6p. 125 Contextualizing Gender
- Laura Erickson-Schroth
- and Benjamin Davis
What are the different “waves” of feminism and how are they distinguished?
In March 1968, The New York Times Magazine published an article by Martha Weinman Lear titled, “The Second Feminist Wave,” exploring the activities of women’s groups such as the newly founded National Organization for Women. Lear’s article may have been the first to introduce to the public the idea of feminist “waves.”
Today, we talk about the three (or four, or five, depending on who you ask) waves of feminism, for the most part accepting them as fact. The first wave is usually described as lasting from the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848 until women’s suffrage in 1920; the second, as the 1960s and 1970s; and the third, as beginning in the 1980s or 1990s and lasting until today, or perhaps making way for a fourth or even fifth feminist movement in the last decade or two.
The impetus to divide history into discrete periods is understandable. It helps us to break down complicated events into more digestible chunks. However, it can also be limiting, preventing us from seeing the whole picture. The concept of a “wave” suggests that most of the work of that period took place within a discrete interval. The first wave of feminism, for example, is said to have ended in 1920, and the second wave to p. 126↵have begun in the 1960s. Does that mean that women were not organizing to improve their lives for the 40 years in between?
The term wave also suggests that a group of people is working in concert with each other and in agreement about what they are fighting for and how the fight should occur. However, when we look back on feminist movements or consider feminist work being done today, it is clear that conflicts about goals and approaches have always been and continue to play a fundamental role. In addition, movements do not grow in isolation—the first wave of feminism coincided with abolitionist causes, and the second wave, with the Civil Rights movement. Each influenced and interconnected with the other.
The year 1848 is thought of as the official beginning of the first wave of feminism in the United States because it is when the Seneca Falls Convention occurred. In the traditional story about the origins of Seneca Falls, the young abolitionist Elizabeth Cady Stanton was so devoted to ending slavery that she chose to spend her honeymoon at the World Anti-Slavery Convention in London. According to legend, she was not yet fully aware of her own subjugation as a woman until, arriving at the convention, she and other women were told that they could not participate and would have to sit in a cordoned-off section in the back without speaking. As the story goes, this is where Stanton met Lucretia Mott, and the two decided that something had to be done about women’s rights, leading to plans for Seneca Falls, the first ever American women’s rights convention.
While there is truth to this story, it is also somewhat mythologized. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott did meet at the World Anti-Slavery Convention. However, that convention occurred eight years prior to Seneca Falls, in 1840, and there was no direct link between the two events. In fact, Stanton gave birth to her first of seven children in 1842 and spent much of her time in the years between the two conventions preoccupied with the task of raising her children and not planning for Seneca Falls.
p. 127↵Additionally, the World Anti-Slavery Convention was in no way the first time Stanton or Mott had been faced with the idea that women were treated unfairly. Living their daily lives, they encountered sexism all around them, and they were both aware of work being done by other women related to women’s rights. In 1819, Emma Willard had presented her “Plan for Improving Female Education” to the New York Legislature. In 1828, Sojourner Truth, having escaped from slavery, sued her former master for custody of her son and won the case. In the 1830s, the abolitionist Grimke sisters traveled the country speaking to mixed-gender audiences, flying in the face of what was considered proper for women at the time.
There are many myths surrounding the Seneca Falls Convention itself, the most important of which is that it was organized around the push for women’s suffrage. The focus of the Convention was the creation of a Declaration of Sentiments, based on the Declaration of Independence, arguing that “all men and women are created equal.” The declaration included language on topics such as marriage and divorce, property rights (married women at the time could not own property), and employment (many careers were closed to women). It was considered radical when Stanton introduced a resolution stating that women should have the right to vote. In fact, Mott and many others opposed the idea. Although we are taught in school that the abolition and women’s suffrage movements were separate, fascinatingly, it was the ardent feminist Frederick Douglass, the only Black person present at the convention, who stood up and addressed the crowd on the topic of suffrage, arguing that without the vote for women, the country would miss out on “one half of the moral and intellectual power” of the world.
The connections between abolition and women’s suffrage would become even more evident later in the 19th century, as the Civil War approached. Women’s rights leaders such as Stanton and Susan B. Anthony worked closely with Frederick Douglass and others to build a case for universal suffrage—the p. 128↵idea that all adults, regardless of race or sex, should have the right to vote. However, when the Civil War ended and constitutional amendments (called the “reconstruction amendments”) were moving through Congress, it became clear that Black men were likely to be granted the vote, but not women.
Friends who had once stood united, such as Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass, were now torn apart, each arguing for different sides. Sojourner Truth, decades before, in 1851, had given her famous “Ain’t I a Woman” speech, pointing out the differences in the way Black and white women were treated. After the Civil War, as one of the few Black women with access to high-level suffrage meetings, she argued that “if colored men get their rights, and not colored women theirs, you see the colored men will be masters over the women, and it will be just as bad as it was before.” Opposing her, Frederick Douglass, despite having stood up for women’s rights for most of his life, made an impassioned speech asking for others to consider the dire needs of Black people. “When women, because they are women,” he said, “are dragged from their homes and hung upon lampposts, when their children are torn from their arms and their brains dashed upon the pavement . . . then they will have the urgency to obtain the ballot.”
Suffrage did, in fact, pass for Black men and not women, creating chasms between activists and leading to a racist backlash from some of the feminists, such as Anthony and Stanton, who we consider our national heroes. This dark chapter in our history often does not make it into school books.
Given that they were already adults by the time of the Seneca Falls Convention, many of the women involved in the early suffrage movement were quite old by the end of the 19th century, and almost all became too frail to continue to participate or passed away by the dawn of the 20th century. There was a period of relative quiet at the end of the 1800s where there seemed to be little forward momentum. While the first “wave” of feminism is considered to be from 1848 to 1920, it p. 129↵might be more accurate to describe the first wave as two separate periods. Four states granted women the right to vote between 1890 and 1896, but it was not until 1910 that women in other states began to be successful in their state suffrage bids. Then, first wave feminism “part two,” equipped with new leaders, including Alice Paul and Carrie Chapman Catt, brought the final push needed to secure the 19th Amendment, granting nationwide women’s suffrage, in 1920.
Though the first wave of feminism is said to have ended in 1920, and the second wave to have begun in the 1960s, there were significant changes in women’s lives in America in the interim. World War II, especially, brought many women into the workforce. Planned Parenthood was founded in 1942. The 1950s showed a return of a strictly gendered culture, but this did not last long. Simone DeBeauvoir’s Second Sex was published in the U.S. in 1953. In 1960, the first birth control pill was approved by the Food and Drug Administration. Women observed and participated in the Civil Rights movement of the late 1950s and early 1960s, honing techniques, such as acts of civil disobedience, that they would later use in feminist work. Ultimately, the “in-between” period of the 1920s to the late 1960s led directly to the more publicly feminist era of the 1960s and 70s.
The second wave of feminism was one of the most important movements in the history of the United States, and, like the first wave, is difficult to condense into a short description. During the 1960s and 70s women achieved massive successes, including abortion rights and sexual harassment laws. Title IX, passed as part of the Education Amendments of 1972, outlawed discrimination in educational programs, having a profound impact on women’s lives and careers. From a social perspective, women made inroads into male-exclusive establishments and challenged traditional understandings of heterosexual relationships.
Some historians have described the second wave as two separate movements with different goals. These types of p. 130↵divisions were not unique to the second wave. Suffragettes in the early 20th century had taken opposing stances, some going on hunger strikes and throwing bricks through windows and others attempting to make change more diplomatically. Second wave feminists have been divided into “equal rights” and “radical” feminists, the former involved in changing the social and legal landscape to give women the same rights as men, and the latter hoping to disrupt the foundations of existing systems, such as patriarchy and capitalism, rather than working within them. Though there were certainly different approaches and instances of bitter disputes, there were also many women who held more radical views but compromised to ensure smaller gains along the way.
In addition to the differences in opinion about strategic approaches to feminist work in the 1960s and 70s, there were also issues of race, class, and sexuality that permeated the feminist movement. Many of the movement’s leaders were upper middle class straight white women, and the experiences of women of color, working class women, and lesbians were often pushed to the side. Women like Angela Davis, Florynce Kennedy, Alice Walker, and many others helped to create a vast literature of Black feminist thought. In 1969, when Betty Friedan, president of the National Organization for Women, described the threat of lesbian involvement in the women’s movement as a “lavender menace,” lesbians responded by protesting at the following year’s Congress to Unite Women, in which there were no openly lesbian-identified women on the program. These challenges to mainstream second wave feminism would pave the way for new approaches as feminist waves moved forward.
The third wave of feminism is said to have begun in the 1990s, though it had roots in the 1980s, a time most consider to be an era of conservative backlash. Still, it was in the late 1980s that Kimberle Crenshaw introduced the concept of intersectionality, which would become one of the centerpieces of the third wave feminist movement. Intersectionality p. 131↵emphasized the multiple systems of oppression that work together to influence our lives. Many third wave feminists saw the movement as a response to more monolithic representations of women and their needs during the second wave.
The riot grrrl scene, which began in the pacific northwest in the early 1990s, remains emblematic of certain subcultures of third wave feminism. Bands and fans called out sexism, sexual assault, and homophobia in their songs and zines (photocopied homemade magazines). The language they used (“girl” rather than woman) and their clothing aesthetic (femme-punk style) represented a belief that second wave feminists had downplayed and sometimes even looked down on femininity to fight for equality. Instead, riot grrrl third-wavers embraced femininity and girliness, arguing that they could be both feminine and strong.
Support of transgender people improved with the arrival of third wave feminism. Some, but not all, second wave feminists subscribed to an “essentialist” idea of what it meant to be a woman (i.e., a person born with a vagina). A few even went as far as to claim that trans women were men attempting to “infiltrate” and take over women’s spaces. While there were still anti-trans feminists involved in third wave movements, they were not as common. Interestingly, it has been subsets of self-identified “radical” feminists—once considered on the most cutting-edge—who have continued to hold the most bigoted beliefs about trans people. Not all radical feminists are anti-trans, but those who are have been referred to as trans-exclusionary radical feminists, or TERFs.
It is not completely clear if feminist movements today are part of a continued third wave or a new fourth wave. Some argue that a fourth wave began between 2005 and 2010, with the introduction of social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. These allowed not just feminist movements, but many other campaigns and causes to spread their messages quickly and easily, resulting in uprisings like the Arab Spring. Hashtags, including #metoo, #timesup, and p. 132↵#yesallwomen created solidarity in new ways. Social media also allowed for mass organization of events like the 2017 Women’s March on Washington. In many ways, it does not matter how we divide feminist “waves,” or which one we are in right now. What does matter is that feminist movements continue to grow and learn from the past. Today’s feminist movements are more intersectional than they ever have been. And tomorrow’s will be even better.
What is intersectionality?
“Ain’t I a woman?” asked Sojourner Truth to her mostly white, upper class audience at the Women’s Convention in Akron, Ohio, in 1851. “That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain’t I a woman?”
When Sojourner Truth gave her famous “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech, she was pointing out the differences in the way Black women were treated compared to white women and challenging the notion that white women’s experiences were generalizable.
It may come as a surprise—because women of color have been making this point for so long—that academics did not have a word for the concept of intersectionality until it was introduced by lawyer and feminist theorist Kimberlé Crenshaw in a paper on feminism and antiracist politics in 1989. Crenshaw argued that the experience of being a Black woman could not be explained simply by discussing the experiences of being Black and being a woman, but instead represented a product of interactions between the two.
As an example of the need for intersectionality, Crenshaw drew on the case of a group of Black women who sued General Motors (GM) in 1976, alleging employment discrimination. Because the court did not understand the concept of p. 133↵intersectionality, GM’s lawyers were able to claim that the company was not biased by presenting evidence that it hired both Black men and white women. The court stated that according to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, it could not consider a case of combined race- and gender-based discrimination.
Today, intersectionality is employed both within feminism and other systems of thought as an approach that takes into account the intersecting systems of power and oppression, such as race, class, gender, age, ability, and sexual orientation that work together to determine our experiences.
Inherent in the concept of intersectionality is the idea that one person may experience privilege related to some of their identities and oppression due to others. A wealthy Black cisgender gay man, for instance, may benefit from his status as cisgender, male, and wealthy, but be discriminated against due to his race and sexuality. Each person’s intersecting identities determine their position in the world and are complicated and unique.
What is misogyny?
In simplest terms, misogyny can be defined as hatred or contempt for women. The word was formed from the Greek roots misein (to hate) and gynē (woman). Patriarchal societies across time and around the world have typically incorporated misogyny into their cultural beliefs, often with devastating consequences on the psychological well-being of both men and women. Girls who grow up in misogynist societies can experience internalized misogyny as well as learn to perpetrate misogyny toward other women. Boys who grow up in misogynist societies can do serious harm to the women in their lives as well as to themselves and other men by being overly critical of any traits or behavior perceived as feminine.
Many would argue that misogyny has decreased significantly in modern western societies. However, in today’s world, online misogyny has become increasingly more vicious p. 134↵as social media and internet forums have developed into everyday tools. One of the most well-known cases of severe online misogynistic harassment occurred as part of what is referred to as the Gamergate controversy. In 2013, video game developer Zoe Quinn created a game called Depression Quest, centered around her experiences with depression. Soon after, her ex-boyfriend, Eron Gjoni, wrote a blog post disparaging Quinn’s work and accusing her of cheating on him with multiple men, including one who Gjoni claimed she slept with to get a good review of her game. Using the hashtag #gamergate, thousands of men piled on, taking the moment as an opportunity to threaten and belittle Quinn, who was known for speaking out about gender inequities in gaming. Quinn received rape and death threats, was encouraged to commit suicide, and was doxed—her home address and personal information released to the public. Many other women were affected by #gamergate, including Anita Sarkeesian, who was a vocal critic of traditional women’s roles in video games. Sarkeesian received numerous death threats, forcing her to cancel events, and one harasser even created a video game that allowed players to beat up a character modeled after her.
Another arena where misogyny has come front and center is with the news coverage of “incels,” or those who call themselves “involuntarily celibate,” and blame their lack of sexual experience on women, who they feel are inferior to men and should give them sex when they want it. In April 2018, a man named Alek Minassian drove a van through a crowded business district in Toronto, killing 10 people and injuring 16 others. Minassian identified as an incel, as did Elliot Rodger, who killed 6 people and injured 14 in a stabbing and shooting rampage near the University of California–Santa Barbara in 2014. Prior to his attacks, Rodger wrote a 107,000-word manifesto in which he argued for a “War on Women” for “depriving me of sex.”
Unfortunately, misogyny is ingrained in our societies in deeply troubling ways, and will continue to proliferate until p. 135↵we have done the work of changing the underlying belief that women are inferior to men.
What is “toxic masculinity”?
Toxic masculinity has been the topic of much discussion in recent years. The Good Men Project defines toxic masculinity as follows:
Toxic masculinity is a narrow and repressive description of manhood, designating manhood as defined by violence, sex, status and aggression. It’s the cultural ideal of manliness, where strength is everything while emotions are a weakness; where sex and brutality are yardsticks by which men are measured, while supposedly “feminine” traits—which can range from emotional vulnerability to simply not being hypersexual—are the means by which your status as “man” can be taken away.
Masculinity itself is not inherently negative or harmful in nature. Healthy masculinity embraces traits that feel comfortable to those who see themselves as masculine without causing damage to themselves or others. Healthy masculinity leaves room for nurturing, communication, and vulnerability. Toxic masculinity, on the other hand, is the result of unhealthy cultural expectations of men and manhood and reduces the concept of “being a man” to exerting physical power and dominance.
The harmful effects of toxic masculinity are far reaching. Whereas women, girls, and gender-diverse people such as transgender and nonbinary individuals suffer devastating and often lethal byproducts of toxic masculinity, cisgender men are also heavily impacted. After all, if one is raised in a culture in which doing your gender “right” lies in your alignment with an expectation of being oppressive, dominant, forceful and p. 136↵unemotional, disengaging can easily be interpreted as being weak. Not living up to social expectations of manhood can thrust one into being perceived as a “pussy” or “cuck,” lacking balls and lacking manhood.
Toxic masculinity involves the need to aggressively compete with and dominate others. Scholars who explore the social construction of masculinities have warned of the psychological and sociological red flags this mindset engenders. Prison studies have explored the ways in which elements of toxic masculinity prevent rehabilitation, engagement with mental health systems, and family reunification. Researchers who focus on schools and education warn of the harmful byproducts of toxic masculinity on developing young minds, and a more recent focus on war and terrorism has come to a similar conclusion. Toxic masculinity has prevailed as a powerful weapon in the proliferation of violence between people, countries, and continents.
Psychiatrist Terry Kupers identifies toxic masculinity as “the constellation of socially regressive male traits that serve to foster domination, the devaluation of women, homophobia, and wanton violence.” While there is nothing particularly toxic in a man’s pride in his ability to win or succeed, Kupers warns that in settings that lack resources, safety, and supportive community, such as prison, these drives can easily become blinding.
What’s more, toxic masculinity is bracketed within larger systems of privilege and power and can be layered with racialized dynamics, inhumane treatment, and poor service provision. Race and class, access to education and healthcare, ability to think critically (and without scarcity) about the future, and engagement with diverse male role models all impact the way masculinity is perceived and embodied. In a recent Huffpost article “More Men Should Learn The Difference Between Masculinity and Toxic Masculinity,” author Ryan Douglas proposes,
Toxic masculinity in American culture starts with straight, white men and trickles down through marginalized groups, affecting the way they perceive themselves and behave. We can’t examine straight African-American men’s behavior, for example, without first examining the white power structure that influenced it. And we can’t separate how black men treat women from how white men treat black men.
In one simple statement, Douglas negates much of the pushback to this conversation: “Masculinity is real, natural, and biological. Toxic masculinity is a performance invented to reinforce it.” The reinforcement of masculinity in western societies often includes high degrees of ruthless competition, an inability to express emotions other than anger, an unwillingness to admit weakness or dependency, devaluation of women and all feminine attributes in men, and homophobia.
Today, there are definable masculinities that present alternatives to the hegemonic ideal. Gay and transgender men often model masculinities that deviate from the toxicity prevalent throughout society, along with intellectuals, geeks, artists, musicians, and stay-at-home dads (none of these are exempt from adopting toxic masculinity but may present alternatives). Intentional self-evaluation is important for all people aligned with any type of masculinity. Australian author Tim Winton writes about his experience watching “the tenderness [being] shamed out of [the boys]” through years spent rehearsing and projecting masculinities, watching for subtle reinforcement and validation. What would it take to signal strength in empathy, listening, and shared space?
After all, toxic masculinity is a burden to men. Winton warns of the ways in which men too are “shackled” by misogyny. “It narrows their lives,” Winton writes, “Distorts them. And that sort of damage radiates; it travels, just as trauma is embedded and travels and metastasizes in families. Slavery should have p. 138↵taught us that . . . [m]isogyny, like racism, is one of the great engines of intergenerational trauma.”
Undoing toxic masculinity is about undoing the ways in which our culture commodifies power. Perhaps the most influential intervention to change an overwhelming climate of toxic masculinity would be first to create systems to aid in recognition of its patterns, identifying which specific dynamics are harmful and to whom.
What are Women’s Studies, Men’s Studies, and Gender Studies?
In 1956, feminist scholar Madge Dawson began teaching a class called “Woman in a Changing World,” within the Department of Adult Education at Sydney University in Australia. The course focused on the socioeconomic and political status of women in western Europe and is known today as one of the first Women’s Studies courses taught at the university level. A decade later, in 1969, the first accredited Women’s Studies course was taught in the United States at Cornell University. San Diego State College, now San Diego State University, established the first Women’s Studies program in 1970, and the first PhD program in Women’s Studies began at Emory University in 1990. Today, Women’s Studies courses and accredited degree programs exist throughout the world. In 2015, Kabul University in Afghanistan began their first master’s degree course in gender and women’s studies. Doctoral level Women’s Studies programs exist today in Budapest, Japan, England, Australia, the United Kingdom, Wales, Canada, and the United States. Other degree granting programs currently operate in Ghana, Croatia, Poland, Slovakia, Sudan, Uganda, Palestine, Malaysia, Korea, and Barbados, and many other places.
The United States National Women’s Studies Association was established in 1977. The association defines the field as having its roots in the student, Civil Rights, and women’s movements of the 1960s and 1970s. The field of Women’s Studies has p. 139↵expanded from its early origins and has looked to understand the role and impact of gender, and systems of gender, on university life and scholarship, structures of power and privilege, and sociopolitical patterns and trends. By incorporating feminist theory, social justice models, and queer theory, Women’s Studies programs have worked to locate themselves within a changing and complex world.
In the last two decades, many Women’s Studies programs at the university level have begun to use the term Women’s and Gender Studies as a categorical shift in title and practice. Other offshoot programs have emerged under the descriptor Gender Studies. Gender Studies programs typically include the same theoretical approaches as Women’s Studies, focusing in particular on taking an intersectional approach to personal identity and social dynamics. Gender Studies scholars propose that patriarchy functions to regulate people of all genders, not just women.
Gender Studies programs have largely emerged alongside a line of inquiry questioning the binary notion of gender and have centered around the ways in which the experiences of women and other gender minorities add to a more comprehensive understanding of gender. Gender Studies programs have therefore relied heavily on queer theory and the study of sexuality, understanding the inherent relatedness between gender identity, sex, sexuality, politic, and liberty. Whereas the field of Women’s Studies has been associated with second wave feminism, Gender Studies emerged alongside third wave feminist discourse.
While, on one hand, the shift from Women’s Studies to Gender Studies could signal a more inclusive course variety, accounting for the full range of gender diversity and experience, the shift has not always been welcomed. As the field has redefined itself to think more holistically about gender, the space devoted exclusively to women has changed (as has the definition of women), creating room for Masculinity Studies and Queer Studies.
p. 140↵Men’s Studies, sometimes referred to as Masculinity Studies, is an interdisciplinary field devoted to the interrogation of masculinity through analysis of cultural, social, historical, political, psychological, economic, and artistic themes. Men’s Studies programs are largely feminist in nature and revolve around conversations similar to those taking place in Women’s Studies and Gender Studies classrooms, with somewhat more intense focus on the roles of men and anyone else who identifies as masculine. The American Men’s Studies Association traces the roots of an organized field of Men’s Studies to the early 1980s, although a small number of Men’s Studies courses were taught as early as the 1970s. Content within Men’s Studies classrooms is largely critical of the role of male privilege and misogyny, seeking to understand men not as inherent perpetrators, but rather as additional victims under the crushing weight of sexism.
What is queer theory?
The word queer entered into the English language in the 16th century and originally meant “strange” or “odd.” Its use as a pejorative term to refer to gay and lesbian people began near the end of the 19th century. In the late 1980s, gay, lesbian, and bisexual people first reclaimed queer for themselves. Those who identified as queer meant to set themselves apart from mainstream gays and lesbians who they saw as accepting integration into the larger society without challenging underlying power structures. Queer people were anti-assimilationist and fought against more conservative gay groups that focused on same-sex marriage and military inclusion. One of the first organizations to use the word queer was Queer Nation, a nonhierarchical, decentralized, direct action group that was known for using confrontational tactics to protest violence against LGBTQ people.
At the same time that activists were beginning to use the word queer to label themselves and their activities, academics p. 141↵emerged who hoped to use the same term to radicalize gay and lesbian studies. Teresa de Lauretis, a professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, is credited with introducing the phrase queer theory at a conference at the University of California-Santa Cruz, in 1990. From then on, queer theorists ventured into a diverse array of subjects, including LGBTQ history, social construction of identities, and literary theory.
In the few decades prior to the appearance of queer theory, a number of researchers had taken on the herculean task of tediously gathering evidence of same-sex relationships and gender nonconformity throughout history. The majority of these investigations pertained to male homosexuality. A notable exception is Lillian Faderman’s 1985 book, Surpassing the Love of Men. Faderman argued that, contrary to popular belief, emotionally intimate (and sometimes sexual) relationships between women (known as “romantic friendships”) were common and rarely pathologized during the 16th to 19th centuries. Gender transgressions (wearing male clothing, speaking in public, taking on male professions), however, were frowned upon. According to Faderman, the first wave of feminism (which included the fight for suffrage) coincided with the new “science” of sexology in the early 20th century, leading to a more intense focus on women’s relationships with each other and to the pathologization of intimacy between women.
Queer theorists took a different approach to LGBTQ history. Rather than using a long history of same-sex relationships to demonstrate that gays and lesbians had existed throughout time, they instead proposed that, although same-sex relationships had certainly occurred, the categories “gay” and “lesbian” were new. For many scholars, queer theory has its roots in the work of French philosopher Michel Foucault, whose History of Sexuality, the first volume of which was published in 1976, made novel arguments about the state of sexuality over the last few centuries. According to Foucault, despite our belief that sexuality was extremely repressed over the 17th to 19th centuries, there is evidence that this period was a time p. 142↵of outward repression but simultaneous proliferation of literature and study of sexuality. Combing through historical texts, he concluded that same-sex relationships had occurred throughout time, but that until the late 19th century, people did not have sexual identities in a modern sense. Rather than a population being divided into straight and gay, anyone could participate in any sexual act. David Halperin made a similar argument in his 1990 book, One Hundred Years of Homosexuality, which looked at homosexuality in ancient Greece, a time and place when gay and lesbian identities had not yet been “invented.” “The sodomite had been a temporary aberration,” Foucault wrote. “The homosexual was now a species.”
A number of reasons have been proposed for this shift from an understanding of sexuality as sexual acts to the newer concept of each person possessing a particular sexuality. One of the best known theories was put forth by writer John D’Emilio, who argued that industrialization in the 19th century led many people to leave their families behind to move to cities. Urban landscapes provided an environment in which workers were no longer tied to family units and could interact sexually with others of the same sex on a regular basis, creating communities and developing new identities.
Following in Foucault’s footsteps, Judith Butler proposed that it was not only sexuality, but also gender that had been socially constructed. Earlier feminist scholars had written about this topic, including Gayle Rubin, who challenged “the idea that sex is a natural force that exists prior to social life” (p. 275). Going even further than Rubin, in her 1990 book, Gender Trouble, Butler argued that, contrary to essentialist feminist ideas of women as an unchanging category, there is no “real” or “true” gender before culture. According to Butler, gender is instead socially constructed through clothing, speech, and nonverbal communication that becomes so obfuscating that it makes us believe gender is an essential part of our being. Butler is known for advancing the concept of “performativity” of gender, meaning that we each act and dress in ways that p. 143↵continually reinforce gender. Butler offered a critique of “identity politics,” in which groups fight for rights based on their identities because she felt that our social categories were created by humans and that we should be fighting for the human rights of all people rather than dividing into socially created categories.
Another well-known early queer theorist was Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, an English professor whose 1985 book Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire and 1990 book Epistemology of the Closet argued that an understanding of western culture is never complete without incorporating an analysis of homosexual relationships. She encouraged a generation of scholars to investigate queer interpretations of literature.
Following the early queer theorists, there was a surge in scholarship, with contributions from a wide variety of participants, including queer people of color and transgender people. These include Roderick Ferguson, who first introduced the term queer of color critique in his 2004 book Aberrations in Black, as well as Jack Halberstam, Patrick Califia, Samuel Delaney, Jose Munoz, Gayatri Gopinath, and many, many others.
The late 1990s and early 2000s also saw the rebirth of anti-assimilationist ideas. Michael Warner’s 1999 book, The Trouble with Normal, questioned the gay rights movement’s focus on marriage, an institution that would allow gay people to be more “normal,” shaming those who did not want this kind of life. Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore made similar arguments in her 2004 book, That’s Revolting: Queer Strategies for Resisting Assimilation. She pushed against mainstream gay and lesbian movements for continuing to fight for marriage rights rather than universal healthcare and housing for all.
An important concept within queer theory in the early 2000s was the idea of “pinkwashing.” This phrase called out marketing and political strategies put in place to make a company or country appear more progressive and tolerant by emphasizing its support for gays and lesbians. A number of scholars p. 144↵have argued that Israel participates in pinkwashing through public demonstrations of its work for LGBTQ equality, while continuing to oppress its Palestinian minority. Women’s and Gender Studies professor Jasbir Puar’s 2007 book, Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times, makes the argument that the United States uses its supposed openness about homosexuality to disparage Muslim countries and as an excuse to intervene militarily, contending that it is standing up for women and LGBTQ people there.
What is Trans Studies?
In 2019, Ardel Haefele-Thomas and Thatcher Combs published the first book-length Introduction to Transgender Studies. However, trans studies has been a field much longer than it has been formally defined.
Like queer theory, trans studies emerged out of a recognized need for new voices within academic worlds. For many years, scholarly work was being written about trans people rather than by trans people, and even within LGBTQ communities, the ideas of trans academics were pushed aside by mainstream gays and lesbians.
Sandy Stone’s 1992 essay “The Empire Strikes Back: A Posttranssexual Manifesto” is said to have kicked off the field of trans studies. Stone was writing in response to cisgender feminist Janice Raymond’s 1979 book The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the She-Male, which argued that trans women “rape women’s bodies by reducing the real female form to an artifact, appropriating this body for themselves” (p. 104). Raymond’s book publicly attacked Stone for working as a sound engineer at the all-women’s Olivia Records, accusing her of infiltrating women’s spaces.
In her response, rather than attacking back, Stone adeptly brought to light a number of critical issues affecting trans lives. She pointed out that trans bodies were being discussed by medical professionals and feminist thinkers, who were “meeting p. 145↵on the battlefield of the transsexual body” (p. 230), without an understanding of trans people’s lived experiences. The essay also explored pathologization of trans identities, gatekeeping by medical professionals, and the idea that trans bodies, rather than reinforcing the gender binary, have the “potential for productive disruption,” that can lead us to more interesting and exciting ways of living. Most importantly, she argued that “a counterdiscourse is critical” (p. 230), thus officially launching the field of trans studies.
During the early period of Trans Studies, in the 1990s, it was slightly easier than it is today to keep track of emerging writers in the field. Leslie Feinberg (1997) introduced the world to gender nonconforming people in history in Transgender Warriors: Making History from Joan of Arc to Dennis Rodman, Jack Halberstam (1998) explored the ways that masculinity played out on traditionally female bodies in Female Masculinity, and Kate Bornstein (1997) helped readers to connect to their own gender identities in My Gender Workbook: How to Become a Real Man, a Real Woman, the Real You, or Something Else Entirely. Towards the end of the 1990s, trans theorists began to push boundaries even more, examining the progress of political movements (erotica author Patrick Califia, 1997, in Sex Changes: The Politics of Transgenderism) and the potential for more radical conceptualizations of identity (Riki Anne Wilchins, 1997, in Read My Lips: Sexual Subversion and the End of Gender).
The turn of the century brought a veritable boom in trans scholarship. It would be impossible to name even all of the major works published during this time. Legal scholars Paisley Currah, Richard Juang, and Shannon Minter (2006) created the first primer on trans legal issues (Transgender Rights), while Susan Stryker (2008) took on the broad subject of Transgender History. Scholar-activist Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore (2006) addressed trans attempts to fit into the mainstream in Nobody Passes: Rejecting the Rules of Gender and Conformity. Julia Serano (2007) explored the specific experiences of transfeminine p. 146↵people in Whipping Girls: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity. At the cusp of the second decade of the 21st century, Kate Bornstein and S. Bear Bergman (2010) brought us Gender Outlaws: The Next Generation.
The 2006 publication of the Transgender Studies Reader, edited by Susan Stryker and Stephen Whittle, was a momentous accomplishment, bringing together a wide range of texts, beginning with excerpts from medical textbooks written by cisgender professionals in the early 1900s and then sampling from feminist, queer, and trans authors from a diverse array of backgrounds. It was one of the first major texts to explicitly address intersections between race, nationality, and gender.
The second decade of the 21st century was a turning point in trans scholarship. In 2014, Transgender Studies Quarterly, helmed by Susan Stryker and Paisley Currah and published by Duke University Press, debuted as the first nonmedical Transgender Studies journal, and, in 2015, the University of Arizona became the first ever institution to offer a masters in Transgender Studies. In 2014, a team of more than 50 authors published Trans Bodies, Trans Selves (Erickson-Schroth, 2014), a resource guide written by and for trans people, based on the well-known cisgender women’s book Our Bodies, Ourselves.
In the second decade of the 21st century, Trans Studies has blossomed to include many new voices addressing issues that had been missing from academic discussions. For years, the field of trans studies benefitted from Black and Brown and indigenous cultures and ideas, but few of these contributions showed up in formal scholarship. The 2014 book decolonizing trans/gender 101 (binaohan, 2014) attempts to move beyond 101 conversations and away from the centering of white trans narratives. C. Riley Snorton’s (2017) Black on Both Sides: A Racial History of Trans Identity meticulously investigates the presence and meaning of Black gender nonconforming identities over time. In Captive Genders: Trans Embodiment and the Prison Industrial Complex (Stanley & Smith, 2015), essays address the surveillance and policing of gendered bodies, especially those p. 147↵of trans people of color. Trap Door: Trans Cultural Production and the Politics of Visibility (Gossett, Stanley, & Burton, 2017) wrestles with the contradiction that, as trans representation in media has increased dramatically, the everyday lives of trans people have, in many ways, not improved, and, in some ways, become increasingly fragile and prone to both state and individual violence.
Across the globe, trans identities are being explored in every culture, although this exploration does not always reach western-centric academic thought. Some attempts have been made to incorporate trans academic work from other areas of the world. For example, Trans Studies Quarterly published an issue on trans academic work in Latin America. However, the majority of what is considered Trans Studies remains white- and euro/U.S.-centric.
Trans Studies is a young field, but growing at an infinitely fast pace. Scholars of the next decade are likely to bring with them new and exciting takes on the possibilities for the future of gender.
What is transfeminism?
Transfeminism (also referred to as trans feminism) works to apply a gender-inclusive approach to feminist work and a feminist approach to trans discourse. Transfeminists, like other marginalized groups within feminism, such as working class women and women of color, have challenged the idea that there is a universal experience of being a woman.
Emi Koyama first published The Transfeminist Manifesto in 2001, but trans people have been involved in feminist work since it began. There are many important issues that unite cisgender women and trans people, including gender equality, violence prevention, and reproductive rights.
In the 1970s, trans women participated in a number of women’s organizations. Some were warmly accepted by cisgender feminists, while others were rejected simply based p. 148↵on their sex assigned at birth. Beth Elliot, a transgender folk singer and activist, served as vice president and editor of the newsletter for the San Francisco chapter of the lesbian organization Daughters of Bilitis from 1971 to 1972. When she first joined, she was met with skepticism, but ultimately welcomed into the group. However, in late 1972, she was forced out in a vote that banned any trans women from participating.
In these early days, trans men, many of whom had spent significant portions of their lives in lesbian communities prior to coming out as trans, also often had strained relationships with feminist groups and were sometimes branded “traitors” for transitioning.
At the turn of the 21st century, trans people continued to run up against discriminatory practices in feminist spaces. A well-known example is the 1991 ejection of a trans woman named Nancy Burkholder from the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, which maintained a women-born-women policy. The response by trans activists was to pitch tents nearby in what they called Camp Trans, an inclusive space for people of all gender identities, in protest of the ban. Clashes continued until the festival ultimately shuttered in 2015.
At certain events today, anti-trans sentiment continues, and trans attendees are treated with hostility. However, many feminist events are now open to people of all genders.
In formal academic circles, prior to the appearance of the term transfeminism, many trans authors already came to their work from a feminist standpoint. Certainly, turn-of-the-century trans authors such as Kate Bornstein, Paisley Currah, Leslie Feinberg and Jack Halberstam, approached the world through a feminist lens. Max Wolf Valerio contributed to both This Bridge Called My Back (Moraga & Anzaldúa, 1981) and This Bridge We Call Home (Anzaldúa & Keating, 2013), anthologies addressing feminism and people of color, the first prior to his transition and the second, after.
Diana Courvant, a trans activist, may have coined the term transfeminism in the early 1990s. Patrick Califia is thought p. 149↵to have been the first to refer to transfeminism in a full-length book when he published Sex Changes: The Politics of Transgenderism in 1997. Jessica Xavier also used the term in her 1999 article “Passing as Privilege.” However, it was Emi Koyama’s 2001 “Transfeminist Manifesto” that put the term on the map.
Koyama’s essay defines transfeminism as “a movement by and for trans women who view their liberation to be intrinsically linked to the liberation of all women” (p. 245). She takes a straightforward approach to issues facing trans women, beginning with the difficulties they run into attempting to be a part of feminist groups. She points out that, like other marginalized women, trans women have been accused of fragmenting feminism, but instead expand the boundaries of feminist work. Koyama also asserts that differences between cisgender and transgender women should be acknowledged, including the ways that trans women have benefited from male privilege and cis women have benefitted from cis privilege. She stresses the importance of working together to address important issues such as violence against women and reproductive choice.
Since the publication of the “Transfeminist Manifesto,” a number of other authors have produced work related to transfeminism. One of the most well-known individual writers to address feminism from a trans standpoint is Julia Serano, whose 2007 Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity argues that gender policing directed at trans women is a unique form of misogyny that Serano calls transmisogyny.
Anthologies have included Krista Scott-Dixon’s 2006 Trans/Forming Feminisms: Transfeminist Voices Speak Out as well as Anne Enke’s 2012 Transfeminist Perspectives in and Beyond Transgender and Gender Studies. The May 2016 issue of Transgender Studies Quarterly was titled Trans/Feminisms. The first volume of the Transgender Studies Reader (2006) included Emi Koyama’s essay “Whose Feminism Is It Anyway? The Unspoken Racism of the Trans Inclusion Debate,” and the p. 150↵second volume (2013) expanded on this to incorporate an entire section on transfeminism.
In 2019, author Andrea Long Chu published Females, a crossover memoir/theoretical treatise in which, instead of arguing that trans women should be considered women, she contends that we are all women. In Chu’s view, the term female has come to mean “any psychic operation in which the self is sacrificed to make room for the desires of another” (p. 11). “Everyone is female,” she states, “and everyone hates it” (p. 11). Chu’s name rose in recognition with the publication of her November 2018 New York Times Op-Ed, “My New Vagina Won’t Make Me Happy.” In it, she approaches the medical model of transition with skepticism, revealing that she believes hormones and surgeries make a difference in trans people’s lives but that outcomes should not be solely based on happiness or improvement in mental health symptoms because these measures do not necessarily improve with physical transition and are often used by medical professionals to deny care to those who they do not feel are likely to show these improvements.
Other transfeminists have disagreed with Chu’s take. One is Kai Cheng Thom, a Canadian social worker who has published both fiction and nonfiction books. In her response piece in Slate magazine, titled “The Pain—and Joy—of Transition,” Thom agrees with Chu that the right to transition should not be based on presumed mental health outcomes but instead on bodily autonomy and informed consent. However, she questions Chu’s belief that there are “no good outcomes in transition,” pointing out that multiple large studies show improvement in mental health after transition. Thom also makes a plea for trans communities to come together to support each other even when their approaches differ.
Because many trans authors today fall into the category “feminist” but do not use the term transfeminist, there are likely many more transfeminist voices today than a simple Google search will reveal. Hopefully this means that there is much more exciting transfeminist scholarship to come.