On Gender & Feminism: Ride the Third Wave


Every generation of self-defined progressives has to tackle the fact that progress doesn’t end with them. – Laurie Penny

I thought the chapter was closed on this matter. What more could there be to know, to learn about gender and equality–both separately and together–I was, after all, a card-carrying feminist for most of my life. But this book, Bitch Doctrine, the chapter on gender in this book, lifted the veil, dropped the penny, fit the puzzle pieces together for me, like no other before it and certainly no other like it, around what it means to be genderqueer, and why an inclusive feminism is now ever more important than before.

I am a second-wave-feminist–of the generation that demanded an expansion of what it means to be a “woman.” I may not have fought or protested for my rights, not in public at any rate, I was too young and had grown up in a culture that was also too young, for me and for feminism in general. But the resistance was alive and well within the paper of my skin, my psyche.

You see, like the author, Laurie Penny I’d “never felt quite like a woman, but [I’d] never wanted to be a man, either.” Certainly not like the “men” and “women” the world around me had neatly divided itself into. I was neither soft nor hard, more like bold and outspoken–annoyingly inquisitive and impossibly impertinent and, sadly, irrepressible. I was always saying the wrong thing at the wrong time to the wrong person. Things I heard my brother and father and uncles say (and get away with with impunity). I didn’t consider those thoughts, those opinions to be particularly “masculine,” but I also wasn’t so stupid as to not notice that the women’s discourse looked somewhat different.

All I knew was that I didn’t fit in. Not into either box. Not neatly. Not even clumsily. It’s as if there was a third box–Tina–and that was me.

It was only much later (in my 20s) that I took on the mantle of “Woman,” and even then, I wore it more as a political position, a statement piece. This. This is what it means to be oppressed. These are the people whose experiences with violence and injustice most closely resemble my own.

Because I presented as a woman, I was treated as a woman. I was catcalled and groped and told to “smile more” and not show my legs, but if I was going to show them could I please shave them.

I was called a “boy” by those who thought I wasn’t curvy enough and “girl” by those who thought my curves (what little I had then) were offensive or dangerous: Cover up! You don’t want to invite trouble.

I didn’t care about my appearance. I didn’t care to be nice. I didn’t conciliate. Or apologize. Or yield.

But I also didn’t roughhouse or play sports or get my clothes dirty.

I preferred to read and chat and take tea.

I could not get with the gender-binary program.

But no alternatives presented themselves to me, so I just got on with my life. And truthfully, my cis-female-presenting, heterosexual identity was not (entirely) in opposition to my essential identity. As a result, I faced only a garden-variety discrimination, and even that was almost entirely ameliorated by my upper-middle-class upbringing.

So I settled for the only identities available to me at the time–woman, feminist.

Fast forward to present time, and my old notions of gender and identity have been challenged, expanded, due largely to two recent encounters.

The first was a casual chat over a glass of wine, when I pronounced (rather cavalierly, in hindsight) in response to some petty offense that one of my companions recounted: That’s just what guys do!

Not all guys, my friend quietly said.

No, no, of course not! Not all guys, I recanted, (don’t you just hate when you get caught broad-brushing?) just “guys” as a class of people.

Well, that’s just the problem, she said. We can’t really say “all guys” about anything, can we?

She was right. Not merely because of the universal “all,” but also (and especially) because of the “guys.”

Here I was conflating sex with gender with behavior into one neatly packaged, monolithic unit.

Do(ing) unto others as they had done to me.

I had made a fundamental mistake, a rookie mistake: I had allowed my understanding to stop at the  boundaries of my experience and (perhaps more interestingly) at the boundaries of my language.

Enter, the second encounter that shook up my thinking, this book, Bitch Doctrine, a book that serendipitously crossed my path just a few short weeks after my encounter with my friend.

In the book, the author, Laurie Penny, has collected a series of essays on third-wave feminism and the current state of our sexist culture. Each essay is incisive and electric, compelling reading, yet not especially new to me, at least not until the chapter on Gender. Okay, so this is a feminist tome, of course there’s going to be a chapter on Gender, but really what more could she add to the discourse, I wondered.

Well, a lot, as it happens, and exactly what I needed to hear, needed to learn.

The chapter on Gender is critical of mainstream feminism in its exclusion of transgender and genderqueer people from the discourse. “Younger feminists,” she writes, “are looking for new gender categories altogether,” instead of the simple binary of “manhood” and “womanhood.”

So this got me thinking–both back to my conversation with my friend, but also back to my experiences as a woman.

What, for example, does it mean to be a “man,” to be a “woman?” Is it, as Penny says, just a “made-up category, an intangible, constantly changing idea with as many different definitions as there are cultures on Earth?”

Probably so.

But what choices do we have when our language limits our experiences?

One of the sternest criticisms of transgender people, often at the hands of first- and second-wave feminists, is that they set back the movement because they “reinforce binary thinking about gender when they choose to join the other team instead of challenging what it means to be a man or a woman.”

But what choice do transgender people have? We require them to play into tired gender stereotypes in order to be included, to be counted as human beings. We simply do not have (do not choose to have?) the language, the curiosity, the experience of what it means to be gender non-binary, gender queer. We do not. The buck stops with us.

It is my responsibility, our collective responsibility to understand, to educate ourselves, to include, to expand not only what it means to be “man,” and “woman,” but also what it means to be “genderqueer” and “feminist.”

And if that means questioning the notion of gender itself, straddling it, crossing it, or throwing the whole damn thing out into the Boston Harbor (along with all that other arbitrary and oppressive crap), then so be it.

As Penny says, “Only when we recognize that ‘manhood’ and ‘womanhood’ are made-up categories, invented to control human beings and violently imposed, can we truly understand the nature of sexism, of misogyny.”

And until such time as we live in a world where gender is not oppressive or enforced, where every individual is free to express and perform their identities safely and joyfully, we, the feminist movement, will need to continue to evolve.

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