Have you heard the one about the “shared girlhood”?
The “myth of shared girlhood” is an idea that has been developed recently by intersectional feminists to explain why it’s wrong for radical feminists to want women-only events that exclude people who were born male. According to the doctrine of the myth of shared girlhood, there’s nothing that really makes anyone female, because there’s no one universal defining experience of girlhood.
It’s true that there is no universal experience of femaleness. Not one. For anything you can come up with–even things that are experienced by huge, huge percentages of women–some women, on an individual basis, don’t meet those qualifications.
According to the “myth of shared girlhood” analysis, this means that organization based around femaleness is inherently improper, and that since trans* individuals have shared some experiences that some women have had, they should be considered no different than any other woman who has had a different experience from the norm.
This analysis is outrageous.
There is no shared gay experience. A gay man in Uganda, a lesbian woman in Vancouver–these people have incredibly different experiences of what it means to experience same-sex attraction and love. This does not mean that there is no such thing as gay, or that gay people should be unwelcome to meet without straight people saying “but my parents don’t like my girlfriend and people sometimes called me anti-gay slurs, which is, you must admit, pretty similar to some things that have happened to some of you!”
There is no shared American Indian experience. Some people of American Indian descent grow up on reservations, some don’t. Among both groups, socioeconomic status can vary tremendously. Different American Indian and First Nations groups have very different cultural norms and policies about assimilating into a white-dominated society. It would be ridiculous for someone to say that American Indians should be forced to admit the American Indianhood of anyone who claimed it, simply because they claimed it and there is no universal experience of being an American Indian anyway.
There is no shared black experience. Black kids in the Portland ‘burbs from an upper middle class background and black kids in the Florida panhandle experience very different “black in America” narratives. No one says that a lack of “shared blackness” should make it so anyone who has felt oppressed about their racial role can simply declare themselves black, and thus avail themselves of affirmative action policies designed to redress ongoing racial bias and discrimination against black Americans.
There is no shared rape experience. Rape survivors are a diverse group, including people from every demographic. Some rape victims are infants, some are elderly. Some are violently beaten, others are drugged, others are emotionally coerced. That doesn’t mean that just anyone should be able to claim the status “rape victim,” or use the resources allotted for rape victims in our society.
There is no shared labor union experience. There is no shared working-class experience. There is no shared Midwestern experience. There is no shared abuse victim experience. There is no shared alcoholism experience. There is no shared disability experience. There is no shared Muslim experience. There is no shared Communist experience.
Some people in the categories will always be outside of the most commonly shared experiences within that category. Yet somehow, it’s only women who are expected to defend their “shared girlhood” and what that shared girlhood experience could possibly mean. It’s only women who are told, when they share the experiences that they feel are powerful and defining for them as an oppressed class, that the sharing of those experiences is in itself oppressive, especially if it’s in a context of sharing them only with other people who were female from birth.
Other groups of oppressed people don’t have to justify themselves when they want to say “we’ve been oppressed, and we would like to say things in our group that aren’t necessarily very nice to the oppressing group, so all members who were raised as members of the oppressing group are invited to kindly keep the fuck out.” When black people do that to white people, it’s not (generally) by way of saying to white people, “we think you’re a racist shitbag who would disrupt our conference with your mere presence.” It’s not a way to say “you’re not a good enough ally to us.” It’s just a way to say, hey, sometimes it’s a shitload harder to make salient points about oppression or even just to vent when your oppressor is right there in the room.
Different groups of women have had, and I suspect will continue to have, varying policies about who is and is not allowed into events that revolve around women’s issues. In some groups, all people who share basic ideas about feminism and equality would be welcome to attend, regardless of sex or gender. In other groups, gender identity may matter, in others, a person’s present anatomy (for instance, the ability to penetrate/impregnate) may matter, and in others, birth sex may matter.
The differences in attendance policies in these kinds of events are equivalent to differences in attendance policies from other organizing oppressed classes. Sometimes, racially-based organizing groups will have events that are open for all people of all races and ethnicities, but other times, usually smaller groups of people of color will want to have events that are restricted to people who aren’t members of a particular race, national origin or ethnicity. This happens all the time, and racial groups are not asked to provide any proof of a shared racial experience to exclude people who the group feels don’t belong in the group.
In the super-liberal city of Berkeley, California, a whites-only group met for some time to discuss racism at the Niebyl-Proctor Library, specifically excluding people of color. I think that group’s existence is pretty gross, for a whole bunch of reasons, but it’s important to note that unlike radfem gatherings (which are picketed and targeted because they’re supposedly oppressive to trans* people), this whites-only group–which is no secret, and has even posted flyers in the neighborhood around where it meets, a neighborhood with a very racially diverse population–has to my knowledge never experienced a protest.
Yes, that’s right: it’s easier, politically–in the 21st century–in the liberal centers of the United States of America–to form a whites-only group than it is to form a group that includes only people who were female at birth.
Organization is impossible if it’s only done between people who have shared every experience–if we did that, we’d never have organized as a society beyond the family unit. That’s what makes organization tricky: if everyone had exactly the same experiences, it’d undoubtedly be a whole lot easier. That’s also why organization happens at many different levels. While some activists want to be in broad, coalitional groups, others choose to be in organizing groups that exclude all but a narrow class of people in order to pinpoint issues or have discussions that they feel are more difficult to have in broad, coalitional contexts.
There has not been a single incident–not one–of radical feminists “crashing” trans* people’s gatherings, picketing outside them, or gaining access to a private trans* event with the goal of publicizing where it was occurring or who was attending. In spite of the fact that many radical feminists have grave concerns about the ways in which trans* surgeries and hormone therapies are being marketed to pediatric patients, there haven’t even been protests of these. Radical feminists have written about problems with the trans* movement, talked about the enshrining of gender as problematic among themselves–but they haven’t picketed or invaded anyone’s gatherings.
Women shouldn’t have to prove anything, including a “shared girlhood,” to be able to meet and organize with other female-born persons without being harassed. The fact that liberal feminists are buying into this idea–that without a universally shared experience, it’s illogical and bigoted for a group to be able to define itself and exclude non-members–is a sign of how far feminist analysis has fallen since feminists started “doing” feminism online.
Why has this happened? Because the internet’s the ultimate proving ground that women talk differently when they have to talk around men and be subject to men’s criticisms all the time. The changes that have occurred to feminism since feminism became part of the blogosphere have been the exact kinds of changes you’d expect to see when women are having to do feminism in front of men. The environment that the second wave operated in was, in some ways, shitty for what it excluded, because the fact that feminist monographs, zines, and so forth were being distributed primarily among white, middle class women left a lot of women out. However, men also basically didn’t give a fuck (except when they were reacting with horror to out of context bits of Intercourse), so women in academia were left to talk and debate about feminist issues without constant comment and intrusion from men declaring a need to be heard and dialogued with.
The internet changed all that. Now, everything has to be released male-ready–or else. Positions determined to be too radical are sanded down, and it’s de rigeur for third-wave feminists to angrily declare that they’re not like those other feminists who are mean and nasty to men, the man-haters, the bra-burners, the TERFs, the Andrea Dworkin, whoever’s the boogeyman identified by men in the comments sections and subreddits where women are trying to do feminism today.
So again and again, you see women taking pains not to offend any men with what they write, because we know what happens to women who write on the internet–especially, gracious me, under their own name!–and who don’t toe the party line. Talk about sexism in video games, get rape threats. Talk about feminism and the oppressiveness of gender roles, get rape threats.
That’s the part where men’s comments shape the third wave. Then, there’s this little deal with the devil that no one talks about: if you can keep the perfect balance of angry about issues that make everyone angry while still making sure everyone sees you’re still buying into the basic tenets of patriarchy, you can shout “this is what a feminist looks like!” and get a book deal. You can have a life where you make a living by blogging and talking about feminism, today. There are plenty of people willing to schedule “empowering” visits from feminist women and pay reasonable sums for the privilege. There is, of course, also a catch: you have to make your feminism palatable enough and positive enough that it acquires the air of a TED talk. Feminism becomes tamed from something revolutionary, offering the possibility of systemic change, to something that is merely performative and about individual empowerment and choices.
When feminism is subjected to market forces and incessant male intrusion, it becomes the third wave: happy to decry the patriarchy, as long as it never gets upset about any of the bits where patriarchy makes you spend more money or be more available for sex. Decry not the expense of a wedding or the idea itself, but the whiteness of the dress and its implications, and you too could be a fully book-dealed Internet Feminist(tm) who still gets the New York Times Vows column to cover your wedding and your tasteful, dove-gray wedding dress. Rage against gender roles, but make sure people know that you believe high heels and porn are just fine when they’re expensive and made by people who pay lip service to feminist ideals.
Girls and women deserve better than the empower-washing of the entire world. Girls and women deserve better than to be told that theirs is the one group that has to simply allow everyone in. We deserve better than for our concerns to be mocked or met with threats and protests. We deserve better than for people to throw strawmen like the “shared girlhood myth” at us when we assert our rights to organize and regulate our groups in the same way that other oppressed groups organize themselves. We deserve better than to be subject to gaslighting when we say that groups of women change fundamentally when they are joined by either MTF people or simply men who identify as men. I know it’s not crazy, because I can see the differences between online communities with different policies.
Imagine what internet feminism might have looked like if, from the beginning, women had simply refused to grant men access to the playhouse–and how very different third wave feminism is from that, how much more placating, more quick to soothe hurt feelings, more quick to capitulate and say “well, we all have our own opinions.”
Some days, I wish we could simply go back. However, that option doesn’t exist, and we have no choice but to keep going forward. Building women’s-only spaces, both on- and off-line, is one of the few ways for feminism to continue existing as anything other than the auxiliary wing of capitalism and corporatism. “Let’s you and her fight, you have no experiences in common anyway” is a great tactic to keep women from organizing the single largest class of oppressed people on the planet. Don’t eat that red herring; it’s been rotten from the first time it was brought out.