I was watching a talk Robert Jensen did about his book, The End of Patriarchy: Radical Feminism for Men, and he said something particularly poignant about his own socialization as a boy: “I grew up in a way that was traditionally not masculine and I often felt out of sync with the gender norms assigned to me as a boy.” Note that Jensen didn’t say that he felt out of sync with the gender that was assigned to him, but rather with the gender norms. This is an important distinction that has far-reaching implications for the future of feminist activism.
Feminists have been fighting against assigned gender norms since their inception, with the understanding that gender norms are assigned to individuals based on their belonging within a sex class from the moment they are born, i.e. masculine gender norms are assigned to males and feminine gender norms are assigned to females. This assignment is carried out implicitly and explicitly throughout all facets of culture via socialization, a process individuals have little to no conscious control of.
Only recently have “gender norms” become colloquially synonymous with “gender” and “gender” colloquially synonymous with “sex.” Transactivists claim that gender, rather than being imposed upon individuals from extrinsic systems, is an innate feeling or inner sense of being male or female. In this way masculinity inherently equals maleness while femininity inherently equals femaleness, and if one is uncomfortable with what is expected of them due to their assigned gender norms then it really means that they are the opposite sex “on the inside.”
Radical feminists, on the other hand, take this conceptualization to task, arguing that one’s preferences for activities, their demeanor, their emotional predisposition, etc., i.e. one’s personality, have nothing to do with maleness or femaleness, whether one is really a man or a woman. That, as belonging to a sexually dimorphic species, man and woman are biologically determined categories that are fixed throughout time and place, but that, as belonging to an inherently social species as well, masculinity and femininity are socially constructed and vary widely throughout time and place. That not being a masculine-enough man doesn’t make you a woman, and that not being a feminine-enough woman doesn’t make you a man. It just means that you as an individual deviate from the standard norms society imposes upon you and that’s ok!
Radical feminists celebrate the flaunting of gender norms in both men and women. We would love to see more “feminine” men and more “masculine” women, as having a healthy balance of character traits, preferences, and skills leads to a meaningful and fulfilling life no matter what sex you are, with the caveat being of course as long no one is harmed in doing so. For this reason many of us call ourselves “gender abolitionists,” meaning we would like to see an end to assigned gender norms across the board and just let people be themselves without fixating upon endless labels, identities, and other constraints. In essence the goal of gender abolition is liberation from an oppressive system, freedom for anyone and everyone to express their personality in authentic ways without worrying about whether it means they are really a man or woman.
Sadly, transactivists aspire to maintain the oppressive system known as gender. Without gender norms they would have no foundational claim to innate maleness or femaleness. Their entire system of identity-worship would fall apart if people could just be themselves without needing to chain their personality to a label, even if there are 7 billion variations of them. Rejecting or failing to embody your assigned gender norms does not make you different or unique, it does not confer special status, it doesn’t mean you have to change your name, start taking hormones, or have surgeries to try to appear as the opposite sex – it just means that you are capable of embracing the full range of the human experience – something that can never be contained within the perpetual search for one’s “identity.”