What Makes a Woman (Rebuttal)

In an opinion piece in the New York Times, Elinor Burkett writes a sincere but disjointed analysis of what she thinks the ideas put forth by Caitlyn Jenner and Chelsea Manning and Caitlyn Jenner’s coming out as somewhat of a hyper-feminine socialite type of woman. She felt like this portrayal of a woman set back Feminism and was at odds with it. She cites the fact that Lawrence H. Summers was pretty much crucified for saying there were differences in brains between male and female – but when Caitlyn Jenner claims that her brain was “more female than male” that she was put on a pedestal and given awards for courage.

During most of the article Ms. Burkett still uses the male pronoun to refer to Ms. Jenner – but at the end concedes to support Trans people. However her words prior to that were anything but supportive.

I understand that at some level, as she expresses that she has fought most of her life to challenge the idea that women should be put in a box, that there is no stereotypical woman (at the same time saying that Caitlyn Jenner seemed to be representing a stereotype).

I understand her anger – as I think that the words that Trans people use to describe their experience can be problematic in that way – it reduces identity to a series of minor differences in the brain, however studies done on brain differences are very consistent about part of what they think may be indicative of identity – however the stereotype that a woman is more sensitive emotionally or that one fits into a woman-box is as preposterous as that men fit into the “man box” – and honestly – I think the unfortunate words that Ms. Jenner and Ms. Manning use are an incomplete explanation at best – and damaging at worst.

When I was diagnosed intersex (Klinefelter’s Mosaicism, which means that 1/3rd of my cells are 47,XXY) at 37 years of age – which was indicated because of my whole host of autoimmune and neurological issues (including autism), I had a few Trans people say that they wished they were intersex. Of course they didn’t take into account that being intersex was a medical disability for me.

One may ask why this idea was important – because after all, in my mind, I wished I wasn’t – my autism – I had learned to see as a gift in some sense, but the other physical and neurological problems had cursed me my whole life. Even sex reassignment sat beyond my reach, as recovering from such major surgery would have been difficult and arduous – and could cause issues with healing. I had to learn to deal with my body on terms I had never wanted to, and was difficult, at best.

However – I think – and I felt it and somewhat still do, that Trans people have all kinds of expectations to explain why they feel the way they do. The need to have some kind of explanation ready, leads to inconsistent and incomplete ideas being put forth. Up until recently, the DSM classified being trans as a mental illness, and before that, a paraphilia. So in some ways we need to take into account society’s judgement coming out in Ms. Jenner’s explanation.

I transitioned early for the time period – I was 22 when I started, and in many ways – I experienced – even earlier the “drip, drip, drip” of social experiences common to many women. However in Ms. Burkett’s words – I would never experience difficulties because of menstruation or the fear of being pregnant after sex with a man because they may have forgotten to take their birth control (by the way – not sure most lesbians experience that particular feeling either – and they are decidedly women). She also mentions a whole host of other “female” experiences, including men talking to their breasts and objectification, humiliation finding male work colleagues had bigger paychecks, and fear of not being able to ward off rapists.

While Ms. Jenner may not have experienced those things – Ms. Burkett is discounting experiences of many transwomen, many who are the target of physical violence including rape, and she assumes that transwomen don’t experience objectification (when many are seen as fetish objects – especially when they “pass” well.) The experiences of many Trans women are exactly the same. I am 90% sure that my male colleagues were paid more than I was throughout my career in IT, and I have had people objectify me and talk to my chest instead of towards my face. More problematic, however in that reducing a woman’s experience to all these things – she puts women right back in the box. She isn’t taking into account that “woman” can be a wide range of experience and an infinite range of possibilities.

Yes, Ms Jenner has enjoyed a healthy heaping of male privilege – many Trans women would not disagree with this idea, in fact once upon a time – I generally placed Trans women into two different types (erroneously) – but one of them was those – like me that transitioned younger and had the typical struggles women – and even specifically Trans women have (in some cases – the “drip” of the gendered environment can be even harsher on many Trans women, especially those who do not “pass” as well, or cannot afford surgeries), and the other personified in our popular culture now as Caitlyn Jenner. They spent most of their life accruing male privilege, and then used it all to make an overnight transition – including feminization surgeries. Ms. Burkett is somewhat correct in her assessment of this. It’s a split in Trans communities that many Trans women have an issue with as well. However – to call gender a “social construct” flies completely in the face of almost any hard science look into this. We can look to identical twin experiments in epigenetics to see where there might be more to gender identity than a social construct. The lovely Laverne Cox and her cisgender identical twin certain come to mind. They were raised in the same environments, and have the same genes, yet something caused them to be different. It ignores the high amount of cross gender feelings among those with intersex conditions that were assigned one gender at birth, and it certainly ignores the experience of the late David Reimer, who was “made female” at birth and given hormones by Dr. John Money – and who came to regard himself as male again and said he never “felt female” – despite being treated as one for his whole childhood. Any scientist would start looking for another cause or something associated with gender identity that is not purely social.

She goes on to lament the loss of female identifying words – specifically regarding the word “vagina” – and how it seems many Trans people (arguably a small percent and probably the loudest – so it’s understandable why she feels this way) are protesting events like Martha Plimpton’s “A Night of a Thousand Vaginas” and even presentations of Eve Ensler’s “Vagina Monologues” as “exclusionary” (for what it’s worth – as a Trans woman with no vagina or uterus – I actually agree – that reproductive rights are an issue that concerns people who can carry children – but in my mind – it concerns all of us having the right to control our bodies). She feels it is wrong to include Trans men who still have working reproductive organs – but why should they be excluded from the same rights – and I can certainly see where they would have an issue of being called “women”. I think in terms of medical access – gender neutral language that includes Trans men and those who do not ID as women who need reproductive care is important too. It would be criminal to turn them away or not provide care, or make them feel unwelcome. This is an area where I don’t feel it is erasure of women’s experience – but instead including those who may need care who aren’t of that experience.

As usual, the radical voices in the Trans community are the loudest however – and yes – any radical or reactionary faction will by nature have extreme points of view. This is not the opinion of all Trans people.

She also goes on to say that “Three times as many gender reassignment surgeries are performed on men” (again invalidating the fact that transwomen are women – while towards the end claiming to be supportive of Trans rights) – not taking into account that gender reassignment for Trans men is still – and has been since I could remember – been stuck in the stone ages. This is where male privilege has served Trans women much better than Trans men – as doctors can create a mostly functional vagina much easier than they can create a mostly functional penis – in fact I dont think much research has gone into how to do this.  The closest thing to working GRS for Trans men is an operation where they release an enlarged clitoris (via testosterone) from the clitoral hood – creating a small penis. I personally think the disparity is criminal – but the reason for the difference in amounts of surgery between Trans women and Trans men is because of that – not because “men” feel constrained to break out of society and out of the man box – so they become women. That idea is truly preposterous – even on it’s surface.

So by getting many facts wrong, using language that shows how she really feels about Trans people in general, I question her sincerity on being supportive of the right to self-identify, even though she seems to say this at the end of her opinion. I understand she feels that the changing world is invalidating her and many cisgender women’s experiences – and she may have some valid feelings – but many are based on incomplete information, misconceptions and fallacies, and her words of support at the end come off as disingenuous, at best, because of the consistent need to invalidate Trans experience as women (and men) just as she says that Trans experience invalidates hers. There is a completely compatible view in feminism amongst those who are cisgender and transgender women – and the men that support us, but she doesn’t seem to want to find the common ground as many women do – who have different experiences of identity.

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One response to “What Makes a Woman (Rebuttal)

  1. Pingback: A Woman Is More Than the Sum of Her Parts -

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