Leaving Liberal Feminism

Guest post by Kate Leigh

I couldn’t honestly tell you when I started following a liberal intersectional feminist philosophy. It was simply part of my thought process and by extension, my life, online and off. I followed all the blogs and pages. I contributed comments and shares. I told people to check their privilege and men need feminism too. Liberal feminism was the only feminism of which I was aware. In fact, I never called myself a liberal feminist while I held those views. I called myself a “Feminist” without realizing there were other types.

With a fresh memory of what went through my own mind as I held these beliefs, I endeavor to describe my experience of the liberal feminist point of view in the next section. In the final section, I explain how and why I changed my mind.

The Liberal Intersectional Feminist Mindset

Empowered by Choice

All choices are good and right as long as you choose them. Agency is paramount. We must never question another person’s choices. We will defend to the death each person’s inalienable right to make her own choices and condemn anyone who attempts to analyze those choices in a larger context. As women, every choice we make is by default a feminist choice as long as we are women and we are choosing. Therefore it is feminist to wear stilettos or become a sex worker. Anyone who attempts to discuss a larger system must be shut down in defense of individual choices.

Since all choices are good and feminist, I am infallible in whatever I choose. It is my right and nobody may take it from me. This is personally empowering and vindicating.

Self-Identification

Every person has the right to self-identify and nobody has the right to question another person’s identity. Identity is innate and internal; it cannot be changed. Identity is who you really are and always have been; it is immutable. Questioning someone’s identity is never acceptable. Identities must be embraced, believed, and affirmed by all. Anyone who does not affirm identities unquestioningly will be shouted down.

I am whoever I say I am. I am however I feel. Everyone else must accept me. I feel empowered.

Privilege and Checking It

There is a vast, complicated system of privilege. We are all privileged in some ways and not others. It is up to each person to recognize her own privilege and to enforce the checking of others’ privilege. The privileged may never question the less privileged. For example, a white woman may never question a black woman’s experience or choices. Types of privilege include but are not limited to: male privilege, white privilege, hetero privilege, thin privilege, abled privilege, economic privilege, and cis privilege.

I am aware of my own privileges and acknowledge them frequently. I call people out when they do not recognize their privilege. I feel superior and self-righteous for standing up for the most vulnerable. I defer to those who have less privilege than I do and never allow anyone to question them or their experiences. Since I am cis, I can never question anything related to being trans. I am better than people who do not recognize their privilege.

Feminism is for Everyone

There is nothing exclusionary about feminism. We include and accommodate everyone. We believe that men need feminism too. Anyone who believes in equality is a feminist, even if they don’t know it or won’t embrace the word. Women are not the center of feminism nor should we be. We should all be equal.

I am more open-minded than most people, and again, I feel superior. I feel like I am helping everyone, even if they do not know they need my help.

Gender

A person’s gender is internal and sacrosanct. It is the core of our almighty identity. Gender is simply an innate knowledge of who you are. Gender identity is understood to be immutable. Gender and sex do not necessarily coincide.* A trans person’s currently declared gender is their only gender, even if they have lived their whole life up to that point as a different gender. Trans women are women. Trans women are the most vulnerable women and they are murdered and oppressed the most. Therefore we must protect them above all other women. Cis women must never exclude or question trans women under any circumstances. To do so would be the same as white women excluding black women: unthinkable.

I embrace everyone. I am good and open-minded. I am not a bigot like other people.

Everything Falls Apart

I was on board with all of this until last spring. I was feeling good and educating myself about my privileges and looking out for those with less privilege. I was making my own choices and defending everyone else’s right to do the same. But one thing kept bothering me. There was something I did not understand:

“What is a woman?”

I could not stop thinking about this question. I asked female friends privately and found that many of them were confused too. I kept hearing that “trans women ARE women” and I wanted to understand what it meant. I thought there was something wrong with me that I didn’t immediately see it. Was I a secret bigot in my heart of hearts? I felt like I was doing something wrong by even contemplating this, but it would not go away.

I asked my question with trepidation every chance I got but the answers that did not satisfy me. People replied “well, how do YOU know you’re a woman?” But rather than clearing it up, this only confused me further. My answer, which I had been taught never to say, was “I know I am a woman because of my body: vulva, uterus, breasts. I know because I menstruate and can become pregnant.” I could not think of a single characteristic that makes a person a woman beyond the physical body.

A woman should be allowed to be whoever she wants to be, wear whatever she wants to wear, and love anybody she wants to love. She can embrace femininity or eschew it. Wearing a pink dress doesn’t make a woman more of a woman and wearing comfortable shoes doesn’t make her any less.

During this period, I looked at trans women in the news and thought that if being a woman is adhering to the woman gender role, maybe they are women and I am not. Laverne Cox is certainly far more stereotypically feminine than I am. But I also didn’t want to change my body or be seen as male. It took me years to embrace and enjoy my female body, as is. Body acceptance has been a hugely liberating part of my life and my body includes my female parts. Yet suddenly, it was becoming forbidden to speak of being female out of deference to trans women. Because I was considered “cis” and thus, the oppressor, I was not allowed to question this.

I decided to question it anyway. I started asking on intersectional feminist Facebook pages when I saw something I didn’t understand. “If a woman can be anything she wants and also have a penis, then isn’t the word completely meaningless?” What does it feel like to “feel like a woman inside?” “If a female person feels in their heart they are a man, wouldn’t the idea of pregnancy be unthinkable?” I asked these questions and many more. I asked innocently, sincerely, with no malice intended, and was careful to tread lightly. I truly wanted to understand. I wanted to be able to recognize my “cis privilege.”

Several things happened very quickly when I started asking questions. I was called a “TERF” (trans exclusionary radical feminist). I had never heard of radical feminism at this point. I was told “A woman is whoever says they are a woman!” which only confused me more. I mused about the word “cis” and stated that I didn’t feel it applied to me since I didn’t identify with gender. I was told that refusing the word cis was “akin to dragging a cheese grater across the face of trans women.” I was told to educate myself. “It is not our place to educate you.” And I had my comments deleted and my profile banned from participation in multiple pages, some of which I had followed for years.

I had been trying to find answers to my questions online for quite some time anyway, but now I had something new to search. I looked up “Radical Feminism.” I looked for discussion groups. I found out about the idea of gender as a social construct and it clicked. Things started to make sense. Eventually, I found people who helped me and answered my questions, who suggested books, blogs, and articles to read. I finally understood.

There was nothing wrong with me; I was no longer a liberal feminist.

Filling in Missing Pieces

I am still processing all of this. I’m not here to expound upon the radical feminist philosophy because there are far more educated women who are already doing that. There are books. I will say that having interacted with liberal feminists, I expected radical feminists to be hateful bigoted people. They are not. Almost every radical feminist I have met cares deeply and wants the world to be better for everyone, but first and foremost for women. They do not silence women from speaking our own experiences.

Looking back on it, I now see all the ways liberal feminism fails women, and failed me. By centering men and men’s wants, women are relegated to the back burner. It ceases to be a movement about improving the situation of women and becomes a movement that is only about individuals.

Liberal feminism rarely acknowledges history. I never knew the answer to another question that plagued me: “Why is it like this?” The answers were there all along just waiting to be read. There is so much to learn from the feminist women who came before us, but rather than taking it in, their work is tossed aside and not considered. I learned more from reading The Creation of Patriarchy by Gerda Lerner than I learned the entire time I was a liberal feminist.

There is never any acknowledgment of systems of oppression or women as a class. Instead, each person is in her own special individual bubble, never to be merged with others, never considered as a group, and never looked at in the context of history. Differences are the focus, never our common experiences as women in a society that sees women as less than men.

Liberal feminism never talks about who benefits from the system. Male privilege is a just thing men must check – but it is never stated that male privilege is dependent on the subjugation of women. It is never considered that we cannot all be equal to men. There can be no class like the men without the labor and support of an underclass, as currently provided by women.

Liberal feminism never acknowledges that choices don’t happen in a vacuum. We have to do the best we can in the world in which we live today, but that doesn’t mean every choice is good. Women constantly choose the lesser of evils, and many times do not want our choices to be exalted. Many times, were there any other option, we would have taken it. The failure to see our choices in a larger context makes liberal feminism great for the individual in the short term, but does nothing to change the system overall. It fails the most vulnerable women in need in favor of individual agency.

Above all, liberal feminism fails women because it silences us. We are told our own bodies and our own experiences of life are never to be spoken of. Instead we must defer to others, most notably, to men.

There was a point where I almost gave up on feminism entirely. One day, I said “no more!” and deleted every page and blog from my history. But that was not the end. I now find myself surrounded by educated women who are fountains of knowledge and experience. I often feel humbled by the depth of their understanding. I also feel inspired. No longer am I a lone individual woman in a world whose rules do not make sense. I am learning ways to understand the world that offer explanations on a larger scale. I have awakened and I have a lot of reading to do.

My feminism will never silence women.

Advertisements
56 comments
  1. margaret said:

    well done ! terrific piece

  2. Reblogged this on socialessentialism and commented:
    “Looking back on it, I now see all the ways liberal feminism fails women, and failed me. By centering men and men’s wants, women are relegated to the back burner. It ceases to be a movement about improving the situation of women and becomes a movement that is only about individuals.”

  3. Excellent piece. I was once a liberal feminist too, almost by default, but I was unhappy with how the liberal feminists dealt with issues about beauty (supposedly we’re all beautiful, even us ugly ones, but makeup and fashion are totally fun and empowering; I didn’t feel “empowered” by them). And their focus on pleasing liberal men, especially liberal men who seemed to have pretty hate-y attitudes toward women, really bothered me. Finally it was their pro-porn and pro-prostitution stance that was the last straw for me. I didn’t have the language to articulate it at the time, but personal experience had taught me that porn kills relationships. I knew instinctively that porn and prostitution are harmful to women. There is only one kind of feminism that tells the truth about these issues.

  4. I recognise so much in this, thank you for writing it x

  5. Dear Kate, so happy to read your blog. I am an older woman and have been a Feminist since 1970’s. yes women have been conned by Liberal Feminist and these Feminist were conned by men and Patriarchy rules. Thank you so much for writing this as it is so frustrating to see how younger woman have really misunderstood what we radical feminist were talking about. It is not about being, acting or taking over like men- it was to look at equality for women in women’s ways -god who wants to act like men look at the world situation, the wars, the greed , the violence towards women and vulnerable men (their own gender) No we were hoping for a more equitable, peaceful, social justice for all, responsible world but it still has not happened. Young women like you are the pioneers for the future and I will stand right there beside you.

  6. This was me. Sex pozzie BS was the belief system behind my self destruction via sex industry. I bought it hook, line, and sinker- when it redefines your servitude as empowerment, who wouldn’t?

    I spent quite a bit of time beating myself up for not finding radical (aka real) feminism sooner. However, I stopped feeling like this was a personal failure when I went to the library in search of rad fem books. There were 2 out of about 30, and one hadnt even been published until a year or so ago. I got into lib fem back before the web was a daily tool, full of radical ideas; even now I found rad fem by chance, by checking out a random link on a skeptical site, and following the bread crumbs. It’s easy to miss it. I thank haters for getting our ideas out with ridiculous vitrol, because I found some of the best sites this way- how messed up is this?

    I think its important for people to realize I literally did not know there was
    anything out there that was different, and I’m not alone. While it’s easier to find rad fem now than say, 10-15 years ago, it’s still super easy to miss it considering how few women have time to spend digging online.

    Lib fem is feminism defanged. I don’t recall who said this but it is so true. Thanks for the post!

  7. Mabs said:

    Thank you, thank you, thank you!!

    I think it’s also due to the consumerism mentality – “I can be whatever I want.” Or better yet: “I want to have this range of choices (in this case, genders) from which I can pick the one I prefer the most for myself.” And this is how the initial, basic meaning of feminism is being mocked at before our eyes – by so called feminists!

    I soooo wish more people would start asking themselves the same questions you did … 🙂

    Respect! 🙂

  8. brackengold said:

    Thank you, Kate, for describing a change in thinking and perspective that I’ve only just gone through in the past month. I too didn’t know there was “liberal feminism”, which I was passively subscribing to, although I did know about those “horrible radfems”, without knowing what they really advocated.

    The tipping point for me was increasingly encountering the “ladybrain”/”brain sex” concept in liberal feminist discussion spaces. I knew this concept has been used to exclude women from activities of every sort, from maximizing their potential and pursuing their dreams, for millennia. Still ongoing; it was applied very obviously to my own mother regarding the college majors she could choose! I knew I’ve always been against this inherently oppressive concept, but when I saw how it interrelated with the identity politics of liberal feminism, the whole thing started to unravel in a cascade similar to what you (Kate) described.

    It is my hope that you feminists who’ve been keeping the fires lit are cheered by these stories of once-liberal feminists putting everything together. I’m very grateful to you being here, writing so articulately, answering criticism so civilly, welcoming those of us new to these concepts.

  9. Ellesar said:

    I love this piece. I too have problems seeing ‘liberal feminism’ as feminist at all. I have never been comfortable calling a transwoman woman a woman. I would NEVER use the term cis.

    The LGBT support centre where I work has a significant heterosexual male attendance – purely because they ‘crossdress’! These men apparently expect to be accepted as women while they are ‘dressed’ and use ‘female’ names and pronouns. This used to be confined to a group that simply paid for use of the space, but now we have a drop in which is run by one of these men, and attended by some others. For me this is NOT our remit, but I have absolutely no power to change it, and would be considered a complete bigot for raising it.

  10. derrington said:

    I think sex positive feminism means sexism positive feminism. Welcome to the outcasts sister! Can you imagine a man wearing blackface make up insisting he was black and that all black people had to cow tow to him and his ‘reality’? They’d tell him to get the fuck out of their life and quit playing at oppression …

  11. gallaradfem said:

    This is awesome. Thank you.
    I especially love the part about male privilege and its basis.

  12. gallaradfem said:

    Reblogged this on Journey From The Matrix and commented:
    I absolutely love this post. My favorite part is when the author talks about male privilege and how liberal intersectionalists never really deal with it or it’s basis, the subjugation of women.

  13. gMarie said:

    This is wonderful, thanks much.
    I became a feminist back in the 70/80s, and sometimes I’d have discussions with other feminists about liberal vs radical vs Marxist feminism. But we took it to be mostly academic, in fact, most of us weren’t sure which category we belonged in, if you can imagine! But we pretty much agreed on what needed to be done – take back the night, set up women’s shelters, reproductive freedom, support lesbian rights, pass the ERA : (
    Liberal feminism now – I don’t even recognize it! So I’m solidly in the radical camp now. Where my radical feminism breaks down is in trying to figure out what will replace a patriarchal system. Maybe it’s a lack of imagination, or my mind’s been too warped by my mysoginistic socialization, but anyway, it’s something I’m still working on (and probably always will be).
    If you’re interested in reading about the history of feminism, Dale Spender’s ‘Women of Ideas and what Men Have Done to Them’ is fascinsting. Kind of frustrating to find out that much of what feminists are saying now was being said by other women hundreds of years ago. But it can also be hopeful to feel like a part of something that’s been around for so long.

  14. Qalia Ra said:

    And if Liberal feminists decide they’re not interested in what you’re selling? What about them? Do they not have the right to choose their own beliefs? How do you propose to “abolish gender” for people who aren’t you?

  15. Anne said:

    A spark shot through me when I read that you had ‘clicked’ when you realized that gender is a social construct. I believe a lot of folks have yet to understand that gender is a social construct, and the stark difference between gender and sex! Sex is biological, in the simplest and maybe not the most thorough sense, whereas gender is what we choose for ourselves, what we choose to identify as and with. GENDER is our choice. I understand the confusion you had in the past about “whether trans women were women,” etc., and I believe that when one understands that men and women can choose their gender, then the idea becomes more clear. Similar to Catholics are Christians, but Christians aren’t necessarily Catholics, or a similar analogy.

    It pains me that you were kicked out of so many groups for posing your thoughtful questions and relaying your concerns across the various feminist movements. That is one fear that I have that usually keeps me from being vocal about my opinions and from asking questions. Unless you were being vulgar, which I doubt you were, then your comments and profile should not have been deleted – censorship!! Plus, feminist ideas and rhetoric is constantly changing and evolving so as to reach and influence more people in this world , so the more (intelligent + thoughtful) questions and ideas posed, the more beneficial for the movement!

    From your brief but fantastic analysis on liberal vs. radical feminism, it sounds like liberal feminists focus more on the development of feminism and personal choice within the individual, whereas radical fems focus on problems within the system. I think that both of these focuses are absolutely valid and necessary! I understand that due to the authenticity and originality of people that there are varying schools of thought amongst all social and cultural movements, theologies, politics, economics, etc….but at the heart of feminism is the very (and my ridiculously simply and somewhat dully written) notion that women should be treated as equal to men! I do hope that the study and practice of feminism does not devolve and divide into a boxing match with red in one corner and blue in the other!! (Forgive my political reference). Every willing feminist man and woman is fighting for the same agenda – to advocate for women’s rights to be equal to those of men!

  16. FabFro said:

    Wow! Great post. Really thought provoking and insightful! It’s so empower to read about the female gaze and know you’re not alone in questioning your surroundings. Or how we’ve been taught as women to ignore our intuition when it’s screaming at us: “THIS IS WRONG! FIND OUT WHY!”.
    I remember as a young woman going from struggling to not wanting to be a “nasty-ol’ mean feminist”, to being a feminist, to wanting to leave feminism because it was too pro-porn/pro-men [because for the longest, I too didn’t know there was more than one type of feminism!], to stumbling across Radical Feminism [Thanks haters!], to now realizing I’ve always been a RadFem; getting to the root of the problem by questioning everything and everyone.

  17. Kate Leigh said:

    It’s so heartening to read stories from other women who had similar experiences to mine. It’s also so heartening to know that we can change our minds. It gives me hope that more women will see through the mirage and wake up. I think that we, who have changed our minds, are in a unique position to be a bridge between these groups of women. I think about how I felt so isolated when I found myself disagreeing and unable to express it without being attacked. There are other women who need us, and need to hear that they can change their minds too. If we can keep our empathy in spite of frustration, I think we can make a big difference.

    @Qalia Ra, I’m not sure what you mean. I’m not selling anything.
    As far as beliefs go, I think it is analogous to religion. Of course everyone is entitled to believe whatever they like, but never to force others to follow their belief.

    As far as “abolishing gender” – that’s the entire purpose of feminism. Gender is the system that says that males have to be A and females have to be B and A is superior to B. It won’t happen quickly and it won’t happen easily, but it is going backwards, not forwards, to insist that gender is something innate.

  18. I was delighted to read this article! I’m one of those “relics” of 60s radical feminism. Liberal feminism had to be dealt with back then too. Feminist Revolution, the book by Redstockings (of which I was an editor) was mostly devoted to a critique of liberal feminism. If you are interested, check out http://carolhanisch.org or email truthtellers@verizon.net

  19. KathyS said:

    Its encouraging to find more radical feminists on the web! We will be recommending this piece on our blogzine meetinggroundonline.org. There you’ll find similar posts, specifically about the mushing together of sex and gender, about the defanging of the Women’s Liberation Movement, a black feminist’s assertion that feminism always needs a “modifier,” as well as articles with an anti-capitalist stance.

  20. Kate Leigh said:

    I would just like to respond to something Anne said above, and this is something liberal feminists repeat often in various forms: “the heart of feminism is the notion that women should be treated as equal to men!”

    This sounds great on the surface, but it fails when you think about what “men” are as a class. The gender “men” could not exist without support. For a very long time, women have been laboring for free to support men to have the freedom to pursue their wants and careers. As a working woman, I see clearly how the successful men around me use the free labor of their wives to enable their careers. What capitalism demands of us in the workplace today is more than any human can give while still maintaining a clean house, raising children, etc. To be a successful worker in our form of capitalism demands all of your time. Men are not expected to raise their children or cook their dinners, so they have that time. Women do the unpaid, unappreciated labor. The few women who can achieve some measure of “success” are privileged (I include myself here) but still must put in even more effort for lesser reward. This is just one facet of the unequal relationship between men and women.

    Saying that women should be equal to men misses the point that men cannot exist as they do without this supportive underclass. The heart of feminism isn’t to give women what men have, it is to free women from subjugation and oppression. Men benefit from the system as it is. (yes, we can look at ways men are harmed peripherally, but the general set-up of our society benefits and privileges men.) Therefore, I would not say hat the heart of feminism is the notion that women should be treated as equal to men, unless we are first going to change what it means to be a man.

    I would say that the heart of feminism is to end the subjugation of women, to dismantle patriarchy, and to abolish gender roles that keep women in a subservient role. Once all of that is done, perhaps men and women can be equals.

  21. Kathy S said:

    I have had the same thoughts regarding men using the free labor of their wives to get ahead in the workplace. And it really annoys me that even if you are trying to share the childrearing equally its assumed that the woman is primarily responsible by bosses, the schools, the health system, etc. As the old saying goes, there are no individual solutions. Over at meetinggroundonline we’re writing about housework and contrasting feminist approaches to it. Basically I think the positions can be summed up briefly like this: Socialist feminists (like Selma James and Sylvia Federici) say we should pay the homemaker to do the housework, liberal feminists say hire another woman to do it (often a woman of color, someone doubly oppressed by race and sex) whereas many of us radical feminists agree with Barabara Ehrenreich when she said something like “everyone should pick their own pubic hairs out of the tub.”

  22. Dogtowner said:

    This is a superb critique of liberal feminism, but it is also a superb critique of liberalism as summed up by:

    “I embrace everyone. I am good and open-minded. I am not a bigot like other people.”

    Funnily enough, everyone I’ve met who subscribes to the above self-stroking only needs the mildest of glances to turn into a pompous, self-righteous creep, and suggesting that men are not women is the quickest glance of them all.

  23. Thank you for sharing. There’s been a huge debate about prostitution here in Canada with the passing of Bill C36 which criminalizes the purchase of sex among other things. As a self-professed progressive I found myself increasingly uncomfortable with some of the language and positions of people that I expected to agree with. Suddenly I was told I was sex negative (laughable but I shouldn’t have to qualify this), anti sex-worker and anti-women. I was blocked on social media and without actually voicing support for this law I was branded a moralist and a carceral feminist. You’re not allowed to question. Stop telling women what to do with their bodies! Stop policing female sexuality! And yet as FabFro mentioned, my intuition wouldn’t let me rest. Something wasn’t sitting well with me and I just couldn’t shake it. My main concern lately has centred on the question of how one might stay true to an anti-sex work position without being anti sex-worker. How can I ensure that I’m supportive of women in the industry – which I am because they’re people and I give a damn – particularly marginalized women, without victim-blaming, being patronizing, or contributing to stigma. It’s a delicate balance I think. At the end of the day, I refuse to pretend that individual choice is all that matters. If men aren’t challenged by my feminism, it’s not feminism. I refuse to pretend that porn and sex work aren’t instruments of patriarchy. I hear sex workers who say that the Nordic/Swedish model will place them in greater danger. I recognize that their voices are critical because they know better than anyone what’s happening in their lives. But does this mean I have to participate in legitimizing the idea that men are entitled to sexual gratification? No. So I’m a rad fem and proud of it.

  24. I’ve got the butterflies in my tummy from reading this piece. I’m glad you found us!

    I was recently targeted by a bunch of lib’fems’ ie men for standing up for women as a sex class and demanding our spaces be respected. The fallout from my radical statement that males are not females is just mind blowing.

    I’ve got women calling me a cunt, whore, slut and nazi just for wanting a female only space.

    I’m thrilled to hear more women waking up and realizing what a load of bunk we’ve been sold, by men.

  25. derrington said:

    I think lib fems are actually just sexist – hence their use of sexist hate speech to silence any discussion of women that dont consent to a sexist free for all in the sexist media called porn.

  26. Dana said:

    I got kicked off a reproductive rights page on Facebook because they presented adoption as just another reproductive choice and I, who actually am a “birthmother” (I hate that word) and who knows lots of other “birthmothers” for whom adoption was NOT a free choice, pointed out what was wrong with that idea. These idiots think we are completely liberated and can do just any old thing we want at all times. If they really believe that, why be feminist? The movement obviously succeeded to the point that it made itself obsolete.

  27. southwest88 said:

    Thank you for writing this. Many of us got caught up in earning a living while dealing with family in our middle age and in my case I will say that all this cis stuff and men-know-best trans activism kind of happened while I was busy trying to navigate the day to day sexism. Being a boring old science major made it really hard to accept the ideology that a man can magically turn into a woman just by saying so. And when the edict came down that that I HAD to accept that or be labeled a bigot, I found that ordering me to believe untruths was too much like being ordered to follow a religion. So it is time to start fighting the good fight again. I feel bad for many of the libfems because they are supporting people who will do nothing for them and who will betray them as soon they dare to deviate from the party line. Hopefully some of them will make the move to true feminism.

  28. Me said:

    I’m in my 50s, so I came into feminism on the tail end of the second wave. Back then, mainstream feminism, i.e. liberal feminism was gender critical, with questioning the gender system of roles, and the stereotypes of masculinity and femininity being a core part of consciousness raising groups of the time. There was a philosophy of non-sexist child raising in the late 70s and early 80s that had as its goal to raise children free of the stereotypes of the gender system to be “Free to Be You and Me” according to their own individual personalities, which were not innately linked to their sex. Transsexualism (what transgenderism was then called) was mostly understood as being a reinforcement of the sexist stereotyped gender system, rather than a challenge to it – indeed, Gloria Steinem made a comment to the effect that if the shoe didn’t fit, to change or discard the shoe, rather than to cut the foot. (a statement she has more recently recanted, unfortunately, due to pressures from trans activists).

    But, at some point, mainstream feminism changed. I think the beginning of it was when author Carol Gilligan published her book, “In a Different Voice”, in 1982. Instead of questioning the gender system of stereotyped masculinity and femininity, she took the position that these stereotypes were innate, after all, rather than a cultural construct that mostly existed to benefit patriarchy. But, rather than making women weak, stereotypical femininity was, rather, a woman’s strength and was in some ways superior to stereotypical masculinity. But I then (and now) see it as the same old gender essentialist box of expecting men and women to be generic representatives of their sex, except now presented with shiny, new wrapping.

    Of course, liberal feminism didn’t change all at once but, for me, that was the point when liberal feminism left me, rather than me leaving it. I never got on the trans bandwagon, though, I think, at some point in the late 70s, I wanted to be open to it, as the good tolerant person I prided myself in being. I read a trans memoir, “Emergence” by Mario Martino at that time, where the author talked about disliking a lot of things that women were expected to do and not do and concluded, “Become a lady? I would not!” Having grown up as a tomboy myself, I’d uttered those very words, without ever once thinking I had to become a man to avoid being a lady. I always knew I’d be my own kind of woman, stereotypes be damned. I never had that curious notion that my personality had to “match” my sex – there was nothing to “match”, because human personalities are not innately sex-linked. So, I had my “click” moment right there. Renee Richards’ obnoxious lawsuit challenging the ban on male transsexuals in women’s tennis also did nothing to endear me to the idea of transsexul/genderism. I was also lucky enough to read Janice Raymond’s “The Transsexual Empire” in 1980, which confirmed many of the ideas I’d already been having.

    Now, it’s often very hard for me to read liberal feminist blogs and Facebook pages, with all the gender, gender, gender crap — they apparently don’t know the difference between sex and gender any longer, nor does the mainstream media. Sigh.

  29. Shani Rachel said:

    i almost didn’t read this post because among people that I know “liberal feminism” is used to descibe Hilary Clinton or “non-intersectional feminism”, so I didn’t realize you were talking about these exact people! thank you so much for articulating your thoughts on this. i had a similar experience when i wanted to discuss womens spaces and the response was ” what is a women?” Instead of a response like “we don’t need them because…” which I may not agree with but is an actual idea, the conversation was basically over. I got the message fast. Women do not exist and even if they did, what does feminism have to do with it? I’ve been pretty bummed about this huge loss for us humans with vaginas.

  30. Thank you for sharing your journey with us…

  31. BorealFaun said:

    Hi, wow, what a fantastic read! I feel like it’s rare to see the personal accountability and transparency in the blogosphere that you’ve shared here in recounting your journey with feminisms, and that alone creates a safe and encouraging space for others to do the same. Thank you for that.

    I guess I am part of the “millennial” generation that is quite pervaded by some of these ideas of liberal feminism that are being (rightly) critiqued. I think often I am considered to subscribe to many liberal feminist ideals even though I don’t consider myself one. (for what it’s worth the hipster-gender-bender archetype is projected onto me a lot, and not in a good way. It’s really dehumanizing. Thank you for not doing any of that in the OP) Anyways, I think it’s really spot on that liberal feminism, in many ways, is really coupled these days with the “cult of the individual” and the related “age of identity,” and that radical feminism is more collectivist. I’m all in favor of the latter… the neoliberal focus on the individual and individual identity is destructive enough, and coupled with the ‘egalitarianism’ of liberal feminism it just gets even more bizarre!

    I am a non-gender conforming female. androgynous, tomboy, whatever term you prefer. The radical feminist concept of gender as a social construct is vital for me and doesn’t threaten how I present myself, if anything it informs it. I don’t think that the concept of the social constructedness of gender/femininity is innately threatening to trans* people. But a lot of people misunderstand “gender is a social construct” to be invalidating because it means that gender is “fake” somehow. But the fact that gender is socially and culturally constructed if anything speaks to its potency, it’s effectiveness (if not its realness), because myth, symbol, meaning, and narrative, are at the very core of human culture and human realities. The way it has been constructed, historically, has been incredibly oppressive.

    I also appreciate the bluntness of this summation of liberalism: “I embrace everyone. I am good and open-minded. I am not a bigot like other people.” In my view, there is a widespread fear of taking a moral stance these days that seems to be the result of taking some schools of postmodern thought to an absurd extreme. But, this fear is also understandable given the last 100 years of human history, the trauma of the holocaust, and much of the wariness of innate truth and meaning that came out of Derridean thought, and which radical feminism also benefits from. However, it seems that sometimes young folks are so scared that them taking a moral stance will oppress others that it turns into a kind of combination of apathy and individualism. That might explain what Dogtowner said they observed, “everyone I’ve met who subscribes to the above self-stroking only needs the mildest of glances to turn into a pompous, self-righteous creep, and suggesting that men are not women is the quickest glance of them all.”
    This suggests a lot of pain and insecurity, generally why individuals lash out. I have so much compassion for this, while at the same time it saddens me that this lashing-out at the questioning of cherished liberal ideals obviously does not foster connection and causes more pain. One of my big questions is how to create atmospheres of greater empathy around these issues without making that into just another show of entitlement.

  32. Shani Rachel said:

    Borealfaun, you are so thoughtful (and knowledgable). I am more in the “radical feminist” camp but am a bit confused about gender. I know it is a construct, but I have some essentialist (gasp) tendencies. How does goddess worship, embracing the feminism etc. which is very much a part of my identity, fit in with the radical feminist view? Thoughts?

  33. Karma Kali said:

    Beautiful, just beautiful. Thank you for creating an insight into your awakening. I agree with this article. I imagine a world where women can just be….. and just be loved.

  34. Shani Rachel, your response inspires me to clarify my own thoughts by writing them out.

    I often find myself annoyed by the use of “gender” and “sex” as interchangeable in much contemporary writing and speech. A standardized form might ask my gender rather than my sex, for example, although I’m pretty sure it’s designers want to know whether I’m male or female (sex), not whether I’m feminine or masculine (gender). At birth, the vast majority of humans have the anatomy of one sex or the other. Sex is a biological concept based on differences in anatomy.

    Gender is a social construct that assigns different behaviors, intellectual styles, emotions, occupations/work, interests, and types of self-display to males and females. Gender assigns human psychological, cognitive, and emotional traits based on sexual organs. I am moving toward “radical feminism” because it seems to me that most cultures (certainly in the US) value the traits considered feminine far less than those considered masculine. Our culture also disdains women who display masculine traits. It’s a game women can’t win. And yes, men benefit both at home and at work from their gender assignments, and women suffer both at home and at work from theirs. Most men are so accustomed to their privileges that they don’t even see them.

    In one confounding respect, men are superior to women. On average, they’re taller, more muscular, and stronger when young than women. They can literally force us–physically bully us–into submission. Making matters worse for us, many fashions and styles assigned to us are literally crippling or debilitatingly restrictive. Footbinding is an extreme example, but how different is footbinding from teaching girls to wear high-heeled shoes with pointed toes fashioned to make the foot look smaller? I don’t know about your feet, but mine sure don’t get narrower and pointier at the toes. However, decades of wearing heels with pointy toes and walking on pavement has left me with hammer toes, arthritic feet, bunions, and neuromas–all of which make simple walking painful, even in sensible, old-lady shoes. High heels put women off balance, which makes it harder for us to stand our ground.

    Many women respond to the devaluing of gender traits assigned to women by celebrating them, rather than trying to become “more like men.” Reclaiming goddesses and worshipping them, developing rituals in spaces that exclude men, defending colleges for women, and creating festivals and conferences that exclude men are ways, I think, of revaluing both women and the gender traits assigned to us.

    At this point, the issues of transsexualism and transgenderism enter dramatically. So does the question, “What is a woman”? Is a woman any person born with the organs of a woman? Or is a woman any person who adopts feminine clothing, feminine makeup, feminine nail polish, feminine mannerisms, and a feminine hair style? Can a person with a penis be a woman? I think not. He can look like a woman, but he’s not a woman. If he castrates himself, is he a woman? No, he’s a castrated man.

  35. Jennifer said:

    This is an excellent article, and I can relate so much to what you said. Although I did know there was such a thing as radical feminism, for the longest time, I was so used to listening to the more “mainstream” (ie, liberal) feminist view that said that now intersectionality was the most important rule of order, I was left to feel guilty for my real belief that, at the core, I was and am a radical feminist. I am starting to stop feeling guilty about this now. I am 40 years old, and I have to say, I cannot relate to this entire “cis” idea at all. It is completely foreign to me. I read about it in “feminist” articles online (which are often more like trans-issue articles than they are feminist articles), and I am left asking, “What the hell does this mean? Who came up with this idea? Where did this originate, and why?” I belong to a Unitarian church where I met a male-to-female trans person who I became friendly with. The first time I mentioned that I was a feminist, an offhand comment, I was lashed out at with, “Feminists are horrible to trans people!” Really? I was having breakfast with this person in a restaurant, how was I being horrible? I did not understand. I started to feel silenced. Every time I read the mostly MIllenial-written feminist articles that are so “cis” and “trans” centered, coming from so-called feminist media, I am left wondering, why do I feel so guilty for not believing this is the real important issue at stake? I am sick of feeling guilty about it. Women have been made to feel guilty for enough millenia already, and we do not need Millenials to make us feel guilty some more with a new brand of feminism. I completely agree with you, and I really appreciate you and the other people who commented for putting yourselves out there with your words. Radical feminism is not popular in any circles wherein I have traveled much. It is certainly not popular in my family, which is completely misogynistic, nor among most of my friends, although some of my friends are, in fact, feminists. It is not popular in the feminist media that is online in most of the places I look for feminist information. So I have been searching for more community, more sense of what I know to be true, and a lesser degree of isolation. Thank you for giving this to me today.

  36. What is now called “radical feminism” was once mainstream feminism. Feminism lost its way when the postmodernists took over women’s studies in colleges and universities and changed it to some weird thing called “gender” studies. Women’s rights are seriously in peril when these feminist impersonators (third wave) become the “face” of feminism.

  37. The Alchemist said:

    What you call “intersectional feminism” is just queer theory’s hijacked version of intersectionality. The same way queer theorists have sought to redefine feminism they have also redefine what intersectionality means. Intersectionality is not about identity politics but interlocking axes of oppression rooted in “power dynamics”. Intersectionality does not deny the fact the women are oppressed as a sex caste. I’m a disabled black women. Ableism and racism both impacted the nature of the misogyny that I experience.

  38. thoughtsandopinionsofanangryblackwoman said:

    Awesome piece!!

  39. Shani Rachel said:

    Thank you! I think it wrong to stand by while queer theory steals the ideas of black women (rooted in getting REAL solutions) and coopsts it. Why should we run from intersectionality? When we bash it in reaction to queer theorists we are accepting and repeating their perverted definition of it.

  40. Lori said:

    Welcome to the revolution.

  41. threebabies said:

    I found myself feeling incredibly moved by this piece, also a little sad. I feel very saddened by the liberal feminist overthrow of feminism. Up until recently I had never heard of radical feminism either, but I had always carried many ideologies in common and just assumed every feminist carried them –such as porn and prostitution as being exploitative etc I too, felt myself becoming increasingly troubled by all mixed messages that seemed paradoxical to me, I became depressed. Thankfully, I found my way to radical as you have; and for the first time I feel liberated as a woman, no longer in a war against my own body, heart or mind. I wish for us all to accomplish this liberation, radical feminism is freedom in every sense of the word to me. I’m thrilled you joined us, and I’m so thankful to have found all of you.

Share your thoughts

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: