Tag Archives: feminism

Erased by two sexes

One of the standard ways of undermining any consideration of trans rights, is to focus on the idea that two fixed sexes are a biological reality. Anyone taking this stance because they are averse to trans people is not likely to be persuaded by any arguments relating to that. However, trans people are not the only people hurt and harmed by a focus on the idea of two sexes.

Intersex people exist. If the idea of ‘choosing’ your gender offends someone, then there is none of that argument to make here. Intersex people do not choose. When we focus on the idea of two sexes, we totally erase them. It is a hard enough situation to be in without also being told that you don’t exist.

The idea of two sexes is firmly rooted in white, western culture, and is not a world-wide ‘truth’. When we insist that there are only two sexes, we erase the cultures and experiences of many other people around the world. This is particularly an issue with indigenous peoples who have had to deal with colonialism trying to strip away their approaches to gender – along with the rest of their cultures – for some time. White erasure of non-white experience is something we really need to stop doing.

Many people don’t sit neatly in the boxes offered by the notion of two genders only. My experience suggests that people who do not respect trans folk also tend to have no qualms about harming non-binary people as well – again I think because there’s the sense that we choose. So, let’s focus on the people who cannot choose – the people whose bodies do not conform to gender norms. Women with male pattern baldness and women with beards are perhaps the most obvious examples. The more we tell people there are only two sexes, the more we exclude and disempower people whose bodies don’t fit with that. We erase their complexity and we deny their existence.

Traditionally, feminism has been all about championing equality. I don’t know what to do with the kind of ‘feminism’ that will happily erase people in this way simply to try and create a context that invalidates trans people. However, I think pointing out the erasure of intersex people and indigenous people is really important. Attacking trans people makes it easier to attack other people as well, and if your basis for not liking trans is that you think trans people are choosing, you should be able to spare a thought for people who clearly cannot choose and are being hurt by this ideology.


Toilet philosophy

Everyone needs a safe place to pee. I am deeply concerned about the ways in which current ‘debates’ around toilet access are working to reduce safety in all kinds of ways. I’m making the deliberate choice not to focus on trans issues here because I think people who see this as a feminist issue won’t be persuaded by that, but may be willing to consider some other points. But to be clear, I support the right of trans people to be able to pee safely. I support the right of everyone, regardless of gender or presentation, to be able to pee safely.

First up, when we narrow who is allowed to use which toilets, the odds are we do that based on visual judgements. This can only reinforce very narrow and hetro-normative takes on gender. A trans-woman who passes well may have no trouble using the toilet, where a butch lesbian may find herself threatened and harassed. Making toilets unsafe for butch lesbians is not any kind of win for women, feminism or female identity.

Non-binary people also exist. Some non-binary people do not appear very gendered at all and if we focus toilet access on narrow gender stereotypes, non-binary people are going to have a harder time of it. Non-binary people need to pee, and should not have their right to a safe wee depend on conforming to gender roles that we really don’t want to conform to.

Not all women look femme. Some of us are tall. Some of us are muscular. Some of us do not remove our facial hair. Some of us, quite naturally, have a lot of facial hair. The right of a woman to identify as a woman and pee in a toilet should not depend on how female she looks to anyone else. The most likely extra consequence of trying to keep trans women out of toilets, is that cis-women who do not, for whatever reasons, represent in straightforwardly female ways, will not have a safe space to pee. This is not feminism. This is radical exclusion.

Intersex people also exist, and also need to pee and may or may not look like one or the other gender.

Who do we empower when we make it harder for women who look a bit masculine to use toilets? We give power to haters. We give power to people (usually men) who want to hurt and harm trans women. These are often people who would also enjoy an excuse to hurt and harm lesbians and any woman perceived as unpleasing to their male gaze. These are not people who need more power, or more excuses to bully and assault female and female-ish people.

If we focus on stranger danger in toilets, we also do ourselves a gross disservice. You are much more likely to be assaulted by someone you know than by a stranger. The bathroom where you are at most risk of being attacked is one in a private location – your home, a friend’s home, maybe your workplace. When we focus on stranger-danger, we draw attention away from the reality that most victims know their attacker. And we’re creating a situation in which casual attackers may have more scope for action. If a woman can be approached, harassed or assaulted for being in the ‘wrong’ toilet – how safe are any of us?

It is not feminist to narrow women’s scope for presentation. It is not feminist to increase the risk of violence and injustice for lesbians. It is not feminist to run the risk that women are unable to pee safely. It is not feminist to encourage ideas that will empower and encourage abusive men.


Toxic femininity

I am cheered by the work many men are doing to expose and deconstruct toxic masculinity. I’m also starting to see women talking about the need to do the same thing. It’s not like being female makes you naturally non-patriarchal, non-feudal, non-hierarchical, not into power over. There are a great many ways in which women actively contribute to toxic social constructs of femininity, and a lot of things women do to keep women powerless. It’s worth remembering that not all women were suffragettes back in the day – there were plenty who were very keen that women should not get the vote.

One of the things that bothers me particularly is how we define what constitutes a ‘real woman’ and thus who is excluded. While this can be an issue for trans women, it often also means a subset of women who were born women. If ‘real’ women have wombs, where does that leave a women who has been medically obliged to have hers removed? Where does that leave a woman who was born without a womb? I’ve heard a lot of really toxic things from radical feminists in the last few months that narrow the definition of women to something far too womb-centric.

Women who are anti-trans are currently doing a massive disservice to cis women who don’t fit their ideas of ‘real’ womanhood. Those of us who are taller, broader, have more facial hair, larger hands and feet – those of us who look like we could have started out as men, will also be subject to the suspicions, and worse, whipped up against trans women. I’m no fan of transphobia, and I wonder if the radical feminists out there realise how much they are trying to make femininity about being able to pass, and looking certain ways. Toxic notions of femininity that define us as small, weak, without muscle, delicate and so forth. ‘Biologically’ based feminism will exclude a significant number of ‘biological’ women. I don’t think much of a strand of feminism that rejects so much of the breadth of female appearance and experience.

I’ve seen the ‘real women have curves’ meme go past on social media plenty of times. There are plenty of women who do not have curves – not because of diets or surgery or being born male, but because they have a body shape that isn’t curvy. There should be no shame in the accident of your body shape. There should be no de-feminising of women who aren’t the currently fashionable shape. It bothers me immensely that we still encourage women to be thin, not to be fit or healthy. That’s a really toxic notion. Thin and curvy is difficult to achieve without surgery, which is also incredibly toxic as a way to define what we should aspire to.

We’re still too quick to make motherhood the definition of womanhood. Again, this excludes a lot of women – those who are unable to have children, and those who do not want to have children. As the human population becomes ever more unsustainable, we really, really should not be shaming women who don’t want to breed. Motherhood should not be the end goal of being female, nor the defining experience of being female. We’ve had far too much of that historically, it’s a notion that ties us to domestic roles. There is no urgent need for more people right now.

Defining womanhood in relation to domestic roles is another big problem. Historically, we’ve had very narrow options. There are still women who hold other women back by saying these are not the jobs for you, this is not what you should do or aspire to. We still give our daughters shiny glittery pink things and tell our boys they can be scientists and astronauts. We need more room in terms what we think women can do. I’m so tired of seeing men online trying to tell the world that women do nothing important and can’t do anything important. There’s a lot of work to do to deconstruct this one.

When we think about identities, the urge always seems to be to draw a circle around something – be that about gender, Paganism, political affiliation or anything else. We draw the line that says these people are in and those others are out. Toxic gender ideas draw circles that say only certain kinds of men and women are real men and women. The rest of us, the ones who don’t fit inside the circle are non-people. We don’t matter, are excluded from things, are shamed, ridiculed, harassed – and this has to stop. If we all stopped trying to decide who isn’t a real (insert term of preference here) and invested that time and energy in being better versions of ourselves, we’d very easily get rid of a lot of toxic ideas and all that follows from them.


Reflections on transgender and feminist conflict

I’ve spent a lot of time over the last few months reading the thoughts of good people who are very supportive of trans rights, good people who are themselves trans, and good people who are very wary about some things around transgender politics, and people on all sides who are downright shitty. I’ve taken my time over piling in, because I’m not trans, and I don’t identify with anti-trans feminists. I find I feel significant sympathies for people on both sides, and significant unease with people on both sides. Usually not the same people.

My starting point is that everyone involved, regardless of their position and opinion, is entitled to have their basic human rights upheld. This means being free from violence and the threat of violence. I am dismayed and disorientated by the violence, and threat of violence coming from all sides. I don’t think it’s ok to punch 60 year old women, however abhorrent you find their opinion. I am also aware that the anti-trans feelings out there can only add to the considerable violence trans folk already experience.

I see online that lesbians who are not comfortable with women who have penises, are being labelled as transphobic. This troubles me greatly. The freedom to love who we love is vital. The freedom to express that as we choose is vital. The right to say no, to any person, for any reason, is vital. I can’t see how not being attracted to someone’s body is phobic. We do not label straight people phobic for not being attracted to same sex people. Every time I go outside I encounter lots of people to whom I feel no attraction. We all of us, as a basic human right, need to be allowed not to have to fake being attracted to people. Being pressured into having sex with someone you do not want to have sex with, is rape.

So, here’s a theory. There are women who have started out with bodies that do not represent them. They identify with, sympathise with, empathise with other women. They want to be recognised as women too. I don’t see any reason to have a problem with this. I know a number of transwomen who I feel very comfortable with and who I have no difficulty identifying as women. Some of them are more feminine than I am, as a cis woman with some gender fluid stuff living in my head.

However, there are also men who want to move into female spaces, bringing all their male privilege with them. Men who want to make women do things for them, and who want women to put them first, and treat them as special, and let them be in charge. Men who feel entitled to tell women who and what they should be attracted to. If a man enters a female space acting from a place of male privilege, I don’t care what he looks like or how he has, or has not modified his body, I’m going to treat him as an entitled man forcing himself into female space. I’ve encountered a bit of this in person, too. It was not a good experience. Anyone who wants to be recognised as a woman cannot at the same time expect to keep their male privilege.

Equally, feminists raising issues about how some men may use trans inclusion to enable predation and violence against women is a thing I take seriously. Female safety is something I take seriously. But, a line is crossed if in the name of feminism, you start trying to deny human rights to someone who is transgender. That’s not what feminism is for. We need to be clear about the differences between human rights, and issues of entitlement if we’re going to figure this stuff out.


Dear women…

When we co-operate, we’re awesome, but there are things we do to ourselves, each other and to the guys that I’d really like to talk about. I’d also like to talk about them calmly, with the understanding that airing this stuff is not an act of breaking rank. All of these are some women, sometimes, so add that caveat a each round.

We shame each other over body shape and size, and aspects of appearance. Any statement that has the term ‘real women’ in it is poisonous because it implies there are some people who seem female but don’t really qualify. When that’s about body shape, reproduction or some other thing where you might or might not, it really sucks.

The people who taught me that being attractive to men, getting male attention, was more important than anything else I was, were women. The people who told me guys don’t find smart girls attractive and that I ought to wear makeup, were other girls. I was about ten when that started. If we only write each other romance stories and define happily ever after purely in terms of a man… we’re putting ourselves in a really problematic position, and we need to stop doing that stuff.

We need to stop apologising for and making excuses for the bastards. We defend the guys who hit us ‘it was only… he didn’t really mean…’ we defend the rapists if we agree that yes, it was a short skirt. We support the idea that men can’t help abusing us every time we teach our daughters how to avoid being raped rather than teaching our sons some self respect and self control. Men are able to choose and we need to be totally intolerant of the ones who think they can’t help it.

We have to stop saying ‘all men are…’ where we’re being negative. If our only story is that all men are potential abusers, we leave no space for a guy to choose differently (they can choose). If we refuse to accept that a guy might totally agree with us that women should be respected, we alienate our allies. If what you want to do is beat up on all men, that’s not feminism, that’s hate, and we don’t want hate, we’re trying to unpick hate against women and we don’t sort that by making guys into hate-objects. Some men are total bastards. Traditional rape is thing men do to women, and in that context, all perpetrators are men. However, not all men are perpetrators and we need to respect the difference if we want things to change. If we say all men are rapists, we’re actually letting the rapists off the hook – we’re telling them they are perfectly normal and there’s nothing they can do about it.

If we respond to sexism and patriarchy by being just as rude and unpleasant, we won’t get  culture of respect and decency. Thank you.


The Good Guys

Helen Wood left some powerful words in the comments yesterday, so I wanted to follow on and reflect more on this idea. ‘Good guys’ is of course rather general vague shorthand, but blogging does not really lend itself to picking over every term in every post. That’s just the nature of the beast and I often find I’ve skimmed over one idea for the sake of another and need to come back to it. I am always grateful to those people who flag up where I’ve missed a thing.

Good Guys.

I’m no kind of feminist man basher. I feel very strongly that if your ‘feminism’ is about bashing and blaming men, you’re doing it wrong. Cultures are made up of both genders, and cultures that oppress women are usually able to do so because enough women are wholly complicit in the process. My son is a bloke. My husband is a bloke. A lot of my friends are blokes. I like blokes. I also like women, as broad generalizations, and there are plenty of people of both genders who test my patience and empathy rather a lot.

Then there are the other ones. The people who actively delight in inflicting pain, suffering and humiliation upon others. That’s not specifically a gender issue, it’s just that a lot of cultures are set up such that men have more economic power to back up often being physically stronger and less pregnant/impregnatable in a way that skews things.

Actually few things drive me more mad than the women who wilfully uphold the myth that women are irrational, unknowable creatures full of whim and unruly emotion that a man can never hope to understand. Sure, some of us may be that way, but it’s not universal. People who surrender to the stereotypes generally do not help. The men who are so busy being sure that women are incomprehensible and irrational, and who therefore never stop to listen, are just as much an issue.

When we draw lines, and say ‘us’ over here ‘them’ over there it can so often be harmful. Lines drawn to hold, enable, define and support can be really good things. I once ran an all female singing group, that was a good thing. When we draw lines to exclude and alienate… everyone loses. When we assume there are only two sides, we reduce and limit. Another comment mentioned hermaphrodites, and of course many people are not at all defined by their biological gender. Those people are also more vulnerable to violence, more likely to be picked on.

So, dropping the gender language… there are people who seek to dominate and control other people for their own gain and amusement. There are people who take that so far that they kill. I’m out of date on exact figures, between every 3-5 days, in the UK and the USA, a woman dies at the hands of a violent partner. About one in three women gets raped. There are men who are killed by female partners, it’s a much smaller figure and sometimes connects to domestic abuse, and a victim snapping and retaliating. Now, I think that all needs talking about. I also don’t think a person needs to self identify as a feminist to find rape and murder stats troubling. This is not the world I want to live in. This is not the attitude between genders that I want. And of course it is not simply a men versus women issue. There are men for whom such acts would be unthinkable, and there are women who encourage their sons to denigrate their wives. I’ve heard too many stories.

We are all in this together. We will not fix attitudes and societies without first admitting there are problems to tackle. Some men are fab. Some men are bastards. Some women are extremely dangerous to the freedom of the women around them. Every day I thank the powers that be for the people who are here to do what work they can, for the ones who want to make better, make right, challenge the shoddy thinking and the places cruelty thrives.

I live in hope that one day we won’t need to make special time to raise awareness of oppression, because there won’t be any left to talk about, but until that day comes, I shall keep banging on about it, and praising the people who make positive change. The good guys. Regardless of gender.


Why do we need International Women’s Day?

I hear in my memory, the voice of a man I once knew, talking about why isn’t there a men’s day, and how women hold all the power anyway. He, and those like him, are exactly why we still need to raise issues and awareness.

There are plenty of Western women who believe that the equality issues are all sorted and feminism is just another bit of history. I’ve met them too. And there are guys who believe that what they do in the privacy of their own bedrooms and marriages shouldn’t be anyone else’s business. Including the belief that the police should not be investigating them.

We need International Women’s Day because internationally, definitions of rape are too often shoddy and sometimes non-existent. Worse still there are countries where the female victim of this crime can be punished for sex outside marriage. I’ve heard men speaking on the radio about how if girls dress in provocative ways, of course they are going to get raped. As though to be a man is to have no self control. That’s an insult to men. The guys who think that lack of self control is a justification for rape and violence need telling that no, they are not proper men. Real guys can keep it in their pants when they need to. We have a long way to go on that score.

We need International Women’s Day for the many, many victims across the world who suffer domestic abuse. Not just the ones who are bruised and bloodied, but the ones whose self esteem is taken from them, who are used as slaves, drudges and sex objects. Those who die at the hands of men also need to be spoken of. There are still too many people of both genders who think its fine for women to be subservient to men. We need today for the trafficked girls who are kidnapped and sold, and who, if rescued will be stigmatized by their communities for what happened to them. We need it for the girls from impoverished families who don’t get an education and are sold into marriage before they even hit puberty. For the girls in their early teens who still die in childbirth every year. For the victims of forced marriage everywhere.

We need it here in the UK too, where your typical woman still earns 20% less than your typical man and a working mother can still expect to do most of the housework and childcare. Here in the enlightened west where a rape victim in a court room can still expect to be asked what she was wearing when the assault took place, as though that made a difference.

We also need to celebrate the women who have been persistently written out of the history books. We have a tendency to focus history on male politicians, ignoring the roles of women, their work and actions. It creates an impression that all women do is stand round as ornaments and squeeze out babies, and this has NEVER been the whole story. Have a look some time at the role of women in dissent and radicalism in UK history – they take some finding because most books don’t include them. You’ll need a specialist, feminist text for that, but thankfully they exist.

We are a good half of the population. We have as much intelligence, skill and potential as those who landed in this world blessed with a willy, on the whole. Sometimes more, sometimes less, but on the whole, we are more alike than different. But there are still places around the world where to be a woman is to be a second class citizen at best. And there are still people who can’t hear ‘no’ in every country. Until rape is consigned to the past, until trafficking has gone forever, until there is no man on the face of this planet who is able to imagine that he has the right to own and control women, we need today.

While we’re here, it’s a good time to also appreciate the good guys, the heroes, fathers, co-workers, equals, companions, friends… the ones for whom respect is natural and a given. The ones who listen, care and respect themselves enough to do the right things for the right reasons.


Facebook Feminism

By the time I discovered feminism, the call to sisterhood and the demand that traditional, female roles and work be taken seriously, had weakened. Growing up in the 1980s, I saw a world in which ‘feminism’ seemed to be about being more like men than the men were. Equal rights meant out to work, with padded shoulders, ruthlessly pushing forward. To my child self, feminism looked too much like Margaret Thatcher, and I wanted none of it. I also encountered plenty of the man-bashing variety, and I didn’t fancy that much either. Years later, at college, I encountered theories of social feminism, of accepting and respecting female roles and history, and all that. I also saw it was a theory, not a practice.

But I was at college in that distant time before Facebook.

Women on Facebook talk about their work, their men, their kids, parents, dogs, dreams and efforts. They post photos of cakes that went well, and cakes that didn’t. Images of things created, rooms decorated, frocks worn. All the traditional things that women have always done, now recorded by digital camera and timeline, and shared, with love. I have one amazing friend called Sharon who is actively reclaiming femininity through the medium of Facebook, and it’s lovely to watch. She’s not the only one, but she’s the most self conscious. It’s femininity on her terms, not anyone else’s. Then, whoever shares, other women and the odd bloke, pile in with observations, congratulations, and friendly noises.

In western culture we equate femininity with emotion, and emotion with irrationality. To show your feelings, to weep, rant, or whoop for joy, is to be emotionally immature. There are some other women who will haul you over the coals for that, even more readily then the men. These would be the women who have donned the suits and attitudes of a still very masculine workplace, and who want to get as far from traditional femininity as they can.

On Facebook, something else is happening. Yesterday, a woman posted ‘I just want to cry all the time. This can’t be normal adult behaviour’ (Or something like that.) Within minutes, other women were there, saying no, I have days like this too. I weep over this as well. Don’t beat yourself up. The anxieties of parenthood, the tears of menstruation, the grief and frustration of the world all sneak out in those few lines of status update. And in the unreal space that is Facebook, we do what many of us would not dare to do in a public, physical space. We say ‘me too.’ We share, and acknowledge and take seriously experiences and emotions that are fundamental to being female.

It’s terrible when you think it’s just you. All the shiny looking women on TV are never spotty, screaming with pre-menstrual tension, covered in baby vomit and holding a cake that failed. All the magazine celebrities shed elegant, solitary tears over betrayals. They don’t howl until their faces are red and snot drips from their noses. At least, not where we can see them.

I have met a lot of men along the way who believe that women are incomprehensible, irrational, unpredictable, unreliable. We’ve all heard the argument that our hormonal cycles make us crazy. I know from doing psychology, that as a culture we view calm rationality (allegedly male traits) as healthy adult behaviour and emotionality as being both female, and neurotic. That’s a hard world to live in, and a bloody unfair one. Rather than fight for the value of emotion, for the power and blessing of being able to express, so many of us have gone along with the pressure to be like men. And you know, I’m not even sure all the biological men are really ‘like men’. I think they’re even more squeezed and restricted by this insane understanding of what being human should mean.

I’m a fine example though. Up until I went through an emotional breakdown last year, I found it almost impossible to cry in front of anyone.

It isn’t easy, to go online and say ‘bad day.’ Just to manage ‘black dog’ or ‘bit gloomy’ is a hard confession to make. But when you do it, and others pile in and remind you that you aren’t alone, aren’t a freak, or incompetent, that’s worth so much. I am very grateful for Facebook. Now all we have to do is figure out how to get that little bit of revolution offline and into the real world.


Earth Mother politics

In ‘Women who run with wolves’ the author suggests that how we treat women mirrors how we treat the planet. Look back on the centuries of planet ravaging and the oppression of women, there’s definitely a parallel. Is there a causal link? I think so, and it has a lot to do with priorities.

I’m going to be brutally honest here and say that were it not for Tom, I would very likely have become the kind of radical feminist who is anti-male. There are days when hearing new stories about male violence towards women fills me with rage. But there is also Tom, who is brave, gentle, heroic, and reminds me of all the other good men I have met along the way. Statistically, about one in four men are abusers; that means three quarters aren’t. There are days when I have to remind myself of this.

However, when it comes to raping the earth mother, we’d be self-deluding if we tried to cast that as a gender issue. There are no shortage of men working for the good of the planet, and no shortage of women participating in the great commercial pillage. It would also be fair to say that gender politics are not a simple male/female conflict either. How many women were taught by their mothers to put a brave face on it and be stoical? How many women help coerce their daughters into unwanted marriages, throw out pregnant daughters, defend abusive men, and otherwise add to the problem? More than enough. The new girlfriend is often the person most willing to give that bitch of an ex-girlfriend a hard time. Knowing or not, we participate.

When I’m not raging over some specific injustice, I tend to feel that feminism is inadequate. It supports the ideas of polarisation, division and difference. It also gives the woman-haters out there something very easy to latch onto and attack. The sort of person who views every threat to total male supremacy as a feminist conspiracy to destroy all men. They most certainly exist – read the comments on the Telegraph online sometime. Getting angry and building up the barricades doesn’t help. Reinforcing the gender divide solves nothing.

A few months ago I sat in a room with a woman who was covered in bruises because her boyfriend had beaten her. She was in the process of trying to escape, and it was one of the most heart-breaking things I have ever seen. Of course women who are wounded by other means, driven to depression, to drink, self blame, self hatred, have no such wounds to show the world, but they are just as damaged by male aggression.

There’s a whole culture underpinning this kind of behaviour. It’s laden with beliefs about ownership and rights. How many men think about women, and women’s bodies not unlike how they think about the earth – as a resource to be used for their benefit and pleasure. We exploit, we use, we take, I come back to the idea of entitlement again. And sure, women do it to men as well, although in nothing like the same numbers. But the culture underpinning it, we build together. All of us. Regardless of gender. We do it in every advert that uses a scantily clad woman to sell a product, and every advert that shows woman as house elf and man as mighty leader. We do it in our stereotyping, our willingness to blame the victims, our collective reluctance to take the problem seriously. Sometimes we do it in our religions too, and our politics uphold it.

We won’t fix either earth abuse, or woman abuse, or any other kind of abuse, until we fix the mindsets that allow us to justify them. It’s all too easy to be accidentally complicit, or to be part of the problem just by ignoring it. What we do not speak against, others may assume we condone. Half the problem with abusers, no matter who or what their victim is, is that they believe they are just the same as everyone else. Everyone else is doing what they do, or would, if they were only powerful enough to pull it off. That idea is the real enemy.