This morning @FeministPics tweeted a newspaper report on the fascinating story of Harriet Capon, who spent two years presenting as a boy. When asked to explain herself, Capon claimed her motivations were economic:

I am one of a family of six. My mother, I regret to say, is in very precarious health, and about two years ago I started thinking seriously about how I could add to the household income to the best advantage. Of course everyone knows that a man can make more money than a woman in industrial employment. I cogitated for a long time, and finally I decided to become a ‘man’.

All of this took place a century ago. There was no Equal Pay Act, no anti-sexual harassment legislation, no maternity leave, none of the safety nets for which feminists have fought long and hard. Capon’s assumption – that if one wanted to make money in industrial employment, it was easier to be a man, even easier than it is today – was absolutely correct.

A short while after @FeministPics put out the report a tweet from another twitter user appeared, mentioning “Charles Capon, #trans boy for 2yrs during WWI”. It referred to the same story, only now it was presented in a completely different light. Suddenly it is suggested that Capon acted, not in response to a gender hierarchy which values males more than females, but because she was indeed one of the ‘higher value’ individuals. I’ve rarely seen a clearer example of neoliberal identity politics being privileged over economic, social and political oppression. Given the pitifully low status of women and girls the world over, this matters. (more…)

In his brilliant blog post on purity leftism, Matt Bruenig describes a group of activists whose “interest is not in reducing oppression as much as it is in reducing their own participation in it”

Above all else, they want to be able to say that they are not oppressing, not that oppression has ended.[…] A purity leftist that carries out some action or campaign does not care whether it achieves anything. Just participating in the action, although a meaningless gesture, is a gesture nonetheless.

We all know the type: someone who boasts loudly of their revolutionary credentials but who avoids all practical commitments for the simple reason that the moment you start doing something, you are tainted. It might be that your organisation has to ask the wrong people for money; perhaps you’ll need to use products that aren’t ethically sourced; maybe your resources are limited and you’ll need to choose whom you can and can’t help. For whatever reason, the moment an idea becomes a deed, it’s never as pure as it once was and for some people, the damage this would do to their self-perception is just too much.

You can admire purity leftists as people who stick to their principles and never compromise or you can see purity leftism for what it is: privilege in action. People not getting their hands dirty because they simply don’t have to. It has much in common with choice feminism, described by Michaele L. Ferguson as a feminism that is “motivated by a fear of politics”:

It arises in response to three common criticisms of feminism: that feminism is too radical, too exclusionary, and too judgmental. In response, choice feminism offers a worldview that does not challenge the status quo, that promises to include all women regardless of their choices, and that abstains from judgment altogether.

Way-hey! A feminism that enables you to see yourself as the most principled, inclusive person while never, ever having to lay your own neck on the line. You never have to make a decision about who can be admitted to a shelter, or whether or not certain forms of work have a negative impact on women as a class. You just get to sit in judgment on those who do and that in itself can be your “activism”.

Becky, who founded the ethical clothing company Who Made Your Pants?, is neither a purity leftist nor a choice feminist. In a country with horrendously weak employment laws, in which employers are well within their rights to do the bare minimum for their employees – and in which most do — she founded a business that does more than that. She employs women who desperately need jobs to make clothing from recycled materials. The conditions in her factory are excellent. That said, it is not a perfect business. It is based in the UK, not on a fluffy cloud in Perfectland where nobody ever has to make compromises. It is a business which, on the spectrum of “never good enough”, strives to do as much as possible rather than as little as one can get away with. For this Becky deserves admiration.

And yet, for the likes of Brooke Magnanti, writing in the Telegraph, this is not good enough. To Magnanti, Becky’s project deserves not applause but derision. For how can it ever be free from the taint of capitalism? Isn’t everything, when you think about it – as first-year politics students often do, after several pints down the student bar – just all part of the same fucked up process? As Magnanti notes,

I can claim to be wearing an ethical jumper that I knitted myself, but where was the wool from? Shorn from what animals, in what conditions? What’s the dye? I can’t buy local wool; everything produced in the part of Scotland where I live goes off to stuff mattresses in Italy. And don’t even get started on the environmental wreckage of cotton crops. Ethical consumerism can’t be assessed on a single metric, and those who do so are laughable. It also does not mean the same thing to everyone in every circumstance.

She’s right, isn’t she? It’s complicated, oh so complicated. So complicated, in fact, that we might as well all sit on our privileged arses and do fuck all. Or better still, get paid to write about how complicated it is. At least then we’re not lowering ourselves by making pants that lack the requisite level of ideological purity.

Still, in a world that is so, so complicated it’s a good job there are still some occupations that aren’t complicated at all. Take sex work, Magnanti’s previous profession. In this case, one transaction between two (hopefully) consenting adults has no impact whatsoever on anything else in the entire world. It has no impact whatsoever on the extent to which all women’s bodies are objectified, commoditised and dehumanised. For some magic reason, upon which Magnanti never expounds, sex work is totally self-contained. Here, ethical consumerism can indeed be assessed on a single metric, despite the enormous power imbalances between men and women, and between clients and sex workers. It’s only when we’re dealing with pants and jumpers that being immersed in the capitalist-patriarchal mire happens to be of any relevance, or so we’re meant to think.

Do you know what? I am struggling to buy this bullshit, based as it is on a merging together of choice feminism, purity leftism and pure, naked spite. I would rather, a million times over, support someone who exploits people’s anxiety over capitalism than someone who exploits men’s anxiety over female sexual autonomy. I would rather, a million times over, support someone like Becky, who changes the material conditions of other women’s lives, than support someone who feeds off the fear of judgement that allows individualism to masquerade as feminism.

So, go ahead, Brooke. Choose your non-ethical pants, choose your column in the right-wing press, choose to believe you’ve fucked your way out of being privileged, white, and middle class. Choose all of these things but don’t ever, ever choose to try to make a difference. You’ll never meet the requirements of your own prudish politics so you might as well not try.

It was the free eyeliner that did it. After over a year of avoidance I caved in and bought a copy of Glamour and yes, it’s as rubbish as it ever was (but “hey, it’s okay if your new sandals require strategically placed plasters to be wearable”. So, there’s that).

Peak Glamour Rubbishness comes on page 91, with a piece by Stephen Armstrong on “girl envy” (yes, I know). It’s one of those sleazy, sugar-coated MRA-in-disguise articles that tells you “hey ladies, you’re so great, what with your ability to multi-task, always look perfect, bear my children and do lots of shitty jobs so that I don’t have to!” Gee, thanks. Always good to know my subjugation is appreciated.

The piece goes on for three pages, providing plenty of choice nonsense to pick from. My particular faves include Armstrong quoting a fellow journalist, George, on what women are like once they’ve had given birth:

Mid-life crisis? Women have no time for that shit. From the outside, pregnancy looks like a nine-month crash course in the meaning of life. We men, on the other hand, seem destined to spend our late forties seeking enlightenment in Lycra that doesn’t fit, on carbon fibre bikes we can’t afford, doing triathlons. Yes, childbirth might do us a favour.

Yes, George. That is EXACTLY what it’s like. Post-natal depression? Never heard of it. Unhappy mothers in their late forties? Don’t exist. And then there’s Armstrong himself on why it looks like we ladies are “having a lot more fun”:

When we see you across the room – through a bustling party, in a high-powered meeting, back to the table after 15 minutes in the powder room or walking towards the bed – there’s something about the way you move, your mischievous smile, the smart joke and the totally sorted view of what’s needed that stops our heart and catches our breath.

It’s at this point you start to wonder whether Armstrong has met any women in real life or bases his whole reading of half the human race on TV adverts and rom coms. Certainly, he doesn’t seem to think women have an inner life in the way that men do. We don’t have any of those messy crises. We don’t feel conflicted or challenged or incompetent. We just sashay across the room, spreading sweetness and light, making everyone feel better with our “totally sorted view”. Jesus Christ. Thank god we’re not actual real, live people since that would really make things inconvenient for Stephen and George. (more…)

Laurie Penny has a colouring book:

It’s called Finding Gender, and it was sent to me by an activist who knows how much I love social justice and felt-tip pens. In the book, a small child and a robot go on marvellous adventures, and children and nostalgic adults get to scribble on their clothes and costumes, their hair and toys. It’s an ordinary colouring book in every respect, apart from the fact that the child isn’t identifiably male or female. Neither is the robot. The person with the crayons gets to decide what they’re wearing, whether they’re boys or girls, or both or neither.

It sounds brilliant, doesn’t it? I wonder if there are other books in the series. Finding Class, for instance, where the child isn’t identifiably rich or poor and the person with the crayons gets to decide whether he or she has a pony and a yacht or a half-eaten bag of chips. It’s such a wheeze when an oppressive, abusive hierarchy can be reduced to a few self-indulgent, superfluous stereotypes. You could almost – almost – convince a child that they get to define their own place in a classist, misogynist social structure. As for adults … well, you’d hope most would have a sense that this isn’t quite how things work.. (more…)

In The Beauth Myth Naomi Wolf describes how sickness and health “are often subjective judgments that society makes for its own purposes”:

Women have long been defined as sick as a means of subjecting them to social control […] The Surgical Age took over from the institutionalization of female “mental illness,” which had in turn overtaken the institutionalization of nineteenth-century hysteria, each phase of medical coercion consistently finding new ways to determine that what is female is sick.

Wolf was writing about the cosmetic surgery industry at the end of the 1980s. This pressure is still with us, greater than ever before, but still we are finding new, more complex ways of diagnosing women as ill and unfit for activism or debate. I see this happening within feminism itself. It’s not just that women are told they are sick as a means of silencing dissent; dissent itself has been pathologised. You can be well, but only if you keep your mouth shut.

Terms such as bigot, TERF, whorephobe and SWERF are hurled at women whenever they do not toe the line regarding essentialist definitions of femininity and sexual passivity. It’s a means of discrediting arguments by suggesting that the subject is diseased, unable to think clearly due to multiple phobias. I think there’s a direct line to this from the cults that Wolf describes. Women who threaten the misogynist status quo by being active and demanding have to be put out of service one way or another. (more…)

When I was three, I knew that boys had penises. I did not know that girls had vaginas because no one told me. I presumed, as I think many do, that my lack of a penis was just that: a lack. Even later on, when I learned about human reproduction, still I found my role in it to be passive, that of a vessel waiting to be filled. The noble sperm battles his way through the harsh environs of Womanland, hunting out the ovum, who is playing hard to get. The continuation of the species depends on the sperm penetrating the boundaries of the resistant egg, or at least that’s the narrative spin that patriarchy puts on it. Woman as creator was never going to fly.

The reduction of women to holes, serving only to define those who fill them, is central to how misogyny perpetuates itself. Our perceived permeability and lack of completion is used to justify the marginalisation of women and the exploitation of our bodies and labour. Our own flesh and blood does not make us weak, but the metaphors derived from it – woman as hell mouth, moral abyss, cesspool, vacant space – have long supported arguments that women are not quite people. We tend not to voice these arguments today but the fundamental assumptions remain. (more…)

Misogyny is not particularly nuanced. It has a long history and manifests itself in different ways across different cultures, but essentially it’s always the same: hating women, viewing them as less than human, denying them their subjectivity. None of these things is very refined; indeed, when you are on the receiving end of misogyny, you know that it is gut-wrenchingly blunt.

Responses to killer Elliot Rodger’s misogynist manifesto have not been nuanced. This is because there are no subtle shades in lines such as these:

Women are like a plague. They don’t deserve to have any rights. Their wickedness must be contained in order prevent future generations from falling to degeneracy. Women are vicious, evil, barbaric animals, and they need to be treated as such. […]I would take great pleasure and satisfaction in condemning every single woman on earth to starve to death. I would have an enormous tower built just for myself, where I can oversee the entire concentration camp and gleefully watch them all die. If I can’t have them, no one will, I’d imagine thinking to myself as I oversee this. Women represent everything that is unfair with this world, and in order to make the world a fair place, they must all be eradicated.

There is no reason for us to pore over these words, looking for the complexities, the justifications, the finely balanced decisions. This is someone who despised women for being women. And yet the language he uses – If I can’t have them, no one will – will be familiar to many of us. It’s there in descriptions of women as sluts, whores, prick teases, temptresses. It’s there in the way men treat women who reject them or try to leave them. It’s there in the belief that all men are entitled to penetrate women’s bodies. Such a view of women is all around us and if that sounds monstrous and extreme, that’s because it is. (more…)

When we bought my youngest son a set of Ladybird stories to satisfy his love of fairy tales, it took me a while to notice that these were the same stories I’d read as a child. The pictures had changed but gradually it became clear that the words remained the same. I remembered the rhythms and metaphors, almost hearing my mother’s intonation as she’d once read them out to me.

At first I thought “oh, how cute! A blast from the past!” Then I read on and the feeling morphed into “bloody hell! No wonder I’ve always had a love-hate Stockholm Syndrome relationship with heteronormative patriarchy! It started right here!” (more…)

One of many seemingly trivial things that infuriates me is the sight of the strappy summer top or dress. This is an item of clothing under which most women would want to wear a bra and yet, unless it is the fashion, bra straps are not meant to be on show. Up till now there’s been no real solution to this. Strapless bras slip down, while transparent bra straps have never fooled anyone. However, the bra-free alternative — nipples at your navel — is even worse. So you see these clothes in shop windows and in magazines and after a while you start to think “is it me? Do other women have breasts of helium? Who — apart from the woman who’s buying the smallest size — is meant to wear these things?” It is a mystery and like many fashion-related mysteries, it’s one that will make you feel a failure at womanhood for no reason whatsoever. (more…)

Recently I started coming across the word “femmephobia” to describe critiques of pinkification, female stereotyping and the beauty industry. The femmephobe is someone who exhibits an irrational fear of all things traditionally associated with femininity. She is prejudiced against people who use femininity as a means of expression. It’s not because she’s identifying an oppressive structure which limits everyone’s choice, but because she just doesn’t like girly girls. She is, in short, a bigot.

I’d say I’m a bit of a femme myself. I like make-up and prefer dresses to trousers. I think cars and football are boring (because they bloody well are). I’d rather do crochet than play on the Wii, unless it’s a relatively fluffy platform game that doesn’t involve too much killing. Hence I have a degree of sympathy with those who cry “femmephobe!” I can see the position as a distant relative to that adopted by earlier feminists who sought to re-evaluate traditionally female activity and culture. There is nothing inherently trivial about the work “feminine” people do, the poses they adopt, the means by which they express themselves. Moreover, devaluing “the feminine” is not just sexist but culturally imperialistic, since definitions of femininity vary between cultures. (more…)

A couple of years ago, on my 37th birthday, I went to see Snow White and the Huntsman. It’s a Hollywood film so it probably goes without saying the gender politics were unimpressive. Nevertheless, this film really pissed me off. It’s everything that’s terrible about how mainstream feminism is marketed and it’s a bloody fairy tale. Just what is wrong with the world?

Charleze Theron’s Ravenna, the villain of the piece, is a cross between Tampax Pearl’s Mother Nature and Valerie Solanas. She is pitched against Kristen Stewart’s Snow White, who is young, beautiful and feisty, all set to overthrow a patriarchal regime that demands all women be young, beautiful but not particularly feisty. Snow White rebels by remaining young and beautiful while also having agency™ and being empowered™ – go her! Meanwhile Ravenna, the Evil Queen, can only maintain her youth and beauty by being evil. Deep down she’s an ageing minger and therefore not worthy of exerting any power or influence. So Snow White kills her. Yay feminism! Kill that stupid, youth-addicted, power-hungry, post-menopausal waste of space! (more…)

As a feminist I’ve spent a great deal of time worrying about one thing: misogyny, that is, the hatred of women for being women. Over the past few days, however, something has come to my attention: it doesn’t actually exist! You know that global phenomenon whereby women and girls are valued less than men and boys – paid less, silenced, treated as goods to be exchanged? Turns out it’s all a massive coincidence. It might look like there’s more to it than that but don’t worry – it’s all one big misandrist fib (NB misandry does exist, obviously).

You might think that, say, gender stereotyping in toys and clothing was linked to attempts to “naturalise” oppressive gender roles. Turns out it isn’t. Gender stereotypes are totally cool; the only trouble is we keep giving the wrong toys to the wrong kids, a bit like getting odd socks out of the wash. Once we’ve got that sorted it’ll be fine to keep stereotyping by gender (there won’t be any actual reason to do so, but still, it’s got nothing to do with misogyny, since that’s a figment of our collective imagination). In the meantime the important thing is to remember that all mix-ups harm boys just as much as they harm girls – otherwise that wouldn’t be fair, right? (more…)

Today I read a review of Holly Baxter and Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett’s The Vagenda. I have not yet read the book itself, which is aimed primarily at young women. I probably will read it at some point, but for the time being I’ve decided I don’t have to. A man has read the book and offered his own view on womankind’s relationship with popular culture. This has got to be better than anything some stupid Grazia subscriber might think.

David Aaranovitch is not a young woman. He does, however, have daughters. What’s more, he is known to have existed in the proximity of women for most of his life. He walks amongst them, observing their curious ways and idiosyncrasies. Who better, then, to report back to the rational masses on the enigma that is Women Who Do Stupid Things That Facilitate Their Own Oppression? (more…)

So yes, I’m writing another – another – post on the word “cis”. Everybody quake in fear! But I’ve had so many useful comments, which have given me so much food for thought, that I’d like to get them all out and see what happens.

The other reason is the previous post is based on personal pain. It was, as these things are, read as competitive. I felt hurt; other people felt hurt. This is an attempt to be more dispassionate and to explain why, as far as I can see, the term “cis” isn’t working – and why we need to allow non-trans women to define themselves on their own terms:

1 Cis is not a necessary alternative to trans

Many people find it hard to see what is wrong with this statement:

anyone not trans is cis

But what if someone said this:

“anyone not Muslim is Christian”

It doesn’t make any sense, does it? The fact that being a Muslim is predicated on having a religious belief does not mean that anyone who is not a Muslim must have a different religious belief, let alone one specified by you.

You could amend the first statement to:

“anyone not trans is cis or non-binary or genderfluid or two-spirit etc.”

However, then the equivalent would be:

“anyone not Muslim is Christian or Hindu or Sikh or Jewish etc.”

There is quite clearly something missing: the space for people who do not wish to be defined by these belief systems at all. In the case of the former statement, that would be a huge number of feminists, with good reason.

I am not religious. I don’t define myself as an atheist any more than I define myself as a “not believer in fairies”. I just don’t wish to define myself in relation to religion in any way, shape or form. Does it mean I don’t believe Muslims are Muslims? Of course not. Similarly, does not identifying as cis mean I don’t believe trans people are trans? Clearly not. Nor does it mean that I am agender (I am female and I am a woman. Gender does not come into it). An absence of belief is not the erasure of someone else’s. On the other hand, the demand that someone actively endorses your worldview by declaring themselves a believer or risk being deemed a bigot and subjected to ongoing threats and abuse … well, what would you call that?

2 It’s morally unacceptable to demand that another person swears allegiance to a belief system they experience as harmful

This is what is being done when feminists who do not believe in gender as anything other than a construct are ordered to identify as cis. It is not merely unfair; it is cruel, a cruelty which is intensified when the consequences of not submitting are to be declared a hateful bigot and a TERF. There are non-trans women whose experience of gender is contained only within the harm that has been done to them and others. It’s not okay to then tell them that they just don’t “get” gender or that “real gender” is totally distinct from gender oppression and stereotyping. If they do not experience or believe that, merely being faced with such statements is traumatising. Gender has an absolutely real and valid meaning for them and to suggest that any attachment to this meaning encroaches on the space of someone more oppressed is manipulative and untrue. This is not about hierarchies of suffering, it is about the integrity of meanings to people who are traumatised in different but equally deplorable ways.

3 Individuals should have the freedom to identify with any gender – or none

This is linked to the previous two points and it is that basic: to be cisgendered has no meaning to someone who does not experience themselves as gendered in any way other than by the gaze of others. Indeed, to enforce cisgendered status on someone who feels this way is to double up the oppression; it’s asking someone to confess to an experience that they themselves do not believe in, in effect, to own up to ignorance of their own selves and submit to the higher authority of those who “know” their gender better (trans people will be familiar with how awful this feels, but so too will most AFAB women, who experience this in various ways from the moment they are born).

In a recent piece for the Guardian, Fred McConnell described gender as “one’s innate sense of self”. I don’t know what this means. This does not mean I am deficient or ignorant. It means I don’t think that’s what gender is. Hence when McConell says “cisgender […] refers to those whose sex and gender do match” I am 100% sure that I am not cis. I don’t experience this matching but nor do I experience a sense of allegiance with any other gender construct. It should not matter to anyone else that I don’t. It is not their business.

4 Trans women should not depend on non-trans women for self-definition

Why the hell should they even want to? My not-cis-ness says nothing about your trans-ness. You don’t need me as a foil to offer validation. You are your own person.

If we were to push this to its logical conclusion, we could say that one of us is right and one of us is wrong. Either gender exists as an innate sense of self or it doesn’t. Either God exists or he doesn’t. Why, exactly, would we want to push it to this degree? Will we ever get a final answer, a voice from on high? No. I don’t care if you don’t. Moreover this is not the same as me saying “you’re not the man or woman you say you are” (I think this can be particularly hard to grasp, not least due to the oppressive conditions under which trans people have to define themselves, but it’s true).

5 Evidence of innate difference is not evidence of innate gender difference

Or rather, it only is if you’re already someone who believes in gender as an essence rather than merely a construct. This is very straightforward but I don’t think this can be stressed enough. It is frankly absurd that radical feminists get termed flat-earthers and anti-scientific simply because they refuse to make the leap of faith that says, for instance, that evidence of different brain patterns in trans people can be linked to the concepts “male” and “female”. If other people want to make that leap, that’s up to them, but it’s got absolutely nothing to do with scientific proof. I believe Jesus existed. I also believe he was an amazing man. Is that evidence for the existence of a Christian God? No. Believing in God involves bringing together faith and evidence to form a coherent narrative. People who don’t have faith in gender won’t produce the same narrative in response to biological difference as those who do. We should be able to live with that. It’s only a problem when evidence of biological difference is used to justify gender-based oppression (which it has been, again and again). In these instances, an agnostic position on gender and biology surely seems the fairest way to proceed.

6 Beliefs are not the same as social and cultural privilege

It is self-evident that trans people suffer enormous amounts of discrimination and rejection. This does not mean that being an AFAB woman is a privilege in and of itself. In a society which continually dehumanises women it simply cannot be. Moreover, if you do not experience gender as anything innate, you do not suddenly have the choice to align yourself with the dominant gender. It’s not some liberating free-for-all. You’re just an AFAB woman dealing with a world that presents “womanhood” as something you are not.

Some trans women may think that non-trans women owe them – that our right to define womanhood on our terms is trumped by their greater suffering. Certainly, tweets such as this would suggest it:

faulty term

But such a view has nothing whatsoever to do with the truth of anyone’s experience of gender or womanhood. If you are a child who wants people to lie about their feelings so that you feel better, perhaps this is an okay solution. The rest of us would rather ask for cultural change and social acceptance for everyone. Such external acceptance would include you – but when it comes to self-acceptance, you have to do that on your own.

7 It’s important to distinguish between non-believers and extremists

Most violence against trans men and women is committed not by gender non-believers but gender extremists – AMAB men who cannot cope with the idea of anyone transgressing their strictly-bound gender rules (rules which radical feminists, who frankly don’t give a shit what you wear, how you feel or how you present yourself, wholly reject). It’s curious, then, that the feminist rejection of cis is instantly aligned with the transphobic violence of the über-cis. I think, deep down, the people who do this are conscious it is disingenuous. However, it’s easier to hit out at those whom you can claim threaten your sense of self rather than those who threaten your physical safety (just as it’s easier to rant at “militant secularists” rather than at Christian EDL members who set fire to mosques). Of course, it’s not fair. You alone are responsible for your sense of self. If someone tells you you’re shit or you’re not the person you say you are, they are wrong. If, on the other hand, someone else’s sense of self seems to contradict yours, this is not an act of aggression. It’s just people being people.

8 Gender as a construct is deeply harmful to AFAB women

This shouldn’t need reiterating, but it is. Rape, VAW, FGM, exploitation, inequality, femicide. Hence feminism. And yes, you can say “but that’s not real gender”. It might not be to you but it is to me. So let’s just leave it there.

9 No one ever gets final confirmation that they are A Real Woman

Because this isn’t a female version of Pinocchio. No blue fairy will come along and wave her magic wand. This is real life.

This was one trans woman’s response to my previous post (or rather, it’s the least offensive of her many responses):

on a plate

I’ll allow you a moment to laugh bitterly at the absurdity of it. If this person had actually read any of the previous things I’d written about the term cis (rather than cried “TERF” and “bigot” in response to the very idea that I’d had an opinion) she’d know that due to ill-health I didn’t experience puberty until I was in my twenties. I considered myself a woman before then, just as I considered myself a woman after having a miscarriage and will consider myself a woman when I go through the menopause and should I ever have a hysterectomy. Ovulation does not a woman make.

This is not to deny the political importance of defining “woman” in reproductive terms. I know a lot of people struggle to get their heads round this. But you just said … Well, yes, no one said this was easy! The oppression of women as a class is inseparable from patriarchal attempts to control reproduction. You can rebrand it by saying “pregnant people” all you like but a refusal to put misogyny in context betrays the perceived breeders/vessels/gestators (whatever we now call them if the right to use “woman” is withdrawn). They will remain a sub-class only one which has now been denied the dignity of a cultural and class heritage.

The upshot of this, of course, is that people have to share (I know, what a pain!). Pregnant trans men have to put up with being intermittently co-opted by Class Woman for the sake of political argument, and pregnant women have to accept (as, to be fair, I think most do) that their reproductive status is not a trump card in the Game of Womanhood.

There will never, ever, be a point in anyone’s life when they are handed a Certificate of Full Womanhood. Because that would be meaningless. We make of our womanhood what we can. It’s not a thing you can touch or measure in a test tube. It’s the messy context of a human life. Of course, not everyone thinks this, at least not yet. That’s why I’d argue that a push for greater acceptance of “messy, human, fuzzy around the edges womanhood” could strike a real blow against transphobia (in a way that demanding non-trans women identify as cis – and hence reinforcing the sense that womanhood truly is an absolute – never, ever can).

This post is brought to you by sex. Lots and lots of sex, which I may or may not have had in the past and/or be having right now. The precise nature of said sex shall remain undefined. Suffice it to say that it’s as rude – or not rude – as you want it to be. The point is, I’ve fucked my way to credibility – or have I?

It has come to my attention that in most discussions of porn, sex work and objectification, there’s immense pressure placed on feminists to demonstrate they have the lived experience required to take part. It’s not enough that to have grown up in a patriarchal culture, nor to have felt the daily impact of being reduced to passive flesh. You’re obliged to show your bits. After all, if you don’t do that, how can anyone tell whether you’re not just some sex-fearing neurotic? Disliking sex is not the same as, say, not liking sugar in your tea; it’s become a form of bigotry and thus, as a bigot, you’re not allowed an abstract opinion on how objectification affects womankind. Indeed, even if you’re fond of most things sex-wise, it’s probably best to express unbridled enthusiasm for anything at all that you find problematic, otherwise you may not be permitted to find it problematic in the first place. Does that make sense? (more…)

How would women talk if they knew men weren’t listening? This is something I’ve been considering a lot of late. How much is what we say to each other a performance on behalf of men? And if a woman speaks out of earshot of any man, does she really make a sound?

It isn’t true that men never listen to women. They do, all the time. When we say to men “you don’t listen” perhaps what we really mean is “you might use my words to judge me but they will never change your view of yourself”. It is not that our words are not heard, but that they don’t function in the way they are supposed to. All too often, there is no real dialogue. The listener takes our words and uses them to reform his perception of us. In doing so, he subtly changes our status; we are redefined from without. What we really wanted to achieve — an interchange of ideas, with all the shared vulnerabilities this entails — remains out of reach. “I am listening,” he says, “and later I will judge.”

So we get used to it. No point endlessly trying to achieve the impossible. If I put forward an argument, especially on twitter, I expect a large proportion of the men who hear it to understand it not as a challenge to their worldview, but as a means of positioning me in relation to them. “Where do I place this woman in relation to my rightness?” I lack the status to be an adversary or a mind-changer. Women generally do. Our words don’t penetrate. Penetrating others isn’t for the likes of us. (more…)

My four-year-old son likes the colour pink. He likes it on everything: pink socks, pink toys, pink paint, pink glitter. Sometimes he even wears a pink plastic ring to school.

My son also knows that he is a boy, and that boys are not allowed to like pink. Not one to be deterred, he’s come up with his own solution. From now on, pink will be called orange and orange, pink.

“Are you wearing your pink ring today?”

“Don’t be silly! It’s orange! It has to be orange because orange is for boys!”

Let’s be clear: there’s no real reason why pink should be pink and orange should be orange. They’re just identifying words. Sometimes it won’t even be clear which one you should use, or if either is appropriate. Is salmon pink really orange? And coral? And what if your paint was pink but then you added more and more yellow? Ultimately it doesn’t really matter. There is pink and there is orange but not everything needs to be judged on how pink or how orange it is. They’re just the outer shades, not the things in themselves. Even so, I wish my son didn’t feel the need to switch words around solely on the basis that pink is not allowed. (more…)

Women online — they’re always whinging about abuse, aren’t they? And yet it’s so hard to stop abusing them! You might even think they deserve it. After all, a thousand twitter mobs can’t be wrong, can they?

Well, here’s problem. People who abuse women always think they have a good reason for doing it. That’s how abuse works. It’s a function of widespread ignorance and fear. And since when did an abuser really see themselves as such? They always think they are doing it for the victim’s own good, so that she will learn to be better and not make the same “mistakes” again. Corrective abuse, one might call it. Find a space with women in it and trust me, thinks the abuser, some of them will need to be tamed.

You might be a woman yourself, a feminist even, but still find it hard to approach other women as though they are human beings. Perhaps you’ve found some distancing strategy that makes you feel less of a “basic” female. That’s okay. After all, it’s hard to remain a decent person in a highly abusive environment. Tapping into a special vein of misogyny that you’ve decided doesn’t apply to you is a natural reaction. It’s not right but there’s still time to change.

To help you get back on track, I’ve written this handy, deeply patronising checklist for abusive feminists everywhere. Please make the time to read it. After all, what harm can one more passive-aggressive, “stop being such a shit feminist” list do when there are so many out there already?

So, let’s begin:

1. According to the most up-to-date scientific research, women are human beings. And yes, that includes all women, even the ones you don’t like. I know this will make some of you feel a bit icky. That’s fine. It often takes people time to get used to this idea. Give yourself the space to work on your internalised prejudice (it’s hard, I know *sends solidarihugs*).

2. All women have things called “ideas” and “opinions”. It can be difficult when you first encounter this online, at least if a woman’s ideas and opinions differ to yours. A common impulse is to call her a bigot, accuse her of various phobias and invite the rest of the internet to shame her into submission. Don’t panic if that’s what you’ve been doing. You simply need to get to grips with the idea that a person not agreeing with you is okay, even if that person is a woman (I know, a woman! Sounds strange, doesn’t it? But trust me, letting women have opinions won’t be any worse than letting men have them. You just need to overcome your fear of this).

3. For a long time it was believed that only men could have what we call “real emotions”. Nowadays it’s recognised that women have them, too, but it’s still felt that a woman can forfeit them if she steps out of line. For instance, while we know that “die in a fire” or “STFU you shit-for-brains cunt” would upset the average man, a recalcitrant woman is widely held to respond only with “sadfeelz”. This is, alas, bad science. All current indications suggest that even women who lack the #twitterfeminism seal of approval have actual emotional responses to threats and abuse. That’s something to bear in mind next time you start putting a dot before the @ in your tweet.

4. Lots of us believe that older women exist only to make us feel important, stroke our bruised egos and occasionally do the housework. Hence if you encounter an older woman online, it can be terribly disappointing if she doesn’t seem utterly bowled over by your edgy sexual exploits, or has the temerity not to think your self-centred view of gender overwrites her more critical one. The thing to remember is: older women are not your mum. They’re not going to cut you some slack just because they love you. They have their own shit to deal with and don’t owe you approval. It comes back to the “women being people” thing. Keep repeating that to yourself until one day you believe it.

5. One of the oldest forms of misogyny comes in the belief that the female body is corruptive, sinful and repulsive. You might think you have ideas about sex and gender which make you immune to this reaction and if so, that’s cool. However, if your immediate response to someone mentioning words such as period and vagina (but not penis or testes) is to tweet “fuck off, cissexist scum!” it may be that you still have issues.

6. These days most cultures allow women to manage their own relationships and interact socially without the presence of a chaperone, partner or male relative. That’s something to bear in mind if you find yourself regularly checking up on whom a woman is following on twitter, quizzing her over her online “associations,” warning people not to talk to X because she’s been seen talking to Y etc..

7. Making women feel uncertain about themselves — that their views are not authoritative, their thought processes tainted by bigotry, their suffering unverified, their “lived experiences” neither real nor raw enough to count — is a common abuser’s tactic. This may be something you do without even meaning to. You might think you have the lived experiences against which all other women must measure theirs (and that theirs will invariably be found wanting). You might secretly enjoy spreading uncertainty and acquiring obedient followers, desperate not to offend you with their silly woman ideas. All this means is that you are acting like an entitled prick. But don’t worry! There’s always time to change. Read and re-read this list, then resolve to do better.

8. Being a woman isn’t meant to feel modern or cutting edge. Womanhood doesn’t need repackaging or pruning, leaving the embarrassing “waste” behind. All women who speak are women whom, as a feminist, you should feel some responsibility towards. That’s really annoying, isn’t it? But that’s people for you.

It’s okay if all this is new to you. Take your time. In the meantime, here’s a shit, babyish cartoon to help you on your journey:

Am I abusive

Still feeling uncomfortable? Patronised? Offended? Don’t worry. This is how most women feel online all the time. Terrified of saying the wrong thing. Judged simply for existing. Frightened that if they call out abuse, they’ll just be accused of bigotry. Patronised by passive-aggressive lists which outline all of the ways in which they are to blame for all social ills. Blamed for all the bad things that happen to them, tortured by the thought that those accusing them could be right.

If you feel even a tiny bit of that right now, think carefully before you launch in to your next attack. If, on the other hand, you’ve already composed a tweet in which you describe how I’ve written a post all about defending privilege, you’re nothing if not predictable and hopelessly, determinedly wrong.

Yesterday Paris Lees wrote a blog post on Avery Edison, a trans woman who was being held in a man’s prison in Canada. In it, she described “a culture that punishes difference, blames victims and lacks empathy”:

It’s a disbelief characterised by privilege: the cushy, unquestioned joy of not knowing what it feels like for the other person. To stand there, humiliated, while people you don’t know tell you what they think your gender should be. That you are fake. Inauthentic. Not what you say you are.

Powerful and beautifully expressed, this touches on something that lies at the heart of all movements for social change – this sense that you are not what others define you to be, that you are more human, more real, and as such you deserve more. That your life has a pattern and meaning other than those being imposed on it from above. We all know our realities better than anyone else. We know what forms us and we know what hurts us. We own the context of our own experiences.

I was thinking of this when reading Roz Kaveney’s response to my New Statesman piece on cis identities, gender and womanhood. It’s not a response as such, more a remarkably unfeeling lecture on how to be empathetic. It’s a curious thing, reading that what you believe and feel about yourself isn’t right, and that someone else knows better. It’s not an unfamiliar sensation of course; as a fellow woman, Roz, I’ve had people do this to me all my life. And here’s a gentle reminder, if you’re going to write about empathy again any time soon: the respect I show for your reality doesn’t render mine a poor, second-class version.

Your experiences don’t override mine, filling in the gaps, blotting out the parts no one wants to see. Your understanding of gender is different, but not heightened, not deeper, not more “real”. I am interested in the context it gives to mine, and the extent to which I may need to recalibrate in response; nevertheless, my flexibility doesn’t extend to offering up my own version of womanhood at the altar of your ego.

In a piece filled with kindly, long-suffering explanations of what I “really” think, Kaveney describes how “when someone like Glosswitch, not ill-intentioned and probably not meaningfully describable as transphobic, announces that they are going to talk about gender, alarm bells ring all over the trans* part of the internet”. I know! Just imagine, me, a feminist, having opinions and thoughts about gender! It’s bound to be total crap, right? The whole tone of this sounds disturbingly patriarchal. I picture myself in a Mike Leigh film, a seventies housewife who’s got drunk at a dinner party, my embarrassed husband making excuses for us both: “Don’t mind Glosswitch, she means well but she hasn’t a clue what she’s talking about!” Poor Glosswitch. She does get these “ideas” about womanhood. Don’t hold it against her, eh? She’s not transphobic, after all; well, not “meaningfully describable” as such (wink, wink).

Like all people who mistake projection for empathy, Kaveney seems to suggest she is being kind:

I get that, as a young cis woman, Glosswitch experienced major areas of dysphoria about body and social role; I understand that she thinks, not entirely without justice, that these give her some share of what trans people go through.

Well, actually: no. That’s not what I think. I don’t define my experience of gender solely in relation to people who experience it differently. I don’t see it as a partial, broken-off narrative, useful only if it will earn me the right to take part in a conversation that belongs to someone else. This is my story. Mine. I own it. It is every bit as complete and real as yours, and this is true of every single woman on Earth, cis or trans. This will make you uncomfortable. It makes me uncomfortable, too, but there we are. That’s empathy for you.

This doesn’t mean gender is arbitrary and meaningless, floating in the ether. It is embedded in all of our lives. We each make our own definitions, form our own versions. That doesn’t mean the totality of these versions is harmless. We can still read its impact. It’s not the case that when beliefs about gender kill women – or cause them not to be born at all – these women don’t really die because hey, that’s not how you see gender operating. This is no more valid than suggesting that racism isn’t that bad, really, because you recognise people of colour are equal to white people. You don’t get to deny the reality of structural inequality just because you simply don’t feel it deep within yourself.

Kaveney writes that “the range of meanings attached to the word gender are attached to a range of actual lived experiences – that is how a living language about sex and equality develops”. I am a linguist. I have PhD in languages. I might not be quoting Butler but I am not a child who needs words explaining to me. I also know that it is naïve in the extreme to pretend that language necessarily develops in a positive direction, becoming more progressive and inclusive. Any development which takes from females the means to articulate the relationship between gender, biology and oppression – and does so at a time of massive structural inequality – is not a positive one. It is, on the contrary, erasing and dangerous. Kaveney would like to suggest that any articulation of the misogyny inherent in reproductive oppression means giving in to “the people who want to abolish women’s reproductive freedom” since they are also erasing trans men. This is disingenuous beyond belief. A denial of the structural roots of oppression is not a move for inclusivity. Misogyny is real. It is no less real when it has an impact on those who do not identify as women.

Of course, like all women, I am used to people talking down to me and feeling, not angry, but disappointed. Often they sound like this:

Some of the time Glosswitch really doesn’t get it – empathy fails all together.

Oh dear :(. The trouble is, empathy isn’t saying what people would like you to say. It is about trying to understand. Kaveney doesn’t like this. You are, it appears, either right or wrong:

What’s also politically dangerous is [Glosswitch’s] assumption that there’s a possible, desirable truce between trans people and those feminists who are trans-exclusionary, or more accurately trans-eliminationist.

God forbid that anyone should operate on the assumption that, in a world in which beliefs about sex and gender oppress us all, we’re most of us trying to do our best. God forbid anyone should try to act in a way that identifies humanity and good faith even in those we disagree with. God forbid that we should hesitate before daring to look at anyone – anyone at all—and say that they are, to quote Lees, “fake. Inauthentic. Not who you say you are.” God forbid that I should believe my reality can stand toe to toe with yours.

I haven’t written this for the benefit of Roz Kaveney, or indeed anyone else. I’ve written it for me, because it makes me feel better to restate that my reality is mine. It’s important to be able to reclaim these things. You can take something from deep within yourself and lay it out for public consumption and it will be there for others to take and put into whatever context they wish. Nonetheless, it’s still yours, whoever you are. It can’t be distorted and shoved back inside you as something else, something you neither knew nor felt.  Anyone at all should be able to empathise with that, at least if they were to try.

Is having Barbie on the cover of Sports Illustrated empowering or demeaning? That’s what the Guardian wants to know, so much so that they’ve set up an online poll. Personally, I find the whole thing baffling, but then again, I don’t know what Sports Illustrated is. Is it a wank mag that everyone pretends is a sports magazine? Or a sports magazine that everyone pretends is a wank mag? I have no idea and what’s more, I can’t be arsed to find out. Hence I shall remain neither empowered nor demeaned, languishing in some liminal state of non-womanhood.

The “empowered or demeaned?” game is of course a familiar one. It’s one of those media bastardisations of feminism that ends up reinforcing the dehumanising extremes it claims to avoid. Are you empowered – a tits out, up for it, ball-breaking capitalist – or demeaned – a prudish, frigid, man-hating victim? Are you taking ownership of your life, busting out of the strictures that confine you, or are you standing back, watching while sexism is done to you? There’s no question, really, as to whether or not Barbie, or Page Three, or rape porn, or unpaid labour count as “objectively” empowering or demeaning. It’s all a state of mind. The impression is that you get to choose. There is no such thing as structural oppression. Feminist critique is no longer a challenge to patriarchy; it’s a personal statement. I am empowered, or, I am demeaned. (more…)

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