trying to abolish. No middle-aged man would choose to cram his feet into spiked heels after a lifetime of shoe-comfort unless there was something fetishized about it….

  • Leo

    Yup, I’ve had ’em seriously say that, and a very confused Republican woman absolutely insist on it, lol. It’s still one of my most favourite things they’ve said, next to being called a commie. Them getting onto the education system and why it’s all feminised is really entertaining in general, especially on more public forums where they don’t quite dare admit that their problem is really that there are any female teachers, because even they know that’d make them look bad. If there’s an answer other than *crickets* or vagueness, then they’ll say something ridiculous, like coursework…I mean, guys, are you *really* sure you want to be telling me girls are just innately better at academic work? Because GL getting through Uni without writing papers, it’s not like that’s an important part of academia or anything, lol. : D

  • Sabine

    Hahaha! SO true! There is so much fetish crap going on when it comes to old men squeezing themselves into “sexy” lingerie, etc.