What is a woman?

Traduction Française

Again and again I hear people criticise women generally, and feminists in particular, for not accepting transwomen as “real” women and for “excluding” them. Trans people are oppressed, they say, and these so-called exclusionary behaviours and attitudes create the dogma behind this oppression just as racism is the dogma behind the oppression of Black people. It is misguided, they say, and dangerous and is called transphobia, which makes you, me, anyone who doesn’t agree with them, a bigot who deserves to go to hell with all fascists and racists.

But when feminists try to explain that of course they oppose all discrimination and violence against trans people, but there are issues that are complicated that we need to look at, discuss, understand, it seems that our accusers won’t listen. (Not that this is a surprise – not listening to women is, after all, a major characteristic of male supremacy.) In this essay I try to explain some of these issues by drawing on my own personal experiences in the feminist understanding that the personal is political – that patriarchy is a political system and it operates in the personal sphere. And without examining the personal sphere, we cannot fully understand the system. I have changed names and minor details because my points are political and I do not want to identify or mean to criticise any of the other individuals involved.

1. The sleepover

Some time ago a progressive organisation I belong to held a weekend event in London and asked members who live there to offer overnight accommodation to people from out of town. I offered my spare room and shortly afterwards I got an email saying that someone called Frankie would be staying and would contact me to make the arrangements. Sure enough, Frankie phoned and asked if it would be possible to stay on the Friday night as well as the Saturday. I agreed and gave him my address and directions. After I put the phone down, I wondered if it had been a mistake to not specify a woman. Never mind, I thought, my housemates will be there – three of us to one of him. What can go wrong?

At about 5pm on the Friday evening my phone rings. “Hello,” I say.

“This is Frankie. I’m outside, why don’t you open the door?” he says.

“I didn’t hear the doorbell,” I say, walking down the corridor towards the front door. I open the door and there’s no one there.

“Open the door,” he says again.

“I have opened the door but you’re not outside,” I say.

“I am outside. Open the door,” he says, sounding increasingly aggressive. Eventually I persuade him that he must be at the wrong house or in the wrong street and I go out of my front gate and look up and down the road, thinking, “Typical bloody men, always assuming they are right”. After a while I see someone walking up the street. A tall man – about six foot – with a slim muscular build – narrow hips, flat chest and broad shoulders. He’s wearing men’s casual clothes and trainers. When he gets closer, he introduces himself as Frankie and when we shake hands I catch a strong whiff of stale male sweat and notice his clothes are filthy and he has several days’ worth of stubble on his chin.

I take him in and show him his room and then take him down and make him tea. We chat for a while and agree to have supper at about 7.30. He asks if he can take a shower and I say of course. After giving him a clean towel, I go up to my room. When I come down later to make the meal, he is standing on the landing wearing a cocktail dress and huge patent leather high heels. I smile and say, “Nice frock” and carry on to the kitchen, although I sense he wants more attention. But I am a feminist, I try not to do the feminine thing of taking care of men emotionally and anyway dresses and heels are really not my thing.

As we eat, he asks me how to get to the venue in the morning. I tell him that I have a commitment that means I won’t be able to go with him but I will see him there later in the day. I explain how I would go – taking the tube to the nearest station and walking the last part of the way. “How far is that?” he asks.

“About 10 or 15 minutes I think.”

“I can’t walk that far in my heels,” he says.

I laugh and say, “That’s right! Men should wear heels, not women.”

“But I am a woman,” he says.

I gasp, trying not to laugh. “OK,” I say, thinking, if he is a woman, then what the fuck am I? After a few moments I say, “So what does being a woman mean to you?”

“It means I have something fragile inside,” he says in a little girl voice, touching his hand to his chest and stroking it in circles.

“So women are fragile?” I say, thinking of the strength it has taken me to survive in this sexist world, to give birth, to raise a child alone, to make a life on my own terms. He looks away, clearly embarrassed.

Then he turns to me again and says, “I am transgendered.”

“Look,” I say. “I totally accept you as you are – I have no problem if you want to wear heels and dresses and present however you like. But to me gender is the social roles that women and men are forced into in order to maintain the whole patriarchal capitalist enterprise.”

“Oh, I see gender as performance,” he says. “A lot of the time in my daily life, I pass as a man. But the rest of the time, I perform the real me, as a woman.” He swirls his arms from side to side, his hands dropped a bit and stretched out in a campy sort of way.

“Right,” I say.

“I’m not interested in surgery and probably not hormones, either,” he says flattening down the skirt of his dress with the palms of his hands. “I see my body as a woman’s body so I don’t see the need to change it. But living in [he names a small provincial town] I get absolutely no support.”

I want to explain the feminist way of looking at gender but he goes on and on and it’s hard to get a word in edgeways. And when I do manage it, he doesn’t listen and just carries on talking over me. Just like a man, I think. But he’s only here for two nights, so I go with the flow and try to make him feel comfortable and that I accept him as he is, even if I don’t agree with him on everything. Then I show him where the breakfast things are and I leave him in the company of my house mates who have just arrived back. I go upstairs to my room and close the door, exhaling with relief.

I feel really agitated. I can’t settle. I pace up and down. He has a male body, he looks like a man, he smells like a man, he acts like a man. He is a man, for fuck’s sake. But some of the time (not all of the time) he wears women’s clothes – party clothes it seems. I know that according to the new dogma, if I don’t consider him a woman and accept him as a woman, I am transphobic; I am a TERF (a Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminist). Because according to this dogma if a man “identifies” as a woman, then they are a woman. Full stop. But right then, in that moment everything inside me was screaming that that is wrong. Completely wrong.

2. What does being a woman mean to me?

I reflect on my life, on my experience of living as a woman. I try to understand what being a woman means to me. What is particular to my experience of being a female human being rather than a male one?

Do I identify as a woman? Is it a choice? Did I ever choose to be a woman? And the answer is clear. No. It was never a choice. On that autumn night long ago in the early 1950s, the midwife took one look at my external genitals and that was that. I was a girl. An immature female person. Who would grow into a woman, an adult female person. Whether I liked it or not. And by the way, the midwife did not “assign me female”. No. She recognised me for what I was – a baby female human being. A baby girl.

And that’s how I was treated. As a girl. Whether I liked it or not. And I didn’t like it. Not at all. As a little girl, I longed and longed to be a boy. Because I could see that boys have more freedom. Boys are taken seriously. Boys are safer. Boys aren’t afraid all the time. All of that was completely clear to my 5, 6, 7-year old eyes. But I was a girl. I couldn’t change that and I was afraid.

My father sexually abused me. Because I was a girl. “I hurt you, rip you open and make you bleed because you are bad. You are cunt. You are whore. You are a tease.” In this way I learnt that I deserved my own abuse. And this assured my silence. Because to speak of it would be to reveal that I deserved it. That it was all I was good for. So I was silent. And in the daytime world, he ridiculed me, like he ridiculed my mother. And when he ridiculed her, he ridiculed me because I knew that I was growing up in her image and not in his. As girl. As future woman.

When my period came, I learnt the most important rule of womanhood: you must never ever ever let it show. No matter that you can’t control the slow warm oozing between your legs. No matter that a small amount of blood makes such a startling amount of mess. No matter that it has a sweet pungent smell. You must always keep on top of it and not let anyone know or see or smell any evidence of it. If I hadn’t understood before, now it was abundantly clear. This female body is disgusting. Shameful.

And then along with the always present fear of being assaulted and raped, now came the new fear of pregnancy. Another thing that you can’t control. When a girl in the village got pregnant at 13, she was the one who was shamed. Not the 30-year old farm labourer who raped her and made her pregnant. Of course he got off scot free. And of course it was rape because how could she at 13 give informed consent when she barely, if at all, even knew the so-called “facts of life”? He was free. Free from shame and free from the lifelong, lifelong, aftermath of grief and confusion when her newborn baby was taken away for adoption and she was left alone and bereft and motherless because her mother had already died, killed by another violent man. The girl was shamed. And ashamed. And my mother told the 10-year old me about all this with glee. Just in case I hadn’t realised that being female meant a life of shame which is assuaged only by seeing the greater shame of your more unfortunate sisters.

And with puberty came so many more judgements. Frigid; cock-tease; frumpy; slut; puppy fat; blue stocking; nymphomaniac; shrill; castrating; ugly; bitch; whore; hysterical. Trapped between the judgements and the terror of pregnancy and the confusion borne of earlier sexual predators, I was broken. A deformed flower.

And the boys, my contemporaries. What happened to them? They blossomed of course. They sowed their wild oats and grew strong and confident and celebrated their so obvious superiority. Never for one moment questioning that they may not be so superior after all. That they were simply winners in a rigged system.

I learned that I was only worth something if I could attract a boy. If I had a boyfriend. I learned that lesbianism was shameful and unthinkable because to live without putting men first was heresy and that without my own man, I was nothing. Nothing at all. I learned that boys don’t like intelligent girls. So I pretended I wasn’t intelligent. I learned never to upset a boy or a man. I learned to laugh at their jokes, even when they weren’t funny. Especially when they weren’t funny. I learned that I was always to be judged on how I looked. I was told I had to suffer to look beautiful. But that I did resist. I may have been smart but it wasn’t until I was well into my fifth decade that I understood that wearing the clothes of femininity – the high heels, the push up bra, the dresses, the make up – is not actually about looking beautiful but about showing that you are playing the gender game. It’s a code to show that you believe the social roles prescribed by patriarchy, that you agree to those rules and agree to play the game as prescribed. That you agree to femininity so that men can be superior. Because if they had no one to be superior to, they would just be equal. Of course.

Life is relentless and with hardly knowing safety or validation, I found myself an adult woman. Without the first clue about how to protect myself or even the inkling of an idea that I was worth protecting and fighting for. I fell victim to assault by men. Countless men. Again and again. I was raped.

My periods settled into a rhythm that matched the moon. Each month I noticed subtle changes in mood, desire, appetite, even the way my body smelt. As challenging as managing my periods was, I couldn’t deny that this rhythm was awe inspiring, that it showed me I was part of a greater cosmic order.

I was the average height of a woman of my generation, which was six inches smaller than the average height of a man. And not only were the vast majority of men significantly taller than me, they have a much higher ratio of muscle to body mass. No one had taught me how, small and soft though I may be, there are techniques that I could use to protect myself if I was attacked. No one had taught me to protect my boundaries. No one had told me I could shout and scream and kick and yell. I was afraid. When I was alone in the house, I was afraid. When I went out alone in the dark, I was afraid. When I walked in the countryside alone, I was afraid. Fear was never far from my consciousness.

And then I found feminism. And it showed me that there is a system, a very real system, called patriarchy, and all these things I had experienced worked together to maintain that system and to keep men on top. For men’s benefit. And I discovered the wonder of the company of women, of women-only spaces, where women can tell the truths that they seldom speak in the presence of men. I discovered that we share a commonality. That all that I had experienced was familiar to the other women. Not every detail, of course, but none of it was totally unknown to them. As their experience was familiar to me. And in this we understood that in fact it wasn’t our fault, as we had been taught it was and as we had dutifully learned. That our bodies aren’t shameful. That we do have the right to set our own boundaries, to say no and to have that heard, and to speak our own truth. And in fact it is imperative. Our silence helps to maintain the system. Breaking our silence challenges the system. Every time we speak out, the system is weakened.

So slowly, slowly, I began to feel more at ease. I fell in love. I discovered that I could have sex on my own terms. I discovered that contrary to all I’d been told, women’s sexuality is not a passive thing, the vagina is not just a hole, a repository for the all-important penis. The clitoris, alone of all human organs, has no function other than pleasure. It has more nerve endings than any other human organ and is more extensive than the male penis. Most of it is internal, wrapping around the vagina and sweeping up to the cervix. So that once the waves of pleasure really start to flow, they sweep right through me, through my whole body, so my entire being resonates with the primordial hum of the universe and I float out among stars. And this changed me. It gave me power. It gave me a freedom I had hardly dared to dream of.

And then I got pregnant. I experienced the miracle of new life growing inside me. In my womb. The centre of my womanhood. I felt my child moving within. At first it was like the kiss of a butterfly’s wing. And then it got stronger. And I understood that this child was a separate being while also part of me. I lived this paradox. Together my child and I laboured to give her birth and in the immediate aftermath as her placenta slipped from my body, I was flooded with love hormones and gazed in wonder at my child. I endured weeks of sore raw nipples and several episodes of mastitis as breastfeeding was established. But established it was and what a joy. I woke in the night moments before my baby, my breasts tingling and oozing sweet milk on the sheet, like waiting for a lover. When she latched on and suckled, I felt the life sustaining milk course through my breasts. We gazed at each other in awe. I lived the paradox of her being a separate being but also part of me. Her father loved her. But for him it was different. He didn’t live inside that paradox. Because she hadn’t lived for nine months inside his womb. He doesn’t have a womb.

The baby coming changed the romantic fairy tale. He started to assert his male privilege. Big time. He forgot all the promises he had made to share the childcare and even swore he’d never made them. He became demanding and when I wouldn’t agree or say he was right or let him have his way, he became violent. “But can’t you see?” I’d say, “You’re doing to me exactly what you used to complain your dad did to your mum when you were growing up.”

He’d look at me with contempt and with a sneer say, “You’re crazy. Totally mad.” So confident was he that he had nothing to learn from me, a useless female waste of space (another thing he called me).

He was four and a half stone heavier than me. That was half of my body weight. I knew he could kill me with one blow. He soon became oblivious to whether the child was present or not. I won’t bore you with the complications of facing his rage with a small child behind my legs. I lived in fear whenever he was in the house. I had three options: 1. To submit. 2. To live in a war zone. Or 3. To leave. It wasn’t a choice. I had to leave and eventually I managed it and I made a new life for myself as a single mum.

I realised it would never be possible for me to have with a man in this unequal world the egalitarian relationship that I craved. I finally accepted what my mother had seen but I had refused to see that I am a lesbian. I fell in love. I experienced the bliss of lying in my lesbian lover’s arms. Skin of silk to skin of silk.

I grew older, I experienced the menopause. The opposite bookend to my puberty. And contrary to expectation, I found a whole new world awaiting me. A new energy and enthusiasm for life. The changes of ageing vary – some people’s eyesight and hearing diminishes, for others it doesn’t. Some people get arthritis and others don’t. But all women have a menopause if they menstruated and live long enough. And more than 99.9% of women (defined as female human beings) menstruate at some point in their lives. So menopause is a near universal female human experience. And I experienced it and how it gives a woman yet another chance to reinvent herself.

Frankie says he is a woman but he shares none of the above experience with me as other biological women do. As I said before, the details will vary for each of us. Our lives, of course, are not only mediated by biology, but also time and place, race, class and culture, perhaps even luck. I never had an abortion, for example. But both of my sisters did. Each one after she was raped. But the biological reality of living in a female human body is powerful and there is a shared commonality. Living in a female body does affect how we are treated under patriarchy and it does inform our experience and how we view the world. Just as you are treated differently and see a different view when driving an articulated truck down the M4 than when driving a small Mini.

So what happens to this commonality of experience if we accept that men can “identify” as women? What does that mean for women?

3. The mixed reading group

My friend, Grace, persuaded me to go along to a session of her reading group because it was on a feminist theme and she thought I’d be interested. The book in question was A Brief History of Misogyny by Jack Holland.

We arrived and took our seats in a circle of orange plastic chairs in a lovely old library. There were about 16 of us – roughly equal numbers of men and women. Someone introduced the book and then suggested we went round the circle and each of us speak for a few minutes about our thoughts and impressions of the book.

When it was my turn I said that I thought the book was interesting and gave a detailed and sadly depressing history of misogynistic practices throughout the world, but it reminded me of a true crime series on TV in its lack of analysis. I said I was longing, desperate even, for a feminist take…

And then there was a sort of uproar. The going round the circle was abandoned and the men all started talking loudly at once.

“We don’t need feminism anymore – we’ve got equality now,” said one. “Not that old hat,” said another. “In fact feminism’s gone much too far. Men are the oppressed now,” said yet another. “Although maybe in Saudi Arabia it’s an issue. But not here. Definitely not here.” And so they went on.

“But…” the women said. But the men didn’t stop. Their conviction that the Earth is flat was so strong that they couldn’t even entertain the possibility that the women might have something to add on this subject that so uniquely affected them. The men seemed unable to consider the possibility that they might, in fact, have much to learn from the women.

One woman valiantly tried to do as they did and to talk above them. But her distress gave her away. Her voice became screechy and when the men started talking about how women are too emotional, she stopped mid-sentence like a record player in an unexpected power cut.

The women became silent. Some of us zoned out. One woman got up noisily and went to the toilet and emerged 20 minutes later with an excess of makeup wonkily applied. I tried all the relaxation techniques known to humankind in an effort to subdue my soaring blood pressure. And then it was over and the women leapt from their chairs and converged in the tiny kitchenette and let out an enormous involuntary and synchronised “Arrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrgh” while the men congratulated themselves on such an excellent discussion and stacked the chairs.

Then Grace said, “I think we should start a women-only reading group.” And we all went, “Yes!”

We needed a women-only space for so many reasons. Writing this now so many years later, I am struck that not one of us stood up and demanded that the men shut up and give us our share of the time. You see we had all been socialised to take care of men. To never make them feel uncomfortable. To laugh at their jokes even if they’re not funny. Especially if they’re not funny. We’d been socialised to not tell the truth especially in front of men. And men have been socialised to think that they have nothing to learn from women and that they are bigger and cleverer than they actually are.

As Virginia Woolf so exquisitely put it:

“Women have served all these centuries as looking glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size.”

And men can feel very cheated when we don’t do this. Some of them even believe they are being oppressed. That we are oppressing them.

Unlearning all this socialisation is no small task. It needs the right conditions. It needs determination. For both women and men. But no one gives up their own privilege without a struggle. Which is why this task MUST be led by women. And for women to unlearn our socialisation and to understand how it works, we need our own spaces. This is not an academic issue. This is bread and butter. Flesh and blood. Survival.

4. The women-only reading group

So we started our women-only feminist reading group. We worked our way through the great classics of the Second Wave (Kate Millett, Marilyn French, Andrea Dworkin, Shere Hite, and many more), we read feminist psychologists, disability campaigners, women novelists, feminist science fiction, lesbians, women pensioners, scientists, survivors of rape, incest, prostitution and pornography, black women, Asian women, white women. We read one book by a man (The Johns by Victor Malarek). We envisioned a world without men and wondered how different women would be in a world where they didn’t have to compete for male patronage. We learned feminist strategies for resisting harassment and street attacks. We discussed our bodies, our periods, our sex lives, our relationships, our workplaces, our eating disorders, birth and breastfeeding, surviving male violence, choosing not to have children, choosing to have children, infertility, abortions, colonialism, economics, racism, menopause, aging, biology, marriage, virginity, child rearing, housework, the legal system, forming our own vigilante group like the women in pink saris in India. We looked at how so often we police each other into conformity with the gender rules and the unbearable pain of falling out with our women friends. We learned a feminist History of the world and how the history of patriarchy has been short compared to the long egalitarian history of the human race that preceded it. We understood that patriarchy is a system and that capitalism is built on that system and is its logical development.

For many of us, it was our first experience of being in such a women-only space. Some were nervous at first. One woman didn’t say a word for her first four meetings but she made up for it at her fifth by not stopping talking. And she never looked back.

Over the years we met in all sorts of places. At first we met in a student union bar. One time a man sat down beside us and started telling us why we were wrong in what we were saying. We all turned to him and as one told him we hadn’t asked his opinion and he slinked off. The group changed our lives. It gave us a space where we could explore ideas, ways of looking at the world, and analysis, honestly. This made us understand that what before so often we had thought a personal failing was in reality a product of the system. There was no way this would have happened in the mixed reading group. I doubt whether it would have happened if there had been even one man present. Because then all our training to take care of him, to make him tea, to not say anything to upset him would kick in. And because of his socialisation that he has nothing to learn from women, the chances are high that he would have talked over us, talked at us, and not listened to us. Not really. We need women-only spaces to develop a feminist consciousness.

The group was advertised for women only. We deliberately didn’t define what we meant by women and we would welcome whoever turned up so long as they weren’t obviously men. In the approximately four years that I was running the group, only one transwoman, Olivia, expressed interest in joining us. We welcomed her. Unlike Frankie, she lived full time as a woman, had undergone sex reassignment surgery (SRS), and most of the time she was taken as a woman. I knew she was trans because she had told me in a private conversation. I didn’t disclose this to the other members but some of them knew – either because they had identified it themselves or because she (or someone else) had told them.

When Olivia was there I noticed that women who knew she was trans would sometimes subtly defer to her, or avoid speaking about things, like menstruation, that they thought might make her uncomfortable, or give her more attention than I was sure they would have done if they had thought she was an “ordinary” woman. This showed me how hard it is for us as women to change those deep deep patterns that we learnt as small children. To defer to men; to take care of them; to laugh at their jokes. And then I noticed that the women who did not seem aware that Olivia was trans would often give a little start, a little jump, when she said something. I took this to be an involuntary recognition that Olivia’s experience was fundamentally different from ours and this showed when she talked. She didn’t sound like a woman. And I don’t mean the tenor of her voice. I mean the content of her words. It was like she was on the outside of women’s reality looking in, whereas we were on the inside looking out. Her reality was simply different. And that is not surprising. Because she did not have a female body and she had not grown up as a girl and that affected how she was treated and what she was taught and what she learned. The material biological reality does mediate our experience as human beings and in this sexist world it does affect how we are treated. How could it not? This is not a complaint about Olivia. Not in the least. She was, without exception, always respectful and dignified.

But because the fact that she was trans was unspoken and unacknowledged, it introduced an element of in-authenticity into an environment where authenticity was key. Our whole aim was to cut through all the unspoken unacknowledged layers, to track down the truth. And to me this reveals one of the big problems with the trans focus on “passing”. This very word gives away the reality that transwomen are not women and transmen are not men. If they were, there would be no need to “pass”. This may be uncomfortable to face but pretending something is true when it’s not does not lead to ease or enlightenment.

But what if several transwomen had come? Would we then have started modifying what we said even more? Would we, like some so-called feminist groups, have started to say (and even think) that menstruation and abortion and childbirth and breastfeeding are not women’s issues because transwomen don’t experience them? Where would it end? It would end in silence. Women’s silence. Once again.

And what if Frankie had attended, with his overt male pattern behaviour – talking over us, refusing to listen, insisting he was right? Would the group have even survived? I think probably not.

5. The sleepover – Part 2

So to go back to my weekend with Frankie. On the Saturday evening, I made him a meal again and we sat and chatted while we ate. He is more at home now and engages in the well-practiced male pattern behaviour of telling a woman who is running her life capably and successfully what she’s doing wrong. It’s his last evening here and I can’t be bothered with a scene, so I sit there as passively as I can manage while he instructs me how to conduct my financial affairs and even my relationship with my grown up daughter.

I sigh with relief when I hear my housemates’ key in the lock and I lose no time in wishing them a great holiday (they are leaving for the airport in the small hours) and say goodnight to them and Frankie and escape to my room. Where I dream of having the house to myself the next evening. But things don’t turn out quite like that because after the end of the event the next day, Frankie phones me and asks whether he can stay another night. Against my better judgement, I say yes. (See how hard it is to not always be the kind, nurturing one when you are female?)

He arrives back later this time. He’s been in the pub with Jenny and Ursula and as soon as he walks through the door I can see he’s in an agitated state. And sure enough, he wastes no time in laying into me. “You’ve really fucked up this time,” he says and then demands that I engage his services as a mediator. I suppress the involuntary urge to laugh and ask him to explain what I’ve done and why I need his services.

He tells me I have betrayed Jenny and Ursula and stabbed them in the back. And then he repeats some slanderous insults that I can almost hear them telling him. I explain that I know they are angry with me. (The previous day I had argued against them in a debate that they ended up losing.) But I had done nothing wrong or improper and I had no doubt it would blow over, and I refused his offer. He stood up and came over to the sink where I was washing dishes. He stood very close to me, towering over me. I felt threatened as I am sure he intended and he became increasingly aggressive insisting I accept his offer of mediation services and that I acknowledge his superior wisdom and skills.

I say, “Look, I don’t want to discuss this anymore. Please can we change the subject?” But he refuses. He becomes agitated and starts to shout. I am afraid. I feel his testosterone rising. I feel my adrenaline beginning to surge, but I force myself to remain calm. I ask him to leave me alone, to go to his room. He refuses and goes on shouting. The tension is escalating. I know I cannot sleep alone in the house with this man. Eventually I ask him to leave. He refuses. I tell him he must leave. He starts threatening me. I am very scared now. I am aware of his much larger, more muscular body, the testosterone that has set him on fire.

This is familiar territory to me. I recognise it as standard male pattern violence. I have been here before. Different characters. Same story. The deal is this: I must submit to his will or I risk him unleashing actual physical violence on me. Perhaps even rape. And that would be my fault. All my fault. Because I didn’t surrender.

We are playing for very high stakes now. I am deadly calm. I hold the phone behind my back, my thumb poised to dial 999 and I keep insisting he leave. And thankfully, eventually, he does – shouting as he walks out the door for all the neighbours to hear how he will get even. He will tell everyone in the organisation what a cruel transphobic bitch I am. He will make a formal complaint and get me expelled from the organisation.

I can still hear him shouting as he slams the garden gate and makes off down the road. I double-lock the door and attach the chain. I sit on the bottom stair and pant. I need to fill my body with air, with all the air it lost while I was holding it rigid, on high alert. I think, well that’s the last time I will ever offer to put up a man. And then it dawns on me – according to the new trans-inclusive dogma, he is a woman. If I had asked for a woman, I still might have got him. As the implications of this for women’s safety sinks in, my blood run cold. And my decision to never offer accommodation again to someone I do not know does not change this.

When I talk it through with friends over the next few days, one says – but surely you have had arguments with women before? And I say, “Are you kidding?” I’ve lost count of the number of arguments I’ve had with women over the years. And there have been two occasions it is true when a woman has given me a little shove. But I have never feared a woman would physically attack me with the aim of really hurting me and causing serious damage or that she would rape me. Simply to show me what I’m worth. That I’m powerless. Dirt. I have only experienced this from men. Adult male human beings. This is male pattern violence.

I simply do not accept that Frankie is a woman. And I do not accept the validity of a dogma that would consider me transphobic for this.

And it is distasteful when men, straight or gay, berate me and other women for not accepting all transgendered men as women, as the same as us. You know what this insisting we do what you say, seems like to me? Yes, yet more male pattern violence. And it is gross hypocrisy because men, you have countless male-only spaces whose boundaries you enforce with violence and the threat of violence. How do you have the nerve to tell us where and how to set our boundaries? Put simply, guys, sometimes you need to shut the fuck up.

6. The walk in the park

It was a perfect summer’s day and we decided to go to the early evening showing of a film. We thought we’d walk there – it’s a lovely walk across two London parks with just a small stretch of street between them. But we left it too late and went on the tube.

When we came out of the film we both felt restless, like we needed that walk. It was midsummer and it hadn’t started to get dark yet.

“Shall we walk back?” she said. “It’s still light.”

“I think we can get back before it gets dark,” I reply. “If we leave now and don’t stop for a drink.”

It was light when we walked through the first park and unlike in the other park, the path was close to the road. Dusk was falling when we got to the second, larger park. It was an intoxicating evening. The air was warm and humid, heavy with the perfume of the blossom of the lime trees. There were lots of people out – all men. Groups of men, single men, jogging men, gay men on their way to the cruising grounds perhaps, groups of men sitting on the benches by the lake drinking beer out of cans, men lying on the grass listening to music on their iPods, men walking dogs, pairs of men discussing the news. But not one woman. Because urban parks after dusk are no go areas for women. They are male-only spaces.

When we reached the point of no return it was almost dark. We were both scared, primed with adrenaline. We snapped apart so we would look less like lesbians. We wanted to be invisible. We were silent. We could hear each other’s breathing. We both knew the other was very afraid. If anything happened to us, if a man or a group of men attacked us, raped us, killed us, we knew that the focus of the story in the patriarchal capitalist media would be our irresponsibility in walking in an urban park after dark. They will announce police warnings to all women within 50 miles to stay inside at night. They will let the men off scot free. If they blame a man, he will be portrayed as a weirdo. A statistical outlier. Men’s freedom under patriarchy is sacrosanct and must never be challenged.

And I felt a kind of rage. Am I not a human being who needs to look up at the stars? To feel that vastness and wonder? Do I not need to feel the dark warm perfumed air against my skin? Do I not need to walk under the gentle trees on a summer evening? Men, how dare you take this space as your own? To use your threats of violence to keep me at home? To keep me bound to the ground? And what about all you good, kind men, the Not All Men Are Like That men? How come you keep this secret? How come you never talk to me about this outrage? How come you never think about my needs? How come you never challenge other men? Could it be that you also benefit from the violent men and the threat of violence that keep women at home? Do not kid yourselves. Your silence also serves to shore up the patriarchal capitalist behemoth.

Can you not see that you are also excluding transmen from these spaces? Transmen who are smaller than you (on average) and learnt as girls to stay at home and keep out of the dark. And then you have the audacity to tell me, to tell women, that we MUST open up our few, so pathetically few, remaining spaces to whoever demands to enter? Or we are transphobic. We are TERFs.

Sometimes you know, men, you suck.

And don’t forget the multitude of other men-only spaces – bars, clubs, sports events. And the other ones – the lap dancing clubs, the brothels – where women are present but only to serve the men and pander to their egos. And the other ones – the pubs and clubs – where women can go on the arm of a man but not on her own, without risking being harassed and worse. And then there are the CEO events, the investment banker clubs, the top men’s clubs where you keep women out with glass ceilings and walls. Men you have so many male spaces. And maybe sometimes you let a woman in so you can say we are wrong and it’s not a male only space. But she is there on manners, not fully on her own terms. She has to mind her ps and qs. We have so few spaces where we can meet on our own terms. Can you not see your own hypocrisy? Should you not take that beam out of your own eyes before you even think of telling us what to do?

Or is it that you do understand the power of our women-only spaces? How they help us see through your bullshit? The patriarchal capitalist bullshit from which you benefit?

7. The lesbian reading group

In my lesbian reading group we read novels. This time not a single one of us had read it though. We laughed and decided to discuss what to read over the next few months instead. We considered looking for books on certain themes. Transgender issues, perhaps? There were eight of us there that evening, I think. All from different backgrounds, mostly we just know each other from the group and don’t socialise outside it. But it was always a lovely coming together, like a warm embrace.

Spontaneously we found ourselves sharing experiences of transwomen in lesbian groups we’d been in. A theme emerged. One woman told of her distress seeing an older transwoman’s predatory behaviour towards the younger more conventionally attractive women at a monthly lesbian gathering she attends. Another told of how the lesbian group she used to run in a small provincial town had warmly welcomed a transwoman when she asked to join. But she harassed a woman for intimacy that wasn’t wanted and when she realised she wasn’t getting anywhere she accused that woman of transphobia and trashed her name and reputation in the group. The fall out was so painful and emotionally exhausting, the group folded, with the result that the women no longer had that social lifeline.

With perhaps one exception, each woman in the reading group told a similar painful story. We heard of several groups that for years had given lesbians a much needed space to enjoy each other’s company that had split or folded with the impact of the destructive and manipulative behaviour of one transwoman or another.

We admitted being worried by this trend. And we admitted being scared of being labelled transphobic. Once a transwoman is in a group and wreaking havoc, it is very hard to deal with. Threats and accusations of transphobia are never far away.

Not a single one of us wanted to be exclusionary. But we all admitted preferring the company of women, that we found it hard to see transwomen as women when their behaviour so often follows the male pattern, and that it is women’s bodies that we love. We had no solutions. Just sadness. Lots of sadness. We knew that if we decide to not welcome transwomen and are upfront about it, we risk getting no end of flak, maybe even death threats – not only from transwomen, but also from men, gay and straight, and straight women, none of whom would try to understand the difficulties and risks involved.

Afterwards, when I was on my way home, I felt a rage at the endless policing of women’s behaviour, how we can never be left alone to look after our own interests. I felt rage at the hypocrisy of those who would tell us what to do while knowing nothing about our lives.

8. The bigger picture

In the 1970s, at the peak of what is sometimes called the Second Wave of the Women’s Liberation Movement, there were women-only consciousness raising groups in neighbourhoods all over the US, Australia, Western Europe and beyond. It can be argued that it was the scale of this women-only activity that enabled a large enough mass of women to undo the bonds of their socialisation and effect widespread social change. The Women’s Liberation Movement is considered by many to be the most successful and transformative social movement of the last century. It brought about widespread changes in society and legislation, in expectations and practice, and succeeded in getting rid of some of the worst excesses of the gender system that then existed. Women were no longer expected to find all their satisfaction baking and taking care of others and the rigid dress codes were relaxed. Toys and clothing for children became less gendered, so that girls could play with Lego and boys with dolls while they all wore primary coloured t-shirts and jeans, for example.

But there has been a backlash – on the personal level from men, many of whom felt uncomfortable at how these changes resulted in the loss of some of their easy superiority and social and economic advantages. As women en masse were less willing to play the prescribed submissive, inferior, gender role (femininity), men felt their masculinity slipping – because you can only be superior in opposition to someone else’s inferiority. So while many men embraced the changes the women brought about, others did not. And because they had been socialised to think they had little, if anything, to learn from women, they didn’t listen and understand that they are also trapped in a system that limits and damages them – just as it has been argued that slavery corrupts the slave owners more profoundly even than the slaves.

There was also a backlash from capitalism. If boys and girls all wear the same clothes and play with the same toys, parents don’t need to buy so much stuff. So the toy and garment industries fought back and phased out the gender-neutral gear and introduced pink Lego and fairy outfits for the girls and war toys and combat gear for the boys – war being the ultimate expression of masculinity (the gender role prescribed for men). And the women’s garment manufacturers stopped making the more androgynous, comfortable clothes that women were snapping up and reverted to uncomfortable and constricting fashions that emphasised a woman’s subordination and changed them every year so she was always out of pocket and at risk of being out of date, out of fashion.

The combination of the personal backlash from men and commercial backlash from capitalism led to the terrifying explosion of the sex industry in the last decades so that now tens of millions (maybe more) of women and girls worldwide are trapped in prostitution because men en masse will pay to abuse them in order to bolster their sense of masculinity and superiority. Which means for the ruthless, there’s easy money to be made. And our children are growing up on a diet of gonzo porn which is the sexual acting out of the hatred of women on the female body. This, together with the seepage of its imagery and attitudes into mainstream culture, is erasing many (perhaps eventually all) of the gains that the Women’s Liberation Movement achieved, as boys believe that rape is consensual sex and pimping is respectable, and girls learn, again, that they are worthless, their bodies are disgusting, and they deserve their own pain and misery. The personal catastrophe is institutionalised by capitalism as practically all the mainstream industries (banking, internet, telecoms, construction, film, etc.) are feeding off the sex industry, becoming ever more reliant on it for their bottom line. A truly vicious circle.

So is it any wonder that our children are growing up confused? That increasing numbers of boys and men are rejecting the gender role prescribed for their sex when their very bodies have been redefined as instruments of torture? And that girls are rejecting theirs? And that in this glorious neo-liberal patriarchal capitalist orgy there is a whole feeding chain of drug companies, cosmetic surgeons, speech therapists, psychologists, specialist girdle, high-heeled shoe, and prosthetic penis manufacturers, and more, who are more than willing to step in to change the bodies of the confused to have the veneer of the other biological sex?

Feminists are saying whoa, it’s not the bodies that are the problem! The problem is the system – the system of rigid prescribed sex-based roles – masculinity for men and femininity for women – also known as gender. What if, the feminists say, instead of changing bodies, we could change those roles – make them more fluid, less rigid, even get rid of them altogether? Wouldn’t it be better, they say, if we could change the world instead? So boys and men can be free to express themselves any way they like, to enjoy the way that flowing silk feels against their legs, to be kind and gentle and not just hard and strong? And girls and women were not made the legitimate target of men’s frustration and pain, and were taught to be competent with a power drill? That we stopped policing girls and boys, men and women, into these gender roles and expressions? That we develop an eroticism that is not predicated on the worship of the penis and the subjugation of its recipient but rather honours and takes joy in equality and the uniqueness of each one of us? Would that not be a better solution than channelling people who don’t fit into dangerous, painful surgery, the irreversible loss of healthy body parts, a lifelong dependence on risky drugs or all the confusion that arises when people simply declare that they are the other sex?

Would that not lead to a better world? A more gentle world, a world more able to resist the relentless march of patriarchal capitalism?

Many women object to the term “cis” and refuse to be labelled “cis-women” because this suggests, implies, that gender is benign. When it’s not. Gender is not benign for men and it certainly isn’t benign for women. To say otherwise is to suggest, imply even, that women deserve their own subordination, which is the very essence of anti-feminism. The very essence of the backlash to the gains of the Women’s Liberation Movement.

No, we are not “cis-women”. We are women, adult human females. As defined in the Oxford English Dictionary.

This does not mean that we hate people who have gone down the trans roads. But we ask you to listen to us, to understand that our analysis is not a personal attack on you. We understand that each one of us has to make many accommodations to survive in this world. But an accommodation is a personal and not a social solution – just as gated communities are not the solution to social unrest caused by extreme inequality but rather a personal accommodation to it. We understand that the personal is political. For every single one of us, the personal choices we make do affect everyone else.

9. So what about those women-only spaces?

To my mind the bathroom issue is simple. People with penises do not belong in women’s toilets and changing rooms – for two reasons. 1. Men have made their penises into a tool to assault women with. 2. Women can get pregnant against their will and are more likely to suffer other negative consequences of a sexual assault, including catching life threatening infectious diseases.

DO NOT BLAME THIS ON US. If you don’t like it, campaign against male violence. Start a “Some men wear dresses. Get over it” campaign. Take on the men who have made the world violent for women and transwomen and those who wear dresses and those who do not fit. Just don’t bully us. Please. It makes you look like such jerks. You could also campaign for single-stall genderless toilets to be installed in schools and workplaces in addition to the single sex ones.

Transwomen who have had SRS surgery should, of course, be welcome in women’s toilets and changing rooms.

But what about those women-only consciousness raising and reading groups, like some of the ones I’ve mentioned in this piece, but also other ones like rape and incest survivors’ groups? I have tried to explain that these groups are a pre-requisite for recovery and revolutionary change, both personal and political. Sometimes we may welcome transwomen to join us in these groups. Sometimes we may not. Listen to us and accept our decisions. Do not bully us. And do not misrepresent us and say that because one evening a month or one week a year we want to meet alone, without you, we are calling for segregation. To do so is simply more male pattern violence.

And do not even think of harassing lesbians for sex and intimacy with the threat of calling them transphobic. Each woman is entitled to her own boundaries. No means no. Whatever we wear, wherever we go. No means no. Deal with it. We are not here to validate you. Deal with it. Just like we have to deal with so much.

Instead why not form your own lesbian social groups and also consciousness raising and reading groups to read the great feminist classics, to explore how the patriarchal capitalist system plays out in your own personal lives? Work on rewriting your own patterns that derive from your socialisation as boys, your own ways of being authentic, your own ways of challenging male violence and the culture of hyper-masculinity that blights the whole world.

And let’s join together to change the world. Let’s respect and celebrate our differences and our common cause. Feminists are not your enemy. We are not calling for segregation. We are calling for a different kind of world where we can all be safe and respected. Women, transwomen, transmen, all.

For a French version of this article, see Qu’est-ce qu’une femme?

73 thoughts on “What is a woman?

  1. Great article – like others I disagree about the loos! I really don’t care who wants to dress in a frock but I do have great concerns that the trans movement is yet another male way of suppressing women’s rights. I wish you had addressed your feelings about trans women competing as women in sport. Have you written anything on that elsewhere?


  2. “Transwomen who have had SRS surgery should, of course, be welcome in women’s toilets and changing rooms”. I disagree. Just because you remove your genitals does not make you less violent. Men violence does not reside in their penis. “You might want to believe that the penis is a lethal weapon and that all women live in fear of that lethal weapon, well that’s bullshit. It’s not true. We don’t live in terror of the penis … A man can’t kill you with his penis” Germaine Greer.


    1. Yes, I think I now agree. I did write this article quite a few years ago, when the scale of the phenomenon was less clear. I haven’t changed the article, however, because it felt more honest to keep it as a representation of that particular moment in time.

      Liked by 1 person

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