And probably non-binary too.
These days, it comes down to who owns the word ‘woman’. It might all matter a bit less if ownership of the word did not imply access to spaces, housing, social facilities, and if the word itself didn’t say so much about personal identity. But it does, and we are where we are.
The scientific definition of a woman is the logical one which those of us who took science are familiar with from school: a woman is an adult human female. A female, in the case of placental mammals like humans, is a member of the class of beings who produce ova rather than sperm (our gametes, or reproductive cells), and can gestate offpsring.
In humans this is a very unambiguous binary. We are sexually dimorphic. There are a few people with chromosomal disorders who class as intersex, and the difficulty of their lives and need for understanding should not be understated; but society is organised around biological sex differences for a reason. (Whether we have organised it well is a different question).
In this definition, woman effectively means female.
That woman also means a collection of social stories, expectations and stereotypes about being female goes without saying; this is what we call gender. Gender is socially constructed, but it is attached to our reproductive biology, which is the root of women’s oppression; in a patriarchy there are strong reasons for wanting to mythologise women’s sexual and reproductive roles.
In practice, then, imposed gender is also a binary. Femininity is the set of stereotypes and roles deemed suitable for women; masculinity is the set of stereotypes and roles deemed suitable for men. They are not equal; men get to be the actors and agents in the world, the ones who go out and conquer new territories, while women are supposed to prefer stereotypical femininity, whether that of the madonna or the whore. Gender is the mechanism which enforces this hierarchy.
Postmodern thought, which has largely corrupted and defanged modern feminism, tries to suggest that breaking the bounds of binary gender roles is trangressive and will somehow (mysteriously) result in the destruction of the patriarchy, although no-one ever explains how a massively entrenched and artfully distributed power system like patriarchal capitalism, a system more than powerful enough to permit the semblance of dissent, is going to be overturned by a few idealistic boys in mascara. This system eats boys in mascara for breakfast.
In postmodernism, we play with the shape of the box, we add a couple more boxes, we climb out of one box and into another one, and think ourselves extremely brave and transgressive, but we never just smash the fucking boxes.
So trans-identifying men can now change boxes, simply by identifying as someone in the other box: “I identify as a woman.” “What is a woman?” “Anyone who identifies as a woman is a woman.”
This is about as informative as telling me you identify as a gloroph. What is a gloroph? Anyone who identifies as a gloroph, of course.
If the word “woman” can be appropriated and colonised this easily, then woman has now lost all meaning as a term, all specificity to which sex-based protections can be attached, and in a savagely misogynistic society, that is not a small loss. It has also lost its attachment to female biology, making the source and core of our oppression unnameable. This tweet of Laurie Penny’s, which wins the internetz for Most Ludicrous Tweet Ever, says how far we have slipped down this path:
Also- while we’re on this, someone tell me, what’s a shorter non-essentialist way to refer to ‘people who have a uterus and all that stuff’?
— Laurie Penny (@PennyRed) March 10, 2017
Why is this a serious question? It is only a serious question in a hyper-misogynistic society where the reproductive class is so devalued and objectified that we are no longer people, and the words we use to describe ourselves are no longer ours to keep; nor should we have any expectation that they should be. We are a collection of body parts and functions; the most important thing about these functions is that we do not presume to say that they identify us as members of a recognisable and distinct class of beings with recognisable and distinct needs. That none of you can come into the world without us is erased and ignored; trampled upon.
We could, of course, just chill out and accept our erasure in the full knowledge that the status quo will reset in time.
After all, all women need is a word, a language, a set of terms that identifies us as what we are; the females of the species, oppressed by biology. Gender is not the cause, but the mechanism of our oppression. Whether you keep the current words or force us to invent new ones, society will always need such words, as even the idiotic Laurie Penny acknowledges; reality forces it on us.
If we abandon the current words to transgender ideology, if we say, ok, you can share the word ‘woman’ and all its legal and cultural implications and protections, then we throw away all the meaning attached to the word, meaning which was largely attached to the word when we understood it to mean “adult human female”.
We will suffer all the cultural and legal losses that that implies, from having to allow male persons into protected female spaces, to having to compete against men in sports supposed to be for women, to having to surrender awards like Woman of the Year to Caitlin Jenner.
We can give it all away, surrender the small territory we have struggled for around the word “woman”.
And trans identified males still won’t be satisfied. Because they want to be us, and the fact that they can’t is a constant irritant, a source of pain and narcissistic rage. We will find another word – perhaps we will be uterions next time – and we will start the fight for sex-based legal protections all over again. And the supposed feminine mystique, the object of male obsession, will follow us; and they will want that too. Sooner rather than later, there will be men who claim to be trans-uterions.
No. If we are feminists (not the fun kind), this is where we must draw the line. It may be hurtful and it may require you, as trans-identified males, to do some serious and non-circular thinking about how you define yourselves and what you are, about what it means to be a man who wants to be a woman in this society, but we must be immovable on this: you are not women and you may not have our words, or our spaces.
You are not women; woman is a material reality, not an idea in your head. You will never be women, no matter how well you make yourself into a facsimile of the feminine, so you need to stop trying to force women to validate you, and to go away instead and think about what you are and how you might be able to live and describe yourselves in this world. And when you know what you are, then we can talk about what you need, and what society needs to do for you.
We are all TERFs now.