Photo by Sophia Floerchinger

Against “squint a bit” feminism

Catharine Mackinnon can’t avoid the obvious

Artillery Row

Dolly Parton once claimed “it costs me a lot of money to look this cheap”. There’s a type of political writing that always reminds me of this, wherein the writer uses a gold-star brain to construct an argument that is fundamentally dumb.

Take, for instance, feminist legal scholar Catharine Mackinnon. MacKinnon’s recent article “Exploring Transgender Law and Politics”. A lot of thought has gone into this piece, which seeks to explain why radical feminism is compatible with contemporary trans activism and how gender critical feminists are bad and wrong. MacKinnon has tasked herself with squaring a circle, and squaring this particular circle is hard! Lesser intellects don’t even try, relying instead on a mix of piety and random insult (“just be kind”, “genocidal terfs!”). MacKinnon, though, a second waver of some stature, is attempting to do things properly.

You have to admire her for it. It’s a bit like watching an avant-garde author commit to producing a 1,000-page novel without ever using the word “the” or the letter “e”. “Produce a radical feminist analysis of sex and gender that dismisses the proposition that women constitute a sex class!” In both cases, the end product might not be very good, but god, you’ve got to appreciate the ambition. If the latter example weren’t contributing, in a non-avant-garde way, to the erosion of rights for non-avant-garde people, we could declare it a hoot then forget all about it.

The arguments MacKinnon deploys are weak and contradictory

Alas, we can’t, which makes the absence of anything worth salvaging all the more depressing. The arguments MacKinnon deploys are weak and contradictory. Having described “woman” as “a set of imperatives and limitations to be criticized, challenged, changed, or transcended” (bloody women, eh?), she complains about “a group of philosophers purporting feminism” who “slide sloppily from ‘female sex’ through ‘feminine gender’ straight to ‘women’ as if no move has been made”. This is rather odd, because feminists who view women as a sex class tend to miss out the “feminine gender” bit. Then again, perhaps that’s where “as if no move has been made” comes into it. These philosophers are involving gender, but they’re pretending not to! After all, straightforwardly refusing to conflate biological femaleness with socially constructed femininity is a move so weird, so novel — and not, say, something Mary Wollstonecraft was already doing in 1792 — that no one who claims to be doing it now deserves to be believed.

We then get the claim that defining women as adult human females “used to be criticised as biological essentialism”. This appears to confuse the belief that women, as adult human females, are biologically predisposed to embody certain traits that define their position within a gender hierarchy (which is biological essentialism) and the belief that women are adult human females (which isn’t). As Simone de Beauvoir put it in The Second Sex, “one is not born, but rather becomes, woman”:

No biological, psychical or economic destiny defines the figure that the human female takes on in society; it is civilisation as a whole that elaborates this intermediary product between the male and the eunuch that is called feminine.

This seems pretty clear to me. Then again, if you don’t bother to read the second line of that quote, you could always pretend the first line meant the direct opposite.

I could go on; the philosopher (or maybe “philosopher purporting feminism”) Jane Clare Jones has written a detailed take-down of MacKinnon’s article. The most painful bit for me comes with the argument that thinking patriarchy is related to men’s desire to exploit women as a reproductive class is the same as thinking women are “subordinated or oppressed by our bodies”. “We do not need to be liberated from our chromosomes or our ovaries,” MacKinnon writes, somewhat pointlessly. Half a century ago, in her essay “Lesbianism and Feminism”, Anne Koedt wrote two lines that ought to have prevented all of this silliness:

Basic to the position of radical feminist is the concept that biology is not destiny, and that male and female roles are learned — indeed that they are male political constructs that serve to ensure power and status for men. Thus the biological male is the oppressor not by virtue of his male biology, but by virtue of his rationalizing his supremacy on the basis of that biological difference.

It is as though all this thinking never happened. I expect misogynist men to mischaracterise feminist thought, to tell us we believe things we don’t believe, to treat women’s work as undeserving of recognition and ripe for caricature. I expect misogynist men to pretend not to hear when we speak. For a supposedly feminist thinker to do this, in the name of feminism, is truly dismaying.

This kind of writing always got to me when I was an insecure graduate student

Yet there are many, I think, who will be persuaded by MacKinnon’s article. It’s part of what I’ve come to think of as “squint a bit” feminism — a feminism that dodges all the difficult truths and tells you what you want to hear, as long as you don’t look at it too closely. Women who have been fretting that maybe, deep down, they’re one of those awful terfs, can use it to absolve themselves from having to face the social and personal costs of self-examination. Whenever MacKinnon doesn’t seem to be making any sense, they can tell themselves the argument must have gone over their heads. After all, it’s not as though Catharine Mackinnon wouldn’t make sense. Who the hell are you to go up against her?

This kind of writing always got to me when I was an insecure graduate student. Whenever I encountered an argument that seemed a bit dodgy, I’d trust authority and assume there had to be something I’d missed. I’ve a sneaking suspicion that Judith Butler’s entire career is based on people doing this. That mixture of the bleeding obvious with the ravingly incoherent can lead you to be so relieved, so eternally grateful when you get to the bleeding obvious bits that you’re not only forgiving of the incoherent bits, but convinced that everyone else gets them except you.

I think it is worse today, though, when the cost of going against circular statements such as “trans women are women” is so much higher. Butler might be a charlatan, but a degree of incoherence has become de rigueur for any woman wanting to write about bodies, sex and gender without facing the kind of treatment endured by Germaine Greer, Julie Bindel and Kathleen Stock. Feminists who are more than capable of intelligent, rigorous analysis routinely feign confusion the moment said analysis ventures a little too close to suggesting that women might constitute a sex class or that biological sex is politically and socially salient. In Down Girl, for instance, Kate Manne ponders what would happen to patriarchy “if cis men got pregnant”, before deciding “it is difficult to know, and it does not seem a fruitful question; one suspects it may lack a determinate answer”. Good save — one wouldn’t want to risk concluding that “cis-ness” wouldn’t exactly be the salient factor here. Or end up having to admit that, from a social and political perspective, if your uncle had ovaries, he’d be your auntie).

What, though, is the purpose of feminism like this? We could, I suppose, end up with a feminism whose job it is to take a proposition, any proposition, and make it sound sufficiently feminist. The focus of such a feminism is not on finding the best way to meet the needs of women and girls, but on finding the best way to make your proposition look as though it meets the needs of women and girls (you might have to redefine “women and girls” along the way). It might even take great minds to do this well.

What a waste, though. What a total trashing of the work of other women. Each and every “set of imperatives and limitations to be criticized, challenged, changed, or transcended” deserves better.

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