Who and what is a ‘woman’… and what does it mean for feminism?

a painting of a blonde woman wearing makeup, her face broken like a piece of china.

"The enigma that is woman will therefore constitute the target, the object, the stake, of a masculine discourse, of a debate among men, which would not consult her, would not concern her. Which, ultimately, she is not supposed to know anything about."

Luce Irigaray, Speculum of the Other Woman

"...either I don't have any "self," or else I have a multitude of "selves" appropriated by them, for them, according to their needs or desires... I'm completely lost. In fact, I've always been lost, but I didn't feel it before. I was busy conforming to their wishes. But I was more than half absent." 

Luce Irigaray, This Sex Which Is Not One

Every year, International Women's Day is celebrated around the world. Community groups hold nice, family-friendly events. All female punk bands perform in raucous joy and fury. Corporations co-opt the intent of the day for marketing purposes. 

But very few ask the question, "What is womanhood?" or, indeed, "What is a woman?"

In childhood, most of us are taught at every turn by the culture which surrounds us that humans exist in a simple binary: an either/or of male/female, boy/girl, man/woman. But the reality of sex and gender is far more complex.

When I was first learning feminism in-depth, the generally agreed standpoint was that sex is biological and gender is socially and culturally constructed. Then Judith Butler troubled our assumptions, by making the (rather obvious in retrospect) claim that sex and gender are both socially constructed. We cannot know sexual distinction outside of our social and cultural context, which shapes our thinking about what exists, and therefore what things-that-exist we are alert to observing and noticing.

The detail of sexual biology bears out her argument. Matters are nowhere near as simple as 'penis = male, vagina = female'. Hormones, chromosomes, and brain structures all play a part in biological sex, and they vary dramatically, in both men and women, far beyond oestrogen/testosterone and XX/XY

Even the obvious shaping of the visible body is not as simple as the hegemonic notion of a simple sexual binary. The existence of intersex people was long hidden from sight by doctors who routinely surgically altered their genitals at birth to conform to a single sex, without their consent, and often without that of their parents, either. 

Thankfully, this practice has shifted in many places, and is being challenged in others, but the attitudes behind it remain: that the body of every person must conform to normative cultural and social conventions when it comes to sex, as well as gender.

So what is a woman?

I am not a woman. I have 'female' secondary sexual characteristics. I was assigned female at birth and raised as a girl. I accepted the categorisation of 'woman' until very recently. 

But now, I am not a woman. I have not changed much, except getting a bit older, a bit fatter, and a lot more unwell -- but the boundaries I experience around what a woman 'is', socially and culturally, have become narrower, to the extent that I can no longer find myself within them. 

In addition, many branches of feminism have once again been taken over by biological essentialism, even though such essentialism is utterly contradicted by current scientific evidence. 

There is clearly no direct line from biology to womanhood, to say nothing of all the variety and diversity in the range and content of gender categories in human cultures and societies across time and space -- especially in pre-colonial cultures and societies -- including many that go far beyond a binary of male and female. The continuing existence of non-binary, agender, genderqueer, and genderfluid people even in 'Western' cultures also demonstrates that a fixed or binary sex/gender identity is not by any means the rule. 

At the same time, the existence of trans people whose absolute certainty in their actual and experienced sex and gender as a man or a woman is directly at odds with the sex assigned them at birth and expected of them by society, points to some element of binary sex/gender identity being innate, at least for some people. 

How can it be possible, then, to say what "a woman" is?

Luce Irigaray, quotes from whose work began this piece, says that it is in fact, not possible. She claims that 'woman' has been a complete unknown in Western cultures, because she has never been known by herself, for herself, but always through the eyes of men -- male psychoanalysts and male-viewpoint psychoanalysis, male philosophers and male-viewpoint philosophy.

According to Irigaray, women exist in Western culture only as projections of male fantasies, or as objects for men to circulate between them -- both literally and in terms of ideas. Fundamentally, women are only allowed existence insofar as they serve men. 

One of Irigaray's solutions to this is strategic essentialism -- the stating of a female subject position based in the female body, despite all of the reasons why this is counter to reality. This is not a solution I can get behind. Indeed, it could be seen as one of the roots of the increasing adherence to biological essentialism within feminism.

Instead, my answer is to acknowledge that sex and gender both exist in many parallel contexts at once.

In addition to the latest biological research, which leads to the conclusion that biological sex itself is extremely varied and multifarious, there is internal sex/gender identity, which may or may not accord with that assigned to us at birth, or the one in which we are raised.

Secondly, there is sex/gender expression and presentation, i.e. how we express and present our gender in different settings, through dress, habits, mannerisms, speech patterns, bodily movement, etc.. Some of this is unconscious, based in the patterns, mannerisms, etc. that were expected and rewarded in our childhood; some of it is conscious, a deliberate act of choosing from the current cultural and social resources available to us, in clothing, adornment, colour, use of language, style of movement etc.

Then there is social sex/gender identity, i.e. what other people see when they look at us. All of us make sexed/gendered meaning from one another's sex/gender expression and presentation, as well as our interpretation of one another's visible sexed and gendered physical characteristics. This social sex/gender identity includes the sex/gender assigned to us at birth, based on the appearance of our bodies.

Woven through all of these are the variations in sexed and gendered identities and resources for expression that come with our race/ethnicity, class/income, dis/ability, religion, sexuality, nationality, and other sources or lacks of social capital. 

But where does that leave us with feminism?

If the reality is that sex and gender are so multifarious, so varied, so complex, why bother? If 'woman' cannot even be found, what sense does it make to engage politically around women and women's rights?

The answer, I hope, should be obvious: because people's lives are at stake.

When it comes to the crunch, in law, policy, and our behaviour to one another, social sex/gender identity trumps all others. 

A child assigned female and raised as a girl in cultures which practice female genital mutilation will be subjected to it regardless of her internal sex/gender identity. 

But this is not an argument for biological essentialism.

A woman who was assigned male at birth -- a trans woman -- is at much greater risk of gender-based violence than a woman who was assigned female at birth.

A woman who was assigned female at birth -- a cis woman -- is at much greater risk of gender-based violence than a man who was assigned male at birth -- a cis man.

Men assigned female at birth -- trans men -- also face increased risk of gender-based violence as compared to cis people, both men and women, as do 'effeminate' gay men of all sex/gender histories.

In all of these examples, the violence meted out to women and gay men of all sex/gender histories, and to people assigned female at birth, is motivated by particular ideas about social sex/gender identity. Other people look at a person, judge their social sex/gender by their presentation, then mete out violence to keep them in their place within the social order, whatever the assailant has decided that is.

This is why I reject gender essentialism of any kind, even strategic essentialism, as a part of my feminism. The roots of gender-based violence are absolutely in misogyny -- but that does not mean that it only affects cis girls and women. 

My feminism will always be about combatting misogyny, never about policing inclusion into the social and cultural sex/gender category of 'woman'.

Image credit: photo by Chris Barbalis on Unsplash 

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Full moon thoughts on feminisms and ontology

a hand holds a large sticker with 'FEMINIST' written in white text on a black background

I got into an Argument On The Internet last night about what feminism is, and isn't. A Person On Twitter (APOT) proposed that one feminism exists, and that it has core beliefs. I suggested that there are many feminisms, and that, as there is no one feminism, there can be no 'feminist' core beliefs. This upset APOT. They made some accusations at me, making false logic leaps. I got riled up. It wasn't pretty.

This morning, I did my best attempt at Unconditional Positive Regard with them (a skill I learned with Dr. Jenn McCabe). I also decided to post brief outlines of each feminism, to demonstrate how their fundamental, ontological differences meant that they didn't share any core beliefs, even though they are/were all feminisms.

It occurs to me now that our disagreement was actually about what constitutes a core belief. Ontology is belief about / position on what exists -- what could be more core, more fundamental than that? But for many, including many in academia, ontology appears to be an irrelevance, only for those prone to solipsistic navel gazing. 

Read below, and see what you think -- is there a common core belief between all of these feminisms? And if so, what makes it a core belief? Is ontology important or irrelevant?

1st Wave Feminism: 19th and 1st half of 20th centuries 

Votes for women!

Women are citizens in their own right, not just adjuncts to men.

2nd Wave Feminism: 1960s-1990s 

The personal is political!

The big burgeoning of the feminist movement, from bra-burning to Goddess spirituality to equal pay disputes to consciousness-raising groups to radical lesbian separatism. This wave largely fell into three camps:

Liberal feminism: there is nothing fundamentally wrong with society that can't be fixed by changing law and policy, breaking through the glass ceiling, and getting women into positions of power within existing structures.

Marxist feminism: women are structurally oppressed within capitalism, through property and economic relations, as well as through reproductive labour. Ideas such as wages for housework and rights for sex workers come from this strand of feminist thought.

Radical feminism: patriarchy is the foundation of all oppression, and male dominance and patriarchal gender relations must be fought and dismantled at every turn, including through resistance to compulsory heterosexuality: "A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle." 

Late on in 2nd wave, there was also...

Difference feminism: women and men are fundamentally different. Women need to develop their own, fundamentally feminine ways of being and means of expression.

Men also became involved in liberal and Marxist feminisms, and as allies in radical and difference feminisms. 

Failure to address different experiences

All of these strands of 2nd wave feminism failed to address the specific experience of black and minority ethnic women / women of color, liberal and radical feminism failed to address economic and class inequalities, and liberal and Marxist feminism often erased the experiences of lesbian, bisexual and other queer women. 

In the early 1980s Womanism arose, first named by the author and poet, Alice Walker, seeking to find a universal approach to human equality, rooted in the experience of black women. In a related move, in 1989, Kimberle Crenshaw coined the term "intersectionality" to refer to the way in which black women don't just experience racism, or sexism, but a combined experience of both at once. Black (Marxist) feminism was also strong in the USA (e.g. Angela Davis) and some parts of the UK (e.g. Southall Black Sisters). Womanism, Intersectionality theory, and Black feminism were counters to the overwhelming whiteness of 2nd wave feminism.

3rd Wave feminism: 1990s-present


Rejecting the often essentialist notions of gender and universalist ideas of gendered experience found in 2nd wave feminisms, 3rd wave feminism is characterised by freedom and fluidity in gender identity and expression, and individual empowerment, often at the expense of collective organising. It plays with gender, and opens the way to great diversity of identity, expression, and presentation for all genders -- including genderqueer and nonbinary. Identity is seen as provisional and flexible. Trans people are included and, in some ways, central.

4th Wave feminism: late 2000s-???


Who knows?! Still developing. Online engagement and a greater focus on intersectionality (taken way beyond Kimberlé Crenshaw's original definition) are clear features, but beyond that... I guess we'll find out.

Image credit: photo by Allie Smith on Unsplash

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Some thoughts on seeking, learning, and initiation in Feri Witchcraft

Feri¹ makes powerful witches. 

It does not make healthy witches, kind witches, just witches, pleasant witches, compassionate witches, or any other sort of witches; just powerful ones. What the Feri witch is after initiation is what the Feri witch was before initiation, just with more oomph.

Becoming a Feri witch is not a gentle process. Choosing to become a Feri student with a view to initiation is not, therefore, an endeavour to be taken lightly. Even with a teacher who has concern for their students' safety, it is not an easy ride: I refer you to the text in the header image, which is an accurate, albeit metaphorical, description of my experience. Unless Feri has grabbed you by the scruff of the neck and refused to let go, find yourself a different path.

If Feri has grabbed you by the scruff of the neck, finding the right teacher isn't necessarily an easy task either. Those who are most publicly visible and accessible are not necessarily those who will best match your energy, personality, or needs. Do some research (and do not assume that the first website you find is the beginning and end of it). Ask around. Seek the views of any Feri initiates you know whose opinions you respect. There are a fair few of us around, nowadays.

We all think and practice and teach differently. There are almost as many different approaches, varietes of theology, and variations in basic practices in Feri as there are Feri initiates. The one thing we all share is the Feri current, which is passed at initiation. 

And no, you cannot become a member of the Feri tradition² except by initiation by an existing initiate. 

Can you become a Feri witch without initiation? The answer to that question is, it's complicated. 

You can be a non-initiated Feri witch in the sense of having relationships with the Gods and Guardians of Feri, and resonating with the Feri current (in my experience, it finds amusement in flirting with non-initiates that it likes). But that does not make you a Feri witch in the sense of being a member of the tradition, the human web of initiates.

I had a very strong relationship with the Feri current for a decade before I had even heard of Feri; it is how I knew that Feri was for me, and I for Feri when I did stumble across it. Even though, as I approached initiation, I knew myself to be a Feri witch, initiated or no, the initiation itself transformed my relationship with the current. In my case, it integrated the energy, and settled me. Life has been much more boring since (thank goodness... and *touches wood* long may it remain so).

On a similar note, I am not a fan of the term "Feri practitioner" which arose a few years ago. Using practices taught to you as 'Feri', either in a public workshop or found in a book or on the web, does not make you Feri. Feri is not a set of practices.

I am sometimes asked if it's possible to receive the Feri current directly, without human intervention; after all, someone had to at some point, right? 

Theoretically, it is possible, but it wouldn't be the same as receiving it via human agency, and you would not be part of the tradition, i.e. recognised as an initiate by existing Feri initiates. 

It would also be bloody dangerous. There is a safety factor in human to human initiation: the raw power of the current is somewhat mitigated. Again, I refer you to the words in the header image; and that was with a teacher.

Like looking directly at the sun, or at the Face of G_d, seeking direct initiation from the current itself is not advisable -- unless you actively want to completely lose touch with mundane reality, or (metaphorically or literally) die. 

(It would be an ecstatic death, but still: death.)

I do not say this to be dramatic, to posture, or to paint Feri as "Oooooh, so dangerous ZOMG!!!111!1!!1!". I say it simply to strongly suggest that those who seek Feri do so via a Feri initiate.

I am also not, nor have I ever been, one of the cool kids. I do not seek to keep Feri an exclusive club. But the fact remains that Feri is not for everyone. In a landscape of demanding and difficult paths of inner seeking and soul-shaping, it asks more than most, of both its students and its teachers.

It also, though, has much to give.



¹ My use of the spelling 'Feri' here is for the sake of simplicity, and does not reflect any particular viewpoint or position on the schisms and splits that have occurred within Feri Witchcraft over the decades of its existence.

² 'Tradition' here means the sum total of the Witchcraft lineages which pass the Feri current from initiate to initiand, rather than any necessary commonality of practices, theology, lore, etc.

Image: An accurate description of becoming a Feri initiate by Elinor Prędota. Black text on white background reads: "Embodying Michael the Archangel by taking magic mushrooms while setting myself on fire."


Not everything goes at the same speed; not everything goes in the same lane.

Image of a road tunnel at night: there are lights overhead, and a series of bollards on the right of the image directing traffic. The road is empty.

I recently went through a process of discernment around what I do, and if, when, and how I get paid for it. 

It began as a conversation with a friend about whether or not there was a fee if I took them on as a one-to-one magical/witchcraft mentor. Around that, I am very clear: I make no charge. If someone I am mentoring chooses, for their own reasons, to donate to me -- in money, in time, in energy, in skills, or in anything else -- that is up to them, and I will not say no, but it is never, ever a requirement.

That conversation started me thinking about how I feel about other things I do in relation to money. After a long process of mulling and pondering, it came down to three categories: things I do when people pay me, things I do when people ask me (where payment may or may not be involved), and things I do because they are part of who I am. 

The lists look a little like this:

Things I do when people pay me: training, organising, community development, research, facilitation, coaching, spiritual counselling, idea wrangling, planning.

Things I do when people ask me: funerals and other rituals, mentoring, being a listening ear, divination.

Things I do because they are part of who I am: storytelling, writing (poetry, fiction, non-fiction), making visual art, spiritual deepening, working for social change, yarn crafts, baking, connecting people, sharing information, teaching.

There is, obviously, some overlap between these categories. When does listening become spiritual counselling, or mentoring become coaching? What would I say to someone wanting to pay me for one of my paintings, or to hire me as a storyteller? But I have a sense of cleanness and clarity for having discerned, in general terms, what fits where in my world. 

It has also made clearer to me the ways in which, in the past, how and when I am willing to accept payment for my work has hindered my efforts to create a business. This has been mainly around the distinction between doing things because I'm asked, when I may or may not take payment, and doing things only when people pay me.

Why? What is the distinction here?

Receiving fair payment for my energy, experience, knowledge and skill is one thing; creating a business from or around that is another matter entirely. 

Let's take, for example, one-to-one magical/witchcraft mentoring. As I outlined above, I make no charge for it, but if someone I am mentoring chooses, for their own reasons, to donate to me, I usually accept. 

Let's take another example: visual art. I make visual art: for self-expression, for artistic and mystical exploration, for all kinds of reasons. Some (not all) of my artworks I make available for sale. 

In the case of both magical/witchcraft mentoring and visual art, I am willing to accept payment, either by donation (mentoring) or at a fixed price to purchase a piece (art), but I have made a deliberate decision not to build a business around either of these practices. 

The reason for that is simple: a business is an entity in its own right, with its own needs and requirements, its own structures and energies. I have a felt sense that these needs and requirements, these structures and energies, would add only interference to my mentoring and art-making, not benefit them in any way.

I could take a number of different approaches, here. If I want to make a business of magical mentoring or art-making, I could work on making the business aspects a benefit to and in alignment with the mentoring and art-making itself. But that is not where I am, right now.

In this time and place, there is a freedom for me in mentoring, art-making, and all the rest of the 'when people ask me' list not being tied to the framework of a business. Conversely, I resent doing the things in the 'when people pay me' list if I'm not getting paid for them, unless I have deliberately chosen to do that work in a voluntary capacity. 

Here and now, I am less interested in working out why I feel the way I do about these different kinds of work than I am in moving with the flow of my energy, and, when the time comes for me to build a business, doing so around the 'when people pay me' list, not around the other two; those can happily remain in the realm of one-off sales, donations, patronage... and me simply being me.

Image credit: Photo by 35mm on Unsplash

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Keeping up with the news? No thanks.

A man sits with one leg crossed over the other, holding a newspaper that is burning from the top down.

I wrote this piece, about my relationship to keeping up with current events, a year ago. Not much has changed since.

After the anti-Poll Tax demonstration of March 1990, I gave up on newspapers, after the sole accurate source on what happened, out of all the print media in the UK, was Spare Rib

After 9/11 I gave up on BBC radio news, as more and more coverage became about asking how people felt about events, deflecting attention from the events themselves, and as the years have gone by, veering further and further into government propaganda.

Over the past few years I have gathered my information about events around the world from social media. During the Arab Spring I received most of my news from individuals living in Egypt and Tunisia on Twitter. During 2016 especially, with the Brexit referendum and the US presidential elections, most of my news came from Facebook.

And it became overwhelming.

So now I don't watch or hear current events in the world, unless I choose to. I know this can only be a temporary measure -- although I've been keeping to it for a year so far. I know that in some ways it is cowardice: protecting my heart by abandoning the struggle. 

But I also firmly believe that creating the world I want to live in is the most important political work I can do, and I cannot do that if I feel overwhelmed and helpless.

Think global, act local has never been more needed, and nor has this quote from Rev. Dr. Howard Thurman:

"Don't ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do that, because what the world needs is people who have come alive."

I have never known fully what that is for myself, but I know it has to do with cultivating a quality of spaciousness, of patience, and of acceptance of what is; deepening my roots, and bringing my awareness back to right here, right now. 

It has to do with doing things together: in mutuality, in solidarity, and in community -- with other humans, and in partnership and with regard for the more-than-human, all-species web of Life of which we are all part.

It has to do with looking to the future, and creating, not reacting in defence against current events.

Yes, we absolutely need to protect ourselves and one another from the bullshit that is coming at us right now, from so many directions. And we need to give our nervous systems a break, and be with our own feelings and thoughts. 

We need to discern what we want, now and for the future, and how we are going to create it, together.

Image credit: Photo by Elijah O'Donell on Unsplash

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Some opinions on empathy, compassion, and choice

An adult gently holds the hand of a newborn infant in their fingers.

Every now and again a discussion pops up about autistic people and empathy, often in the context of misunderstandings between autistic and allistic people, and sometimes, regrettably, used as an excuse for autistic men who sexually harass women of all neurological profiles.

The discussion usually descends into the familiar round of ad hominem attacks which seems to be the hallmark of internet 'debate'. But there are important points to unpack within it, all the same.

First of all, what is meant by 'empathy'? There are, in fact, two kinds of empathy: cognitive empathy -- the ability to imagine yourself into someone else's position, thoughts and feelings -- and emotional empathy, literally feeling with other people and getting upset when bad things happen to them.

As I hope is clear from my brief description of them here, there is a vast difference between the two types of empathy. It is also important to note that any individual, autistic or allistic, can have one, both, or neither of these types of empathy, to a lesser or greater degree.

When talking about whole populations, however, autistic people tend to have lower to no cognitive empathy and higher to extreme emotional empathy, and allistic people tend to have lower emotional empathy and higher cognitive empathy.

Let's think about those combinations. Someone who has a typical autistic profile can't work out why people respond to them the way they do, don't understand social cues, yet become distraught when another being is hurt, abused, oppressed or ridiculed -- the compassionate social pariah. Someone who has a typical allistic profile has some understanding of what other people are thinking and feeling, knows how to operate in social contexts, and finds jokes which rely on ridiculing, confusing or hurting other people funny -- the socially easeful asshole. 

Taken to their extremes, the typical autistic combination is frustrating, but the typical allistic combination is dangerous: high to extreme cognitive empathy combined with low or no emotional empathy is the profile of people who are able to engage in torture, effectively, efficiently, and without compunction -- they know intellectually what is likely to hurt someone else, without feeling with them in their pain.

However, none of these observations of tendencies and typicalities matters, because we are human being, with sovereignty, agency, and choice. Anyone, with any empathy profile, can choose to learn, and to behave compassionately and with consideration for others. That will look different in different people, but it is a capacity of all people.

The question that remains is, regardless of neurological type, why people do or do not choose that path.

Image credit: Photo by Aditya Romansa on Unsplash

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