When people talk about “real” womanhood, all too often, what they really mean is “pure”. This is a deeply reactionary argument and not one that anyone on the progressive side of politics can be comfortable with.
Another day, another feminist lines up to take a pop at trans women – for some reason it’s always trans women who are singled out in this way – for not being “real” women.
First Jenni Murray in the Sunday Times: then, yesterday, perhaps, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie on Channel 4 (though in fact she was answering a leading question and the answer she gave was perhaps rather more nuanced than twitter has since decoded it as).
Questions, questions: always questions
There is so much wrong with this. So much bad faith: so much lack of sisterhood; even, of basic feminist principle. For not only is it normative in a way that is both unhelpful and dangerous to women: but it plays the very card that has so often been played, over the years, as means to keep women in their place.
If you want to explore those aspects of the argument, there is one excellent piece, published earlier in the week by Lola Phoenix , which looks at the difficulties this view creates for women who don’t fit the cookie-cutter mould of white privilege. Meanwhile, Christine Burns, who as a mere MBE is out-ranked, if not out-classed, by Dame of the British Empire, Murray (DBE), has been looking at how Murray’s argument emerges directly from the patriarchal playbook
I, too have been called on this week by, variously, LBC, Sky News, the Daily Mail and yesterday by a guest at the Women of the World Festival to explain why I deserve the accolade of “real”. Unfortunately, they are asking the wrong person and, as I shall try to explain, the wrong question
For this is an ask I really struggle with. On LBC, I began with the ominous suggestion that I don’t consider myself a “real woman”, attracting a certain amount of scolding from some who didn’t listen to the rest of what I had to say. For surely, that sentence alone was proof that Fae had lost her marbles and was now in cahoots with the self-loathing wing of the trans community: was denying her own essential womanity.
But no. My difficulty is that this feels, has always felt, like an unquestion: one of those sentences that, as Noam Chomsky pointed out around the time I was born, the rules of language allow us to generate but which are, in fact, quite meaningless. “How are your colorless green ideas sleeping today? Are they furious?”, as Chomsky might have put it.
Answers i don’t have
I don’t consider myself a “real” anything: not woman, not Brit, not, especially, human. Nor do I spend much time asking this of other people. I’ve not seen Murray’s birth certificate: have never seen her undressed; nor, as far as I am aware, has she ever undergone any chromosome testing to stand up the distinction she so easily tosses into debate. So as a sceptical journalist, and absent proof to the contrary, I suppose I could as readily, as wittily, point the question back at her. What proof have we that Murray is, herself, a “real woman”?
There are many reasons I don’t do this. First, the basic feminist one: that our natural start point is to affirm that we believe other women. To this add two other disciplines, statistics and linguistics, both of which have influenced me greatly, and which both tend in the same direction: that when it comes to categorisation, the very idea of hard categories such as sex and gender are dubious nonsense.
Add modern biology, which is increasingly sniffy about “defining” people into men and women, male and female. And last, but far from least, is my long-term issue with the father of western philosophy, Aristotle, whose law of the excluded mean – the idea that something either does or does not belong to a specific category – is, in my humble view, one of the greatest philosophical dead ends of all time. For not only did it impose a dry, constricting binarism on pretty much all that followed, but, as we now know, it was wrong. Things often are more than one thing at one and the same time.
Meanwhile, I am not at all convinced that those asking this question quite mean what they appear to be asking. For as we unpack the nonsense concept that is “reality”, we quickly drill down to other words, other concepts that sit uncomfortably alongside progressive politics, feminist or otherwise. For what is really being asked here is neither deep and meaningful, but actually deeply hurtful and deeply divisive.
When real means pure
Not “am I a real woman?”, but “am I a pure one?”
It’s a trope that turns up regularly in regard to sexuality: from the idea of the “gold star” lesbian – a lesbian who has never slept with a man – to questions of whether one can be too “femme” to be a real/proper lesbian.
Not just lesbian, but gay too. I remember earnest school playground debates about the nature of gayness, as teen boys argued this way and that whether sleeping with a guy just the once made one gay. Of course, nowadays, we might suggest that the real answer is that they are bisexual: but then, the bi community has its own struggles with people trying to force them into “really” gay or “really” straight boxes.
The same trope – purity masquerading as reality – turns up time and time again in respect of race and nationality – from Nazi attempts to define Germanity according to the size and shape of one’s nose to South African laws that sought to define race according to family tree. Appallingly we are having a similar debate in the UK as to whether someone who was born, grew up, and lived all their life here – but with some suspiciously muslim-coloured skin tones – is as “real” a Brit as someone who emigrated to Australia at the tender age of 25.
And of course, the “real” question gets asked all the time of people with any sort of impairment, physical or mental. Is she “really” disabled? Does she deserve the courtesy of being treated as someone who needs assistance to cope with the demands placed on them by everyday society? Or is she really some sort of scrounger, who should be summarily stripped of every benefit going, from blue badge to living allowance?
No. The “real” issue is one I have little time for. For while it is all too frequently posed as innocent question, it is just as often disingenuous assertion, by those with privilege, defending their privileged position: or, othertimes, by those with less privilege, scrambling to hold on to what little they have.
And purity is closely allied to privilege
Interesting, in the pre-amble to Murray’s remarks, is her eagerness to distance herself from any political agenda. She is careful to point out she is not a radical feminist – careful, because that allows her to assert determinedly that she is not a trans-exclusionary rad fem and therefore not, as the jargon has it, a TERF – because she is possessed of a husband and “two fine sons”. Oh my: be careful who you wish for as ally! Is it possible that therein lies a whiff not simply of transphobia but of veiled lesbophobia too? For to be a “real” woman, it is implied, also requires marriage and child-bearing.
I digress. The point is, I am a woman. Just not one who shares the experience and upbringing of women like Jenni Murray – any more than she shares the experience of the vast majority of other, non-trans women. There are parts of my life during which I had privilege that Murray did not – and which I mostly do not have now. And there are very definitely privileges that Murray has that I and millions of other women lack.
And of course, with every passing day, week, year, my own experience and hers converges. My ratio of time lived as woman vs. time lived as man can only increase: as for younger trans folk, that figure is most likely to be greater than one.
When it comes to “real” womanhood, therefore, my answer is simple: what a silly question. The real answer is that given by Alan Turing, when asked how he would determine whether a particular entity was human or machine. Which was: “if you can’t tell the difference, then in effect, there is no difference”. (but see comment below)
As human, so woman. And if people really must insist on having it, let’s call this debate for what it always was: a debate about “purity”, with which I want absolutely nothing at all to do.
ETA: It has been suggested that the Turing Test is a “passing test” – and so it would be if it was merely used to test whether one could tell the difference between a candidate entity and some agreed norm. But that is absolutely NOT what i mean here.
What i am suggesting is that if one cannot distinguish two candidate entities and one is happy to accept one as human, or cis, or a woman – or whatever, then attempting to draw a distinction ceases to be a meaningful thing to do.