Tuesday, April 19, 2016


Here is an interesting story about the power of definitions of terms such as "men" or "women", about who gets to define us and then put us into those categories and on what grounds, and about the possibility that greater inclusiveness might mean that more and more people must share a cake of a constant size.  It is also a story about good intentions which, in my view, have some exceedingly bad outcomes.

A group inside the Green Party in the UK, Young Greens Women, sent this tweet out in late March:

“Women/non-men who are Young Greens can find and join our Facebook group 'Young Greens Women'”

The tweet made some waves (1) given that it could be interpreted as meaning that women are defined by being non-men, with men as the default position, and that has been Business As Usual for much of human history.

But that is not what Young Greens Women intended by their tweet:

And Young Greens Women responded to criticism in a series of tweets.
“We currently use 'non-male' because this is inclusive of other non-binary genders which have a place in our group”, the group wrote.
"However we understand why people may have issues with language that defines us in relation to men.
“We are currently discussing within the group if we can/should change the language we are using.
"Rest assured that we are always striving to practice correct intersectional feminism and to be as inclusive as we can."

Bolds are mine. 

The Green Party Equalities (Women) spokesperson Sarah Cope later explained:

"Language is all-important."
"It was never the intention of the Young Green Women to use the term "non-male" to describe women, and this has now been clarified."
"What Young Green Women were doing was being inclusive not just to women, but also to individuals in the party who perhaps identify as non-binary or gender queer, as befits a party with a proud history of inclusivity."
"The Green Party is a truly feminist party."

Bolds are mine.  For both of these two quotes and the bolded parts, in particular, note the group that is made more inclusive.  It is not the general Green Party, and it is not the men in the Green Party.

Finally the Facebook page of Green Party Women added to the explanation:

A recent issue, taken out of context of its intent, has arisen and caused quite a stir. As a result, the committee of Green Party Women would like to reassure our sisters that we by no means intend to erase women’s identities by forcing members to define relation to men. "Non-male" and "women" are not synonymous.
However, Green Party Women are happy with uses of the term “non-male" as an umbrella term when gender balance practices are conducted. This umbrella term groups together all who face gendered oppression; women, transgender women and individuals of non-binary or no genders. We all deserve to be recognised and included.
For too long, marginalised women have been excluded from most women's movements and circles. As a group we affirm that trans women are women, and that non-binary genders and other gender identities experience oppression and deserve respect. After all, we are part of a political party, The Green Party, which has a proud history of inclusivity.

The bolds are mine, once again, and it is especially that bolded paragraph I wish to understand better.  It is not much of an improvement from the first interpretation of women=non-men, because the term "non-male" still defines several groups of people by lumping them together and then calling the resulting wider group "non-male,"  compared to the default option which is "male."

First, the point behind creating this "non-male" category has to do with the Green Party's gender balance practices.  That is further defined in one of the comments to that Facebook post as follows:

Green Party Women:  Candidate selection within the party, for both internal and external elections. To ensure that those who do not benefit from male privilege have decent opportunities within our political structure. That is the only use for the term.

Bolds are mine, again.

Taken together, the above information suggests that the group which is seen as benefiting from male privilege (2) consists of cis men and of trans men.  But trans men surely have experienced earlier gendered oppression (and sexism, too), even if they now might benefit from male privilege?

Also, male privilege depends at least in part  on how others judge a person's biological sex and not necessarily on their gender identity (3).  At the same time, the oppression of cis women has historically not had as much to do with their gender expression or gender identity as simply their biologically female bodies which are valuable for reproduction purposes and must be controlled.  The basis of the oppression people with biologically female bodies experience  is different from the way the above quote defines gendered oppression, and that definition erases the difference.

We are told that the category "non-male" is to be used for Green Party candidate selection.  The quote does not tell us if candidate selection is related to the numbers of individuals in that group who are female, non-binary or gender-queer, or if all those sub-groups are deemed to be of equal size.  Or if, perhaps, one half will be reserved for the category "male" and one half is to be split between everybody else in the category "non-male." (4)

Second, the term "inclusive" is worth thinking about in more detail.  The Green Party sees itself as inclusive by defining the category "non-male" as consisting of women (both cis and trans), of non-binary individuals and of gender-queer individuals (5).  The group "women" is erased in that inclusion into the group "non-male."   Indeed, so are all the sub-groups, because their defining characteristic is now simply that they do not identify as men.

It's worth noting that this concept of inclusion doesn't only erase everything about the group's members except their "non-male" status; it also makes the group "male" increasingly exclusive.  That some of the individuals in the "non-male" group might, in fact, be perceived as men by others is also erased.  To the extent that others so perceive them, those individuals may share in male privilege.

Thus, this approach to inclusion results in one large knapsack tagged "non-male,"  full of various groups,  and a slim attache case tagged "male,"  containing only two carefully selected groups.  It is quite possible that the objectives of the groups inside that large knapsack, say,  do not smoothly align with each other.  How will the Green Party solve that problem?  Whose objectives will it prioritize?

Third,  consider this thought experiment:  Suppose that Young Greens Women had instead proposed two groups for the gender-related work in the party, one called "female" or "women," intended for cis and trans women,  and the other called "non-female" or "non-women," intended for everybody else.  Would the reactions to this imaginary announcement have been the same or different?

My guess is that they would have been different.  This is partly because men are not expected to share as a form of inclusion, whereas women are expected to share, in this case the group which is currently called Young Greens Women.  But why call it that at all?  Young Greens Non-Men really is the more correct term.

Fourth and finally, I'm certain that the intention behind all this is a good one, and that the various Green Party women's groups do want to be more inclusive.   But there are better ways of including the concerns of non-binary individuals or gender-queer individuals into the structures of the Green Party than the erasure of women's specific concerns.

(1)  See also, for example, Caroline Criado-Perez' Twitter account.  She corrects an error in the Independent article that I refer to in the body of the post:  She was not referring to the tweet by Young Greens Women but to the Facebook quote I discuss in this post.

(2)  The concept of "privilege" is used in many different ways, and I cannot establish its exact definition in this particular context.  But to me the idea of "male privilege" is at least somewhat related to the way others in the society relate to people whom they judge to be biologically male.  I'm not a great fan of the term, because I believe we have a more direct way of speaking about the discrimination and mistreatment certain groups experience than defining the absence of such mistreatment and discrimination as always a privilege.

(3)  It's important to note that trans individuals can face truly horrible violence when their gender expression and others' opinions of their biological sex clash.  I'm not minimizing this, not at all, or the awful treatment of trans individuals in general. 

What is meant by "gender identity" deserves a much longer discussion, in particular when it appears to  be used as the sole basis for deciding who may have experienced "gendered oppression."   I'm not certain how "male" and "men" might differ in the Green Party Women's usage, either.  The former is sometimes used to denote people with biologically male bodies and the latter to denote gender identity, but that doesn't seem to be the case here.

(4)  These questions do matter.  The group "women," consisting of cis women and trans women, is much, much larger than the groups of non-binary or gender-queer individuals.  Do the Green Party women's groups understand that?  That fairness does not mean picking, say, one candidate from each of those three groups?   That would result in terrible unfairness, with vast under-representation of the group "women."

I have seen that kind of sharing elsewhere, by the way, because people, in general, seem not to be very good at thinking of the underlying population percentages.  So a group of ten people, consisting of five white men, three Asian-American men, and one white and one black woman is regarded as showing great diversity, when in reality not only white men are over-represented in that group and both black and white women are under-represented in it.

(5)  The definitions of the two concepts are confusing.  At least one site argues that non-binary and gender-queer are the same thing, and when I read through the list I fit several of the definitions.  But I do not identify as non-binary or gender-queer or probably not much anything.  Except for a goddess, of course.