Socialization Matters: Why “Identity Libertarianism” is Failed Politics


I want to explore what “woman” means when male-born persons can be “women” just the same as female-born persons.

Most significantly, the term “woman” must be disconnected from the socio-historic context that gives the term coherency in the first place. Without any material or experiential framework “woman’s” origin becomes irrelevant; she can be anything or nothing at all.

When male-born persons can be “women” just the same as female-born persons, the skin-deep veneer of social identity is being substituted for the complex, lifelong process of class-based socialization. This is neoliberal individualist choice-theory masquerading as the politics of liberation.

Identity-as-woman and socialization-as-woman describe very different social experiences. This should be an elementary distinction for anyone interested in the politics of sex and gender.

Identifying as a woman is a form of self-perception. It only requires consciousness of oneself as a social actor and the ability to articulate awareness of this. Identity as a woman can be claimed by anyone.[i]

Socialization as a woman, on the other hand, begins at birth and continues as a lifelong process. It seems to have no beginning and no end, almost as if it were organic or inevitable.[ii]  Socialization takes hold even before a young girl has social consciousness of her own and it operates without her consent. It is the day-by-day experience of learning and internalizing the gender-based norms, rituals, and behaviors that society demands of children born female. Socialization is experientially cumulative; the whole of socialization is greater than the sum of its parts. Aspects of this experience may be approximated, but they cannot be duplicated.

It is therefore inaccurate to insist that identity and socialization are equivalent or interchangeable. Further, deconstructing and eliminating oppression against women is impossible if we refuse to fully examine its origin, social determinants, and class-based operations.


In everyday practice, socialization as a “man” or “woman” is determined at birth according to genital appearance. The graphic below illustrates how these assignments occur.[iii] Please note the gendered cultural symbols: a bow and flowers indicating a “girl” versus the baseball hat indicating a “boy.”


“Girl” or “boy” is assigned on the basis of genitals alone. “Girl” and “boy” are mutually exclusive categories. You’re a boy. Or you’re a girl. Not both. Or neither. SURGERY and distressing question marks are included on the Phall-O-Metrics scale, above, to indicate that if an infant’s genitals are ambiguous by accepted medical standards,[iv] they will be surgically “corrected” or “normalized” and the infant will be socialized as a “girl.”[v] Plastic surgery can visually approximate nearly any body part, but social role determinism at birth is never a choice. Boys will have properly sized penises or they will not be boys! They will be girls.

Sex matters because having a certain kind of genitals at birth is a prerequisite to socialization as a “boy.” Sex matters because the social role “boy” is a more favorable social role than that of “girl.” Girls are devalued,[vi] sexualized, and discriminated against simply because they are “girls.”[vii], [viii], [ix] There are objectively measurable material advantages to being male at birth. For example, boy-socialized people will be paid more for the same work.[x], [xi]

This is no accident; it is precisely how the human system of sex-based gender socialization works and has worked for thousands of years.[xii] Gender disproportionately distributes power to males via the cultural hegemony of over-valued masculinity. Gendered socialization begins at birth and has lifelong formative effects on the psyches of both men and women. The ugly result is institutionalized male dominance over females and femininity.[xiii] There is no nation in the world primarily controlled by girl-socialized people. Not a single one. Every measurable imbalance of social power between men and women can be traced back to the false naturalization of gender roles and gender role socialization.

It doesn’t make sense, then, for us to consider male-socialized people who identify as “women” to be the same as female-socialized people who were tracked to become “women” from birth.  We must have a more nuanced understanding of the social dynamics and determinants of class-based oppression.


Prioritizing freedom of identity over all other objective qualifications for membership in a class of people is a political ethic that I refer to as “identity libertarianism.” It manifests as an unyielding insistence that we accept anyone into any social group, no matter what. Platitudes about an unconditional right to self-definition and entitlement to corresponding in-group membership are uncritically accepted in many progressive activist circles.[xiv] Dissent is silenced. “Identity libertarianism” often feels as if it’s been elevated to the status of moral obligation. But applying this ethic to classes that are constrained by institutional oppression fails on at least three accounts.

First, it trivializes the experiences of oppressed people by allowing external observers of disadvantaged groups to demand acceptance into the group, and then, to speak from a place of personal authority on behalf of the group (e.g., transwomen are women). This creates false equivalency between unwilling, lifelong members of an oppressed class and those who have consciously and deliberately identified into it—after having a chance to understand what they are getting into. The condition of being oppressed as a member of the class becomes the same as not being oppressed as a member of the class.

Along the same lines, if the political fashion of “identity libertarianism” dictates that all social groups must be open to all individuals at all times, there is nothing to prevent a member of the oppressor class from seeking entrance to the world of the oppressed for nefarious purposes.[xv] In fact, any attempt to impose reasonable safeguards against such possibilities is faced with vehement opposition. In this way, “identity libertarianism” bypasses the experiences of oppressed people, dismissing their needs and voices.

Second, by reducing the substance of group membership to nothing more than self-definition, those who support “identity libertarianism” also seem oblivious to the fact that one cannot leave an oppressed group as easily as others seem able to join it. Applied broadly it should be clear why “identity libertarianism” is bad theory. For example, “identity libertarianism” would suppose it was possible for a female-bodied person to fend off a rapist by informing her attacker she identifies as a male. Or possible for a person of color to defend himself against racial profiling by saying he identifies as white.

If life were as simple for the oppressed as “identity libertarianism” pretends, we could end oppression yesterday. The reality is that people who are oppressed on the basis of an immutable physical characteristic such as sex cannot escape their oppression merely by changing their self-perception.

Third, the application of “identity libertarianism” theory to oppressed people results in victim-blaming. By focusing all of its attention on individual desires and self-perception–rather than acknowledging the systemic forces of oppression– “identity libertarianism” infers that the oppressed are in control of their own destinies. If one is unhappy in her current social role or identity, she need only find her “true self” among the many prefabricated social roles now open to her. There is no critical examination of the roles themselves.

Instead, “identity libertarianism” frames social distress as a personal problem that is best resolved on an individual level without any regard to enforced patterns of social stratification and cumulative socialization that demoralize entire groups of people. This is an unforgivable oversight. Poor decision making by oppressed individuals is not the cause of class-based oppression, nor is it the responsibility of the individual to escape the system that oppresses them. We must deconstruct the system itself.


Failure to permit individuals to craft their own identity-realities is not the cause of oppression. Colluding with individuals who craft their own identity-realities in the image of existing social constructs is not the solution to oppression.

The point of radical political analysis is to locate and attack the root of structural oppression. We cannot achieve liberation by simply reshuffling individuals between classes, while leaving the current social norms and hierarchies in place.

“Identity libertarianism” is an immature and ineffective ideology on which to center a political strategy for social justice. It offers women no explanation for or relief from the gendered constraints that shape the lives of female and girl-socialized people. At the same time, “identity libertarianism” places responsibility for social change on the individual—as if women’s social status were caused by nothing more than a series of bad personal choices.

This shallow and one-dimensional worldview must not displace material feminist analysis of the collective female social condition. Acknowledging the existence of a sex-based power hierarchy that is global in reach and deadly in consequence is foundational to feminism.[xvi] Acknowledging the process and negative effects that compulsory feminine socialization has on children who are not born with phalluses sufficiently large enough to classify them as “boys” is essential to the work of feminists. As a result, male-socialized people simply cannot be considered “women” the same as female-socialized people without making invisible the entire structural process that gives rise to gender and gendered inequality in the first place.

“Identity libertarianism” prioritizes the feel-good simplicity of in-group entitlement over responsible political analysis. It has no place in our movement.


Special thanks to No Anodyne for her patience, editing, and support as I wrote this.

[i] “Identity as a woman can be claimed by anyone” has been made legally enforceable by “gender identity” laws in over 15 American states, across the entire United Kingdom, and in many other jurisdictions across the world. This is a very powerful legal trend that shows no signs of slowing down.

[ii] It is not inevitable.

[iii] Credit to Anne Fausto-Sterling, Sexing the Body. Page 67/478 of the pdf.

[v] Intersex Society of North America frequently asked questions about the necessity of genital “normalizing” surgery. Accessed May 20, 2013:

[vi] Article in the New York Times by Peggy Orenstein entitled “What’s Wrong with Cinderella?” Accessed May 20, 2013:

See also the following books: Peggy Ornstein Cinderella Ate My Daughter; Sharon Lamb’s Packaging Girlhood: Rescuing Our Daughters from Marketers’ Schemes; M. Gig’s Durham’s The Lolita Effect: The Media Sexualization of Young Girls and What We Can Do About It; and Susan J. Douglas’s Where the Girls Are: Growing Up Female with the Mass Media.

[vii] Femicide is a global health crisis. Explanation by feminist Dianna Russell:; and more information from the World Health Organization: Both accessed May 20, 2013.

[viii] The UN estimates that 140 million girls will be made child brides between 2011 and 2020. Article accessed on the web May 20, 2013:

[ix] Nearly 1 in 5 Women in U.S. Survey Say They Have Been Sexually Assaulted, article in the New York Times published on December 14, 2011. Accessed May 20, 2013

[x] See SEC 2. FINDINGS, especially 5(A) and (B), of the Fair Pay Act of 2013: federal recognition of objective disparities between men’s and women’s earnings for the same work.

See also SEC 2. FINDINGS of the Paycheck Fairness Act:

[xi]The Paycheck Fairness Act has not yet been passed by the American government due to Republican resistance.

[xii] See book, Misogyny: The World’s Oldest Prejudice by Jack Holland (2006).

[xiii] “The cult of masculinity” is the root of sexualized violence against women as theorized by Gloria Steinem and Lauren Wolfe.

[xiv] A poorly reasoned article featuring circular logic and accusations of “bigotry,” written by Gender Studies graduate student: Transphobia Has No Place in Feminism by Lauren Rankin. Accessed May 20, 2013

Trans women are women. How do I know that? Because they say they are women. Because they identify as women. Because your gender expression is not dictated by the gender with which you were born. Because I, and many other cisgender feminists, trust trans women when they say they are women. Because women are women, and that’s really all there is to it.”

Actually, there’s a lot more to it.

[xv] Colleen Francis acted legally when exposing his intact penis to underage children in a women’s-only locker-room in 2012. Parents’ outrage as transgendered woman is permitted to use the women’s locker room ‘exposing himself to little girls. Article accessed May 20, 2013:

See also footnote 1 to this article.

  1. Mortadella said:

    Seriously, Elizabeth, you’re on fire! This post is so concise, so sane.

  2. Wonderful, wonderful analysis. Patiently, thoughtfully reasoned and articulated. Brava!

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