Alex Sharpe is Professor of Law at Keele University
Let’s begin by recognising that women, as a collective group, face many serious problems in today’s society. These include, but are not exhausted by, sexual and physical violence, workplace harassment, a domestic division of labour, sexist media representation and slut shaming. There are also a range of other important issues that affect particular groups of women, such as, and perhaps most notably, female genital mutilation. In view of these issues, and at least in relation to some, their obvious urgency, one would think that who counts as a ‘real’ women would be low down, very low down, on any list of feminist priorities.
Any yet, it is precisely this issue of who counts as a woman that continues to preoccupy us. Most recently, Jenny Murray, host of the radio 4 show, Woman’s Hour, has helpfully reminded us that, although she is not “transphobic or anti-trans,” trans women “are not ‘real’ women.” Murray is the latest in a long-line of privileged cisgender media personalities to use their privilege, and considerable media platform, to take it upon themselves to be the arbiters of which women count as ‘real’ and which do not.
Let’s focus on this question of ‘realness,’ and not allow ourselves to be distracted by issues of free speech and censorship which inevitably arise in the wake of twitter storms and the weighing in of those keen to defend Jenny’s right to tell the ‘truth,’ or at least to express her opinion. For my concern here is not to become embroiled in an argument over whether celebrities like Jenny Murray, Germaine Greer, Julie Bindel, Ian McEwan or Barry Humphries have a right to express their (usually ill-informed) opinions, or embarrass themselves publicly. That is, it is not the said or the sayable with which I am concerned, but the politics and ethics of claims about ‘realness’ itself.
Thus, it is one thing to say that transgender women are different to cisgender women. After all, there are clearly some obvious differences, though we should not overstate them, nor fail to recognise obvious differences that cut across the set of women we call Cis. It is however, quite another to say that trans woman are not ‘real.’ This latter claim speaks not to difference, but to humanness. Trans women are clearly ‘real,’ that is, living, breathing women. To invoke the trope of ‘realness’ is immediately to imagine artificial lives and bodies that act as its mirror. In other words, when Murray appeals to the ‘real,’ what she is essentially saying is that there is, or ought to be, a hierarchy of women. At the top sit ‘real’ women like Murray, Greer and Bindel, while lower down, much lower down, sit trans women, the unreal, or less real. Lest the reader think that I place too much emphasis on distinguishing between ‘gender difference’ and ‘gender realness,’ let’s not pretend that a savvy feminist like Murray is unattuned to the distinction. In other words, this is not a semantic issue, or one of ‘political correctness’ (and please, let us not be side-tracked by those sirens).
The real issue here, at least for those feminists for whom the gender status of transgender women assumes such disproportionate importance, is the resentment they harbour toward transgender women, a resentment born of suffering. This becomes clear from Murray’s insistence that being a ‘real’ woman requires having been subjected to a particular socialisation experience, and given her other comments about male privilege, it is clear that this experience is understood as uniformly negative. In other words, suffering appears central to the experience of being a woman, it is, on this account, what constitutes the category. This outlook is problematic in at least three senses.
First, it ties woman to suffering in such a way that the gender credentials of anyone who has not truly suffered are brought into question. Second, if suffering and/or lack of privilege are the determinants of what it means to be a woman, then surely we must acknowledge the varying degrees of suffering and lack of privilege that cut across the class of cisgender women. Indeed, if suffering and lack of privilege are its benchmarks, we might perhaps wonder about the gender status of many women, and especially white middle-class women like Murray. Third, the notion that transgender women lack female socialisation and/or that they have enjoyed male privilege is disingenuous in several respects. To begin with, female socialisation is an experience transgender women acquire once they commence transition, and while some do so later in life due to systemic cissexism and transphobia, it is occurring, and thankfully, at increasingly younger ages. In these senses, the socialisation argument is a bogus one. Turning to privilege, the notion that all men enjoy privilege, let alone those who have had to pretend to be men for significant periods of their lives, detracts from the way in which privilege travels along axes other than gender. Certainly, most men in our society lack the privilege and platform enjoyed by women like Murray. In relation to transgender women, few would identify ‘privilege’ as a salient feature of autobiography.
Finally, the other theme to which Murray alludes, and which apparently sheds light on ‘realness,’ is trans women’s alleged lack of a feminist consciousness. This is a curious point to make for at least two reasons. First, it is quite obvious that many trans women are politically active feminists, and second, it is equally clear that Cis women, in general, are not. It is perhaps a good thing too, at least if feminism is to be so lacking in empathy. To feminists like Murray, I say on International Women’s Day, ‘get real.’