A Generous Orthodoxy For Feminism – Or Why This Issue With ‘Cis’ MUST Be Resolved.

In a [Western] society, where patriarchy dominates much of our daily lives, it is too easy to forget that there are also subtle (and not so subtle) web-like power structures which too many of us fail to recognise our own role in – the able bodied and the differently abled, people who enjoy stable mental health and those who don’t, white and black or colour, straight and gay/bi/queer, trans*gender and cis gender.

This a very simplified overview and there are of course many other variants, and interweaving hierarchy’s across all those and more. As we grapple with those concepts, peeling away the layers and struggling with continuously evolving understandings, working out where our oppressions and privileges are within those structures, there is often push back from those who have prefer their theologies more orthodox – more conservative.

Those with such staunch conservative tendancies do not tolerate ‘liberals’ (a word that is often spat out with some venom) – we are heretics, false prophets threatening what they believe with dangerously tempting ideas that put the mortal souls of the laity in danger, taking them away from the One True Feminism that will keep them safe, and their liberation far from jeopardy.  But like the fire and brimstone conservatives of the Christian Church, their refusal to engage with the deepening, enriching theologies is driving away and hurting the very people we should be embracing.

I want to take on the latest Glosswatch blog post on the term cis: in part because nothing rankles me faster than a false equivalency,  but more importantly because I think it is vital for cig-gendered feminists to call out the idea that the term cis is oppressive to women for the lie that it is.

I dislike being blunt about things: I would prefer that feminists could respect each other in their disagreements – but people are flawed and as we grapple with our understandings of ourselves as human beings, our identities and wrestle with these sometimes complicated ideas, there will inevitably be friction. I would like to hope that we can show each other  grace in that process more often. But sometimes we can’t and we have sisters hurting because of these lies.

In criticising (again) the use of the cisgender as defined by sociologists Kristen Schilt (Assistant Professor at the University of Chicago) and Laurel Westbrook who co-authored Doing Gender, Determining Gender this past year – GW demonstrates false equivalencies, flawed premises and, to be blunt, painful ignorance. What Glosswatch actually clearly demonstrates is what Schilt calls ‘gender panics’:

Transgender equality has never been more visible as a key issue than it is today and with the development of every new trans-supportive law or policy, there typically follows an outbreak of criticism.  In our analysis, we find that these moments, which we term “gender panics,” are the result of a clash between two competing cultural ideas about gender identity: belief that gender is determined by biology vs. belief that a person’s gendered self-identity should be validated. These gender panics frequently result in a reshaping of the language of such policies so that they require extensive bodily changes before transgender individuals have to access particular rights.

They point out that biological essentialism – which would segregate our trans*gender sisters from us in sex segregated spaces – actually reproduces the very beliefs about female weakness against which our conservative sisters – who would deny our trans*gender sisters their very identity – claim to rail.  The idea, therefore, that ‘cis-gender’ oppresses us is fallacious – it does quite the opposite. It not only allows us to stand in solidarity with our trans*gender sisters (both binary and non-binary), it begins to free us from the strictures of patriarchal oppression that would keep us its victims, weak and powerless. Further, by denying the term cis, we actively continue to oppress further our trans*gender sisters.

I would never deny that my conservative sisters desire our freedom – but I know they do not desire it for all my sisters and I do not believe that they can provide it. And there will be more thoughts on that later.



5 thoughts on “A Generous Orthodoxy For Feminism – Or Why This Issue With ‘Cis’ MUST Be Resolved.

  1. Reblogged this on I am because you are and commented:
    I entirely agree with you that the post is an example of ‘gender panic’ as described by Schilt, but I’m not sure about calling the gender abolitionist faction conservative since they generally tend leftward, want to redress assymmetrical power relationships and advocate a kind of gender revolution.

    I consider myself generally radical rather than liberal but my first political tenet is ‘nobody under the bus for anything’ – that’s how I got here. Increasingly I feel & recognise that gender-as-power structure can only be dismantled through ending gender-as-coercion, beginning with not assigning sex at birth. What I would really like to do is persuade the trans-excluding gender abolition lobby that their pronouncements reify the tropes they wish to destroy, as you suggest here in your last paragraph.

    Since sex (mostly but not exclusively f or m) in the body exists, is often recognisable and has social effects, gender (sex (mostly but not exclusively f or m) in social space) exists and will crystallise on top of it, regardless of any efforts to the contrary. We can only work to prevent gender from functioning as a system of power and exclusion. The ‘fallback to biology’ will always be conservative in effect because insisting on a hardened biological category will harden the functioning of gender as power *sigh*


  2. Hi Zanna – my reason for using conservative with a small ‘c’ was primarily because of the rigid manner with which feminists like GW hold to an old-fashioned binary notion of gender, and drew the parallel with conservative Christianity because they too hold to a binary world view. It’s a social conservatism rather than a political. As you rightly say: the fall back to biology that is distinctively conservative.

    In the evolution of feminist and gender theory, I do think it is important to understand (and to some extent) respect their role in the conversation and journey as we explore our identities and roles. Like you, nobody under the bus, and I think that is part of what I mean about ‘a generous orthodoxy’ for feminism. But those are thoughts I continue to explore!

    I love the idea of radical feminism as a movement that works to prevent gender from functioning as a system of power and exclusion. Thank you! It would be so much more inclusive if the narrative was better framed.


    • Oh yeah, I shouldn’t have muddied the waters there by talking about politically rightist Conservatism. I do think that feminists such as GW and other gender abolitionists consider themselves socially as well as politically radical and consciously reject conservatism in all forms. Anyway, I may be completely wrong: I was just trying to map those positions truthfully for the sake of a stronger counter argument

      But I didn’t say strongly enough in my first comment that I agree with your post. I reblogged it because I read it to be on ‘my side’ at the 140 character distance at which GW can characterise any position she dislikes as trans ideology/gender identity theory/misogyny/neo-conservative individualism. Reading at that distance where feminism itself fragments into binaries – for example those who believe trans women and those who do not – feels problematic! Your position and my position are not the same, and I shouldn’t read them as the same in the interests of collective struggle, but that’s the way online activism sometimes looks to me at the moment? Sometimes it appears to me that GW and Sarah Ditum for example, are writing in lockstep…

      So in conclusion, I’m sorry I commented negatively at all. I need to learn to do this less, or differently, because the whole usefulness of blogging as activism is that people can come from different positions to arrive at nodes of consensus, right? The broader the base from which we critique trans-exclusion, the harder it is to maintain.


      • Please don’t worry that your comment was taken negatively: it wasn’t at all, and I always find your comments add something really important to my thought processes! Sometimes what I write here is as much to do with sifting through my own thoughts and conversations like this are vital to the process of understanding.

        I suppose I see GW, Ditum et al ‘conservative’ in the context of trans* rights because – like the conservative Christians who see marriage as man and woman, and won’t even accept homosexuality – anti-trans* feminists see the acceptance of trans*gender as a threat to their own staunchly held orthodoxy. It is a dichotomy when politically they are generally left leaning and these are thoughts that I plan on exploring further – as much to clarify them for myself, and because I am learning continuously about all this.

        And bless you for re-blogging this. I hope you are well. 🙂


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