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.