The Divide Between Transgenderism and Radical Feminism

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

A reader revives the discussion thread on feminism:

The reason that a lot of people like myself don’t self-identify as “feminist” is because a lot of feminists (not all) self-identify as skeptics of the notion that there are any essential differences between men and women. Given the way these differences have been exploited by men to subjugate women, I have a lot of sympathy for these feminists and their mode of feminism. But my sympathies don’t mean that men and women are not different. They are—not totally different, not fundamentally different, but essentially different—in their essence.

Caitlin Jenner reminds us of this truth.

When I was a kid, Bruce Jenner was the very definition of a male ideal, the best all-around athlete in the world. But for all his manly strength and power, he was actually a woman, whose essence insisted on expression in female-ness. Jenner’s femaleness was not the result of his biological attributes but the result of something that originated in his/her nature—not in nurture, not in social conditioning, not in patriarchy.

Which is why more than a few orthodox feminists are disturbed by the acceptance of transgenderism—as well they should be. Transgenderism is a reminder that gender essentialism is alive and well in our children.

And a lot of us accept that. Men and women share many attributes, but as groups, they also display some differences, which are the result of human nature. Most fundamentally, females experience all of the pregnancies. They bear all of the children. They do all of the breastfeeding. Males have none of those experiences and never will. The effects of these essential differences are reflected in the ways boys and girls are raised, come of age, mate and reproduce, and age. How could they not be?

We see and sense the resulting gender differences in our daily lives. Girls and women, in general, are more social, more emotionally fluent, more empathetic. Boys and men, in general, are more competitive, self-assertive, and self-interested. That doesn’t mean that boys and men can’t be social, emotionally fluent, or empathetic. That doesn’t that girls and women can’t be competitive, self-assertive, or self interested. Many are both—and more should be both. This is the wisdom embodied in the Eastern notion of yin and yang. To decry such observations as “sexist” seems both defensive and ahistorical.

So when one of your readers talks about about the “complementary features and qualities of the sexes” and is rebuked by your feminist reader who says such language “echoes an adherence to traditional gender roles,” I have to side with the former. I prefer understanding and appreciating the male/female yin and yang to an ideological commitment to challenging its existence.

There’s nothing wrong with a commitment to challenging the limitations of gender roles, but compared to ideological commitments like challenging America’s imperial ambitions, the normalization of war, the persistence of racism, the rise of wealth inequality, the prevalence of violence against women, the heedless consumption of the planet’s resources, and the demonization of the immigrant, a feminism based on a litmus test about “gender roles” is just not that compelling.

Thanks for listening.

That note reminds me of a great piece from The New Yorker’s Michelle Goldberg on “the dispute between radical feminism and transgenderism.” She writes:

Trans women say that they are women because they feel female – that, as some put it, they have women’s brains in men’s bodies. Radical feminists reject the notion of a “female brain.” They believe that if women think and act differently from men it’s because society forces them to, requiring them to be sexually attractive, nurturing, and deferential. In the words of Lierre Keith, a speaker at Radfems Respond, femininity is “ritualized submission.”

In this view, gender is less an identity than a caste position. Anyone born a man retains male privilege in society; even if he chooses to live as a woman – and accept a correspondingly subordinate social position – the fact that he has a choice means that he can never understand what being a woman is really like. By extension, when trans women demand to be accepted as women they are simply exercising another form of male entitlement.

All this enrages trans women and their allies, who point to the discrimination that trans people endure; although radical feminism is far from achieving all its goals, women have won far more formal equality than trans people have.

Here’s some compiled debate over Goldberg’s piece. When I bounced it off a reader I was corresponding with last month, she replied:

Michelle Goldberg’s piece was great but it’s almost too hard at this point to find anything about radfems that isn’t either a full-throated condemnation or a full-throated defense. But they’re the only organized feminist movement that promotes and pushes separation of the sexes and the removal of men from the picture. Even that is more about protection of women than about punishing men. I think your reader [the first one here] is instead uncomfortable with the ways “modern feminists” are trying to right the ship from aboard the ship.

The major source of disagreement within the larger group that calls itself feminists is intersectionality. White feminists can tend to ignore problems that feminists of color experience. Wealthy feminists can tend to ignore problems that poor feminists experience. Hetero feminists can ignore problems that queer feminists face. Trans feminists—especially trans feminists of color—are a statistically small group (since trans people are a statistically small group) but they bear a disproportionate amount of grief because they can fall through each of this series of cracks.

To me, it’s sad and gross that these real points of contention and attempts to hear all voices open feminism up to critiques that it’s too fractious or contentious.