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War is brewing at the border between the feminist and transgender movements, or so the most emailed article on the New York Times at the weekend suggests. And after reading, “What Makes a Woman?”, it’s looking as though this battle front could be the Ukraine of gender diversity, or even its Middle East, such is the quagmire of ideology involved.
Commenting on Bruce Jenner’s coming out as Caitlyn in Vanity Fair’s cover story last week, 1970s feminist Elinor Burkett finds herself wincing at “Caitlyn Jenner’s idea of a woman: a cleavage-boosting corset, sultry poses, thick mascara and the prospect of regular ‘girls’ nights’ of banter about hair and makeup.”
Frankly, any self-respecting woman should be annoyed with that. “Woman as sex babe” is maddeningly reductive and demeaning to that half of the human race that Caitlyn believes she has just joined, even if few have dared to say so publicly.
But it’s not the Playboy centrefold connotations of the Vanity Fair cover that Burkett, a former professor of women’s studies, finds most offensive; it’s Jenner’s notion that there is a female brain.
“My brain is much more female than it is male,” Jenner said in a radio interview before his surgical makeover. Last week, Chelsea (formerly Bradley Edward) Manning chimed in with, “I am so much more aware of my emotions; much more sensitive emotionally (and physically).”
That, as Burkett points out, is the kind of statement that got Larry Summers virtually drummed out of the Harvard presidency. He wondered aloud whether women’s brains were not designed for higher maths. Now, here’s someone at the cutting edge of gender progressivism spouting sentiments that suggest the very same thing: that brains, and therefore roles, are irreducibly gendered.
The progressive in Burkett wants to embrace Caitlyn, a heroine of self-determination, but the feminist in her is seriously brassed off with Caitlyn, the benighted mouthpiece of old-fashioned femininity.
The differences between male and female brains, she insists, are minor. What makes a woman – and largely configures her brain — is experience, and for her generation (she’s 68), the experience of having the deck stacked against you if you wanted to excel, say, at sports, like the younger Jenner. Or, still, having forgotten your birth control pill, or not knowing whether you would be safe on the street at night.
It’s not only Jenner and Manning who have Burkett and her friends worried; the problem is much bigger. Yes, they instinctively want to rally behind “a cruelly marginalized group’s battle for justice,” but it turns out that trans activists do not want to return the favour:
But, as the movement becomes mainstream, it’s growing harder to avoid asking pointed questions about the frequent attacks by some trans leaders on women’s right to define ourselves, our discourse and our bodies. After all, the trans movement isn’t simply echoing African-Americans, Chicanos, gays or women by demanding an end to the violence and discrimination, and to be treated with a full measure of respect. It’s demanding that women reconceptualize ourselves.
Here’s what is happening at gender’s eastern front. There are trans leaders who want to ban the use of words referring specifically to women’s anatomy, and even the word “woman” itself. This battle is being played out even on the sacred turf of abortion:
“Abortion rights and reproductive justice is not a women’s issue,” wrote Emmett Stoffer, one of many self-described transgender persons to blog on [a campaign against a Texas abortion law]. It is “a uterus owner’s issue.” Mr. Stoffer was referring to the possibility that a woman who is taking hormones or undergoing surgery to become a man, or who does not identify as a woman, can still have a uterus, become pregnant and need an abortion.
And women’s colleges have to deal with girls turning themselves into guys, or trans women wanting admission who then want to ban the words “sister” and “sisterhood”, replacing the latter with “siblinghood”, and even the pronoun “she”. Says Burkett:
The landscape that’s being mapped and the language that comes with it are impossible to understand and just as hard to navigate. The most theory-bound of the trans activists say that there are no paradoxes here, and that anyone who believes there are is clinging to a binary view of gender that’s hopelessly antiquated. Yet Ms. Jenner and Ms. Manning, to mention just two, expect to be called women even as the abortion providers are being told that using that term is discriminatory. So are those who have transitioned from men the only “legitimate” women left?
I am in sympathy with her frustration – the outer reaches of transgenderania is truly wild territory – but it does seem that feminists bear much of the responsibility for this state of affairs. Burkett insists that they long ago repudiated “binary views of male and female”, that “the very definition of female is a social construct”, and that what people do with the genders assigned them at birth – “the roles we assign ourselves … — is almost entirely mutable.”
If that’s the case, it seems petty to quibble about the names you use for the reproductive organs or the persons who have them – either by nature or by technical simulation. Especially when women seldom use them for their specific function, and when technology can deliver a baby to two men.
What makes a woman, really? Burkett says it’s their experiences – above all their experience of discrimination and vulnerability due to their biology and stereotypes based on it. But that is largely a generational problem; younger women are less and less likely to be limited in that way, if only because there are laws against it.
There are laws against other kinds of discrimination, too, and, with the claims of new gender groups on the table, it seems that women will have to come up with something more robust than their experiences to justify a right to their own gender.
Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet.