In her response to Barry’s cartoon, Seelhoff writes, “To compare radical feminists to the Religious Right is propaganda, it is a smear campaign, it is disingenuous, and it is transparently and hatefully misogynist.”
In some discussions of transphobia, I’ve seen radical feminists say things like what makes a woman is her ability to bleed and have children. Here’s one such comment, made by Sally C on I Blame the Patriarchy.
“Knowing that someone is a woman does not tell me anything about her fate, but it does tell me she knows what I know about what it’s like to bleed.”
I am a woman-born woman who experiences problems with mensturation and fertility. Sally C goes on to call women “the tribe that bleeds.”
I do not bleed.
What galls me about this logic — apart from the fact that it’s bad, as no one proferring this definition means to exclude me from being a woman (my existence is being ignored/erased, rather than repudiated) — is that it’s extremely similar to the logic, the specific logic, that I hear from the religious right who also claim that a woman is defined by her uterus and reproductive capacity.
I don’t know what defines woman. As commonly phrased, it is a boring and irrelevant question, as has been acknowledged. It is attempting to take a semantic concept — woman — and reify it in a way in which it can not be reified. The truth is that the concept woman is complicated. It is not binary, it is not either/or, it is not on/off.
When we add the concept of gender, the whole of it becomes even more complex.
The question of womanhood is interesting for class analysis. But we should always expect there to be outliers. There are children with ambiguous genitals. There are XX infants that develop with male external genitalia and uteruses. There are infants whose gender identity does not match their physical bodies. There are women who can happily don male clothing and live out a masculine life — and there always have been. Equally, there are women who could never bear that. I am not part of “the tribe that bleeds,” but I am feminine. I abhor the oppression of women, but I want to live as one.
My external genitalia can tell you certain things about me. It indicates likelihoods and probabilities. It indicates that I am part of the class that is likely to undergo sexual abuse or harassment, although I have been fortunate enough to live most of my life free of these things. It indicates that I probably was urged toward the arts and social sciences, instead of the hard sciences. It indicates I was probably touched less often as an infant than my brothers were; it indicates that I am likely to be paid .76 on the dollar compared to men in my profession.
It indicates these likelihoods, but it does not make them fact. I am an individual. Some probabilities apply. Others do not.
The idea that biology bleeding creates women is part of an essentialist stance — a stance that is shared by many sectors of the religious right. It reduces my varied experiences to the fact of my blood or lack thereof: an inadequate measure.
Sex is a continuum, with most people falling to one side or the other. Gender is a constellation.
I am feminine, and I am sexed female, but I do not bleed.
I have never been raped. I have never given birth to a child. I have dominated class discussions. I have been oppressed. I have been a bully. I have endured undesired sexual contact. I have slapped a sexual partner. I have come top in my class in math and science, as well as english and history. I have used my privilege to make asinine comments about other women to try to gain favor in social power structures where I was floundering. Equally, I have ridden on top of other structures.
A transwoman may have a different set of experiences and privileges. Yes, she will have been raised with some version of male privilege — although, if the women I know are any indication, the male privilege they will have received will have been much closer to my memory of childhood than my fiance’s. They will have been bullied and abused for being too feminine, and sometimes treated as though they were girls because their sense of femaleness was present even when they were male-bodied. A transwoman I know well wrote female characters in our creative writing classes; where other men were petted and praised for “daring” to cross gender lines, her cross-gender writing was never highlighted; it seemed more easy and realistic than her male narrators.
A transwoman and I are different. She will have to struggle to overcome the male privilege of her childhood. But we are not different like on and off on a flipped switch; we have both had our turns at oppressor and oppressed.
More, we are not totally defined by our childhoods. How I act now affects my life. Someone raised with male privilege can repudiate it in part, if not in whole. A transwoman will have an easier time rejecting the social aspects of male privilege, as she likely will cease to be accorded them. Internally, she may struggle with ghosts of old experiences. But her childhood is not the whole of her experience. She will continue to be shaped.
Your rejection of her is based in biological essentialism and binary thinking. Your argument shares traits with segments of the religious right, who also view gender as binary and physically based. These are similarities. You may shudder under that comparison, but it remains. It’s legitimate to compare things that are similar.
True enough, that comparison doesn’t continue to hold true. Radical feminists are not like the religious right when it comes to acknowledging and fighting against the oppression of female subservience in the home. But the comparison does not need to be true in all points for it to be legitimate; it only needs to be true at the point of comparison. No one is claiming that radical feminists and the christian right are wholly indistinguishable. The only claim is that on the single point of transphobia based in biological essentialism, both transphobic radical feminists and transphobic christian conservatives sound the same. Transphobic radical feminists and transphobic christian conservatives are united in the biological essentialism that leads them to the bigotry of transphobia.
A note to commenters: I am locking this to feminists only. I would like this to be a safe space for radical feminists who are interested in seeking dialogue, and also for transsexuals. If it’s acheivable, I would like Daisy and Nexyjo to feel safe in the same discussion. Please avoid saying things like “this exemplifies everything that’s fucked up about radical feminism” — that’s incendiary and unfriendly. Please also don’t mistake my own positioning; I often agree with radical feminists over people who identify as sex-positive. While I don’t necessarily believe that oppression of women is the original oppression (I don’t see how such theories can ever be proven), I do have a number of philosophical points of connection with radical feminists, as well as great respect for radical posters here including (but not limited to) Bean, QGrrl, Bonnie, Ms. Xeno, Pheeno, and Ginmar.*
However, bigotry against transsexuals is intolerable to me. I have a close transsexual friend who avoids most feminist blogs because of the nastiness that happens in threads like these. I refuse to support the kind of hatred that pushes people like her, already subject to isolation and bile from the rest of the world, closer to despair or suicide. Please remember we are discussing real people and real people’s lives.
*My apologies if any of you don’t identify as radical. I’m making some guesses.