Why are we so incapable of defining women without reference to men?
I have been reading and reflecting on Dr Finn Mackay’s recent book “Female Masculinities”. Too much of the whole sex/gender debate centres on “what is a woman”, and men go largely unexamined, so I went into this hoping for women’s perspectives on what it means for them to be masculine.
However, what I came away with was: why are we so incapable of defining women without reference to men?
Reading the book’s analysis of societal attitudes to sex and gender, I could not help but think over and over that the root of all of this problem is language, in that we simply don’t have a word for “female masculinity” that is not tethered to the male sex.
We can look at, say, a male athlete and regard them as someone who exists at the very limit of what is possible to achieve with the human body, in terms of strength or speed or endurance. They can very easily be regarded as one sort of archetype of masculinity - and yet there is no female equivalent. We do not look at a female, embodying the peak of human performance for her sex, and say that this is femininity. Rather, society is much more likely to consider them in some sense masculine - reinforcing that the positive qualities they are embodying are those associated with the expectations of maleness.
So I apologise if this is not exactly a novel observation, but it is the fact that masculinity and femininity are linguistically set up in opposition, while still being firmly associated with sex that is the problem. That there are no words for women who are strong or athletic or dominant or powerful that are a reflection and embodiment of what it is to be female.
This is the kind of observation that feminists have been making forever - that the positing of masculine and feminine as opposites (and tied to the male and female sex, respectively) creates a hierarchy, where positive qualities for males to possess are seen as negative in females, and vice versa.
The whole issue really with the current debate on gender and gender identity is that the loud and aggressive activism that has been so successful in taking root in our institutions does absolutely nothing to undo this association, but instead reinforces and essentialises it. Attempting to retain the qualities of masculine and feminine, and pretending they somehow relate to essential qualities of men and women or male and female, yet are still untethered from sex, creates this absurd situation where nonconformity becomes impossible. That is, to express the “gender of woman” means that you really are “woman” in some sense, and this is now termed having a “gender identity” that supersedes your sex.
No-one seems to question: why is a transwoman even called a transwoman at all? This is not an immutable fact about the world, it is a social construct, one with a short history and a specific intent. If wikipedia is to be believed, this was coined by Leslie Feinberg around 25 years ago to refer to "a male-to-female transgender or transsexual person”.
So, this name stems from the idea that a man somehow moves across their gender or sex, with the intent of becoming (or at least being regarded as) a woman. The naming contains within it that desire - the man becoming renamed as the woman they want to be. A transwoman.
But why not a transman? It makes just as much logical sense to talk about the man in terms of “away from the gender or sex they started at” as it does in terms of “towards the gender or sex they want to become”. The naming stems not from utility or logic, but from desire.
Given the subsequent shift from talking about transsexuality in terms of bodily modification and instead increasingly optional gender expression, this alternative formulation would sit far better as a label for any and all gender non-conformity. A man who defies the gendered box that society wants to put them in. A transman.
From this simple linguistic decision - to name trans people in terms of a set gender they are moving towards, rather than one they are moving away from - comes all of the issues we currently now face. In order for “transwoman” to make sense, then “woman” has to be a fixed destination. Gender has to remain, based on stereotypes, or a transwoman cannot be any kind of woman. Those who want to dismantle the regressive box of gender find themselves in opposition to those who should be natural allies, but aren’t, because the language they use is totally reliant on the existence of those same boxes.
Bluntly, if men who were “transgender” were called “transmen”, then the last few years of legislative insanity simply wouldn’t have happened. “Transwomen are women” would simply mean that gender nonconforming women are women, and that no matter how you presented everyone of the female sex was a woman. That no woman should be “othered” for their “masculine” presentation. This cleaner language does not satisfy the underlying desire to be seen as - or truly become - the other.
But we are where we are, yet I find it fascinating how many people are quick to decry biological sex as a social construct offer absolutely no examination of totally invented terms with a very short and questionable history. Our thinking on this subject is hemmed in by language we can’t seem to escape, and this lack of language limits our ability to even conceptualise an alternative.
In the part of the book I personally got the most out of, Finn talks at length about the reality of being a gender nonconforming woman, and the social punishment meted out to those who step outside of acceptable norms. It is very, very easy to sit on the sidelines and tell nonconforming women to “just be a nonconforming woman”, when you are simply not personally subject to the same kind of routine social stigma. Later in the book there are a series of interviews with gender-nonconforming women of various self-identifications, all of whom talk about masculinity in similar ways, about the othering they have experienced, and about how they see masculinity, what it means to them to be a masculine female. Throughout all of this, everything about these interviews makes it clear to me that a masculine female is not a man.
In Lola Olufemi’s “Feminism, Interrupted”, there is the argument put forward that “woman” is a political umbrella term, for everyone oppressed by “patriarchy”. This includes transwomen and transmen. Everyone that men want to exclude, lumped together as non-men. It is to my mind a staggeringly counterproductive worldview, somehow lauded as progressive.
But it does make clear that, for all that it is tacked on as an afterthought to the “transwomen are women” mantra, transmen are not men. Very few people seriously argue that they are, at least in the same way as they argue that transwomen are women - when they are even mentioned at all, that is. There is no serious demand to always house transmen in male prisons, nor are they lauded for success as leaders in politics or business in a way that is threatening to heterosexual men, and are mostly celebrated for giving birth.
It is much easier for men to persuade the world that they can be women than that women can be men, because men have already spent centuries steering culture and language such that women are already the objectified subjects of the male gaze. If a man can be made to look like the sex object a man wants a woman to be, then that man is a woman. Masculinity is seen as a positive state, which men can lose, and thus be emasculated - moving inevitably to a lesser, effeminate state.
Thus gender-nonconforming men are “othered” - leaving male gender norms unchallenged - and women are further objectified. Accepting transwomen as women serves the interest of men, and preserves rigid gender norms - and so does the acceptance that transmen are also “other”.
The technology to actually create a penis that functions anything like a real one does not exist - and if it did, transmen would be the last to get it.
On some level everyone knows this. That if we could actually surgically create a working penis, the first thing that would happen is that all the billionaire men would get designer twelve-inch ones.
Is it so unrealistic to consider that the bodies of the most disposable and denigrated members of society - gender nonconforming women, lesbians - are being used as a playground for experimental surgery that rich men will one day benefit from?
Still, faced with this as-yet insurmountable technological hurdle, a huge amount of time and space is given to the deconstruction of masculinity and manhood in a way that tries very hard not to centre the penis so as to allow women to be considered men, but I think this is ultimately unconvincing and fools nobody. You cannot critique thousands of years of phallocentric psychology and cultural dominance if your very first move is to set aside the phallus as a point of reference. Without that it is just gender-nonconforming women writing themselves in circles trying to decide just where on the non-man spectrum masculine women fall.
For anyone steeped in the sex/gender debate who comes down on the “sex is real, immutable and important” side (as I do), I think Finn’s book provides one of the better articulations of an alternative viewpoint. I did not always agree with what was put forward - especially which elements are framed as “anti-trans” - and much of what was said I was already aware of, but I think it is important to stress that this is largely coming from the understandable perspective that societal acceptance of diverse sexuality and fluidity of gender is threatened by the forces of the reactionary right.
Different groups arrive at superficially similar places on the sex/gender/trans debate from different directions - and that matters, because those indicate where you want to go next. Some want a different vision of a progressive future where there is no suggestion that a gender-nonconforming child is in some way an “opposite gender”, while some want a return to more conservative, traditional modes of behaviour.
Finn is right to point to the danger of political alliances between those of radically different intent, and that those of a progressive view are being used as cover for those pushing a more reactionary agenda, to the wider detriment of women and LGB people. However, even though this is more nuanced than the position Judith Butler has put forward, I felt there was little acknowledgement that the reason for those alliances in the first place is because of a kind of authoritarianism that has overtaken purported liberal activism. An absolutist worldview where there is one and only one way forward, and anyone not on board is branded a tool of the right, a hateful bigot or at least bigot-adjacent. The failure of the “left” to provide space for sane discussion is driven by a fear of coded language and dogwhistles, of being used by a right-wing bogeyman to legitimate an argument by discussing it.
One of the things that stood out to me was Finn saying that in “queer” spaces she will be referred to as he/him, but in wider society she will be she/her. This to me is an important point - that the recognition of fluidity of pronouns is largely a subcultural phenomenon, and if treated that way it poses precisely no threat to wider society, law, rights, or anything else. Finn recognises that these terms are contingent, contextual, a product of recognition within a specific group.
The sort of playful and subversive use of names, pronouns, roles, expression, whatever, have been part of subcultures forever, and having a different mode of address among friends or lovers or relatives or even just strangers in the right space is entirely normal and something to be embraced. But just because someone you have known and loved for years calls you “he” instead of “she”, because they know and love you, doesn’t mean that a random barista who doesn’t go along with it hates you, or a work colleague who refuses to put their pronouns in their email signature is a bigot. Finn seems to understand that this distinction exists, and this is a refreshing change from those who demand to be called “she” or “they” at all times.
However, the wider issue now is the coercive imposition of universal observance of such terms, along with state recognition and protection that they represent some absolute truth about the person, the denial of which constitutes an act of hate. Political parties and their cheerleaders across the political spectrum have become gripped by this belief that contrary views are intolerant and must be excluded, to prevent anyone hearing them and being persuaded to also be intolerant. It is a kind of ivory-tower totalitarianism-for-your-own-good.
Finn seems willing to acknowledge the diversity of views, and that there are indeed legitimate progressive opinions on this, but still comes down on the side of viewing them as misguided. That the ignorant or fearful or simply mistaken need to be persuaded on board the “true” ship of progress and away from the siren song of “the right”. I wish there was a stronger commitment to defending those voices that are trying to discuss in good faith, rather than allowing them to be demonised in increasingly hysterical terms.
Finn points out that the real common enemy that all women should be united against is male sexual violence, but I don’t see how you can stand up to that unless you can accurately name it.
There is a chapter on Michfest that goes into great detail about the way the festival collapsed over the years and descended into ever more paranoid policing of gender along the way, but the account doesn’t mention the Dana Rivers murders.
This is a part where I found myself questioning my own bias, because I largely know about Michfest because of the Dana Rivers murders. Is my perspective of the festival skewed because of the kinds of sources I have received information from? Almost certainly, but then this incident is such a stark example of the male sexual violence at the centre of this debate the omission still seems notable.
Leaving all that aside, I still was left feeling that Finn did not name the problem. Men violating women’s boundaries in women’s spaces causes women to police those boundaries more strongly, invariably to the detriment of gender nonconforming women.
The fact that it is men doing the violating is once again hidden by language that pretends they are a kind of woman. This puts the onus on the majority of women to be more accepting, and is critical of the reactionary descent into more firmly questioning those suspected of “being men”.
To me, the problem lies with men, and that before men routinely violated boundaries at Michfest, such policing was far less of an issue. So it seems like a straightforward ask to me: stop covering for the men who are violating women’s boundaries by calling them women, and instead enable women to have spaces for themselves without men, no matter what those men call themselves.
My reading of this story is one of a descent into factionalism, with increasingly brazen boundary violations opposed by some and celebrated by others, and in that it is a microcosm of how the current sex/gender debate has divided women.
The combination of language that obscures sex, and a massive social penalty for not adhering to this language, creates a toxic situation where the issues of male boundary violation not only cannot be clearly named, but that any ensuing battle focuses on the language used to name that violation, rather than the violation itself.
This is a book that is dense with citations and builds upon earlier literature, and sometimes not in a straightforward way. A genealogy for an idea might be put forward, discussing different opposing viewpoints that were developed over time, which is interesting, but it also left me feeling that I should have read 50 other books before tackling this one.
It was not a book that flattered my intellect, but left me with a sense that any opinion I might venture had probably been covered before, in great detail, by someone else.
Which is in some ways a good thing, because isn’t that the hallmark of male arrogance - to wade into well-trod ground knowing precious little and declare that you have the answer?
Still, having read through and reflected on this book, I keep returning to the fact that so much of our current battle is linguistic. That the mantra “transwomen are women” only exists because of specific way that term was coined. That value judgements and sex stereotypes are inherent in the construction of the words “masculine” and “feminine”, and so we keep falling into the same traps of reinforcing what we are trying to deconstruct.
Fundamentally, I don’t see a way forward until we have a word for “female masculinity” that is both positive and not tied to the male sex at all.