‘This is the sense in which he is black – as a function of the way he is treated by white people’ wrote critic Leo Robson about Afro-American author Percival Everett[i]. Yes! I thought when I read this, this is precisely the sense in which I feel I am female – as a function of the way that I am treated by men.
Since childhood, my dominant sense of myself has been as someone who observes, thinks, writes, speaks, behaves as I imagine others do, using the kind of voice I have heard in their speech or seen in their paintings or read in their books. The consciousness of being female has come in the form of a sudden unpleasant shock that I am not listened to or read as I would be if I were male. Growing up was experiencing a succession of such shocks which built up a cumulative impression of a terrible unfairness.
This unfairness was normalised. ‘Nothing’s fair in this world, dear’. And this normalisation was embedded in a set of moral values which, though apparently universal, seemed to bear down particularly heavily on girls. Winning was frowned on, for example. You should let other people beat you at games, especially if they were younger than you or less clever. Neither should you take pride in your achievements. This was ‘showing off’ or, as the Irish nuns at school put it, ‘being a notice box’. It was good to share, and not to mind if other people ran off with what was yours and appropriated it. Anything that might be labelled ‘greedy’ was shameful. It was also taken for granted that certain spaces, both physical and intellectual (and thereby in consequence occupational) were no-go areas. You entered them at your peril and it was your fault if you encountered harm there. Empathy was encouraged. However unpleasant an experience might be, you should always ‘imagine how the other person must be feeling’.
In short, the dominant imperative was to put up with stuff. And, for a literary child, there were shelves of Victorian novels portraying heroines who had done just that, albeit usually finally rewarded with a prize for their uncomplaining sacrifice, generally in the form of a proposal of marriage from the main male protagonist. There were also 20th century novels, many of them set in New York, which conveyed the same message in reverse, showing how deeply undesirable, disgusting even, sensitive educated men found women who were clever and expressed their desires explicitly.
The experience of having a female body was more ambiguous. It was a relief not to be expected to fight but disturbing that so many people seemed to feel they had the right to touch. Later, menstruation, though anxiously awaited (what if I never start?) was pretty yucky, but the discovery of the clitoris rather nice. What I later learned (initially from John Berger) to think of as the ‘male gaze’ was something that intruded intermittently into a consciousness that was still largely framed by an inner intellectual narrative that was not consciously sexed, though in this I felt something of a misfit. Other girls seemed to have a much surer sense of themselves as female, part of a gang from which I often felt excluded.
Compared with younger generations of women, I was protected from seeing myself through the lens of pornography, discovering sex through touch and experiment. Lucky not to have been exposed to the more extreme crimes that artists commit: the image that cannot be unseen, the metaphor that cannot be unimagined. Nowadays the pornographic gaze is so all-pervasive that it must be impossible to get through puberty without seeing your own body in this way, with your idea of yourself ineradicably shaped by a confusion of objective and subjective perceptions of attraction and disgust, wanting and not wanting to be desired, or to desire like this, to look or not look like this, to compare what you see in the mirror and feel with your fingertips with this. All innocence lost, when the self is always imagined as others see it, with a further layer of distortion added by the possibilities of digital enhancement.
It is not new for adolescents to try to make sense of who they are through self-depiction, of course. Most painters have a box full of discarded self-portraits, just as novelists have unfinished drafts of autobiographical novels and many others without artistic aspirations have diaries. And it is not particularly original to view the intensive self-representation of young people today on Instagram or TikTok, as a way of trying to process this.
But I am getting ahead of myself. Back in the 1960s, part of my response to that terrible unfairness was to grope my way towards the women’s liberation movement, where others of my generation were getting together in groups to try to understand the nature of the phenomenon we called ‘sexism’ and work out what could be done about it, in the process consciously defining ourselves as part of a collective entity called ‘women’ and focusing more on what we had in common than what separated us. I cannot speak with authority about what this concept of ‘woman’ was, precisely or what it was that the presumed ‘we’ aspired to. There was still a lingering sense of being an outsider. I secretly found the concept of ‘sisterhood’ somewhat problematic, associated in the family with engineered rivalries, unexpressed jealousy and being bullied, and at school with nuns, but was very attracted by the promise of a collective identity to which I could belong.
In terms of the larger feminist aspiration, what I wanted was a world in which it really didn’t matter what sort of body I had; for my mind to be taken as seriously as that of a man; to be able to wear what I wanted; to behave as I wished and to go where I wanted without hindrance. And to fall in love with whoever I was attracted to, regardless, too, of what sort of body they had. The closest I could find in the literature to this androgynous vision was in the utopian/dystopian novels of Ursula Le Guin and Marge Piercy. But there were resonant frissons in other readings – Violette Leduc, for example, and James Baldwin – which led me to believe I wasn’t alone in this hope.
There was of course the not insignificant factor of reproduction, but it seemed to me that any related social unfairness could be righted by policies that recognised that the bearing and rearing of children was a public good and put in place the right sort of provision for supporting those who cared for children, financially and in terms of services. Here, the writings of early 20th century feminists like Alexandra Kollontai were relevant inspirations, as were tales brought back from Cuba.
There were at the time emerging discussions, academic and otherwise, about the differences between ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ and some sort of consensus among those who called themselves feminists that the former referred to biological differences and the latter to those that were socially and culturally constructed and continually reproduced, adapted and challenged through custom and behaviour, sometimes policed by violence. It was further realised that the processes by which those gender differences were internalised were complex – subterranean and hard to reach even under intensive psychoanalysis. I personally found the distinction quite difficult to grasp in practice. There are many human experiences, surely, that are simultaneous both ‘biological’, in the sense of being things that physically happen to your body, and ‘social’ or ‘cultural’ in the sense of being hedged around with customs, taboos and sanctions. Take childbirth, for example, or death, or even the experience of taking mind-altering drugs. Where do hormones fit into all this?
But generally speaking such considerations did not seem to me to be priorities in the public political realm. These were things you sorted out for yourself, or with friends, lovers, family and therapists. What mattered was to put in place the policies that gave everyone the luxury of lives that allowed space for just such sortings out. What we needed, it seemed to me, were policies that created a framework for equality, guaranteed financial independence to all and provision of the basic services that would enable everyone to live a civilised life
By the 1980s I was living as a single parent, somewhat detached from feminist debates. I realised that the conversation had moved on, not least from scanning the shelves in Sisterwrite, the local feminist bookshop, but presumed that there were still some common understandings. In 1990, I was invited to speak at a conference in Sweden on The Construction of Sex/ Gender: What is a Feminist Perspective? which brought home to me my distance from current concerns. I presented a paper called ‘Equality for Whom? Tensions between the Individual and Collective Aspirations of Women in the Workplace’ I cannot find a copy of this paper but did come across a piece I wrote for Red Pepper[ii] a few years later that expressed something similar, in these words:
One of the great ironies of feminism is that it tends to give rise to precisely those characteristics which it initially sprang up to oppose: the collapsing of half the human race into a single, undifferentiated category labelled ‘women’. The impetus for liberation surely springs, in most cases, from a refusal to accept the anonymous role assigned to one as a woman in most societies; from an insistence that I, an autonomous subject, a unique individual, have as much right to my own particular identity, to express my own views, to shape my own destiny, to leave my own distinctive footprint on the world, as any man. Underlying much feminist writing one can detect a great yearning to speak for oneself, not as a representative of any abstraction of sex, race or class, but simply as a unique and individual voice which will be listened to with respect. It is essentially the same dream as that expressed in his famous Washington speech by Martin Luther King for his four children, that they will be judged ‘not by the colour of their skin but by the strength of their character’.
In the search for the expression of this individuality, women have come up, again and again, often at first with a pained shock at the hypocrisy of the ideas of democracy and equality they have been brought up to believe in, against forms of discrimination and stereotyping which are not just damaging economically but wounding to the psyche… And … in struggling to make sense of this individual injury, they are led to make generalisations: to see that they are prevented from fulfilling themselves in the way that they want because they are women (or, in some cases, because of their religion, class, ethnicity, colour, disability or some other variable). From this, it follows that they have a collective interest with others who share the same characteristic, and from this realisation, in turn, follow the forms of organising which are based on this shared identity.
My point was that one cannot think about being female without coming up against a complicated tension between the individual and the collective, which also links with other dialectics, such as class and ethnicity, and raises difficult questions about which aspects of the self to submerge and whose needs and feelings should take precedence over whose. And this is linked to another set of contradictions between the demands that relate to the world as it is, in which immediate measures are required to make life safe and tolerable, and those more experimental and utopian demands that might bring into being a new world as we would like it to be. But in the context of that conference (which included international luminaries like Luce Irigary) this point did not seem relevant at all. The focus was at once more theoretical and more personal. Nobody but me, it seemed, wanted to talk about the formulation of demands of any sort. What was at issue was the construction of identity. I felt ignorant and disconnected from most of the debate and retreated from it, later writing a regretful piece called ‘The Fading of the Collective Dream’[iii]. While recognising this difficult question of identity as important, I chose not to engage with it deeply, seeing political change as the most important thing to be focusing on and putting my energies into trying to understand the social and economic transformations going on in the world, without losing sight of the underlying goal of liberation. In this analysis I often treated gender as a large sociological variable among others, without worrying too much about any fuzzy edges in these broad categories – it was the overall power between larger social groupings that mattered. I also taught courses on ‘researching gender’ in which I encouraged students to reflect on how the gender of the researcher shaped how research questions were framed, and what was (or was not) taken for granted, as well as how interviewees might wish to present themselves and what information they might disclose so it was certainly there in the background. But even though I put the question of identity to one side, I must have been aware at some level that if you sign up to a slogan like ‘the personal is political’ it will at some point come back to bite you.
Meanwhile the world was moving on and it felt as if many of the things feminists had campaigned for were being won. I shared in the rejoicing when friends and relations came out as gay, though a part of me found it depressing that in order to announce their commitment to each other many embraced the institution of marriage that to me had always seemed like part of the problem not the solution to what we were learning to call ‘heteronormativity’.
Similarly, when a dear colleague I had previously known as male announced that she was becoming a woman my reaction was one of joy that she had found who she wanted to be, but this too was mixed with a twinge of sadness that this choice had had to be made within a binary context, like flicking a switch that had only two options: on or off; male or female. But this was dwarfed by my excitement – very much in the binary spirit – at the prospect of hearing from, so to speak, a spy from the other side who could report on how men really talk about women when they are not present.
Be careful what you wish for, we are advised, and I expect I am re-enacting a very old cliché when it seems that the dreams of my youth are becoming reality in forms that feel so distorted that it is hard to recognise those original visions in the outcomes. The future I hoped for was one in which it really didn’t matter if you were male or female (other than in relation to biological functions like childbearing and breast-feeding). In a world where your physical and financial needs, and those of your children, would be taken care of, you would be able to move freely and seamlessly through society, so I had imagined, with the bodily characteristics of the person you fell in love with as irrelevant as your own, able to adapt your dress and behaviour to changing circumstances without constantly having to check the mirror. You might even be able to liberate yourself from that internalised external judging gaze that was constantly comparing you to the norm.
Instead, we seem to have arrived at a situation where that not-mattering could not be further away. Indeed, identity seems to require pinning down in ever more precise detail. Anxious teenage girls, trapped in their bedrooms during the Covid lock-down with only Instagram and TikTok for company were expected to define themselves in relation to a vast new range of options, in which prefixes like ‘a-’, ‘poly-’, ‘omni-’, ‘hetero-’, ‘bi-’, ‘demi-’ or ‘grey-’ could be combined with ‘sexual’, ‘romantic’, ‘morphic’ or ‘amorous’ in innumerable combinations. In such a process, paradoxically, in seeking to define your identity precisely, perhaps in the hope of finding new like-minded communities to join, the very features that seem to designate your uniqueness may in fact draw attention to the precise opposite of that uniqueness: the way in which these facets, in no matter what combination, actually make you more interchangeable, and more unrooted from the labile, open, potential-filled person you were in early childhood.
It seems as if every ripple on the lake in which I imagined being able to swim so freely and heedlessly has had to be locked into position in a larger matrix in which, paradoxically, each atomised individual has been reduced to a precisely anatomised intersection of attributes: a frozen pixel in a global picture. This provides a metaphor for labour in a digitalised labour market in which, subjectively speaking, workers are unmoored from the community and class-based allegiances of their parents and stripped of cultural specificity. (This is something I have written about on this blog in the past here and here). No wonder that there has been such a surge in mental illness, which, bafflingly, is so often referred to these days as ‘mental health’, but which might more simply be regarded as misery.
I find myself perplexed by the very term ‘the LGBTQ+ community’ that has become the standard way of referring to anyone who does not conform to the notional standard heterosexual model. It is not a ‘community’ in any of the dictionary senses of the term in that its members do not share any common place of residence or occupation or hold goods in common. Even if we leave aside any lack of mutual knowledge and shared understandings between its component constituencies, there are theoretical and political contradictions in the very formulation of the concept. The ‘Lesbians’, ‘Gays’ and ‘Bisexuals’ who lead the initialism are defined in terms of the objects of their desire, who can be presumed to be other biologically-defined women or men. If we assume that everyone has a stable sexual identity established at birth there is absolutely no contradiction in establishing common interests between lesbians, gay men, bisexuals and heterosexuals (any of whom might be attracted to other lesbians, gay men, bisexuals and heterosexuals) and thereby formulating policies for protecting their rights to safety, non-discrimination and equality. It is also relatively easy to accommodate a range of different forms of self-presentation and attraction within such a schema. But there is no denying that these concepts depend crucially on a stable, sexually binary social context.
Problems arise when you reject that concept of a stable sexual identity established at birth. This raises quite deep philosophical questions not only in relation to the definition of the self but also in the definition of the object of desire (creating the paradoxical notion that you can simultaneously reject the binary notions ‘man’ and ‘woman’ while insisting that you are nevertheless a ‘man’ or a ‘woman’ and/or attracted only to ‘men’ or ‘women’ according to a stereotypical definition, thus reinforcing precisely the concept you claim to be rejecting).
In the TQ+ part of the initialism the definitions shift from a focus on the identity of the object of desire to the identity of the self. When placed in the (acquired) category ‘male’ or ‘female’ a trans identity does not pin you down in relation to the sex of the person you are attracted to. But if you take the view that all gendered subjectivities are socially constructed, making it possible to self-define, then a mirror set of problems emerges. How do you then define same-sex attraction? Or indeed heterosexuality?
Is it perhaps the case that any self-definition takes its meaning from a presumed rigidly conservative binary background which individuals can only define themselves against? To go back to the parallel with race, do all identities derive their value just from being other? Can deviance only exist in a broader context of conformity? If your group identity is based on being excluded from another larger group, how is inclusion then formed? And how do these multiplying negatives react in the self which is both a subject and an object of desire? And how are these complexities exacerbated by the ways in which the external gaze has been internalised, to varying degrees? In this hall of mirrors in which parodies glance off stereotypes ad infinitum, is there even any possibility of finding an authentic self? And let us not forget the vulnerability of that self. Who, back in the 1960s, could have anticipated a situation where misgendering someone is experienced as a deeply wounding insult?
Added to these abstract contradictions are other more historically embedded ones. Take, for example, a woman of my generation, brought up to put up with stuff and be empathetic, and, quite likely, having spent the last half century or so struggling to find her own voice and articulate her own needs, buried underneath a mountain of obligations to be a good daughter, sister and mother, a helpful friend, neighbour and colleague or a dedicated campaigner. Faced with the emotional fragility of a child or grandchild suffering the intolerable pain of the first encounter with the nastiness and unfairness of the world she may be terribly torn between the urge to protect this precious vulnerable person and the impulse to respond as her own mother might have done (‘This is what life is like. Suck it up’) perhaps in the belief that this is the only way to pass on the strength and skills needed to survive. This is not dissimilar from the scenario, so often depicted in male-authored novels and screenplays, in which men who had to suppress their ‘soft’ side to survive in the army or at work or in a gang culture find it difficult to engage with the new forms of self-presentation of self-questioning sons and grandsons.
There is also a personal dimension to the ways in which stereotypes are perceived. Women who have never worn dresses or high-heeled shoes or makeup as a matter of principle feel nevertheless implicated in the category ‘women’ that is evoked by their use, whether this is in pornography, in the apparently transgressive category of drag or other fetishisms. This reaction is not dissimilar to that of black people to white actors in blackface. Again, they may be held back in the expression of this reaction by the simple fear of the aggression that complaining might evoke or by the impulse (if not compulsion) to empathise with or at least feel sorry for the perpetrator who knows no better or just (as their mothers might have told them) the disinclination to make a fuss about it.
My point here is that there are no simple way to dissolve away the contradictions that arise in trying to reconcile the diverse interests that cross the LGBTQ+ spectrum. Frictions are bound to arise, and clearly do.
It is too simplistic to portray current disagreements as simple inter-generational conflicts, although no doubt this plays a part. Just as, we might surmise, Liz Truss’s extreme form of conservative politics might relate to unresolved tensions with her left-leaning parents, or the virulent anti-immigration sentiments of Priti Pratel or Suella Braverman with unfinished business with their immigrant parents, so it seems likely that at least some of the current antagonism to 1970s feminism among the young and woke might be rooted in personal resentments against the ways in which parents or grandparents are perceived to have failed.
Which brings me, in this already overly long blog post, back to the social and political: to the thorny question of rights and obligations.
Under British law, and that of many other countries, there have, since the 1970s, been some general sex or gender-based rights that are respected in practice to varying degrees: equal treatment in the workplace and in the provision of services, not to be sexually abused, not to be raped, to dress in accordance with one’s individual, cultural and religious preferences, and, less clearly defined, to personal safety and to have access to safe single-sex spaces. To these, many might want to add a wish-list of further rights and obligations which are already sometimes embodied in institutional rules, for example to be treated with courtesy and respect, to avoid unsolicited touching, not to expose others to pornographic images and so on.
There are further rights that apply more specifically to LBGTQ+ groups: not to be discriminated against, not to be subjected to hate crime and, less clearly defined, not to be hurtfully caricatured. But it is less clear whether these rights are based on a person’s declared or ascribed subjective identity and, if so whether this is in turn based on a stable or unstable natal identity (as implied in the TQ+ part of the initialism) or on the declared object of desire, and if so whether that is in turn based on a stable or unstable natal identity (as implied in the LGB part).
These rights are of course mirrored in prohibitions of behaviour that violates these rights. But it is in the mutual interactions of these rights and obligations that the trouble starts. Big trouble, as can be seen on a daily basis on social media. I do not see it as my role to offer solutions to these problems. The chances are that my views will, as in the past, turn out to be minority ones and, in any case, these issues are for younger generations to resolve.
But there is one point I do wish to make, one that sometimes seems forgotten in these debates, and that is the rights that we do not have. It is perhaps one of the central tragedies of human existence that, however much the rich and powerful (not to mention angry incels) may try to wish this into being, nobody has the right to be desired. The pain of sexual rejection is one for which there is no legal palliative. This is hard for anyone to deal with but perhaps especially hard for people brought up in the conditions of 21st century capitalism. They have been told that everyone has the right to happiness and fulfilment and that the market can provide a solution to every problem. All you have to do is find the money to pay for it. If you are miserable, the market can supply you with drugs or therapy. If you aren’t happy with your body, it can fix it with surgery or hormones. If you still don’t like this body of yours, or your job (or your lack of a job) or your home (or your lack of a home) or your sexual partner (or your lack of a sexual partner) then this must be your fault. But of course you know it is not really your fault. So, every reminder of this unhappiness, this thwarting of the fulfilment you grew up believing was your entitlement, makes you angry. And this anger may very well be directed at the people you come across when you hit the buffers that define the boundaries of your sexual identity, the gatekeepers, so to speak, of the patriarchal order. Not just the men who threaten you with violence, deny you work or steal your ideas but also the parents and teachers who seem to be grooming you into acceptance and toning down your expectations.
I am very hesitant to propose any lessons that can be learned from the 1970s women’s liberation movement. Heaven knows we must have got an awful lot of things wrong, because look at the mess we are left with. But if I might venture one suggestion, it is this. Perhaps one useful starting point, however limited, might be to focus more on what we have in common and less on what divides us.
I sit here writing this in a female body which has changed a lot over the years but only as a result of self-neglect, childbirth and fracture-repairing surgery. I am grateful to be wearing no restrictive underwear or tight shoes, a unisex top and trousers with a stretchy waistband. I am even more grateful that I can write more or less as I please and am invited to speak and to publish on a more or less equal footing with men (albeit in a field where such labour is barely remunerated). But I am enraged that, on an almost daily basis (and sometimes as part of the cyberbureaucratic process that is the gateway to just such forms of expression) I am required to fill in a questionnaire in which I have to tick boxes obliging me to categorise my gender identity, my marital status and, sometimes, even my preferred pronouns, under classification systems that I cannot relate to. Sometimes I feel that I do not identify with any of the gender models out there, each identity too prescriptive or restrictive to feel anything like me, or a version of me that I recognise. And an internal voice keeps insisting ‘This shouldn’t matter’. But then I switch on the news and am reminded of those brave women in Iran defying the mullahs as they expose their hair, and what has happened to abortion rights in the United States, and the fact that male homosexuals in Qatar face a three-year prison sentence and the possibility of the death penalty, and of course it does matter. Back to where I started. Sigh.
[i] Leo Robson (2022) ‘I’m Getting Out of Here’, London Review of Books, 3 November.
[ii] Huws, U. (1997) ‘Bread and Roses: Reflections on Women’s Politics at the End of the Twentieth Century’, Red Pepper, October
[iii] Huws U. (1998) ‘The Fading of the Collective Dream’ in Mitter, S. and Rowbotham, S. (eds) Women Encounter Technology, Routledge