#GenderWeek: The problem is capitalist-patriarchy socialising boys to be aggressive

By Louise Pennington

Click here to read all #GenderWeek articles.

The most common criticism of radical feminist theory is that we are gender essentialist because we believe that women’s oppression, as a class, is because of the biological realities of our bodies. Radical feminists define sex as the physical body, whilst gender is a social construct. It is not a function of our biology. It is the consequence of being labelled male/female at birth and assigned to the oppressor/sex class. The minute genetic differences are not reflected in the reality of women’s lived experiences. Gender is the coercive process of socialisation built upon a material reality that constructs women as a subordinate class to men. As such, radical feminists do not want to queer gender or create a spectrum of gendered identities; we want to end the hierarchical power structure that privileges men as a class at the expense of women’s health and safety.

This assumption is based on a misunderstanding of radical feminist theory, that starts from the definition of “radical” itself, which refers to the root or the origin: that is to say, the oppression of women by men (The Patriarchy). It is radical insofar as it contextualises the root of women’s oppression in the biological realities of our bodies (sex) and seeks the liberation of women through the eradication of social structures, cultural practises and laws that are predicated on women’s inferiority to men (gender).

Radical feminism challenges all relationships of power that exist within the Patriarchy including capitalism, imperialism, racism, classism, homophobia and even the fashion-beauty complex because they are harmful to everyone: female, male, intersex and trans*. As with all social justice movements, radical feminism is far from perfect. No movement can exist within a White Supremacist culture without (re)creating racist, homophobic, disablist, colonialist and classist power structures. What makes radical feminism different is its focus on women as a class.

Radical feminists do not believe there are any innate gender differences, or in the existence of male/female brains. Women are not naturally more nurturing than men and men are not better at maths and reading maps. Men are only “men” insofar as male humans are socialised into specific characteristics that we label male, such as intelligence, aggression, and violence and woman are “woman” because we are socialised into believing that we are more nurturing, empathetic, and caring than men.

Women’s oppression as a class is built on two interconnected constructs: reproductive capability and sexual capability. In the words of Gerda Lerner in The Creation of Patriarchy, the commodification of women’s sexual and reproductive capacities is the foundation of the creation of private property and a class-based society. Without the commodification of women’s labour there would be no unequal hierarchy of power between men and women, fundamental to the creation and continuation of the Capitalist-Patriarchy, and, therefore, no need for gender as a social construct.

Radical feminism recognises the multiple oppressions of individual women, whilst recognising the oppression of women as a class in the Marxist sense of the term. Rape does not require every woman to be raped to function as a punishment and a deterrent from speaking out. The threat therein is enough. Equally, the infertility of an individual woman does not negate the fact that her oppression is based on the assumed potential (and desire) for pregnancy, which is best seen in discussions of women’s employment and men’s refusal to hire women during “child-bearing” years due to the potential for pregnancy, which is used as a way of controlling women’s labour: keeping women in low-paying jobs and maintaining the glass ceiling. Constructing women as “nurturers” maintains the systemic oppression of women and retains wealth and power within men as a class.

Even something as basic as a company dress code is gendered to mark women as other. Women working in the service industry are frequently required to wear clothing and high heels that accentuate external markers of sex. Sexual harassment is endemic, particularly in the workplace, yet women are punished if they do not attend work in clothing that is considered “acceptable” for the male gaze. The use of women’s bodies to sell products further institutionalises the construction of women as object.

There is a shared girlhood in a culture that privileges boys, coercively constructs women’s sexuality and punishes girls who try to live outside gendered norms. The research of Dale Spender, and even Margaret Atwood, dating back to the 1980s has made it very clear that young girls are socialised to be quiet, meek and unconfident. Boys, on the other hand, are socialised to believe that everything they say and do is important: by parents and teachers, by a culture which believes that no young boy would ever want to watch a film or read a book about girls or written by a woman. Shared girlhood is differentiated by race, class, faith and sexuality, but, fundamentally, all girls are raised in a culture which actively harms them.

Radical feminists are accused of gender essentialism because we recognise the oppressive structures of our world and seek to dismantle them. We acknowledge the sex of the vast majority of perpetrators of violence. We do so by creating women-only spaces so that women can share stories in the knowledge that other women will listen. This is in direct contrast to every other public and private space that women and young girls live in. Sometimes these spaces are trans-inclusive, like A Room of our Own the blogging network I created for feminists and womanists. Sometimes these spaces will need to be for women who are FAAB only or trans* women only, just as it is absolutely necessary to have black-women only spaces and lesbian women-only spaces.

There is a need for all of these spaces because socialisation is a very powerful tool. Being raised male in a patriarchal white supremacist culture is very different to being raised female with the accompanying sexual harassment, trauma and oppression. The exclusion of trans* women from some spaces is to support traumatised women who can be triggered by being in the same space as someone who was socialised male growing up. This does not mean that an individual trans* woman is a danger, but rather a recognition that gendered violence exists and that trauma is complicated.

It is our direct challenge to hegemonic masculinity and control of the world’s resources (including human) that makes radical feminism a target of accusations like gender essentialism. We recognise the importance in biological sex because of the way girls and boys are socialised to believe that boys are better than girls. As long as we live in a capitalist-patriarchy where boys are socialised to believe that aggression and anger are acceptable behaviour, women and girls will need the right to access women-only spaces however they define them.

Louise Pennington is a radical feminist writer and activist who founded A Room of Our Own: A Feminist/Womanist network. She can be found on twitter as @LeStewpot and @Roomofourown

Photo: Pixabay

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23 thoughts on “#GenderWeek: The problem is capitalist-patriarchy socialising boys to be aggressive

  1. Tao

    These essentialist accusations remind me of the people who claim that whistleblowing on racism perpetuates racism. Acknowledging that people are outgroup othered and mistreated due to exaggerated biological differences is fundamental to race and gender. Pointing out that the point of SEXISM is to discriminate based on SEX does not make you an essentialist bigot, it makes the perpetrators of sexism the ones who believe there is a meaningful difference between the two groups. I’ll say it until I’m blue in the face. “Asserting that gender is a social construct is not essentialist or determinist, but claiming that your gender is determined by your biology is.

  2. Jackie Cutter

    What this article is basically saying is that some women should be turned away from some spaces because they look “too masculine.”

  3. Laura

    I agree with all of this, up until: “Sometimes these spaces will need to be for women who are FAAB only or trans* women only, just as it is absolutely necessary to have black-women only spaces and lesbian women-only spaces.”

    It is necessary to have trans*, Black and lesbian women-only spaces because trans*, Black and lesbian women are oppressed by cis, white and heterosexual people, including other women. Cis women (FAAB in your terms) are not oppressed by trans* women, so the argument for excluding trans* women from women-only spaces does not hold up. They are not the oppressor in the relationship.

    You argue that trans* women must be excluded from some women-only spaces because some women may be triggered by being in the presence of someone who was socialised male growing up. But the process of socialisation is complex. If the person did not identify as male as a child, the way in which they reacted to masculine socialisation is likely to be very different from how a person who did identify as male would react. Furthermore, the effects of gender socialisation, objectification, othering and sexism do not stop after girlhood. As you point out, they continue throughout adulthood: all trans* women will therefore experience them. To place trans* women on a par with men by barring them from women-only space designed to support traumatised women is therefore to deny trans* women their womanhood and their own experiences of sexism. It also furthers the oppression of trans* women by perpetuating the idea that they are not real or full women. You are essentially saying that it’s OK to do this as long as it furthers the cause of cis women: cis women’s right not to feel uncomfortable around trans* women trumps trans* women’s right to full recognition as women.

    None of your radical feminist analysis above requires discrimination against trans* women, and it is a crying shame that such an important school of feminist theory with so much to offer is tainted by this bigotry.

  4. Louise Pennington

    It is about giving FAAB women a space in which to discuss their lives and experiences with other FAAB women: sexual violence and harassment are systemic experiences of FAAB women, as is the humiliation and degradation associated with hormones and periods. It is also not about who is more oppressed than who: it’s about recognising the specific needs of women at any given time and making a space for them. The consequences of socialisation are very different for different groups of people and women are as entitled as any other group of oppressed people to have a space in which they feel safe to discuss their experiences.

    A recent feminist conference in Manchester was no platformed for having 1 session for FAAB women who had experienced sexual violence as a child. The rest of the conferences was trans-inclusive but for this one session set aside for victims of child sexual violence. If we accept the premise that Transwomen need a safe space in which to discuss their experiences of sexual violence, why can’t we accept the same for FAAB women?

  5. Laura

    Sexual violence and harassment are also systemic experiences of trans* women. By cutting them out of women-only “safe spaces” for those who have experienced sexual violence, you are implying that they would make that space unsafe, that they belong to the class of perpetrators of sexual violence rather than victims. Which, again, perpetuates oppression by reinforcing the idea that trans* women are really men. The idea that trans* women survivors of childhood sexual abuse would pose a threat to cis women survivors just seems heartless to me, and I really struggle to understand how a feminist could discriminate against other women like that – unless, of course, she thinks trans* women are really men.

    Even if there was any justification for cis-only women’s spaces, we then get onto the issue of how you determine whether a woman is cis or trans*, which is fraught with problems.

    I am at a loss to imagine what terrible things you think would happen if a trans woman was present in a women’s group discussing oppression related to hormones and periods. Some cis women don’t have periods. Some cis women (I include myself here) may find this particular discussion pretty irrelevant to their own lives. We don’t all have exactly the same experiences, cis or trans, but we do have the shared oppression of living as women in a patriarchy. That should be what matters, not whether we can all tick every box beside a list of experiences that certain radical feminists decide constitutes “shared girl/womanhood”.

  6. Sarah

    “Radical feminists do not believe there are any innate gender differences…. ”

    You see Louise, that’s your problem right there. Your whole definition of Radical Feminism is built around a belief. This is not science at all, but pseudo-science because you start from an assumption (there are no innate gender differences) then selectively choose evidence that supports your position. Your definition of radical feminism is completely non-falsifiable, and as such worthless. As is the whole pile of cards you build on these foundations.

    What you are describing is not a theory, it’s at best faith-based politics, and at worst a cult.

    Can you countenance that there might be innate gender differences? The prima facia case is surely that there are because if such a simple thing as the digit ratio (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Digit_ratio) is determined by embryonic testosterone exposure then a position that says there is no innate behavioural difference is at best illogical. The rational stance to take is surely that we do not know, the effects may be more or less subtle, but what we should concentrate on is making life better for individual women and girls, a pragmatic position that is much close to liberal feminism, but gives less cuddly ‘true believer’ feelings.

    1. Louise Pennington

      Radical feminism is based onthe clear scientific evidence that there are no innate gender differences which are responsible for differentiated behaviour in men and women: as Cordelua Fines research makes perfectly clear.

      1. Sarah

        “Cordelua Fines research makes perfectly clear.”

        You see Louise, that’s your problem right there. You’re choosing to take Cordelua Fines as the last work on the subject because her conclusion agree with what you want to believe. Pure pseudo-science: Radical Feminist theory tells you there are no differences so you look around for a work of popular science that supports your position.

        Might I suggest “The Biology of Sex Differences” http://www.bsd-journal.com? Indeed the very existence of such a journal should give you a clue that the real position might not be as clear cut as your faith demands.

    2. Lil Z

      Sarah, you and Simon Baron-Cohen and the rest of the genderists who believe in ‘man brain’ and ‘lady brain’ are defenders of the status quo, which by definition disadvantages women. Two hundred years ago when men were denying women access to education lady brain was supposedly evident in the fact that women’s brains are on average smaller. One hundred years ago when men wanted to deny women the vote lady brain was supposedly located in the brain stem. Now genderists who want to naturalise the status quo between men and women say it’s all about hormone wash and finger length, which can be linked to behaviour about as convincingly as the ancient Greeks’ ideas about wombs making women hysterical.

      The human brain is incredibly complex and plastic and we don’t know the first thing about how hormones affect it, much less are we in a position to declare that brain sex has been proven. Until social barriers to full equality of opportunity are eliminated, spreading the myth that brains are gendered is the real unfalsifiable position. Men have for centuries pointed to science to prove the naturalness of women’s status under patriarchy, and that ‘science’ has been exposed as spurious every single time.

      Feminists know that we simply do not know what women could become absent the omnipresent sexism that rules our society. We prefer to put our faith in women’s abilities and potential rather than fall back on unproven theories about brain sex to explain the way things are.

      And BTW lots of women have ‘male-pattern’ digit ratios. I’m one of them. I’m still a woman – finger length proves the naturalness of gender about as well as theories about wombs, brain size or brain stems.

      1. Sarah

        “The human brain is incredibly complex and plastic and we don’t know the first thing about how hormones affect it, much less are we in a position to declare that brain sex has been proven.”

        Lil z. Exactly. We’ve also simply not in a position to declare that the non-existence of brain sex has been proven either. And as you point out about digit-ratios, it’s probably going to be overlapping Gaussian curves if such as thing does exist.

        My point is that Louise has based her whole article on “what radical feminists believe”, namely that there are no innate differences. But clearly that belief is not based on definitive evidence, rather it’s pseudo-science based on what “Radical Feminists” want to believe to support a political position.

        I simply do not think basing a Feminism on an unproven belief which could turn out to be proven wrong next week is a good basis to work from.

  7. Nadya

    I’ve been following all these gender week articles and all the comments and discussion via twitter but I haven’t joined in at all apart from to leave this comment now… maybe lurking would be a better word than following. I haven’t joined in or commented because to be honest the whole debate, both sides, all sides read as intimidating and bullying. This hasn’t opened up debate, if anything for women like me it has closed it off.

    I’m a black FAAB straight woman who was raped by a trans woman. The woman who raped me identifies as a woman and has a penis. I was also abused as a child by a male relative.

    Where is my space?

    Honestly, I’m not the kind of person who likes playing oppressed/victim top trumps but that seems to be almost the only currency in these discussions, with both sides shouting about how the other sounds like MRA’s.

    I don’t agree that the existence of trans women is akin to rape; because frankly I find it insulting as a survivor and as a black woman I don’t think trans women are akin to white cultural appropriators. But I do want a safe space and wanting a space where I can share and discuss my experience of rape and abuse without trans women present does not make me exclusionary or a bigot.

    1. Laura

      Hi Nadya,

      I’m really sorry to hear about your experiences and I can see why you want a safe space defined on your terms. I guess the problem is that women-only space is never going to be perfect. Some cis women have been abused by other cis women, some like you have been abused by trans women, some trans women have been abused by other women, cis and trans. So who gets excluded and who gets to stay in?

      Power dynamics based on race, sexuality, disability and class also have huge impacts on women-only space in terms of how safe it is for certain participants and how able they feel to contribute and be heard. I’m sure most people reading this have experience of certain women dominating women-only groups.

      It’s really difficult to negotiate all of this, but it simply isn’t fair for cis women to be prioritised over trans women: it reinforces a harmful power differential (cis over trans) and perpetuates one of the roots of trans women’s oppression (the assertion that they are not full/real women).

      1. Morag

        Laura, you just suggested that a rape victim’s wish for healing, on her own terms, perpetuates oppression against her rapist.

      2. Tricia

        Laura – I disagree with this > “it simply isn’t fair for cis women to be prioritised over trans women: it reinforces a harmful power differential (cis over trans) and perpetuates one of the roots of trans women’s oppression (the assertion that they are not full/real women)”

        I don’t see it like that; a separate space does not imply that one is superior to the other or has ‘priority’, just that separate spaces are sometimes needed to discuss issues relevant only to those in the discussion. Take the idea of men’s consciousness raising groups as an example; they are not about asserting superiority over women, they are about discussing issues relevant to men in a male space. It has nothing to do with one group being superior, it just acknowledges differences in experience.

        On a more general point, like Nadya, I’m disappointed in the tone of discussion around gender, I’d love to be able to discuss it more openly , such a shame that people continually resort to insults and deny this issue the thoughtfulness it deserves. If you can’t discuss something for fear of being slagged off , it’s not going to help you make an informed opinion in the first place, beliefs that aren’t expressed for fear of ridicule are beliefs that can’t be challenged. Opinions can’t be challenged effectively unless it’s done respectfully.

    2. Morag

      “But I do want a safe space and wanting a space where I can share and discuss my experience of rape and abuse without trans women present does not make me exclusionary or a bigot.”

      And you deserve that space, Nadya. All women do, especially women who are survivors of male sexual violence. It is not an exercise in bigotry, or even privilege, to want and use a woman-only space for your own healing.

    3. Louise Pennington

      Nadya, thank you for sharing your experience with us.

      Every one deserves a safe space for healing on their own terms. It is not exclusionary or bigoted to need that space. After all, it would be grossly inappropriate to ask a man raped by another man to use a women-only space because it would not address their needs. We need more specialist services to support all victims of male violence in the most appropriate manner for that individual. There is no hierarchy of victimhood. The Patriarchy would like us to believe there is in order to continue reinforcing their own power structure but it simply isn’t true. All victims need support and all victims are equally in need of appropriate support.

  8. Mica

    “Laura, you just suggested that a rape victim’s wish for healing, on her own terms, perpetuates oppression against her rapist. ”

    That’s a massive Straw-man, Morag. We are talking about a specific assailant and making a statement like that implies you believe you can equate one trans-woman with many others. This suggests an inherent distrust of trans-woman and vis a vis, the belief they are not ‘real women.’

    There was an earlier comment that was well responded to, regarding the example of the meeting in
    Manchester. However what Laura didn’t point out in her response to that, specifically, that seems a pretty obvious point to me, is that there are plenty of trans individuals who were abused as children, a number of these will have clearly identified as female at a young age. Why should they be excluded?

    I understand the need for ‘safe’ spaces, especially when dealing with sexual abuse, but do we see a regular division into ‘black women rape survivor’ spaces and ‘white women rape survivor’ spaces? No, or at least I have never heard of them, here in the UK.

    As Laura suggests, the defining factors of what constitutes a ‘shared experience’ are very murky,
    as is the precise socialisation of any individual.
    The enemy is patriarchy, a current social state in which men are prioritised, and given license to oppress, women. The physical body (the essence of which is hardly clear-cut) matters less than the assertion of being female. As Patriarchy oppresses the female, it is anathema to identify as such for any human being, whatever their personal ideas of ‘gender’ might be.Therefore *anyone* that genuinely identifies as a woman, be they Black, White, Asian, Traveller, Trans, Cis or Intersex, must be taken at their word.

    Any actively disruptive influence in such a safe space must of course be removed, and non-hierarchical debating tools, such as those used in consensus decision making processes, should be implemented to prevent the more outspoken from dominating any discourse and also to appoint any specific duties such as might be involved in managing or running the space.

  9. Eli

    The people most directly responsible for socialization of children are mothers and elementary school teachers (mostly female). Never forget that the #1 enforcers of patriarchy are women.

    1. Mixelle

      Children are way more exposed to male violence in society/media than what teachers show them. Little boys see themselves in the men who abuse no matter how they were raised.

      I work with children and have witnessed kindergarten boys destroy plants and animals for fun.


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