Tag Archives: transphobia

Manbrains and ladybrains: Squaring the circle

How would you define man and woman, or male and female? And if you can’t do this, is there any point in being a feminist at all, arguing on behalf of a group you only half-recognise? 

De Beauvoir’s famous quote “one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman” would suggest that those identified female at birth are socially conditioned to become “women” (whether they like it or not). Certainly this is something that rings true for me and many other feminists I know. We do not feel that we were born women; we’ve been encouraged to embrace an identity which frequently militates against our desires, capabilities and motivations. This sense of disjuncture is a powerful prompt for social change, hence it’s hardly surprising that the further along this road we go, the more bogus scientific “evidence” is uncovered to prove us wrong.

This week we’ve seen a new batch of reports claiming that “stereotypical differences in male and female behaviour” are to be explained not by conditioning but by a “hardwired difference between male and female brains”. Frustrating though this is, fortunately it’s already been expertly debunked by the brilliant Cordelia Fine, who reminds us of what should be a well-known fact (at least to scientific researchers): “the social phenomenon of gender means that a person’s biological sex has a significant impact on the experiences (including social, material, physical, and mental) she or he encounters which will, in turn, leave neurological traces”:

Yet the researchers do not pay any attention to the gendered experiences (such as hobbies, subjects studied at school or higher education, or participation in sporting activities) of the young males and females in their sample.

This absence has two consequences. First, the researchers miss an opportunity to investigate whether gendered experiences might influence brain development and enhance the acquisition of important skills valuable to all. The second consequence is that, by failing to look at gendered social influences, the authors guarantee that no data will be produced that challenge the notion of “hardwired” male/female neural signatures.

Fine’s rebuttal has been celebrated by many bloggers and activists. For instance, cis white feminist Zoe Stavri (@stavvers) is overjoyed:


Hurrah indeed! I’m happy, too. Nonetheless, I’m wondering whether everyone who claims to care for gender equality feels the same way. After all, isn’t Fine- – and by extension Stavri — being transphobic in rejecting the idea that being a man or a woman is a matter of “manbrains and ladybrains” as opposed to social conditioning?

Fine differentiates between “biological sex” and “the social phenomenon of gender”. I think this is an important distinction to make. Biological sex is real. There is a difference between male and female bodies and reproductive functions, and it’s one that we disregard at our peril. And yet I sometimes see it suggested that because the difference isn’t one you can sum up in 140 characters (some people are intersex, not everyone is fertile, no one is fertile for the whole of their lives etc.) it’s a difference we should simply ignore. Witness, for instance, this frankly ludicrous series of tweets. I do not think a person can be a true feminist and find such arguments acceptable. My femaleness is not in my mind but my body. I did not get to choose and what is more, this would not matter, were we in a world in which sufficient allowance was made for biologically different bodies and non-gendered, free-thinking minds.

My risk of an unwanted pregnancy and being denied an abortion is not a random fact about me. It’s a fundamental part of what it means to be born female, shoved into the class “woman” and hence devalued as an autonomous human being. It will remain so even when I can no longer conceive. I won’t shed my perceived lack of bodily autonomy; it will have different manifestations but it will persist because I was born into this body. To claim “not everyone who is born female can bear children therefore bearing children has nothing to do with being female” is rather like me arguing that because I was born with three nipples, any biology textbook which claims having two nipples is a feature of being human is making a random assertion rather than an obvious generalisation. And generalisations matter. To argue otherwise is not only to dismiss the history of discrimination but to perpetuate it. We live in a society geared around the belief that the default human being is white and male. The fact that you can’t generalise about everyone who is not white and male — the fact that, indeed, many such people have some characteristics and advantages which overlap with white males  — is not an argument for pretending that the generalised imbalance doesn’t exist.   

I think this is straightforward. Other people do not. Even so, it’s important to recognise how profoundly dangerous it is to claim that some have male brains in female bodies and vice versa, since this clearly suggests that there is such a thing as a male or female brain and that if one is cisgendered, one has a brain which “matches” one’s body. This just isn’t true. I don’t have a female brain to match my female body. I just have a brain, albeit one that’s been subjected to a huge amount of gendered conditioning which has been at odds with my own perception of myself (hence the reason why I am a feminist). I don’t think this radical, and neither do I think the alternative viewpoint is more inclusive. The alternative is simply at best inconsistent, and at worst misogynist, once again privileging personalised prejudices about womanhood over a humane recognition of the potential and possibilities of all.


Pregnant women, pregnant people

This is a piece about whether or not feminists should use the terms “pregnant women” or “pregnant people” when discussing reproductive rights. I know that, for many, it will seem an odd thing to be discussing at all. Either you believe only women can get pregnant (therefore it’s “pregnant women”) or you include trans men and those who identify as genderqueer (in which case it’s “pregnant people”). Moreover, if you accept this premise, it could be fair to say that anyone who uses “pregnant women” is denying the existence of pregnant non-women (and therefore might reasonably be accused of transphobia). I think this is all very straightforward and neat. Unfortunately I also don’t think that, on a practical level, it works.
There are many of us who feel that retaining the word “woman” in all discussions of reproductive rights matters a great deal, even if such rights belong to everyone. I am one such person. When we talk about abortion it’s vital that we keep talking about women.
This is not about blindly adhering to a binary concept of gender that ultimately harms us all. It’s about naming the problem and avoiding the double discrimination that comes with having the language that defines oppression taken from you. Reproductive rights are fundamentally defined by misogynist concepts of “womanhood”. If this is not acknowledged in the terms we use — if we speak as though those who don’t regard women as complete human beings with complete control over their bodies share the same fluid readings of gender that we do — then we’re denying all those affected by rights restrictions the very space upon which to argue their cause. We’re saying that it’s all a matter of whether or not you can conceive when this clearly isn’t the case.
To frame abortion, breastfeeding, birth choices etc. as “people’s issues” rather than “women’s issues” is straightforwardly dishonest. The discrimination faced by all those who identify as women — regardless of whether or not they could become pregnant — is shaped by a reading of sex and gender that sees “breeders” as lesser beings (and all those who are in some way identified with “the feminine” — and this ends up being everyone apart from cis men — are affected by this). The question “if cis men got pregnant, would abortion still be an issue?” remains a pertinent one because abortion restrictions are based not on how we view the fetus, but on the status of the gravida. This is why, for instance, no one is forced to give blood or donate bone marrow. Forced physical self-sacrifice in order to perpetuate the lives of others isn’t seen as a “people’s” issue — if it was, those who could get pregnant would enjoy far more freedom than they currently do.
Debates on reproductive rights are frequently derailed by sniping over who is “allowed” to speak. It’s my belief that no one should have a say on any abortion other than the individual whose body it affects (this is not to say consultation with others is inherently a bad thing — so many factors go into whether or not carrying a pregnancy to term is possible that in most cases such consultation is vital — but the final word should belong to one person only). The gender identity of the person choosing whether or not to have an abortion is an utter irrelevancy. It’s their body, their choice (I despair of the way in which this phrase, so fundamental, is cast as glib or trivial). However — and this is, to some, a massive however — it needs also to be understood that the status of all women (trans or cis, fertile or not) is affected by what we do and do not permit fertile people with wombs to do. To restrict the broader abortion debate to “cis women, trans men and those who identify as genderqueer” isn’t fair. It’s about how women are perceived. It’s about what the term women even means.
I for one am not willing to debate abortion with men using language that suggests we’re on the same footing (which is what substituting “people” for “women” ultimately does). I’m not prepared to suggest the global impact of abortion restriction applies to everyone equally. It doesn’t. Cis women face the impact of abortion restriction more than anyone else insofar as they’re the only ones who are shoved into both the material and the hypothetical categories — ”may need an abortion” and “woman therefore breeder by default” — at the same time. This is not to say the restriction is “worse” for them or that there is no such thing as cis privilege, but that cis women are at the front line of this particular battle. Winning it depends on a transformation in how they are seen by all those who are not cis women (and by that I don’t just mean cis men).
A failure to take the experience of pregnancy seriously isn’t just to do with how we see pregnancy. It’s to do with how seriously we take women’s experience — so often seen as trivial and unimportant — overall. An unwanted pregnancy is only seen as a non-event, a minor inconvenience, because it is seen in the context of unimportant (female) life. It’s not just about bodies, but about the lived experience of being a woman (cis or trans). Standing up for abortion rights goes hand in hand with standing up for women’s rights. Failing to acknowledge this isn’t being inclusive; it’s refusing to challenge the very prejudices that hold all of us back.