Female bodies matter

Isn’t it great when males tell you that fertility is totes irrelevant to definitions of womanhood? Sure, it might discount pretty much all of your own lived experience in the class marked “potential breeder” but still, one can’t blame them for trying. It’s total nonsense but if you squint a bit and don’t think too hard, it sounds great.

Back in the real world, women’s lives are defined by their perceived reproductive capacity. There, I said it. Cue charges of essentialism, cissexism, ableism etc. Nonetheless, this is a fact. From the moment you are born, whether or not you are identified as a potential gestator will have a profound, lifelong effect on your status (or lack of it) as a human being. This will be the case regardless of whether you can bear children or not.

It has been suggested by some that simply not commenting on potential reproductive difference offers a way out of this conundrum. A recent Slate article sought to reposition the identification of male or female genitals on babies as “infant gender assignment”, as though a gender hierarchy is an inevitable consequence of acknowledging the existence of male, female and intersex bodies (hint: it isn’t). Gender is an unnecessary but deeply embedded follow-on from this. We know that when baby girls are abandoned and left to die, it is not because of any misreading of their inner gendered selves; it is because they have female bodies and are therefore felt to be worth less than male babies. This is not gender as identity, but gender as hierarchy: the application of an oppressive ideology on human beings who are deserving of more. Challenging this hierarchy involves far greater social and political upheaval than proclaiming that even to discuss it is “cissexist” but it’s a damn sight more effective.

These people – these females, these women, with their bodies which could possibly gestate – will always exist, whether we acknowledge the meaning of these bodies or not. And they will suffer, not because of what these bodies do or don’t do, but because of the system which positions owners of these bodies as less human than their male counterparts. The mummy class (many of whom will never become mothers) will be trained up for their subordinate role. Their intellect will be devalued. Their labour will go unrewarded. Their voices will go unheard, or when they are finally raised loud enough, the response will be derision. Men will assume that these bodies and minds exist only to serve their needs. They will assume access to everything: body, mind, identity. To view discrimination against the assumed-to-be-womb-owning class in terms only of workplace discrimination against those who have babies is incredibly short-sighted. What happens to females starts much earlier than that and without feminism, there is no way of avoiding it.

You can’t identify your way out of other people’s perceptions of you based on your sexed body. You cannot, as an individual, create a narrative which transcends “biology is destiny” if your biology has already placed you in the subordinate class (regardless of anything your body actually does). You cannot assume other women, but not you, are deserving of this subordinate status (well, you can. But you shouldn’t). You can talk about gender and identity and your own special sense of self and feel that you are being listened to, but none of this will grant you access to the badge of humanity bestowed on men for something so pitifully insignificant as having a penis. And this is what it comes down to: under patriarchy, ownership of a womb does not mean “someone who will definitely give birth”. It does however mean “someone who is not male and is therefore not quite a person”.

Women’s lives shouldn’t be defined and limited in this way but they are. When males hold forth on how irrelevant this is, we shouldn’t listen. Ironically, if it wasn’t for their equally irrelevant piece of equipment, they’d never have been conditioned to believe they had a right to hold forth.

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