Commentary Human Rights

Trans Women Are Not Agents of the Patriarchy

Emma Caterine

At The New Republic, writer Monica Potts recently positioned trans activism at women's colleges as a distraction from feminism. In reality, the misogyny trans women face is similar to, if not worse than, the kind Potts is fighting.

It seems that every few months left-leaning media outlets come out with a new wave of “edgy” op-eds pitting trans people, often trans women specifically, as agents of the patriarchy intent on destroying feminism. Many of these articles can be dismissed as sadistic bullying by people with chips on their shoulders and too much time on their hands. Others, however—like Monica Potts’ recent piece in The New Republic, originally headlined “Trans Activism Is Threatening Women’s Colleges’ Missionstem from ignorance of trans issues rather than deeply seated prejudice. Even so, writers like Potts evidently do not see trans issues as an important part of their feminism, and that flaw makes their brand of feminism incredibly dangerous.

Few things sting like having someone you admire pen an article that insinuates your defense of your own existence is a threat to an institution that has long denied you entry, as Potts did. To feminists like Potts, trans (or, as she incorrectly put it, “transgendered”) people seem to be a single gender group whose self-actualization undermines anti-misogyny efforts, instead of the incredible diversity of men, women, and many others who fall between or outside of those categories. In addition, her assertion that trans activism is a threat to the historic “sisterhood” of women’s-only colleges seems, at first, all too similar to the bigoted justifications I have heard for rejecting trans women outright from spaces like the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival. When I contacted Potts on Twitter, however, she explained that she was not against admitting trans women or men to women’s colleges; instead, she argued, a women’s college’s “sisterhood” could include “a whole bunch of [people],” and “I don’t think [you] have to [identify] as a woman to want to be part of the sisterhood, if that makes sense. Of course it [includes] transwomen.”

To give credit where it is due, it is nice to see someone explicitly support the idea that trans women should be considered part of the “sisterhood” of women’s institutions. But what is troubling to me are the implications of including men in that “sisterhood” as well—which, at the least, positions trans women as separate from cis women’s feminism, just as men are.

One of Potts’ main concerns is the push on women’s campuses to eradicate words like “sisterhood” from use. But this isn’t an example of trans activism, as Potts puts it, being “indistinguishable from old-school misogyny”; that’s just old-school misogyny disguised as trans activism. Trans activism fights to make a world that is better for trans people, and while trans men are an important part of that, the fight to make a place for themselves at women’s colleges has nothing to do with them being trans and everything to do with them being entitled men. Anti-trans activists may claim that womanhood is fundamentally a set of common experiences, but that is ridiculous: Women have incredibly varying lives, levels of privilege, and even expectations of gender performativity and identity. What we do have in common, however, is our oppression by the patriarchy—even the most powerful women cannot completely escape its exploitation. And therein comes one of the fundamental problems of trans men in women’s colleges. Many, especially those with access to resources, will move out of that positionality; studies show, for example, that transgender men actually benefit from increased wages. Unfortunately, because of her third-gendering of trans people, Potts sees trans men as trans first and men last—if she sees them as men at all.

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And while she labels trans men’s behavior as trans activism, Potts holds trans women as being complicit in the misogynistic act of erasing women on campuses. In reality, though, we often face more aggressions in academia than our cis peers, if we’re allowed in the college at all. Contrary to Potts’ assertion that there are plenty of liberal college “safe spaces” for trans people, I can say that attending the progressive collegiate paradise of Virginia, the College of William and Mary, was a living hell for me as a transgender woman. I’ve been a feminist all my life, and yet both professors and students there told me that I didn’t understand feminism because I didn’t grow up a woman. I would be glared at every time I even walked into an LGBTQ space, let alone a women’s space. My own queer community would pressure me into not looking and acting the way I wanted to as some sort of sociological experiment (“Don’t shave your legs, it isn’t feminist. Don’t wear dresses, it isn’t feminist”). And then, after all that, I would still have beer bottles thrown at me by frat bros. I’d get attacked multiple times just trying to walk home. I’d get run off the road by a car while on bike in broad daylight. I’m not some outlier case, either. Health care, safe and gender-affirmative housing, and records are all withheld or made into a bureaucratic nightmare on college campuses, including women’s institutions.

But Potts’ ignorance of the perils trans women face on college campuses is just one part of her broader misunderstanding of just how much the misogyny we fight is similar to, or worse than, the kind she’s confronting. She points out that the Florida legislature battles women’s bodies by censoring the word “uterus,” but she fails to recognize that trans women’s bodies are so stigmatized in that state that soon they may be jailed for using public restrooms. As awful as the legacy of misogyny in public male-dominated institutions is, trans women often deal with hate and violence everywhere, including, again, women’s spaces. Our reproductive capacity and health is also denied and exploited. We have no representation in Congress, are four times more likely than other households to live in extreme poverty, and are in disproportionate danger of being abused or murdered—especially trans women of color. Yet many feminists still maintain that our inclusion in anything is objectively divisive.

Potts’ fallacy is the classic limitation of non-intersectional feminism, which assumes that because cisgender women are oppressed and exploited, everyone but cisgender women must be on the side of the oppressors and the exploiters. But the vast majority of issues that cisgender women have to deal with are similar to those trans women must overcome. Many anti-woman sentiments, such as reducing people to their sexual body parts, affect us too. There are exceptions on both sides, but we have far more ground for solidarity than for opposition. Unfortunately, the dominant strains of white, middle-class feminism have never been super flexible when it comes to being inclusive of problems outside their limited scopes. Instead, they will claim that it is trans women who aren’t inclusive of cis women’s struggles.

For example, Potts uses the instance of activists combating a production of the Vagina Monologues at Mount Holyoke College as an implication that trans women are anti-vagina. It is hard for me not to find this line of argument hilarious, considering many of the trans women I know are pretty desperate to get a vagina of our own. (Which, by the way, is another medically necessary procedure we are often denied or charged exorbitant amounts of money for.) But even trans women who are not trying to get a vagina are not trying to stop cis women from talking about whatever body parts they want. Just like a woman who has had a mastectomy should have the chance within feminist spaces to talk about not having breasts, just like a woman born without ovaries should have the chance to talk about motherhood, and just like intersex women should have the chance to talk about not having periods, trans women should have the chance to talk about our bodies. That does not deny cis women the opportunity to talk about theirs. Simply put, some feminist spaces, and the events and productions that occur in them, do not allow that—and that is a huge problem.

While feminists like Potts may not indulge in the absurdist shallow hate of TERFs (trans-exclusionary radical feminists) like Cathy Brennan, they do seem to hold in common the belief that the truly important issues are the ones that affect the most people. They frequently prioritize topics like sexual violence and abortion rights, and suggest that any other matters of reproductive justice are distractions or derailments. It should not be overlooked, though, that these overwhelmingly white, cis, middle-class, urban individuals are less likely to be affected by problems of access, need, safety, and stigma than many other people in the United States. Still, they continue to try to obscure those differences under a broad umbrella—because to do otherwise might endanger their chance of continuing to hold the majority of the power within the mainstream feminist movement. Or, if the differences are as apparently difficult to appropriate as trans women’s issues are, these feminists instead classify them as irrelevant or a menace.

Unity, solidarity, and broad movements for social equality and liberation are based in celebrating, challenging, and recognizing our differences. I am glad that Monica Potts was at least willing to hear out my concerns on Twitter, but if she really wants, as she put it in her piece, “a fight [against patriarchy] that should be waged alongside … the one for LGBT rights,” then she and other cisgender feminists need to at a bare minimum allow us into their spaces. Not as part of a new non-sisterly sisterhood where we’re classified as belonging with trans men as allies rather than fellow feminist leaders, and not as tokens to show how hip they are with modern feminism, but as fellow women. I kid you not: It is actually that simple.

Commentary Economic Justice

The Gender Wage Gap Is Not Women’s Fault, and Here’s the Report That Proves It

Kathleen Geier

The fact is, in every occupation and at every level, women earn less than men doing exactly the same work.

A new report confirms what millions of women already know: that women’s choices are not to blame for the gender wage gap. Instead, researchers at the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), the progressive think tank that issued the report, say that women’s unequal pay is driven by “discrimination, social norms, and other factors beyond women’s control.”

This finding—that the gender pay gap is caused by structural factors rather than women’s occupational choices—is surprisingly controversial. Indeed, in my years as a journalist covering women’s economic issues, the subject that has been most frustrating for me to write about has been the gender gap. (Full disclosure: I’ve worked as a consultant for EPI, though not on this particular report.) No other economic topic I’ve covered has been more widely misunderstood, or has been so outrageously distorted by misrepresentations, half-truths, and lies.

That’s because, for decades, conservatives have energetically promoted the myth that the gender pay gap does not exist. They’ve done such a bang-up job of it that denying the reality of the gap, like denying the reality of global warming, has become an article of faith on the right. Conservative think tanks like the Independent Women’s Forum and the American Enterprise Institute and right-wing writers at outlets like the Wall Street Journal, Breitbart, and the Daily Caller have denounced the gender pay gap as “a lie,” “not the real story,” “a fairy tale,” “a statistical delusion,” and “the myth that won’t die.” Sadly, it is not only right-wing propagandists who are gender wage gap denialists. Far more moderate types like Slate’s Hanna Rosin and the Atlantic’s Derek Thompson have also claimed that the gender wage gap statistic is misleading and exaggerates disparities in earnings.

According to the most recent figures available from the Census Bureau, for every dollar a man makes, a woman makes only 79 cents, a statistic that has barely budged in a decade. And that’s just the gap for women overall; for most women of color, it’s considerably larger. Black women earn only 61 percent of what non-Hispanic white men make, and Latinas earn only 55 percent as much. In a recent survey, U.S. women identified the pay gap as their biggest workplace concern. Yet gender wage gap denialists of a variety of political stripes contend that gender gap statistic—which measures the difference in median annual earnings between men and women who work full-time, year-round—is inaccurate because it does not compare the pay of men and women doing the same work. They argue that when researchers control for traits like experience, type of work, education, and the like, the gender gap evaporates like breath on a window. In short, the denialists frame the gender pay gap as the product not of sexist discrimination, but of women’s freely made choices.

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The EPI study’s co-author, economist Elise Gould, said in an interview with Rewire that she and her colleagues realized the need for the new report when an earlier paper generated controversy on social media. That study had uncovered an “unadjusted”—meaning that it did not control for differences in workplace and personal characteristics—$4 an hour gender wage gap among recent college graduates. Gould said she found this pay disparity “astounding”: “You’re looking at two groups of people, men and women, with virtually the same amount of experience, and yet their wages are so different.” But critics on Twitter, she said, claimed that the wage gap simply reflected the fact that women were choosing lower-paid jobs. “So we wanted to take out this one idea of occupational choice and look at that,” Gould said.

Gould and her co-author Jessica Schieder highlight two important findings in their EPI report. One is that, even within occupations, and even after controlling for observable factors such as education and work experience, the gender wage gap remains stubbornly persistent. As Gould told me, “If you take a man and a woman sitting side by side in a cubicle, doing the same exact job with the same amount of experience and the same amount of education, on average, the man is still going to be paid more than the woman.”

The EPI report cites the work of Harvard economist Claudia Goldin, who looked at the relative weight in the overall wage gap of gender-based pay differences within occupations versus those between occupations. She found that while gender pay disparities between different occupations explain 32 percent of the gap, pay differences within the same occupation account for far more—68 percent, or more than twice as much. In other words, even if we saw equal numbers of men and women in every profession, two-thirds of the gender wage gap would still remain.

And yes, female-dominated professions pay less, but the reasons why are difficult to untangle. It’s a chicken-and-egg phenomenon, the EPI report explains, raising the question: Are women disproportionately nudged into low-status, low-wage occupations, or do these occupations pay low wages simply because it is women who are doing the work?

Historically, “women’s work” has always paid poorly. As scholars such as Paula England have shown, occupations that involve care work, for example, are associated with a wage penalty, even after controlling for other factors. But it’s not only care work that is systematically devalued. So, too, is work in other fields where women workers are a majority—even professions that were not initially dominated by women. The EPI study notes that when more women became park rangers, for example, overall pay in that occupation declined. Conversely, as computer programming became increasingly male-dominated, wages in that sector began to soar.

The second major point that Gould and Schieder emphasize is that a woman’s occupational choice does not occur in a vacuum. It is powerfully shaped by forces like discrimination and social norms. “By the time a woman earns her first dollar, her occupational choice is the culmination of years of education, guidance by mentors, parental expectations, hiring practices, and widespread norms and expectations about work/family balance,” Gould told Rewire. One study cited by Gould and Schieder found that in states where traditional attitudes about gender are more prevalent, girls tend to score higher in reading and lower in math, relative to boys. It’s one of many findings demonstrating that cultural attitudes wield a potent influence on women’s achievement. (Unfortunately, the EPI study does not address racism, xenophobia, or other types of bias that, like sexism, shape individuals’ work choices.)

Parental expectations also play a key role in shaping women’s occupational choices. Research reflected in the EPI study shows that parents are more likely to expect their sons to enter male-dominated science, technology, engineering, and math (often called STEM) fields, as opposed to their daughters. This expectation holds even when their daughters score just as well in math.

Another factor is the culture in male-dominated industries, which can be a huge turn-off to women, especially women of color. In one study of women working in science and technology, Latinas and Black women reported that they were often mistaken for janitors—something that none of the white women in the study had experienced. Another found that 52 percent of highly qualified women working in science and technology ended up leaving those fields, driven out by “hostile work environments and extreme job pressures.”

Among those pressures are excessively long hours, which make it difficult to balance careers with unpaid care work, for which women are disproportionately responsible. Goldin’s research, Gould said, shows that “in jobs that have more temporal flexibility instead of inflexibility and long hours, you do see a smaller gender wage gap.” Women pharmacists, for example, enjoy relatively high pay and a narrow wage gap, which Goldin has linked to flexible work schedules and a professional culture that enables work/life balance. By contrast, the gender pay gap is widest in highest-paying fields such as finance, which disproportionately reward those able to work brutally long hours and be on call 24/7.

Fortunately, remedies for the gender wage gap are at hand. Gould said that strong enforcement of anti-discrimination laws, greater wage transparency (which can be achieved through unions and collective bargaining), and more flexible workplace policies would all help to alleviate gender-based pay inequities. Additional solutions include raising the minimum wage, which would significantly boost the pay of the millions of women disproportionately concentrated in the low-wage sector, and enacting paid family leave, a policy that would be a boon for women struggling to combine work and family. All of these issues are looming increasingly large in our national politics.

But in order to advance these policies, it’s vital to debunk the right’s shameless, decades-long disinformation campaign about the gender gap. The fact is, in every occupation and at every level, women earn less than men doing exactly the same work. The right alleges that the official gender pay gap figure exaggerates the role of discrimination. But even statistics that adjust for occupation and other factors can, in the words of the EPI study, “radically understate the potential for gender discrimination to suppress women’s earnings.”

Contrary to conservatives’ claims, women did not choose to be paid consistently less than men for work that is every bit as valuable to society. But with the right set of policies, we can reverse the tide and bring about some measure of economic justice to the hard-working women of the United States.

Commentary Violence

This is Not The Story I Wanted—But It’s My Story of Rape

Dani Kelley

Writer Dani Kelley thought she had shed the patriarchal and self-denying lessons of her conservative religious childhood. But those teachings blocked her from initially admitting that an encounter with a man she met online was not a "date" that proved her sexual liberation, but an extended sexual assault.

Content note: This article contains graphic descriptions of sexual violence.

The night I first truly realized something was wrong was supposed to be a good night.

A visiting friend and I were in pajamas, eating breakfast food at 10 p.m., wrapped in blankets while swapping stories of recent struggles and laughs.

There I was, animatedly telling her about my recently acquired (and discarded) “fuck buddy,” when suddenly the story caught in my throat.

When I finally managed to choke out the words, they weren’t what I expected to say. “He—he held me down—until, until I couldn’t—breathe.”

Hearing myself say it out loud was a gut-punch. I was sobbing, gasping for breath, arms wrapped as if to hold myself together, spiraling into a terrifying realization.

This isn’t the story I wanted.

Unlearning My Training

I grew up in the Plymouth Brethren movement, a small fundamentalist Christian denomination that justifies strict gender roles through a literal approach to the Bible. So, according to 1 Corinthians 11:7, men are considered “the image and glory of God,” while women are merely “the glory of man.” As a result, women are expected to wear head coverings during any church service, among other restrictions that can be best summed up by the apostle Paul in 1 Timothy 2:11-12: Women are never allowed to have authority over men.

If you’ve spent any number of years in conservative Christianity like I did, you’re likely familiar with the fundamentalist tendency to demonize that which is morally neutral or positive (like premarital sex or civil rights) while sugar-coating negative experiences. The sugar-coating can be twofold: Biblical principles are often used to shame or gaslight abuse victims (like those being shunned or controlled or beaten by their husbands) while platitudes are often employed to help members cope with “the sufferings of this present time,” assuring them that these tragedies are “not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us.”

In many ways, it’s easy to unlearn the demonization of humanity as you gain actual real-world experience refuting such flimsy claims. But the shame? That can be more difficult to shake.

The heart of those teachings isn’t only present in this admittedly small sect of Christianity. Rather, right-wing Western Christianity as a whole has a consent problem. It explicitly teaches its adherents they don’t belong to themselves at all. They belong to God (and if they’re not men, they belong to their fathers or husbands as well). This instilled lack of agency effectively erases bodily autonomy while preventing the development of healthy emotional and physical boundaries.

On top of that, the biblical literalism frequently required by conservative Christianity in the United States promotes a terrifying interpretation of Scripture, such as Jeremiah 17:9. The King James Version gives the verse a stern voice, telling us that “the heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked.” If we believe this, we must accept that we’re untrustworthy witnesses to our own lives. Yet somehow, we’re expected to rely on the authority of those the Bible deems worthy. People like all Christians, older people, and men.

Though I’ve abandoned Christianity and embraced feminist secular humanism, the culture in which I grew up and my short time at conservative Bob Jones University still affect how I view myself and act in social situations. The lessons of my formative years created a perfect storm of terrible indoctrination: gender roles that promoted repressed individuality for women while encouraging toxic masculinity, explicit teaching that led to constant second-guessing my ability to accurately understand my own life, and a biblical impetus to “rejoice in my suffering.”

Decades of training taught me I’m not allowed to set boundaries.

But Some Habits Die Hard

Here’s the thing. At almost 30, I’d never dated anyone other than my ex-husband. So I thought it was about time to change that.

When I found this man’s online profile, I was pleasantly surprised. It was full of the kind of geekery I’m into, even down to the specific affinity for eclectic music. I wrote to him, making sure my message and tone were casual. He responded instantly, full of charisma and charm. Within hours, we’d made plans to meet.

He was just as friendly and attentive in person. After wandering around town, window-shopping, and getting to know one another, he suggested we go to his favorite bar. As he drank (while I sipped water), he kept paying me compliments, slowly breaking the touch barrier. And honestly, I was enthralled—no one had paid attention to me like this in years.

When he suggested moving out to the car where we could be a little more intimate, I agreed. The rush of feeling desired was intoxicating. He seemed so focused on consent—asking permission before doing anything. Plus, he was quite straightforward about what he wanted, which I found exciting.

So…I brought him home.

This new and exciting “arrangement” lasted one week, during which we had very satisfying, attachment-free sex several times and after which we parted ways as friends.

That’s the story I told people. That’s the story I thought I believed. I’d been freed from the rigid expectations and restraints of my youth’s purity culture.

Now. You’re about to hear me say many things I know to be wrong. Many feminists or victim advocates almost certainly know the rationalizations and reactions I’m about to describe are both normal responses to abuse and a result of ingrained lies about sex in our culture. Not to mention evidence of the influence that right-wing conservatism can have on shaping self-actualization.

As I was telling people the story above, I left out important details. Were my omissions deliberate? An instinctive self-preservation mechanism? A carryover from draconian ideals about promiscuity?

When I broke down crying with my friend, I finally realized I’d kept quiet because I couldn’t bear to hear myself say what happened.

I’m a feminist, damn it. I left all the puritanical understandings of gender roles behind when I exited Christianity! I even write about social justice and victim advocacy. I ought to recognize rape culture!

Right?

If only being a socially aware feminist was enough to erase decades of socialization as a woman within rape culture—or provide inoculation against sexual violence.

That first night, once we got to my car, he stopped checking in with me. I dismissed the red flag as soon as I noticed it, telling myself he’d stop if I showed discomfort. Then he smacked my ass—hard. I pulled away, staring at him in shocked revulsion. “Sorry,” he replied, smirking.

He suggested that we go back to my house, saying we’d have more privacy than at his place. I was uneasy, unconvinced. But he began passionately kissing, groping, petting, and pleading. Against my better judgment, I relented.

Yet, in the seclusion of my home, there was no more asking. There was only telling.

Before I knew it, I’d been thrown on my back as he pulled off my clothes. I froze. The only coherent thought I could manage was a weak stammer, asking if he had a condom. He seemed agitated. “Are you on birth control?” That’s not the point! I thought, mechanically answering “yes.”

With a triumphant grin and no further discussion, he forced himself into me. Pleasure fought with growing panic as something within me screamed for things to slow down, to just stop. The sensation was familiar: identical to how I felt when raped as a child.

I frantically pushed him off and rolled away, hyperventilating. I muttered repeatedly, “I need a minute. Just give me a minute. I need a minute.”

“We’re not finished yet!” he snapped angrily. As he reached for me again, I screeched hysterically, “I’M NOT OK! I NEED A MINUTE!”

Suddenly, he was kind and caring. Instead of being alarmed, I was strangely grateful. So once I calmed down, I fucked him. More than once.

It was—I told myself—consensual. After all, he comforted me during a flashback. Didn’t I owe him that much?

Yet, if I didn’t do what he wanted, he’d forcefully smack my ass. If I didn’t seem happy enough, he’d insistently tell me to smile as he hit me again, harder. He seemed to relish the strained smile I would force on command.

I kept telling myself I was okay. Happy, even. Look at how liberated I was!

All week, I was either at his beck and call or fighting suicidal urges. Never having liked alcohol before, I started drinking heavily. I did all I could to minimize or ignore the abuse. Even with his last visit—as I fought to breathe while he forcefully held my head down during oral sex, effectively choking me—I initially told myself desperately that surely he wouldn’t do any of this on purpose.

The Stories We Tell and The Stories That Just Are

Reflecting on that week, I’m engulfed in shame. I’m a proud feminist. I know what coercion looks like. I know what rape looks like. I know it’s rarely a scary man wearing a ski mask in a back alley. I’ve heard all the victim-blaming rape apologia you have: that women make up rape when they regret consenting to sex, or going on a date means sex is in the cards, or bringing someone home means you’re game for anything.

Reality is, all of us have been socialized within a patriarchal system that clouds our experiences and ability to classify them. We’re told to tend and befriend the men who threaten us. De-escalation at any cost is the go-to response of almost any woman I’ve ever talked to about unwanted male attention. Whatever will satiate the beast and keep us safe.

On top of that, my conservative background whispered accusations of being a Jezebel, failing to safeguard my purity, and getting exactly what I deserve for forsaking the faith.

It’s all lies, of course. Our culture lies when it says that there are blurred lines when it comes to consent. It violates our personhood when it requires us to change the narrative of the violence enacted against us for their own comfort. Right-wing Christianity lies when it says we don’t belong to ourselves and must submit to the authority of a religion or a gender.

Nobody’s assaulted because they weren’t nice enough or because they “failed” to de-escalate. There’s nothing we can do to provoke such violence. Rape is never deserved. The responsibility for sexual assault lies entirely with those who attack us.

So why was the story I told during and after that ordeal so radically and fundamentally different from what actually happened? And why the hell did I think any of what happened was OK?

Rape myths are so ingrained in our cultural understanding of relationships that it was easier for me to believe nothing bad had happened than to accept the truth. I thought if I could only tell the story I wanted it to be, then maybe that’s what really happened. I thought if I was willing—if I kept having him over, if I did what he ordered, if I told my friends how wonderful it was—it would mean everything was fine. It would mean I wasn’t suffering from post-traumatic stress or anxiety about defying the conservative tenets of my former political and religious system.

Sometimes, we tell ourselves the stories we want to hear until we’re able to bear the stories of what actually happened.

We all have a right to say who has what kind of access to our bodies. A man’s masculinity gives him no authority over anyone’s sexual agency. A lack of a “no” doesn’t mean a “yes.” Coercion isn’t consent. Sexual acts performed without consent are assault. We have a right to tell our stories—our real stories.

So, while this isn’t the story I wanted, it’s the story that is.

I was raped.