What is female-ness?

Why the feminists defending Caitlyn Jenner’s gender transition are missing the point

One writer accused feminists of hypocrisy for supporting the reason behind Jenner’s transition, sparking a backlash

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In a New York Times Op-Ed, “What Makes a Woman?”, writer and filmmaker Elinor Burkett laments what she sees as the hypocrisy of many feminists: They praise Caitlyn Jenner’s reasoning for becoming a woman–she believes her “brain is much more female than it is male”–while shunning people like ex-Harvard President Larry Summers for suggesting that men and women might be wired differently.

“I have fought for many of my 68 years against efforts to put women — our brains, our hearts, our bodies, even our moods — into tidy boxes, to reduce us to hoary stereotypes,” Burkett writes. “The ‘I was born in the wrong body’ rhetoric favored by other trans people doesn’t work any better and is just as offensive, reducing us to our collective breasts and vaginas.” When feminists cheer a man’s decision to become a woman because he doesn’t fit the typical mold of a man, they’re undermining the notion that the mold is flexible.

For criticizing Jenner, Burkett has drawn predictable levels of outrage from the left. At Slate, Amanda Marcotte attacked her for using Jenner as “fodder” for an “academic feminist squabble.” Tom Hawking at Flavorwire accused Burkett of transphobia. At Salon, Anna March also labelled her “transphobic” for questioning Jenner’s logic, and called her opinion piece “disturbing.”

But the passage in Burkett’s essay that struck me as “disturbing” has gone largely unquestioned even by her detractors. According to Burkett, newly transitioned women like Caitlyn Jenner can’t lay claim to woman-ness because:

They haven’t suffered through business meetings with men talking to their breasts or woken up after sex terrified they’d forgotten to take their birth control pills the day before. They haven’t had to cope with the onset of their periods in the middle of a crowded subway, the humiliation of discovering that their male work partners’ checks were far larger than theirs, or the fear of being too weak to ward off rapists.

She’s arguing, on the one hand, that female-ness is largely a social construction–a fair and, in academic circles, not uncontroversial claim. But, according to Burkett, that construction is built almost entirely out of negative experiences. This is the only point in the essay that Katie McDonough at Salon condones: Burkett, she writes, is “correct that women share many experiences of vulnerability, degradation and violation.”

And that’s what is most troubling about this essay and the response to it: it reflects what has become a dominant strain in feminist thought– that we become women by suffering and by embracing our pain. That was the assumption behind last year’s #YesAllWomen campaign, which encouraged women to tweet about instances in which they’d been victims of male aggression. It was part of the reason Leslie Jamison’s recent essay, “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain,” which enumerates all the wounds men have inflicted on her, and on woman-kind more generally (even in fiction) was so well-received. But as Jessa Crispin writes in a trenchant essay that feminists should read:

This emotional segregation is not good for us….I worry about making pain a ticket to gain entry into the women’s club. And I worry that the assumption of vulnerability threatens to invigorate just the sexist evils it aims to combat by demanding that men serve as shields against it.

A narrative of oppression shouldn’t be foisted on women, or used as a test of their femininity, any more than traditional male roles should be forced on men.

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