Update: Earlier today, I posted biographical information for each of the signatories to this open statement — this is a very impressive gathering of women! — but I have (reluctantly) removed this now out of concern over whether these women would want this information posted and over concerns about accuracy. I may try to contact all of them and ask them whether they would be willing to have biographical information about them posted here. I wish it could have stayed! But it’s best to be cautious. — Heart
Forbidden Discourse: The Silencing of Feminist Criticism of “Gender”
An open statement from 37 radical feminists from five countries.
August 12, 2013
We, the undersigned 1960s radical feminists and current activists, have been
concerned for some time about the rise within the academy and mainstream media
of “gender theory,” which avoids naming men and the system of male supremacy
as the beneficiaries of women’s oppression. Our concern changed to alarm when
we learned about threats and attacks, some of them physical, on individuals and
organizations daring to challenge the currently fashionable concept of gender.
Recent developments: A U.S. environmental organization that also calls itself
radical feminist is attacked for its political analysis of gender. Feminist conferences
in the U.K., U.S. and Canada are driven from their contracted locations for asserting
the right of women to organize for their liberation separately from men, including
M>F (male to female) transgendered people.
Deep Green Resistance (DGR) reports1 that queer activists defaced its published
materials and trans activists threatened individual DGR members with arson, rape
and murder. Bookstores are pressured not to carry DGR’s work and its speaking
events are cancelled after protests by queer/transgender activists. At “RadFem”
conferences in London2, Portland3 and Toronto4, trans activists accuse scheduled
speakers of hate speech and/or being transphobic because they dare to analyze
gender from a feminist political perspective. Both MF transgender people and
“men’s rights” groups, operating separately but using similar language, demand
to be included in the Rad Fem 2013 conference in London called to fight against
women’s oppression and for liberation.
How did we slide back to the point where radical feminists have to fight for the
right to hold women-only conferences and criticize conventional “gender roles”?
The rise of Gender Studies may be part of the problem. Language is a wonderful
human tool for thinking, understanding, cooperation and progress, so it makes
sense that when people fight for freedom and justice against those who are
oppressing them, the use and misuse of words—of language—becomes part of
the struggle. Originally the term “gender” may have been a useful way around
the communication problem that the word “sex” in English has several meanings.
“Sex” refers to the reproduction of a species, as well as acts bringing about sexual
pleasure AND the simply descriptive division of many plants and animals into
two observable categories—the “sexes.” Using “gender” instead of “sex” allows
feminists to make it clear that all kinds of social relations and differences between
the sexes were unjust, not just sexual relations between the sexes. “Gender”
also covers the artificial, socially-created differences between the human sexes,
the overwhelming majority of which are politically, economically and culturally
disadvantageous to female humans.
“Gender Studies” has displaced the grassroots women’s liberation analysis
of the late 1960s and early 1970s. An early embrace of the neutral idea of
“sex roles” as a major cause of women’s oppression by some segments of the
women’s liberation movement has morphed into the new language—but the
same neutrality—of “gender roles” and “gender oppression.” With a huge
boost from the “new” academic theory coming out of those programs, heavily
influenced by post-modernism, “gender identity” has overwhelmed—when
not denying completely—the theory that biological women are oppressed and
exploited as a class by men and by capitalists due to their reproductive capacity.
Women often can no longer organize against our oppression in women-only
groups without being pilloried with charges of transphobia. But, as a UKbased
radical feminist “Fire in My Belly” wrote in her blog, “Radical feminists
recognise that an individual’s ‘gender identity’ cannot, in a fair society, be
allowed to ride roughshod over biological sex, which cannot be changed.”5
We do not view traditional sex/gender roles as natural or permanent. In fact,
criticizing these “roles” is valid and necessary for women’s liberation. Radical
feminist analysis and activism focus on unequal power relations between men
and women under male supremacy, with real, material benefits going to the
oppressor group (men) at the expense of the oppressed group (women).
The system of male supremacy comes down hard on non-conforming men and
women, as movingly described online by members of the trans community.
While switching gender identity may alleviate some problems on an individual
level, it is not a political solution. Furthermore, a strong case can be made that
it undermines a solution for all, even for the transitioning person, by embracing
and reinforcing the cultural, economic and political tracking of “gender” rather
than challenging it. Transitioning is a deeply personal issue associated with a
lot of pain for many people but it is not a feminist strategy or even individual
feminist stance. Transitioning, by itself, does not aid in the fight for equal
power between the sexes.
There will have to be many advances in science and technology before the
bodies of female humans will no longer be needed for the complicated
and dangerous jobs of supplying eggs and gestating and bearing ongoing
generations to carry on the work of the world. There will also, no doubt, be
struggles to ensure that women are not oppressed in new ways under these
Not all feminists agree that ‘gender’ should be done away with, nor do
we agree with one another on pornography or prostitution or a radical
transformation of our economy or a number of other issues. But our movement
has a history of airing serious differences in speeches and distributed position
papers, not in physical attacks, threats of bodily harm and censorship of such
analyses. DGR and RadFem stood up for the right to think, speak and write
freely on the question of gender.
Although we may not be in total agreement with DGR’s analysis of gender, we
welcome it as an important contribution to radical feminism and commend
the courage it has taken to stand against the threats and attacks it brought
upon them. We defend the right of RadFem to exclude men, including M>F
trans people, from their feminist meetings and to invite speakers who analyze
gender from a feminist perspective. We also commend CounterPunch online
for publishing the DGR material, which brought similar attacks for transphobia
upon them, including from Jacobin magazine online.
We look forward to freedom from gender. The “freedom for gender”
movement, whatever the intentions of its supporters, is reinforcing the culture
and institutions of gender that are oppressing women. We reject the notion
that this analysis is transphobic. We uphold the radical feminist principle that
women are oppressed by male supremacy in both its individual and institutional
forms. We continue to support the radical feminist strategy of organizing an
independent power base and speaking the basic truths of our experience out of
earshot of the oppressor. We hold these principles and strategies essential for
advancing toward women’s liberation.
Initiated by Carol Hanisch (NY), Kathy Scarbrough (NJ), Ti-Grace Atkinson (MA), and Kathie Sarachild (NY)
Also signed by Roberta Salper (MA), Marjorie Kramer (VT), Jean Golden (MI), Marisa Figueiredo (MA), Maureen Nappi (NY), Sonia Jaffe Robbins (NY), Tobe Levin (Germany), Marge Piercy (MA), Barbara Leon (CA), Anne Forer (AZ), Anselma Dell’Olio (Italy), Carla Lesh (NY), Laura X (CA), Gabrielle Tree (Canada), Christine Delphy (France), Pam Martens (FL), Nellie Hester Bailey (NY), Colette Price (NY), Candi Churchhill (FL), Peggy Powell Dobbins (GA), Annie Tummino (NY), Margo Jefferson (NY), Jennifer Sunderland (NY), Michele Wallace (NJ), Allison Guttu (NY), Sheila Michaels (MO), Carol Giardina (NY), Nicole Hardin (FL), Merle Hoffman (NY), Linda Stein (NY), Margaret Stern (NY), Faith Ringgold (NJ), Joanne Steele (NY)
I came out in 1990. I was sixteen years old. The term “we’re here, we’re queer, get used to it” gave me a certain power as I walked the hallways of my rural high school with my favorite girl. It spoke to a knowing that I had community, and that I had decided to not be ashamed – even as said girl and I got shoved around, verbally harassed and punished by our parents. It provided me with a slogan that made me feel like I had strength in numbers. It gave me a framework to understand and celebrate my outsider status.
That was more than half my lifetime ago now. Since then, I have been deeply involved in the issues of my LGBT community. I have spoken on LGBT panels at high schools and in churches. I have done AIDS outreach in bars and on railroad tracks. I have organized rallies. I have attended rallies. I have donated money. I have attended too many vigils for our dead. I have sat through endless coalition meetings. I have celebrated with you. I have mourned with you. I have shown up. I am not bringing this up for the sake of being self-congratulatory. I am bringing this up to say that this community raised me. And to say that I never imagined I would find myself standing on what appears to be the wrong side of the line with this community– especially as it relates to our shared and unique LGBT liberation movements. Then I fell in love with the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival.
Like many women who love the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, I have been deeply troubled over what is happening within the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival community. Yes, we are wrestling with a definition of woman that upholds the significance of socialized experience as well as self-identification. No, this has not been easy. We are a community of women with a lot of varying thoughts, beliefs and convictions. We do our best to listen to one another respectfully. We have been called upon by women inside of our community and by the larger community to examine the boundaries of our autonomous space. We are doing that, pretty much 24 hours a day. I can guarantee you that no other conscious community is working harder or thinking more about the politics of women’s autonomous space than the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival community. We have engaged each other in heated conversations, we have brought one another to tears at times, and some of us have made the very hard decision to step away while some of us have made an even deeper commitment to the sustainability of the festival regardless of our position on the inclusion of trans identified women at the festival. In the context of these interactions, there is a general understanding that while two women may not agree on this topic (or the myriad of others that have come up over the years),that each woman has a common love and respect for the festival and a desire to contribute to the community in a way that will benefit everyone involved. I have friends who have told me that while they may disagree with me, that they love and respect me all the more for my participation and voice in our discussions. I feel their love and respect. I believe them. And I love and respect them back.
For the most part, I have chosen to engage with friends and in face-to-face conversations with people in my community rather than lend my voice to the multitude of threads and “debates” about the festival that are taking place all over the Internet. I have had a couple experiences recently that have changed my mind.
The first of these experiences was reading an article that was recently published in “The Advocate” entitled “Is It Wrong to Play Michfest?” In this article, the producer of the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival was referred to as a “liar” and compared to George Wallace. There is a loud voice in our LGBT community that is actively calling for the villainization and defamation of a woman who has devoted her entire adult life and career to building up, creating and sustaining a place of safety, strength and celebration of the women who make up a large percentage of the LGBT community. The effort to erase her work and reduce her legacy to that of a public enemy of the LGBT community, a “bigot” and a“false feminist” (are you kidding me?!) is ridiculous, cruel, appalling and simply not acceptable. Whether you agree with her feminist politics or not, Lisa Vogel deserves a whole hell of a lot more respect than that.
Then I received a series of private messages on Facebook in response to a statement I publically posted on a page called “Allies in Understanding” The first message simply said, “I am anti-Michigan and I did not like your post.” Another that said “Not at all” and another claiming “We will succeed at tearing that place down”. It is relevant to mention that nowhere in my post did I even make mention of the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival. It is not the first time I have heard the term “anti-Michigan” or seen threats about “tearing it down”. Those messages did get me thinking though and they ultimately inspired me to write this letter.
Yes, this is addressed to the person who sent me those messages, but I am also addressing this to the larger LGBT community. Why? Because recently there has been a tremendous amount of very bad behavior that is being celebrated, supported and carried out in the name of LGBT activism. I am addressing this to the larger community because so many of you have entitled yourself to weigh in on the current controversy surrounding the festival, but almost no one (outside of the Michfest community) has been compelled to speak up when someone has made threats of violence or rape against the women in our shared community – under the name of “equality” and “civil rights”. People in our own LGBT community are calling lesbians “irrelevant”, “stupid”, “outdated” and “un-evolved”. We are being told that we deserve to “be beheaded” and “raped by woman-born-dicks”. We are being invited to “evolve or die”, “fuck off” and to “go die in a fire” and so much more. This abuse is happening in public forums on the Internet and in the comment sections of mainstream LGBT news outlets. No one is saying a damn thing about it, unless it is to say that we have brought this upon ourselves by our own fear and bigotry. Part of the painful irony of these hateful messages is they all come in the name of gaining entrance to a space where women have gone to seek refuge from this kind of hateful messaging, let alone very real threats that often accompany it. My dear LGBT community, how is this acceptable you? Your silence is a betrayal. Your silence makes you complicit in the damage and injury that is being caused. I am holding you accountable.
To reduce and neglect the scope and significance of the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival and the contribution it has made to the lives of thousands of women in the LGBT community is unjust and irresponsible. The Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival is far more than the sum of this current hurtful and divisive situation. For 38 years, The Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival has been a constant evolving exercise in radical hospitality. For thousands upon thousands of women, it has been a place of acceptance, safety and love unparallel to any other place in the world. The Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival is a place that has devoted its entire existence to building community, promoting female artists and empowering women and girls. It has always been and continues to be a place that houses and celebrates all forms of female gender presentation and female bodies. It is a place that has taken itself to task on the issues of racism, classism, ableism and ageism. It is a music festival that has repeatedly forgone corporate sponsors and still manages to provide the nutritious meals that are included in the price of a festival ticket for every single woman who attends. This all-inclusive ticket also entitles every woman on the land to community health care, childcare, emotional support, and workshops. ASL interpreters interpret every set of every single stage at Michfest. Every communal space is wheelchair accessible, made so by women who get on their hands and knees in the blazing sun (or pouring rain) and drive nails into the ground through upside down carpets. Great effort is taken to make sure that every woman on that land knows that she is wanted, that she is welcome and that she is precious among us. It continues to be a place that prioritizes the environment and care for the land that the festival is built on. Every single piece of garbage gets picked up by hand. In the months between festivals there is not a trace of festivity left behind. I almost resisted the urge to contrast this to some of the disgusting messes I have seen in the wake of some of our Dyke Marches and Pride Celebrations, but I will not. We take pride in cleaning up after ourselves. Yes, we have a great time in those woods, but oh how this community has worked and continues to do so.
I am not ashamed of my love for the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival. I am not ashamed of the community of women who embody the spirit of it. There is too much to love, too much to be proud of, too much at stake and too much to work toward still. To me, a larger LGBT community that does not comprehend or acknowledge the value of a place like the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival has not evolved itself out of the need for it. The erasure of one of the most radical and revolutionary spaces on this earth is not a revolution I will ever embrace. To work towards the extinction of the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival with no regard for her legacy, complexity and relevance or history is short sited, selfish and careless. I will work so hard to see that this festival survives any best efforts to “tear it down”. I will do this with my words, my actions and my checkbook, just like this community has taught me to do when something matters deeply.-
YOU HAVE MY PERMISSION TO REPOST THIS IS ITS ENTIRETY-
There is some fallacy of human nature that allows people to view practicing as women only as exclusion rather than inclusion. When we gather in an all women rite we are offering a sacred space for the benefit of those attending – the rite is for women, especially if the focus is Women’s Mysteries. Those rites center on menstruation, birthing, and cessation of menstruation, all functions of women who came into this world at birth as female. Even if the rite does not focus on those Mysteries, women need sacred space to grow and heal from growing up in a world that often excludes, puts down, or otherwise attempts to control them as the “less than” gender. Coming together in this way has nothing to do with excluding men – it is about giving women a place of their own.
During the question period of the panel, I spoke about what it means to deride female sovereignty in the context of the intense anti-feminist backlash we are living through now. Margot Adler had mentioned the shrinkage of feminist spaces, bookstores and Women’s Studies. I talked about how that had affected my work, as women’s history got thrown overboard in the stampede to Gender Studies. It’s not because women’s oppression has been solved! I said that this debate has got to get unstuck off the “essentialism” refrain. As long as the issue keeps getting cast only as biological determinism (and I see people in both camps insisting on this discourse in different ways) other real concerns are not being addressed, even effectively denied or misrepresented. We need to have a deeper conversation about the complexities, the differences and the commonalities, between cis, trans, and those who don’t fit this new gender binary. In the current climate such a dialogue, multilogue actually, seems impossible. May the time come soon when we can do so without it turning into a destructive beatdown…. Continue reading