Tag Archives: The Other

International ‘Real’ Women’s Day, not Trans, not Intersex, and not Men

International ‘Real’ Women’s Day

On this day, each year, I usually write about current social issues worldwide that affect women disproportionately. I often quote my sheroes – Audre Lorde, Simone de Beauvoir, Malala Yousafzai, Muzoon Almellehan, Ellen DeGeneres, Michelle Obama, Lady Gaga and so many more. Alternatively, I’d be railing against Islamic State (ISIL), Boko Haram, Al Shabaab, extreme sharia or tribal law sex-based violence used to oppress. Instead, it’s the voice of BBC Woman’s Hour, Dame Jenni Murray that is still ringing in my ears. 

Jenni Murray defining Women

On Sunday, Murray decided to wade into the “are trans women real women debate?” She prefaced her article in The Sunday Times with “I’m not a transphobe but…” along with “I’m not a radical feminist” either. 

“I am not transphobic or anti-trans. Not a Terf in other words. That’s trans-exclusionary radical feminist, to use one of the often-confusing expressions that have entered the language in this age of gender revolution. I’ll admit to feminist, but radical or separatist? No…” – Jenni Murray

The article was doomed from then, as that is how so many of the “I’m not a racist but…”, or “I’m not anti-gay but…” arguments begin. I bit my lip and pressed on, trying to remain open to rational argument. On the one hand, I actually agree with her – trans women do not experience life the same as “women born women” – or rather raised as girls and sometimes, as feminism argues, oppressed as women by the so-called patriarchy – some MRAs have challenged me to look at that term again, in the 21st century West, anyway. Perhaps it is now better seen as a kyriarchy, in the UK at least with its several queens and two female prime ministers.

On the other hand, neither do any two women have the same experiences. Birth, school, puberty, bullying, sexuality are near-universal human experiences and we all experience them differently.

“if womanhood is defined as the sum of everything that has ever happened to a woman because of her gender, then logically nobody born with male organs can ever quite attain it. It’s tantamount to saying that you can only be a woman if you’ve always been treated as one.” – Gaby Hinsliff, Guardian

Not all women experience oppression equally – wealth, class, and education, come into play as much as gender. To define ‘real’ women as only those who have experienced sexism or assault is ludicrous.

“Although a person’s sex as male or female stands as a biological fact that is identical in any culture, what that specific sex means in reference to a person’s gender role as a woman or a man in society varies cross culturally according to what things are considered to be masculine or feminine.” – Wikipedia definition

It is not automatic that a trans woman experiences life with “male privilege” before feeling gender dysphoria, bullying, self-harm, suicidal ideation, and internalised oppression – that, to date, psychological therapies have failed to cure, to the point where most psych associations now regard any attempt to as unethical.

If anything, it is the language of the article that is the problem. As soon as one starts defining a “real” woman, one has to question what characteristics make up that definition?

“Gender refers to the socially constructed characteristics of women and men – such as norms, roles and relationships of and between groups of women and men. It varies from society to society and can be changed.” – WHO definition

Clearly, the answer is not someone resembling the impossibly proportioned Barbie or Sindy, but I’m not going to get into thin-waist, hourglass figure shaming – a shame cisgender girls and transfeminine teens alike will find nigh on impossible to emulate.

The debate about “real” women runs dangerously close to policing sex/gender and a form of CisAryanism as Jane Fae notes:

Not “am I a real woman?”, but “am I a pure one?” – Jane Fae

Sex and gender spectra -whether biological or psychological (still part of the body-mind/neurology entity, I’m not a Cartesian dualist) defy the possibility of a single archetype of default woman, and as soon as one does it creates the possibility of discrimination and judgement upon anyone not conforming, passing, meriting, having perfect reproductive systems, or preferring same-sex or childless relationships.

Indeed, as Jane Fae draws attention to, Jenni Murray seems to define herself as a non-TERF by pointing out her marriage to a man and raising of “two fine sons” as if that explains her moderate feminism and typical womanhood. On the other hand, Julie Bindel said in response to what does being a woman mean:

“I have no idea what it feels like to be a woman. I don’t do gender. It is harmful and a total social construct that serves to reinforce patriarchy and women’s subordination to men. I wish to eradicate gender – that is the feminist goal…” – Julie Bindel, New Statesman

Simone de Beauvoir

“trans women are not just women. They are female. This is a hang-up on the part of many feminists who are still stuck in some world where biology is destiny (oh, the irony!). Because if ‘woman’ is a social construct, and deBeauvoir was right, we become women by living as women in the world, by facing oppression based on gender. For some women, that social conditioning starts with birth, because of a vagina and a doctor’s declaration. For others, it starts at 15, or 45, or 75.” Helen Boyd, author My Husband Betty

Some have argued that Murray would have been better writing about “natal” or “natural” women. On the former, I might quote, out of context but not without relevance, Simone de Beauvoir, from The Second Sex, introduction (1949):

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

Or so many more of de Beauvoir’s thoughts:

One wonders if women still exist, if they will always exist, whether or not it is desirable that they should…”

“It would appear, then, that every female human being is not necessarily a woman; to be so considered she must share in that mysterious and threatened reality known as femininity. Is this attribute something secreted by the ovaries? Or is it a Platonic essence, a product of the philosophic imagination?”

“Thus humanity is male and man defines woman not in herself but as relative to him.” 

“She is defined and differentiated with reference to man and not he with reference to her; she is the incidental, the inessential as opposed to the essential. He is the Subject, he is the Absolute – she is the Other.”

Othering Trans Women

The irony that the argument of feminism and women’s liberation that women should not be defined as ‘other’ in relation to men, but should be equal in their own right, seems lost.

Now, however, trans women are defined as “other”, as the “third sex”, as women and LGB people were before them. Then there are those whose bodies are ‘other’ yet forcibly conformed to binary male or female. Dividing the human race into very strict boxes of men and women and who can be in them is erasing of intersex people, third gender folk from dozens of cultures and traditions around the world. 

Denying trans women membership of the cisterhood, only perpetuates what had previously been done to women by men in power of old – or not so long ago. 

Intersectional Feminism

I’ve no personal problem with being othered, or with not belonging, I’ve accepted that in life, but I shouldn’t need to and will fight my feminist sisters for their inclusion and my trans sisters to show some respect and learn some history. Both groups have very different forms of privilege, since much privilege is relative, and we need to look inside ourselves and our experiences to recognise that.

“Trans women are men”

Writing to the Daily Telegraph Letters page, Una-Jane Winfield writes that a proposed change to recognise gender identity and not just gender transition would have:

“extremely damaging consequences, especially for women at work and in public spaces, forcing them to accept non‑native women in their midst.

Dame Jenni Murray is right to draw attention to the privileged claim of ‘trans women’, who are socialised lifelong men, not women.

The change is not wanted by the 50 per cent of the human race called women, and it is an ‘equalities law”’ too far.”

To me, Winfield and Murray’s arguments are summed up in their attempting to speak for all women, without a referendum!

Biological Essentialism & Determinism

Furthermore, they define women just as men used to do, by the presence of a womb, ovaries, ability to conceive, or by the experience of puberty, menstruation, menopause – the very biological essentialism and reproductive value that women’s liberation and feminism sought to overcome. Now, some feminists are resorting to those self-same arguments to define themselves in opposition to trans women (men in their eyes).

“woman means something. It means sexual biological woman.”- Comment on Independent article

I’ll reiterate Simone de Beauvoir here because I think Winfield and Murray need to read it again themselves:

“every female human being is not necessarily a woman; to be so considered she must share in that mysterious and threatened reality known as femininity. Is this attribute something secreted by the ovaries?”

They speak unelected for all women, and stereotype all trans women as men in frocks, persisting in male criminality, wanting to forcibly invade women’s spaces etc. In their over-egged gender essentialist simplicity they ignore non-binary, assigned female at birth (AFAB) trans men, intersex people and folk like me who don’t give a fuck about labels and access to women’s spaces, unless I’m invited.

To paraphrase de Beauvoir,

“not every male human being is necessarily a man.”

I’m with Kate Bornstein, author of Gender Outlaw, who upon transitioning declared she was “no longer a man, but not entirely female.” Like her, I identify as non-binary, recognise my male past (despite a brief designation of female at birth and an endocrine puberty disorder), but don’t wholly identify with being a woman, but many trans women do.

What Is this, the 1950s?

Their binary defensiveness is a going backwards, when we should be going forwards together as so many younger inclusive feminists are. That said, some trans women need a Feminism 101 history lesson to avoid their gender presentation and attitudes being interpreted as wanting to be subjugated women in twin sets and pearls, tied to the kitchen sink, actually enjoying ironing.

“presenting womanhood as being about little more than cute outfits and chasing boys” – Meghan Murphy, Feminist Current

Young trans people are now diversifying the range of trans and non-binary gender presentations, so that old accusations of female parody and imitation are no longer true.

Some of the comments on news articles about this feel like Daily Mail readers are now reading all the other papers too. In the year that celebrates the 50th anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality and we are back to determining which LGBTIQA+ people have rights, and it is some of the older Lesbians and Gays, as well as straight traditionalists who are opposing rights for trans and genderqueer people.

“Trans are not women. LBGT thing is a nonsense.” – Comment on Daily Telegraph article

“Gender appropriation in action.” – Comment on Independent article

“the Trojan horse of transvestite men’s “rights” to steal biological women’s rights” – Comment on Independent article

In addition, I’ve had “gay eugenics” thrown up this week, the idea that trans people are erasing gays and lesbians, the erroneous idea that easily obtainable without medical ethics puberty blockers and hormones are forced upon teenagers to prevent them discovering their sexuality! Somewhat similar to the “butch erasure” touted by some lesbian feminists such as Sheila Jeffries, Julie Bindel et al, not respecting the feminist rights of their “assigned sisters at birth” who want to express their gender identity as male psyche and body now. Some have even created the term ftMysognist to describe those leaving the lesbian fold because of transition.

No Two Women…are the same

It’s not that trans women are the same as natal women, it’s that no two women are the same either. Then there are intersex variations, for example, from 1-in-1000 to as many as 1-in-100 births can be gender indeterminate at first sight during birth, many are then conformed by non-consensual (on the part of the child) surgery to a pseudo-sex binary. There are natal ‘girls’ raised as female who turn out to have XY chromosomes as part of Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome (AIS) or 5α-Reductase deficiency (5-ARD) and whose sex and gender identity is more often identified as young adults. See Anne Fausto-Sterling’s Sexing the Body or Sex/Gender: Biology in a Social World for more on intersex prevalence and sex diversity.

“Man A: I have an XXY chromosome set with Partial Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome, so that’s two elements of intersex in one body. I have one ovary, a uterus, and a vagina (via vaginaplasty and labiaplasty) behind my scrotum, but I also have a functional penis and one testicle. I have no body hair, female skeleton, and I menstruate. In the old days, they used to call people like me a “true hermaphrodite,” but that is not the modern term. So I play the role of male, knowing that I am biologically neither male nor female.” – Cosmopolitan

This person would confuse Jenni Murray’s simple categories of man, trans woman and real woman.

Natal, natural, nature, whatever you want to call it all create ‘real’ variations in human bodies and brains, in-utero and post-utero. Just read Evolution’s Rainbow: Diversity, Gender and Sexuality in Nature and People by evolutionary biologist Joan Roughgarden.

“To acknowledge different experiences is to start to move towards more fluid – and therefore more honest and true to the real world – conceptions of gender.” – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie 

Trans are a small minority, why bother?

The number of comments on Jenni Murray’s and response articles suggesting that trans are a minority and therefore should not be accommodated reeks of “the tyranny of the majority”.

“Trying to fully accommodate and integrate the relatively very few transgender people into a society constructed around 2 distinct sexes is I think, almost impossible.” – Comment on The Times article

“why so much hot air is being expended on such a small part of the population” – Comment on Daily Telegraph article

Actually, the number of trans, non-binary, and/or intersex people (these categories can overlap) exceeds the number of wheelchair users, yet we rightly make adjustments for them. Indeed, gender reassignment is a protected characteristic in equality law, whatever anyone’s personal beliefs and reasonable adjustment, gender recognition, and the avoidance of discrimination are legal requirements. Are we not stronger together, even if we are different?

“I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own.” – Audre Lorde

Debate speech not hate speech

If you want to follow some of the discussion there’s debate, and not a little hate, on facebook here and here, as well as in the comments sections of some of the articles cited above in The Times, (and this one), Telegraph, GuardianIndependent, Feminist Current and Pink News.

Again, I actually have no problem with Jenni Murray having the discussion, although many do, I’m into respectful, fair and free speech, and debate not no-platforming (unless inciting hate and violence). As a result, I will challenge her argument (essentially that ovaries and oppression make a woman) and not attack her person as some have done, deplorably. This debate about who is a woman still raises heckles on all sides, that it does, shows we are not there yet. Roll back 50 or 150 years and people were questioning race, colour and sexuality, as not equal to white western heterosexual man. Let’s thrash this out but without attacking individuals. Science and society have moved on from these out of date views but airing them still shows how retrograde they are.

 

Simone de Beauvoir on Woman, The Second Sex, Female, Femininity & The Other

Simone de Beauvoir, Sex-Positive Feminist, d.1986

Simone de Beauvoir, d.1986
Simone de Beauvoir, d.1986

It’s a generation since the death of author, feminist, and existentialist, Simone de Beauvoir on 14 April 1986. A lover of Sartre – in both senses of the word, she was a sexually liberated bisexual whose disregard for sexual convention – including age of consent laws, caused her to lose her right to teach in France. Her 1949 defining work on the oppression of women, Le Deuxième Sexe – The Second Sex, is widely considered a groundbreaking treatise on sex and gender for 20th-century feminism.

As to her sexual liberation, her “erotic liberty“, and open relationship with Jean-Paul Sartre, she saw any sexual categorisation as restrictive:

“In itself, homosexuality is as limiting as heterosexuality: the ideal should be to be capable of loving a woman or a man; either, a human being, without feeling fear, restraint, or obligation.” – Simone de Beauvoir

Simone de Beauvoir Quotes

I recently quoted, knowingly totally out of context, this from de Beauvoir:

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

I was quite promptly, and perhaps rightly, accused of ‘quote mining’. Contextomy or the unjustified use of an uprooted, and in this case anachronous, quote, to prove a point it was never intended to address, is a fair criticism.

My use of the quote was because it resonated with the idea that people can be born female, raised a girl, but become a woman. A woman is as much experience, as nature. I’m not jumping in and suggesting, for example, that post-operative trans women are thus women, the same as those who were born with a uterus and raised as girls. Indeed, is anyone any less of a woman after uterine cancer (affecting 8,500 women in the UK a year) and removal of the womb via hysterectomy? Similarly, women can have various difficulties in reproduction due to infertility, or any number of intersex medical differences that may cause an XX or indeed other chromosomal combination such as XXY etc to present a body that defies the defined binary female stereotype. Women should not be defined by their ability to procreate and bear children – that much I am sure de Beauvoir would agree with.

My question is, though, whether de Beauvoir would have condemned or supported the rights of some to pursue a gender trajectory that more matches their inner feelings and psyche than their binary-born bodies. In other words, transgender, non-binary and other forms of gender fluidity or transition.

Simone de Beauvoir on Woman, Femininity, the Other, and maybe a Third Sex

Simone de Beauvoir - The Second Sex, 1949
Simone de Beauvoir “The Second Sex” (1949)

So to add insult to injury, to compound my contextomy crime, here are some further Beauvoirisms that might shed light on what might have been her attitude to “The Third Sex”. A phrase which I use, advisedly, for the main purpose of echoing her “Second Sex”, rather than for the purpose of defining all trans and/or gender non-conforming people as a “Third Sex” even though that is a way which some, especially in Asian and Indian cultures, do define.

Does ‘Woman’ even exist?

Beauvoir existentially questioned whether woman would always exist, suggesting that ‘she’ is an ephemeral concept ,driven by culture and construct as much as conception:

“Are there women, really? Most assuredly the theory of the eternal feminine still has its adherents who will whisper in your ear: ‘Even in Russia women still are women’; and other erudite persons – sometimes the very same – say with a sigh: ‘Woman is losing her way, woman is lost.’ One wonders if women still exist, if they will always exist, whether or not it is desirable that they should…” – The Second Sex, introduction (1949)

One can be female but not a woman

As to femininity, she saw it as something esoteric, and that female ≠ woman ≠ femininity:

“It would appear, then, that every female human being is not necessarily a woman; to be so considered she must share in that mysterious and threatened reality known as femininity. Is this attribute something secreted by the ovaries? Or is it a Platonic essence, a product of the philosophic imagination?” – The Second Sex, introduction (1949)

If female equals the “female of the species” reproductively, and feminine a cultural construct if not oppression, then woman need not be feminine and feminism a path to throwing off that oppression. But does ‘woman’ need to be female? If one can be female but not a woman, can one be woman but not a female?

What is woman?

If much previous philosophical, and biblical-theological enquiry, stemmed around “What is man?” and the nature of man, then de Beauvoir helpfully examines, what is woman:

If her functioning as a female is not enough to define woman, if we decline also to explain her through ‘the eternal feminine’, and if nevertheless we admit, provisionally, that women do exist, then we must face the question “what is a woman”?

Yet would it not be more helpful to discuss what it means to be human, or are we still stuck seeing woman as something less than a man, and hence neither equal nor fully human since, as in the Bible, Adam stands for man and humankind as the first point of reference?

“Thus humanity is male and man defines woman not in herself but as relative to him” – The Second Sex, introduction (1949)

On BBC Woman’s Hour today, British Army Captain Rosie Hamilton was interviewed about how female recruits are trained, but it was then made all about how many of them made the ‘male’ standard.

Woman as the ‘Other’

Beauvoir rebelled against the patriarchal concept that man is human and woman is defined only in relation to being man’s so-called opposite pole, that she is ‘othered’ in reference to him. Not that we have achieved gender parity yet, but I wonder how she would see trans, non-binary, intersex people now, as perhaps the new (however ancient a group of people they are) ‘other’?

“No subject will readily volunteer to become the object, the inessential; it is not the Other who, in defining himself as the Other, establishes the One. The Other is posed as such by the One in defining himself as the One.” – The Second Sex, introduction (1949)

Trans, Non-Binary and Intersex people are ‘othered’ by the default biologically and socially essentialist binary. In the same way, de Beauvoir saw woman as othered by man. Thus, gender non-conforming people, whether assigned male or female at birth, should have some solidarity with the feminist struggle to assert the equality of women with men, and their common core identity as human beings absolutely, not relatively. Sadly, that is not always the case and some folk do not see a common struggle between feminism and gender identity. As de Beauvoir said:

“Enough ink has been spilled in quarrelling over feminism” – The Second Sex, introduction (1949)

Some radical feminists, such as Julie Bindel, Germaine Greer, Sheila Jeffries and others, are well known for exclusionary attitudes to trans people. Indeed, de Beauvoir others intersex people, formerly termed ‘hermaphrodite’, in her seeking to find an independent voice on ‘what is woman?’:

“What we need is an angel – neither man nor woman – but where shall we find one? Still, the angel would be poorly qualified to speak, for an angel is ignorant of all the basic facts involved in the problem. With a hermaphrodite we should be no better off, for here the situation is most peculiar; the hermaphrodite is not really the combination of a whole man and a whole woman, but consists of parts of each and thus is neither.” – The Second Sex, introduction (1949)

In a 1976 interview, when asked about excluding men from some aspects of the feminist struggle and female gatherings, she opined that sometimes it was necessary. So she may have argued against the full and unfettered access of some transwomen (e.g., pre-operative) to women-only safe spaces. She did also say, however:

“The battle of the sexes is not implicit in the anatomy of man and woman.” – The Second Sex, conclusion (1949)

Similarly, she spoke of some lesbian women, in particular, being male-exclusionary:

“There are other women who have become lesbian out of a sort of political commitment: that is, they feel that it is a political act to be lesbian, the equivalent somewhat within the sex struggle of the black power advocates within the racial struggle. And, true, these women tend to be more dogmatic about the exclusion of men from their struggle.” interview (1976)

Anyone, who is oppressed has the right to gather in safe spaces – whether other oppressed minorities should have rights of access to the safe spaces of other groups who have been ‘othered’ is another matter. That siad, shared oppression is sometimes more important than shared hormones.

“Woman is determined not by her hormones or by mysterious instincts, but by the manner in which her body and her relation to the world are modified through the action of others than herself.” – The Second Sex, conclusion (1949)

It was Audre Lorde that said, whilst “any woman is not free”, then “no woman is”. Being the one oppressed is sadly part of a common humanity, and a common responsibility:

“Each of us is responsible – to every human being.” – Simone de Beauvoir

In some matters, if not most – except the most basic biological differences, “men and women” and anyone that is defined or identified outside that binary need to” unequivocally affirm their brotherhood”, as de Beauvoir concluded in The Second Sex.

So, could every Human be a Woman?

“I wish that every human life might be pure transparent freedom.”

Beauvoir speaks of every human being, every human life, less of the categorisation that in a class-distinctive way oppresses all of us, even the men. For, in defining men and not women, as not soft or empathic, or similar stereotypes, we trap them in conventional masculinity, we oppress gay men, drag queens and transvestites who may still identify as male.

“…man, like woman, is flesh, therefore passive, the plaything of his hormones and of the species, the restless prey of his desires.” – The Second Sex, conclusion (1949)

We no longer accept feminism as the sole regard of women. True women’s liberation also liberates men from roles and rules of sex and gender.

“…the woman of today is [not] a creation of nature; it must be repeated once more that in human society nothing is natural and that woman, like much else, is a product elaborated by civilisation.” – The Second Sex, conclusion (1949)

If a feminist need not be a woman, and a female need not be a ‘woman’, and the ‘feminine’ just as possessable by males, then, perhaps too, a ‘woman’ need not be female, at least not assigned one at birth. In other words, is the very term ‘woman’ as much a social construct as gender itself, and the so-called masculine and feminine ideals?

“No single educator could fashion a female human being today who would be the exact homologue of the male human being; if she is brought up like a boy, the young girl feels she is an oddity and thereby she is given a new kind of sex specification.” – The Second Sex, conclusion (1949)

Only in an androgynous (but not uniform) utopia, where all human beings were raised without class or gender specificity, could true equality perhaps be found.