Who Counts?

by Liz McKinnell

Part of our Patriarchy 2013 series: why radical feminists exclude trans women and why they shouldn't.

First published: 07 October, 2013 | Category: Activism, Gender equality, Homophobia, Inequality, Philosophy and Theory, Politics

The place of trans women within feminism has generated widespread controversy over the past twelve months.  The appalling death of Lucy Meadows, the teacher who took her own life in March following intrusive press coverage, highlighted the victimisation of trans people in the mainstream media.[1] That this story concerns the press portrayal of gendered norms and the treatment of women’s bodies as public property suggests that there should be a unified feminist voice speaking out against intrusion of this kind.

However, recent feminist voices have been decidedly mixed concerning male to female transsexuals.  Suzanne Moore, Julie Bindel and Julie Burchill have been particularly strident in their attacks on trans women.  In response to what was initially a flippant remark on twitter, comparing the ‘ideal’ body shape to which women are supposed to aspire to ‘that of a Brazillian transsexual’, Moore defended herself with the words ‘People can just fuck off really. Cut their dicks off and be more feminist than me. Good for them.’ After a great deal of controversy and negative coverage, Burchill wrote an article in Moore’s support, describing trans women as ‘a bunch of dicks in chick’s clothing.’ The article has since been removed from The Observer’s website, but Toby Young has (helpfully?) reproduced it on his blog for The Telegraph here. Burchill introduced the additional dimension of class conflict, suggesting that trans women are speaking from a position of educated class privilege, and overlook the concerns of working class cisgender women: ‘they’d rather argue over semantics. To be fair, after having one’s nuts taken off … by endless decades in academia, it’s all most of them are fit to do. Educated beyond all common sense and honesty, it was a hoot to see the screaming-mimis accuse Suze of white feminist privilege.’

In addition to being subjected to remarks of this kind, trans women have been excluded from a number of major feminist conferences and events. The Radfem2012 conference announced that it was restricted to ‘women born women and living as women’. Also in 2012, the Manchester ‘Women Up North’ event excluded trans women from some of its sessions, and similar cases have emerged in the United States and Canada. It is important not to treat all of these instances as equivalent: for example, the organisers of the Manchester conference condemned transphobic language, and only excluded women from a small number of events for women who had experienced domestic violence.  Nonetheless, the controversy attracted by all of these cases demonstrates that much needs to be said about the relationship between patriarchy, trans issues, class conflict, and the ways in which we assign gender-based labels to people. Burchill is right that this is, in part, an argument about semantics, but semantics have a profound and sometimes tragic influence on people’s lives. Semantics provide a means through which people are included in, or excluded from, certain causes, struggles and interest groups. Through taking a position on the semantic question of who counts as a woman, Burchill herself demonstrates that language of this kind can neither be trivialised, nor insulated from ethical and political life.

This year, I gave a lecture about the eighteenth-century feminist Mary Wollstonecraft’s criticisms of the political philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau.  Rousseau’s thought is an early example of the critique of class privilege.  He thought that if we were to have a better society, people ought to be educated in a way that responded to their natural faculties that allowed them to be rational and creative.  This would lead to a world where people would not tolerate oppression, and it would end the enslavement of the poor by the rich.  People would wake up to the trick that had been played on them by powerful people to preserve their own narrow interests in the accumulation of private property, and each person would become obedient only to his rational self. Yes, I did say his rational self, because that was the problem.  Despite the talk of challenging inequality and enslavement through consciousness-raising, none of this applied to women, who had to be educated to obey arbitrary authority in order to keep them in line. Wollstonecraft picked him up on this – how could Rousseau come up with these great principles of autonomy and equality, and completely ignore (in fact propagate) the enslavement of half of the human race?

Rousseau, with his critique of private property and social inequality, is often thought of as a proto-socialist – his influence is evident in the work of Marx and Engels in the way that it turns the Lockean justification of private property rights on its head and here it seems obvious that socialism must incorporate feminism. Equality counts for nothing if it is just equality for whatever group of people happens to be ‘like me’ in certain respects.  This is why it is a dreadful mistake when socialist and other social justice movements accuse people raising feminist concerns of side-lining the main issues, as occurred in the recent arguments within the Socialist Workers’ Party.  If egalitarian principles are to be taken seriously, they must apply to all, and recognise not just class oppression, but the ways in which class oppression interacts with the oppression of various marginalised groups.  Socialism is not socialism if it is not socialism for all.

We might, then, make a similar criticism of feminists who exclude transgender people.  Feminism is not just about certain women who are considered to be ‘normal’ or archetypal women, since imposing this notion of normality is imposing one’s own hierarchical prejudice. Feminism has to take into account the conditions of all women, and that includes women of all races, women of all social classes, disabled women, lesbian and bisexual women, and trans women. So far, so obvious.

Unfortunately, it isn’t as simple as that.  Many of the feminists who take a decidedly unpleasant line on trans people are not daft.  We can, and should, react with anger at many of the things that they say, but we are making a mistake if we don’t think about why they would say these things.  What is the basis of the attacks that we have seen levelled by some feminists against trans women?  There are various different answers to this, but in different ways they tend to pertain to patriarchy.

Some of these arguments come from a gender essentialist perspective, while others are critical of trans women because they are critical of gender essentialism.  Essentialism means there is something essential in the experience of being a woman or a man, which can be reduced to, or necessarily correlates with, biological sex.  This view implies, roughly speaking, that only those born with ‘female’ bodies can have a woman’s experience.  From this it is maintained that trans women are claiming a woman’s experience and the history of female oppression as their own, entering all-female spaces, and so on, with no real understanding of female embodied experience.  From this perspective, trans women are regarded as men who, not content with patriarchal privilege, actually invade and take over the realm of the feminine.

The anti-gender essentialist view is that trans women themselves operate according to a sort of gender essentialism, based on the notion that they have a ‘female brain’ in a ‘male body’, and that this has to be corrected by making their body correspond to their ‘natural’ or ‘hard-wired’ personality traits.  The claim is then that trans women embody and perpetuate a culturally constructed stereotype of femininity that feminism should be in the business of challenging.  Gender, according to this view, is constructed in harmful ways which contribute to patriarchal oppression, and the trans woman is an extreme case of such a construction who makes claims about what it ‘really is’ to be a woman.

Although I present these two perspectives as a gender essentialist view and an anti-gender essentialist view, elements of both can be combined.  Sometimes this is straightforward incoherence and self-contradiction, but that isn’t necessarily the case.  There are a lot of shades and subtleties between a hard-line gender essentialist view and the view that there is nothing at all to gender apart from social constructions.  Many of the most interesting pieces in feminist philosophy, and also in philosophy of psychology and biology, actually challenge the very notion of drawing a nature/nurture distinction, according to which the former dictates what we ‘really’ are, and the latter is arbitrary, contingent and subject to change.

Recent transphobic remarks from some feminists reveal certain anxieties and concerns resulting from how cisgender women have been treated over the centuries.  There is a fear of the female impersonator who takes on a woman’s traits and clothing in order to mock her and render her powerless and ridiculous (Germaine Greer entitled the chapter on trans women in The Whole Woman ‘Pantomime Dames’).  Although some female impersonation in entertainment is done sensitively and effectively, there is often vicious cruelty behind it which is based on ridiculing the underprivileged from a perspective of privilege.  Some of the attackers of trans women, unnerved and angered by assaults of this kind, mistakenly regard both transsexual women and cross-dressing men as another case of this kind of oppression; but what this overlooks is trans women’s own first-person reports of their bodily experience.  It has long been a concern of feminism that people’s relationships with their own bodies should not be imposed on them by patriarchal hierarchies: we have subjective insights into our own bodily experiences that should not be silenced in favour of an external authority imposing an accepted norm.  In this regard, cisgender women are the ‘norm’, and trans women ‘the other’ within feminist circles.  And so, while feminist transphobia attacks trans women from the position of relative power and acceptance held by cisgender people, it is at the same time motivated by an anxiety that results from the patriarchal oppression of women.

So how should we respond to the arguments that are made against trans women?  Firstly I think we should note that regardless of the claims that trans women are not really women, many of these arguments are presented as though they are not even human beings.  There is a cruelty and insensitivity to them to which nobody should be subjected, often targeted at the precise things that are likely to make trans women feel insecure: their current or previous genitals for example, or visible features that may make it difficult for them to live their lives free from harassment, ridicule or even violence.  It is as though trans women have fallen into a gap between a perceived gender binary, and as such are not counted as human at all.  No sensible discussion can be had about these issues when this kind of attitude is at play, even if the anxiety that lies behind it is an understandable one.

Secondly, it is dangerous to think that any woman has a unique claim to an understanding of the whole ‘female experience’.  Each woman has a very different life history, and while we can always make claims about how we as women are treated and see the world, this is never only from a female perspective, but also from the perspective of someone within particular communities, with a particular race, class and cultural heritage.  I cannot simply claim that as a woman, I am omniscient about womanhood, and therefore get to determine who ‘counts’. This is a lesson to be learned from our own experience of patriarchy.

I have personally struggled to think about what it must be like to experience the sense of one’s body being the wrong sex, of sensing a certain alienation from one’s gender identity. I don’t know what it would be like, because my sex and gender are constantly present to me and I can’t step outside of them.  Each of us only has access to certain elements of female experience, and needs to listen to the voices of those whose experiences are different from our own.  Contrary to Burchill’s accusation of intellectual privilege, it is arrogant to argue against trans women based on theoretical abstractions about gender, when few people will have spent more time thinking about these issues, not just by reading books, but by struggling with a conflicted identity from an early age.

What of the gender essentialist and anti-gender essentialist arguments?  A brief response to the essentialist line is that it proceeds as though trans women retain some kind of male privilege.  This is clearly not the case, and they are often not fully recognised as women either.  To exclude someone from women’s spaces and from men’s spaces as well, in a rigidly gendered society such as ours, is to deny them full humanity.  In response to the anti-essentialist line it is simply false that trans women always incorporate and perpetuate restrictive models of femininity.  Consider the case of Chelsea (formerly known as Bradley) Manning. Is this someone who seems prepared to accept the status quo about how women are supposed to behave, or about anything else for that matter? Trans women are often actively engaged in challenging narrow gender stereotypes.

But most of these arguments miss the point altogether. We need to move beyond the issue of who ‘counts’ as really this or really that.  This is not what is important in this case.  Rousseau’s exclusion of women from full human status was based on claims about what he perceived as their ‘function’, which in turn was based in what he saw as their true nature, taken separately from social and cultural considerations.  The shape of the argument is broadly: ‘women are like this, therefore this is what women are for, therefore this is how women should be treated’.  This line of thought has to be treated with care.  It was what motivated Aristotle’s view that while men’s aim should be to cultivate wisdom and virtue in their own characters, women’s functions lay in their capacity to serve the needs of men. We cannot begin our enquiries into how people should be treated by looking for traits that differentiate them from other people - by engaging in a pseudo-scientific enquiry and then thinking that this has automatic moral and political implications.  Sometimes it is better to do things the other way around – to identify injustice, exclusion and maltreatment, and then think about what is wrong with our labels. We saw a great deal of confusion over this issue in the same-sex marriage debate. The idea that marriage ‘just is’ between a man and a woman is a moral claim, not a metaphysical one, but the opponents of same-sex marriage took it to be the latter and then drew the unsurprising moral conclusions that they did from it, accusing same-sex marriage advocates of 1984-style newspeak. Those who disputed the definition were themselves charged with harming freedom of expression.

Labels are a way of making sense of the world around us, and this is often taken as a way of characterising how things already were all along without subjective social and political concerns coming into play, but very often, our labels are as much an active process of changing and shaping our world as they are a mere passive means of recording it. For feminists, the acceptance of trans women is not a matter of how they are like or unlike us. The demand for recognition as women should be regarded as a demand of social justice, and not a demand of metaphysics. It is a humane and political act more than it is an enquiry about woman’s ‘true’ nature and who can fit into a certain category.


Liz McKinnell is a research associate in the School of Philosophy at the University of East Anglia. Her PhD is in Environmental Philosophy, and she currently teaches in areas relating to ethics, political philosophy and the history of philosophy.


[1] I use the word ‘trans’ to mean ‘transsexual’, i.e. someone whose experienced gender does not correspond to what is judged to be their biological sex, and who may undergo treatment to enable them to live more easily as their experienced gender. Sometimes the word is used more broadly to include transvestites and other categories, to whom some of the points that I make in this piece, but not all of them, will apply. Thus, when I refer to ‘trans women’, I mean those who are born with ‘male’ anatomical features, but who live as women. ‘Cisgender’, or ‘cis’, refers to those who experience a correspondence between their bodies and their lived gender. These terms (and their definitions) are controversial, as any choice of terminology in a debate with disputed categories is bound to be.

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