Narrating female oppression, or, Does it matter whether Harriet Capon was trans?

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.

It matters because we are faced with two alternatives: either a girl pretended to be a boy in order to access the structural advantages that boys enjoy – and to which all people, girls included should have access – or Capon was really a boy, hence the structural advantages gained through presenting as such were simply incidental. It matters because if you privilege the latter option – and in doing so override the subject’s own testimony – you erase the fact that earning more money for one’s family and ‘being a boy’ should be, but are not, two different things. It matters because if you see the world that way – as a world in which no one would possibly pretend to ‘be a boy’ simply because boys are, in pure economic terms, seen to be worth more than girls – then ultimately you naturalise the subjugation of half the human race.

This is a good illustration of the problem many feminists have with the word ‘cis’ and the very notion of ‘cis privilege’: it naturalises female subjugation. It suggests that all of the crap associated with being socialised as a girl is only crap if in fact you are a boy. There is no evidence that Capon suffered from body dysphoria (she even describes cutting her hair as “a great feminine sacrifice”); there is evidence that she wanted the economic advantages one enjoys when one is seen as male. To say that this is because she was male can only be based on the ludicrous assumption that other girls simply didn’t want economic equality (rather than that other girls, facing different pressures, did not take the same course of action Capon did). You can, I hope, see where this is leading. If we don’t take Capon’s economic motivation as read then we are on the road to questioning whether male privilege even exists.

Do women really need access to all the space and resources to which men have access? Or is the problem only that some women are really men? Do women need the vote, for instance, or is being able to vote part and parcel of identifying as male? Could we not say that cis women 100 years ago enjoyed the privilege of not being expected to engage politically? Did Emily Davison’s suicide brutally erase the pain of trans women who would have loved the validation that comes with not having a voice? I’m conscious of how far-fetched this sounds but erasing the structural inequality women endure is far-fetched and yet it happens all the time.

Today we witness it in the denial of the beauty myth and in claims that any woman who protests against the association of beauty with femininity is simply ‘femmephobic’. Or in the belief that women-only spaces where females escape male violence symbolise ‘cis privilege’ rather than female disadvantage. No one wants to be so at risk of male violence that shelters need to exclude males. No one delights in a system that sees them as worthless the moment a few wrinkles appear. No one is underpaid because that’s part of how they identify. No woman is ‘cis’ because no woman identifies with all the shit that comes with our construction of ‘womanhood’. All each and every woman can do is find a way to cope with the disadvantages she faces, and it’s intersectionality 101 to see that every woman, almost certainly facing further oppressions due to race, class, sexuality, disability and a host of other things, has to do it in her own way.

I don’t know what was going on in Capon’s head; none of us do. Nevertheless, privileging a gender identity narrative over the social and economic realities which we know women and girls like Capon faced is a tremendously privileged act. Combing back over history one could, potentially, decide that any woman who ever stood up to her oppression – any woman who said “I am equal to any man” – was, in actual fact, a trans man. Because, after all, aren’t women at one with their oppression? Isn’t that what being a woman is?

I am a woman and I say no.