What the Pussy Hat Debates Reveal about the Desperate Need for (Inclusive) Cis Feminism

When I first noticed concerned social media postings asking whether the pussy hats worn at the Women’s Marches (and, I can now report, by a not insignificant number of pro-immigration protestors this past weekend) had been transphobic, my thoughts quickly turned from the question at hand to, well, where anyone was getting that idea that pussy hats had Sparked Outrage in this way. All I could find were some right-wing articles mocking a handful of posts (and one Mic Identities story) to that effect. Articles, in other words, concerned not with protecting feminism from potentially detrimental infighting but with denigrating feminism and trans sensitivities.

My hunch, then, was that the ‘trans-exclusionary pussy hat’ was a non-issue. I assumed it was, like so many progressive micro-scandals, fodder for conservatives drawn to stories of liberals devouring their own. (If you think ‘Gender Studies’ is inherently hilarious, what fun you’ll have with the concept of there being people criticizing pussy hats from the left.)

Alas, my hunch was wrong. There is in fact an intra-feminist discussion about pussy hats. Are they too gender-essentialist? Too joyful, too representative of a protest taken lightly by women who will probably be just fine under Trump (except can this really be said of anyone)? The current conversation doesn’t amount to the left descending into self-destruction, but that could, yes, go in any number of ways, some more productive than others.

I keep thinking about a line from Josephine Livingstone’s article in the New Republic: “An uncomfortable part of the truth is that bourgeois women thought that the hats were cute, and so the hats conferred a kind of talismanic sense of community on their wearers.”

I don’t think we have to find that prospect “uncomfortable.” It’s worth pointing out, as Livingstone does, that “pussy” messaging excludes women who don’t have that anatomy. But… what does “bourgeois” mean in this context? Were the pussy-hat-wearing women rich? Not necessarily – knitted hats are not luxury items. Or were the women just… a bit square? Genuinely oppressed, if not the very most oppressed, but too out of the loop to know pussy hats might be problematic?

Or had they thought through the relative benefits of utmost inclusivity and a stark visual message of feminist solidarity and consciously selected the latter option?

And is it really so terrible if protestors enjoyed wearing pink hats? If the thrill mixed subversive politics and the feminized and therefore denigrated joy of accessorizing? I think of Katha Pollitt’s – and my own! – initial, partly aesthetic, aversion. Mine I got over not when seeing the aerial shots, or even when showing up (gray-hatted as usual) to the NYC March, but en route, on the subway. A woman standing next to me hat a pink hat and pins. At first I thought maybe this was going to be a pink hat and anti-xenophobia safety pin combo, but no: She was pinning a teeth and fangs patch to her hat, vagina dentata-style. The pussy grabs back, indeed.

This is what we need to ask: Is the intra-feminist, intra-left conflict over pussy hats primarily a disagreement between “TERFS” (that is, trans-exclusionary radical feminists) and trans activists, or is it a generational or maybe even aesthetic conflict among mainly cis women, where ‘optimal enlightenment on trans issues’ serves as a proxy?

While there’s of course no official stance from All The Trans Women on pussy hats, it’s worth reading Katelyn Burns on her ambivalence, as a trans woman and feminist protestor, to the hats. While she confirms that the hats did in fact put her off, Burns’s conclusion is by no means a denunciation of the Women’s March. The last sentence of her piece: “I hope we can march again soon.”

These conversations speak to the urgent need not to declare cis feminism obsolete, but for an inclusive and assertive cis feminism. This most certainly does not mean going on equating all feminism with cis feminism. It means creating a space where cis women can speak out about the specific oppressions we face, without either a) denying that trans women generally have it worse still, or b) dissolving into a puddle of self-flagellation and apology. (Cis women, regardless of politics, are socialized to defer.) We can affirm, and stand in solidarity with, trans women’s struggles, without having to declare our own – an intertwined form of marginalization that impacts those who are biologically female and also present as women – a form of privileged irrelevance.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy edits the Sisterhood, and can be reached at bovy@forward.com. Her book, The Perils of “Privilege”, will be published by St. Martin’s Press in March 2017.

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