What it means to be ‘woman-identified’ or ‘male-identified’

The idea of women being ‘woman-identified’ or ‘male-identified’ is a concept that came out of the feminist consciousness-raising of the 1970s and seems to have fallen out of use; I rarely hear feminists use this phrase. Currently, the word “identify” is only being used in the context of transgenderism where people ‘identify as’ a certain gender, but that’s not what I’m talking about here. ‘Woman-identified’ as it was used in the feminist consciousness-raising groups had to do with women’s identification with their oppressors—women seeing ourselves in terms of how we are defined by men.

In Feminism is for Everybody, bell hooks explains:

“In the early stages of feminist movement we used the phrase ‘woman-identified woman’ or ‘man-identified woman’ to distinguish between those activists who did not choose lesbianism but who did choose to be woman-identified, meaning their ontological existence did not depend on male affirmation. Male-identified females were those who dropped feminist principles in a flash if they interfered with romantic heterosexual concerns. They were the females who also supported men more than women, who could always see things from the male perspective. Teaching one of my first women’s studies courses in San Francisco I was confronted by a group of radical lesbian students who wanted to know why I was still “into” men. After class one day in the parking lot there was a showdown. At that time an older black woman lesbian student, who had worked in the sex industry, having much sexual intercourse with men even as she remained clear about her lesbian identity, defended my feminist honor by declaring “she’s a woman-identified woman who’s into sex with men—that’s her right, but she’s still down with the cause.” P95-96

So the woman who is male-identified requires male affirmation to confirm her existence, and she sees things from the male perspective.

In Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence, Adrienne Rich describes male identification as “the casting of one’s social, political, and intellectual allegiances with men.” She also quotes Kathleen Barry, who wrote in her book Female Sexual Slavery that the effect of male-identification means “internalizing the values of the colonizer and actively participating in carrying out the colonization of one’s self and one’s sex…Male identification is the act whereby women place men above women, including themselves, in credibility, status, and importance in most situations, regardless of the comparative quality the women may bring to the situation…Interaction with women is seen as a lesser form of relating on every level.”

My generation might also call this phenomenon “internalized misogyny.” We’re seeing a lot of male-identification in young women today as they actively embrace patriarchal culture while claiming it’s ‘empowering.’ The cause of these women becoming male-identified is their female socialization. We are trained to view ourselves as inferior to men, to seek male approval, and to submit to male demands.

Historically, and in many cases still, the cause of women becoming male-identified is necessity/survival. Women are forced to be male-identified by patriarchy, because the price of woman-identification is too costly for women to bear.

In Right-Wing Women, Andrea Dworkin describes how women conform to male desires out of necessity:

“From father’s house to husband’s house to a grave that still might not be her own, a woman acquiesces to male authority in order to gain some protection from male violence. She conforms, in order to be as safe as she can be. Sometimes it is a lethargic conformity, in which case male demands slowly close in on her, as if she were a character buried alive in an Edgar Allan Poe story. Sometimes it is a militant conformity. She will save herself by proving that she is loyal, obedient, useful, even fanatic in the service of men around her. She is the happy hooker, the happy homemaker, the exemplary Christian, the pure academic, the perfect comrade, the terrorist par excellence. Whatever the values [of the males in authority] she will embody them with a perfect fidelity.” P14

Dworkin was able to describe with compassion why women identify with the values of the Right. Knowing that the threat of male violence is very real, and knowing also that men on the Left are no friendlier toward us, conservative women adopt the paradigm that women belong in the home and married to a husband/protector. By adopting these values, she is at least provided room and board and protection for herself and her children from men other than her husband. Women adopt these values out of necessity; in a patriarchy, we are either the property of one man or the property of all men. Everything we need in life we have to gain through men; therefore we cast our allegiance with men and we internalize their values.

Returning to Female Sexual Slavery, Barry writes about the effects of sexual slavery on women, and the survival strategies they use to get through it. Women are trained by pimps to believe they are whores and that’s all they are good for. Pimps also remove women from their friends and families and impose new identities upon them. Those women who are unable to escape sexual slavery have to define themselves in terms of how their pimps define them in order to survive.

“Accepting the perception of others is taking the path of least resistance; that is survival for some women. It is the other side of madness. Those who are not broken either by seasoning or earlier childhood abuse, will be able to resist the definition imposed on them by others and even recognize their own unnamed victimization. But those who comply with their captors’ definition will take on their work in earnest. It becomes their only source of self-respect. Such a woman will try to prove that she is the best goddamn whore on the block and the toughest. She learns to roll tricks and shoplift for her pimp. In interviews with ex-prostitutes I have often noticed a lingering pride in their work. When they tell the rest of us that we are straight, judgmental and prudish, they are surviving by defending the definition they have accepted of themselves and making the most of it.” P102

In the case of the wife who has no choice but to depend on her husband, and the prostituted woman kept enslaved by a pimp, she absolutely must adopt the definition of herself that has been decided for her and the values of her captor. Her survival depends on it.

Even women who are able to live on their own and earn their own living will often become male-identified. Because our culture is controlled by men, women grow up learning male ways of thinking. Because men still hold most of the positions of power and own most of the wealth and property, the workplace is under male control and so women must still submit to male demands in order to earn a living. Women today are just as likely to have their minds colonized by patriarchy and to actively promote their own colonization.

The woman who is woman-identified is the radical feminist woman, the witch, the marriage resister, the rebel, the spinster aunt, or in recent days, the “TERF.” She is the one who can see the sexism around her and who insists on living life on her own terms. Her allegiance is to other women.

For a woman to become woman-identified is a journey and a process. It requires analyzing society and culture and looking at the ways in which men have controlled our beliefs, our thoughts, our activities (consciousness-raising.) It requires looking beyond patriarchal culture and imagining what the world would look like if women were in control of our own destinies. It involves resisting patriarchy and living on our own terms by our own rules. It involves putting women first and fighting to liberate all women. It is the work of the feminist movement to become woman-identified and to help all women become woman-identified, too. We must bring back the term ‘woman-identified,’ since becoming so is an important part of our work as feminists.