Where Gender-Critical Feminism Fails: Defining Yourself Through the Oppressor

“How I love being a woman,” the audio of a TikTok video on my phone proclaims over a slideshow lamenting the omnipresence of sexism in everyday life. In this case, the statement is ironic, contrasted with account after account of the tragedy of womanhood. A few scrolls later, the same audio plays again, this time as a girl who looks about my age writes that the experience of womanhood is essentially the experience of sexism and the pain of menstruation and childbirth. No matter how many times I press ‘not interested,’ the videos keep appearing until I close the app.

The way we most commonly interact with ideology today is not in the classroom or essay or manifesto, but subliminally through social media posts tagged #radfem and #womanhood. Here, I seek to address the inconsistencies of gender critical feminism so that we may conscientiously engage with the ideas that seep into our feeds, lest any of us adopt a philosophical framework we have never explicitly questioned.

The problem is not that we are acknowledging experiences of oppression–from the familiar clamor of patriarchy to instances of direct violence–as formative in many women’s lives, but that it creates a new form of bioessentialism. Gender-critical feminists now less often tout childbirth or menstruation as the core experiences of womanhood, though this notion still appears in the rhetoric and the opinions of some. Now, they cite a lifetime of growing up surrounded by sexism as a requirement for being a woman–everything from playground teasing and taunting to sexist Tinder DMs. Through this they exclude trans women, who they claim lack this crucial experience due to “male socialization.” 

We can make this acknowledgement without convoluting it with the very definition of gender itself, though evidently not so easily. This is due to the fact that categorical definitions such as ‘man’ and ‘woman’ are notoriously difficult, which anyone who’s been challenged to define a ‘chair’ in their first philosophy 101 class can tell you. Radical feminists can agree that gender roles instead take on subjective attributes in society–there’s nothing about two X chromosomes that makes you to like the color pink or want to shave your legs, neither of which were common practices until the 20th century–but do not necessarily extend this to the relationship between experiencing sexism and experiencing womanhood. 

In her essay defending gender critical feminism, Holly Lawford-Smith concedes the aforementioned limitations on finding a common delineation of who the term female should encapsulate (and therefore whom feminism should fight for), but argues that ultimately the feminist movement will have to make do with a definition that is not fully inclusive or diverse. In her own words, “Let’s bite that bullet: not everyone can be included in everything they want to be included in.”

But then who does this definition serve? An identity contingent upon its own oppression is not a particularly useful one. If womanhood is, at its most essential, being a person who experiences sexism, then would it follow that ending sexism would similarly end a world of gender differentiation at all? This kind of gender-free world is one that feminist and egalitarian philosophers advocate for, and, in practice, has been envisioned by a new generation of parents who raise their children without gender-based restriction. Yet this humanist worldview is not what gender critical feminists seek either, as Lawford-Smith writes that sex equality will only be achieved by the recognition of gender differences, not their dismissal.

Similarly, what does this make of the diversity of experiences within womanhood? The notion that all women can be united by a set of listable qualities directly contradicts both values of intersectionality and the range of actual lived experiences across demographics of women. Lesbians, gender non-conforming and queer women often report vastly different versions of womanhood that are inherent to their identity. They experience a double oppression of both sexism and homophobia, yet recount that due to not embodying traditionally feminine standards that most feminist movements seek to uproot, are furthermore ousted from their own communities. As Leslie Feinberg writes in “Stone Butch Blues,” “I’ve worked hard to be discriminated against as a lesbian.”

Based on both rhetoric and logic, it seems that thinkers such as Lawford-Smith feel a sense of invasion when met with the prospect of trans-inclusive feminism. This is echoed by other figureheads of the current gender-critical movement such as author J.K. Rowling, who asserts the need for the retention of certain spaces exclusive to cisgender women. They posit that the priority of gender-critical feminism is safety, to ensure that those in vulnerable positions such as women’s prisons will not be able to be victimized by trans women. 

However, this is ignorant of the fact that white women engage in violent, oppressive behavior towards women of color. Angela Davis names this phenomenon ‘superficial multiculturalism,’ in which white women have been granted access to the tools and institutions of patriarchy only to sustain them. Gender-critical feminists who fear sexual abuse from trans women in prisons fail to acknowledge the sexual abuse already happening in those spaces, “to which women are subjected daily by virtue of their incarceration…if it were not for the uniforms of those who conduct such searches, these activities would be described as sexual abuse,” as Davis writes. It may follow that white women who participate in the perpetuation of oppression should be ousted from the umbrella of ‘womanhood,’ yet historically the opposite has been true.

The social and political oppression of women, which all forms of feminism seek to dismantle, has been one of the longest struggles in human history. Yet throughout that history it has been prone to fluctuation, and defining the experience of womanhood by its oppression intentionally excludes certain demographics from its empowerment movement. We should also question who generates the metrics of oppression, as the suffering of marginalized groups often goes unacknowledged by the dominant voices of a movement, of which feminism is a prime example. Furthermore, a movement for the protection and liberation of trans people is needed now urgently. Activists such as Seattle artist Veronica Very submit the necessity of recentering stories of joy in the face of discrimination to reshape the narrative around the history of Black women. I propose we should similarly define womanhood not through the experience of its oppression, but its celebration.