In today’s culture wars, yesterday’s common sense is often tomorrow’s bigotry. No one thirty years ago imagined same-sex marriage; now opposition to it may be officially proscribed. Yesterday every kindergartener knew that boys have a penis and girls have a vagina, but the ascendancy of transgender rights seems to render questionable—even demeaning—some of the most familiar aspects of life, like sex-specific bathrooms and showers.
How could such obvious elements of reality come into question? How could the essentials of marriage and family life—and even human life in general—become such subjects of such controversy and invective?
I argue in a new report entitled “Sex, Gender, and the Origins of the Culture War” that controversies over transgender rights result from the widespread adoption of radical feminist assumptions. Radical feminists rejected the prevailing idea that social expectations about men and women’s roles (which would come to be known as “gender”) were grounded in anatomy and sex. Their critique claimed to show how those elements of womanly identity were neither necessary nor healthy, and posited a future where women would be free to define their identities without any reference to their bodies or to social expectations. A world of complete freedom would be a world “beyond gender”—where no members of society would make any assumptions about individuals based on sex. Attempts to divorce identity from sex put in motion a rolling revolution in marriage and family life whose latest turn is toward transgender rights.
The Social Construction of Gender
The crowning achievements for first-wave feminists such as Mary Wollstonecraft and John Stuart Mill lay in establishing legal rights for women to own property, to divorce, and, ultimately, to vote. Such rights were secured throughout the Western world after the first third of the twentieth century.
These hard-won legal freedoms, however, were not sufficient to get women to shed their maternal, wifely personalities and become independent. This gave rise to second-wave feminists. The most radical of them, starting with Simone de Beauvoir, thought that getting women to choose differently demanded a more fundamental cultural reformation.
Beauvoir provides intellectual justification for divorcing sex from gender and for holding that culture alone has determined the meaning of sex and the body. Her opus, The Second Sex (published in 1949 in French, and in 1953 in English translation), provides the framework for contemporary feminists who criticize and deconstruct seemingly natural distinctions in human life. She begins The Second Sex by asking, “what is a woman?” She famously answers: “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.” Women, according to Beauvoir, had long played artificial roles as dependent, loving wives and sacrificing mothers due to the cultural dominance of gender roles. These gender roles had built on a seemingly obvious interpretation of the female body.
Beauvoir shows how cultural indoctrination starts early. According to Beauvoir, women are taught to be relational and to make the home, men to be mechanical and aggressive: hence the sexual division of labor. Women are taught to be sexually desirable and chaste, men to take the initiative and perhaps risk promiscuity: hence the sexual double standard. Women are taught to be private, sacrificial, and caring, men to provide and to push boundaries: hence the idea of private woman, public man. All these old ideas have been sown deep into culture to keep women subordinate, but what has been made can be exposed and unmade.
Customs, assigned psychological traits, economic considerations, moral virtues, cultural attributes, or other limits that have long made them the “second sex” do not really bind women, according to Beauvoir. Even the body need not present limits to what women could be. “The situation does not depend on the body; the reverse is true,” Beauvoir writes. It is how we conceive of the body that matters for Beauvoir, not the body itself. There is no sex, no natural woman or man. Women and men are social construction, or “gender,” all the way down; sex too is only gender, if human beings would but creatively interpret it. Women could transcend their current status as the second sex and enjoy an “indefinitely open future” as they strive for more freedom and independence if the society in which they live were duly changed.
Rolling the Sexual Revolution Beyond Gender
This effort to interpret sex as gender and hence to see it as changeable sets radical feminism into action. Marriage and family life will look very different if they are to accommodate the desire to strip women and men of their previously distinctive characters. The place of marriage and family life in the hearts of men and women will change, and sexual relations will look different. Subsequent radical feminists identified deeper and deeper layers of cultural apparatus that had kept women in a subordinate position, and they sought to change society accordingly.
Kate Millett, whose 1970 work Sexual Politics was the first major feminist book to embrace the words sex and gender, sees the feminist revolution as having three facets.
First and principally, a sexual revolution would abolish “the ideology of male supremacy and the traditional socialization by which it is upheld in matters of status, role, and temperament,” leading to the “integration of the separate sexual subcultures, an assimilation of both sides of previously segregated human experience.” Roles in childrearing, for instance, would fade and eventually disappear, as parental roles came to be less gender-defined and more androgynous.
Second, a drastic change in the “patriarchal propriety family” is necessary for women to secure “complete economic independence.” Women must secure fulfilling employment outside the home and never be dependent on a man for their sustenance, needs, or luxuries. In addition, since women feel responsible for “their” children, an “important corollary” to the goal of achieving women’s economic independence would be ending “the present chattel status and denial of rights to minors.” If children could be freed from the family, then women would be less likely to be dependent on the family. Beauvoir endorsed this view later in life. “Women will not be liberated,” she wrote, “until they have been liberated from their children and by the same token, until children have also been liberated from their parents.”
Third, the feminist revolution requires “an end to traditional sexual inhibitions and taboos, particularly those that most threaten patriarchal monogamous marriage: homosexuality, ‘illegitimacy,’ adolescent, and pre- and extra-marital sexuality.” Approval for every sexual outlet would divorce sex from marriage or reproduction and would encourage people to pursue more independence in their sex lives. Liberating women from their subordinate position in sexual matters is essential for promoting independence in all matters.
One can trace the successes of this rolling revolution, from gaining acceptance for divorce and then cohabitation, to winning approval for homosexuality and same sex marriage, to winning recognition for illegitimate children, and to many other aspects of life. The rolling feminist revolution will not end until all difference and separation between men and women is expunged from experience. Then we will experience a world beyond gender.
Transgender Rights as Part of the Rolling Revolution
The most significant theorist of the third wave of feminism is Judith Butler, who links the rolling revolution to developments in queer theory, homosexual advocacy, and transgender rights. As part of the third plank in Millett’s feminist revolution, queer theory holds that expressions of sexuality are socially constructed and hence changeable, with the hopes that celebrating the supposedly queer lifestyles will undermine or “problematize” fixed notions of personal identity and heterosexuality. Queer theory finds liberation beyond the binary and beyond the normal. Initially, Butler emphasized how drag queens and butch-femmes would subvert the gender norms. Her 2003 book Undoing Gender shows how those with supposed transgendered identities subvert the norm as well.
Subverting norms unites queer theory to transgender rights. For her understanding of norms, Butler relies especially on French post-structuralist philosopher Michel Foucault. Foucault shows how society imposes norms subtly, by constructing “truth” and “reality”; social norms come to constitute a theory of what categories one must fit into to be human. These expectations, Butler believes, must be exposed as artificial so that a more open and “queer” future can arise. In Butler’s technical language, Foucault exposes the “mechanism of coercion” behind the modern preference for heterosexual sex in the hopes of liberating a more polymorphous expression of sexual desire.
Undoing gender requires empowerment of those who fantasize about and perform different gender spectacles, revealing fluid and transgressive possibilities. Accordingly, a more developed feminism integrates queer theory because “queers” posit “a different future for the norm itself.” Transgenderism is consistent with the philosophical premises of second-wave feminism (i.e., divorcing one’s body from one’s identity) and also furthers the three political goals of sexual revolution that Millett articulates.
Transgender activists do not simply want freedom for their new performances. “We are not carving out a place for autonomy,” Butler writes, “if by autonomy we mean a state of individuation . . . apart from any relations of dependency on the world of others.” Persons “cannot persist without norms of recognition” that support their persistence and build their mental health. One’s identity is never fully real or fully one’s own, she argues, until it is endorsed in and through the public authorities and recognized as such by one’s fellow citizens. The “very sense of personhood is linked to the desire for recognition, and that desire places us outside ourselves, in a realm of social norms that we do not fully choose.” This need for public recognition leads to continual social transformations in the name of liberation from past impositions as means for securing recognition for tomorrow’s desires.
Recognition for same-sex marriage subverts the norm—and Butler endorses it for that reason. Recognition of transgendered rights also reworks the norm—and Butler and her followers embrace continual efforts to rework those norms as well. Public restrooms and showering facilities are a binary gender norm, serving as instruments of oppression for those others who do not conform to society’s norms. Transgendered persons create “gender trouble” for contemporary notions of reality and call for affirmation and recognition so that those formerly considered “unreal” can be welcomed into the human race. Efforts to change the world to adapt to gender fluidity are hardly likely to put a stop to feminism’s rolling revolution.
Transgenderism: A Branch of Feminism
Transgender theorists are, in Butler’s words, “carrying on the legacy of Simone de Beauvoir: if one is not born a woman, but rather becomes one, then becoming is the vehicle for gender itself.” Through their imagination individuals can become what they would be, without society imposing its gender norms. Through poststructuralism and queer theory, human beings approach Beauvoir’s ideal: independent individuals facing an indefinitely open future.
Efforts to separate transgender theories from radical feminism mistake their common roots. Transgenderism pushed against the door that second-wave feminists opened: it extends the philosophical premises of second-wave feminism and fosters its political project. Efforts to roll back one roll back the other, while efforts to further one further the other.