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Women’s oppression

It is impossible to discuss the trans phenomenon meaningfully without looking at its impact on women and the fight for their liberation.

Trans supporters demand that male-to-female (m2f) transitioners have the right to live their lives as women. At first glance, this is just a matter of accepting trans people’s lifestyle choices, which only mean-minded people would oppose. But trans activists also demand that biological women accept being redefined as a subset of womankind. This message is amplified in the mass media, and through public institutions. Its real impact emerges in two further demands, which are less publicised:

  • Issues that specifically affect biological women, notably abortion, must no longer be called women’s issues
  • The lifetime of socialisation experienced by biological women must no longer be seen as a way of understanding womanhood.

Abortion: no longer a “women’s issue”?

Elinor Burkett describes serious and successful pressure on abortion rights campaigners to avoid using the term “woman” in their literature, since it excludes m2f transitioners:

Even the word “woman” has come under assault by some of the very people who claim the right to be considered women. The hashtags #StandWithTexasWomen, popularized after Wendy Davis, then a state senator, attempted to filibuster the Texas Legislature to prevent passage of a draconian anti-abortion law, and #WeTrustWomen, are also under attack since they, too, are exclusionary.

“Abortion rights and reproductive justice is not a women’s issue,” wrote Emmett Stoffer, one of many self-described transgender persons to blog on the topic. 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.

Accordingly, abortion rights groups are under pressure to modify their mission statements to omit the word woman, as Katha Pollitt recently reported in The Nation. Those who have given in, like the New York Abortion Access Fund, now offer their services to “people” and to “callers.”

Abortion is an issue for the whole workers’ movement, not just women. But the battle for abortion rights is also a struggle that reveals women’s oppression, since capitalist society does not allow women full control over their own bodies. Banning the word “woman” from abortion services puts one more obstacle in the way of women understanding the discrimination against them.

Defining a woman by how she acts and looks

“The most effective way to destroy people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history.” — George Orwell

“One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.” — Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex.

Under capitalism women are encouraged to define themselves via their appearance and behaviour. In reality women become who they are through a lifetime of socialisation that is gradually inscribed upon people with female biology. Men who gender-transition do not have this experience: their womanhood can only consist of appearance and behaviour. Radical feminist Sheila Jeffreys puts it this way:

It needs to be stated loud and clear that being a woman is a long-term experience, and one that isn’t summed up by a collection of female genitalia with some clothes draped over them. It takes years of constant pressure and lots of practice to achieve the accepted standards of femininity — we learnt the tricks (in order to survive) so presumably men can too. But the state of mind, the process of becoming – we didn’t have any choice about that. (Gender Hurts Chapter 2)

A lifetime of experience makes us who we are. Women’s lifetime experience includes sexual discrimination, despite variations of place, ethnicity, age and even class: if this were not so, the whole concept of oppression would dissolve. Denying the importance of female socialisation puts one more obstacle in the way of women understanding the discrimination against them.

M2f transitioners and being a woman

The right of individual m2f transitioners to live as women deserves support. This is a personal right to live as you wish, in defiance of biology-based stereotypes. But the conservative forces shaping the trans trend have no right to redefine womanhood as a whole. This is an attack on the cause of women’s liberation. If these statements seem contradictory, the contradiction lies in the situation itself.

Supporting transitioners’ use of women’s bathrooms means clashing with the religious Right, but it will also carry its own right wing, anti-woman subtext until these issues are publicly acknowledged.

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