“Not all women have vaginas,” tweeted Munroe Bergdorf, a trans woman. “Think about your message, use your voice for all women, not just yourself.” She objected to pussy hats on the women’s marches.
I disagree. Yes, there is pressure on trans women to have genital surgery. No-one should need to be sterilised to be recognised for who they are. Trans women are women. Dwelling on reproductive rights and reproductive matters can be a way of excluding trans women, deliberately. We feel rejected and excluded, and lots of things can remind us of that. Rejection hurts, and a rude comment in the street could depress me for days when I transitioned. Yes, all of that, and a vagina is still a symbol of womanhood.
I am not saying we should not object to allusion to vaginas because objection is impolitic. TERFs might express anger about avoiding discussion of reproductive matters, which affect most women, though some are infertile, and not all women without uteruses are trans women. Ordinary feminists might hear that and agree. Our extremism may alienate potential allies, especially when we tell them what to do.
The reproductive system, the beauty, pain and danger of it, is central to feminism. We should be allies on that, not because it is politic, but because it is right. If you don’t empathise with women’s concerns, you are still a woman, but lacking in some humanity. All oppressed people should oppose all oppression.
Our oppression is around our bodies, too, judged, scrutinised and assaulted. We may feel alienated from our bodies because they are seen as male. Yet not all talk of bodies has the purpose of excluding us, and it must be possible to talk of bodies and the oppression of bodies.
Munroe Bergdorf was objecting to a symbol, not a campaign: a cat-eared hat, because Dolt 45 boasts of grabbing pussies. It is a symbol of genitalia which most women have. How wonderful, to wear a symbol of genitalia on your head, for they are private but not shameful. The hat shows pride in every part of a body, even the ones we hide. Men wore them at the marches in solidarity, and surely trans women can too.
Perhaps there is nothing all women have in common. Not all women have the same gender identity, which is shaped by experience. Gender identity matters most to those who have to assert it, like trans people. Some women are close to stereotypical femininity and some rail against it; and non-binary people may have another gender identity and women’s bodies. What is your gender identity anyway- is it “woman” or “feminine”?
There is a slippery slope here. Refusing a wedding cake to a gay couple is not the same as restaurants excluding black people, which impinges on all of life. The wedding cake is only a symbol of rejection, but everyone has suffered rejection and is vulnerable to it, even cis white non-disabled well-educated males. The law forces service providers to provide services equally because the symbol matters and there is widespread rejection of gay people who don’t pass as straight. Needing to pass is oppression. The slightest rejection or erasure hurts, but the lack of logical consistency in the term “woman” is the very thing that allows us to call ourselves women, so perhaps we should not draw attention to the lack: the logical consistency simplest to comprehend excludes us.
Reproductive rights matter to all who can get pregnant, and should matter to all women. Biology matters. Munroe Bergdorf’s tweet brought out the TERFs, mocking, angry, yet appearing sensible to lots of people who have not thought about the matter (so it is important to be politic in these things). Gaby Hinsliff is a writer for the Guardian who generally writes on feminist issues and rarely on trans. There’s a woman alive now to contradict pretty much any given statement about what a woman is, she wrote, arguing to include us on all-women shortlists, but she was exasperated by Munroe’s tweet. Just let women, and men, be what they want to be. The rules are that there are no rules, she wrote earlier. I agree, for that is the best way for us to be included.
Possibly, at some time in the future someone will come up with a verbal understanding encapsulating what it is to be a woman and including every woman, but not men. And people will stop squabbling about that, and go onto something else.