Female biology is neither magic nor mysterious. It doesn’t make those in possession of it nurturing, or caring, or motherly. It doesn’t mean we ought to bear children, nor does it mean we can always bear children if we’d like to. Female biology is flawed, inconsistent and, most of all, it is not the sum of us.
It is, however, real. My female reproductive system is as real as my heart or my brain or my lungs. It will exist whether you allow me to name it or not. I am not simply “a female”. I am a person. I am, nevertheless, female. I am neither ashamed nor frightened of this.
Identifying bodies as female is not an oppressive or exclusive act. It is simply a statement of fact, but also one that has political import. If we stop naming female bodies, female bodies will still exist. We will still interpret them and respond to them. We will, without radical changes to our thinking, continue to reject, abuse and punish these bodies just for being what they are. We will not call them female, but we will still call them something: the bodies of breeders, bleeders, post-menopausal non-entities. We will demean their owners by taking away a biological definition and replacing it with a function. We will have decreed “female” far too good a word for that lower class of humans, the fleshy, sinful ones with their blood, discharges and holes. We will have taken a word that articulates the source of their oppression and offered nothing in return.
And yet a number of women who identify as feminist still express reluctance to name these female bodies. It is as though, miraculously, if you no longer formally identify the primary basis for the oppression of millions, this oppression will cease to exist. It is as though, in fact, by naming oppression, you bring it into being. Don’t call my body female! I won’t be defined by whether or not I can menstruate or gestate! The trouble is, you already are, and it’s not because the people doing it are using the wrong vocabulary. It’s because, like you, they don’t have any interest in placing ownership of a female body within the context of being a unique human being. Being biologically female is not an alternative to enjoying full personhood, or at least, it shouldn’t be. If you think it is, then you have internalised more misogyny than I care to think of.
It may be claimed that the term “female biology” should be avoided in the name of trans inclusivity but I am not convinced of the logic of this. As with most right-on misogyny, I’m more tempted to believe it comes back to the social and sexual conservatism of the more liberated than thou elite. Rather than engage with aversion to female biological functions, let’s pretend they don’t exist. Let’s pretend antipathy towards female bodies plays no role in perpetuating misogyny and abuse. Let’s not talk about periods and vaginas. Let’s create a gender liberation movement in which even the supermarket euphemism “feminine hygiene” would be considered too edgy. Let’s focus on sexual boasting and linguistic trickery, promoting the delusion that a self-congratulatory circle jerk is more worthwhile than improving the lives of women and girls the world over.
Because, let’s face it, proper feminism – feminism that is actually about liberating women – isn’t very sexy. Your male friends probably wouldn’t like it (NB we’re still allowed to say “male”). It involves highlighting unpleasant truths and linking human rights abuses to male supremacy (yawn). It involves valuing the lives of women who might seem a bit boring, a bit unadventurous, a bit too bloody “female” for one’s own liking (bloody women!). It’s the politics of blood and guts, but also that of shit and string beans. Women’s lives under patriarchy don’t tend to be very Belle de Jour. Female biology — and the social and cultural implications thereof – may be at the heart of women’s oppression, but it’s also, on the face of it, a bit mumsy. Being born female – if you make it that far – might have a devastating effect on your health, safety and right to be recognised as an autonomous human being, but it’s also a bit passé, at least as far as concerns go. Haven’t we, like, moved beyond it?
No, we haven’t. We haven’t moved beyond it at all and what’s more, the entitlement of those who claim that we have makes me very angry indeed. This is not because I think my female body is special or that it deserves particular recognition or that having given birth has made me one of womanhood’s chosen ones. It makes me angry because women and girls suffer and die because of the bodies they are born in, regardless of how they feel about them or how they’d like to live in them. These bodies – these female bodies – are in need, not of remarketing or denial, but of full, unquestioning acceptance. We need to know that these are human bodies and that what they do and how they function can be named without shame or fear. We need to recognise that the vast majority of those born into these bodies do not get the chance to opt out of female oppression. Their suffering is not based on their personal relationship with gender; it is based on these bodies and to dismiss the import of this is not activism, but exclusive, privileged bullshit.
Being female (as opposed to embracing womanhood as a variable construct) is not being a breeder, a bleeder or a post-menopausal non-entity. It is being a person who happens to be female. A truly intersectional feminism – one that recognises the ways in which female reproduction impacts differently on women from different social, racial and cultural backgrounds – wouldn’t be afraid of stating this. Female bodies are not arbitrary objects, to be defined and redefined at will. They are the bodies of full, complete human beings, but until we accept female biology as a reality – rather than just a terribly retro idea – we will remain a million miles away from accepting them as such.