#IWD2016 Comment | Reclaiming Women

#IWD2016 Comment | Reclaiming Women

Stephanie Davies-Arai looks at the emerging new definitions of what a ‘woman’ is, and asks if it is men who are once again in charge of the agenda.

There’s a strange thing happening to the distinct group formerly known as ‘women.’ The change in meaning of the word has crept up on us but it has become so established this past year across the media, government, public institutions and women’s groups that I find myself wondering ‘Who is International Women’s Day for?’ I don’t know anymore, I’d have to check with the organisers: ‘When you say ‘women’ who do you mean?’ The only answer permissible would be ‘anyone who self-identifies as a woman’ because anything thing else would be exclusive of transsexual males and therefore ‘transphobic.’

Already I can hear the sharp intake of breath from those shocked at that term ‘transsexual males;’ already I have declared myself ‘transphobic’ by not using the term ‘trans women.’ I do use that term sometimes out of courtesy, but I use accurate terminology here because that’s what this piece is about. A ‘trans woman’ is a male who identifies as the opposite sex, that’s all, no judgment. ‘Transsexual male’ is accurate and facts in themselves are neutral.

Clarity of language is important, words and their meanings influence thought; it matters to be factual. If we are separating people into distinct groups, we need a clear definition of the recognised characteristics of each group in order to say ‘This is where that group ends and this one begins.’ Yes, we are all members of that marvellous inclusive group called ‘humankind’ where boundaries dissolve, but within that we have distinct groups, and oppressed groups especially need clear terms to name and define themselves.

The biological sex difference between men and women performs, and has always performed, this function. There is no intrinsic judgment or meaning inherent in primary sex and reproductive characteristics: in themselves, they indicate only which sex we belong to, for over 99% of people. The fact that there are a tiny percentage of biologically intersex people does not negate this fact. The biological distinction does not ‘reduce women to their biology’ which is the charge levelled at women who hold out for it; we need to be able to define any category by its essential recognised terms. A ‘chair’* needs the reductive definition of ‘a piece of furniture to sit on’ because apart from that, every chair is different – and chairs of course can be so much more than that. A chair is still a chair even if it is broken, or no longer serves its function, or has never really served its function very well. Without the essential definition in place, there can exist no varieties of it. The alternative distinction between men and women, ‘self-declared gender identity,’ is only variety, but variety of something which no longer exists.

Transgender theory, which says that innate sense of gender is what distinguishes men from women, demands the complete denial of male and female biological sex. Yet the very reason International Women’s Day exists is because of the unique oppressions women face on the basis of that female biology; it is being female which puts women into the ‘for sex and reproduction’ category to be owned and controlled by men. The social construction of ‘gender’ designates this subordinate position as women’s natural place in the hierarchy, so we are not only being asked to self-identify as the gender which positions us below men, but also to implicitly acknowledge that we deserve to be there, it’s just how women are.

This new idea needn’t bother men; they are the default sex anyway, why should they care? For women though, it matters: no other subordinate group has ever before been obliged to redefine themselves in order to let in members of the dominant group and allow them, once there, to start setting terms. When Rachel Dolezal tried being Black  the whole world joined in with the outrage from the Black community.

Not so for women. The media has wholeheartedly embraced the new definition of women, and fallen into line without a murmur. They jump to report that a ‘woman’ called Claire (or ‘daughter’ or even, courtesy of the Sun, a ‘girl’) has killed her father (and has a previous conviction for entering a friend’s house and ‘soiling’ her underwear); the fact that this ‘woman’ is in fact a ‘pre-operative transgender’ (in other words, a male) is buried half-way down an article, or in some cases not mentioned at all.

Contrast that with the reports of another pre-operative transgender who ‘used a fake penis when having sex with a single mother she met online.’ She is also described as a woman, called Fiona, and in this case a woman who practised ‘deceit.’ So where was the outrage from the transgender community that a trans man was being prosecuted as a woman, where were the cries of ‘A trans man is a man!’ or protests to the media about misgendering? Not a peep. Everyone knows that you can’t ‘identify’ upwards into the dominant group, but they, from their position of power, can choose to identify ‘down.’

‘Transgender,’ for women, is not a transaction between equals.

The mainstream media has gleefully joined in with the attacks on ‘bigoted transphobic feminists’ for questioning any of this; women’s language is rigorously policed to remove all reference to ‘female’ biology;  organisers of women-only meetings or events are bullied into accepting males or shut down, and women’s established right to single-sex spaces is being rescinded.

Women are losing their territory and it is males who are doing the colonising. Media, government and institutional support goes only one way; accusations of ‘transphobia’ are not being countered with any charges of discrimination towards a group which previously enjoyed sex-based protected status. The contempt shown towards women and their right to define their own boundaries is very revealing of women’s position in society, which appears to be ‘bottom of the pile.’

This is exactly why we need International Women’s Day. Out of respect for women everywhere I ask just that it’s a day for women only and that we don’t need to ask what that means.

*I stole the chair analogy from this amazing Keynote by Professor Daphna Joel (Tel Aviv University) which I recommend that everyone watch!


Stephanie Davies-Arai is an author, campaigner and columnist for the Huffington Post primarily focusing on children, gender and cultural communication.