Sisterhood not Cisterhood: Inclusion as a Politico-Moral Issue

Florence Ashley
Mar 17, 2017 · 9 min read

Discussions about the inclusion of trans women in women-only spaces are often focused on the ontological[1] status of trans women. Our inclusion is reduced to the binary question: “Are trans women truly women?” It does without saying that I am of the opinion that trans women are truly women. Because we are[2]. Nonetheless, I believe that the legitimacy of including trans women in women-only and feminist spaces does not stem from our metaphysical status as women[3]. I suggest instead that trans women must be included because of their social position combined with the raison d’être of those spaces. What matters is not metaphysics, but politics.

I met Nadia in a support group a few years ago. At the time, she was 17 years old and had recently been kicked out by her parents after she told them she was trans and would transition. Destitute and alone, she turned to the provincial child welfare agency which placed her in a group home. Despite having made it very clear that she is a woman, called Nadia, and uses the pronoun “she”, people at the group home refused to place her in the women’s section, instead forcing her into the men’s segregated spaces. Staff systematically referred to her by her deadname[4] and with the pronoun “he”. In the support group, she frequently mentioned the pain and distress those actions caused her as well as the harassment and violence she faced from other youth because of her gender identity and her placement in male-specific facilities.

At some point, she disappeared from the support group for some time. I learned later that she had run away from the group home, and had been unable to find other accommodations. All the shelters refused to house her with women — a problem exacerbated by her inability to shave, as she lacked access to shaving instruments. She was homeless for a while. When she returned to the support group, she had found a partner and lived with him. Soon after, though, she began sharing with us the manipulative behaviours of her partner. In retrospect, it seems obvious that he was playing on her economic and psychological vulnerability to keep her dependent on him and subjugated to his will. He grew more and more aggressive. He started being violent, forced her to satisfy him sexually, and ignored her refusal when his emotional manipulation didn’t suffice. Desperate, Nadia sought help from a women’s shelter at the suggestion of some members of our group. However she was denied access on the alleged ground that she was not a woman, and that her presence would cause distress to other women at the shelter. Obviously, their concerns were motivated by a transantagonistic[5] conception of gender.

I would love to say that Nadia’s story has a happy ending. The truth is that after being refused by shelters, she went back to live with her violent spouse. More than a year has passed since the last I heard of her. Several things may have happened since, but two seem particularly plausible. It is likely that she still lives today with her emotionally, physically and sexually violent partner. It is also likely that she attempted suicide[6].

Women-only spaces serve multiple social purposes, depending on the type of space. It is these functions that justify their existence. Two vague families of spaces can be discerned, and the majority of spaces are justified by a mixture of those two rationales. First, spaces can serve to protect those most directly oppressed by misogyny and misogynistic social structures, as well as redress and mitigate certain forms of gender-based violence against them. Second, spaces can serve as the nucleus of a community of people sharing certain political interests by promoting solidarity, autonomy, and the development and an activist political consciousness.

Trans women are directly impacted by misogyny and misogynistic social structures[7]. The notion of deception which is mobilised to justify transmisogynistic violence is directly related to a form of sexually manipulative and sexual assault-normalizing heterosexuality[8]. Male-female categorisation is based on genitalia, the shape of which must be communicated through personal presentation insofar as it serves to normalise reproduction-related sexual violence. It is because we present in ways that communicate femininity that we are scrutinised and targeted by this violence. Violence against women is also often justified through appeal to pathology: “Transitude must be a mental illness. It is wholly irrational to want to be a woman because womanhood is inferior,” we are told. If one escapes these two forms of violence, it is instead violence directed against us qua women that we face: domestic and sexual violence, sexual harassment, wage discrimination, sexist cognitive biases, imposition of stereotyped standards, etc.

Because of our intimate identity-related convictions as well as our vulnerability to misogyny, we share the political interests of cis women. The emancipation of women is the emancipation of trans women because our oppression comes from the fact that we share traits with cis women, and often are taken to be cis women. The emancipation of women is also the emancipation of trans women because it is precisely rigid and oppressive gender norms which make us vulnerable to violence simply for being ourselves.

What is important to note is that trans women, by proclaiming ourselves to be women, commit ourselves politically as women. To proclaim “I am a woman” I not only to answer the question “does the predicate woman apply to you?” but also “What am I about? What moves me? What do I stand for? What do I care about the most?”[9] It’s saying what is important to us. It’s making our actions and attitudes intelligible[10]. We are committing and positioning ourselves as women. We see other women as part of our community while men are not — at least not that community. Of course not all trans women are feminists, just like not all cis women are feminists[11]. Nevertheless, trans women share a fertile identity for the development of a feminist emancipatory activism.

Given the alarming rate of suicide attempts and the emotional, social and economic vulnerability of trans women, the positive impact of inclusion on self-esteem and access to essential resources is a crucial argument in favour of inclusion. However, this argument will not be considered due to space limitations and because it is sufficiently distinct from the current argument to deserve separate treatment. Still, I want to highlight the importance of the psychological benefits of inclusion.

Nadia is a fictional character. Her story is an mixture of situations experienced by people I know personally. The forms of discriminations raised in her story are common in Canada, despite their being illegal. The law offers little support to people who do not have the resources to access the judicial system and enforce their rights. Nadia may not exist, but people like her exist in staggering numbers. Over 23% of trans people have suffered three or more serious acts of discrimination[12]. We are talking about approximately 16,600 trans women just in Canada[13]. These women deserve the same empathy and consideration as any other woman in a similar situation.

If we take seriously our rationales for women-only spaces, trans women must be included in them regardless of whether we are really women or not[14]. Given the argument presented, it is plausible that non-binary people[15] should also be included in some, and perhaps all, of those spaces to the extent that they satisfy the rationales mentioned[16]. The emancipation of trans women is the emancipation of women. The contribution and involvement of trans women to feminist casues — including cis feminist causes, despite the hostility of some feminist groups towards trans women — confirms it. For this reason, trans women should be included in women-only spaces, independently of any metaphysical debate about gender[17].

This piece was originally published in French in Contours — Voices of Women in Law, vol. 5, p. 1 under the title “ Sisterhood not Cisterhood: l’inclusion comme position politico-morale”.

[1] Ontology is a branch of metaphysics concerns itself with existence and its modalities.

[2] Self-evident truth.

[3] Although I will not be deploying my argument in this directly, I also believe that it can be used, mutatis mutandis, to justify using correct pronouns for all trans people. Indeed, using correct pronouns is even more easily justified insofar as no question of resource allocation comes into play.

[4] Name given to her by her parents and which is traditionally associated with her gender assigned at birth.

[5] Hostile to trans people and their realities.

[6] The suicide attempt rate is very high for trans people, especially those who have faced sexual or physical violence. 29% of trans people who have been physically or sexually assaulted because of their gender identity have attempted suicide in the last year: Greta R. Bauer & Ayden I. Scheim, Transgender People in Ontario, Canada: Statistics from the Trans PULSE Project to Inform Human Rights Policy, London (Ontario), 1 June 2015, p. 6. It is possible, but less probably, that her partner killed her: no murder of a trans person has been recorded in Quebec in recent years, although many trans murder victims are misidentified by the police and the media.

[7] It seems unnecessary to cite statistics on violence and discrimination against trans women. We may take notice of it.

[8] This argument is considered in more details in Talia Mae Bettcher, “Evil Deceivers and Make-Believers: On Transphobic Violence and the Politics of Illusion”, (2007) 22:3 Hypatia 43, as well as my own (yet unpublished) essay “Don’t Be So Hateful: The Insufficiency of Anti-Discrimination and Hate Crime Laws in Improving Trans Wellbeing”.

[9] Cited from Talia Mae Bettcher, “Trans Identities and First Person Authority” in Laurie Shrage (ed.), You’ve Changed: Sex Reassignment and Personal Identity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), pp. 110–111. Talia Bettcher talks of the first question (“does the predicate woman apply to you?”) in terms of metaphysical identity, whereas the latter questions are related to the notion of existential identity.

[10] The intelligibility-conferring role of gender identity is further discussed in my (yet unpublished) essay “The Gay Man and the Trans Woman — Note on a Sartrian Understanding of Trans Subjectivity”.

[11] I have a biased perspective in that respect, but the trans women I know are more often proudly feminist and well-informed on feminist issues than the cis women I know. I suspect that it is partly due to the anti-trans arguments of certain feminist groups which trans women often seek to rebut, as well as the overlaps between feminism, trans studies, and queer studies, as the two latter domains are an important source of information for trans people who seek to understand their gender.

[12] A serious act of discrimination is defined as loss of employment, eviction, abandoning school due to harassment, harassment by a teacher, physical or sexual assault, homelessness, loss of relationship with one’s partner or children, refusal from medical treatment, or incarceration due to gender identity. In the United States, 63% of trans people have experienced one of those acts, and 23% have experienced three or more, a level of discrimination considered “catastrophic”: Jaimie M. Grant, Lisa A. Mottet, Justin Tanis, Jack Harrison, Jody L. Herman, & Mara Keisling, Injustice at Every Turn — A Report of the National Transgender Discrimination Survey (Washington: National Center for Transgender Equality and National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, 2011), p. 8.

[13] Around 0,58% of the adult population in the United States is trans: Andrew R. Flores, Jody L. Herman, Gary J. Gates, & Taylor N. T. Brown, How Many Adults Identify as Transgender in the United States? (Los Angeles: The Williams Institute, 2016). For the Canadian population of 15 years and older, see the Statistics Canada table “Population by sex and age group, by province and territory”, online: For practical reasons, I assume that the U.S. percentage is the same as the Canadian one, and that youth between 15 and 18 experience similar rates of discrimination. Jaimie M. Grant, supra note 12, p. 16: 41% of trans people are women.

[14] N.B. We are, though. Well, at least as much as cis women are, anyway.

[15] People of a gender other than only man or woman.

[16] It’s also possible for the argument to apply to trans men in some cases, though this question deserves more exploration than is possible in this short text. Some of the central points in my arguments don’t apply directly to trans men and non-binary people, and there is more intra-group variance regarding some relevant characteristics. The argument applies more readily to feminine non-binary people than to masculine non-binary people, for example. Nevertheless, since inclusion does not preclude exclusion on a case-by-case basis following unacceptable behaviour, it is possible to include more or less people within the space depending on its tolerance for problematic behaviour as established by its function. Such a policy can also be mobilised to exclude anti-feminist, transantagonistic, homophobic, or racist cis women.

[17] Although my argument is independent of any metaphysical conception of womanhood, it can be argued by some that being a woman, metaphysically speaking, is to satisfy those criteria that I have mentioned. A pragmatic approach to metaphysics would support this argument. The criteria mentioned are reminiscent of Marxist analyses of womanhood as a social class, Catharine MacKinnon’s conception of womanhood as relating to sexual violence, as well as the notion of sisterhood in bell hooks’ thought.

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