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.