Not all women

“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.

11 thoughts on “Not all women

  1. My answer to your question is …. YES! I am a feminine woman. The degree of my femininity can change from one minute to the next, but I am no more or less a woman either way. This is so because I am also a strong woman, but my strength does not vary with my degree of femininity, either.

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      • Your follow-up question is not as easy to answer. I don’t feel that my femininity was learned so much as it has always been my natural state. I could say that it is the opposite of masculinity, which was something I did learn to present – and became easier to fall into with the onset of male puberty. Still, though, my femininity never left. I know that it was easy for me to be my feminine self the moment I declared I was going to live the rest of my days as a woman. It had always been difficult for me to fake my masculinity in order to live like a man.

        I think that femininity does have a sexual component, which can be frustrating for a trans woman or man. That’s part of the dysphoria. Even without my desire to do so, I have attracted the attention of a number of men (and a few women, as well). I’m coy, even a bit of a tease at times. This comes from my femininity, I believe.

        My mannerisms are naturally feminine, however, they are but expressions of my femininity. When you ask what I think the essence of femininity to be, I guess that I have to answer that my femininity is the essence itself. I don’t mean to be flippant about it, but it seems so innate to me that it defies any example I could give.

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        • The point of my rhetorical question was that initially people conflated sex and gender- gender dysphoria suffered by transsexuals- and more recently have divided the two concepts. I will say “I am a woman” if I can get away with it, and if someone insists I am not then I am culturally a woman, or an honorary woman. But I am feminine. I feel it is expressing some real me which is feminine- learned femininity should cause gender dysphoria, if the theory is correct, as trans girls forced to behave like boys are dysphoric.

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          • Fifty-five years ago, I only knew one gender-confused individual who was asking herself many of the same sort of rhetorical questions. Male + Feminine = Homosexual back then, and that was the boy who lived on the next street – not me. As unhappy as he must have been with his own “abnormality,” I did have some admiration for his perceived ability to unabashedly allow his femininity to be displayed. He was merely being himself, though – a feminine boy. I could not be myself, I thought, unless I could be feminine, as he was, but only as a girl. I could not have expressed my femininity as a boy, not as much out of fear of being seen as gay, but because it just wasn’t who I was. Who in the world, I lamented, could ever buy that?

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            • So you appeared a boyish boy, and were a girl only within. A girlish boy was not an option. I think that comes from a series of traumatic experiences, showing your girlishness, that made you hide it away; and that the gay boy in the next street did not, casts doubt on that theory. I know that a lot of us gynephiles go to great lengths to be manly.

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  2. I went to great lengths to appear manly, but I never was manly. My mother would tell me often to not walk the way I naturally did – too light on my toes. I picked out the boy in school who seemed to have the most manly and athletic walk, and then taught myself to walk in his slightly bow-legged fashion. I was also criticized for my speech, because I ended many sentences with a rise in pitch. That led to my not saying much at all, but I did eventually adopt a sort-of droll speech pattern that worked well with my sense of humor (almost British, but without the accent :-). I suppose these were traumatic experiences, but they were so common that they seemed normal at the time. Earlier in my childhood, before he died, my father, because he was very distraught by the fact I did not fight back to the neighborhood bullies, went to great lengths to teach me to use my fists. When I hit a girl who was teasing me, though, he turned my ass black and blue with his belt. That was traumatic, I guess.

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