Rahila Gupta

‘Woman’ has become a dirty word

The Women’s Marches’ use of ‘pussy’ as a symbol has led to accusations that they were trans-exclusionary.  Are we witnessing the erasure of woman as a sex category?

Women’s March, New York, Jan 21, 2017. Credit: Erik McGregor SIPA USA/PA Images

As the earth spun on its axis, from dawn to dusk on 21 January 2017, there were women marching in all weathers in 673 cities across the globe, like a giant Mexican wave, against Donald Trump’s election and his divisive brand of politics which is rearing its head everywhere. No sooner were the mainstream media congratulating the women-led marches for the size, the amazing co-ordination, the peacefulness and sheer joyousness of it all, then ructions have erupted among various groups of people who felt excluded. One of the things that I loved about the London march, which I attended, was its inclusiveness – that it was women-led but everyone was welcome: men, transwomen and all those who identified somewhere on the non-binary spectrum.The ructions confirm a trend. We are witnessing an amazing reversal where the term ‘woman’ has become toxic while ‘feminism’ is no longer the pariah concept it once was. Feminism’s popularity has an inverse relation to the hollowing out of its revolutionary potential. A number of factors are responsible for this: corporate feminism; its increased commercial value as witnessed in the fashion industry’s co-option of the term – Dior launched a $700 T-shirt which reads ‘We should all be feminists now’; the politics of a vocal minority of transwomen which seeks to erase woman as a category; and the amplification of these voices by various institutions, the low point being the Green Party Women’s callout to its ‘non-male’ followers. However, if you remove the victims of patriarchy at the stroke of a pen by calling them something else, does that mean that patriarchy no longer exists?

Palpably, this is not the case. That’s why millions took to the streets across the world. At the London march, there was not a single slogan that felt disrespectful to anyone other than Trump. However, some transwomen have objected to slogans like ‘The Pussy Bites back’ or ‘Viva la vulva’ because it writes them out of the picture. This was an attempt by feminists to reclaim Trump’s sexist language. Given the sly and sleazy references to ‘pussy’ in British popular culture and the fact that my feminist politics have framed my womanhood as bigger than the sum of my body parts, these are not placards I might personally have chosen. However this quibble was not going to stop me from attending the march. Ditto the pussy hats which came to be the defining visual symbol of the marches, especially in the US.  However, a transwoman from California, Jade Lejeck, was quoted in an article by Marie Solis ‘How the Women’s March’s “genital-based” feminism isolated the transgender community’  saying that this discouraged her from attending because she was sure, ‘that there would be other trans-exclusionary messages at the women’s marches.’ The fact that Laverne Cox and Janet Mock, celebrities and transwomen of colour, were speaking at the LA and Washington marches respectively did not persuade Jade to go because ‘she had grocery shopping to do anyway’. In fact, Janet Mock’s defence of child prostitution as ‘liberatory’ could easily have made many feminists reach for their shopping trolleys too. In her blog, Mock says that older transwomen working in prostitution ‘enabled me when I was 16 to jump in a car with my first regular and choose a pathway to my survival and liberation.’

Women’s March in Amsterdam, 21 Jan 2017. Credit: NurPhoto SIPA USA/PA Images

Cox spoke out against North Carolina’s so-called Bathroom Bill which criminalises trans-people who use the toilet of the gender with which they identify. I believe that transwomen should be allowed to use the women’s loo, for their own protection as much as anything else, as they are more likely to face violence in a male toilet. Nor do I believe, as some feminists do, that men intending to sexually harass women need to dress up as women and enter women’s spaces, given the amount of unwelcome attention they draw to themselves in the process. Men have a long and successful history of sexual violence without having to resort to such strategies. I unequivocally support the human rights of trans-people but I reserve the right to question the brand of politics some of them espouse without being branded transphobic.Marie Solis gives us another example: ‘For 20-year-old Sam Forrey, a nonbinary student in Ohio, and their girlfriend Lilian McDaniel, who is trans, there had been other warning signs that the Women’s March might be a dangerous space for them.’ This kind of media commentary, extrapolating a generalised fear of women’s spaces on the basis of two voices, is not helpful. Not having your experience/identity reflected at a mass gathering may make you feel lonely. As a black woman I’ve been to plenty of gatherings dominated by white women but that does not equate to ‘dangerous’. Surely the unity of being with others who stand against Trump and his values particularly where the population is divided almost equally down the middle must provide relief and even ‘healing’ as the first time marcher Linda Tugurian testified in an article on 50:50.

The problem of equating ‘vaginas with womanhood’ which is a key trans critique is exactly the predicament that feminists have attempted to escape. But this was put squarely back on the agenda by those transwomen who went through surgery precisely because being in possession of a vagina represented the essence of womanhood for them. Getting back control of our bodies and our reproductive systems has been an irreducible and decisive element of our struggle against patriarchy. Celebrating a body which has been constantly degraded, reshaped and dismissed in the mainstream narrative is a part of that struggle.  Two days later Trump rescinded US funding for international NGOs providing abortions – much of the oppression that women face is sadly rooted in their biology despite feminist attempts to transcend this. To argue that reclaiming our bodies is oppressive to transwomen is to completely undermine the battle against patriarchy.

Helen Saxby has argued that ‘The downgrading of ‘sex’ as a category in favour of ‘gender identity’ has this one very important result: instead of the axis of oppression being male/female (where 49% of the population who are male oppress 51% of the population who are female) the axis is being changed to cis/trans (where 99.97% of the population who are ‘cis’ oppress 0.03% of the population who are trans).’ In other words, this shift of emphasis locates our central oppression in our identities rather than the system ie patriarchy. The notion of gender fluidity has become increasingly accepted as a way of escaping these oppressive identities. But this fluidity has been encouraged by contemporary feminism which has a critique of gender ie the cultural and social expectations of behaviour associated with a particular sex. If anything, it could be argued that transwomen themselves resurrect the gender binary in the ways in which they construct their ‘femininity’ although this is also complicated by professionals overseeing their transition and their ideas of gender.

Helen Saxby also points out that breast feeding must now be called chest feeding. However, those transmen who get pregnant and feed their infants have to actually retain their breasts in order to do so because that is the biological reality of breasts; they are not a gender conforming accessory. A college in Massachusetts cancelled a performance of Vagina Monologues because it was trans-exclusive. If this trend were to catch on, almost 99% of theatre would have to be proscribed. I do not understand why transgender rights can be achieved only by the erasure of women. Progressive politics has always been about ensuring that the advance of one vulnerable group is not made at the expense of another.

This is an urgent debate; it raises fundamental questions about sex and gender but there is a raw and raucous hostility on the outer fringes of the debate which shreds nerves and silences opposition. But we must not allow it to distract us from the threat posed by Trump’s politics. The last time Trump pronounced on the issue, he supported North Carolina’s anti-transgender law. Let’s not forget what the face of our real enemy looks like.

Woman’ has become a dirty word was published on openDemocracy 5050 on 28 January 2017

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