The Disturbing Trend of Second-Wave Feminist Transphobia

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Germaine Greer is the latest second-wave feminist to enrage more inclusive iterations of the movement, after her particularly nasty transphobic comments disparaging Caitlyn Jenner were circulated on the internet this weekend. This resulted in a petition against an appearance by Greer that caused her to double-down on her rhetoric, feeding the usual outrage cycle.

This comes not long after Elinor Burkett’s NY Times Op-Ed, which was a more polite version of a similar argument, and that came after a number of prominent British feminists, most notably Julie Burchill and Suzanne Moore, were called out for writing transphobic posts. And just last month feminists were upset that Susan Brownmiller, one of the great pioneers of feminist thinking on rape, made some dismissive remarks that sounded a lot like rape victim-blaming.

Of course, not all second-wave feminists have expressed these kinds of views, and there are plenty of transphobic young feminists. But I do have to wonder, what’s going on here? Is Greer’s prejudice an example of outdated feminist dinosaurs being unwilling to get with the times? Angry at their movement “daughters” for taking a different approach to similar issues? And by attacking the misguided-at-best comments of the thinkers who helped invent our own way of thinking, are younger feminists taking part in what Susan Faludi calls “feminist matricide?”

The women’s movement cycled through a long first “wave,” and, in increasingly shorter oscillations, a second and third wave, and some say we are now witnessing a fourth. With each go-round, women make gains, but the movement never seems able to establish an enduring birthright, a secure line of descent—to reproduce itself as a strong and sturdy force. At the core of America’s most fruitful political movement resides a perpetual barrenness.

I admit that I am curious about the deeper issues. Why is it so hard for certain feminists who were so radical for their time to let their thinking evolve, to open the tent a little bit wider and embrace their trans siblings? I’ve spent a lot of time trying to unpack why so many women who might otherwise know better were sympathetic to Burkett’s piece, for instance.

My educated guess is that it’s two things. In earlier iterations of feminism (and be warned, I’m about to generalize here) men were the enemy, the oppressors. That attitude has been replaced to an extent to a broader focus on strict gender roles and misogyny (including transmisogyny and rape culture) as the “enemy,” rather than men themselves. This means that people of all genders, but particularly all non cis-males, can be oppressed by the same system. But it’s an understandable adjustment for those who were focused less on the theoretical and more on the behavior they saw in front of them. And that behavior was bad; just read any account of feminist agitation and understand that even “allied” men treated them the way Donald Trump treats Megyn Kelly, but worse. Yet while I understand that this focus shift may seem baffling, it doesn’t justify bigotry or victim-blaming.

A second explanation, I think, is this absolute fear that somehow broadening the feminist message will erase the gains we’ve made, the safe spaces we’ve created after extremely hard-fought battles. But a rational look at the evidence doesn’t indicate that that’s happened. Sure there may be more groups to avoid offending at the average feminist organizing meeting (which is good!), but if you look at the biggest feminist “hot topics” right now, nothing important or major has been “silenced” or “erased” by the concerns of another group.

This season alone, American feminists have been talking a lot about transgender rights, but also family leave and affordable daycare, minimum wage jobs, the erosion of abortion rights, women’s roles in the media, and bisexual visibility. These are all issues that help everyone but remain core feminist concerns, traditionally even “women’s issues.” Meanwhile, young feminists embrace gender inclusivity while still targeting campus rape and slut-shaming. Many groups advocating for these traditionally feminist issues have begun the (sometimes far too slow) process of including trans rights on their priority lists without their issues suffering as a result. In fact, the resurgence of cultural feminism has been a rising tide that lifts many boats at once.

This fear that trans people are somehow the vanguard of an erosion of feminist gains has no more validity than the bizarre right wing fixation on male predators assuming female disguises in women’s bathrooms. To both sides it seems urgent to say: Trans people are not your blank screen for projecting weird anxieties. In fact, it’s dangerous and irresponsible to foist your own fears, deep though they may be, on the back an entire group of people, particularly a group that’s sickeningly oppressed.

Besides, it feels like transphobic feminists haven’t done their research. The reason many young people are open to trans issues isn’t because they saw Caitlyn Jenner, thought she looked great and said “Poof! Mind changed!”, but because the internet has given the access to information, reporting and most importantly, first person narrative about actual trans experiences that clearly shows they have common cause and common humanity. It’s simply lazy for onetime avant-garde thinkers not to do the work of learning and evolving — in their own safe space away from Vanity Fair, and high-handed Tumblr and Twitter infighting.

I often admire the second wave feminists and feel like they get a bad rap; I envy their humorous yet ceaseless advocacy for practical solutions that worked, like sexual harassment laws and ideas that still could work, like universal daycare, abortion on demand, and “wages for housewives.” I also appreciate their intersectional approach to certain issues like social class and the profit motive, which I think gets eclipsed too often by my generation’s obsessive focus on pop culture and political personalities.

But how can you have a productive dialogue about the class war when important figures like Greer cannot treat an entire subset of humanity with the dignity they deserve? Maybe I can take solace from Kate Harding’s response to Brownmiller on rape, saying that the generational gap is mostly a sign of tremendous progress:

If, 40 years from now, someone asks me what I think about young anti-rape activists, I hope my ego will allow me to profess admiration… But honestly, there’s just as good a chance that I’ll respond like Brownmiller, carping about kids’ lack of historical awareness and respect for their elders, then adding a bunch of crap that sounds hopelessly outdated … If I get to the point where I have no idea what young activists are on about, or why they don’t seem concerned with what most concerns me, it will probably mean they’ve taken what they needed from my generation’s feminism and left the rest behind. I’m pretty sure that’s what progress looks like.

As feminists, we should be mindful of the work that our forbears have done and try to integrate it into our own, not dismissing it simply because they haven’t toed the line on every single issue. But as feminists, what’s far more important is that we keep standing up for the most oppressed, the people who need advocacy now, those who get bullied from within and without “the movement.”