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What Makes A Woman? What Doesn’t!

June 7, 2015

There is no single answer to the question “what makes a woman.” Women are not born women. They are born babies, and many of those babies are assigned as female then raised as girls. Some are not. Some are assigned as male and raised as boys and become women later on. Some of the babies assigned as female and raised as girls do not grow into women. Some of them grow into boys or later became men.

I hadn’t wanted to write about Caitlyn Jenner, a wealthy, white, older celebrity whose privilege in general makes discussions about her coming out a distraction from many urgent issues facing trans women in the United States and around the world. Yet, the vitriol being thrown at Jenner must certainly come, in large part, from the threat represented by a white wealthy athletic middle aged male-bodied person divesting herself, late in life, of the very privileges of position in the sexist, heterosexist hierarchy that is US dominant culture. There seems to be no avoiding talk of Caitlyn Jenner, and that talk is being conducted in the midst of a roiling argument between feminists about the place of trans women in feminist spaces. Indeed, this weekend Elinor Burkett published a widely-discussed opinion piece in the New York Times called “What Makes A Woman?” wherein Burkett, who is a feminist of a certain stripe, says some things that sound essentialist and transphobic in response to some things that Jenner said that sound essentialist and antifeminist. It’s easy to get quickly confused.

One of the problems is that mainstream US culture only has those two sets of categories for us to try to fit ourselves into. We have female and male, girl and boy, man and woman. Even feminism has often accepted that presumed-essential dichotomy, and then focused on breaking down the inequality and the roles that have been attached to the binary positions. Some transgender rights advocates have also accepted the dichotomy, with the caveat that a person can move from one position to the other fluidly, or can be misplaced and reassigned.

Some feminists and some trans advocates have gone beyond this dichotomy and posited other models. Some presume a continuum (which still, unfortunately, bases itself on poles called M and F). Others have proposed orthogonal models where masculinity is plotted along one access and femininity along another, allowing a person to be both very masculine and also very feminine, or not very masculine or feminine, or a lot of one and a little of the other. Still, we are stuck with traits and characteristics being commonly understood as either masculine or feminine.

Part of the difficulty in talking about all of this is attached to the difference between talking about categories of identity or biology on the one hand, and clusters of characteristics or traits on the other. Terms like masculinity or femininity generally refer to characteristics or traits. We probably all know men who identify as men but whose tastes, interests, skills, or appearance are labeled feminine. Likewise we know masculine women who identify as women. Clearly it isn’t femininity that makes a woman a woman. Nor is it heterosexuality or reproductive capacity. Women are not women because they can bear children. Plenty of women can’t. Women with androgen insensitivity syndrome don’t have XX chromosomes, so it isn’t our genes that make us women, either. If we become women, we do so through a combination of biology, chemistry and socialization and self that is not clearly understood and probably not the same for everyone.

Another part of the difficulty comes from identity politics. When we organize politically around specific identities we are going to, by definition, be concerned with the boundaries around those categories. Who belongs? Who doesn’t? Who is part of the ‘us’ that keeps us going? We need to remember that these decisions are arbitrary, sometimes emotional and sometimes strategic, and that they change over time.

Yet another difficulty is the rapid evolution of the trans rights movement over the last couple of decades. It’s hard to keep up with the changes, and while it’s vital that we do so, it’s also important to give some benefit of the doubt to people who are making a good faith effort but who haven’t quite caught up. We need to be able to do this while still calling out exclusionary politics and transphobia, of course. Meanwhile it would behoove us all not to get too wedded to any orthodoxy when our understandings of gender identity and transgender politics are developing so rapidly as they have over the past few decades.

Take, for example, the controversies surrounding the treatment of trans* children. Imagine two children. One is child with a penis who was assigned male and who knows himself to be a boy and who, from a very early age, loves dressing as a princess, and who is allowed to be a princess boy by his family, and, with a lot of educating, also his peers and their parents. The other is a child with a penis who was assigned male and who, from a very early age, has loved to dress in princess dresses, and who, from a very early age, has insisted that she is a girl. I am very clear on the fact that these two children understand themselves differently. I’m 100% behind the parents who want their boy to be able to express himself in ways that are commonly coded as feminine if that’s what he wants. And I’m also 100% behind the parents who work to be sure that their daughter to be recognized as a girl despite being assigned male at birth. I agree, though, with those who suggest that we should pursue a conversation about whether that second child’s sense of gender identity is a response to the family or community enforcement of restrictive gender roles that insist that some things are girl things and some things are boy things. For some children growing up in such restrictive environments, it may seem to be that the only way they can make sense of the conflict between their sense of self and the limited roles offered to them is to fit themselves into the gender category that matches their interests and feelings*.  And my desire to have this conversation does not come from a place of transphobia. It comes from a belief that we need to deconstruct rigid roles so that individuals have full freedom to express themselves. Still, this conversation itself can be perceived as threatening when we are invested in a sense of authentic and unchanging sense of self that is established and known early in childhood. The question is unsettled, and it is unsettling, but it needs study and discussion, especially given the enormous significance that gender classifications have in children’s lives.

While women have seen victories in terms of access to education and careers over the past several decades, girls and boys have seen their words become increasingly gender segregated. Walk into a kindergarten and see the number of times that children are lined up or otherwise sorted by gender. Compare the famous 1980s era Lego ads agove with the Lego kits of today. Today you’ll find robots and dragons and Star Wars on the one hand, and Lego Friends on the other. Visit a toy store and witness the pink empire that colonizes half the space. Boys are pretty clearly unwelcome in that kingdom though some are brave enough to enter anyway. Read about the princessification that Disney has accomplished over the past fifteen or twenty years. Meanwhile, boys are pushed to be aggressive, athletic, and competitive. Their toys are often militaristic, and they are certainly not pink and glittery. A small child who is drawn to sparkles and frills should not need to interpret this as an indicator of “girlness”, but rather as an indicator of interests and tastes that are currently coded as feminine. There should be no stigma attached to being a feminine boy. At the same time, children need to be taken seriously when they identify themselves in ways that diverge from the assignments they are given at birth. If a male-bodied child identifies as a girl, then that identity should be supported, no matter how feminine or masculine her interests or personality.

What does this mean for feminism? There is no essential, unchanging definition of feminism, just as their is no essential unchanging definition of womanhood or manhood even if there may be something internal to each person called an authentic sense of self. Even then, authentic senses of self change and grow over time, just as ideas about justice grow and develop over time. Feminists need to focus not on what makes a woman, but rather on what makes justice. We will have justice when we can each express ourselves fully without fear or the threat of violence. We will have justice when we are all free from poverty. We will have justice when we each have the opportunity to learn and grow, to be productive and creative. We will only have justice if we can accomplish the radical social change of dismantling what bell hooks so memorably named white-supremacist-capitalist-patriarchy. Trans women are women, no matter how newly recognized by others. Trans men have been treated as girls or women for some portion of their lives. If we’re going to dismantle white-supremacist-capitalist-patriarchy, educated white cisgender feminists have to stop intentionally or unintentionally marginalizing the voices and actions of people of color, trans people, working class people, disabled people. Achieving justice will require a mass movement of allied groups each working to bring down part of the system until, collectively, we’ve destroyed it. Then, instead of fighting amongst the wreckage, we need to work together to build a system based on justice for all.


*Update, 6/18/15: It was pointed out in a comment by Pork that this sentence was left incomplete. I’ve edited the sentence to complete it. See the comment by Pork, below, for the original.

Trans & GNC


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