According to Shania Twain, the best thing about being a woman is “the prerogative to have a little fun.” Meanwhile, according to Caitlyn Jenner, the worst thing about being a woman is “figuring out what to wear” (hint: “men’s shirts, short skirts,” apparently).
Somewhere between these two extremes we find the entire range of female experience – or we would, were it not for the fact that female experience cannot be categorised in any way, shape or form. There are infinite variations thereof and to pin down anything at all is to exclude. Hence it turns out even Shania and Caitlyn are on dodgy ground. What about women who aren’t allowed to have fun? What about naturists? Not every woman wears clothes, Jenner, you bigot!
It’s all so difficult, isn’t it? As Tanya Modelski argued in Feminism without women “the once exhilarating proposition that there is no ‘essential’ female nature has been elaborated to the point where it is now often used to scare ‘women’ away from making any generalizations about or political claims on behalf of a group called ‘women’.” Modelski wrote this in 1991, long before feminists were being ordered, in the name of inclusion, to stop making connections between women as an oppressed class and the female body as a biological entity. Because sex is a construct, don’t you know? And reproductive difference is really, really hard to define. Indeed, it’s pure coincidence that people with penises seek to appropriate and control the reproductive labour of people without penises (it’s not as though the possession of a penis offers a massive fucking hint as to which side of the potential impregnator/impregnated divide one might fall on).
If I’m honest, I’m getting a little sick of all this. It’s gaslighting, plain and simple. Women are being asked to deny things they know to be true or face derision and exclusion themselves. We all know that reproductive difference is fundamental to the construction of gender as a social hierarchy. We all know that most people who have female reproductive systems are capable of gestating babies and no people with male ones are. We all know that most of the forms of oppression associated with patriarchy – rape, forced marriage, reproductive coercion, economic exclusion, FGM – can be linked to the broader objective of controlling female sexual and reproductive agency. We know all of this. And it harms women to tell them they cannot say it.
“It is not altogether clear to me,” writes Modelski, “why women, much more so than any other oppressed groups of people, have been so willing to yield the ground on which to make a stand against their oppression.” But this is precisely what has happened. It’s not enough to be told we are still “allowed” to talk about our bodies as long as we do so in an “inclusive” manner; we need to be able to put what happens to these bodies in a gendered context, otherwise we are not talking about systematic oppression at all: we’re just having a whinge about a series of random irritations. And clearly that’s how some people would like to portray the things that harm female people. As though there’s no rhyme or reason to it. As though it doesn’t mean anything at all.
In Whipping Girl Julia Serano makes the ludicrous claim that while “it is generally considered to be offensive or prejudiced to openly discriminate against someone for being female, discriminating against someone’s femininity is still considered fair game.” Really? Every country on the planet has man-made laws controlling women’s reproductive lives and if everyone “generally” finds this offensive, they’ve got a funny way of showing it. Meanwhile, on a daily basis, feminists are fed the line that believing in reproductive difference contributes to the belief system that leads violent men to attack trans women. Bullshit. Everyone knows reproductive difference exists. It’s not something feminists create just by pointing it out. The truth is, violent men cannot handle expressions of femininity in those who are male like them. It’s not the fault of feminists that this is so. It’s the fault of patriarchy, the self-same patriarchy that can only be challenged if we are allowed to describe how it functions.
When applied to female people, Serano’s argument that hatred of femininity is the main cause of sexism is simply offensive. It’s more understandable when applied to trans women. Indeed, if we adopt a truly intersectional approach, looking at the difference the difference makes, the femmephobia model could help us to understand why “figuring out what to wear” could be a much bigger deal for trans women than for females, who have other things to worry about – things which might relate to the fact that they have female bodies and experience female socialisation. But we’re not supposed to make this distinction. It irritates all those nice, liberal, self-styled cis men who pride themselves on keeping their violence and bigotry in check by pretending that they and they alone are permitted to wear the badge that says “truly male.”
This isn’t fair on female people or on gender non-conforming males. What’s more, it keeps us talking about dresses when we could be talking about bodies and power.
Man, I don’t feel like a woman. I feel like a human being. When does that get to come first?