how to evaluate our elders: some preliminary thoughts as an historian

Gloria Steinem and two other editors of Ms. Magazine
ca. 1970s
As an historian, I spend a not-inconsiderable amount of time thinking about how we (in the present) evaulate the actions and words of our elders. Whether the person in question is still alive, or whether they have been dead for generations, individual words and actions are inescapably bound by the historic time and place in which they happened. We are creatures of history, not outside of it. Which is not to say that human beings of the past should not be held accountable for the damage they have often -- so very often -- wrought. Acknowledging, for example, that the majority of citizens in the Colonies did not believe women should have the vote, or that slaves were entitled to be counted as citizens (or even, radical idea, freed from bondage) does not preclude us from judging disenfranchisement and slavery as morally wrong. Understanding that a certain belief was simply "common sense" at the time does not exculpate those who accepted that "common sense" understanding from the responsibility of answering for the pain said belief caused others.

But given that, how, exactly, are we to judge the beliefs and actions of the past? By what criteria do we evaluate historically-situated words and deeds?

These questions often come up in my fields of historical interest, since I focus on the history of feminist activism, the history of countercultures, and the history of sexual identities and sexual practice. All of these areas of human activity regularly challenge us to define "right" and "wrong," think about issues of human rights and social justice, and to understand the personal consequences of bigotry and prejudice.

I was thinking about these questions last week because Cara of The Curvature wrote a post over at her Tumblr blog about Gloria Steinem and transphobia. Cara recently picked up a copy Steinem's anthology of writings, Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions (1995) and in her post is specifically responding to an essay on "transsexualism" (originally written in 1977) in which Steinem writes in extremely negative terms about transsexual identity in general and gender confirmation surgery in particular. She portrays trans women as men masquarading falsely as women, and supports policies -- popular at the time -- excluding trans women from "women only" spaces. In her post, Cara called the Steinem out for her bigotry.

When I left a comment querying about the historical context of the original piece and saying that I hoped Steinem had since changed her views on the subject (feminist and even mainstream understanding of trans* issues has altered significantly since 1977 and even 1995), Cara wrote in response:
Of course, 15-16 years have passed since [the anthology], so it is possible that her views have changed since then, and one would hope that they have. But at the same time, I really don’t think that her views changing really count for much? I mean, admittedly as a cis person my thoughts on the matter don’t really count for all that much, either, but. I’d say she not only owes an apology, but a lot of work to address the harm that those views have done to the trans community over the decades, including the harm that the feminist movement has specifically done to trans people, especially trans women. Like, you know, this. Which has resulted in deaths. Or cis feminists keeping trans women out of domestic violence shelters and rape crisis centers, which has caused deaths. Etc. Clearly, she was not only complicit in that, but an active promoter of it.
I should admit up-front that I haven't read this particular essay of Steinem's in years -- if, indeed, I've read it at all.  As a teenager, I know I owned a copy of Outrageous Acts and read much of its contents. If I did read "Transsexualism" as a sixteen-year-old, I likely would have passively accepted Steinem's characterization of gender confirmation surgery as "mutiliation." It took me into my mid-twenties (helped by lots of reading and some trans-identified friends) for me to revisit my adolescent judgement that surgical body alterations were inherently physically and psychologically damaging. And I'm sure the fact that the 1970s-era feminist writings I read as a teenager (and throughout much of college) did little to challenge my prejudice and encourage me to critically examine my judgmental views. The transphobia within the feminist movement then and now is not okay and absolutely should be called out at every opportunity.

Yet while I agree with the fact that Steinem's past views did, indeed, contribute to a hostile climate for trans* folks that continues to this day, I'm troubled by the idea that someone's ability to change over time into a less bigoted person doesn't "really count for much."  Since I don't know the specifics in this particular case, I won't venture to comment on Steinem's current beliefs concerning trans identities. Perhaps she continues to believe what she wrote in 1977 and it is for precisely this reason that she included the piece in her 1995 anthology. The thing is, this post isn't really about Steinem's transphobia, past or present, anyway. Instead, I am using it as a single example of the kind of dilemma that confronts those of us in social justice activism daily: How to make sense of, and judge, the quality and importance of change over time.

At the time Steinem wrote her 1977 essay, many (likely most) women who identified as feminists were not welcoming of trans women. Trans identity was misunderstood, feared, vilified; trans women were judged and found wanting as women.  Many feminists as well as non-feminists in the mid-twentieth century viewed sex and gender identity as innate, as fixed, and binary (you were either female or male, with no middle ground). Folks who transitioned from their assigned sex/gender identity to the sex/gender identity which they felt comfortable with were understood to be changing their sex, rather than confirmed outwardly the identity that they had had all along. There are still people who think this way, although during the past fifty years many people have challenged the correctness and helpfulness of those ideas -- particularly for the trans* folks whose lives are most directly affected by such rigid and binary modes of thought. We now have new ways of understanding trans identities, and yet Steinem's words from 1977 remain in stasis, on the printed page. So the question becomes: what do we do with them now? In the present?

As an historian and a feminist, here are some of the questions this particular case study (if you will) raises in my mind, in no particular order:
  • What is the responsibility of an author like Steinem to annotate her earlier writings (say, in an anthology such as Outrageous Acts) to distance her present self from her past views?
  • If Steinem did choose to annotate her earlier writings, what sort of annotation would be effective? Should she refuse to republish the piece? Write a critical introduction? Place it in historical context?
  • What would it mean to place the piece in historical context ... do we need to understand it in the context of feminist writing? medical theories? queer activism? mainstream understandings of sex and gender identity? Steinem's other work? What, in other words, are the relevent bodies of literature that contextualize this piece?
  • Does context matter from an ethical standpoint and if so, how?
  • Who is responsible for making that judgment call -- feminists? trans folks? human rights activists? historians?
  • If Steinem's views were not atypical for the time, at the time, what sort of responsibility does she bear today as an individual for holding them? (Clearly she does -- we all have choices -- but what sort of responsibility?) How do we understand a single voice in relation to a larger, collective, discourse?
  • Is it responsible for us, as critics, to take her work and judge it in isolation from her contemporaries?
  • If Steinem does bear individual responsibility, what would it look like for her to own up to that responsibility? (Cara suggests some avenues in her response above; there are likely many other approaches)
  • Does her position as a high-profile feminist activist alter the level of her responsibility for holding even typical views concerning gender identity?
This is just the list I put together on my commute home last week; I'm sure there are other questions to be asked.

This is the sort of challenge that ensures historians (as well as activists) will never be without work to do!

1 comment:

  1. Has Ms. Steinem done anything that could charitably be called making her victims whole?

    When her restitution is comparable in scale to her incitement of hatred to that of Governor Wallace, then I'll consider forgiving her.

    For me? That would probably mean an article in Vanity Fair profiling the absolute reductionist claptrap that still tries to pass itself off as feminism instead of just bigotry.