The recent rise of social media and subsequent opening-up of feminist politics has intensified decades-long debates between factions in feminist and queer movements. Many of these new conversations turn around questions of identity and are hugely important, yet also often troubling. Contemporary feminism faces a false dichotomy: should we, those whose bodies are read and enforced as female, identify with or reject the gender imposed upon us? This question cuts to the very heart of how we, as feminists, define or understand what gender is. Taking a materialist understanding, I will be discussing gender as externally produced and inherently oppressive. This is at odds with a new turn in feminism, one that I am calling soft abolitionism, which considers gender to be partially self-produced and capable of providing a framework through which to reach liberation.
In order to negotiate possible paths out of this stalemate, I explore ways in which one could position oneself in the category ‘woman’ as a useful feminist tactic, while still maintaining a critical distance. I argue that gender is both a traversable, rhetorical form and – for now – a concrete, embodied reality. I am interested in moments where identification has been dealt with as a transitional state or enactment of class solidarity: moments of resistance where a bond is recognised through the attempt to transform circumstances which previously appeared as natural.
I begin by discussing soft abolitionism; a loose political position which supposes gender to be voluntary and infinitely flexible, and that one has the right to identify as anything, including nothing. Such a politics is often propagated online. C.E., a contributor to the Lies journal, provides a near definition of soft abolitionism in a critique of the founding of endless new ‘identities’ within ‘radical, queer’ circles. They claim that this re-positions the radical queer voice as a bourgeois subject, preoccupied with a liberal form of self-expression where the ‘interruption of norms becomes conflated with “resistance”’.
Soft-abolitionist discourse as a whole threatens a shift away from a revolutionary feminism. However, elements of its arguments are worth teasing out and incorporating into praxis. The concept of gender fluidity, though often ignoring the material strictures of gender, reconfigures traditional transgender narratives where binary gender is traversed but otherwise left intact. What can be usefully taken from this discourse is an acceptance of the feeling that neither ‘male’ nor ‘female’ prove wholly desirable spaces to inhabit.
Mina Loy’s poem ‘One O’Clock at Night’ (written between 1914 and 1920) provides a refreshing framework for exploring a porous ‘womanness’. The poem, I will argue, poignantly expresses that transience so crucial to a soft-abolitionist politics, but the speaker is also fixed, her body is conflicted between gender as experienced and as imposed.
Drawing on Loy’s very personal articulation of the experience of being a woman, I discuss an essay by Iris Marion Young. Here, the disempowerment of an individual female subject similar to Loy’s is weaponised as the foundation of a group subject-position. The oppression and subjection of all those gendered as women becomes a catalyst for shared resistance. I then discuss current feminist struggles, arguing that an injection of Young’s materialism into their praxis might provide a more nuanced and dialectical position, where the feminist subject is a member of an amorphous class which is both non-elective and traversable.
Since the emergence of cultural feminism in the mid-1970s, it seems that everyone is now at ease in adopting a ‘feminist’ lexicon; the liberal discourse surrounding Hillary Clinton’s failure to smash the ultimate ‘glass ceiling’ being a pertinent example. As the strength of feminism’s breakthrough with its second wave continues to wane, its effects are still percolating their way into popular attitudes and policy, and much has changed in the specificities of gendered oppression in the decades between. From the mid-1970s, materialist feminisms established an important praxis whereby the antagonism between men and women is positioned as one of class conflict. Since the second wave of feminism, there have been significant shifts in production and subsequent effects on gender roles and relations. Consequently, a model of gender based on orthodox Marxist conceptions of class conflict no longer easily maps onto most people’s experience.
Many have attempted to unearth the material basis of an experience of gender subject to recent vicissitudes of the market. A notable example of this is the Endnotes article, ‘The Logic of Gender’. Here, the productive (male) and reproductive (female) spheres of production are reconfigured as ‘directly and indirectly market mediated’, allowing room for the growing number of women in traditionally male jobs, and the general ‘feminisation’ of labour within a Western context. Yet still, a materialist approach which understands gender as subsumed to capital now forms a tiny current in an insurmountable tide of liberal feminism.
Since the late 1980s there has been a wealth of thought around the concept of gender ‘identity’, much of this filling the gaps where a materialist analysis of gender has been largely absent. This new discussion has attempted to de-centre previous feminist narratives (which have taken white, middle-class Western women as their universal subject) or to queer a narrative which fixes all bodies as either productive or reproductive. A legitimate criticism of contemporary Marxist feminism is that it has not done enough to deal with the multifarious divisions and oppressions which run through women as a class. A wholesale rejection of second-wave thought on these grounds, though – often in favour of a poststructuralist conception of gender-as-discourse – is deeply concerning. I argue that it can lead to a de-politicising of feminist struggles, as it no longer sees gender as necessarily violent, and favours individuated gender identities over generalised solidarity.
Soft abolitionism has its roots in queer theory of the 1990s – most notably Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble (1990). Kate Bornstein was one of the pioneers of the concept of ‘gender fluidity’, a key soft-abolitionist concept. She defines this in her book Gender Outlaw: On Men, Women, and the Rest of Us (1994) as ‘the ability to freely and knowingly become one or many of a limitless number of genders, for any length of time, at any rate of change’. This belief becomes practice in My Gender Workbook (1998) where she prompts her readers to think critically about their own gender through teen-magazine style quizzes and other exercises – such as, ‘write down a list of five of your identities’, instructing readers to make lists of ‘your identities’, or to draw pictures of oneself and ‘A Perfectly Gendered Person’ in order to make comparisons between the two. This self-interrogation, Bornstein hopes, will lead us to arrive at the conclusion that there is no monolithic ‘male’ or ‘female’, but, rather, as many expressions of gender as there are people.
One can easily see the link between exercises on gender fluidity in Bornstein’s Workbook – a text which aimed in part to offer support to young queers who felt they were dealing with the weight of gender alone – with online resources which provide a similar service today. Ask a Non-Binary is a blog where anonymous users send questions to the moderators who answer publicly. This is an example of a fairly typical conversation:
Anonymous: I feel both female and agender but sometimes neither at the same time? Any labels that come to mind with this?
Answer: demigirl/nanogirl maybe?
Another user asks, ‘[d]o you know if anyone else uses mae/mair pronouns? I feel like the only one…’ and is told by Danny, a moderator, that although they do not know of anyone else, ‘you can go ahead and be the only one using them though!’
Yay Pronouns!, on the other hand, works more like a forum dedicated to compiling lists of pronouns its readers and contributors may choose to adopt. Examples include ‘dra/drag/drago/dragoself’, ‘mer/mers/mermai/merself’ and ‘paw/paws/pawself’.
Something which is striking about both these websites, and certain currents of queer discourse in general, is an expressed desire to ‘identify’ as something other than human. This is overtly apparent in Yay Pronouns!’s lists, which are a direct import from ‘Otherkin’ – people who ‘identify as partially or entirely non-human’, but also evident in, for example, the adoption of the unicorn as a symbol of queer resistance. The desire to distance oneself from a species which only accepts those who conform to its narrow (gendered) codes is understandable. However, a fantastical armour as means of survival must also be coupled with the struggle for a more tolerable model of humanity.
Such a retreat functions as a response to a violent process of othering. Those who cannot easily be recognised as properly gendered subjects become abject. Bodies which cannot easily be slotted into a totalising regime of gender are not afforded the ability to create space elsewhere. ‘Our pronouns are “oil slick” & “meat” and “that blessed cavity” & a switch to the world’, says Verity Spott in their poem ‘Pronoun Manifesto’. Spott’s identification with that which evades human categorisation-through-gender expresses a similar desire to the users of Yay Pronouns! Yet where soft abolitionism often encourages alignment with the cute and fantastical, Spott demonstrates a desire for abjection. They recognise that a subject who cannot easily be gendered is already aligned with waste and death, and that a perverse pocket of resistance can be found when these links are strengthened.
In a reading and discussion of their Trans* Manifestos at Somerset House, Spott referred to the ‘resistant queer subject’. Resistance here comes through a rendering of oneself as ‘unreadable’ or ‘illegible’. In their Trans* Manifesto Spott says, ‘[s]ymbolic violence is permanent, the entire artifice of the liberal’ – and nowhere is this enacted more effectively than through language and naming. As such, a ‘resistant queer subject’ is one who does as much as one can to refuse liberal subjectivity: to work against ‘symbolic violence’ through ‘enacting a new regime of symbols by means of opacity’. Attempts to broaden gender through, for example, the adoption of ‘otherkin’-inspired non-human pronouns or the fight for legal recognition of a third gender aim to locate within such a register a place of comfort or ‘homecoming’. Engagement with abjection, such as through the use of the pronoun ‘it’ which is favoured by some, cannot exempt anyone from subjection to this register, but can symbolically refuse its language as total.
Spott’s manifestos act as screeds against both ‘symbolic violence’ and those who think that the symbolic is all that must be destroyed, that it is not a shield for something more tangible. In ‘Pronoun Manifesto’ they denounce ‘people in pockets of anxiously-rehearsed resistance networks’ who say ‘that the language need[s] to be mended’. Where soft abolitionism attempts to explode the diagnostic language of gender, Spott realises that the ‘mending of pronouns, or the attempt to meld them closer to our bodies is impossible, it actually just pushes us tighter into the violence of language’.
While soft abolitionism does not always take flight towards the fantastical, it does usually promise endless possibility; these possibilities begin with language, or at least being reinforced by it. Jacqueline Rose talks about her experience at a ‘Binary Defiance Workshop’. Here she felt that some participants expressed the belief that ‘one of the greatest pleasures of falling outside the norm is the freedom to pile category upon category’ and consequently created ‘interminable lists’ of possible gender identities. This list-making practice has been adopted by Facebook which, in 2014, along with ‘Network of Support, a group of leading LGBT advocacy organizations’, created ‘an extensive list of gender identities that many people use to describe themselves’. A year later, this was considered to be, perhaps, too diagnostic. The solution was to introduce a system of self-diagnosis: they now ‘include a free-form field’ so that ‘if you do not identify with the pre-populated list of gender identities, you are able to add your own’. This step is a huge victory for proponents of the ‘language needs to be mended’ school, but in practice does little more than fold the ‘resistant queer subject’ back into a lexicon of gender diagnosis, even if it is a self-determined one.
The belief that there are as many genders as there are Facebook users signals a confusion as to how gender functions. This confusion is apparent across soft abolitionism, from Bornstein onwards. Bornstein’s definition of gender takes an ostensibly materialist starting-point – ‘Gender means class’, she says. Where a Marxist feminism would recognise women as a class and seek the abolition of gendered difference, Bornstein’s soft abolitionism aims to find liberation within a class system: ‘Gender identity answers another question: “to which gender (class) do I want to belong?”’.
Bornstein’s faith in total fluidity echoes common but mistaken readings of Gender Trouble. Judith Butler herself has defined this ‘bad’ reading as:
I can get up in the morning, look in my closet and decide what gender I want to be today … I can change it again and again and be something radically other, so that what you get is something like the commodification of gender and the understanding of taking on a gender as a kind of consumerism.
Butler’s argument that gender is embodied and ossified via a series of repeated performances has been misinterpreted as evidence that gender performance is a conscious and easily-changeable one. A generous interpretation of this might be to consider it as an optimistic jumping-ahead; a feminism which pioneers post-gender subjecthood before gender has been dismantled. To be less generous, one might say that this feminism is a liberal or non-revolutionary one, a shift away from a politics based in class-struggle and abolitionism, and towards one of individual, subjective empowerment from behind new categories. It is a soft abolitionism in that it assumes that gender can be done away with if we wish it hard enough, or that a discursive eschewal of gender necessitates its material destruction.
Gender Class: Who Belongs?
As I have argued above, while a conception of gender rooted entirely in a poststructuralist epistemology may be attractive, a complete break from a materialist understanding of the function of gender is dangerous. Stephen Whittle epitomises these dangers. ‘Sex and gender no longer appear as stable external categories’, he announces, claiming they have been done away with through ‘the postmodern process of deconstruction, in which modernity and its values, including gender, have been stripped away’. While sex and gender have never been stable categories and their cultural implications are constantly shifting, his assertion is simply not true. In fact it is negligent: to imply that gender has been successfully ‘stripped away’ is to claim that people are no longer oppressed by systems of gender, that transgender people are not more likely to be murdered than their cis counterparts and that non-binary people do not have to go through life being misgendered.
One could easily use Butler’s claim as justification to slip into the lazy essentialism and transphobia of (for example) the journalist Melanie McDonagh, who is outraged by ‘the notion that you can simply put on a gender the way you change your contact lenses’. She panics that the supposed ease by which one can ‘change gender’ is ‘symptomatic of a worrying indifference to a basic question of what makes us ourselves’. It is important though to explore what lies between these two assertions. McDonagh is terrified by the fragility of gender and the prospect of its destabilisation. Butler is all in favour of such destabilisation, but warns against the premature hailing of the end of gender, which quickly seeps into ‘a kind of consumerism’.
‘One main reason to conceptualize women as a collective’, argues Iris Marion Young, ‘is to maintain a view outside liberal individualism’. She picks up on the concern that a soft-abolitionist approach can make it harder to ‘conceptualize oppression as a systematic, structured, institutionalised process’, often framing individual perpetrators as the source of trauma, rather than as enactors of structural violence. Jacqueline Rose also finds problems in Whittle’s analysis:
Stephen Whittle lists as one of the new possibilities for trans people opened up by critical thought the right to claim a ‘unique position of suffering’. But, as with all political movements, and especially [those] grounded in identity politics, there is always the danger that suffering will become competitive, a prize possession and goal in itself.
Positions which take an individuated experience of suffering as their starting-point and search for localised solutions are often attacked but less frequently critiqued. ‘Special snowflake’ has become a slur for those who publicly suffer under and seek to resist a binary system, but this hateful rhetoric is devoid of an analysis of the systemic nature of gender oppression we often experience as suffering inherent to enforced gender individually.
In order to effectively critique these ‘unique position[s] of suffering’ we must first recognise that within a capitalist mode of production where all relations manifest themselves as relations of exchange, to relate to one’s gender as ‘a kind of consumerism’ is understandable, even necessary. Therefore, as liberal subjects we all consider our gender performances as important components of self-expression. It would be unfair, then, to condemn only those whose performances are the most incongruous (and thus often suffer most) for this. The danger here, to echo Rose and C.E., is that a new social capital begins to emerge based on the ability to articulate one’s own suffering. An attempt to alleviate this suffering is often made through the search for a space of personal solace, not through outward engagement with its causes.
Amid often-reductive calls for individuated gender identities, C.E. proposes an alternative which seems to offer the promise of a radical unity. They suggest the re-drawing of binary boundaries as ‘men’ and ‘non-men’. This would position the gender relation squarely as one of domination and subjection: ‘men’ are all those who enjoy gendered privilege while ‘non-men’ are all those who do not. This approach has the potential to encompass both social-constructionist and materialist understandings of gender; the bipartite class structure remains, but the increasingly redundant essentialism governing who is admitted into either class is rejected. In many respects, a delineation of gender which positions men against a united-yet-miscellaneous ‘other’ is useful – particularly in its inclusion of trans and non-binary subjects or those who are so often left out of classic materialist theory. We should be wary, though, of a discourse which completely breaks with women and men as antagonists.
A more dialectical standpoint which deals with some of the same concerns is that of Monique Wittig. Wittig considers herself a lesbian and not a woman, yet still finds the label ‘feminist’ – someone who by her definition ‘fights for women … and for the disappearance of this class’ – a useful one. This, she says, is in order to ‘affirm that our movement had a history and to emphasise the political link with the old movement’. Today, not enough is done to maintain this ‘link’. As a lesbian, she engineered a life away from enforced heterosexuality and was able to exist outside of a subjecthood shaped in relation to men. On the other hand, she was aware that even in the conscious opting-out from heterosexual society, choice may be illusory. ‘They are seen as women, therefore they are women’ she says, a recognition of the power of external definition.
A feminist politics which is based around the principle of identification falls short, as identification is only a tiny part of what gender is. When asked ‘do you identify as a woman?’ in an interview, writer and trans activist Shon Faye responded
Maybe. I mean I prefer I am a woman [emphasis mine]. I suppose you do identify as such at first but for the past year and a half the entire world around me has treated me as a woman – a trans woman specifically – but a woman nonetheless.
Much like Wittig, Faye asserts that to be gendered is a process which occurs externally. Earlier in the interview she answers the question, ‘do you identify as queer?’ (the first in a series of questions by her bemused interviewer) by saying ‘queer is not an identity, it is a process or idea which destabilises identity categories… That’s not identification, that’s the mere fact of my existence and what it means’. We see something of the ‘resistant queer subject’ here: identity is understood as the result of material reality upon the subject, but this identity is one which troubles a rigid binary. This is emphasised in Faye’s answer to the next question – ‘Do you identify as trans?’:
No – trans isn’t an identification, it is a description of my state and material reality in this world… it’s a shorthand to state the history of my life. I am required to state it in this society – in my ideal society trans would not exist, nor would it be important. I do not identify as trans, I am marked out as trans – it’s not my agency at play.
What Wittig and Faye teach us, then, is that identity is more often something etched onto us, rather than something we ourselves have the agency to adopt, mould or reject. Someone, for example, may not consider themselves a woman for any number of reasons, but nevertheless are violently pushed into that category whenever they are read as one. This is why Wittig continues to place herself within a genealogy of women’s struggle despite not directly relating to this herself.
A politics of identity often demands that its borders be policed, and reconfigures subjection as intentional, even desired. A more revolutionary position would be a politics of experience, something like Faye’s insistence that she is – as opposed to identifies as – a woman. Here, identification is understood as premised on the questions ‘do I experience?’ or ‘am I experienced as?’ As such, identification is a material ontological position based on the effects of the social on the body which are themselves constantly in flux. Where a soft-abolitionist position holds that identification must be positive and relate to some internal truth, a politics of experience recognises that to be ‘identified as’ might well be a violent break from an understanding of oneself. As Faye tells us, ‘in my ideal society there would be no trans’, yet still she is ‘marked out’ as such.
‘One O’Clock at Night’ and the Politics of Gender Experience
Mina Loy’s poem ‘One O’Clock at Night’ – the first of ‘Three Moments in Paris’ – articulates an oppressive yet porous experience of ‘womanness’ which prefigures second-wave feminist theory, ‘identity politics’ and the soft-abolitionist trend. Like Wittig, Loy discusses the possibilities of simultaneous identification and rejection, but importantly does this independently of any large feminist movement or theory.
‘One O’Clock at Night’ is narrated by a woman, late at night, in a Parisian café. At the beginning, the speaker wakes up after dozing on her male partner’s shoulder, finding him deep in intellectual debate with a friend, also a man. ‘I was understanding nothing / Sleepily’, she says. This sleepiness and lack of cognition marks her out as female – while asleep she has understood ‘nothing of man’ and was ‘[i]ndifferent to cerebral gymnastics’. However, her inert femininity is a transitory state. After a ‘beautiful half-hour of being a mere woman’ she is awake again, and catches ‘the thread of the argument / Immediately assuming [her] personal mental attitude’. Now, she says, she has ‘ceased to be a woman’. Her partner, paternalistic and apparently unaware that she is now contributing to the conversation, ends the poem by saying ‘[l]et us go home she is tired and wants to go to bed’. The speaker is silent.
Loy’s poem is saturated with irony but does not initially strike the reader as a feminist text. Its speaker seems to agree with her partner that women are childlike and weak, both physically (not being able to keep herself awake) and intellectually (only able to engage on the level of men when she transcends her female mind). Even though she is robbed of an externalised voice, the speaker is presented as complicit: ‘[a]nyhow who am I that I should criticize your theories of plastic velocity’? she asks, exonerating the man who has interrupted her.
Throughout the second wave of feminism, radical and Marxist feminists were often decrying the other for taking an ‘anti-woman line’: the idea that women – under the spell of false-consciousness – are duped into submission to patriarchy. Certainly, much second-wave (and current!) feminism does conceptualise women – particularly sex workers, women in abusive relationships, stay-at-home mothers and so on – as defenceless victims who do not have the strength, intelligence or resources to improve their lot. But it is dangerous to begin conflating those who feel that women are complicit in their own oppression with those who claim that the experience of being a woman – an experience enforced through violence and subjugation – may be at times unpleasant. Surely, if our aim is an abolitionist one, the latter assertion should be at the very heart of our feminist praxis!
The Radical Women was a socialist feminist organisation, one of the largest active in the US (and globally) throughout the 1960s. They, like many groups at the time, were tarred with the label ‘anti-woman’. Clearly, this accusation is not unfounded: they ask in their manifesto, ‘when will we ever stop loving our masters and joining our enemies?’ This undeniably assumes women a position of culpability in their place as victims of patriarchy. However, just a few pages after posing this despairing question they charge Shulamith Firestone and The Redstockings (their prime accuser/s) of being ‘anti-woman’ themselves. In this case, it is due to their essentialist basis. ‘Radical feminists decree, contrary to Engels, that women’s oppression was an inevitable result of what they describe as our physical inferiority’, they say, going on to claim that Firestone parrots ‘Freud’s spurious “biology is destiny” dictum’: that woman’s subjugation is tied up in the expectation that she must reproduce. In fact this is a misreading of Firestone, who has a materialist conception of woman-as-class, and even uses Engels to foreground her argument. In her first chapter, she asserts that her whole project is to develop Engels’s ‘beautiful’ but ‘strictly economic interpretation’ of ‘the oppression of women’ through historical materialism.
What this perhaps needless mud-slinging signals, though, is just how contentious it can be to argue that living within the class ‘woman’ is something inherently negative. Wittig laments that ‘[h]aving stood up to fight for a sexless society, we now find ourselves trapped in the familiar deadlock of “woman is wonderful”’. Her concern is a legitimate one; Alice Echols argues that the stabilisation and enshrinement of ‘positive’ ‘female’ characteristics de-radicalised the feminist movement, and replaced it with a palatable yet ineffectual cultural feminism. While it may be fair to read Loy’s expression of femininity in ‘One O’Clock at Night’ as truly ‘anti-woman’, in mocking essentialism – a major part of the ‘New Woman’ feminism of her time – she does a lot to defend against the ‘woman is wonderful’ discourse which so easily retreats into a reformist or ‘equal but different’ feminism.
Typical feminist essentialist arguments place women as naturally superior to men. Mary Daly provides an extensive catalogue of ‘essential womanhood’ which morphs into transphobia where Valerie Solanas, in a rhetorical attack on male supremacy founded upon essentialism, argues that it is women who are in fact the stronger sex. More like Firestone than Daly and Solanas, Loy presents an essential femininity which is disempowering and debilitating. However, while Firestone locates the reproductive system as the locus of female oppression and seeks a technological remedy, Loy’s essentialism is fully behavioural. Her female-bodied speaker ‘ceased to be a woman’ without needing to shape-shift, but her sleepy stupidity genders her.
In ‘The Ineffectual Marriage or The Insipid Narrative of Gina and Miovanni’, a poem written around the same time, Loy mocks early twentieth-century bourgeois marriage and its requisite ‘separate spheres’ essentialised gender. Here, Miovanni is ‘magnificently a man’: pompous, grandiose and preoccupied with producing material output, while Gina, ‘insignificantly a woman’, enables him through unnoticed emotional labour: ‘To man his work / To woman her love’. ‘One O’Clock at Night’ is much subtler, but also displays a tongue-in-cheek examination of gender performance.
Are we not really meant to believe that the poem’s speaker understands herself as a ‘mere woman’, ‘understanding nothing of man / But mastery’? This begs the question as to what extent we are being made privy to her inner identity-crisis, and to what extent is she articulating the two men’s reception of her, an ‘intelligent woman’. Is Loy making a claim similar to Faye’s – that gender is not for the performer to decide, but rather her audience? She is not so much externalising her speaker’s internalised misogyny (or ‘anti-woman’ feminism) as exposing the misogyny of the ‘progressive’ men in her circle. While the woman is mute and vulnerable they are happy to read her as female, but can only accept her intellectual contribution when re-configuring her as something more like them.
In regard to the female subject of gender, essentialism is always behavioural. Interestingly, this is not the same for the male characters. When discussing the men, Loy employs a traditional, physiological essentialism. The speaker’s partner is gendered by his ‘indisputable male voice’, while his friend or ‘brother pugilist of the intellect’ has a voice which is ‘only less male’. There is a gradation of gender: the first man to speak is ‘indisputably’ male, the second ‘less male’ and the woman in a fluid state. Gender is destabilised as a fixed quantity. Its bounds are porous, and mocked as such, but they are rigid, oppressive and tangible nonetheless.
In the poem the male gaze provides a yardstick by which to measure ‘womanness’; gender is constructed in relation to. The poem begins, ‘[t]hough you had never possessed me / I had belonged to you since the beginning of time’. In Marxist ontology, ‘the beginning of time’ – or history – is the birth of capital and inception of woman (and man) as class. Loy’s opening line grounds woman as always-already ‘belonging’ to man, the female ‘I’ set up against, or in tessellation with, a pre-existing male ‘you’. This image is presented very literally, as the poem begins Loy’s speaker (currently identified as female) is being propped up by her partner (‘Leaning against your shoulder / And your careless arm across my back’). By the time she has ‘ceased to be a woman’ she has become disentangled from him, drawing physical boundaries between her body and the external herself.
'One O’Clock at Night’ expresses a private experience of ‘womanness’, witnessed only by men. This is fitting, as so much of the performance of femininity takes place in total isolation from other women. To build a sense of solidarity within a class which has been constructed through the performance of private acts – be that home-based domestic work or sexual relations with men – is a hard task. ‘Class cannot be thought of in liberal terms as merely the collective name for a group of individuals defined according to a static, economistic set of criteria’, says Judith Grant, but rather according ‘to a set of interests, and in the incentive to transform society in a certain direction’. Our task now is to excavate these shared interests while refraining from homogenising those gendered as women.
Soft abolitionism assumes that the individual can permanently sever themselves from the confines of gender, optimistically ignoring the constitutive outside which compels the subject to remain gendered. Loy’s reflection of gender as rigid-yet-unstable serves as a useful challenge to this viewpoint. On one hand, the speaker has ‘ceased to be a woman’; if she does not feel like or identify as a woman, then she is not one. On the other hand, however, she is held in place by the conditions which form her: she is treated as a woman by the men who infantilise her. This complicated hinterland state might be a useful starting-point to pose an alternative to the over-identification versus total rejection dichotomy. In the poem, gender is inescapable but not irrevocably binding.
Woman as ‘Group’
Iris Marion Young offers something which could be useful in the establishment of a praxis echoing Loy’s model of porous femininity. Extrapolating from Jean-Paul Sartre’s theory of seriality, Young places her feminist subject in the category ‘woman’, but makes this a transitional necessity as a means of rendering this category obsolete. By bringing this theory into dialogue with the current moment of feminist crisis, I hope to offer a tool for bridge-building between hostile viewpoints.
Sartre’s ‘phenomenon of serial collectivity’ forms part of his Critique of Dialectical Reason (two volumes, 1960 and 1985) and divides subjects sharing common experiences into the categories ‘series’ and ‘group’. A series is a ‘less organised and unselfconscious collective unity’ which is ‘passive’ inasmuch as it is formed ‘via material effects of actions of others’. Sartre gives the example of people waiting for a bus together. They find themselves in a shared position: they need to get on a particular bus, and possibly share frustration at its lateness, but are generally isolated from one another. They do not necessarily share needs, desires or a broader life-experience.
A group is born out of a series, but forms (as) ‘a self-consciously, mutually acknowledging collective with a self-conscious collective unity’ within it. If the frustrated would-be bus passengers chose to band together to protest against their bus’s lateness, they would be transformed from subjects-in-series to members of a group.
Young maps this theory onto women and problems of identity within feminism. She finds that it enables those gendered as women to establish ourselves as a group or groups, but also ‘allows us to see women as a collective without … implying that all women have a common identity’. Traditional ‘identity politics’ often become ossified and rigid; the proliferation of ever-finer gradations of identity, with heavily policed boundaries, is commonplace. In the series/group model though, there remains space for internal identities to remain amorphous and varied. ‘Women’, states Young, ‘is the name of a structural relation to material objects as they have been produced and organised by prior history’. This is both a description of a series – something constituted via material relations to ‘practico-inert’ objects (such as the sexed body, around which reality is structured) – and a textbook materialist conception of gender, citing these ‘practico-inert’ forces as ‘structural relations of enforced heterosexuality and the sexual division of labour’.
‘Members of a series experience themselves as powerless to alter [their] material milieu’, says Sartre. In other words, a series, in its ‘collective otherness’, often relates to constraints put upon it as ‘given or natural’. In a plausible explanation of ‘anti-woman’ politics, Young suggests that this is why many women blame themselves or each other for gender-based oppression, or vie for depleting services, rather than joining together to demand sufficient provision for all.
A prime example of a ‘group’, i.e. those who recognise and organise around their ‘collective otherness’, is Sisters Uncut – a ‘feminist direct-action collective’ currently campaigning around cuts to state-provided services for survivors of domestic violence. Their actions include the occupation of spaces synonymous with the oppression of women (including the visitor’s centre of the now-abandoned Holloway Prison) and using them to hold workshops and skillshares. They are also active supporters of campaigns to close Yarl’s Wood Detention Centre, which currently imprisons 410 women and children who are awaiting asylum decisions or deportation.
Sisters’ praxis is based in a politics of experience, fighting for those who have been ‘marked out’ or oppressed as women, rather than a narrow politics of identity recognising only those for whom the status ‘woman’ resonates as a deep internal truth. Indeed, they state in their ‘gender inclusion policy’:
Our meetings should be inclusive and supportive spaces for all women (trans, intersex and cis), all those who experience oppression as women (including non-binary and gender non-conforming people) and all those who identify as women for the purpose of political organising. Self-definition is at the sole discretion of that sister.
Their lumping-together of ‘trans, intersex and cis’ women with ‘non-binary and gender non-conforming people’ under a label which is explicitly gendered female has been understandably condemned by some. However, it is only from under such an umbrella that a ‘group’ can form. Perhaps in the title ‘Sister’ we move towards C.E.’s favoured men and ‘non-men’; what ‘non-men’ or Sisters share is not that they identify as women necessarily, but rather that they ‘have experienced oppression’ as such. In other words, those who have been identified as or been placed in series with women. To adopt the label ‘woman’ ‘for the purpose of political organising’ is not at all the same as to adopt it in general; here, it becomes a question of solidarity rather than identification.
Sisters Uncut still have some way to go, though, before they can be considered a blueprint for the ‘group’ model. The organisation came under fire for expressing hostility towards Morgan Potts, a trans man, in a meeting, apparently on the basis that he did not identify as a woman for ‘the purpose of political organising’, or any other. This is at odds with their own policy which clearly states that a member must either have ‘experienced oppression as [a] wom[a]n’ – which someone assigned female at birth surely has – or ‘identify as [a] wom[a]n for the purpose of political organising’. The decision to exclude Potts also undermines the notion of a political ‘group’. If you locate unity in ‘collective otherness’ it should follow that members are able to have entirely different experiences and understandings of the common predicament, but that predicament can still remain common.
The incident points to a shift in (but not loosening of) border-policing within ‘progressive’ separatist movements. Potts’s exclusion is reminiscent of the internal policing often endemic to separatist groups. A well-documented example is that of Sandy Stone, an artist and trans woman, who was denied entry into a woman-only music co-op in the late 1970s on the grounds that she was not a ‘real woman’. The exclusion of trans women from feminist spaces is still common practice, but the (mis)understanding of gender resulting in Potts’s exclusion from Sisters Uncut functions quite differently. Rather than rejecting trans women with the claim that they still have access to male privilege, the Sisters present at the meeting were effectively accusing Potts of having jumped ship.
Despite this poor execution of a sound gender-inclusion policy, Sisters Uncut demonstrate the need for the transformation of women from passive ‘series’ to diverse ‘group’. Their activism serves as a thread to hold together the oppressions and demands of a huge range of people, united in their experience of oppression as women. But even this plays out differently dependent on social class, immigration status, age, sexuality, whether or not a woman is a mother, or incarcerated, and so on.
Perhaps Sisters Uncut too could be deemed ‘anti-woman’ – its working understanding of ‘woman’ is synonymous with oppression. It is exactly this position which aligns its praxis with Young’s application of Sartre: Sisters forge a collective subject-position not directly through identification, but rather solidarity. Where soft abolitionism implies a kind of voluntarism, an understanding of gender centred around a shared material predicament leaves space for both individuality and collective struggle.
Solidarity is a claim or promise which is often well-intended but empty (what does stating our ‘solidarity’ with cause x really mean?). But when meaningful support or material assistance is offered, symbolic anger and well-wishing become something transformative and politically useful. When expressed by those drawn together through ‘practico-inert objects’, ‘we’re all in this together’ stops being a nauseating justification for the foreclosure of duty, and becomes something empowering and true. When we experience street harassment or feel particularly beholden to perform within particular codes, the constitutive outside crystallises within the individual; our commonality is inescapable. Equally, in moments of collective joy or rage we may choose to strongly identify as women. Where the various theories on positionality we might call ‘identity politics’ often imply a closing of ranks, to conceive of oneself as a group member does not necessarily require a consistent or undying loyalty.
What I have attempted here is to argue is that ‘woman’ as a political identity is a temporal and fluid one, but that the experience of being gendered is not elective. I have discussed some dangers of a soft abolitionism which holds that liberation lies within an amended system of gender, one which makes space for individuation or aims to ‘mend’ language to create infinite sub-categories. Instead, the gender framework that we already exist within must be weaponised to bring about its own destruction. Communism calls for the organisation of the working class into a self-determined group in order to bring about the end of a capitalist, classed society. A useful feminism, then, is one which recognises those ‘who experience oppression as women’ as a class that must struggle together in order to abolish that oppression.
This is no easy task. A major reason that class struggle in any context so often fails is that no group shares total commonality; without a binding agent they are merely ‘in series’. Woman, like any class, is shot through with stratification. However, the woman-as-group model provides a starting-point for conceptualising a radical unity from which abolition from within could be possible.
In ‘One O’Clock at Night’, the speaker recounts the period immediately before we enter the poem as a ‘[b]eautiful half-hour of being a mere woman’. As ever, there are many layers of irony underpinning this line, but to describe the state of being ‘mere’ woman as ‘beautiful’ is certainly jarring. This discordance might appear as the expression of an identity crisis, but it also encapsulates something of the complex modes of identification I have hoped to convey. We are being shown a woman stifled by the gender imposed upon her, yet she still experiences some satisfaction within it. Perhaps that ‘half-hour’ is ‘beautiful’ precisely because she knows it will soon be up.
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