There’s a lot about feminism that frustrates me, if I’m being honest. Most of my frustration stems from the messy set of contradictions between theory - all of the thousands of books that have been written in the past century - and practice. Feminist leaders since the beginning of the first wave have talked eloquently and passionately about equality and justice in public, and then privately spewed vitriol towards sexual and racial minorities.
First wave icon Susan B. Anthony once famously said “I will cut off this right arm of mine before I will ever work or demand the ballot for the Negro and not the woman,” when asked about the co-existing effort for Black political and cultural recognition. Anthony is just one of many who has said incredibly problematic and downright awful things in the name of equality, and there will likely be many more.
Feminism as a movement has gone through so many incarnations and existed in so many different historical moments that it’s hard to imagine a time when it would transcend the limitations of the biases of any given time. The issue is, we talk about feminism as if it does, and already has. We look back on the mistakes of those who came before us with chagrin, but tell ourselves that we are doing things right this time, and have nothing to worry about.
Unfortunately, these issues are still alive and well today. Julie Bindel, a prominent English feminist, has repeatedly compared bisexuality to bestiality. Sheila Jeffreys has argued on multiple occasions that queer theory is a distraction. Still more feminists debate the role of sex positivity, body shaming, and other hot button issues.
Most recently, the proliferation of feminist literature condemning the transgender equality movement has increased dramatically, as the visibility of transgender people in our society has grown. We’ve seen a spate of bills in state and local legislatures aim to choke off every avenue of support for transgender citizens in the same pattern as the Civil Rights cases of the 1950s and 60s and the gay rights cases of the 2000s and ‘10s. The arm of the political establishment has come down hard and ruthlessly against transgender Americans.
Politics, as it often does, makes strange bedfellows. Many of the same arguments used by ultra-conservative Christians, including those of forced conversions, sexual violence in bathrooms, and a dismissal of statistics about violence against transgender bodies, have been embraced by sectors of radical feminists. Couching their critiques in a fundamental understanding of gender non-essentialism, these feminists and their conservative anti-feminist counterparts rage against the so-called political correctness machine for imposing a repressive doctrine on American society. Of course, their calculations of the effects are quite different, but the framing of the issue is much the same.
I think it’s important to discuss theory, and critique theoretical constructs. But that critique cannot hinge on the ignorance, or worse, outright dismissal, of the lives that theory affects. When we treat theory - complicated ideas verbalized by equally complicated people - as immutable truth, we set ourselves up to fail. After all, we did at one point ascribe to theories around racial eugenics, cultural primitivism, sociobiological determinism, and (most recently embodied by The Bush Doctrine and, to some extent, Clinton’s “Smart Power”) democratic imperialism. We’re all well aware of the catastrophic results incurred by clinging to theory as if our very lives depended on it. The entire situation in the Middle East regarding the rise of ISIL is one of a myriad of examples of the times in which a faulty theory can cause a ripple effect of disastrous consequences that last decades and affect thousands.
Theory is important because it helps us to make sense of the world around us. But when we are so engrossed in the theory that we fail to understand the world which it seeks to understand, we treat the effects of that theory as though they are merely metaphysical possibilities rather than real, embodied consequences.
Much as there was little room in feminist theory for gays and lesbians until queer people became the theorists, so we lack a comprehensive understanding of transgender issues while people largely unaffected by said issues wrack their brains trying to figure out the solution to all of their many, often contradictory questions.
Importantly, theory will not make all of those contradictions disappear. In some cases, it makes them all the more salient. But in constructing theory, and in analyzing it, we must be aware when it’s failing us. When the theory we have in front of us no longer explains the reality in which we live, the solution isn’t to dig our heels in and insist the world around us is governed according to the same laws. What we need to do more of is put our boots on the ground, and interact with those whose lives are supposedly explained and accounted for by these theories. The result may not be perfect, but it’s a start. And if we continue to elevate the experiences of those most proximal to social and political change, we can start bridging the gap between theory and practice. I think that’s something most everyone would agree is worth striving for.