Patriarchy, across the globe, plagues humankind. In some regions female fetuses often are aborted because they are considered less valuable than male fetuses. Girls are sometimes smothered in infancy. Many women and girls are sold to men as rape and breeding slaves. Many endure genital mutilation. Many are trafficked and forced into prostitution. Many are denied abortions and access to birth control. Many, to survive economically, sell their eggs to donors or hire their wombs out to couples who cannot produce babies. In some countries, including Saudi Arabia and parts of India, women are considered the property of male guardians. There are villages in India where women have only one kidney because their husbands have sold their other one. Women are often denied education and, even in industrial countries, are paid less for carrying out the same work as men.
How, in an age in which some born with male bodies self-identify as women, can those born female define their unique oppression based on their experience? As laws in Europe, Canada and the United States are rewritten to broaden the definition of what it means to be female or male, how will such change affect the struggle for equality by those born as females?
The debate over gender identity pits the trans-narrative against radical feminists. It is one of the most bitter and acrimonious battles on the left. Radical feminists are castigated by many on the left as reactionary for their insistence that those born female hold a unique and separate identity as an oppressed group, one that requires them to form protected spaces and organizations.
"Freedom of association is especially important to the oppressed," Alice Lee, a co-founder of Asian Women Coalition Ending Prostitution, said when I reached her in Vancouver by phone. "It is absolutely necessary for oppressed people to be able to group together. It allows us to dare to identify and vocalize our shared experiences and find ways to effectively strategize to overthrow our oppressors. The formation of such civil rights groups, anti-racism groups, women rape crisis centers and shelters, caucuses, clubs, associations and religious organizations is a hallmark of a democratic civil society. Decisions about group membership must be a process of self-determination. Having the criteria dictated to us by the state, or by those who belong to the oppressor groups, means defeat at the outset."
"The neoliberal approach centers on individual feelings and choice at the expense of shared group experience," Lee continued. "It is a deliberate strategy to prevent the development of any effective challenge to male supremacy, white supremacy, heterosexual supremacy, and rule by those who control capital. Forcing us to open our groups to those who do not share the basic experiences of our reality cuts off the potential for revolution at the root."
Many members of the trans community strongly disagree. One is Misty Snow, a Utah Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate in last November's general election and the first transgender woman to run as a nominee for such a seat. [Click here to read and hear an interview of Snow that Truthdig Editor in Chief Robert Scheer conducted for his KCRW podcast, "Scheer Intelligence," in October 2016.] She recently announced her candidacy for the U.S. House of Representatives.
When I spoke to Snow by phone, she said:
"The argument that the inclusion of trans people in spaces traditionally reserved for girls and women somehow infringes on the rights of girls and women presupposes a collective sisterhood that does not exist.
"Women of color, who have long been marginalized by white feminists, face different forms of oppression, in the same way trans people face different forms of oppression.
"This recycles the old feminist argument from the 1950s when women of color were excluded from the feminist movement. A lot of this is about privileged women, especially white women, clinging to the status quo."
The equal rights of girls and women in the United States are protected under Title IX, but new laws are blurring the lines of what it means to be female. Feminists say these laws, passed in the name of inclusivity, amount to an erasure of what it means to be female. They charge that such change is a gift to patriarchy and the corporate state, which seeks to turn everyone, especially the most vulnerable, into disempowered, atomized commodities. As societies break down, it is girls and women, along with children and the elderly, who bear the worst abuse and violence. The need for collective strength, given the global unraveling of civil society and the rise of authoritarian and protofascist governments, is vital, these feminists say.
"Patriarchy is a millennium-old system of male supremacy by which male-bodied people are exploiting female-bodied people for reproductive, sexual and domestic labor," feminist MaryLou Singleton told me during a conversation in New York. "When power and property are held by men and passed to the heirs of men, men need to police and control women's bodies to know who their heirs are. Now it's global in scope, where women don't have control over their own reproduction and are dependent on men in terms of having and raising our children."
The consumer culture grooms women through female socialization, which it defines as gender, to participate in their own subjugation. Prostitution and pornography, for example, are sold by patriarchy as liberating and empowering for women. Those who meet the rigid standards of female socialization are rewarded and celebrated. Those who do not are dismissed, marginalized and often attacked.
"Capitalism thrives on promoting extreme individualism and this idea that we are all separate, unique individuals," Singleton said. "We are at a point in late-stage capitalism where identity is for sale. People take on consumer identities. I believe this particular [trans] identity is being marketed to our young people who are at an age where they experience a lot of questioning naturally about their identity. It's always been acknowledged that children and teenagers and young adults question who they are and what they want to be."