Voldemorting the vagina – can we still talk in biological language?

uterus art

I’M struggling. For the last few years, whilst my feminism has evolved, I’ve felt very sure of my politics and how the language I use has a profound affect on how ideas are transmuted within and outwith this group. I have been tone policed and contemporaneously policed my own language. Each prompted instance has been a learning experience, for the better. I’ve taken it on the chin and used it as an moment for introspection to better what I write. Until now.

Vandalism of the Vancouver Women’s Library

This week, for the first time, I felt completely hobbled by that language and utterly unable to respond to a news story that caught my eye. The aggressive behaviour intimidation and vandalism at the Vancouver Women’s Library opening. On the library’s opening night, a group of protesters from Gays Against Gentrification behaved aggressively and thuggishly towards library organisers and attendees, asking women to out themselves if they were involved in sex work (a profoundly unfeminist act). They defaced books with wine and tore down posters. They used their bodies to stop women entering the library and set off the fire alarm. Days later the same group came back and vandalised the bathrooms with spray paint.

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The right and wrong way to protest

Why did GAG protest the library? Because the organisers are radical feminists, and radical feminist discourse is often trans-exclusionary. Transphobia and transgender inequality are serious threats to the safety, life chances and indeed lives of transgender people. This is something we as feminists in the progressive movement must continue to work for justice around. We want no one to be unsafe.

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Here is where you lose me – when did working for justice involve taking your fight to a library? There is productive protest and there is assholery. I’ll leave you to categorise it. The women’s library is a community resource for all women – all people in fact – and depends on the unpaid work of volunteers and donated books. The protesters have legitimate issues, but their approach is inexcusable. Nothing about this was positive. They could have donated books to the library to pluralise the offer. They could have entered into a respectful discourse. They could have not poured wine all over the fucking books just because they disagree with them. Ideas need to be challenged and disrupted in a way that doesn’t make you look like an idiot.

vancouver-womens-library-protest-pamphlet

I tweeted a picture of the graffitied bathroom along with a link to donate to the women’s library for repairs. This was met with questioning as to why I was supporting an organisation that had been violent to trans women. I deleted the tweet, did some further investigation, and continued to think about it for the rest of the day. Had my objection to the vandalism of a community space been a transphobic act? Could I condemn the misogyny I witnessed whilst still supporting the inclusivity of trans people in feminism? What’s the magic ratio needed to express the appropriate amounts of criticism and alliance?

Despite being sex-positive and pro-sex worker’s rights, I still felt I didn’t have the language to tackle this adroitly. I felt lost, but also viewed this as an opportunity to ask questions and learn, so I went to Twitter for advice. I got answers, good ones, but I came away feeling more unsettled than before. A persistent theme was that many were struggling with how to balance condemnation of an individual act whilst not sounding the TERF klaxon. It seems even when you’re careful, there’s still a seriously high chance of language that is perceived as indelicate or downright phobic.

The price of admission for intersectionality

Over the last few days, I’ve wrestled with the idea of ‘the group’ we call feminism. My feminism has been intersectional without question – but I’m no longer convinced that’s a helpful praxis. Intersectionality whilst questioning is surely a healthier and more dynamic way to embrace that framework?

I remembered a lecture by University of Maryland’s Professor Patricia Hill Collins (author of Black Feminist Thought, and many other books on Black feminism) at Cambridge University on Black Feminism as a social justice project. This was the first time I’d experienced something that exposed a weakness in what I had considered (naively) the perfect answer that was intersectionality. Professor Hill Collins argued that in some respects the academy actually works against feminism – in particular Black Feminism. Under the banner of intersectionality, the price of legitimation is leaving your experiential knowledge behind “unless it’s in the service of other paradigms”. The particular voices, wisdom, experiences and freedom struggles are disappeared into the group. Claims can then be made on behalf of the group, whilst ignoring the heterogeneity within.

That’s not to say that intersectionality is not a good tool. It’s the best we have, but we have to evolve our thinking constantly, and continue to interrogate it as a framework. We can embrace and practice intersectional feminism – we must – but we must also work to make sure we don’t disappear the voices within it. As we move to becoming more intersectional, we work to make sure that we don’t make assumptions on behalf of the whole and must also seek the lived experience of all women as valid sources of knowledge.

Are we losing the language of biology and erasing women in the process?

After too much Twitter chat, too much Googling and some active listening to people who know far more than me, I still feel unsettled. Are we losing the language of biology in favour of protecting the group at all cost?

The Midwives Alliance of North America has removed use of the words ‘pregnant women’ in favour of pregnant people in its core competencies, and the British Medical Association has advised doctors to do the same. The New York Abortion Access Fund no longer talks of women. As a left-leaning liberal feminist, my immediate reaction to anything Breitbart considers news is to rail against it, but I do think this is worthy of further discussion. My and others feeling conflicted shows there’s a job of work to do to for many feminists to get the right handle on this issue.

Of course gender-varient patients can menstruate, become pregnant and give birth, and that the process for them comes with an extra level of disadvantage and discrimination – particularly where this intersects with race, class, ability and other identities. Trans people already experience significant barriers to healthcare access and reduced outcomes compared to biological women. As the American College of Nurse Midwives says:

As many as one-fourth of gender variant people avoid health care services due to concerns about discrimination and harassment.2 HIV infection within the gender variant community is 4 times the rate of the general population; rates of drug, alcohol, and tobacco use, and depression and suicide attempts are also higher.2,3 These outcomes disproportionately affect gender variant people of color.

There are serious issues here. What have traditionally been called women’s health services must develop and bring understanding of gender identity, expression and discrimination into health care so that it serves all those who rely on it.

Removing the word women and biological language from discussions of female bodily reality seems dangerous. Refusing to acknowledge the female anatomy, reproductive capabilities and sexuality has long been the work of the patriarchy. It seems we had a few golden decades of acknowledgement, and could wear our lived experience of bodily womanhood proudly – but now we have to drop that language in favour of the group. Even with logic in the driver’s seat, it’s hard not to feel this particular aspect of womanhood is being erased with uncomfortable echoes of patriarchy past. As Roe v. Wade sits under a sword of Damocles and the reproductive rights of American women face four years of lockdown, I’m thinking about Professor Hill Collins’ analysis, and am concerned that if we lose the language of biology we dilute our fight. Our experiences are valid and our struggle is real too. I hope that common sense will prevail and that we can find a way to use the language of distinction without it being seen as a discriminatory act. We’re all fighting against the same system. Our enemies are not each other.

But I can’t help but feel we’re willingly Voldemorting our vaginas in the name of the academy – and I’m worried they’ll be forgotten about again. So the question for you all: how can we balance being powerful trans allies and maintain the distinctiveness of our own voices?

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22 thoughts on “Voldemorting the vagina – can we still talk in biological language?

  1. terfs 😦 i hate these guys. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5sp3dIyNA2A

    “Had my objection to the vandalism of a community space been a transphobic act?”

    oh, im sorry that question makes sense to you. no, you can care about people not defacing books and libraries (in other words, support NOT being fascist against speech) AND also care about trans rights (in other words, support NOT being fascist against speech.)

    there is NEVER (ever) a situation where you have to choose one or the other.

    there is never a good reason to deface a library. if these people cant find a better way to fight terfs and swerfs, then they should leave the terf-and-swerf-fighting to someone with better ideas. (seriously…) as for the trans community, i love them and occasionally its mutual. the rest of the time, i just ignore them. i dont have time for people who hate me without a darned good reason, and i hope i never do.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Thanks for writing this. I agree with much you have written and I have also found myself struggling with my progressive values and the sensation of my biology being written out the feminist narrative. I feel removing references to menstruation, vaginas, abortion, breastfeeding, childbirth and so on is sinply destructive. I have ready the phrase “not all women have vaginas” but I would add ” but the vast majority do” to be more accurate.

    Liked by 3 people

    • It also presents a very real issue on how I teach my daughter about womanhood. Can I not discuss her bodily reality without caveats and addendum? Surely it’s her body first – she must learn her reality of becoming a woman and accept that, and I want her to know her body is valuable.

      Liked by 3 people

  3. The “pregnant people” thing is where I fall down too. Absolutely, any transphobic behaviour while providing healthcare is vile and full training should be provided to make sure ignorance can’t be an excuse – I feel like that was the intention behind the BMA document. But erasing the “woman” from “woman’s healthcare” and especially “women’s reproductive healthcare” – especially now? My gut says it’s like throwing women, working class women, less educated women, under the bus. But I doubt I could stand up on a podium and explain why.

    Liked by 3 people

    • I think you just did a pretty good job. I think a huge part of talking about it is removing the fear of talking about it. And I think that’s what we’re doing here. Breaking the silence open, among ourselves at least.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. This is the whole problem. I’m seeing lots of eloquent, progressive feminist women absolutely unable to navigate this. They’re feeling legitimate hurt at seeing the things they’ve always had to fight for diminished in language and importance – but keen to try and balance that sentiment against their genuine desire to be a good ally. We are going to have to figure this out before the language of activism changes irrevocably, and the power of those words are lost.

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  5. Hi

    As you point out, trans people already experience significant barriers to healthcare access compared to biological women. As a point of logic, it’s obvious that transwomen must be included when the BMA explains how to access its medical services. But there isn’t a logical progression from there to the BMA erasing the word ‘woman’ and vocabulary relating to female biology. I think there is (there has to be) a way of accommodating biological language and transwomen in feminism.

    In my last job, I got a bursary to spend a month volunteering in Rajasthan. I originally wanted to join a women’s empowerment programme but I lacked the language skills to do any real good. So I went with a children’s charity instead. As part of my prep I discovered the scale of female infanticide and foeticide in India – because of the much greater value society places on male babies. Menstruation is another torturous topic for girls, impeding both their education and health. (Fun fact – the nicest thing I read on this topic was that girls use ash to stem the menstrual flow, as it’s sterile). Now that I’m back in the UK, the very language I use to raise awareness of these issues is contentious – because it centres on female sex as a point of oppression.

    This also struck me yesterday when Beyonce, a pregnant woman of colour, was accused of transphobia because of her Grammy’s performance. We’re not yet at a point in society when being a woman of colour and pregnancy don’t often lead to marginalization and oppression. Similarly, I read that some trans activists were calling pussy hats (as worn on the women’s marches) transphobic. Like you, I want to be good trans ally, but as someone who has been grabbed by the vagina, twice, I think it’s up to me how I respond to those assaults, and what I wear to protest them. These are all issues we need to reconcile to be good allies to one another.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you so much for this. I think you’ve zoomed in on where my current thinking is. How can we fold our trans sisters into our activism without surrendering the language that we need to use to discuss it in clarity with ALL audiences – not just well-read feminists. If we start using news terms – is that going to resonate to those who already don’t find any relevance in our cause? I doubt it.

      Also missed this about Beyonce. Do you have any links? Would be keen to try and understand where that analysis has come from.

      And we must chat some more about menstrual equality sometime. Something I’m very passionate about, but would love to know more about from women who have worked for it on the ground.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Women’s oppression is rooted in biology and there is no escaping that. Men don’t get pregnant, and I am so tired of the language of reproductive rights, obstetrics, women’s health issues, get mangled to accommodate supposed men. I have no wish to deliberately offend and will use whatever pronouns out of politeness, but if you have a functioning uterus and ovaries, you are a biological woman. That’s not hate, that’s reality. And your needs can be accommodated without erasing the reality and experiences of women. Ask yourself this: do men’s healthcare campaigns state that not only men get prostate cancer? And if not, why?

    Liked by 3 people

  7. Intersectionality is watering down feminism until it has no meaning. Women who suffer oppression under different axes, disability for example, are still our focus, but feminism is about females – and only females – or it’s not feminism at all.

    Intersectionality as currently used exploits female socialization, using the stereotyping that insists we are the mothers of the world. No one criticizes BLM for sticking to their original remit but women are supposed to embrace every lame dog cause.

    Transgender individuals are only relevant to feminism if they are female. The political agenda of male transgenders is directly opposed to feminism. One can wish a group well and support their rights in employment and housing without including them in a female centred political movement. Recognizing biological sex and the central role it plays in the oppression of women is not transphobic. Refusing to recognize that oppression is blatant misogyny. Women are not raped, die in childbirth or forced into marriage as small children because we “identify” as women, nor can we identify our way out of these horrors.

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  8. I don’t get the term SWERF. Feminists campaign against the exploitation of (usually) women in porn and sex work. Calling us SWERFs makes as much sense as calling people who fight for poorly paid workers at WalMart anti workers. The many women who have escaped the sex trade and become feminists are themselves called SWERFs. which is a nonsense.

    A few middle class young women doing camming on the side doesn’t negate the truth that sex work is typically dangerous, degrading and exploitative. Women engaged in sex work are a feminist issue. No feminist excludes them, ever.

    Liked by 4 people

  9. Intersectionality is about the various ways that women are oppressed. It is not about gender non-conforming (GNC) men (AKA transwomen) or women that have chosen to disassociate from their biological sex (AKA transmen and non-binary females). The genderqueer crowd and their fancy pronouns can go start their own movement
    .
    Black Lives Matter is not All Lives Matter.

    Disability rights movements do not focus on able bodied people

    My feminism DOES NOT prioritize GNC men or woman that do not wish to be called women.

    The Transgender and genderqueer crowd need to start their own movement and stop trying to hijack the Women’s Liberation Movement (AKA feminism). All oppressed groups are entitled to have their own movements, this includes women.

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  10. We almost certainly agree on very little, but on general principle I actually have to commend you for having the courage to write and publish this.

    A lot of the absurdities I’ve seen, such as erasing biology for the sake of ideology, are why I quit left-wing politics.

    I’m not saying you have to be a left-wing Breitbart reader, but it’s jarring to watch no matter where I came from or figuring out where I am politically today.

    Cheers.

    https://digitalheretic.org/dave-rubin-pretty-much-nails-why-the-regressiveleft-pushed-me-to-quit-left-wing-politics/

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  14. The reality is that radical feminists and so-called TERFS and SWERFS (terms for women when you can’t call them a bitch or a prude) offer the only coherent and internally consistent version of feminism. Trans-inclusive liberal feminism is simply untenable, hence the uncertainty of the above posters.

    Women are oppressed on the basis of their biology, their sex, NOT because they “identify” as women. WOMAN/FEMALE IS NOT AN IDENTITY. To suggest it is is to imply women choose their oppression. Like, if only those girls kidnapped by Boko Haram had queered up their gender or identified as men… A rapist does not ask how you identify. Whose genitals they mutilate in certain areas of Africa and the ME is not determined by identity.

    But I’m glad people are slowly realizing the contradictions within mainstream feminism and are getting back to what matters–fighting for women’s liberation.

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