Last week, in a Channel Four Interview with Cathy Newman, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie responded to the question of whether trans women are ‘real’ women by claiming “that trans women are trans women, I don’t think it’s a good thing to conflate everything into one.” This, on the back of Jenni Murray’s recent open letter regarding trans women and their position as ‘real’ women, has moved me to write this letter. I am not really familiar with Adichie or her work, so whilst I disagree with her ideas I can respond more dispassionately. Nevertheless, in the case of Jenni Murray, someone whom I have listened to regularly, I felt personally wounded by her comments, and this is why.
My partner is a trans woman, who was very upset by this letter, and as a result has removed Women’s Hour from her list of podcast favourites. I want to support my partner, but for me just removing Women’s Hour from my subscription list is more of a challenge. Why? My partner is Canadian and only started listening to the programme on my recommendation. For me, it is a show that I have been listening to for over 15 years. I feel it has been making room on a public service for feminist issues, from a time when that space did not really exist elsewhere. Forums to discuss feminism have now increased, but they are still not numerous. Women’s Hour and all its presenters, including Jenni, have a valuable role to play in promoting understanding of feminist ideology. As a literature major, I have a strong background in feminist theory, but I have still learnt a great deal from the lives and personal stories of women who have appeared on the show. And, as my partner is trans, I have listened to and embraced the increasing amount of interviews with trans women.
The idea of ‘real’ women in the way feminists such as Adichie and Murray appear to be interpreting it, assumes some shared understanding of what a ‘real’ women is, based on the cogency of a socially constructed gender binary. This is an inherent contradiction, as if, as Adichie claims ‘gender is not biology, gender is sociology’, then the construct of a ‘real’ woman in any sense of the word is redundant. In Adichie’s case, it was actually the presenter Newman, who used the phrase ‘real’ woman, but Adichie did not contest the label, even in her more recent clarifications. So, if like Adichie and Murray, we ignore this paradox and agree that a ‘real woman,’ is a tangible thing, the next unasked question is, how do we define it? Is a ‘real woman’ one who conforms to stereotypical feminine ideology? At the end of the 1967 movie Thoroughly Modern Millie, Julie Andrews ironically announced to her suitor, ‘I don’t want to be your equal anymore, I want to be a woman, a dandy little bundle for a fellow to cuddle.’’ The statement is satirical, but this is exactly what it would have meant not so long ago. And still, means to some people.
Of course this is not the way either Adichie or Murray defined it. For them, a ‘real’ woman appears to be someone who understands feminist principles inherently through their experience of being an underprivileged female. This seems to me to be merely an unhelpful inversion of the binary rather than an escape from it. Surely, just flipping gender roles is just another type of prejudice? In her trans feminist book, writer Julia Serano talks about how it is just as wrong for judging someone for conforming to feminist stereotypes, if that’s how they identify, as it is to judge someone who is less gender conforming. Yet, this seems to be exactly what is happening in the British media. Murray cites an interview with India Willoughby, where Willoughby appeared accepting of the Dorchester hotel’s sexist rules regarding female dress, as an example of how trans women can’t truly understand the suppressive nature of male privilege. Surely, not all the other women working in that hotel with Willoughby were trans women and thus are they not equally culpable for not questioning the anti-feminist rules? Is a CIS woman who either knows or cares nothing for feminism not a ‘real’ woman either? By this definition yes. Such arguments are based on the misunderstanding that a CIS women’s lack of privilege, automatically correlates to an inherent feminist understanding. My trans partner has a much better grasp of feminist theory than many CIS women I know, but I doubt this would gain her acceptance into Murray or Adichie’s ‘real’ woman category.
Regardless, my partner’s knowledge of feminism and the privilege she has or hasn’t experienced is irrelevant. Of course, her experiences are not the same as CIS women, but should that exclude her from feminist forums? To define a ‘real’ woman as only one who has inhabited negative space is fundamentally flawed. As Adichie herself says in the same interview, ‘woman should be allowed to be many things’. Identity doesn’t need to be justified in biological or sociological terms, it’s just about who you are. Yes, there are certainly both CIS and trans women out there who could probably do with being better educated on feminist values, but how are trans women going to do that when they feel forced out of feminist spaces? When they feel they have no choice but to delete a podcast from which even the most hardcore feminist could learn a lot?
For myself, I don’t want to stop listening to Woman’s Hour, but I do feel like I have to use it as a platform to engage in the debate in some way, so that people hear other versions of feminism than some of the narrow definitions currently being propounded. Debates around what constitutes a ‘real’ women are fundamentally flawed. Whilst it is important to be aware of how male social privilege has impacted our identity as women, it’s not the whole of our identities and shouldn’t be used to marginalise those who have experienced or understand privilege differently.