Blog, Feminism, Opinion

Language and talking at cross purposes

Language is a funny beast. It’s fascinating, but also rarely straightforward. Online conversation can make for some interesting clashes in language: for example, I used to be a member of a forum that talked primarily about vintage fashion. Occasionally there’d be a thread where a member would say they wanted to find somewhere they could buy a vintage “jumper”. The rest of the thread would then become confusing, as the UK members recommended places that sold knitwear and US members hunted for a pinafore dress.

The nature of the internet means you often end up talking to people from places where words don’t necessarily mean the same thing. Even different regions can have massive variations – I’ve seen a fair few jovial arguments over what to call a bread roll. Different age groups can see similar differences in language; different social groups, too.

Now these are minor disagreements with no major consequences. But not all language differences can be so amusing: some can cause massive arguments, with high emotions and a lot of anger.

When it comes to social media, I make a point of following people I don’t agree with 100%. I don’t mute or block them for posting things that don’t match my views, which means that I often see posts from people arguing from the various sides of a debate.

One of the divides I get to see from both sides is the radical feminist vs queer theory debate.

So why am I talking about this in a blog post on language? Because there, in my opinion, there’s one word that’s used by both groups to mean very different things.

And it isn’t that one group’s right and the other’s wrong. Instead, the way I see it, they’re coming at it from different angles, which often means they end up talking at cross purposes.

That word is “gender”.

As far as I can see the word “gender” has ended up with three meanings:

  • The queer theory definition: gender is personal and linked to how someone feels inside. It’s a spectrum, encompassing feminine, masculine, both and neither. It’s unaffected by outside forces, e.g. a person’s genitals, or how that person is seen by others.
  • The radical feminist definition: gender is a social structure–or construct–that prescribes how members of each sex are expected to behave, and is used to ensure women remain subservient to men. Gender is enforced by society and those who refuse to conform to it (e.g. women being anything other than decorative and passive) get punished. It’s an outside force that you have no control over: if you’re perceived as a woman, you will be expected to fulfil that gender role.
  • The conservative view: sex and gender are two words for the same thing. Gendered roles and behaviour are natural and unchangeable.

This third view manages to be in direct opposition to both queer and radical feminist analyses.

In my view, the reason for the use of the word “gender” is primarily due to prudishness about the word “sex”, in that some people do not feel like the word “sex” is a word for polite conversation, whereas “gender” doesn’t have the same connotations. I’ll talk about this a little more later; for now, I want to focus on the first two meanings as I actually think that – for the most part – both groups want the same end goal, just through different means.

It goes without saying that, for both queer theorists and radical feminists, a world where those with uteruses didn’t have to be pretty and nurturing and passive would be better. Same goes for those with penises: if they weren’t expected to be macho and unemotional and tough, both radical feminists and queer theorists would be thrilled.

However, the way both groups think we can best achieve this end goal–of untethering the sexes from their designated roles– is different. And that’s partly because of those mismatched definitions.

Putting the world to rights

For radical feminists, the answer is to eradicate gender. Here, you need to remember that, for rad fems, the word gender encompasses gender roles, gender expectations, and gendered behaviour.

So when a radfem says she wants gender gone, she means the expectations and pressures to conform to a gender stereotype.

For radfems, the answer is to acknowledge that there are two biological sexes (with some individuals having medical conditions that means they are less clearly male or female), but to work towards sex being irrelevant to basically everything beyond medical treatment.

They want someone’s genitals to make as much difference to how someone is treated as their other internal organs do – not at all.

For gender theorists the answer is to broaden gender definitions, to emphasise the individuality of gender, to make it so everyone can be who they feel they are inside, and be accepted for it. To embrace a vast spectrum of genders.

The end goal is the same: to create a world where genitals make no difference to how people are treated.

The problem is that conversations about this are often fraught with difficulty. Yet again, this is down to those differing meanings.

When a radical feminist says, “Gender is a social construct”, what she means is that it’s externally imposed. So if you appear to be a woman then people will treat you as a woman, with all the expectations and stereotypes that come with that – no matter how you self-define.

While some people make a conscious effort to treat people in line with how they self-define, many don’t, resulting in a backlash against those who are gender non-conforming, sometimes a violent one. There are those so invested in the idea of gender roles/identities being not only innate but unchangeable that they will use whatever means possible to ensure that no evidence to the contrary goes unpunished.

I am offended

The clash between seeing gender as innate and viewing it as an externally imposed construct can lead to self-identified queer individuals feeling that their gender identity is viewed as made up and optional. Like their very existence is being questioned.

Equally, when gender theorists say that “cis people are those who feel no mismatch between their gender and what they were assigned at birth”, they mean that a lot of people do not feel like who they are internally is at odds with their biology. So, radical feminists, who identify most often as women, are viewed as “cis”.

However, a difficulty arises here too, due to differing definitions.

To a radical feminist, being defined as “cis” is equal to being defined as identifying with the externally imposed rules of gender, comfortable with the very rules that she finds oppressive.

One of the main things to remember in this debate is that, for queer theorists, gender always refers to internal feelings. And, for radical feminists, it always means an external system. This unfortunately leaves a lot of scope for offence on both sides.

To radfems, woman isn’t a feeling: it’s a material reality that, all too often, acts as a cage. In my experience, many rad fems are gender non-conforming, which makes sense in this context.

This transgression from externally imposed gender expectations is used to denigrate women, resulting them in being portrayed as unnaturally masculine, unsexy, and prudish. They are seen as failing at being women, because they refuse to perform the femininity expected of them.

This treatment is not unknown to gender theorists, who are often gender non-conforming themselves. If you don’t fit into the narrow moulds, you become a target for abuse and punishment.

From a gender theorist point of view, many radfems would fit the definition of gender queer: they do not embody purely feminine or masculine traits, and do not feel that their genitals are any indication of their inner personality. Instead, they sit closer to the middle of the gender spectrum.

So why do they reject that?

Aside from radfems not actually believing that masculine and feminine traits are a thing, but also to them, identifying out of being a woman feels like a betrayal of other women. As though they’re saying, “I’m special and unique, unlike all those other women who are just as 2D as society makes out”. Put simply, this individualistic approach doesn’t fit with the aim of tearing gender down in order to free women as a class. 

I will say again, I don’t view either definition as wrong. Both have sprung from different academic theories and so are both a valid way of understanding the world around us. I highly recommend this article about the history of the word gender if you’d like to read more.

There are some areas of controversy that the two groups will never agree on,again because of the different definitions.

There’s a well known quote by feminist philosopher, Simone de Beauvoir, that’s a succinct explanation of the rad fem position:

“One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.”

Here (and again, interpretations vary!), “woman” is something that is imposed on you, a role that’s learnt from birth. Many factors mould us as we grow. From a very young age, babies are taught how to behave,how they’re expected to be. Parents overestimate their sons’ physical abilities, and underestimate their daughters’. And we’re more likely to interpret a baby’s tears as fear if told it’s a girl, and anger if told it’s a boy.

These imposed expectations and assumptions stretch on through life, as children take in other people’s reactions to them, see how other children who look like them are behaving, and learn how the media portrays boys/men and girls/women. All those explicit phrases we hear: “boys will be boys,” and so on, act as a steady drip drip drip that rewards behaviour conforming to gendered expectations and punishes behaviour seen as transgressive.

And why? Because those transgressions challenge and weaken the gender hierarchy, proving it isn’t set in stone.


I know that nothing I write here is going to bridge the gap between queer theorists and radfems.

But maybe, just maybe, someone will read this and see that sometimes discussion can be helped by understanding that words don’t mean the same things to everyone.

I know I’ve read things before where I’ve been infuriated, thinking “how are you misunderstanding what is being said here? Is it deliberate?” And what I was forgetting was that, while we might be speaking the same language, we aren’t necessarily hearing the same things.

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