Radical Feminism, Transgender Issues, and Phenomenology

It’s an old debate in radical politics, and apparently far from resolution. Recently, a New Yorker article entitled “The Dispute Between Radical Feminism and Transgenderism” outlined the conflict between some radical feminists and many trans[1] activists, explaining that a subset of radical feminists have long seen transsexual or transgender people as a threat to the feminist cause. This is because many trans people feel that their gender is innate, whereas the radical feminists see gender entirely as a social construct, an element of the oppressive patriarchy. As the New Yorker article describes, some radical feminists even hypothesize that female-to-male trans people were trying to gain a higher social status within the patriarchy, while male-to-female trans people had a peculiar fetish and sexually enjoyed their new identity (the latter idea appears to be scientifically unfounded).[2]

A protest camp outside Michfest, a radical feminist even that excludes transwomen. Image source:
A protest camp outside Michfest, a radical feminist even that excludes transwomen. Image source:

The conflict is remarkably bitter two groups of social-justice-minded people. The radical feminists in question excluded trans women from events or blocked them from using the women’s bathrooms, while some trans activists posted murderous threats towards the radical feminists. The New Yorker article, too, spurred serious debate. Julia Serano, who was interviewed for the article and who feels she was misrepresented, wrote an op-ed decrying the piece: “ it is clear to me now that Goldberg merely used me as a prop to give her piece the pretense of balance.” A number of other commentators chimed in as well, saying the piece’s sources were skewed towards the anti-trans radical feminists and its slant was biased. Pieces are still being published every couple of days.

What is striking upon reading this debate is that the terms of the disagreement are not always as clearly defined as they might be, and their philosophical roots are not fully examined. The radical feminists see gender as something entirely external, created by society and imprinted on the individual forcefully. In contrast, although there is hardly one concrete, agreed-upon theory about gender inside the trans community, many trans people feel that their gender is either partly or fully innate, an aspect of themselves that they discovered to be true whether they willed it or not.

However, these two ideas—gender as a social construct and gender as innate—are not necessarily in conflict as they appear. To be a student is a social construct in some form, yet we can feel quite strongly about that as part of our identity. In fact, we can feel like a student without societal constructs in some sense; even if we no longer are undergoing formal education, we can think of ourselves as an “eternal student”. Similarly, many personality traits—kindness, intelligence, wit—are derived from a combination of external and internal measures. They often only exist in terms of a spectrum, and we find our place in comparison to others we know. These traits, too, are deeply felt as parts of our identity. Though gender is surely different, if not unique, there are conceptual possibilities outside of strict binaries that should be embraced. Our identity relies both on the available information from society and our own relatively internal inclinations.

It seems, then, that the radical feminists who oppose recognizing trans people not only fail to recognize this false dichotomy, but they also tend to distrust trans people who report where they find themselves falling along the spectrum between innate and socially-constructed gender. What makes this particularly odd is that the feminist movement has long relied on and advocated for the importance of personal experience. Feminists coined (and Carol Hanisch popularized) the term “the personal is political.” Radical feminism relies, in short, on a historical and epistemological grounding in phenomenology. In simpler words, their own ideas make little sense without the assumption that people’s individual experiences are valuable and meaningful.

I am not the only person to apply the shiny philosophical word phenomenology to this issue. Sara Ahmed, for example, suggests there are a number of different phenomenological—in the sense of lived and subjective—experiences to consider. The point here—without delving too far into the different possible kinds of trans experiences or phenomenology—is that there are different kinds of personal experiences on this question. It is, simply put, rigid, controlling, and uncreative of the anti-trans radical feminists to imagine that lived experience can only conform to social norms or expectations, which is essentially the claim such radical feminists make when they imagine transsexual or transgender people as trying to regain power in the patriarchy or having sexual fetishes. Moreover, to claim that ones lived experience of female-bodied-woman-in-the patriarchy is so meaningful that it renders the lived experiences of others mute or incorrect is to miss the point of phenomenology itself. If subjective experience matters, then the subjective experiences of trans people must matter too. The task of a feminist, radical or otherwise, is thus (at least as the first course) to trust others about their lived experiences, to believe them as they wish for all women to be believed.

[1] Refers to transgender but also sometimes transsexual, an older term that some trans people prefer.

[2] See here and here for a scientific explanation of why. To summarize very briefly, it appears that among other things, cis (non-trans) women have very similar fantasies about the sexual attractiveness of their own bodies, and at similar rates.




Sarah Stein Lubrano just finished her MPhil in Intellectual History in Cambridge. Her research looks into feminism, sexual politics, and psychological theory in turn-of-the-century Germany.





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Pascal wrote “the heart has its reasons that reason does not understand”. Love is an essential part of human nature and experience, as well as philosophy and political life. In this column, Sarah Stein Lubrano explores love, sex, gender, and intimacy.

Sarah Stein Lubrano just finished her MPhil in Intellectual History in Cambridge. Her research looks into feminism, sexual politics, and psychological theory in turn-of-the-century Germany.

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