I don’t remember much of my academic life. In all honesty, looking back most of it is a blur. But three things stand out for me. Reading, creative writing, and feminism. I loved them all. Two quotes stick in my brain. The first from one of my A-Level Sociology lecturers, Marilyn, which was;
“Women are a sponge to soak up all men’s inadequacies”
And secondly an accolade I am still proud of to this day. My English lecturer Helen dubbed me as “the only male feminist she had ever taught.”
I admired Helen and Marilyn, because they were both women of passion and conviction, impact notwithstanding. The fact that I still remember their musings to this day is a compliment to them. I am proud to know, and to have known some wonderful women in my life. Women who I have cared about, loved, been inspired by, cried with, laughed with, and empathised with.
If women are a sponge for men’s inadequacies, then I have been a sponge for women’s strength. Despite never having had siblings of either sex, I have always gravitated naturally towards women, they have been my heart, my soul, and my rock when I have needed support too.
I have never looked at what I can take from a woman, but instead, what I can give to them, in the sense of solidarity and support. Helen also said she had never met a man like me before, and doubted she ever would again. That is because the construct of a man was alien to me, and I did not, and still would not want to live up to.
Womanhood then, is not about the clothes on your body. Feminism, is about the clothes on your soul. Whether you stand up and be counted as a woman , or well, you choose to do nothing.
During my University days another thing I did was to find the poem Leda and the Swan by W.B. Yeats disgusting. Even now when reading it back, it still turns my stomach. The reduction of a female, to her mere body parts for the delight of a man is patriarchal to the extreme, and when you see it written down in the cold light of day, it makes it even more vile.
The radical feminist Catherine McKinnon argues that;
“Understanding free speech as an abstract system is a liberal position. Understanding how speech also exists within a substantive system of power relations is a feminist position.”
What this quote suggests is that speech and writing in the first instance do not exist in a vacuum. They exist in a patriarchal context to subjugate women and other minorities too it has to be said. We in the UK are a culture which privileges misogyny over mindfulness, and pornography over pragmatism.
This is not surprising though, when a 9 year old child was subjected to a disgusting slur after the Oscars, and we are told in a week where a sex scandal is embroiling the Liberal Democrats, we are told, with all the empathy of a toilet roll, “well, he only touched her knee, it’s hardly Jimmy Savile”.
Oh. So that makes it OK and I can stop writing then? No chance! I will not be silenced now, nor ever! It is preposterous, not to mention mocking and silencing to categorise the experiences of abused women and men, and to judge them in a quantitative, tokenistic, and insulting way.
But you know, things have changed since Marilyn’s sponge. The abuse and violence haven’t, but with the advent of social media, women are being able to voice their anger across the Internet, and to gain support, and kinship from other women, who have suffered similar pain.
Why am I angry too though? Why do I feel the fire of womanhood burn inside my heart? Why do I need feminism, and why do I care?
I never really knew my biological father well. I w0uldn’t recognise him if I saw him on the street. My mother brought me up as a single parent, and we were always so close. Mainly I think because of my disability, I depended on her for personal care. I was born in an incubator, and was lucky to survive the first few days of my life.
My father bought me with with toys and gifts, but as for any moral or indeed financial contribution to my upbringing, it was never forthcoming. I loved my mum. She was my role model and friend.
But things changed in 1989 when she met Mike. He was horrible to her and me. Two experiences stick in my mind. He emotionally abused me relentlessly, branding me useless, and a disappointment, and a vegetable. He would never do any personal care for me. On a Saturday, initially, mum had a job in a pub as a chef. If I needed anything in the way of personal care, I would have to wait until she got home. He also wanted me to toughen up and be a man. His behaviour to me and mum alone demonstrates that patriarchy is alive.
Two more experiences for you. My grandparents bought me a gift of my first motorised wheelchair, in order that I could get about and have more independence. However they bought me the newest model of this particular wheelchair, and the wheel was prone to falling off.
One night we had been to a barbecue with mum and his friends, and on the way home the wheel feel off. What would be the natural response? To offer help and assistance perhaps. No! Not that pathetic excuse of a human being. He got angry, yelled, screamed and shouted, flexed his patriarchal muscles and went home. Moreover, this meant my mother had to get me, plus this piece of heavy machinery home. She did it though I do not know how.
The second time that sticks in my mind was when Mum had to go to hospital and the scumbag refused to let me see her. He told me she wasn’t allowed visitors. When she got home, the one thing she told me was that she wanted to see me, and she was. She also had to give me a shower just after coming out of hospital, with an open surgical wound.
So firstly, I need feminism as a counterbalance to help dismantle male power structures in my mind that were drummed into me as a child. I need feminism to help me articulate my fears and feelings, as well as my oppression as a woman with a disability. I need women as friends for mutual support, love and kinship. Even as a trans woman, I need to help all women not to fear these power structures Mackinnon speaks of, or to farm the power out to men, but to take that power back for themselves, and to cradle it wholeheartedly, as if it were a newborn baby. The power of the collective female conscience is a wonderful thing.
Secondly I need feminism because it is a narrative for the oppressed and marginalised. I was marginalised and oppressed from birth as a person with a disability. People for the most part, can be selfish or uncaring and this shines through, and perhaps this is why I have an affinity with the female struggle, be that with such issues as rape, eating disorder s, or self injurous behaviour. Men experience these things too of course. But the first two are borne out of a search for perfection, a perfection which is idealistic, flawed and unattainable. Every woman is beautiful in her heart and soul.
Throughout my life, my friends have been women. I have grown up with them, lived with them and learned from them, hence the sponge metaphor at the top of the piece is appropriate. Feminism came for me long before transition, friendships with women came long before transition, and my studies of feminism were deep-rooted in me long before any gender transition. The thing is, I didn’t want to toughen up and be a man. It felt alien to me, and toughness just phallogocentric.
Now to address the elephant in the room. Rad Fem 2013 is a conference taking place in London, with amongst others, Julie Bindel, Cathy Brennan and Sheila Jeffreys.
In the trans community, they are renowned for thinking that trans women are men, for wanting an end to gender, and are in a continual quest to abolish patriarchy.
By contrast, the trans community label them TERF’s (Trans Excluding Radical Feminists) and counter protest at most venues they speak at, and organise autonomously at.
Now I have wrestled and wrestled with my conscience over whether this post would be written, for the thoughts I am about to express may seem like a revolution to some.
Radical feminism, at its core, is a narrative 0f pain, of trauma, and of hurt as a result of extreme violence and abuse in many cases. Furthermore, it is a narrative of damage, and damaged people. That’s why in this feminist school of thought there are no shades of grey, only black and white.
Beyond the rhetoric and name calling, the conference will discuss sexual violence and will allow women a safe space in which to share their stories. Don’t forget, abuse is very VERY isolating and lonely, and for all I know, RadFem2013 may be the only time these sisters will have the chance to make friends on their terms.
Autonomous organisation seems to have annoyed people. Women do have a right to organise freely. I am not saying that in terms of permission, I am stating it as fact. Trans people are however, being excluded from this conference.
However, if one is organising an event, one sets its parameters. Remember what I said earlier? Radical feminism is a narrative of pain, and women are coming together to share.
Being frank, the p*s is a male organ, and represents trauma and pain to many women. Perhaps they find trans people triggering, in the same way as they would find a man triggering, whilst at the same time having no particular beef with that person’s character?
I’ll be damn honest here. I find some straight men triggering. Due to the wheelchair, I am lower down than they are so am always looking up. Mike was tall too so this can be frightening.
I always protected my mother though, and hated it when he shouted and screamed at her, and at me.
We need feminism to allow space for such things to be aired. Another problem I think the radical feminists have around trans people is that they have entered their space, and taken on their identity, whereas they were born into that identity of struggle from time immemorial. In a way, I understand that grievance. It is hard to see identity changing around you, and to see people claiming an identity you thought was exclusively yours, then in come the trans people, snatch it away, and parade it around like a trophy, and never mind all the years of abuse and trauma you’ve suffered. I get that, truly. But I don’t want to erase you, nor reinforce patriarchy, nor am I interested in power. I have very little anyway, since I rely on others to accomplish most tasks of daily life. I do have personal power inside me though which ensures that I can guard against being subjugated again.
We also need feminism as a response to misogyny, as an angry response to “women being reduced to c*nt” as Kate Millett would have it. According to the charity Rape Crisis joint statistics from the Home Office, the Ministry of Justice and the Office for National Statistics reveal that 85,000 women are raped in England and Wales every year. Similarly, they show that over 400,000 women are sexually assaulted every year. Finally they show that 1 in 5 women, aged 16-59 has experienced some form of sexual violence.
These are sobering and cannot be ignored. For behind each number is a person, and behind each person, a life scarred. But hopefully through kinship, love and support scars can heal.
Frankly though, that’s why I am a feminist. I got sick of hearing stories over the years from women who’d been touched up in clubs, to having men saying, hmm lesbian,I bet I can turn you.
This was brought home to me vividly, when I started going to my local gay club. All the women there had stories, that is why they too are fragile and vulnerable sometimes. I can assure you though, I want to defend their interests. I want to stand shoulder to shoulder with them whilst respecting their boundaries. Women deserve respect for they are beautiful, kind, caring and compassionate. I don’t know where I’d be without my sisters. So thank you all of you.
So why do women need feminism? For support, for a bridge where once before there was a deep chasm. Why do I need feminism? It gives me a voice, in a male dominant culture. It speaks to me and for me. When I hear feminism expressed it speaks to me and for me.
Before I conclude let me say this. Many trans women suffer abuse too. But there is nothing to stop us opening our own autonomous discussions about that. Julie Bindel is a campaigner against domestic violence, which to me is a laudable occupation. Sheila Jeffreys Kate Millett lecture got me through insomnia last night. I also found this interesting having spent a long time studying feminist literary theory at uni.
I need feminism because it means I can live with pride, confidence and self esteem (recently discovered) in a world plagued by ableism. Most of all it enables me to stand with and for the people I love the most – women.
I wish RadFem 2013 the best of luck, and I hope it helps the women who attend. Meanwhile, I’ll do as Cathy Brennan suggested and be me.