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Who Decides What Makes a Woman?

Blog posts reflect the views of their authors.
Who Decides What Makes a Woman?

By Madison Foster

Writer Elinor Burkett, in this past weekend's New York Times, takes it upon herself to define womanhood, which she feels is under attack from trans women. Instead, Burkett only succeeds in viciously grinding an anti-feminist axe with the intent of severing trans women from our rightful womanhood.

Trans-misogyny is where trans-phobia and misogyny meet, each intensifying the other. It is a form of gendered oppression experienced by trans women, central to which is the vicious lie that we are, or ever have been, men. This is violence, a violence which all too frequently ends in a trans woman's death. Burkett's blatant mis-gendering of Caitlyn Jenner, and by extension all trans women, is an attempt to efface trans women as we courageously face this violence to voice our own vital truths about womanhood.

If Burkett feels pressure to re-conceptualize womanhood that is only because her concept of womanhood is myopic. Her claim that there is a universal experience of womanhood is reductive and demeaning; for every rule or stereotype about womanhood there is a corresponding woman whose life or body is a direct refutation: some cis gender women never menstruate, some are also intersex and learn later in life that they possess a Y chromosome.

Experiences of misogyny and womanhood vary greatly depending on race, ability, and socio-economic class; indeed, the dominant feminist notion of shared sisterhood has long been thoroughly criticized by revolutionary black feminists. How many experiences of womanhood are there? In contrast with Burkett's tally, I joyously exclaim that there are 3.5 billion.

As a trans woman I know much about womanhood that cis women do not know. I know what it is like to be a woman who was brainwashed into believing she was a man. That is a womanhood which is as authentic as any other. I have not arrived at womanhood, I have liberated an imprisoned womanhood. I define “what makes a woman” by the virtue of being one.

If cis womanhood is not a monolith, then trans womanhood is just as gloriously diverse. No one trans woman could ever speak for all. Cis gender media portrays, unsurprisingly, a very cis centric view of trans experience; the commonly referenced “born in the wrong body” narrative is not shared by all trans women, myself included. Transition hasn’t been primarily about hormones, clothing, or makeup; to transition was to transform a crushing shame which was ground into my soul over decades. It was reclaiming my power as a woman, a power which was unjustly torn from me as a little girl. The details of my gender presentation are for my personal comfort and to ensure my safety in a world which would rather I not exist.

Misogyny is not new to recently-out trans women. I have experienced shatteringly violent (trans)misogyny all my life. The irony of Burkett's criticisms of trans women’s femininity is apparent and reeks of patriarchal sexism: women are punished for failing to conform to femininity, yet if we do conform we are then devalued. The stereotyped trappings of femininity, be it makeup or fashion or a desire to feel sexy, do not degrade women; these trappings are degraded because they are associated with women, and patriarchy has degraded women. For Burkett to direct this misogyny onto trans women only strengthens sexism.

This denial of the legitimacy of my femininity relies on the classic trope of trans women being “men who make themselves caricatures of women.” My femininity does not define me as a woman; if I am wearing a ballroom gown or a dirty potato sack then I am dressed like a woman because I am a woman. To suggest that I am only a caricature of myself is degrading and incredibly pompous.

Trans misogyny takes this classic double-bind of coercive femininity and installs additional snares for trans women. As Burkett expertly, if unwittingly, demonstrated, my femininity is held to a higher standard than that of cis women. Yet if I fail at femininity not only am I devalued as a woman but my very womanhood, and thereby my very personhood, is erased. Burkett accomplishes such erasure with the accusation of male privilege.

Privilege is not merely a matter of how you are perceived and treated. It is your relative social position which is a matter of economic, political, and cultural power. “Male privilege” is the access which men have to the above mentioned resources, at the expense of women’s access to those resources. All cis people, including women, possess privilege via the oppression of trans women... even trans women who still labour under the yoke of the lie that they are men.

Only men can have male privilege, and to imply that trans women ever had male privilege is to imply that we were once men. There certainly are benefits to being read as male, however this is an example not of privilege but how being in the closet is a strategy to navigate existing oppression. A thunderstorm with a silver lining is still a thunderstorm. Besides, society does not actually treat closeted trans women as it treats men. We typically internalize gender norms and misogyny much as cis women do, by directing it inwards. It is also extraordinarily difficult to hide the fact that you are a woman all day, every day, for decades. Society gruesomely punishes such transgressions.

This punishment drives 41% of trans women to attempt suicide. So go ahead, tell me that this violence is really a privilege. When you have driven me to totter over the edge of that highway overpass, please remind me that my track & field scholarship is oppressing you.

If society hadn’t been forever asserting that I was a man, perhaps my womanhood would not have spent decades being gnawed by moths in a closet. Perhaps you would have instead found your own womanhood enriched by the addition of new colours and forms to the tapestry of womanhood, a tapestry bearing a mural of splendorous contradiction which no woman could have ever woven alone with her single skein.

Or, you know, just keep reducing all women to their genitalia, I guess. Your call.

This piece first appeared in the Huffington Post and has been reproduced here with the author's permission.

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