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.
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.
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.