“What makes a woman?”
It’s a big question, and one that a June 6 New York Times piece, written by journalist Elinor Burkett attempts to answer, framed around the recent attention that Caitlyn Jenner’s history-making coming out has received.
“People who haven’t lived their whole lives as women...shouldn’t get to define us,” writes Burkett, getting to the heart of her thesis. “And as much as I recognize and endorse the right of men to throw off the mantle of maleness, they cannot stake their claim to dignity as transgender people by trampling on mine as a woman.”
Except that trans women are not men who “throw off the mantle of maleness” -- they are women who were assigned the gender of male at birth. And trans women are not becoming more visible in order to “trample on” the dignity of cisgender women or redefine the way cisgender women interact with their gender identity. Reading Burkett’s piece, all I could see was her own anxiety.
Burkett takes issue with the fact that Caitlyn Jenner’s self-expression involves certain aspects of traditional femininity. (Side note: Coming from the Kardashian clan, is anyone really surprised? Caitlyn’s daughters practically wrote the book on bodycon dresses and contouring.) She scoffs at Jenner’s conception of visible womanhood -- “a cleavage-boosting corset, sultry poses, thick mascara and the prospect of regular ‘girls’ nights’ of banter about hair and makeup” -- all things that I personally take great pleasure in while (gasp!) simultaneously identifying as a feminist.
She also uses Jenner’s many layers of privilege -- something that most women, trans or not have never had -- as a way to distance cis and trans women from each other. She argues that Caitlyn Jenner, when she presented as male, “never had to figure out how to walk streets safely at night,” holding that up as proof that trans women do not understand the experiences of cisgender women. I’m sure that the many trans women who feel the threat of physical violence on a daily basis -- seven trans women were murdered in the U.S. in January and February of this year alone -- can relate to the struggle to feel safe walking down the street.
And it’s not as though trans women who once presented as cis men don’t recognize the male privilege they give up when transitioning. Having been on both sides of it, these women perhaps understand it more than anyone else. “I took so many little things for granted, like being able to walk outside or go to a bar without random men feeling the need to comment on my appearance,” wrote Annika Penelope in a February 2013 blog post. “Sexual harassment is such a routine thing now that I can't even remember what life was like without it.”
If Burkett believes that the “very definition of female is a social construct,” why does she seem to cling to it so tightly?
“We demand perfection from feminists because we are still fighting for so much,” said author and self-proclaimed “bad feminist” Roxane Gay at this year’s TED Women conference. “We go far beyond reasonable constructive criticism to dissecting any woman’s feminism and tearing it apart until there’s nothing left. We do not need to do that.”
It is not Jenner’s responsibility (or any other woman in the public limelight) to singlehandedly smash every barrier, social construct and gender-based assumption. She is living her life out loud, asserting her presence visually on the cover of a magazine and verbally on our television screens. She has used that platform to speak honestly and emotionally about her personal journey, lifting up the specific challenges trans women who are less privileged than she is face. Her very existence is an “f-you” to the status quo. What more can we ask of her?
Just as each cisgender woman experiences and expresses her womanhood in an individual way, so does each trans woman. The key is to keep widening the scope of visible womanhood and femininity, to drive home the reality that there is indeed no “gendered destiny” other than the one we make for ourselves.
Burkett’s point of view comes from a place of fear: fear that the strides she has seen women gain will be lost, fear that her idea of feminism will be erased, fear of difference, fear of the unknown. I can understand where these fears come from, but they are unfounded and unproductive.
As Janet Mock, a trans woman and proud feminist wrote in a September 2014 blog post, “one of the many workings of patriarchy is to busy us with policing each other’s choices rather than protecting them.”
Embracing the range of what “woman” encompasses does not mean we can’t proudly claim the woman label as a collective, or attach the word "woman" to issues like reproductive rights and accessible birth control in order to galvanize political engagement. There will always be those who object to the way communities express themselves. As feminists, it is our job to consider each individual situation, take the criticism we believe is worthwhile to heart and try to do better the next time.
The people who would confine acceptable womanhood to traditional femininity (thin bodies, white skin, beauty and domesticity valued above all else) are the same ones who fear trans female identity. Allowing ourselves to imagine that womanhood could be even more colorful and interesting than we ever thought before will make it easier for all of us, cis and trans alike, to live proudly and authentically.
So, what makes a woman? Whatever we decide. Now isn’t that a damn revelation.