Feminists are now fighting each other over what defines a real woman

Is this progress?
Is this progress?
Image: JD Hancock/Flickr
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The new battleground of the culture wars? “Woman.”

Thanks to a year of political victories and social visibility the media has heralded as the “transgender tipping point,” the turf war over what makes a “woman” reached a cultural apex this weekend in the opinion pages of this Sunday’s The New York Times. In “What Makes a Woman?,” Elinor Burkett evokes the basic nature vs. culture framework in her critique of Caitlyn Jenner’s womanhood, the latest defensive salvo in a battle women are fighting against each other.

The real point of contention is not Burkett’s rhetorical “What Makes a Woman?” but her implication that womanhood is a limited space or identity that only few can inhabit or possess.

This is a false and misguided fight. It is false because womanhood is not one limited space. (The idea that anything is limited to a single definition is the same flawed logic used by conservatives who complain that same-sex marriage threatens heterosexual marriage.) It is misguided because the fight should be directed at the real cause of this war: patriarchal sexism.

In her article, Burkett boldly calls out the logical dissonance apparent in many trans narratives like Jenner’s, narratives that rely on something innate and tangible—visual, even—to make sense of one’s identity. These narratives problematize the understanding of “woman” as a cultural construct. Her aim, she wrote, is to defend the “hard-fought arguments that the very definition of female is a social construct that has subordinated us.” And her defensiveness is a product of her concern about the “undermining [of] women’s identities, and silencing, erasing or renaming our experiences, aren’t necessary to that struggle [for trans liberation].”

But while Burkett claims her argument espouses the notion of gender as a cultural construct, she relies on biological essentialism to posit cisgender women—defined generally as any non-transgender woman, i.e. someone whose gender identity corresponds to the sex they were assigned at birth—as victims of an agenda punctuated by “frequent attacks by some trans leaders on women’s right to define ourselves, our discourse and our bodies.”

Biological essentialism is also apparent in the article’s trite conclusion in which Burkett welcomes trans women like Jenner but notes—through an evocation of Simone de Beauvoir’s seminal book on feminism, Second Sex—that “nail polish does not a woman make.”

Inadvertently, Burkett’s article has epitomized the battlefield that the identifier “woman” has become in 2015. It is a battlefield currently taking the form in cultural discourse as a debate between “cisgender and transgender,” “biology versus culture.” But it’s actually a battle that originates in the US in the 1970s, during the heyday of Second Wave feminism, when the women’s rights movement was beginning to fracture between straight women and lesbians—with the latter being blamed by some feminists for the failure of the Equal Rights Amendment.

In this capacity, the battleground is primarily a political one. Historically, “woman” has been granted so little space—political power ,cultural visibility, and recognition—that the concept of womanhood has been interpreted as a finite, limited space. The result is that women—cisgender and trans, gay and straight—are fighting each other to inhabit what they construe as a politically and culturally marginalized identity. Cisgender women tell trans women they can’t call themselves women; trans women tell cisgender women a vagina shouldn’t define womanhood. The fighting is cyclical and reflects a kind of cultural tribalism of womanhood in the 21st century.

In Burkett’s article, as elsewhere, this tribalism is ultimately motivated by one emotion: fear. Burkett is fearful of the “silencing [and] erasing” of women,” just as trans women are fearful of the same. The end result is endless shouting at each other for possession of something that ironically does not need to be conceptualized as spatial to begin with.

This is precisely why all women, cis and trans, need to build a coalition movement in the quest for gender equality. Fear about political and social inequity has us arguing about corsets and lipstick. If we really believe that we individually choose our own identities, then it should be no ethical or political imposition for Jenner to wear a corset or for another woman to claim she was born with a vagina. No one’s identity is challenged or threatened because of the way another person identifies. It is only those who anchor themselves in a defensive position of victimhood who feel that their identity is under threat.

Herein lies the challenge for all women: to transcend the realities of political and social oppression so as to see that one’s very identity is not obliterated in the process of recognizing and respecting another’s. In fact, political and social equality can only happen when this happens. Because no progress will be made if women continue to fight one another.