The Debate Over What It Means to Be a Woman

Gender talk has been in the zeitgeist as of late (the feminism conversation is here and it’s NOT going away any time soon) but even those in the know might not be aware of another debate that’s currently going on. It centers around what the definition of a woman should be.

A new article in the New Yorker shines a light on the dispute between radical feminists and the transgender community regarding what it means to be a woman. There’s been conflict between these groups for decades, but the transgender community is having a big moment and the media is paying more attention than ever.  So this debate is now both gaining momentum and being brought into the public awareness in a significant way.

Basically, here’s how it breaks down: Trans women claim womanhood for themselves because they feel like they were born with a female brain. They believe they were women born with male anatomy. Radical feminists do not accept the notion of a “female brain.” They believe that womanhood is defined by being born with female anatomy. The radical feminist position is that trans women are men choosing to take on the roles of women while still holding onto the male privilege afforded to them by being born with male genitalia in a patriarchal society. So, essentially, radical feminists believe that trans women demanding inclusion into womanhood is actually trans women exercising their male privilege in deciding what kind of life they want to lead. Both groups feel marginalized by the society they were born into and invalidated by each other. That said, Complicated doesn’t even begin to describe it.

“The elasticity of the term ‘transgender; has forced a rethinking of what sex and gender mean; at least in progressive circles, what’s determinative isn’t people’s chromosomes or their genitals or the way that they were brought up but how they see themselves,” explains New Yorker writer Michelle Goldberg, who delved deep into the topic in this week’s issue. “Having rejected this supposition, radical feminists now find themselves in a position that few would have imagined when the conflict began: shunned as reactionaries on the wrong side of a sexual-rights issue. It is, to them, a baffling political inversion.”

As Goldberg points out, the conflict between these groups began in full force during the 1970s. At the time, transgender wasn’t even a word, the term in usage was “transsexual,” a word we never hear anymore (unless we’re listening to Tim Curry sing about being a “sweet transvestite from transsexual Transylvania” at a midnight showing of Rocky Horror). In fact, “transgender” wasn’t even a word until the 1990s, and only in the last few years has the word gained widespread usage.

One early recorded incident between the groups occurred at 1973 West Coast Lesbian Conference, in which keynote speaker Robin Morgan spoke out against the inclusion of trans folk singer Beth Elliot. The statement Morgan gave (which Goldberg highlighted in her story) still seems to sum up the radical feminist position on trans women all these decades later:

“I will not call a male “she”; thirty-two years of suffering in this androcentric society, and of surviving, have earned me the title “woman”; one walk down the street by a male transvestite, five minutes of his being hassled (which he may enjoy), and then he dares, he dares to think he understands our pain? No, in our mothers’ names and in our own, we must not call him sister.”

Of course, it is to this day the height of unfairness to minimize the pain that trans women feel when they still have far fewer rights than cisgender women. In most states it is legal to fire someone for being trans, and a recent survey of the trans community by the Williams Institute revealed that . It also seems unfair to deny another person the right to live their life occupying the role of the gender that feels most right to them. This conflict, unfortunate as it is, is also an enlightening debate to take a ringside seat at. It’s important that we really think through these issues of gender with both intelligence and empathy.

(Image via Shutterstock)

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