We are a public forum committed to collective reasoning and the imagination of a more just world. Join today to help us keep the discussion of ideas free and open to everyone, and enjoy member benefits like our quarterly books.
It was a sunny day in Key West in the mid-1970s. Andrea Dworkin and I were walking along a palm-shrouded sidewalk, she in a T-shirt and bib overalls, I in a tank top and shorts. Her dark hair was full and frizzy, mine was blond and curly. As we passed an evidently tipsy older man, he greeted us “Hel-lo, boys!” Then, after a closer look, “Girls?” He didn’t know what sex we were, but he figured we must be the same. It was a very funny moment that we would enjoy remembering for years. And looking back, I think I know why: we were each in our own way on a lifelong quest to escape gender.
The invidious ideology of biological sex essentialism inflames a bigotry that would have appalled Andrea.
Andrea and I began living together on August 1, 1974, in New York City, and she died in our home in Washington, D.C., on April 9, 2005. During those thirty-one years, she changed my life, and at first it was hard to go on.
From long before I met her, Andrea held strong radical views, as people who have read her or heard her speak know well. One was that she repudiated the sex binary—and the biological essentialism upon which belief in it is based. As she wrote in her 1974 book Woman Hating:
The discovery is, of course, that “man” and “woman” are fictions, caricatures, cultural constructs. As models they are reductive, totalitarian, inappropriate to human becoming. As roles they are static, demeaning to the female, dead-ended for male and female both. The discovery is inescapable: We are, clearly, a multisexed species which has its sexuality spread along a vast continuum where the elements called male and female are not discrete.
Andrea was very clear that the system of male supremacy is enforced over and against a political class called “women” in order to delineate and reify a sex class called “men”—and she was eloquent in her analysis of how cultural practices such as rape, battery, prostitution, and pornography institutionalize that class-based oppression. But she was also very clear that the sex binary we infer from and impute to those two classes does not itself exist: it is a cultural illusion, not a biological either/or.
For Andrea there was no contradiction between her view that humans are not divisible into two sexes and her impassioned exhortations to end the sex-class hierarchy. The first was about an absolute truth; the second was about a social regime imposed by male supremacy. Her mind was big enough to grasp both.
In a 1975 speech, published later as “The Root Cause” in Our Blood (1976), Andrea elaborated on this important distinction between truth and reality:
I have made this distinction . . . in order to enable me to say something very simple: that while the system of gender polarity is real, it is not true. It is not true that there are two sexes which are discrete and opposite, which are polar, which unite naturally and self-evidently into a harmonious whole. It is not true that the male embodies both positive and neutral human qualities and potentialities in contrast to the female who is female, according to Aristotle and all of male culture, “by virtue of a certain lack of qualities.” And once we do not accept the notion that men are positive and women are negative, we are essentially rejecting the notion that there are men and women at all. In other words, the system based on this polar model of existence is absolutely real; but the model itself is not true.
In my own work, Andrea’s distinction between truth and reality became the philosophical foundation for an argument against biological sex essentialism and a critique of “manhood.” For instance, in Refusing to Be a Man (1985), I wrote:
The idea of the male sex is like the idea of an Aryan race. The Nazis believed in the idea of an Aryan race—they believed that the Aryan race really exists, physically, in nature. . . . [They] believed that from the blond hair and blue eyes occurring naturally in the human species, they could construe the existence of a separate race. . . . But traits do not a race make; traits only make traits. For the idea to be real that these physical traits comprised a race, the race had to be socially constructed. The Nazis inferiorized and exterminated those they defined as “non-Aryan.” With that, the notion of an Aryan race began to seem to come true. That’s how there could be a political entity known as an Aryan race, and that’s how there could be for some people a personal, subjective sense that they belonged to it. This happened through hate and force, through violence and victimization, through treating millions of people as things, then exterminating them. The belief system shared by people who believed they were all Aryan could not exist apart from that force and violence. The force and violence created a racial class system, and it created those people’s membership in the race considered “superior.” . . . But the idea of an Aryan race could never become metaphysically true . . . because there simply is no Aryan race. There is only the idea of it—and the consequences of trying to make it seem real. The male sex is very like that.
That passage was influenced by something else I learned from Andrea: for her, the way women are hated and the way Jews are hated were closely related. That theme runs through her work. And throughout our life together, what it meant to Andrea morally to be both a woman and a Jew was ever present.
After Andrea’s death in 2005, I became increasingly concerned that she and the radical politics I learned from her were being misappropriated by some to argue—in the name of radical feminism—for a biologically essentialist notion of “real womanhood.” To my mind, this was a betrayal of a fundamental insight I learned from Andrea, and referenced throughout my work, that male supremacy is premised on the equally fictitious biological essentialism of “real manhood.”
Back in 1974, Andrea wrote of transsexualism (as it was called then) in a prescient and empathetic section of Woman Hating:
There is no doubt that in the culture of male-female discreteness, transsexuality is a disaster for the individual transsexual. Every transsexual, white, black, man, woman, rich, poor, is in a state of primary emergency . . . as a transsexual. There are three crucial points here. One, every transsexual has the right to survival on his/her own terms. That means that every transsexual is entitled to a sex-change operation, and it should be provided by the community as one of its functions. This is an emergency measure for an emergency condition. Two, by changing our premises about men and women, role-playing, and polarity, the social situation of transsexuals will be transformed, and transsexuals will be integrated into community, no longer persecuted and despised. Three, community built on androgynous identity will mean the end of transsexuality as we know it. Either the transsexual will be able to expand his/her sexuality into a fluid androgyny, or, as roles disappear, the phenomenon of transsexuality will disappear and that energy will be transformed into new modes of sexual identity and behavior.
This third point was Andrea’s vision for the future: a society in which everyone is free from gender polarity and from the social hierarchy that reifies and requires it. This was the capital-T truth. In the meantime, her first two points spoke to the present reality for transfolk and evidenced her deep commitment to the right to have their identities affirmed and their medical needs supported by their communities. The empathy and acceptance Andrea wrote from in that passage never wavered.
I’ve thought back to Andrea’s work and our conversations as I’ve pondered how she would respond to radical feminists who call themselves trans critical or gender critical (and whom others sometimes refer to as trans exclusionary or transphobic). These radical feminists believe sincerely that “women as a biological class are globally oppressed by men as a biological class” and that “denying biological sex undermines the very foundation of feminism.” In some cases, they invoke Andrea’s name on the presumption that, were she alive today, she would believe that too and be one of them. I know she wouldn’t.
‘The discovery is, of course, that “man” and “woman” are fictions, caricatures, cultural constructs.’
Indeed, this invidious ideology of biological sex essentialism inflames a bigotry that would have appalled Andrea. Its reactionary insistence on a biological boundary around the category “real woman” plays right into the male-supremacist agenda that wants, more than anything, to secure the borders of the category “real man.” Most upsetting to me, the anti-trans obsession of this faction of radical feminism has become a corruption of the egalitarian ethic and humane vision that underlay Andrea’s life and work.
In 1977 Andrea stood before a room of lesbian-separatist radical feminists and delivered a scorching critique of their biological determinism. (Readers can find it published as “Biological Superiority: The World’s Most Dangerous and Deadly Idea” in her 1989 book Letters from a War Zone.) In it, she specifically cites “biologically fixed, . . . genitally absolute” definitions of gender as a tool of “social and political discrimination.” I have no doubt that Andrea would now be excoriating on similar grounds the biological sex essentialism of anti-trans radical feminists.
Lately some trans-critical radical feminists have told me I am wrong because Andrea died before what they call transgender ideology threatened to undermine the biologically binary basis of feminism; Andrea could not have known, they say, what a “menace” to women’s sex-based rights transwomen have become. To which I reply: Andrea absolutely did know, as a woman and as a Jew, what biologically essentialist scapegoating looks and feels like.
The fundamental problem with radical feminism’s obsession with biologically defining the category woman is that it unwittingly enables a politics that is profoundly reactionary. In falsely framing the reality of male supremacy as being based in biological “fact” about “real womanhood,” it completely misses the point about how male supremacy actually functions to construct the category “real manhood.” That lethal reality happens transactionally, not anatomically. It happens when would-be real men rape; it happens when would-be real men batter; it happens when would-be real men buy sex; it happens when would-be real men consume pornography. Male supremacy is explicable not by biology but by belief in the delusion of “real manhood” and the concomitant insatiable urge to belong to it the only way one can: by committing acts that violate and subjugate others.
Belief in “real manhood” is the genome of injustice. I stand with the radical feminism I learned from Andrea that intends to refute that toxic belief and destroy its power over us all.
John Stoltenberg, a long-time activist against sexual violence and a radical-feminist philosopher of gender, is the author of Refusing to Be a Man: Essays on Sex and Justice and The End of Manhood: Parables of Sex and Selfhood as well many articles and essays. With trans feminist Cristan Williams he contributes regularly to The Conversations Project about radically inclusive radical feminism. He is also a novelist (GONERZ), playwright, communications consultant, and theater reviewer in Washington, D.C.
…we need your help. Confronting the many challenges of COVID-19—from the medical to the economic, the social to the political—demands all the moral and deliberative clarity we can muster. In Thinking in a Pandemic, we’ve organized the latest arguments from doctors and epidemiologists, philosophers and economists, legal scholars and historians, activists and citizens, as they think not just through this moment but beyond it. While much remains uncertain, Boston Review’s responsibility to public reason is sure. That’s why you’ll never see a paywall or ads. It also means that we rely on you, our readers, for support. If you like what you read here, pledge your contribution to keep it free for everyone by making a tax-deductible donation.
Vital reading on politics, literature, and more in your inbox. Sign up for our Weekly Newsletter, Monthly Roundup, and event notifications.
Companies are unreliable allies in the fight for queer rights and social justice. We must rebuild a working people’s movement.
Decades of biological research haven’t improved diagnosis or treatment. We should look to society, not to the brain.
Though a means of escaping and undermining racial injustice, the practice comes with own set of costs and sacrifices.