From Feminism to Transgenderism: Catharine MacKinnon and her Political Transition

Seiya Morita

‘A woman is an adult human female.’―gender-critical feminists

‘Are women human?’―Catharine A. MacKinnon

As a Marxist, I was influenced by radical feminism when, as a graduate student, I read Catharine MacKinnon’s book Feminism Unmodified. That was 30 years ago. A Japanese translation of the book was published in 1993. I happened to find it in a second-hand bookshop. The book concretely uncovers the way pornography inflicts harms on women, dominates people’s way of seeing and thinking about women, makes women into sexual objects, and creates the world we live in. I still remember the shock of reading that book. 

Since then, I have devoured her various books and articles, written many articles based on her theories, and translated her work into Japanese. I have learnt a great deal from her arguments. But now she has transitioned from a high-profile radical feminist to a mediocre transgenderist. The author of Feminism Unmodified has modified feminism by modifying the definition of women. 

On 28 November 2022, a debate on ‘Transgender Law and Politics’ was held at Oxford University. MacKinnon gave the main speech at this event, which was carried out peacefully without any violent interruption, cancellation, or threat by activists. Its proceedings were later published in full in the journal Signs. Its content is truly astonishing, and several feminists have already criticised it (for example, Victoria Smith). I attempt another criticism here. Ironically, I am able to make this criticism precisely because I learned from her. 

From the very first line to the last, her speech is full of errors, lies, sophistry, distortions, leaps of logic, and misogyny. A full critique would be as long as a book. So, I will focus on just three problems. 

1. Are gender-critical feminists biological essentialists?  

MacKinnon’s position is built on two pillars. First, gender-critical (GC) feminists are biological essentialists. Second, trans women are, politically, women. For her, the two are inseparable. I start with the former of the two.   

‘Defining women by biology’?

MacKinnon says that: ‘…a group of philosophers purporting feminism slide sloppily from “female sex” through “feminine gender” straight to “women” as if no move has been made, eventually reverting to the dictionary: a woman is an “adult human female.” Defining women by biology—adult is biological age, human is biological species, female is biological sex—used to be criticized as biological essentialism.’ MacKinnon fails to recognise different levels of definition. You can define ‘woman’ politically, culturally, poetically, philosophically, or historically. We can do this precisely because we know the indicated object here is an adult human female, neither a child nor a human male. So doing does not reduce women to biological beings in the slightest. 

Countless philosophers, both ancient and modern, both Western and Eastern, have theorised ‘what a human being is’ (a ‘thinking reed’, ‘free being’, ‘realisation of reason’, ‘labouring apes’), but whenever they have offered these definitions, they have assumed their object is a Homo sapiens, and not a bonobo or chimpanzee. 

MacKinnon herself, in fact, uses ‘women’ and ‘female’ many times in their biological senses in her speech (even more so than in past writings), except when she consciously discusses the definition of woman. This unconscious usage shows she does not really believe in trans ideology. Beliefs that are directly contrary to facts and reality cannot be sustained in the language we unconsciously use. 

For that matter, MacKinnon and most other trans advocates define ‘trans women’ in biological terms. They are convinced that only those who are biologically male can be ‘trans women’. MacKinnon states that being biologically female is not a necessary condition for being a woman in order to include ‘trans women’ in the category of women. But this is as far as it can be argued without contradiction, even formally. As for ‘trans women’, she makes it a necessary condition for them to be biologically male.   

‘Adult human female’ 

In this quote, MacKinnon scoffs at the claim that women are ‘adult human females’ as merely ‘reverting to the dictionary’. In another place, she says: ‘we do not take our politics from the dictionary.’  

Indeed, we generally cannot take our politics from the dictionary, but a dictionary definition is political enough to work against those who deny even dictionary definitions. The dictionary definition of the earth as a planet in the solar system was political enough in a world where geocentrism or the Ptolemaic theory reigned as the dominant doctrine, and where saying heliocentrism or the Copernican theory was a highly political act threatened by the death penalty. Today, to hold up the dictionary definition of a woman as an ‘adult human female’ is also a highly political act when it results, if not in the death penalty, then lost employment, relationships, social reputation, opportunities for publication, and personal safety. 

MacKinnon once understood this: that a dictionary definition can be political. One of her books is titled Are Women Human? This is a question posed at the dictionary level, that nevertheless has sufficient political significance in a society where women are not treated as human beings. Is the claim ‘women are human’ biologically essentialist? If not, why does it suddenly become biologically essentialist when the two words ‘adult’ and ‘female’ are added?  

‘Feminist reduction of women to female body parts’? 

MacKinnon further says of GC feminists: ‘Those winging to the Right are thrilled by this putatively feminist reduction of women to female body parts, preferably chromosomes and reproductive apparatus, qualities chosen so that whatever is considered definitive of sex is not only physical but cannot be physically changed into.’  

It is not GC feminists who are reducing women to their body parts, nor is the Right ‘thrilled by this putatively reduction’. It is trans activists and the Left who do these things. ‘Trans women’ reduce women to their long hair, red manicured nails, ample breasts, rounded buttocks, and vaginas, and then pseudo-reproduce these parts on their own bodies, calling themselves women. For them, ‘woman’ is a patchwork of these body parts, whereas, for GC feminists, a woman is a total existence that includes all differences and characteristics, biological and political. ‘Trans women’ are obsessed with female body parts not because their minds are feminine, but merely because, from men’s rude eye, these visible body parts seem to represent femininity and womanhood. 

And it is the trans advocates and the leftists who, through the promotion of the sex industry and the legalisation of commercial surrogacy, are thrilled by reducing women to their body parts and reproductive organs, and who, in their concern for ‘trans women’, are also thrilled by referring to women as ‘people with wombs’, ‘people with vaginas’, ‘menstruator’, ‘uterus-haver’. With their intellectual ingenuity, they are creating a series of new concepts to replace women. Nevertheless, MacKinnon blames GC feminists for this reduction!   

‘Women are not oppressed by our bodies’? 

Furthermore, MacKinnon says that: ‘Women are not, in fact, subordinated or oppressed by our bodies. We do not need to be liberated from our chromosomes or our ovaries.’ What exactly does MacKinnon mean by ‘our bodies’? Given that she says ‘our ovaries’, we can only interpret ‘our bodies’ as referring to ‘the bodies of biological women’, but, if so, according to MacKinnon’s definition, that would be biological essentialism. 

The proper question is what is the concrete meaning of ‘by our bodies’. No GC feminist says that women are naturally subordinated or oppressed by their bodies. However, it is clearly nonsense to say that women’s bodies are totally irrelevant to their oppression. If women’s oppression has nothing to do with their biological physicality, why is the oppression and exploitation of women such as rape, prostitution, pornography, and surrogacy related to women’s biological bodies and their physical functions? If a vagina is biologically absent in a woman and a penis absent in a man, vaginal rape is impossible, and if a woman has no reproductive function, it cannot be exploited through commercial surrogacy. In order for men to be aroused by pornography that depicts naked women in a subordinate way, women’s nudity must have different biological characteristics from men’s. The question is whether subordination and exploitation of women are seen as naturally occurring because of women’s physical characteristics, or whether the subordination and exploitation are seen as historically, and therefore politically occurring on the basis of these physical characteristics. The latter position is not a biologically essentialist but a highly political argument. 

The fact that women’s distinct bodies are a necessary condition of their oppression does not lead to the conclusion that liberation from their bodies is women’s liberation. A woman’s body, including her vagina, is necessary for men to rape her, but the movement to eliminate rapes has never been a movement to eliminate vaginas. Commercial surrogacy requires women’s reproductive capacities, but this does not mean that the movement to eliminate surrogacy has ever been a movement to eliminate women’s fertility. 

GC feminists are proud of their own female bodies. Despite their restrictiveness and relative disadvantage in this world, they do not want to do away with them in the slightest. This physicality of women is even a source of their strength and pride, just as Blackness is a source of spiritual strength and pride for Black people. GC feminists are angry at this male-dominated society that treats them as socially inferior and unequal because of their physical peculiarities. So, they are trying to change it. 

Rather than criticising the male-dominated society that discriminates against women on the basis of their physical characteristics, MacKinnon separates the two, as if their bodies had nothing to do with their oppression and discrimination. This suggests that MacKinnon subconsciously believes that recognising female bodies as physically disadvantaged relative to that of males means that we cannot resist and finally eliminate the oppression and subordination of women.  

2. Is her proposition that ‘trans women are, politically, women’ valid? 

The second of the two pillars of MacKinnon’s speech, ‘trans women are, politically, women’, is based on two things: first, that ‘trans women are living women’s lives’, and second, that ‘trans women identify with women’. She says that:  ‘…not only are trans women living women’s lives―often much the worst of that life―but the transgender women I know, anyway, embrace womanhood consciously, are far more woman-identified than a vast swath of the women assigned female at birth (…) whom I also know….’   

‘Trans women are living women’s lives’?

What exactly are ‘women’s lives’ here? Assuming it is not just a tautology, the ‘women’ here mean obviously biological women excluding ‘trans women’ (biological men). If so, MacKinnon’s claim appears to be that some men are living ‘women’s lives’. 

In fact, ‘trans women’ are not living women’s lives, but living only the imaginary ‘women’s lives’ that they perceive. What on earth makes men’s lives women’s lives? Does living with longer hair, make-up, larger breasts, bras, and skirts do it? If so, then MacKinnon is reducing women to such parts and outfits. To abstract ‘women’s lives’ from real women’s lives and turn them into a mere get-up or how-to’s that men can also take on, means insulting and objectifying real women’s lives. 

Perhaps it means being sexually abused and objectified like women? But even in that case, for those who are not born women, the meanings of these abuses are not and cannot be the same as for those born women. Even if they are raped by men, the meanings and consequences are very different from those faced by women. Apart from the possibility of pregnancy, they never experience vaginal penetration. Andrea Dworkin once said, ‘There were the great, broad laws.…Fuck the woman in the vagina, not in the ass, because only she can be fucked in the vagina.’ (Dworkin, Intercourse, 2007, p. 197.) Other experiences of sexual abuse are not the same as women, even if these experiences have aspects similar to those of women. Both gay and straight men also being sexually abused and objectified by men does not make them people who are living ‘women’s lives’, neither does it make them women. 

Men and women don’t and can’t live the same lives. Not only biologically, but also politically. That is what is meant by gender hierarchy.   

‘Trans women are woman-identified’?

Next, we turn to the claim that the ‘trans women’ MacKinnon knows are ‘more woman-identified’ than ‘a vast swath of the women’ she also knows. 

First, no matter how many ‘trans women’ she personally knows, they are likely to be around 0.0001% of all ‘trans women’. It is a remarkable leap of logic to say from such a small number of individual cases that ‘trans women are more woman-identified than a vast swath of women’.

Moreover, what MacKinnon actually knows is only superficial images of ‘trans women’. When meeting with a high-profile radical feminist, even DV perpetrators and rapists would probably behave in a feminist way. MacKinnon thinks she understands ‘trans women’ by seeing the very superficial appearances that ‘trans women’ present to her and reading the writings of ‘trans women’. 

As an example, look at the case of Jan Morris, whom MacKinnon refers to in her essay as a ‘trans theorist’. She cites his memoir Conundrum as a reference. In it, Jan Morris writes as if his wife and children all understood and naturally accepted his ‘sex change’. In reality, however, it was the exact opposite. His daughter Suki Morys published an obituary when her father died (The Sunday Times, 10 December 2022), and wrote that she did not understand his sex change at all and became increasingly unable to as she grew older. As for his Conundrum, she wrote: 

‘As I grew older, even more confusion took hold. I read Conundrum, Jan’s memoir, which was published in 1974 and serialised in The Sunday Times, and the story didn’t quite fit for me. Now I have read more of Jan’s books, I have come to the conclusion that, other than the portrayal of place, all her [his] accounts are pretty much fantasy…’ 

‘In Conundrum, Jan writes about the death of my elder sister, Virginia, who died as an infant. She [He] writes that when Virginia was in hospital, my mother and Jan lay in bed together holding hands, tears running down their faces. She [He] writes of a “great moon”, while a nightingale sings, like a voice “from the empyrean”. She [He] states that they listened until they fell asleep. “In the morning,” she [he] writes, “the child had gone.” 

‘The reality, as my mother told me, was that my sister lay dying in hospital and Jan refused to go with my mother to visit her. At that time mothers weren’t allowed to stay the night with their children. I cannot imagine the pain my mother was going through, but I very much doubt she slept that night, and Jan’s words, then and ever after, completely failed to show any understanding of her pain.’ 

Furthermore, Suki Morys writes of her father: ‘I never felt any femininity in her [him]’. He was just a man dressed as a woman for his daughter. Jan’s views on women were extremely conservative and sexist, believing that women should marry, have children, and keep a home, and he tried to impose this on his daughter. However, even after self-identifying as a woman, he left all housework and childcare to his wife and never cooked or even cleaned his house. He never treated his children affectionately and, on the contrary, was cold towards them, especially his daughter, whom he humiliated at every opportunity, and this continued until his death.  

Morris’s behaviour is typically that of a sexist man. He left all the messy stuff to his wife, free-riding on her, while he went about his work as a journalist and historian and achieved a respectable reputation. He just did it in the guise of a woman (with dresses, make-up, long hair). Suki even questions whether Jan really wanted to be a woman. Becoming a ‘woman’ was merely a means of self-realisation for him. She also said: ‘Jan certainly did absolutely nothing for womankind.’ Can this really be described as identifying with women?   

Identification through misogyny and pornography 

‘Trans women’, especially those who can be classified as autogynephiles (they likely constitute the majority of ‘trans women’), do not identify with women, but with women’s long hair, make-up, red lips, dresses, skirts, underwear, women’s breasts and smooth skin, and they also identify with what they perceive as feminine behaviour. In other words, they only identify with women’s exterior, women’s adornment, and stereotypes of women. 

‘Women’, as imagined and understood by ‘trans women’, take on―to use the expression used by MacKinnon in her speech―the ‘misogynistic meanings that male dominant societies create, project onto us, attribute to us’. The fact that the degree of their identification with these misogynic meanings is higher than that of the average woman does not bring them any closer to women. Yet, for some reason, when MacKinnon starts talking about ‘trans women’, she discusses them as if they were exceptionally able to transcend these misogynistic meanings, directly see and know women, and immediately access and identify with women. The gender hierarchy that should so powerfully dominate people’s ways of seeing women has gone away somewhere. 

One of the strongest mediators of this process of identification is the sex industry, including pornography and prostitution. This understanding is in line with MacKinnon’s theory of pornography before now. The uniqueness of her theory was that men see, know, and understand women above all through pornography, therefore men’s image of women is constructed by it. This applies to trans women’s identification with women. They have a desire for self-feminisation through watching pornography, particularly, sissy porn, Japanese pornographic manga and anime (hentai), and through experiences buying sex. And in the process of their self-feminization, they learn ‘femininity’ above all from pornography and from the behaviours of women in the sex industry. 

In the film The Danish Girl (2015) about Lily Hervé, famous for being the first man in the world to undergo a ‘sex change’ operation, the male protagonist has a desire to become a woman by wearing white stockings. He learnt feminine behaviours from women sexually performing in a live pornographic house. He had a wife, but he did not learn them from his wife but from women in the sex industry. The feminine behaviours of women in the sex industry are, of course, originally created and exaggerated by men’s fantasies. Indeed, Lily learnt ‘femininity’ from women who acted out men’s fantasies, and then acted them out himself to show others that he was a ‘woman’. Thus, everything revolves inside the world created by pornography and the sex industry, and MacKinnon herself is now an inhabitant of this pornified world.   

‘Trans women are, politically, women’? 

On the basis of these arguments, MacKinnon draws the conclusion that ‘trans women are, politically, women.’ However, if, through a mere act of identification, a person belonging to the dominant sex class can move to the subordinate sex class, then gender hierarchy would be either powerless or non-existent. This completely contradicts her own theory. 

What does the word ‘politically’ here mean? It is mere rhetoric and does not reflect any logical connection or rational reasoning. If it is possible to ‘politically’ categorise ‘trans women’ as women, it is also possible to categorise MacKinnon as a ‘trans woman’ or a ‘man’, politically. This is because, through her essay, she shows contempt for women who do not accept ‘trans women’ as women, shows no solidarity with the many women who are scared, losing medals, or being sexually abused by ‘trans women’ and trans activists, and doesn’t sympathise with girls irreversibly harmed by their transition. And she actively welcomes and embraces ‘trans women’, i.e. biological men, and is far more trans-woman-identified than ‘a vast swath of the women assigned female at birth’. Therefore, can we say that MacKinnon is, politically, a ‘trans woman’, or perhaps even just a man? 

If ‘trans women’ are, only politically, women, then in bathrooms, changing rooms, sports, shelters, and prisons that are not demarcated according to political ideas, ‘trans women’ should use the facilities assigned to men. Just as there are no right-wing toilets or left-wing toilets, and just as shelters do not sort out victims based on their political views, ‘political women’ have no right to use facilities assigned to biological women or to participate in women’s sports. They can only participate as ‘political women’ at liberal-feminist rallies or LGBT events. 

3. Why did MacKinnon capitulate to transgenderism? 

MacKinnon has thrown away her fundamental feminist positions in order to include ‘trans women’ in the category of women and the female sphere. But, why did Catharine MacKinnon, who was regarded as a leading figure of radical feminism, capitulate so miserably to transgenderism? There are several reasons for this.   


The first reason is her age-old bio-phobia. Although she has abandoned almost all of her past positions, there are a few that continue from her past. Foremost of these is her perennial anti-biological position. This bio-phobia has resulted in her failing to grasp the core of the male power that abuses and exploits biological functions and structures of female bodies, and to understand its new form: transgenderism.  

In this respect, she clearly differs from Andrea Dworkin who has spoken with vividness and intensity about the material reality of female bodies and their colonisation by male power. As a legal scholar, MacKinnon, even when she spoke about the oppression and exploitation of women, did not speak vividly about the concreteness of female bodies, but remained somewhat abstract.   

Internalised misogyny 

The other is the woman-hating that she seems to have deeply internalised. Most prominent across the breadth of her speech is her disrespect of the majority of ordinary women, and disdain for the GC feminists who stand up for their rights and dignity. When she mentions ‘trans women’ and trans theorists, it is always accompanied by praise such as ‘in new and insightful ways’, ‘brilliant literature’, ‘sheds new light on feminist politics’, ‘real courage’, ‘evocative and insightful accounts’, ‘with all respect’, whereas when referring to GC feminists, she uses repeatedly derogatory expressions such as ‘self-identified feminists’, ‘purporting feminism’, ‘feminism of female body parts’, ‘feminist transphobes’, ‘anti-trans feminists’, ‘glaring ignorance’, and so on. 

The hatred of GC feminists is particularly evident in the following two statements. One is the following paragraph, which attempts to explain why ‘feminist transphobes’ exist. ‘It is evident that many feminist transphobes have been traumatized by women’s gender roles and stereotypes, which they did not fit physically, psychologically, or in life ambition. They had a hard time being accepted and valued as women and seem to resent the ease with which some trans women are accepted as women.’ 

This is a truly astonishing claim, and resonates with some of the ideas that come from the ‘incel’ movement. MacKinnon is saying that GC feminists are jealous of ‘trans women’. This way of deriding feminist criticism by reducing it to female jealousy is typical of misogynists and incels. When feminists criticise pornography, they are told that ugly feminists are jealous of porn stars who are beautiful, sexual, and pampered by men. In the case of suffragettes who fought for women’s voting rights, they were also said to be frustrated spinsters who were unloved by men. How could this classic misogynistic claim be repeated by MacKinnon, of all people? 

Another striking example of her misogyny is the following passage in which she talks about so-called ‘TERFs’. She says: ‘I also don’t use the term TERF, not because those who are labelled with it are not trans-exclusive; they are. But because I see nothing radical in their feminism and am baffled by their unwillingness to recognize trans feminism as the contribution that it is, and by their willingness to engage in the transmisogyny that they do.’ MacKinnon rejects the term ‘TERF’ not because trans activists use it to abuse and attack GC feminists and other women, such as ‘kill TERFs’, ‘punch TERFs’, or ‘fuck TERFs’ (these facts are not even mentioned by her), but because the feminists are not radical! This is like, when a violent man is beating his wife and shouting ‘you are bitch’, a feminist saying, without condemning him beating her, ‘I don’t use the term “bitch”, because I see nothing sexual in her’! 

Then, is MacKinnon still a radical feminist? Unfortunately, not. But not because she is not radical. She is, in a sense. In that she adds some men to the category of women, even defends putting male rapists in women’s prisons, and even promotes sex transition for children, she is so radical. But because there is nothing feminist in her transgenderism.   

’Seeing oneself as part of any group with men’ 

One hint as to what led her to such a political transition is voiced by MacKinnon herself. She says that ‘seeing oneself as part of any group with men in it has more dignity’ as a reason why many women do not identify with women. In fact, this is what explains why she includes ‘trans women’ in the women’s category. She expressed this idea in a 1991 piece:

 ‘I also sense, though, that many women… do not want to be “just women,” not only because something important is left out, but also because that means being in a category with “her,” the useless white woman whose first reaction when the going gets rough is to cry. I sense here that people feel more dignity in being part of any group that includes men than in being part of a group that includes that ultimate reduction of the notion of oppression, that instigator of lynch mobs, that ludicrous whiner, that equality coattails rider, the white woman. It seems that if the oppression that is done to you is also done to a man, you are more likely to be recognized as oppressed as opposed to inferior. Once a group is seen as putatively human, a process helped by including men in it, an oppressed man falls from a human standard. A woman is just a woman—the ontological victim—so not victimized at all.’ (Catharine A. MacKinnon, ‘From Practice to Theory, Or What Is a White Woman Anyway?,’ Women’s Lives, Men’s Laws, 2005, p. 30.) 

She said this, when she was an excellent radical feminist. When she said this, she was, of course, implicitly assuming that the category of woman did not include biological men. But now she includes men in the category of women itself, and MacKinnon sees herself as part of a ‘group that includes men’ and feels that this makes her ‘more dignified’. 

Somewhere in her mind, she despises ‘just women’, in particular ‘useless white women whose first reaction when the going gets rough is to cry’, and regards them as inferior to men. That is why, when some men self-identified as women, she was happy to accept and welcome them. In her speech, MacKinnon refers to ‘trans women’ ‘leaving masculinity behind, drawn to and embracing womanhood for themselves’. But, in fact, she welcomed them not because they did ‘leave masculinity behind’ and ‘embrace womanhood for themselves’, but, on the contrary, because they held onto their masculinity firmly, and she thought including them in the category of women meant their masculinity would be brought to women, too. Therefore, however paradoxical it may sound, MacKinnon regarded ‘trans women’ as women not because they were women, but precisely because they were men.   

From feminism to transgenderism 

The above-mentioned points become clearer in light of MacKinnon’s theory of pornography, once again. As already mentioned, many ‘trans women’, particularly autogynephiles, know ‘women’, learn ‘women’, and identify with ‘women’ through pornography. According to her, pornography is a theory and practice of sexism and misogyny. Therefore, ‘trans women’ learn and increasingly incarnate hatred of women in the process of their identification with ‘women’ and their self-feminisation. And they know that no matter how much they imitate women, no matter how much they recreate their appearance in their own bodies through hormones and surgery, they can never become women (i.e. adult human females). All of this fuels their hatred of real women. This is precisely the key unlocking the mystery of why ‘trans women’ and trans advocates hate and violently attack GC feminists who identify with ‘adult human females.’ 

Viewed from this perspective, the real reason for MacKinnon’s aversion to the biological becomes clearer. Her bio-phobia is not, of course, because she has some hatred of biology itself, but because she detests women’s biological bodies, abhors their biological ‘disadvantage’, and despises their vulnerability. Her bio-phobia is a manifestation of her internalised misogyny. Here, the biological takes on a highly political significance. Herein lies the dialectic between biology and politics.

Andrea Dworkin once said in Right Wing Women that ‘Feminism is hated because women are hated.’ This applies to MacKinnon. She hates GC feminists because she hates adult human females.

Of course, in this sexist society, everyone internalises misogyny to a greater or lesser extent. Unless we consciously resist it, we can easily be dominated by it. Trans ideology has the unique power to dismantle this resistance among even the most solid feminists. This ideology is based on:

1. the strongly internalised gender norm for women that they must sympathise with the plight of poor and vulnerable men and protect them;

2. the leftist norm that minority rights must be defended unconditionally; and

3. the feminist norm that we should stand in solidarity with more vulnerable women such as ‘trans women’.

These are intertwined to deftly disarm feminist resistance to the new misogyny. 

And, as MacKinnon’s position within academia and the mainstream world gradually rose, from a marginalised extremist to a prominent figure accepted by the UN and state agencies, her deeply internalised hatred of women, i.e. adult human females, finally overwhelmed and defeated her feminism. Thus, she became a devotee of transgenderism. 

Seiya Morita is a Japanese gender critical Marxist writer.

7 thoughts on “From Feminism to Transgenderism: Catharine MacKinnon and her Political Transition

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  1. Thank you so much for writing this! It was so disheartening to see MacKinnon’s comments. I think you’re right about the biophobia and misogyny. I love how you turn the arguments inside out!

  2. So MacKinnon is a misogynist in part because she won’t say that women are “physically disadvantaged relative to … males”? And “women are physically disadvantaged relative to males” is the actual feminist position. And this is not biological essentialism. Wow! I learned something new today.

  3. Ok here is my screed. It’s even longer than the last one. Sorry.

    I actually found the beginning of your piece amusing because I kind of agree with you. You’re right that there’s essentialism in the pro-trans camp too. And I agree with your early critique that MacKinnon doesn’t really believe trans women are women; I’d put it differently and say that she perceives trans women as outsiders being let into the category (I think this is a bad belief to have).

    I also feel like my earlier comment, written just after reading it, slightly misreads what you’re saying about “physical disadvantages.” So I apologize, slightly. I do think it’s fair to say that you believe “women are at a physical disadvantage relative to men” is a necessary component of having a truly feminist position. Which is still absolutely f-ing baffling to me.

    You are not going to convince me that a person (you) who believes that women can only live women’s lives because they have a vagina (among many other things) is not a biological essentialist. That is textbook biological essentialism–defining a group via biological characteristics; saying a certain set of biological characteristics are essential to membership in a group. You’d be better served arguing it’s not “deterministic,” which is what I have seen other GC feminists do. I’m not convinced of that, but at least it’s not as straightforwardly wrong as your argument that it’s not essentialist.

    The single most shocking thing to me in the essay is how horrible the Copernicus metaphor is. A very ill-advised choice. The “dictionary definition” when Copernicus was working was that earth was the center of the universe or whatever. He precipitated a radical shift in the “dictionary definition” of earth and was punished for contradicting the then-current “dictionary definition” (I would rather call it “commonsense understanding”). This is rather precisely the opposite of what you are advocating for: using the dictionary definition and conserving it; maintaining the status quo; relying on the commonsense understanding, continuing to do so, and fighting against those who’d like to change it. I really don’t think you could have picked a worse analogy. You should be angry with anyone who read the essay prior to publication and didn’t point this out to you.

    I am confused about the timeline of MacKinnon’s turn from feminist to misogynist. She starts out as an excellent radical feminist. OK. Then she turns into a mediocre transgenderist and virulent misogynist (in the 2010s, would you say?). OK. But her “bio-phobia” is “age-old” and “perennial.” And it is this bio-phobia that you ultimately reveal to be “a manifestation of her internalised misogyny.” So then her misogyny has been there the whole time, right? She was never actually a feminist and always hated the female body and women? It is kind of comforting, I guess, to read you characterize yourself as a sucker and dupe, fooled by MacKinnon’s fake feminism, wasting your hours translating this misogynist work, since I find it so annoying when you paint everyone who doesn’t agree with you this way.

    Also, your discovery of MacKinnon’s misogyny simply ignores the sentences you quote at the beginning of your essay: “Women are not, in fact, subordinated or oppressed by our bodies. We do not need to be liberated from our chromosomes or our ovaries.” You quote it at the beginning as part of a (correct and true) ‘gotcha’ about essentialism. You don’t refute it or explain why we shouldn’t take it seriously, even though you are claiming she believes the exact opposite. You simply know MacKinnon’s mind and beliefs better than she does, I suppose.

    Lack of evidence and faulty assumptions:

    “Somewhere in her mind, she despises ‘just women’, in particular ‘useless white women whose first reaction when the going gets rough is to cry’, and regards them as inferior to men.” This is just an assertion you make. You cite no evidence, not even textual evidence. You’re saying that in 2005, she wrote a good critique of the dismissal of the “white woman.” Now, though, she means it all uncritically (she hates the white woman). Confusing!

    “the ‘women’ here [in the phrase “trans women are living women’s lives”] mean obviously biological women excluding ‘trans women’ (biological men).” Why exactly is this obvious? “[Adjective] women are living women’s lives” doesn’t mean she thinks “[adjective] women” aren’t women. I think you are misreading her statement and drawing an unsupported conclusion about it. (Try it: “blonde women are living women’s lives” doesn’t mean blonde women aren’t women.)

    “Does living with longer hair, make-up, larger breasts, bras, and skirts do it? If so, then MacKinnon is reducing women to such parts and outfits.” You never consider that the answer to this is no. She talks explicitly about her definition of “woman” quite a bit and nothing about it suggests to me that she would answer yes. I find it quite obvious that her answer would be no. But you proceed as if it is yes and go on to accuse her of bad things based on the answer you put in her mouth.

    “If, through a mere act of identification, a person belonging to the dominant sex class can move to the subordinate sex class, then gender hierarchy would be either powerless or non-existent.” I don’t know any “TRA” or pro-trans feminist who thinks that gender hierarchy is nonexistent or powerless. A fundamental part of a pro-trans position is concern with how trans people are punished for disrupting this hierarchy and demonstrating the contingency of the relationship between biological sex and gender. Trans-inclusive feminists are more than willing to talk about the power and rigidity of patriarchal gender structures and how they negatively affect trans people. So I find your sentence false.

    “It is a remarkable leap of logic to say from such a small number of individual cases that ‘trans women are more woman-identified than a vast swath of women’.” Sure. But it is a bit rich coming from you, considering how much stuff you say about what trans women believe based on your own psychic powers that discern the truth regardless of what they say. For example:

    Trans women, you say, “do not identify with women, but with women’s long hair, make-up, red lips, dresses, skirts, underwear, women’s breasts and smooth skin, and they also identify with what they perceive as feminine behaviour. In other words, they only identify with women’s exterior, women’s adornment, and stereotypes of women.” You simply assert this with no evidence. Clearly you have convinced yourself it’s true, and I’m sure you believe you’ve seen plenty of evidence for it, and that you don’t need to cite that evidence here because you are speaking to people who already agree with you. You assert many things about trans people without evidence: that “the majority” are “autogynephiles;” that trans women get their ideas about femininity and womanhood primarily from porn; that trans women just decide to be trans overnight. I’m sure you believe them to be true because of the people you talk to and the news sites you read and whatever else. But they aren’t. And you provide no evidence for them.

    Broader questions

    “It is not GC feminists who are reducing women to their body parts, nor is the Right ‘thrilled by this putatively reduction’ [sic].” Do you (anyone reading this) honestly believe that the GC movement’s reliance on the natural attitude has nothing to do with the ease with which its proponents seem to be persuaded to move to the right? And its attraction of right-wing people? And the willingness of those who remain putatively left to share platforms with right wingers, publish on right-wing platforms, and promote anti-trans content produced by right wingers? That it makes it very easy to jettison the “feminist” content of “GC feminism” and just be a GC? That it attracts people who say it’s “lying” to put anyone other than a child’s biological mother and father on the birth certificate? That people who are eager to equate biology with the ultimate, immutable truth are generally conservative? And that “W = AHF” is a “conservative” position at least in the sense that it’s preserving the status quo and aimed at stopping change? That the reason for your movement’s successes and the attention it gets is that it reinforces conventional understandings of gender and biology? This is ultimately, I think, the most perplexing thing to me and many feminists I know–that GC feminists simply do not see these things when they are such obvious problems. That you think you can just make that minimal (in your view) commitment to biology as the basis of your movement without it having adverse consequences. (This is another way of saying that there was a reason for all the critique of the category “woman” in the 80s and 90s that you ignore/dismiss.)

    Related and equally perplexing: You see no problem with saying that patriarchy, while not natural, is indeed based on the capacities of women’s biological bodies. Some version of this seems a very common GC feminist belief/argument. To me, an extremely clear and unavoidable consequence of this belief is that you are attributing a logic and rationality to patriarchy. I cannot understand how you don’t see this, or, if you do see it, I can’t understand how you’re not concerned about it. My own feminist commitments lead me to view it as a very troubling implication for reasons that I hope are obvious.

    You and other GC feminists create many double-binds for trans women. If trans women are hyper femme, that’s evidence of their misogyny. If they don’t exude some kind of feminine aura that their daughters can “feel,” they’re just a man in a dress. (What does it mean when the daughter says she didn’t feel any femininity? Seems like inchoate essentialism to me, like your meaningless definition of woman as a “total existence.” Also, my understanding was that many GCs vehemently object to the assumption that femininity and being a woman are necessarily correlated. I guess this is not true of you?) If trans women try to pass, they’re pornifying “real” women. If they don’t pass, KJK posts photos on twitter for the internet to mock. If they say they always felt like a woman, they’re stereotypers that believe in a feminine essence; if they don’t, they’re capitalizing on the trendiness of trans or switching genders for exploitative purposes (raping women or getting their rocks off). Clearly your goal is for trans women not to exist anymore, yes? (Some GC feminist writers [unconvincingly] say that they are only concerned with criticizing “TRA”s and “trans ideology” but that they support trans people, whereas you go directly after trans women.)

    1. Biological essentialism is the belief that certain behaviors are innate to either sex and not a product of socialization. Most radfems are blank slatists who do not believe that men are naturally masculine and women are naturally feminine. Defining men/women by their respective reproductive strategies is an empirical observation rooted in material reality. Small gametes/large gametes. Unless you’d like to argue that humans are not anisogamous.

      There is nothing about the female body that suggests it should be oppressed. and yet it is – because the patriarchy, just like white supremacy, ascribes inferior meaning to a set of value-neutral biological differences. It’s completely illogical, but that’s how systems of oppression work.

      Trans people don’t disrupt the patriarchy, they are one of its many manifestations. The moment a TIM says they feel like a woman, they reduce and essentialize womanhood to a collection of stereotypes because there is no way to feel like a woman, you just are one. Transgenderism as an ideology has a vested interest in maintaining the gender binary because without it their doctrines would collapse like a house of cards.

      It is indeed true that the majority of TIMs are AGPs, the prevalence of AGP is several times higher than the prevalence of early-onset gender incongruence – most pediatric transitioners are HSTS.

      Dworkin and other radfems (MacKinnon included) collaborated with conservatives in the late 80s in order to push for a nationwide ban on porn. If you were really concerned about TERF optics, you’d be bombarding leftist media outlets with requests to start platforming TERFs but radfems have been branded personae non gratae by the TRA mob and no leftist would ever risk getting on their bad side by bringing a radfem on their podcast/show. I’ve yet to see a conservative advocate for anti-prostitution laws, on-demand abortion and women’s rights in general but I guess it’s more convenient to construct a lazy strawman and a string of false equivalences than to seriously engage with the tenets of radfem theory. If anything, these so called alliances are more realpolitik rather than a mutual endorsement of our respective politics. I’m sure every conservative who has ever retweeted a TERF has a copy of Intercourse and The Second Sex on their bookshelf and I’m certain we’d see eye to eye on the topic of nuclear family abolition.

      Trans is a culture-bound syndrome, similar to past historical phenomena like neurasthenia or the Dutch tulip mania – there’s no scientific validity to it, it’s just another product of sexology + psychiatry + endocrinology colluding in order to erode women’s (and LGB) rights.

      1. Yours is a very good rebuttal of my comment. You respond to what I wrote and argue cogently against it. Morita’s is not a “great rebuttal” of MacKinnon. My reply is once again embarrassingly long.

        I think we are just using different definitions of biological essentialism. My definition, which I think is plenty well supported and established, is “attributing a biological essence to a group.” If you believe that there is a biological criteria for membership in a group, and without that biological trait you cannot be a member, I would call it biological essentialism. If you define blackness by skin tone, I will call you a biological essentialist. I would call your definition closer to biodeterminism, but it’s also a legit use of “essentialism.” There is not necessarily a behavioral component to mine. I view what you are doing as a common GC argument: saying that bioessentialism is okay and biodeterminism is bad. And plenty of non-GC academic feminists (including even ones that Morita would dismiss as pomo drivel) have also made this argument. I reject it for reasons I think you can gather from my original screed. I do not deny that humans are anisogamous, but thanks for checking.

        “There is nothing about the female body that suggests it should be oppressed. and yet it is – because the patriarchy, just like white supremacy, ascribes inferior meaning to a set of value-neutral biological differences. It’s completely illogical, but that’s how systems of oppression work.”

        Well, if the position is “women are at a physical disadvantage relative to males,” I don’t think what you say holds. I assume you’re willing to forgive Morita for this poor framing because of your sympathy for the general thrust of his argument. I, on the other hand, am of course inclined to view it as revealing of how he really feels (because it is what he wrote). But even if it’s framed the way you do, which is clearly less problematic, I still think you’re not right. If patriarchy is based on the immutable fact that women are the large gamete producers and physically shorter and less physically strong than men, and on mendon’t understand why, sorry. You accept the commonsense’s exploitation of these biological capacities, it makes sense that patriarchy developed. No? Clearly you do think “no” but I still (which is to say patriarchal) definition of what a woman is and say it isn’t necessarily patriarchal. (I also don’t think the race analogy works because the biologization of race didn’t occur until well after the slave trade and Western colonialism were under way.)

        “Trans people don’t disrupt the patriarchy, they are one of its many manifestations…. The moment a TIM says they feel like a woman, they reduce and essentialize womanhood to a collection of stereotypes because there is no way to feel like a woman, you just are one.”
        So you, unlike Morita and Morris’s daughter, object to the idea that a woman should exude a femininity that can be felt by an observer. So do I. I thought it was a pretty much universal GC feminist position. (I do not defend Morris’s behavior, which sounds very shitty and awful, and I don’t have a negative opinion of her daughter for working with the commonsense understanding of gender that most people hold. I could even be persuaded to accept that Morris’s behavior, at least as described by Morita, is a vestige of male privilege).

        I do understand why, within your framework, trans women are necessarily stereotypers and essentialists and why “trans ideology” upholds the gender binary. This argument is consistent and unchanged since Janice Raymond and Robin Morgan. I do not share your framework and view it is problematic. In mine, “W=AHF” is a patriarchal and essentialist definition that I reject due to the negative consequences I have outlined. I believe these consequences are inevitable in the world that we currently live in. In my framework, even the most regressive model of trans (“wrong brain”) does do a little bit of political work that I find valuable: introducing a break between biological sex and gender and generally loosening norms around the kinds of bodies that can belong to each category. “A little bit,” I said. It also does political work that I think is harmful (the essentialism you point to). But I think that the norm-loosening is useful from my feminist position because it helps to upset and denaturalize simplistic and patriarchal understandings of gender and of what a man or woman is; it clearly points out that masculinity and femininity are not inherently tied to particular types of bodies. I also excuse the essentialism a little, I admit, because I view trans people as a stigmatized and oppressed minority arguing for rights, which requires speaking in terms that will gain footholds in dominant discourses, and essentialism is a big part of that. (MacKinnon basically says this too.) I don’t agree that gay people are “born this way” but I get why it’s a more persuasive argument in many contexts. (I know the analogy isn’t perfect but we love imperfect analogies here.)

        Luckily, my framework is not inclined to accept that “trans ideology,” as trans people actually live it, is so rigid, so clear, or so static. Many, many trans people and “TRAs” have recognized the problems with the medical model that you take to be emblematic of the trans position, and they have done so for quite a while. I think you just don’t read them or something. I read, in the 1990s, trans people saying, to paraphrase, “ugh the medical model is so f-ed up but I have to say that I’m a woman trapped in a male body if I want treatment.” Koyama’s “Transfeminist Manifesto” makes this point and it’s from 2001. MacKinnon explicitly rejects the rigid “gender identity” model in her piece; she rejects its essentialism as harmful, as do I. Many “TRAs” have developed alternatives to “gender identity” that try to avoid the essentialism you object to. Detailed and very critical histories of the concept of “gender identity” are coming out of trans studies and are written by trans authors. You might think the models fail, or that the books are ultimately hogwash, but I wish you wouldn’t pretend that they don’t exist at all.

        I do not view trans people as any more inclined to gender stereotyping than anyone else, because in my view, “gender” itself is basically a bunch of stereotypes (I think gender is other things too, but they aren’t as relevant right now). There is no underlying natural or factual content to “woman” or “man.” So yes, if you want to live as and be treated by others as a woman, you subscribe to and embody stereotypes. That’s a big part of what gender is and is part of the reason why it’s bad. Trans people live in a world with essentialized understandings of gender. Everyone does. Plenty of non-trans women are living out lives that conform to feminine stereotypes. I think that loosening and denaturalizing those stereotypes is good, and the version of “trans ideology” that I subscribe to does too. I’m ultimately a gender abolitionist, and I don’t see trans feminism as an obstacle to this goal. I think it is helpful. I do not think trans feminism harms non-trans women.

        I don’t think we’re going to get anywhere on the AGP discussion so I’ll just leave it alone.

        And surprise surprise I don’t agree with your response to the question of the relationship between GC feminism and the right convincing. This is where I do feel that you start to put words in my mouth a little.

        I am aware of MacKinnon and Dworkin’s campaign and think it was a very bad and dumb thing to do. It also strikes me as a non sequitur (unless you thought I’m a huge MacKinnon fan, which I’m not).

        I’m not really concerned with “TERF optics” in the sense that I take you to mean; I don’t want their positions heard on progressive platforms because I do not think they are progressive positions. It would spread ideas that I think are harmful. Your argument is exactly the same as Glenn Greenwald’s for why he goes on Fox News (sorry if you’re not from the US)–you’re forced to if you want your position heard because nobody else will platform you because the liberal orthodoxy suppresses your subversive ideas. I just can’t get het up about it, I’m sorry. I *aggressively* don’t care, to quote MacKinnon. And you’re (collectively) doing great, btw–getting traction all over the place nowadays (because your views on the issue align with dominant understandings).

        I am not constructing a strawman. Meghan Murphy exists; she believes COVID is a hoax (or something) and is on the side of the Canadian truckers; she “loves [former Fox anchor] Meghan Kelly to death.” Holly Lawford-Smith exists; her review of Matt Walsh’s documentary was that it was “great”–no criticism; she publishes regularly on Quillette. Kathleen Stock exists and believes the feminist position on abortion is too extreme. Helen Joyce exists and thinks “right-wing and religious people have a large part to play” in solving the trans issue. You really don’t think it’s a real thing, GC feminists moving to the right? Julie Bindel hasn’t, I’ll give you that. Jane Claire Jones hasn’t; she has a decent, critical article on these right-wing/GC entanglements.

        KJK is does not identify as a feminist but she exists, claims the mantle of women’s rights, and has a lot of influence on people who do consider themselves feminists or advocates for women. You don’t think “W=AHF” is related to KJK’s claim that it’s “lying” to put nonbiological parents on a birth certificate, that it must have the biological mother and the biological father on it? No relationship?

        I am well aware that these alliances are not full-on “endorsement[s] of our respective politics.” I don’t think I claimed it was. If I did, I didn’t mean it because I don’t believe that. (The alliances are not “so called.”)

        I don’t believe that “every conservative who has ever retweeted a TERF has a copy of Intercourse and The Second Sex on their bookshelf and I’m certain we’d see eye to eye on the topic of nuclear family abolition.” If I did, it would be a ridiculous and untrue belief, and I’d be an idiot. What I mean to say is: Right wingers agree with your definition of a woman; they agree with you that trans people are bad and scary and that they harm women (in everyday life and at a more conceptual level). Right wingers do not hold feminist positions on the family or on abortion. Right wingers do like arguments that base the preservation of the status quo on “nature” or biology. They like opportunities to naturalize gender. When they retweet you, they are doing so because they agree with the statements you make. That is the first part of my claim. I am still convinced that “the reason for your movement’s successes and the attention it gets is that it reinforces conventional understandings of gender and biology.” (Also, you haven’t seen a conservative who is for antiprostitution laws? I have.)

        The second part of my claim is that when one goes on a right-wing podcast, publishes in a right-wing publication, or promotes documentaries made by right wingers, one does inevitably lend them (at least) a little sliver of one’s credibility. You let them say “she’s a feminist and she agrees with me.” You let them say their anti-trans stance is not antifeminist (which I guess is only a bad thing to me). You give their bigotry a less-offensive and more tolerant-seeming veneer. You also provide them entryways into the conversation and language to launder their more odious beliefs. And I think it’s very naive to believe that these alliances don’t end up influencing feminists’ positions and make their fans more susceptible to adopting right-wing beliefs. GC feminists do retweet right wingers, too. But it’s difficult for me to prove that these dynamics are occurring, since I’d need to be doing an ethnography or something to actually get actual evidence for that claim. To me, for a feminist to do anything that helps the right wing is a very serious moral and political mistake.

        I take your last paragraph as a “yes” to the question of whether the world would be better off without trans people. That is all I take from it.

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