In July this year I received an email from The Feminist Times, stating that they had financial concerns and asking whether I’d be willing, as a one-off, to contribute something for free (I’d written several paid articles before).
The email included the following line:
This is a chance to write ANYTHING you want to. Stuff no one else will publish.
So I decided to write about inclusion and exclusion, both in terms of physical space and in terms of definition, as both seem to me a vitally important when attempting to establish both women’s humanity and their basic safety. I expressed what I truly felt, sent off the article and waited, knowing that while it might be controversial, I had been given free rein to write ANYTHING (their caps, not mine).
Thanks for this. For obvious reasons I’ll have to run it past [...] when we’re both back in the office together on Monday. I’ll keep you posted.
And then. a week later:
Sorry, we don’t think we can publish this! Keep us posted if there’s anything else you’re keen to write though.
At first I was a little disappointed. And then of course, I felt a little confused, and a little upset, and a little guilty. One thing I didn’t feel was cross. I’d obviously gone too far, overstepped some mark. I decided never to show the piece to anyone. No matter how much it meant to me, all it showed was that I was a bad person. Isn’t that how women always feel when they ask for too much?
A few months later, having finally shown this post to other women — and seen other women being silenced — I have changed my mind. Here is the piece. Here is what I think, and here is something which is considered inappropriate for a supposedly (albeit now defunct) feminist publication. This is what women, in the name of feminism, aren’t supposed to think or say. And I don’t think it makes me, or anyone else who feels it, any less of a feminist, a woman or a human being.
Feminism is about inclusion. It is about ensuring no woman is marginalised as a result of gender and other oppressions which intersect with it.
Feminism is also about exclusion. It is about safeguarding a woman’s right to set her own physical and mental boundaries, and about defending her right of refusal against anyone who seeks to overstep them.
These two principles should not contradict one another. A fully respected human being should be able to defend his or her own personal space while also sharing communal space and rights of recognition with others. That it has not been easy for feminists to achieve this is a measure of just how regressive our beliefs about “what women are” remain.
Time after time, wave after wave, feminists are accused of being exclusive and bigoted simply for defending the space that each woman should have for herself – the mental and/or physical room of one’s own. We make demands that would never be made of men, whose boundaries remain inviolable. It is only women – and to be specific, female women – who are expected to include and include to the point of self-abnegation. We are told what we are, how we think, what we should call ourselves. Our inner lives – experiences of our own bodies, our female socialisation, the discomforts we have suffered from birth – are considered accessible and transparent. We are permitted no complexity. We are the opposite, the complement, the helpmeet, the foil that grants definition to anyone who is not us. We exist, but not as complete entities in our own right.
For all our talk of the need to challenge cis norms, we have reached a point where it is expected that all those born female will enter into feminism as “traditional” women – those flexible, juggling, accommodating, motherly creatures who put everyone else’s needs before their own. That is how we are socialised to think of ourselves and, like it or not, that is what we demand of others. It is antithetical to a social justice movement which prioritises a woman’s right to active consent, but we do it anyway. We demand that gender norms are questioned while at the same time expecting females to perform in the same way as always: giving, giving, giving, never making their own imprint but always bearing that of others. For that is inclusion, is it not? Never daring to be so fickle, so mean, so exclusive, as to say “no – that is where you end and this is where I start”.
It does not surprise me one bit that an increasing number of young women declare themselves genderqueer or non-binary. It has become the one remaining get-out clause for consent. As an older woman who is a mother, it has been made clear that such a get-out clause is not available for the likes of me, regardless of what I know my relationship with gender to be. Someone has to be Cis Woman™, on hand to do the ideological equivalent of wiping arses, scrubbing floors and shutting the hell up. Widespread terror at the thought of not having such a person – the SWERF, the TERF, the whorephobe, the pearl-clutcher – available as a means of deflection is palpable. Now that we no longer do witch trials it’s fair to say that if the TERF did not exist, patriarchy would have to invent her (oh look! It did!). She is woman at her most hollowed out, a blank screen for projection, the cause of original sin – otherwise known as male violence – and a vessel to contain all bile.
It is true that if some women have to be positioned as the TERF, others may feel they don’t have to. It grants the latter a temporary place of safety. This is not the same as self-definition – the number of defensive contortions one has to go through in order not to be tarred with the TERF brush increases by the day. To give up on words – woman, man, female, male, gender – which describe the fundamentals of one’s own oppression is no small sacrifice. To do so because one has effectively been coerced, due to a culture of fear and misrepresentation, is nothing short of an intrusion on women’s mental, linguistic and psychic space.
This matters to me because the feminism that is exclusion – being able to close the door and say “this is MY understanding of what I am” – is just as important as the feminism that is inclusion. Like most women I know what it is to experience sexual and physical abuse. I know how hard it can be to feel safe within one’s own body and I don’t think we should underestimate how much this matters as regards one’s own mind. A feminism that is forceful and intrusive, denying swathes of women the right to their own inner lives, is no feminism at all. A feminism that dismisses reproductive difference and denies women the basic tools with which to describe what happens to people like them is worse than no feminism at all.
It is easy to make the majority of women say yes when they want to say no. It is easy to make them acquiescent and self-effacing. It is easy to make them consent to things they do not feel and say things they do not believe. Patriarchy has been doing this for millennia, using fear and coercion. Feminism should be granting us a safe space in which we can finally say no. This is not about whether you agree with me on gender or sex work or any other specific issues; I just want you to know that you, as a woman – any woman – should have the right to define your own body, your own experiences and your own internal boundaries.