Saturday, 28 June 2008

On Being Born a Woman.

One of the debates that accompanies the transgender wars is how one becomes a woman. Most feminists are agreed that no one is born a woman. At least in the twenty-first century West, ‘woman’ is a classification that is placed on people with particular sex organs and which is expected to be manifested in particular behaviours- behaviours which most people recognise are taught and some think are innate. Currently, we believe that there are only two genders, which are often conceived as polar opposites from each other, despite this being a very contrived binary.

The classification of ‘woman’ did not always follow sex organs as tightly as it does today. In the European past, gender was closely related to sex organs, but was not a direct consequence of them. Under a humeral model of the body, women were people who were cold and wet, men were hot and dry. It was men’s greater body heat that expelled the sex organs from the body. Some people with female sex organs, however, were otherwise very manly (they contained considerable heat); they just didn’t have enough heat to expel their sex organs. This could allow ‘hot’ women (no not like that!) to take on many of the functions and status of men. Similarly some men were colder than normal and so more effeminate. It was even possible for women, who got too hot, to transition to full men if they managed to expel their genitals (and there are recorded instances of this happening).

In other cultures, gender is assigned based on social role. In certain tribes in New Guinea, women are people who grow crops; men are people who hunt and fight. Most people born with female sex organs tend to grow crops, but some have a desire or an aptitude for hunting and fighting and are accepted into ‘male’ society as full members, and vice-versa. When members of particular gender are on the low side (perhaps because of not enough male-sexed children being born), this fluidity becomes even more common as female-sexed people make up for a shortage of men, and vice versa. Female-sexed western anthropologists who visit these areas are often assumed to be male due to their lack of knowledge about rice and crop-growing. In Albania, as a recent study shows, a shortage of male-sexed people allowed for female-sexed people to become men and take on many of the rights and responsibilities of men. In some societies, gender is not, or has not been, so closely linked to sex organs and, in some, ‘transitioning’ between different genders at least had a generally accepted conceptual framework (or cultural explanation) to make it easier. (As does our own, by equating gender with sex organs and so allowing people who change sex organs to change gender).

But back to the question at hand, if we all agree that ‘woman’ is a category (not a reality), then what is to stop anybody declaring that they are a ‘woman’. What makes someone a ‘woman’? Some people argue that it takes a life-time of socialisation to be a woman and that sex organs or desire are not enough. Yet, even those of us who were born with the female sex and have a lifetime of socialisation that taught us what it is to be ‘woman’ are often not very ‘good’ women. Agent of Desire recently proposed an experiment where feminists should:

Instead of putting on make-up, styling your hair, wearing 'feminine' shoes or clothes that emphasise your figure, leave the house with none of the paraphernalia of objectification. Instead, don't put in contact lenses if you wear them, go for glasses instead, wear a loose coat that is not tailored to the waist, wear no make up or distracting jewelery, wear straight-cut trousers, tie your hair up or put it under a hat, and don't clutch a dainty handbag - put your keys, phone and money in your pockets. If you have manicured and polished long nails, wear gloves. This may be very difficult to do, because you are constantly told by the media that being sexually desireable is the most important thing about you, and that your sexual desireability depends on this paraphernalia, which is not true.

Her overall experiment (which is about objectifying others) is quite interesting, but it fails to realise that many women match her description already. If you were to describe me most days: I don’t wear make-up; I don’t always wear particularly ‘feminine’ clothes (although I do have a female body underneath them and this is certainly harder to disguise now I am a bit ‘rounder’ than when I was a size ten); I wear glasses (not contacts); I often wear hats and tie my hair up; I frequently use my large, shapeless army jacket with pockets as a handbag- and, more often than not, I have a rucksack if I need a bag. A lifetime of socialisation and I clearly didn’t learn many of my lessons particularly well. I am also not deferential. I certainly don’t keep my opinions to myself. I am not retiring. And yet, I don’t think I have ever been mistaken for a ‘man’. Furthermore, I have female-sexed friends who are androgynous enough to be regularly mistaken for men, yet their ‘passing’ does not make them men (and they have no desire to be ‘men’).

So, what does this mean? Does this tell us that being a woman is all about sex, and nothing to do with socialisation in our society? And, yet (like it or not), much of society will not accept male-sexed people who have ‘gender reassignment surgery’ as women, even if they are much better at performing femininity than me. Is it simply our classification on birth that makes us women?

The category of woman is a fiction. As it is a fiction, there are no women. There are people who are designated women and others who desire to have that designation (and not always because they think there is such a thing as woman). People accept or reject that designation to different degrees. There are characteristics that are associated with ‘woman’ and some people (regardless of their sex organs) have or perform those characteristics better than others. In the same manner, there are no men.

At this point, it is easy to say that the experience of being designated women from birth ensures that we can never be men (no matter at what age we choose to transition?). And it may certainly be true that no one who was designated female at birth will have identical experiences to someone designated male. But, the truth is that there are very few people designated woman that have the same experiences as other people designated woman. Other designations such as race and class ensure that all women are not alike. Furthermore, there is no universally agreed, model of ‘woman’ that we are trying to achieve and which the rest of us fail to live up to (although some models may have more power than others). Women have a vast range of experiences, desires, backgrounds, upbringings, levels of power and privilege and outlooks. Similarly, men are raised with different levels of privilege and power. Some are even raised in feminist households and taught to critique their privilege and the naturalness of their gender. Some are better or worse at being men than others. In some cultures, people born with male sex organs are raised as women. We are all individuals with different experiences, even as we share others. Why, as feminists, are we holding on to ‘born with female sex organs and socialised because of them to be women’ as so central to our identity when we all agree that no one is born a woman, when we all know that being male or female is a construction and we are all socialised differently, when in our own lives we recognise that it is impossible to be an ideal woman because she doesn’t exist?

14 comments:

Saranga said...

Interesting and good post. I don't have a lot to add, except that, like you, I never wear make up, always had my hair tied back when it was long (Less easy to do that now it's chin length), am very happy to wear baggy clothes that cover up my obvious female shape and up until about two months ago I had never owend a handbag - a rucksack was my bag of choice. So how we can talk about woman as just one 'type' baffles me.

Winter said...

Instead of putting on make-up, styling your hair, wearing 'feminine' shoes or clothes that emphasise your figure, leave the house with none of the paraphernalia of objectification. Instead, don't put in contact lenses if you wear them, go for glasses instead, wear a loose coat that is not tailored to the waist, wear no make up or distracting jewelery, wear straight-cut trousers, tie your hair up or put it under a hat, and don't clutch a dainty handbag - put your keys, phone and money in your pockets. If you have manicured and polished long nails, wear gloves.

Aside from the fact that spending a few minutes at a bus stop will show you that hardly any regular women actually look like that, this is the kind of heterocentric thinking that drives me nuts within feminism. That describes me pretty well (I do wear contact lenses now and then because glasses can be pain if its raining or you're going out, to a gig or clubbing). I don't need to tie my hair up because I chop it all off.

But this has nothing to do with a desire not be objectified. Quite the opposite really. My desire to appear this way has a great deal to do with my desire to be attractive to other women. I like the kind of women it attracts and, as far as possible, I want to make sure I'm visible as a lesbian generally. What counts as sexually attractive is different depending on the group to which you belong, and the same goes for heterosexual women.

I have never been mistaken for a man and sometimes men still harass me, but I've never thought that male harassment of women had anything much to do with whether they are deemed sexually attractive. It's about power.

As one of my radical lesbian feminist acquaintances said to me once, "there is nothing you can do to stop youself being objectified by men" Put on your big boots and you'll run into a guy who thinks big boots are hot. Or you'll run into some guy who thinks your lack of feminine trappings means you're a lesbian and starts sexually harassing you on that basis.

I just feel the situation is a lot more comples. For a start, the performance of femininity is very much tied up with social class and profession for women in the west. While that is linked with sexual desirability, you can't leave it out of the analysis. The expectations on my friends in terms of gendered appearance vary enormously depending on their jobs. One of my butch lesbian friends has to go to her job as a lawyer practically in feminine drag. Meanwhile, no one expects me to look feminine because I'm a scraggy academic/community development worker.

Winter said...

Excuse the rant. Feminist discussion about gender performance always seem to wind me up.

back to the question at hand, if we all agree that ‘woman’ is a category (not a reality), then what is to stop anybody declaring that they are a ‘woman’.

While I agree that woman is a category, I am a little wary of saying it has no reality. Because something is a social category doesn't make it less real in terms of lived experience. I mean, I consider 'lesbian' to a modern socially constructed cateogory of identity, but it still shapes my existence and gives my life meaning. It is 'real' in that sense.

I think one of the problems for transfolk (and everyone really) is the fact that gender is hugely linked to concepts of personhood. Occupying a coherent, recognisable gender category is often a life and death matter in western culture. If you are unrecognisable in terms of the (ridiculously strict) binary, you may be deemed subhuman, your life not worth grieving when some transphobe beats you to death, let alone loving. Telling people they are not allowed to be the gender they feel themselves to be, and must live in some kind of liminal state, is therefore a terrible thing to say to them. In a sense you are threatening them with a kind of death because no such option for a viable life currently exists in our society.

Feminist Avatar said...

Yeah, I also thouht that experiment was very heteronormative. And, also I was uncomfortable with the premise that women regain power by through reclaiming objectification- but this is something I think I am going to post on at some point- onjectification and desire.

I absolutely think gender is real in the sense that it shapes who we are and how we are perceived. That particular post was in response to the claim that a) if gender is fictional people can't transition and b)that people can't transition because they are socialised to be women from birth (two points which I think are internally contradictory). I wanted to problematise this a bit.

But your absolutely right that social constructions are real because they are how we construct our identities and the world around us. If anything, I think that what is often failed to be recognised is the extent to which our world is constructed- it;s not just gender, sexuality, biology, race etc- it's the categorisation of bananas as fruit, it's how we lump Fords and Vauxhall together as cars, but distinguish them from trains, etc ad nauseum. Social construction is our reality.

Henry Crun said...

Haven't you ugly old boilers got anything better to do.

polly styrene said...

No henry sorry, we haven't.

If woman is just a category what is to stop anyone saying they are a woman - nothing at all. I could call myself a man. The question is would anyone believe I was a man? Am I regarded by society at large to be a man? We have to realise that yes - the categories are constructed, and that they are historically and culturally dependent. But we don't decide them individually. They are cultural categories, not personal ones. The subject cannot choose its gender if you want to be POMO.

I agree with you and I disagree. I'm a true postmodernist The category 'woman' is 100% constructed. So is binary sex. However bodies matter. Not just who is a woman (though that matters as well in a society where identity is prime), but bodies.

And they matter because one of the primary oppressions in society, is the fear of, and the reality of sexual violence. And those is mostly directed at biological females by biological males. A butch lesbian is as likely to be raped as a blonde in high heels and a mini skirt. Biological males experience sexual violence. But as a group they don't live under the fear of it the way biological females do.

In these endless discussions, I feel like screaming 'It's the rape stupid'. Because it is. In fact I just did (before I saw your post).

polly styrene said...

"Why, as feminists, are we holding on to ‘born with female sex organs and socialised because of them to be women’ as so central to our identity"

Well I think the answer is that we're not holding on to it as central to our identity, or I'm not at least. I don't identify myself as 'patriarchal woman, far from it. Why would anyone want to choose their 'identity' from a range provided by a misogynist society?

The 'who falls into class woman' question isn't asked because I care a damn who is or isn't called a woman. It's just a word after all.

The question I'm asking is who, right here, right now, is discriminated against by patriarchy? Which is a bit different from what words we get to call ourselves. If woman meant nothing - then why would it be so important to be called a woman anyway?

Feminist Avatar said...

I agree that violence is at the root of (or is the basis) patriarchy, and sexual violence is part of that. But, rape is culturally specific- it's a product of power relationships within particular types of patriarchal cultures. Christine Helliwell (the anthropologist) has an interesting article on a culture that she studied where they have no concpet of rape and the crime is unknown. That same culture does have a concept of gender- men and women- though.

Which leads into my bigger (and not very well made) point. I agree that we can define women as the group of people oppressed by the patriarchy- but that the concept of 'women' is not stable under patriarchy, but continually evolving- so that who is encompassed within that group can differ historically and culturally. 'Women' (as a patriarchal class) are not universally people who live in fear of rape- although that may be a useful definition in particular cultures. Perhaps, the problem is that we (or perhaps just me) have a tendency to universalise our solutions, rather than recognise that what is a women needs to be considered within particular contexts.

In regard to the position of trans*women within this debate, I think that we are at a historical point where the category of women is unstable (perhaps it always is). And, what we have are people who argue that trans*women share enough experience with ciswomen to be classed as women, and other groups that think they don't.

Anonymous said...

Trans women are at least as likely as ciswomen to suffer from rape and sexualized violence. A lot of it is anecdotal, since nobody gives a flying fuck, but there are a lot of indications that the rate is significantly higher. Some of this is because transphobia often manifests in rape and sexualized violence. Some of it is because transwomen are vulnerable due to mundane discrimination--everything to having to live in a worse neighborhood because you can't get a job to having to do sex work to survive to being incarcerated in a men's prison. And I doubt very much that transwomen face fewer barriers to official recognition and prosecution of sexually violent crime against them.

The traditional medical mediation of transsexuality is chock-ful of sexualized humiliation, too--a lot of it is obsolete even in practice, but transwomen also have to deal with being reduced to their vaginas. I consider criteria like Blanchard's to be nothing better than sexual harassment under the thinnest veneer of clinical objectivity.

In general, transwomen suffer from the exact same discrimination as ciswomen because they're also gendered female. They typically get catcalled and condescended to just like their non-trans counterparts. The relationship between visible trans status and sexism is complex, but I don't think it's as simple as saying that a transwoman is treated as either a "feminized man"/transsexual or a non-trans woman. It seems like "trans" and "female" aren't mutually exclusive, at least when it comes to hatred, and that this holds true even when transphobia manifests in a refusal to respect a transwoman's gender identity. It's complicated--full of the same double binds that women deal with under sexism. It never offers a dispensation.

The "if anyone can be a woman..." thing comes up a lot during the trans-wars skirmishes. I can only say that complex discussions about what the terms mean take place amongst transpeople all the time. In the livejournal ftm group, there have been hundreds of discussions about what it means to be seen as male, social expectations that attach to that identity, when and how it happens, what it feels like, what role the individual plays in attribution. This subject is very important to transpeople, because a lot of them are changing gender. "What does 'man' mean?" is a complex question, of course. I think that transphobes often use it to be reductive.

--Piny

Lisa Harney said...

"And they matter because one of the primary oppressions in society, is the fear of, and the reality of sexual violence. And those is mostly directed at biological females by biological males."

This year I'll have my 20th anniversary since I started what psychiatrists call the "real life test" per the HBSOC (that continue to not be a diagnostic tool, btw). This is more than half my life.

I've been stalked, harassed, threatened, I've had men yell things at me that make me head straight for the nearest crowded public space. As a woman - and trans history notwithstanding - I've had to live with and fear the possibility of sexual violence in addition to the threat of transphobic violence. I don't carry a sign or wear a tattoo on my forehead that says "I used to be male, so mind my residual male privilege." If someone sees me as a woman, they treat me as such for good or ill. If someone sees me as trans, they treat me as such for good or ill. In some cases, the two combine for some really awful misogyny.

"The question I'm asking is who, right here, right now, is discriminated against by patriarchy?"

I am. You are. I know you don't believe I am, but that's more about your prejudices than about my lived reality.

"Which is a bit different from what words we get to call ourselves. If woman meant nothing - then why would it be so important to be called a woman anyway?"

Woman obviously means something. It's a signifier of personhood - a different signifier than man, and often not seen as fully human by men, but the truth of the matter is that in today's society, if you're not seen as unequivocally man or woman, you're seen as even less human than men typically see women. Any intersex person should be acutely aware of this.

But it certainly goes deeper than that.

I do not believe that "woman" exists solely as "target of oppression," and such has certainly not been my experience for the past 20 years. Oppression is there, and I hate it as much as anyone else - of course, notice that while I have a very easy escape from that oppression, I do not take it. To me, my womanhood is more important to my peace of mind and quality of life than the oppression that womanhood brings. I'm sure that many radical feminists find this troubling because they define "woman" solely as "the oppressed class," but I'm not here to live my life to convenience someone else's uninformed theories.

Agent of Desire said...

I'm glad my article on female sexual agency has provoked debate, but I feel that in some ways the point of it has been missed. It is essentially an article aimed at yes -heterosexual -women, but not necessarily feminists.

The reason I didn't include an encouragement for lesbian/bi women to indulge in this experiment, is because our culture favours male sexual agency through objectifying women(I did not want to encourage any further objectification of women, even by women). The culture is binary and - if you like - heterosexist. And for this reason, the sex-lives of heterosexual women bear the brunt of this culture of being objectified by men.

This experiment is designed to flip the binary agent/object male/female division the other way, to reveal that it truly is a social construct - simply because it is so easy to do. Its not trying to promote a perminant state of 'othering'.

When I speak about the 'paraphernalia of objectification' I am speaking about the items that men read as symbols of availability. Yes someone might objectify you wearing big boots, but he won't think you are wearing them as an invitation to his lechery.

I do feel there is a place in feminism for discussing the aspects of patriarchy that specifically affect heterosexual women in their relationships and the bedroom. A lot of these issues simply will not apply within homosexual relationships, and I find it a bit unfair to be accused of 'heterocentric thinking' for simply wanting to discuss them from a feminist perspective.

polly styrene said...

'Uninformed theories' - why do you assume I am 'uninformed' Lisa? Erm I have never said that 'trans women' aren't the object of violence, any more than I have said that males aren't the object of violence.

However a huge amount of the sexual violence that is directed at females is directed at girl children. Probably the majority of it I'd say - as a rape crisis volunteer, virtually every woman I talk to has experienced CSA. It is a HUGE part of female experience.

And someone who lived the first part of their lives as a bioligical male does NOT know what it is like to carry the fear of male sexual violence from the moment they gained consciousness. They have had male privilege and have not internalised the fear of sexual violence in the same way. They have also of course been part of the oppressor class themselves.

You are also ignoring the fact that many of those who define themselves as 'trans' and claim womanhood are in fact biological males who simply 'cross dress'. I know one person who has facial hair, male genitals and a male name who says he should be let into women's safe space - he disrupted a reclaim the night march - because he identifies as a woman and 'experiences the same violence as women'.

The reason that feminists like myself are so concerned about this issue is that all over the place born women are being told by activists like yourself that we have to accept biological males like him into women's safe space because they 'identify as women'. And that if we don't we're 'transphobic'. That's what this is about.

Philip Maguire said...

You're too stupid for your own good. The word women exists soley female bodies exist. You can yak and theorise till Kingdom Come if you want but you'll never defeat and it's purpose. Humans are reproductive beings and your role is bear children. That's it.

Philip Maguire said...


You're too stupid for your own good. The word woman exists soley because female bodies exist. You can yak and theorise till Kingdom Come if you want but you'll never defeat nature and it's purpose. Humans are reproductive beings and your role is bear children. That's it!