In the last few weeks, many obituaries have praised the revolutionary poet and feminist theorist Adrienne Rich. While these homages are well deserved, what has been largely ignored in considering the legacy of Rich is her history of transphobia. With the exception of a small group of critics, Rich’s ideas about trans identity—and trans women in particular—have gone unscrutinized. It’s indicative of the larger inability within the feminist movement to recognize trans voices.
Rich was a tremendous supporter of Janice G. Raymond, author of The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the She-Male. Raymond even cites Rich in a viciously transphobic chapter, “Sappho by Surgery,” in which Raymond argues that biological sex is the same as gender (i.e., if someone is born with female body parts, they are always a woman). Raymond also suggests that men who go through sex-reassignment surgery are not real women but deviant men who use female bodies to enter female spaces. As a result, they are committing a type of identity rape.
It is understandable that so soon after her death, many were hesitant to criticize Rich—when famous people pass, we want to focus on their positive attributes out of respect. But it is imperative that we understand her full history—the good as well as the bad—to assess what her legacy means. Many people don’t know about Rich’s connection to transphobia, or the transphobia of many feminists in her era. But the specific brand of woman-centric feminism of the 1970s and early 1980s, championed by people like Rich and Raymond, set the schematic for how gender-based organizing would play out for generations to come.
Calling Raymond’s text transphobic is generous—it is essentially anti-trans propaganda. Raymond argues that not only are trans women not “real” women but that “the transsexually constructed lesbian-feminist feeds off woman’s true energy source, i.e., her woman-identified self. It is he who recognizes that if female spirit, mind, creativity and sexuality exist anywhere in a powerful way it is here, among lesbian-feminists.” She doesn’t stop at denying the existence of trans women but goes further: “I contend that the problem with transsexualism would best be served by morally mandating it out of existence.” Essentially, Raymond is promoting the outdated but firmly held belief that biological sex and gender are one in the same.
I feel as though I am giving Raymond’s views too much credibility by citing them. But her deplorable attitude was not uncommon for the radical, lesbian, separatist feminists of her time. Feminists such as Mary Daly argued that trans women were akin to Frankenstein, and Sheila Jeffreys believed that gender-reassignment surgery was a form of mutilation. And while Raymond, Daly, and Jeffreys were among the more vocally anti-trans, there was an assumed position in feminist politics that “woman” meant “person born with a vagina.” The movement, intentionally and unintentionally, excluded those women not born with the body parts they felt constituted “womanhood.”
Discrediting Rich’s entire work because of a few acknowledgements would obviously be unfair. No one’s politics are perfect, and if we refused to read all the poets and thinkers whose views we opposed, we would have no one left to read. But there is a lesson to be learned from the transphobia of the era. Feminist organizing around a singular and exclusionary idea of what being a “woman” meant—and who got to have a voice in the movement—may have been needed at the time to fight issues around contraception, abortion, workplace equality, and other issues. But this unity had a price and did not come without criticism; activists like Angela Davis and Barbara Smith as well as theorists like bell hooks critiqued the definition we had accepted as “woman” as incredibly narrow and failing to include the voices and experiences of women of color and working-class women.
While you may not hear the exact same rhetoric these days, the idea that trans women aren’t “real women” is an attitude that is still reflected among everyday people and in medicine, psychology, activism, and feminism. Today’s mainstream feminism has failed to recognize trans voices and include them in the movement’s game plan. Miriam Perez, founder of Radical Doula, says a resistance to broaden the movement’s focus stems from fear of losing ground. She says that “gender was such a fundamental part of feminist organizing. Women are tied to these gender notions, their organizing identity was based on it, and so if you try and poke holes in their idea of women—you are poking holes in their movement. We [have] fought so hard to get this ground how can we give it up, women will end up marginalized?” She cautions that this fear or discomfort of changing what it means to be a woman shouldn’t push us to deny those who bring our beliefs about gender into question: Instead, we should learn to include their voices.
The resistance to accepting a new definition of woman and man affects the rhetoric of contemporary feminism. As feminists, our rightful response to the aggressive GOP war on women’s access to reproductive-health technologies has been to articulate why this stance is anti-woman. While this is true, Jos Truitt—trans activist, artist, and editor at Feministing.com—points out that heeding to the language of “women” reduces them to their uteruses. She writes, “There are plenty of women who don’t have what you call a uterus or vagina (though they might use those terms). There are plenty of women who can’t get pregnant or deliver a baby, for tons of reasons, including cisgender women, intersex women, and transgender women. Being able to make a baby and being a woman are not the same thing.”
On the phone, Truitt clarified that the push is not just about using politically correct language but changing the way we think about gender. Yes, inclusion and inclusive language is a piece of it, but this is about opening up the limited ways we think about gender. “[It] strengthens our gender analysis—the anti-choice movement is redefining 'woman' as a person who is a baby-making factory—there is a definition of 'woman' being set up and that definition is what is being used to push oppression.”
There is often a fear that if you use more inclusive language, you will not be taken as seriously in the mainstream—but this fear is limiting. Perez says, “Feminism needs to embrace a more nuanced understanding of gender to combat sexism—[for example] the average man is limited by masculinity.” Sexism has changed so our approaches to combating it must change as well.
Unfortunately, there is no indication that Rich truly disavowed her initial endorsement of a text that was used to deny trans women’s inclusion, identity, community, and in some cases needed medical treatments (with the exception of a nod in Feinberg’s Transgender Warrior), but it is difficult to truly figure out exactly how she felt. But maybe that is not really the point. Ultimately, Rich taught us how to look beyond what we are taught is normal but didn’t fully do it herself.
In Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center, bell hooks argues that the only way we can truly eradicate the oppression of women is to centralize the most diverse of women’s experiences because by doing so, you shed light on how power functions. In concrete terms—if we don’t see you as a priority, we are not talking about you, we are not including you in our theories of change, in our grassroots efforts and within our fights for justice.