Welcome to what should be an exciting discussion of Katharine Jenkins’ “Amelioration and Inclusion: Gender Identity and the Concept of Woman,” published in the most recent issue of Ethics and available open access here. Talia Bettcher has kindly contributed a critical précis, below the fold. Please join us!
Trans people regularly struggle with having our identities respected in mainstream society. Not only can this be deeply emotionally wounding, such invalidations are sometimes accompanied by acts of sexual and physical violence. Indeed, these invalidations are often institutionalized: Trans women, for example, can be housed in male prisons, detention centers, and homeless shelters. It’s fair to say that identity invalidation (“misgendering” as it’s sometimes called) is implicated in various forms of trans oppression. Unfortunately, some versions of (non-trans) feminism also have had a long history of excluding trans women from the category woman and therefore from various feminist organizations and projects: That is to say, they have been complicit in trans oppression.
Since many philosophers see the analysis of concepts as our business, it would seem we should have something interesting to say about the question “What is a woman?” There are differences, however, between apparently neutral questions and expressly political ones for which ethical-political aims may shape the project. In this spirit, Sally Haslanger (2012) proposes an ameliorative inquiry into the concept woman that asks what concept feminists should aim to get people to use in light of their goals of ending sexist oppression (the “target concept”). While she recognizes gender terms are used in many ways, she adopts a “focal analysis” in selecting one sense, hierarchical social classes, as primary (Haslanger, p. 228). Very roughly, she says one functions as a woman in some context just in case one is subordinated on the basis of presumed female sex (i.e. female biological role in reproduction) in that context (p. 235). And she says that one is a woman just in case one typically (“regularly, and for the most part”) functions as woman (p. 234). (She also provides an analogous account of man in terms of privilege (ibid)). Such an account is expressly revisionary since a woman not so subordinated wouldn’t count as a woman in the ameliorative project. One of the intended benefits of the analysis, however, is its avoiding excluding women marginalized by race or class (e.g. by analyzing woman in terms of some imagined commonalities that turn out to belong only to the non-marginalized women) (Jenkins, p. 1-2).
Katharine Jenkins lucidly shows, however, that Haslanger’s account does lead to the exclusion of some trans women. Only trans women typically subordinated on the basis of presumed female sex will count, either because they’re read as non-trans women or because they’re taken to have altered their bodies in ways relevant to biological sex. This excludes trans women presumed biologically male, either because they don’t present publicly as women, or because their presentation is viewed as pretense, as well as trans women regarded as women on the basis of gender identity, rather than presumed biological sex (even those subject to sexist oppression!). Any trans woman who doesn’t typically “function as a woman” won’t count as a woman in Haslanger’s account (Jenkins, p. 7-10).
Jenkins sees no problem with an ameliorative project per se: If trans women are included among the “we” of the ameliorative project (“ameliorative agents”, she calls them) the goals of respecting trans women’s gender identifications will be among those adopted by the group (Jenkins, p. 15). Nor does she find any problems with Haslanger’s specific class-based account. The problem, she argues, is the focal nature. While Haslanger could still allow for the validation of trans women in another sense of ‘woman’ (e.g. gender identity), the problem is that it would be only secondary (Jenkins p. 12).
In the second part, Jenkins defends an account with branching target concepts, gender-as-class and gender-as-identity. She argues that both are equally important in providing a feminist account of oppression. While the former is intended to capture external forms of oppression, the latter is intended to accommodate the possibilities of internalized oppression (and also resistance). She changes Haslanger’s analysis of functioning as a woman in some context to an analysis of being classed as a woman in some context (p. 19) and then she provides an analysis of having a female gender identity (Jenkins, p. 19-25).
Jenkins notes what while Haslanger discusses only a thin notion of gender identity (one that includes internalizations of the harmful norms assigned to women), she adopts a richer account of racial identity as a map formed to guide one through the social and/or material realities that are, in a given context, characteristic for that racial group (Haslanger, p. 228, p. 273-97; Jenkins p. 19-20). Borrowing from this, Jenkins adopts a flexible notion of female gender identity in terms of “an internal ‘map’ formed to guide someone classed as a women through the social and/or material realities that are, in that context characteristic of women as a class” (p. 21). This notion allows one to either accept or resist norms of femininity (Jenkins, p. 21-22): What’s important is that such norms are taken as relevant to oneself. In effect, she sees gender identity “as a response to the social norms that are associated with the social positions that constitute gender as class” (p. 24).
Providing an account of gender identity is a messy business, however. I’m not sure Jenkins needs to do it (at least not to include trans women). Consider that in some ways, many trans women don’t, when they first transition, have much of a map to guide them through the social and material realities of being classed as a woman. Sadly, this can leave some ill-prepared to deal with sexist threats about to befall them. Admittedly, in Jenkins account, one need only take the social and material realities of womanhood as relevant to oneself in some way (p. 23). One might worry, however, that in this account it will turn out that some trans women have gender identities of both men and women. Raised as males, some trans woman may have acquired a decent internalized map of the social and material realities for men taken as a class. Indeed, prior to coming out to themselves, some trans women may have taken norms of masculinity as relevant to themselves. Thus, the question arises how and why we should select the validating part of the gender identity and not the other or, perhaps, how we might get the invalidating part not to count as part of the gender identity in the first place.
The cleanest move may well involve avoiding the issues altogether through an appeal to sincere self-identification. Admittedly, this means trans women who don’t yet self-identify as women aren’t yet women (in this sense). However, there may be good reasons for respecting a trans woman’s self-identification prior to her coming out, even though those who know her well may already suspect she’s a woman. And once she does self-identify as a woman, she may well re-assess her entire life by saying she’s always been a woman (something we should respect, too).
At any rate, Jenkins concludes her article by arguing that in light of the ongoing invalidation and marginalization of trans women, the term ‘woman’ ought to be applied to gender-as-identity concept rather than gender-as-class (Jenkins, p. 29-31). This, she argues, is merely contingent upon the fact that trans identities are currently subject to invalidation (p. 32). While the argument is both subtle and persuasive, however, I do confess that the conclusion leaves me wondering what remains of Haslanger’s account: If we’re going to reserve the term ‘woman’ for gender-as-identity alone, why not eliminate gender-as-class from the ameliorative analysis of woman altogether?
Jenkins certainly highlights the importance of retaining it in her concluding reflections on a Reclaim the Night march (Jenkins, p. 32-33). In addition to wanting to include all self-identified women, the organizers deemed it important to include all those people who had experienced sexual violence on the basis of being classed as women even though they didn’t self-identify as women (e.g. non-binary identified people, trans men). The supposed point of providing an analysis of woman is to clarify a maximally inclusive purview of feminist politics and this disjunction between self-identification and subordination through classification may seem to accomplish just that.
I do worry, however, about arguments that proceed from the sheer demands of a feminist account of oppression more generally and then conclude with the result about the ameliorative inquiry project (deciding upon what concept of woman we should use). In other words, I’m not entirely sure that the sheer importance of gender-as-class to feminist theorizing is itself an argument that it should play a role in the target concept(s). I’m not sure whether this is what Jenkins is suggesting. But I do think that arguments suggested by the Reclaim the Night example are right on target.
I’m also a bit worried about exclusively focusing on gender-as-class as the (only?) external form of oppression. Consider that trans women as ameliorative agents will want more than identity validation, we’ll want an account of identity invalidation itself. And it’s notable that gender-as-class doesn’t seem to do the trick. While it might be tempting to frame invalidation as a misalignment between identity and class, remember that the latter concept builds subordination and privilege on the basis of presumed biological role right into it. While trans women are often viewed as really men on the basis of presumed biological sex, however, we’re often not accorded very many privileges on that basis. This suggests that trans invalidation might have to be explained not by appeal to the ameliorative concept of gender-as-class, rather, a descriptive analysis of how gender concepts are typically deployed in daily interactions. It’s an interesting consequence, since it may mean not all external forms of gender oppression can be explained in terms of gender-as-hierarchy (or even an internalizations thereof). It also means an ameliorative analysis isn’t enough.
A final point: Sometimes trans women viewed as men still find ourselves subject to sexual harassment and violence analogous to that experienced by non-trans women. One is inclined to say we can “function as women” in some contexts whilst still being viewed as men. This suggests other criteria for gender classification besides the reproductive one (e.g. being presumed available for taking “the female role” in sex) or a multiplication of hierarchical classes themselves (non-trans women, trans women), taking us further away from Haslanger’s unitary account than Jenkins might have wanted.
This is all really beside the point, however. For it simply cannot be sufficiently stressed that Jenkin’s beautifully written and powerfully argued article marks an important watershed in analytic feminist philosophy as the first major publication to draw out the highly trans-exclusionary implications of prominent non-trans feminist philosopher’s account of the concept woman. This is a paper that needed to be written. And Jenkins has done an outstanding job.
Haslanger, Sally. 2012. Resisting Reality: Social Construction and Social Critique. Oxford University Press.
Jenkins, Katharine 2016, “Amelioration and Inclusion: Gender identity and the concept of woman,” Ethics.