“Those radfems and their essentialist nonsense.” – Various, numerous transgenderists.
The first time I heard this, I was puzzled because, well, radical feminists aren’t essentialists. The entire position of radical feminism is based on an analysis of the ways in which society, and the structures and systems in it, create and perpetuate gender roles and the oppression of women. It’s almost the definition of anti-essentialism because it identifies people, not biology, as the creators of differences between men and women. Radical feminists are the archetypal social constructivists.
When I originally came across the claim that radical feminists were essentialists, I thought it was a mistake, and so I explained it to the person who said it. But then I heard it again. And again. And again.
Feminists and trans theorists alike know “essentialism” to be a bad word. It has heavy ties to biotruths and evolutionary psych explanations for why women have big breasts (for men) and why it’s totally reasonable for men to be into 13 year old girls. There is a long, painful history tied into women’s oppression based on their assumed physical and neurological (emotional, intellectual, moral) inferiority to men.
And yet, for some reason, transgenderists keep on calling radfems essentialists. It almost seems as if the word “essentialism” is redefined when spoken about by and in relation to trans people. For example, take a look at what GeekFeminism has to say about essentialism:
“The concept of Essentialism states that there are innate, essential differences between men and women. That is, we are born with certain traits. This is often used as an explanation for why there are so few women in science and technology. It is also used as a rationale for pigeonholing, offering limited education, hiring discrimination, etc. It is also sometimes raised (including by women) under the guise of Equal but different. … In recent times, advocates of Sociobiology and Evolutionary psychology often claim evolved genetic differences between the brains of men and women as the source of behavioral differences in society.”
Waving their ladysticks and shouting “ABRACACISSEXIST!,” the definition magically morphs into this when transgenderism enters the picture:
“Often, essentialism supports and is supported by transphobia, as essentialists claim that a person’s sex is the sex they were coercively assigned at birth (often mischaracterizing this sociological sex assignment as “biological”).”
When trans theorists pop up, the definition of essentialism changes from a belief about “innate, essential differences between men and women” into “biological sex matters.” If you think that trick is impressive, you should see what they’ve done to the word “woman.”
“But wait,” you say. “Innate? Genetic? Biology? Born with? That sounds a lot like …”
Trans peoples’ arguments for why they’re really the gender they declare themselves to be, their bodily characteristics and socialization as children to the contrary?
Yep, you got it.
Trans theory is pretty hard to explain, which is why they rarely do so and instead shut people down with “Transphobia!” when their questions get too close to the center.
Trans theorists firmly believe that men and women are different. There is a “female gender identity” and a “male gender identity,” and these identities are innate and qualitatively different, more different than the difference between brown and blonde hair, more different than the difference between a Boston and a Brooklyn accent (tumblr 2013 prediction: transdialect). Trans theorists search hard for scientific evidence that supports brain sex theory, the idea that there are “male brains” and “female brains.” There is little evidence, but it’s not for a lack of trying. Since the time of Aristotle, scientists have been trying to prove that men and women are really different. First, to justify assumptions about women’s mental and intellectual inferiority, now in a general pursuit of knowledge (but also the same assumptions).
This trans and patriarchy asserted belief, that men and women are innately, biologically different, cannot be reconciled with the feminist position that this idea comes from sexism. The response, then, is to distance themselves from any examination of this conflict, decrying those who ask questions as transphobic and redefining words like “essentialism” to be used against those who embody the antithesis of the real meaning (and whose position is therefore the antithesis of theirs).
“Essentialism” comes to mean “biological sex is important,” with the negative connotation of the term retained. Genderists and anti-feminists alike work hard to deny and invisibilize sex-based oppression. The only difference is that anti-feminist men declare that the oppression doesn’t exist, while the trans males declare that discussion of the oppression is offensive because it does not include them.
Let us make something clear, here:
If you believe that men and women are inherently different, you are an essentialist. If you believe that there is an innate “male identity” and an innate “female identity” and that these are qualitatively different, you are an essentialist.
“Sex is relevant” is not essentialism: it’s reality. It is the recognition that people are divided on the basis of their genitalia, not a 20 question identity survey given to them at birth. It is the recognition that women are oppressed not because of an innate “gender identity” but because they are a part of the impregnatable, fuckable and therefore dominatable female sex class. It’s the recognition that infant females are positioned in society as “girls,” a socially influenced, socially consequential class (GENDER) on the basis of their sex-based categorization.
“Sex is relevant” is not essentialism: it’s reality.
“One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.” – Simone de Beauvoir.