Alona Ferber in New Statesman:
Thirty years ago, the philosopher Judith Butler*, now 64, published a book that revolutionised popular attitudes on gender. Gender Trouble, the work she is perhaps best known for, introduced ideas of gender as performance. It asked how we define “the category of women” and, as a consequence, who it is that feminism purports to fight for. Today, it is a foundational text on any gender studies reading list, and its arguments have long crossed over from the academy to popular culture. In the three decades since Gender Trouble was published, the world has changed beyond recognition. In 2014, TIME declared a “Transgender Tipping Point”. Butler herself has moved on from that earlier work, writing widely on culture and politics. But disagreements over biological essentialism remain, as evidenced by the tensions over trans rights within the feminist movement. How does Butler, who is Maxine Elliot Professor of Comparative Literature at Berkeley, see this debate today? And does she see a way to break the impasse? Butler recently exchanged emails with the New Statesman about this issue. The exchange has been edited.
Alona Ferber: In Gender Trouble, you wrote that “contemporary feminist debates over the meanings of gender lead time and again to a certain sense of trouble, as if the indeterminacy of gender might eventually culminate in the failure of feminism”. How far do ideas you explored in that book 30 years ago help explain how the trans rights debate has moved into mainstream culture and politics?
Judith Butler: I want to first question whether trans-exclusionary feminists are really the same as mainstream feminists. If you are right to identify the one with the other, then a feminist position opposing transphobia is a marginal position. I think this may be wrong. My wager is that most feminists support trans rights and oppose all forms of transphobia.