The company running this blogging platform have announced that they are closing it, This blog has therefore officially closed on this site, and now has a new home on WordPress. The archives from 2005-2015 (including comments) are copied there, although there have been a few problems with misrecognised characters. If you leave any comments on this site in future, I may be able to transfer them over to the new site, but I may ask you to repost them at the new site. This site will remain here (without any further updates) until the end of 2015, when the platform is scheduled to close.
@ 2015-07-26 – 17:52:12
@ 2015-07-26 – 17:15:49
As all my readers will probably be aware, this year is the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta and there have been large numbers of events commemorating it. The most active group of all has been the Magna Carta Project and a few weeks ago I went off to their conference to get an exhaustive dose of Magna Carta-related research. The conference included 30 or so papers, so I can only give brief summaries of them (I think a conference publication is planned for those who want more details). But this is a report also from a Carolingianist's viewpoint, not that of someone who specialises in the central Middle Ages. As the post title implies, I'm coming to Magna Carta from the other direction to most people, not looking backwards from 2015, but forwards from 815 (or maybe even 715). What is distinctive about Magna Carta in that respect? What evidence is there of continuity as well as change?
Seal matrix of Robert fitz Walter, one of the leading rebels
We started off with an entertaining talk by Nick Vincent, principal investigator of the project who set the scene with a brief history of commemorations of Magna Carta, including the event he had just attended at Runnymede, memorably described as "part village fete, part Fascist rally". He pointed out how few of the previous anniversaries of the charter had been celebrated: in 1715 the government had been distracted by the Old Pretender, in 1815 by Napoleon and in 1915 by the Kaiser. A large committee of the Royal Historical Society had been formed in January 1914 to prepare for the 700th anniversary, but was disbanded in October 1914, having done almost nothing. The RHS, however, were behind a set of essays published in 1917 on the charter.
In 1965, commemorations of the 750th anniversary were overshadowed by the death of Winston Churchill, but the year did mark the publication of James Holt's volume on Magna Carta, which as Nick put it, "rescued it from the lawyers". Nick highlighted the research of John Baldwin and Philippe Buc on the scholastic ideas behind Magna Carta: it shouldn't just be seen as an English document, but placed in a European context.
Nick also provided an introduction to the Magna Carta Project, which has focused on the charter and related texts as physical objects. Nick himself had discovered a copy of it back in 1980 at Hereford Cathedral and the project had so far identified 227 charters of King John, using these as comparisons for the handwriting of the Magna Carta copies.
After Nick, we started off before 1215 with papers from Jinty Nelson and then Levi Roach on the political role of charters in the Carolingian Empire and Anglo-Saxon England. Jinty's paper was showing how many of the individual elements seen in 1215 were already present in the Carolingian world. There was certainly "assembly politics", as discussed by Tim Reuter and charters, which tell us about very varied levels in Carolingian society. You can also see similar ideas of how a king should behave, going back to Isidore and examples of agreements involving both nobles promising fidelity to the king and the king swearing to behave as a "rex fidelis" to them, such as made by Charles the Bald in 858. Hincmar of Rheims, meanwhile, was interested in how coronation oaths might be used to ensure correct behaviour by kings, as well as celebrating how the "boni barones" of Charlemagne and Carloman had ensured a smooth succession.
One difference that Jinty did note is that these kind of political agreements appear in the Carolingian period largely in capitularies, rather than in a charter form, though she reckoned there were close links between the various types of documents. Thinking about her paper afterwards, I was struck by the thought that you could make a kind of Frankenstein's monster version of many of the clauses of Magna Carta if you stuck together bits of different Carolingian capitularies, but such a concoction wouldn't include much of royal agreements with the magnates, like the one in 858 or the Capitulary of Coulaines 843 (one of the other key examples of agreements between Carolingian rulers and their fideles). Carolingian rulers did promulgate decrees about matters like widows and weights and measures and fish-traps, as Magna Carta did in 1215, but they did that only in capitularies of their own free will. So one key difference between thirteenth-century England and ninth-century Francia is the increased complexity of the political situation, with more groups involved in negotiations at times of crisis and making more specific political demands.
Levi’s paper, meanwhile, was building on an article by Julia Crick which looked at Anglo-Saxon ideas of liberty. Ideas of "libertas" (freedom and exemptions from public duties) initially became associated with holding land by charter (bookland), but then came to be applied more specifically to exemptions for religious and monastic establishments.
Levi was talking about a specific group of such church exemption charters known as the Orthodoxorum charters, and arguing that some of the earliest ones were forgeries by Abingdon Abbey. Although the earliest, Sawyer 658 and 673, are dated as 959 AD, there are implausibilities (like a dead archbishop signing one) and Levi saw the privileges given as reflecting the problems of the 980s, and these charters as produced in the 980s or 990s, along with genuine charters giving liberties to specific churches. These charters, reflecting constitutional developments in Aethelred's personal reign, then inspired forgeries which provided the same kind of liberties for other monasteries. Levi also pointed out that such royal safeguarding of church liberties was a common European theme and the tendency was for liberties and privileges to be given to churches first and then to expand outwards to wider recipients.
Although in questions, someone was trying to make a distinction between such charters as giving rights to one individual institution and Magna Carta as addressed to all, the combination of Jinty's paper and Levi's did suggest there were several variations on forms of legislation that might have similar content and effects.
Similar parallels to European patterns were also visible in Bjorn Weiler's paper on "Good Kings and Bad Kings in Medieval Reality". This was looking at how some later twelfth-century historians rewrote aspects of John's reign to make it conform to norms. In particular, Bjorn highlighted how Matthew Paris claimed that Archbishop Hubert Walter made a speech to the barons at John's coronation, saying that a king must be chosen unanimously and must show virtue, implicitly replacing John's succession by hereditary right with an election. Roger of Wendover had already claimed that John had made promises at his coronation and had been warned not to accept the office if he was not prepared to keep them.
The earliest evidence for the coronation (by Roger of Howden) doesn't mention Hubert's speech, but Bjorn points out how it fits within a long tradition of bishops admonishing kings (such as St Dunstan's letter on the crowning of Edward the Martyr and an Archbishop of Reims (Fulk?) supposedly denouncing Charles the Simple as unsuitable to be king, because he consorted with blasphemers). Enthroning a king was a sign of status for a bishop, but also a challenge for him. In particular, there was a concern to establish the norms of royal behaviour at the start of a king's reign (or, in Matthew Paris' case, to retrospectively claim they had been established), so he could be held to account later.
Attempts to hold kings to account weren't new in C12, but Bjorn did see a particular concern about this as the increased use of a class of royal administrators separated the king more from the traditional elite. The period was also marked by a "fashionable" concern for law and ethics; what Bjorn did think was new (with the continuing council envisaged by Magna Carta) was the putting in place of long-term methods of oversight of the king, rather than simply one-off moments of enforcement. John Sabapathy has just published a book on new methods of accountability in the high Middle Ages: looking again at Magna Carta within this framework sounds a useful development.
After dodgy history about real kings, we had Martin Aurell on "Good Kings and Bad Kings: Arthur, Tristan and John", starting with the end of Arthur the pagan, British king in Richard I's reign: "Arturus, rex Britonum" had become "Arturus rex Angliae" in Roger of Howden, and Arthur's tomb was found in Glastonbury in 1191. By c 1230 Arthur had become associated with the house of Anjou, as seen in the Lancelot-Graal cycle and other texts. But the use of the associations weren't straightforward: Arthur of Brittany, for example, was able to use the resonances of his name against his uncle. Some versions of the story had Arthur as a bad king: the French romances in the thirteenth century tended to see him negatively as an English king, in contrast to Lancelot as being from Gaul.
Martin also pointed out how ideas about kingship and law were embedded in such romances and may have reached an elite lay audience in this way. He mentioned Arthur's speech on how a loyal king "preserves law, truth, faith and justice" and how the Prose-Graal has Arthur having to do penance for his sins. I was particularly interested by this aspect, as that again sounded like something that had changed from the Carolingian period. Whatever the stories being heard at Charlemagne's court, they probably didn't have the same ideas of contractual relations between kings and the aristocracy and the theocratic ideas of a good king: those I'd say come in with some of the chansons de geste, but it's hard to see them before that.
There were a couple of particularly interesting comments during the questions on this session: Nigel Saul pointing out that one thing missing from Magna Carta was any baronial control of royal patronage, which was a key flashpoint later on and Alice Taylor mentioning some of the twelfth and thirteenth-century romances that deal with the king denying rights and inheritances (especially in Raoul de Cambrai and Silence). Once again, I had the sense of the patterns of problems with kingship repeating down the centuries: royal favour was always both inevitable and problematic.
We then moved onto John's relationship with the church, starting with Janet Burton on "King John and the Cistercians". Janet was arguing that John wasn't unremittingly hostile to the Cistercians, but that he reacted to events, with clashes at several times over John's need for money (first to pay Philip Augustus and then in 1210 for the Ireland expedition). In between these, his relationship with them was more positive and he even founded Beaulieu Abbey. What interested me most was hearing about the Cistercians as an order dealing with John, for example, abbots in England saying that they could give money without the consent of the General Chapter. Such structured monastic orders weren't around in the early Middle Ages and their existence did pose a challenge to rulers' authority in the thirteenth century.
Sophie Ambler followed on "The Church in Politics, 1200-1300", reminding us that the church was at the heart of events in 1215, especially since we now know that several of the copies of the 1215 Magna Carta were probably made by episcopal scribes. Archbishop Stephen Langton played a key role in enforcing the charter, including the use of excommunications. Similar rituals were associated with later proclamations: Matthew Paris has a vivid description of the symbolism used in 1253: the bishops held lighted candles which they threw down to the ground at the end of the sentence of excommunication, saying: "Thus are extinguished and stink in hell those who attack this sentence".
Sophie particularly highlighted the role of Stephen Langton, who had been trained in the schools of Paris and used this training to discuss ideas of what the king was entitled to do. For example, he seems to have used legal formalities to avoid handing over Rochester Castle to John in late 1215 (we heard more of that later in the conference). It's perhaps not surprising that John ended up denouncing Langton as a "notorious and bare-faced traitor" and that Langton lost his ability to act as a mediator and peacemaker. Sophie ended by saying that Langton's tomb was tucked away in Canterbury Cathedral and he deserved more commemoration. (I didn't get the chance at the time to say that my old parish church, Slindon in West Sussex has a memorial to him).
This was one the session that was probably toughest for the non-legal historians among us to follow, especially since I admit to only having a hazy notion of what the ius commune is: basically, the combination of Roman and canon law taught in the schools which forms the basis of many European legal systems, but supposedly had little influence on English secular common law. This traditional view goes back to Glanvill and the London Collection of English laws from the twelfth century: the collection included a forged letter of Pope Eleutherius to King Lucius of Britain saying that rather than giving than the Pope giving Lucius Roman law to follow, Lucius should develop his own law with the counsel of his peers. George was putting this into a context of twelfth-century attempts to dig up Anglo-Saxon law and present Norman law as a continuation of it. In other words, right from the start, we don't have simple descriptions of the history of English law, but attempts to frame the story in a particular way.
This traditional and accepted view of the lack of influence of "learned law" in England and on Magna Carta in particular was challenged by Richard Helmholz in Magna Carta and the ius commune, which saw 21 clauses of Magna Carta as influenced by ius commune. One of the most interesting things I gained from the discussion between Anne, John and George was a sense of how hard it is to pin down influence. Elements of the ius commune were circulating by the 1130s, even if the full system was only developed later. But how do you conceptualise "influence" where there may be influence on vocabulary, but not procedure or vice versa, or when writers may be using a smattering of Roman law to add a patina of learning? And how do you know when it's not just that similar solutions have been independently found for similar problems?
Three points in particular stuck with me. John talked about how in North Italy, the same jurist might use Roman law in one place, Lombard law and another and custom in a third. Anne pointed out that in the English sources you can see a learned population who are bilingual or even trilingual (English, French, Latin), as sometimes reflected in word order. And finally there was her description of the lawyers as "subtle men taking from ius commune whatever was needed to add precision to English laws". It's these ideas of legal and linguistic code-switching that give me the best sense of this thirteenth-century legal world, one that in that aspect does seem considerably removed from my scholarly Carolingian home world.
@ 2015-07-18 – 10:46:49
I’m just back from the International Medieval Congress at Leeds, about which I will eventually blog. Meanwhile my paper from the conference (on fathers and sons in early medieval charters) is up at the Making of Charlemagne’s Europe project blog.
The big news from the conference was that Manchester University Press had the book I co-edited with Charles West, Hincmar of Rheims: Life and Work on sale, although they kept on running out of copies:
To celebrate the publication of the book, I wrote a post on the Sheffield History Matters on Hincmar as an over-worked middle-manager. Although I’ve now officially finished my stint as part of Charles West’s Turbulent Priests project, I’ve also blogged for that and may do so again. But I hope I’ll get back to more blogging on this main site over the summer.
@ 2015-06-14 – 21:46:05
One shorthand description of a patriarchal system is one in which men dominate women. A slightly more sophisticated version of this description is one in which “men as a class” dominate “women as a class”. But I’m interested in how patriarchal systems have changed over time, so what I want to look at in more detail is which men get to dominate which women and the methods by which they do that.
In particular, I’m focusing on how patriarchy interacts with socio-economic status. So this is an initial attempt to look at the different mechanisms for male domination and think about which men can take advantage of them. I’m still trying to refine such categories of dominance, so there are some overlaps here and I’d be very happy to receive comments on any categories you think I’m missing or that need to be changed.
I’d also add that all of these mechanisms are opportunities for dominance; individuals can choose not to take them. The rich person can choose to give their money away; the physically stronger person can choose not to use violence; the powerful can choose to dedicate themselves to the protection and advancement of the weak. But some people (and historically it’s been men) have had more options to dominate others and it’s important to see what these are.
1) The use of wealth to dominate others. This takes varying forms: classic ones include owner/slave and employer/employee. But wealth can also be used to dominate others in purely market transactions. The rich customer can make outrageous demands on the poorer provider desperate to keep their business. The seller rich enough to purchase/retain a scarce good can make a killing, whether it’s accumulated grain in time of famine or the renting out of a house.
Any mechanism which tends to make men wealthier than women thus enhances their opportunity to dominate them. Such mechanisms include job segregation (with “male” jobs then better paid or with better prospects for advancement), unequal pay/promotion opportunities within the same occupation, unequal inheritance rights and unequal control of household income.
2) The use of violence to dominate others, whether socially sanctioned or not. Such violence can be subdivided according to the closeness of relationship between the perpetrator and victim:
a) domestic violence against those within a man’s household
b) violence against friends/colleagues: date rape is the obvious example, but sexual harassment at work would also be included
c) violent crime towards strangers within your own society
d) warfare – violence against those from other societies
3) Male dominance of the political/judicial system is clearly crucial to the enforcement of patriarchy: specifically a preponderance of men in law-making, law enforcement and court decision-making. It is this that enforces or allows discriminatory practices and sanctions or fails to prevent some forms of violence.
4) More generally, any male-controlled or male-dominated institutions/organisations allow discriminatory practices against women within such institutions to thrive: such institutions include churches, modern universities, medieval guilds, many businesses, traditional trade unions.
5) The extreme version of this is all-male institutions: male-only bureaucracies; medieval universities, social clubs, schools, pre-twentieth century parliaments, etc. To the extent that these provide power to those men/boys in them either directly or via enhanced opportunities for social advancement, they help entrench male domination.
6) Ideological control has always been important for male dominance and takes place at two levels:
a) intellectual theory (scientific, theological, political etc)
b) popular thought (where the key point is who has the “loudest voice”, whether that’s in terms of media control or just the people who are able to dominate discussions).
7) A desire by girls/women for the approval of a man/a group of men is also an important part of patriarchal dominance and one that crops up in a wide range of settings. (Such emotional power can also be used to the advantage of women and children: I will discuss that in a future post). A wish for it can appear in settings where men/boys otherwise have a disadvantage in socio-economic power over women/girls: i.e. when a girl from a prosperous family wants the bad boy from the wrong side of the tracks to like her. But it’s also common in settings where there is equal social status (you want your male co-workers to like you) or there is a power imbalance, i.e. a daughter want her father’s approval, a female student wanting a male lecturer’s approval, or a woman in a religious setting wanting approval of her behaviour as devout.
Using this typology, to what extent are men from lower socio-economic groups able to dominate those from equal or higher socio-economic groups? Obviously, in situations where the rich dominate the poor (1), a poorer man can’t dominate a richer woman.
In terms of violence (2), men of any social status can commit crimes in times of war. Crimes against strangers can also be committed by men of any socio-economic status, but such crimes by low-status men against high-status women are more likely to be prosecute and harshly punished. It is still high treason to sleep with the wife of the king, for example, and in the US, black men accused of the rape of white women have always been liable to injustices. Men “marrying up” may be able to carry out domestic violence on higher-status partners, but are also more liable to retaliation from their partner’s family.
The judicial system (3) allows limited opportunities for some lower-status men to dominate higher-status women: essentially, there are opportunities for police officers and prison guards to do so.
In male-dominated organisations (4), the men at the top of the organisation can obviously dominate all the women within it (as well as the men lower down). But the extent to which men at lower levels can dominate women at their own level varies greatly between organisations. At one extreme you’ve got guilds which would allow a few women in, but specifically exclude them from all senior roles and thus make them firmly second-class members. At the other are organisations which are formally non-discriminatory, but in which policies/procedures/prejudices still exist which disproportionately hamper women from getting to the top (such as in modern universities).
All-male institutions (5) offer the greatest opportunity for lower-status men for at least some domination over higher-status women: however rich and powerful these women may be, they don’t get to be a freemason, etc. In terms of ideology (6), intellectual control is difficult for most lower-status men to achieve, although there are a few examples of clever men rising socially to do this, such as Jerome. Lower-status men, however, can sometime manage to “shout louder” than women of the same or higher-social status.
Finally, lower-status men are not often in a position to try and gain approval (7) from higher-status women. However, it is an option for low-status men who are sexually attractive or charismatic in some other way (one obvious example would be Rasputin). Because the need for approval by family members tends to be inculcated at an early age, lower-status men may also be able to use the tool of giving or withholding approval as a way of dominating higher-status wives and daughters. Alfred Doolittle may be part of the undeserving poor, but he can still sponge off Eliza Doolittle, despite her increased social advancement.
So overall male dominance of women doesn’t necessarily assist low-status men. Even if men are on average richer than women and more likely to be at the top of institutions, that doesn’t help you if you’re a poor man or at the bottom of an institution and not likely to be able to move upwards.
Men of lower socio-economic status who cannot rise socially are therefore more reliant on a relatively small number of opportunities for dominance. Traditionally, they have been able to lord it over the women within their household and they could enjoy the benefits of all-male institutions. Some male-dominated institutions have also given opportunities for dominance even to those men not at the top. Apart from that, their options have effectively always been limited to “shouting louder”, relying on female need for approval, and possibly using varying forms of harassment and violence (although these are more risky options).
During the twentieth century, however, the vast majority of all-male institutions disappeared. A large number of male-dominated institutions survive, but formalised equal opportunities within these lessen the options of domination for men near the bottom. Men’s control over households has also been considerably reduced, by a combination of easier divorce, domestic violence being taken more seriously and more economic independence for women.
If you think of it in those terms, you can start to see why many in the modern Men's Rights Movements and similar groups use the particular tactics they do. Such men mostly aren’t at the bottom of the heap, but they’re not in dominant positions within society. If they feel the need to dominate women (although obviously not all men do), partners/families are their main option. Such men are likely to be frustrated if these aren’t available for them and women either choose not to be with them or leave them. The power of male approval over women’s behaviour, meanwhile, has always relied heavily on supposed male solidarity: “if you do this, none of the men will like you”. The support of some men for feminism has broken such solidarity down: if MRAs do not like a particular woman, she can still find men who do. With a large number of traditional methods for ensuring male dominance removed or weakened, it’s not surprising that lower-status men who are desperate to demonstrate domination focus on ideology (insisting that women are inferior to men) or toy with the possibility of violence.
It’s hard to claim that patriarchy has disappeared when the vast majority of those at the top are still men. But the forms of patriarchy have changed over history and are continuing to change, and I think there is evidence that patriarchal dominance by lower status men is becoming considerably harder for them to achieve in the modern West.
@ 2015-06-04 – 21:45:11
I started this blog just over ten years ago by talking about a feminist article I’d read. So it seems appropriate to celebrate the anniversary by looking at another one, dealing with an issue that seems to have become a hot button topic within feminism. How can trans women be fitted into a feminism that focuses on patriarchy? I’ve come across an article by Jane Clare Jones, who expresses anti-transwomen views in such a context, but tries to argue that this is a moderate position. Jones discusses various kinds of oppression, focusing on what she sees as the function of the oppression:
Women are oppressed as women because that oppression enables men to extract resources — in the form of reproductive, domestic, sexual and emotional labour — from women. Similarly, class- and race-based oppression is structured around the extraction of labour-resources from the oppressed group.
In contrast, she sees “the restrictions on homosexuality” as a variant of patriarchal oppression, part of a wider system of heteronormativity predominantly designed “to naturalise men’s appropriation of women’s bodies”.
Based on this, Jones goes on to argue that while trans people are oppressed, they are oppressed as the result of patriarchy and not by women. To her, discussions of cis-privilege are wrongly positioning non-trans women as the oppressors of trans people:
There can be no question of to what end non-trans women are invested in the oppression of trans-women. As the oppressor, non-trans women are not permitted to question this: we must understand that the only just course of action is to acquiesce without a murmur to the stated needs of the oppressed. And so the possibility of solidarity between non-trans and trans women, based on the recognition that we are equally—though differently—constrained by heteronormative ideologies of gender, is thoroughly blocked. There is no acknowledgement that we are both suffering under the same system, and there can be no negotiation of how to accommodate our varying needs within feminism as a political movement.
It’s certainly perfectly possible to see some of the oppression of trans people as resulting from patriarchal systems. The problem is that it’s hard to see the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival as a hotbed of patriarchal thought. Some strands of feminist thought are also hostile to or exclusionary of trans women, and pretending they’re not isn’t very helpful. It also isn’t simply a matter of the old claim that trans women embody stereotypes of femininity. What we’ve seen as more trans people come out is how varied they and their experiences are: no-one’s going to put Deidre McCloskey on the cover of Vanity Fair. So I want to go back to Jones’ question: to what end are non-trans women/cis women invested in the oppression of trans-women?
In one way that’s the wrong question to ask, because systems of oppression don’t actually require much investment by most people. Race-based oppression (especially in the US) may have started as being structured around the extraction of resources of land and labour from particular races. But racism is still a structural problem in the UK and the US (in different ways), even though many white people aren’t deeply invested in it. Instead, such structural racism in white-dominant societies relies on relatively small groups eagerly enforcing white superiority and the much wider indifference/passivity of most white people (in which I’d include myself), which means that the system doesn’t get changed. In the same way, I don’t think most cis women are actively oppressing trans women. But there are a small group that are and I think the end for much of this is paradoxical: they’re trying to maintain feminist solidarity.
I’d argue that feminism has had more problems with solidarity than any other social movement. The oppression of women has been going on for millennia and yet feminist movements are a very recent phenomena. And the main reason for this is class: women from higher classes have not felt they have much in common with women from the lower classes and vice versa.
The historical evidence suggests that class is the primary division blocking solidarity between women, not race or sexuality. In particular, feminist movements didn’t grow up substantially more quickly in societies that were relatively racially homogeneous (such as nineteenth-century Britain) than in ones that were more racially mixed (such as the US or New Zealand). And while arguments over sexuality did divide the women’s movement in second-wave feminism, they weren’t prominent before then. BAME women or lesbians can still feel alienated by the priorities of modern day feminism. But I’d argue that class is still by far the most difficult issue in feminism (and in social justice circles generally).
The key problem is that for a feminist campaign to have real political impact, it needs to deal with issues that matter personally, if not to all women, at least the majority of them. In particular, a lot of all forms of political activity is carried out by students and middle-class professional women. They have the combination of the skills and networks to get political attention and also (often) more free time for campaigning than working-class women.
This doesn’t mean that working-class women can’t play an important role in feminist movements, but I can’t think of many feminist groups that were/are predominantly working-class. And the most successful feminist campaigns have tended to focus on issues that affect both middle-class and working-class women.
The classic example of an issue that cuts across class lines is women’s suffrage. Campaigns for sexual discrimination laws have also been able to draw on cross-class solidarity. But there are other feminist campaigns that have gradually run into the sands, at least partly because of class differences. The most obvious one is equal pay. Yes, it’s discriminatory if bankers who are women don’t get the same multimillion pound bonuses as their male counterparts do. But it’s hard to feel solidarity with women who miss out on that (or on being in the boardroom) when you and all your male friends/relatives are working in minimum wage jobs.
Campaigns about childcare have also tended to run into issues of class. Available childcare for middle-class women is increasingly about ensuring that their career path isn’t blocked; an alternative option is simply not to have children or to have them relatively late in life. My impression is that in contrast, childcare for working women is more about being able to hold down any job in order to earn a little more money. And there’s also the hidden issue of who is doing the childcare: in most cases, it’s done by poorly-paid working-class women, because it’s a low-status feminised job. Solidarity around this issue is hard to maintain across class lines.
If you look at the hot feminist topics of the moment, meanwhile, they’re abortion (in the US), sexual harassment and sexual violence. These, again, are experiences that affect all classes of women and that also have resonance across boundaries of race, age and sexuality. It’s not surprising that feminists in the media tend to focus on them.
And it’s here that issues about trans people come up: what are the bases on which such cross-class solidarities rely? Abortion as an issue relies very heavily on the distinctiveness of female bodies: women can get pregnant and men can’t. In fact, that’s a simplification, but a lot of female solidarity has always been based on shared bodily experiences. Trans people, by indicating that being a women may not be based purely on body sex, are potentially a threat to this solidarity.
Does the inclusion of trans women in feminist groups/movements threaten the ability of all women in them to be able to talk about shared bodily experiences? That seems to be at the basis of a lot of feminist hostility towards trans women. But I think, as with lesbians before them, what trans women speaking out reveal is that not all women have the same experiences. Lesbians speaking up within feminism reminded straight women that not every woman’s life involved sexual desire for men. Similarly, trans women aren’t the only women whose bodily experiences are ‘atypical’: there are ‘born women’ who from an early age know they’re infertile or don’t have periods etc. We need to work towards a feminist solidarity that can cope with both common and unusual bodily experiences via empathy: this specifically may not have happened to me, but I can imagine how positive/negative it would make me feel if it did.
The significance of sexual harassment and violence to the feminist movement, meanwhile, is another paradoxical reason why some feminists are hostile to trans people. Some definitions of patriarchy put such violence at the heart of it, such as this one by bell hooks:
Patriarchy is a political-social system that insists that males are inherently dominating, superior to everything and everyone deemed weak, especially females, and endowed with the right to dominate and rule over the weak and to maintain that dominance through various forms of psychological terrorism and violence.
But hooks goes on to show this theory as something taught to her by both her mother and her father. The perpetrators of patriarchy are not just men. And those suffering patriarchal-based “terrorism” and violence are not just women: Jones herself admits that gay men and trans people also suffer from this.
The problem is that political campaigns need both to simplify their aims and to solidify their supporters. A binary between those suffering from the patriarchy and those benefiting from it can’t be easily summed up in a slogan. So just as fights against capitalism become simplified to being about “workers” versus “bosses” (or the 99% versus the 1%), a fight against patriarchy as a system which focuses on sexual harassment and violence become simplified to women as victims of harassment and men as perpetrators. The logic is summed up in the hashtag #YesAllWomen. All women are supposedly subject to misogyny and sexual violence and this becomes their defining experience. Following binary logic, therefore, men/some men are the perpetrators of misogyny and sexual violence.
The experiences of trans women, however, don’t easily fit into this simplified understanding of patriarchy. They are regarded socially as male (at least in their early years) and yet they’re also subject to patriarchal violence. And again, the enforcement of their masculinity is often done by their mothers as well as their fathers.
Trans women are therefore a complicating element in the simple political binary of them-and-us radical feminism, in which #YesAllWomen has implicitly become #YesOnlyWomen. A feminism supposedly based on shared experience of sexism ends up having to deny the experiences that trans women and cis women potentially share. Yet as with bodily experiences, it ought to be possible to find enough overlap of social experiences to build bonds of solidarity which includes trans women within a feminist movement. It’s not just trans women, after all, who stuff their bra to give themselves cleavage or get the wrong sort of toys taken away from them.
As I’ve said earlier, feminism has always found solidarity difficult, but the movement has nevertheless over the years achieved something not just for middle-class women, but also working-class women, black women and lesbians. In the same way, despite all the current fractiousness over the role of trans women in feminism, I expect that more and more they will come to be accepted as part of it: we just need to remain aware that the necessary simplifications of political slogans don’t match the messy complexities of real life.