Are transwomen really women though?
Truly, no, which doesn’t mean they don’t deserve protections
So there’s this widely accepted notion in mainstream leftist politics that transwomen are women, period, and implying or explying that you disagree means you’re anti-trans.
For instance as soon as the other side in a discussion realizes that you question the notion, they consider you in the enemy camp and change their style of debate accordingly, if not simply end the debate because they aren’t interested in debating an anti-trans bigot.
Furthermore, “transwomen are women” is often the starting point of many further logical evaluations. Since transwomen are women, if you say that women and transwomen should have different political movements, safe spaces, etc., you are being “divisive”. If you wrong a transwoman, it can be perceived as misogyny; transmisogyny to be precise, but certainly a form of misogyny. And the all famous: since trans women are women, centering female biology in feminist discourse means you’re being exclusive of a whole class of women! You wouldn’t ever categorically exclude black women from feminism now, would you? So how could you ever justify excluding transwomen?
Given all this, it might be a good idea to have an honest evaluation of the idea that transwomen are women. I’ll try to do so with what I’ve learned from women, in particular radical feminists.
In my previous post about self-declared identity, I’ve concluded that the notion that transwomen are women comes down to (re)defining the word “woman” in such a way that it would include that set of people, transwomen, that it otherwise excludes. How do people in the mainstream who say “transwomen are women” define the word “woman”? I honestly don’t know. Sometimes it really seems they define girls and women through conservative stereotypes, but I won’t go there; I’ll instead put forth some definitions of the word that I would say are progressive definitions.
Adult female human
Note: see here for a discussion of biological sex as an objective reality.
This is literally the dictionary definition of the word. As of this writing, it’s the nr.1 entry on at least: Wiktionary, Cambridge Dictionary, and Merriam-Webster. (Oxford wants a subscription to look at their dictionary. What the heck, Oxford?) Wikipedia agrees as well: “female human … usually reserved for an adult.”
At first thought it’s not clear why it would be considered particularly progressive. The progressiveness is in that the definition attaches absolutely no strings to the word. To make this clear, I like to write “adult female person, no strings attached.” You can be whoever you want — wear whatever you want, talk and behave however you want, work whatever job you want, and have whatever hobbies you want — and if you’re an adult female human being, you’re a woman, unquestionably, no further questioning needed.
This has the benefit of making it clear that any stereotypes ascribed to women are just that: stereotypes. It’s not necessary to conform to a stereotype to be a legitimate woman. The only thing needed is that you have a female body, and you’re a woman; or a girl, depending on your age. (Some destructuring of patriarchal beauty norms with regard to “normal” female anatomy might also be useful here, but let’s not drift off the topic.)
It’s also a very simple definition, which even a young child can understand, so that’s pretty useful.
The simplicity is also the only shortcoming: in the case of some intersex people who may not simply be considered “female” in terms of biology, but were still born visibly female (or considered female at the discretion of doctors/parents), one may end up telling someone who has been a girl and later a woman their whole life that they have never really been a girl and aren’t a woman, which could be quite irritating to the person. This could be resolved in two ways: first, by making it clear to the person that when one says they aren’t really a woman, one only means that in the sense of the literal definition of the word, and not as an insult; or second, by using the next definition…
Person considered female since after birth
In a past writing I reasoned that there’s two types of people for whom the notion “assigned female at birth” (as opposed to “correctly observed to be female”) makes sense: intersex people who were born looking unambiguously like one sex, and intersex people who had ambiguous genitals and were arbitrarily assigned one sex by the doctors/parents.
In both cases, the person is then considered a girl, receiving the corresponding upbringing and treatment, and later becomes a woman, again receiving the corresponding treatment. Likely, it’s the way the person comes to conceptualize themselves as well. The only notable difference that may be socially relevant between such a person and a simply female person is that the intersex woman is perhaps infertile. Therefore there’s little reason not to just consider her a woman.
As far as I understand, this definition also comes close to acknowledging the construction of “women” as an arguably arbitrary social class under patriarchy. “One is not born, but becomes a woman” by being considered female, and groomed into an according set of social roles. More on this in the next definition…
Member of oppressed class under patriarchy
Here it gets a lot more complicated.
There seems to be a viewpoint, if I understand it correctly, that “woman” is entirely constructed under patriarchy to oppress the people dumped into that category; that without patriarchal oppression, the category wouldn’t exist at all; that the category only exists because of the oppression.
This opens up the window to include some people who weren’t born female or assigned female after birth into the category of “women” because they are, the reasoning goes, oppressed in the same way / under the same system.
As far as I understand, this is for instance the way in which Catharine MacKinnon considers transwomen to be women. I suspect this may be related to her work around prostitution, since that is one system in which transwomen suffer more or less the same way women do as far as I know, but I don’t want to make unfounded assumptions about her views either, so let me know if you know more than me.
I would question though whether transwomen really suffer a fate comparable to that of women, overall. I would view this in two categories: passing transwomen and non-passing transwomen. After all, this is about patriarchal oppression, so it’s quite relevant whether society perceives someone as female or not.
I can’t know the details of the treatment transwomen who don’t pass receive, since I haven’t been one and haven’t been personally very close to many in my life so far, but simple reasoning would have it that they’re treated more or less the way any man performing femininity would be treated. Non-passing means they’re visibly male, yet they act in ways reserved for “women,” so they’re punished for refusing to obey their assigned role in society, and ridiculed because, the misogynist mindset goes: if there’s anything more silly than a woman with her femininity, it’s a man being feminine. So while the treatment/violence the person receives may be ostensibly similar to that of a woman, the reasons are very different.
Note that what we’re talking about here is how society treats one. After all, this is about oppression. If being (correctly) read as anatomically male triggers a traumatic response in someone, that’s a matter of personal psychiatry, not systemic oppression.
(Digression: one could further dig into distinctions between oppression and discrimination here, but I won’t even go that far. You’re welcome to look into that distinction though; you might conclude that it makes quite a bit of sense to say that while women are being systemically oppressed and exploited, transwomen are only being systemically discriminated against, which is also an important issue but certainly a different matter.)
Passing transwomen, obviously, receive the same treatment as women in daily life. This means that they experience the day to day reality of being a woman in a misogynist society. Even that, however, is far from being equivalent to the reality of a female-born (or “considered female since after birth”) person.
Perhaps most relevant to the image and Internet based porn culture that we’re newly inhabiting: all girls growing up in this society have to come to terms with the fact that their bodies are viewed as objects of sexual pleasure by virtually all men around them, and even a substantial number of women who have been conditioned to think in terms of patriarchal ideals. Pornified images of the female body, especially youthful female bodies, are omnipresent in mass media, for even female children and teenagers to see.
Coincidentally, let me quote MacKinnon on this: “All women live in sexual objectification the way fish live in water.”
I think it would be disingenious to suggest that all this has the same effect on a person who was born female and had to go through female puberty within our porn culture, and a person who grew up male and decided to transition at the age of, say, 20. Ironically, pornographic fetishization of female anatomy seems to play a role in some people’s desire to transition, though I’m not supposed to bring this up.
There are many more ways in which the reality of a female-born person differs significantly from that of a transwoman. Upbringing as a girl is not limited to objectification. It also includes the teaching that one is inferior to boys; even the careful grooming into femininity to make sure that this premise becomes as true as possible. It includes being taught to get used to the harassment of boys, because boys will be boys. It includes being taught that one will be a mother one day, not a scientist, engineer, philosopher, or politician. For the vast majority of “considered female since after birth” individuals, namely those who are female and don’t have a disorder of sexual development, their female reality includes the pain and humiliation of menstruation starting from puberty. It includes pregnancy scare. It includes lack of access to abortion, and often even contraception.
(Addition 22. Nov: see here for women’s responses on the above paragraph and this whole post, and also I can strongly recommend reading this article for a more in-depth explanation, by a woman, on how women’s experiences under patriarchy differ from those of transwomen.)
One could expand on this, but the summary is that women and transwomen have significantly different realities of oppression under patriarchy. Transwoman activists will often bring up issues such as “their identity being denied” as a tenet of their oppression. They will claim that “cis” people oppress trans people, explicitly including the claim that “cis” women oppress transwomen. They will call this “transmisogyny,” painting it as a type of misogyny, when it’s entirely unclear how this is related to the oppression of women, i.e. female persons. They are merely begging the question by claiming it to be a type of misogyny. Once we consider the fact that they are not actually female, we can start considering that what they experience is neither a type of misogyny, since they aren’t female, nor is “denying their (female) identity” a form of discrimination, since if they are, as a matter of fact, not female.
At best, I can imagine one could define a sort of spectrum from “full female oppression” to “full male power” where a person can fall in between depending on which tenets of female oppression they do and don’t experience. So female-born fertile women would be the most oppressed, as they grow up with feminine socialization, get treated as a woman in society, and suffer from the lack of female reproductive health resources; followed by e.g. infertile women, as they don’t suffer from the lack of female reproductive health resources but still the early feminine socialization and later treatment as a woman; then passing transwomen, who suffer neither from feminine socialization nor from reproductive health issues but still get treated like a woman; and so on... One would then expect that those who fall on the full female end of the spectrum (fertile female people) are those feminism focuses on the most, as they suffer the most, and the rest are focused on gradually less and less as you move towards the middle where a line is drawn since anything further than that line is a male issue, not a female issue. Something like this would actually make sense, I think. But no! Since transwomen are women, period, and since they’re additionally trans, we’re supposed to see them more like black women: suffering under multiple axes of oppression and therefore deserving to be centered and strongly focused on in feminist discourse! How this makes sense is beyond me.
In summary, while I think it can be interesting to ponder on whether “woman” as a category would exist at all in a non-patriarchal society, and whether it might therefore be better defined purely in terms of oppression and not a category that exists outside of oppressive institutions, I still find it questionable to include people who don’t experience a lot of female reality into the category. One way or another, the oppression is the reality of female individuals.
Frankly I’m tired of this shit. Transwomen aren’t women, and I’m not denying their humanity when I’m saying this, suggesting they shouldn’t transition, supporting violence or discrimination against them, or anything else of that sort. I’m simply refusing to erase the reality of female oppression and to put their concerns above those of women.
Many transwomen are beautiful, lovable, and feminine. They just aren’t female. It’s okay to be who & what you actually are. — Penny White