Jean-Leon Gerome, Pygmalion et Galatée, esquisse à l’huile (Pygmalion and Galatea, oil sketch), 1890
By Donovan Cleckley
Men of Sense in all Ages abhor those customs which treat us only as the vassals of your Sex.
- Abigail Adams, in a letter to John Adams, March 31, 1776
There has been a rising tendency among critics of transgenderism, not all of whom are even critical of gender, to scapegoat feminism. Women have been prototypical scapegoats à la “wickedness is but little to the wickedness of a woman” (Ecclesiasticus 25:19). Representing the right-wing point of view, Matt Walsh argues that feminism provided the necessary foundation for transsexualism and transgenderism as its more contemporary incarnation. Walsh asserts:
Feminism set the stage for trans activists by insisting for years that there are no significant or inherent differences between men and women apart from anatomy. They are the ones who came up with the idea that most differences between the sexes were ‘social constructs.’ Now the ‘gender critical’ feminists want to pretend to be the leaders in the fight against trans ideology, all while refusing to admit that it is a direct descendent of their own ideology. These women will absurdly try to flip this around and claim that those of us with more ‘traditional’ views on sex are the ones who somehow set the stage for transgenderism. But our view was dominate [sic] for millennia and transgenderism never existed during that time. Feminism comes along and trans ideology follows almost immediately behind it. Try to piece this together, ladies. It’s not a coincidence.
Yes, ladies, let us try to piece this all together, as best we can. Most feminists have argued that women and men experience different socialization on the basis of sex from birth to death. By nature, women’s bodies and men’s bodies differ, with clearly differing needs, medically and otherwise, but their behaviors do as well. To what extent socialization versus biology influences these differences has been debated among feminists. In The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the She-Male, first published in 1979, Janice G. Raymond wrote the first extensive critique of transsexualism, precursor to modern transgenderism, from a feminist point of view. She addressed the question of “the real differences between men and women,” which men have continued pressing upon women to answer. Raymond writes:
Men, of course, have defined the supposed differences that have kept women out of such jobs and professions, and feminists have spent much energy demonstrating how these differences, if indeed they do exist, are primarily the result of socialization. Yet there are differences, and some feminists have come to realize that those differences are important whether they spring from socialization, from biology, or from the total history of existing as a woman in a patriarchal society. The point is, however, that the origin of these differences is probably not the important question, and we shall perhaps never know the total answer to it. Yet we are forced back into trying to answer it again and again.
No man can have the history of being born and located in this culture as a woman. He can have the history of wishing to be a woman and of acting like a woman, but this gender experience is that of a transsexual, not of a woman. Surgery may confer the artifacts of outward and inward female organs, but it cannot confer the history of being a woman in this society.
Whatever did womankind do before What Is a Woman? and Walsh opening that jar of pickles? Women actually understood the difference, so there is that fact to be twisted—pickles on the side. Characteristic of developing feminist criticism of the 1970s, Raymond’s analysis recognized that there are significant differences between women and men, whatever the origin of these differences may be. There was a degree of idealism present in early feminist writing of the era, a notable example being Shulamith Firestone’s Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution in 1970. Women continued to develop their analyses, which, as seen in Raymond’s work, accounted for precisely the complexity that modern commentary willfully overlooks.
To Walsh’s other point, a big part of why transgenderism did not exist millennia ago is the basic fact of burgeoning technological development in recent centuries. Cavemen were not banging rocks together and making breast augmentations to give each other and get their rocks off. One
may as well ask why the Renaissance lacked space travel. As Jennifer Bilek has emphasized, the development of “synthetic sex identities,” a part of what Thomas Szasz first termed pharmacracy, did not come from nowhere. Doublethink: A Feminist Challenge to Transgenderism, Raymond’s 2021 book, puts forth a timely feminist critique, worth serious consideration, though her work has been seriously neglected when not relentlessly caricatured.
“Remember the Ladies,” Abigail Adams reminded her husband, a Founding Father and the second U.S. president, who also forgot the ladies. “Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands,” she continued. “Remember all Men would be tyrants if they could.” In a memorable line from her letter, she asserts that, if men do not redress such tyranny over women, then “we are determined to foment a Rebelion.” To which John Adams replied, “We know better than to repeal our Masculine systems.” He wrote that the ongoing American Revolution led to a questioning of traditional hierarchies, “that Indians slighted their Guardians and Negroes grew insolent to their Masters.” Yet he also noted that his wife’s letter “was the first Intimation that another Tribe more numerous and powerfull than all the rest were grown discontented”—that is, women. The ladies have long pieced it together. What is a woman to do?
Thousands of years before Adams wrote to her husband in 1776, men treated women as vassals for their sex: property. During this time, marriage was the primary method for men to possess women—apart from prostitution, seen as its shadow. Among the early abolitionists, Sarah Grimké and Ernestine Rose commented on how the wife’s identity became subsumed within that of the husband. Over marriage’s function in civilizing women to death, the 1848 Seneca Falls Declaration of Sentiments identified how it made women “civilly dead.” Studying how the man’s identity had eclipsed woman-as-wife, spanning much of recent history, modern transgenderism seems like the most logical transition in men possessing women. Where once she became subsumed within man’s identity, possessed, woman herself now becomes an identity for man to possess. Man’s sense of proprietorship over woman not only set the stage but also, still, remains the most jarring pickle.
Donovan Cleckley holds a BA in English and Interdisciplinary Studies from the University of Montevallo and an MA in English from Tulane University. His research focuses on the relationship between women’s rights and gay rights, literature and sexual politics, and the social and political implications of transgenderism as an ideology, an industry, and an institution. Learn more about his work at https://donovancleckley.com. Here is the PayPal link: https://www.paypal.com/paypalme/donovancleckley