My womanhood used to fit me like a pair of Daisy Dukes — squeezing me so tightly it left red-raw marks around my thighs while still managing to gap at the waist and expose my bargain bin underwear. Occasionally, when the weather was too hot or when I felt especially courageous, I would shave my legs, tug on my womanhood, and expose my chubby, pasty legs to the unflinching light of the sun. But most of the time I would slide into the thick denim of attempted-genderless, sweating perhaps, but not mutilating my legs or otherwise embarrassing myself. Womanhood, in short, intimidated me. I kept it tucked away in the deepest depths of my closet, usually on the floor, to be retrieved only when I’d failed to do my laundry for far too long or when the mercury blew out the top of the thermometer. The unfortunate side effect of this is that I looked at the people who could proudly go gams-out whenever they wanted with a tiresome mix of apprehension, fear, and discomfort. What was I supposed to make of these people who could not only wear, but comfortably and happily so, something that caused me so much pain?
For years, I shirked my womanhood. I didn’t go near women’s spaces or women’s groups or, even more tragically, women generally. Now that I’m older and a little better read, I’ve learned that shorts with an eleven-inch inseam are just as much shorts as shorts with a nine, seven, or five inch one. It turns out — to really beat this belaboured metaphor to death — that there’s no one-size-fits-all version of womanhood.
It would be folly to call myself an exception to the rule of womanhood. The construction of gender by patriarchy necessarily means that the people to whom it most closely applies will feel alienated from it. There can hardly be a woman alive who has not felt at one time or another that they simply do not fit womanhood — this doesn’t mean they box it up and drop it off at their local charity shop (though some do, and that’s totally fine and very environmentally-conscious of them), but it does mean that not all women are going to feel absolute allegiance to womanhood all of the time.
Even when I didn’t feel especially connected to being a woman, I still suffered from the injuries that are part and parcel of womanhood. For those of us who have had our feminist consciousnesses raised, we know that this is because patriarchy is a system, not a choice, and that it does not go away just because we wish it’d cut us some slack. I knew why these unfortunate things were happening to me — I knew what being a woman entailed — but it didn’t make me more amenable to the thought of active womanhood. This is a lesson the feminist movement has to learn every ten years or so: simply telling women that they are women and that women are oppressed as women is not enough to make them gender radicals. It’s a strategy that doesn’t work. We can keep trying and failing (and trying and failing, and trying and failing), or we can get smart, evaluate the reality of the situation, restrategise, and march to victory.
I am about to harshly critique a popular feminist orthodoxy. We have, over the last half-century or so, lost a culture of constructive criticism on the left, so I want to say up front that I am not critiquing this feminist orthodoxy because I disdain its primary theorists, or because I think the people who support it are malicious or stupid — the very opposite is true. I have immense respect for my feminist forebears and the theoretical and practical contributions they have made to the struggle against patriarchy. If I did not respect them, I would not waste my precious leisure time critiquing their work.
In the 1970s, women began to examine their place within the organised left and to question the commitment to and understanding of gender justice within those organisations. Many women decided that the effort required to reform those institutions was simply too great and that organising exclusively with women on issues women saw as most important to them would be the most fulfilling use of their time. Other women elected to remain in the traditional organisations of the left and fight their corner. Of these two approaches, I am most sympathetic to the latter, but not a day goes by that I do not viscerally, spiritually understand why the women who took the former approach did.
Among the women who chose to “stay and fight” as it were, there were further splits in strategic direction. Some advocated continuing to raise issues of gender justice directly to the general membership and structures of their organisations without further sequestering of that membership. Others advocated for the creation of women-only groups within those organisations, intended to be a place of both emotional refuge and specified political organisation for women. That these attempts came up against enormous resistance, largely from men, is no surprise. It should also come as no surprise that the vast majority of critiques lodged by men against these attempts were not only disingenuous, they were actively detrimental to the wider left in their total disregard for the important questions of democracy, accountability, and strategic orientation raised by these women.
Within the specific context of the Anglo-American left in the 1970s (and to a lesser extent, the 1980s), I would argue that the push to create women-only organising spaces was strategically sound. I am not, however, here interested in relitigating the historical strategy of the movement (though I will gladly do so at a different time), but rather in assessing the theoretical and strategic practice of the present day movement. I will, therefore, cap off my discussion of the past by saying that the reasons I would call the women’s-only organising approach (internal to the left) strategically sound in the 1970s are the very same reasons I would call it a profound error in the 2020s.
It is, I think, a rather dull truism to say that we are not living in the 1970s, but, in brief, it’s worth explaining why this is the case. The 1970s, though a decade of nearly unmitigated decline in Britain and America, could at least claim a far more numerous and better organised left than the 2020s can. This is not to say that the future looked bright for the 70s left — far from it, but at least by the numbers and the immediate context, the retro left was in a (slightly) better position than the left of the 2020s. Mostly, this translated to numbers: nearly every town and city in the United Kingdom had at least one functioning political group that could be qualified as “left wing”, and in the larger cities there were numerous groups and splits and factions, each with a large enough membership to sustain monthly meetings. For vast swathes of the modern left, this is simply not the case. Nevertheless, the 2020s hold the upper hand on the 70s in one crucial way: the struggle for gender justice has had nearly fifty years to develop, proliferate, and mature. While the theoretical mainstream (as controlled by milquetoast, intellectually incurious liberals) might be an embarrassment, we at least benefit from feminist theory being a more widely acknowledged doctrine than was the case in the long middle of the 20th century.
Given the hard-won lessons of our predecessors and our own changing conditions, it is necessary to reflect upon the strategy of women-only organising. Hereafter, I’ll be using a relatively narrow definition of “women-only organising” — primarily referring to the creation of women’s wings within parties, trade unions, and political organisations. Despite this, I am by and large happy for my conclusions to be applied to other forms of gender-segregated organising. My opposition to women-only organising can be boiled down to three main reasons. First, it codifies a level of allegiance to emotional motivations that should not be a standard part of left-wing organising. Second, it fails to acknowledge the fluidity of gender – a fluidity which is paramount to breaking patriarchy. And third, it effectively ghettoises the struggle for gender justice and places disproportionate organisational burden on women.
I am, as a matter of course, sceptical of the politics of emotion. I am not sceptical of the existence of emotions, or their validity, or the organised left’s need to treat them with the seriousness they are due, but I remain unconvinced that an emotions-first form of politics is a sufficient solution to any of these problems. To explain what emotional politics are, we can refer back to the issue at hand; women’s-only organising spaces on the left developed out of a desire to meet the emotional needs of women who were often belittled, overworked, and under-appreciated by their men comrades — to say nothing of the myriad instances of sexual, physical, and emotional violence they routinely suffered.
These women faced organisational cultures in which acts of patriarchal hegemony (or, in simpler terms, misogyny) were rarely acknowledged, let alone challenged or sufficiently redressed. The emotional burden of attempting to address that imbalance was enormous. To them, attempting to break that culture felt impossible. We now know that it was not impossible, that men need not inherently act as the executors of patriarchy — and it is in large part thanks to these women that the noxious stranglehold patriarchal behaviour holds over the left has begun to be broken.
But the success in beginning to untangle that web was as much a matter of good luck as of strategic salience. The specific emotional demands of the feminist movement were acquiesced to not because the feminist movement successfully overpowered patriarchal capitalism, but because they were, ultimately, demands that capitalism could reasonably concede to without undermining its foundations. The emotional politics of capitalism are ever changing; when political demands for reform are argued in emotive terms — the unsavoury nature of slavery, the incivility of urban poverty, the rudeness of men shouting down women — capital will almost always acquiesce to that emotional component. Slavery still exists (though criminalised and sent underground so we need not look it in the eye), the overcrowded tenements of Victorian urban poverty have been splashed with bright paint and rebranded ‘co-living’ and ‘co-working’ spaces, and most men are smart enough to firmly talk over women, not yell. The world is superficially nicer, but the song remains the same.
In effect, privileging the politics of the emotional, of withdrawing from open conflict and putting a glossy sheen over political organising (or: not telling organisations to stop accepting pigheaded, misogynistic behaviour at the individual and systemic level) does patriarchy’s work for it. When women withdraw from more general politics to organise only among themselves there is no opportunity for growth through conflict — and conflict, as Marxists are all too aware of, is the primary engine of change.
The unfortunate reality of the struggle to destroy patriarchy is that it will be messy. It will be uncomfortable. Tears will no doubt be shed. But it will not be messier, more uncomfortable, or more cry-worthy than the continued existence of patriarchy. We must make a strategic choice: do we choose immediate comfort over revolutionary change, or do we bite the bullet and do what we must?
This rebuke of emotional politics necessarily evokes the spectre of feminism’s current dumbest controversy: the vicious, US evangelical-funded fight to obliterate trans people. It is no mere coincidence that the primary arguments in favour of invalidating, delegitimising, and imprisoning/murdering trans people are made in emotional terms. From “I feel unsafe when I cannot pull down other women’s pants to ensure they have a vagina,” to “I feel like there’s a possibility a cis man might dress up as a woman to invade a women’s shelter, even though there’s no actual data or evidence to back this up,” the very real, very serious fears of women under threat from patriarchal violence are warped into something deeply malevolent — an attack on the very thing feminism must be working towards.
There was a time, however brief, in which it was not controversial within the feminist movement to say that gender nonconformity was a thing to be encouraged. Gender nonconformity, so the argument went, was less about rebellion for rebellion’s sake than about embodying one’s truest self irrespective of patriarchal diktats. This was, ultimately, the very point of feminism: gender as dictated by patriarchy is a pointless, dangerous, and unnecessary thing; to break its control over people’s hearts and minds and to allow them to live — without fear or threat of violence — as their truest selves was, therefore, the whole fucking point. To head off a tedious counter argument, I will note that this reading does not deny the existence of patriarchal gender, in fact it necessarily acknowledges and analyses it to ensure that, during the process of smashing it, it is broken down so completely that it cannot possibly be rebuilt in a new but equally insidious fashion.
So: gender is real, but only because it is systematically accepted as real. It has no legitimisation beyond its popular legitimacy — patriarchal gender, when you get down to it, is really just a Lovecraftian multi-level-marketing scheme. As feminists, we recognise that gender is mostly real because it is forced on us by forces external to our own desires and needs — this does not mean that gender will always be that way, but for now it is. Because we recognise this, we also recognise that it’s not unreasonable to say that women are worse off under patriarchy than men, that a preference for the masculine over the feminine means that trans women are liable to face unique challenges when compared with trans men (this is called transmisogyny). The question of women-only organising, then, becomes a problem.
Which raises a question I am so sick of hearing I almost hate myself for repeating it here, but am nevertheless obliged to do: what is a woman, and how do we define womanhood? In the context of women’s-only organising, there are two common answers. The first, the one most commonly adopted by the transphobic wing of the movement, defines woman as people who were born with a vagina (this sometimes expands to include a uterus and breasts). There have been latter day revisions to shoehorn in the term “assigned female at birth,” therefore rather sloppily encompassing all people who were named female at birth, irrespective of their current gender identity, but these revisions are deeply disingenuous and I feel nothing but contempt for them. The second attempted definition uses “woman” to mean “non-men” and lumps women (cis and trans alike) in with non-binary people, and sits them in — ironically — binary opposition to men. It is a negative definition of “woman”, it is a womanhood that does not exist own its own on terms, but rather to describe the absence of something, namely, manhood. It is a definition that actively hinders a positive, liberated conception of womanhood, instead irrevocably tethering it to violence, victimisation, and immoderation. Women are not men — but men are everything in a patriarchal society. We are not a binary counterpart to men, we are the shameful absence of masculinity. When we trap ourselves with this (needlessly) overly-comprehensive definition of womanhood, in which women are everything men are not, suddenly women become nothing at all.
I will gleefully damn this second definition with faint praise by saying that it is marginally better than its transphobic counterpart. It is still woefully lacking. If women’s-only activism is necessary for facilitating space for people who are not socially conditioned to behave in misogynistic/sexist ways to discuss and organise in a less aggressive environment and with a focus on women’s issues, and if we accept that the gender binary is bunk, then we must ask the question: what of cis men who are also emotionally and politically exhausted by the intense misogyny and degradation inherent to patriarchal behaviour? Do we accept their discomfort as a trade off for our own comfort? And what of the trans men who, unless something incredible has happened since I began writing this piece a few hours ago, are absolutely not in a state of gender parity with cis men? Do we include them in our women-only organising, thereby delegitimising their gender, a gender that is no more or less real and tangible than our own?
The answer, of course, is that women-only organising is not fit for purpose. Any attempt to define womanhood in a way that would encompass all those violently impacted by patriarchy would contradict the most crucial ideological underpinnings of feminism. It cannot be done, it should not be done.
I did, it must be said, leave out an obvious definition of “woman” from the previous section, namely, that women are only those who identify as women, irrespective of if they are cis or trans. The reason for this omission is simple: patriarchy has never been solely about violent control over women, and nonconformity across the gender spectrum is as dangerous to patriarchy as a proud, unambiguous defence of womanhood. And, on a practical level, to argue that women’s issues can only be handled by women is to let our comrades off the hook.
I believe that patriarchy is an offence to all of us, not because it is vulgar or uncouth, but because it prevents us all from living in a manner that is maximally liberated. I am not, however, so obtuse as to argue that men are equally as victimised by patriarchy as are women. Women, it should not need to be said, suffer disproportionately from patriarchal violence. Women are more likely to be assaulted, raped, to suffer domestic violence, to be underpaid, to be mistreated by medical professionals; the list, desperately grim to the bitter end, goes on and on. If we truly believe (as we ought to) that the destruction of patriarchy will be a moment of liberation for all, then we must behave as if we genuinely believe it.
To siphon off women and issues of gender justice into a neat, tidy, and quiet little women’s wing is to tell men that they are not culpable for the success or failure of anti-patriarchal politics. It tells them that their politics (which are the default politics, because it is they who comprise the general membership while it is women who are part of a specially titled wing) are the principal politics, the ones that cannot be ignored or hindered, while “ours” are the side dish, there to be ignored if the eating is otherwise good. It enables theoretical and practical laziness among men — why would they engage with the serious intellectual discourses of feminism if they have been told that the struggle for gender justice is not their wheelhouse?
And, naturally, it ignores the shameful reality that the organised left simply does not have as many women as it used to. To establish a woman’s wing would be to cloister ten percent of that organisation’s membership and ask it to liberate fifty percent of the world, while the remaining ninety percent of the membership focus on the other half. In other words, it would be to foist a disproportionate degree of burden on women’s shoulders with vanishingly few resources or support. That used to be the done thing in households — we decried it as the thrall of housewifery and rightly rioted against it. It is untenable that we would accept it again but dressed up in slightly different digs.
There’s a fear of complexity and fluidity in organising that I can sympathise with. As a young person desperately trying to force myself into shorts several sizes too small, I would have given anything to have been told there was a fast and easy solution to all my problems, that I could wear my frumpy cargo shorts and still feel like a Victoria’s Secret Angel. No part of me wanted to or was ready to hear that the answer to my problem actually lay in freeing myself of worrying about whether I kept up with what was trendy. Against my best attempts, I grew up, I learned more about myself and life, my understanding of the world necessarily changed, and with it my approach to my problems. It’s not something I would gladly tell a teenager, because it’s advice that hurts, and doesn’t make things feel better right away. The left — though maybe it sometimes feels otherwise — is not a teenager. It does not need to do several long, awkward years of growing up before it begins to find the answers to life’s questions — we’ve already done the growing up, the answers already lay in our past. Now, we need to decide if we’re willing to embrace the complexity of passing on the Daisy Dukes and pulling up the cargo shorts, because really, how could you say no to this many pockets?