The thing about feminism, which really shouldn’t need to be said (but here goes), is that it was invented by women for women. It is intended to identify things from a woman’s perspective and to look after a woman’s needs – so by definition, whatever the current subject of discussion, as a feminist you centre the woman’s point of view: you always ask ‘what does this mean for the women?’ This is important because historically it has not really been done: in a patriarchal system, rules, regulations and social structures have traditionally been invented by, and implemented for, the benefit of men. Sometimes this has benefited women too, but too often it has not. Feminists exist to look after the concerns of women: somebody’s got to do it. Feminists are interested in equality of course, but when all’s said and done, it centres women. Unapologetically. That’s how we roll.
We live in a culture shaped by thousands of years of patriarchy, where men are automatically centred, so it can be difficult sometimes to notice when women as a class are being shoved to one side, ignored, unrecognised, overlooked… it’s just normal. We have all to some extent been socialised to think of men as representative of all of us. Even as a feminist it can sometimes feel unnatural, or even selfish, to ‘think of the women’ when we have been socialised to think of others before ourselves. Add to that the fact that many feminists are also socialists and therefore committed to the idea of equality in their politics, and it becomes even more complicated. If we want our feminism to be intersectional we have to take into account race and class and all other inequalities as part of the picture, because they all impact on women’s lives. Feminists as a rule abhor racism and homophobia as much as they do sexism, BUT, crucially, as feminists we put the women first. Some recent examples of where this approach has been lacking in the public sphere include the practice of FGM and the sex grooming scandals in Rotherham and other places. Left to the authorities, cultural and racial sensitivities have taken precedence over the safety of women and girls. This is normal, this is patriarchy in action, and this is why we need feminism: we need to point these things out to stop them from happening again. It’s not easy, but as feminists it is our duty to see issues first and foremost from the perspective of what it means for women, even at the risk of being labelled racist, which is one of the worst slurs most of us can imagine. It takes courage and belief and clear priorities, and it’s hard: practically everything we have become accustomed to needs correcting…
The subjugation of women has traditionally been based on biology. It is more complex than this, but just to sum it up in simple terms: women’s bodies have a nice place in which to put a penis, and they are capable of bearing and giving birth to children. As Janet Radcliffe Richards points out in her book ‘The Sceptical Feminist’: ‘…only the female has the ability to carry, give birth to, and nurse the child once it is conceived, and this is an ability corresponding to which men have nothing at all.’ In other words, women as a class have a biology that men as a class want and need. If you couple that with the fact of men’s largely greater physical strength, then the possibility of forcing women to comply with men’s needs through physical threats, strict laws and social constructs follows close behind. If women did not have this different biological reality to men then maybe the oppression would neither be necessary nor possible. Janet Radcliffe Richards again:
‘Presumably women must in some sense tend to be weaker than men, or men could never have reduced them to such a state of subjection in the first place, but the suggestion that a weak group can be protected by being abandoned to the total control of a stronger one involves as remarkable a piece of twisted reasoning as can ever have been devised. If women are weak and need protection, it should have been the men that were controlled. A similar argument shows that the pairing arrangement cannot be one into which both sexes enter automatically as a result of some deeply-rooted instinct. If women had acquiesced willingly, there would have been no need for a colossal superstructure of law and convention to keep them in their place. The existence of rules to keep women in the power of men shows that men must have wanted of women something which women could not be trusted to provide of their own accord.’
The general characteristics of what we refer to as ‘femininity’ then, were not innate in the female sex in the first place, but a response to the position in which women found themselves. To survive in a society in which most things were controlled by men and owned by men, women had to develop ways to please men in order to survive. Traits such as kindness and caring, modesty, submission and deference would have been popular, as well as good looks and a range of homemaking skills. That would have kept the men looked after. That became the blueprint for femininity.
It’s interesting to speculate on what the true nature of woman would look like, or would have looked like, without enforced femininity: just how strong, capable and clever could we all have been had we not had to be so NICE…? Anyway:
The inequalities based on biology are still very much in force, despite the fact that culturally, socially, politically and intellectually we have moved a long way from our biologically-determined origins. Women’s bodies are still the focus of much of the unequal treatment women suffer, whether it’s through the sex trade, rape culture, abortion rights, childcare or even the tax on tampons. Much of the structure put in place to keep women under the control of men, such as the system of law, marriage, unequal pay and unequal opportunities, are still here to a greater or lesser extent, and therefore disadvantage women, whose needs they were not designed to meet. Especially not their different biological needs: the needs that differ the most from male needs.
I have hugely skimmed over the details but you get the picture: it is important to have an idea of how big a part biological reality plays in feminism. Feminist theory cannot help but be concerned with women’s biological, lived reality.
And that, essentially, is why some feminists are currently on a collision course with trans activists.
I would like to be a trans ally. From the point of view of discrimination, equal opportunities, mental health problems, domestic and male violence, trans people suffer many of the same problems as women, as well as the other groups within the LGBT community. Trans people have the right to live their lives without fear of violence or discrimination. Feminists should be natural allies, and indeed many feminists are, and see no conflict between their support for trans people and their feminism. That would be fine except for the fact that feminists who are gender critical and therefore believe that a transwoman is different from a woman, are now in big trouble. No matter that this does not equate to a lack of support for transwomen, or a wish to hurt them; just to have a critical analysis of gender is enough for the more extreme and vocal trans activists to label you as a TERF (Trans-exclusive Radical Feminist), a transphobe, or cis scum.
The problems arise when the needs of trans people conflict with the needs of women, and the stumbling block is biology. To be a *true* trans ally it is necessary to pretend biology doesn’t exist: a penis can be female for example, and it’s not only *women* who bear children! Traditionally, the penis has been a symbol of male power (witness all those phallic buildings and sculptures raised as monuments to this power). It also of course has power quite apart from the symbolic level (witness the gendered crime of rape). The penis is biologically and symbolically male and it therefore has a gendered meaning. For women who have been sexually abused the penis is a weapon. As a feminist, the biological reality of the penis, and its role in the oppression of women, both historically and in modern times, makes it impossible to see it as ‘female’, even if it is attached to a trans woman. It is hugely insulting as a woman to be told to give up what you know and experience to be the truth lest you get labelled a transphobe. It is a particularly intractable problem for lesbians, for obvious reasons, and so they bear the brunt of the name-calling.
As a feminist, however much I agree with trans rights, when those rights are in direct conflict with women’s rights, I will choose the women every time. That’s because I’m a feminist, not because I’m a transphobe.
I am embarrassed to watch so-called trans allies lying and lying and lying again to appease the most voiciferous and extreme trans women. I think it’s patronising and stupid and dangerous to say ‘yes, a penis can be female’, or ‘trans women are women’ just to save someone’s feelings: it reminds me of how people talk to children: ‘yes dear, you really are a flower fairy…’ It helps nobody. It makes trans people look stupid, it makes feminists look mean, and it erases women’s history. To be ‘trans-inclusive’ it is not possible to talk about biology anymore: to talk about periods, pregnancy, childbirth, rape – all ‘trans-exclusionary’ because it’s stuff that only affects women. Even talking about FGM is ‘cissexist’ because it contains the word ‘female’, which leaves out trans people. (And in the words of the song: If FGM is cissexist I don’t wanna be cis…). Why do so many trans women want to be part of feminist groups when almost everything feminists talk about contains some reference to biological reality and is therefore offensive? And why are all the attacks on feminists rather than, say, the homophobic heterosexual men who are their worst enemies?
There are many gender-critical trans people on social media who I consider to be friends and feminist allies: they are not afraid to tell the truth and they know that a trans woman is different from a woman. I have respect for them and they have respect for women, and feminist theory. We can be supportive of eachother and co-exist with understanding and to mutual benefit. I wouldn’t dream of insulting their intelligence by pretending they are what they are not. I accept them as they are! We have different, but parallel oppressions: we don’t need to invade eachother’s territory for validation. This is how it should be: we can come together but we can separate when we need to. There is loads of stuff that trans women would want to discuss that is not relevant to other women, and they should be able to organise as they see fit. So should women. This is not transphobic, it is respecting boundaries.
I know that what I’ve written will be called hate speech by some people, and cleverly linked to the idea of a kind of homophobic right wing hysteria about gay men being paedophiles that is so abhorrent and now so discredited. Luckily though I’m not about to speak at a university femsoc and I don’t have a media career to lose or a book coming out, so I will take that risk… The tipping point for me has been seeing how the power of the trans lobby has effectively led, through mass blocking, to the policing of what feminists can and can’t say on Twitter (and yet it’s somehow feminist to support this). And also it has galvanised certain men who actually don’t like women very much (especially not feminists, and especially not lesbian feminists), into an enthusiastic support based on a sudden opportunity to take the moral high ground in the Oppression Olympics. Now, by vocally and loudly trumpeting their support for men who have transitioned, they can still effectively support men whilst looking as though they are more feminist than feminists. It’s a dirty trick, but it’s based on a lie. They know they are throwing lesbians to the wolves when they say a penis can be female, which is why, when you call them out on it, all they have to say back is ‘Bigot!’ They cannot defend their stance with argument because there is no rational argument that proves that a male sex organ is not a male sex organ.