A Pox on the Patriarchy
It’s been an interesting week. I’ve been threatened, I’ve had people quite disturbingly plotting to “destroy” me – I believe they mean my career and ability to earn a living rather than my actual person. Still though, not being able to earn a living is no small consideration, particularly for someone who already doesn’t have a stable income. I’ve had posts written all about me, denouncing me in MASSIVE BLOCK CAPITALS on the front of websites. A seemingly never-ending stream of insults and attacks have been tweeted my way. I’ve seen whole timelines of certain tweeters dedicated to tearing me down and trashing me. I have felt myself watched – more even than usual – and pounced on. My every infraction tossed gleefully to the hungry wolves and ultimately reported to the great blockbot in the sky, where at one point, I was upped to, CODE RED “level one”, labelled the “worst of the worst”, a “clear-cut” stalker, abuser, doxxer. (If you don’t know what the blockbot is, this piece by Martin Robbins is a good introduction).
By this point you are perhaps thinking, “what terrible thing did she do?” It must have been pretty bad to result in such an onslaught. Well, I wrote this post, just over a week ago, about why I cannot accept cis as a term to describe myself. That’s it. That is what has merited this treatment.
You may be surprised that’s all it took. I’m not. I wrote my post in the full knowledge of what I was to expect as a reaction. I posted it anyway, because I felt I had a duty to speak up. The climate of fear has become intolerable and is actively harming feminist activism and feminist discourse. Women, all women, have to be allowed to discuss their own reality without fear for their own safety and livelihoods. This is feminism. The fact that they cannot, made me feel that I could not shirk the responsibility of using my much-dreaded “platform”, aka twitter account, to show that I would not be cowed into silence by the Orwellian totalitarianism under which feminism is currently living.
So why am I complaining now? Well, partly because I think it’s important that people know what the stakes are in this debate. I think it’s particularly important to explain this for those who are not involved in this often vicious struggle. Many of those people read my last post with interest and could see nothing wrong with it. This was no doubt because, as I made clear, I have no issue with trans women doing whatever they want with their lives and bodies. The only issue I have is when and if the ability of women as a class to speak about and challenge their oppression is harmed. To me, that is the progressive position: the one that is not dictating how others should define themselves. I think it’s important that people recognise how one “side”, no matter how reasonably and temperately, is simply not allowed to speak. How they are bullied and threatened into silence. I cannot accept as feminism, activism that terrifies women into shutting up.
But there is another, more congenial reason for writing this post. And that is because I feel like I’ve hit upon a central sticking point that, if we can address it properly, might mean that we can find a way through this impasse that will work for both trans women and non-trans women. Because, ultimately, that is surely what we all want. To stop fighting. To be able to find a way to live together.
This sticking point has been cropping up all week in various tweets and blog posts, but I felt was perhaps most clearly expressed in a tweet I got last night, from a woman who told me that she hoped I simply didn’t understand the harm I was causing. “This isn’t a game”, she informed me.
There are many issues with this tweet. The first is that it is sexist. I am but a mere woman, who, being a trivial creature, cannot possibly “understand” what she is doing. That she is simply a vessel, an unthinking automaton. Well, no. I know what I am doing. I am exercising my right to name my oppression.
(EDIT: For those who are confused at the idea that a woman can be sexist, this article, that came out just as I finished writing this post, is a good example of this exact dynamic playing out. It is the dynamic of a woman, very understandably, wishing to distance herself from the sexist trope of the “hysterical woman”. Unfortunately, all this approach does, is to reify the idea that most women are indeed hysterical, just this woman may not be in this instance. It doesn’t work for women as a class and doesn’t even work for the woman doing it. Not long-term anyway. Apart from the damaging reification of the “hysterical women” trope, what those who seek to classify the legitimate political concerns of women do when they dismiss them as “squabbling” or mere, irrational (hello sexism!) “prejudice”, is to completely misapprehend the importance of the cis debate to feminism. At heart, this debate is over the question of what it means to be a woman. That is the question that feminism has *always* been about, because it is patriarchy’s definition of what a woman is that causes women to be treated in the way that they are. It is patriarchy’s definition of “woman” that has reduced us to trivial, violable, inconsequential, beatable creatures who should keep silent and smile. So when women get angry at being told they must identify with a definition that has oppressed them for millennia, these are not petty squabbles that distract from the “real” business of feminism. They *are* the real business of feminism. Because until we redefine what it is to be a woman, women will continue to be underpaid, overworked, undervalued, assaulted, violated, raped, beaten and murdered at an epidemic scale.)
This leads to the second issue, which is the idea that I could possibly think this was in any way “a game” (incidentally another instance of trivialising sexism – women don’t have political ideologies; they play games). Why would I have knowingly put myself up for a week’s worth of attacks, for “a game”? No-one in their right mind would deliberately put themselves in harm’s way for such a trivial reason. I knew that what I was doing would result in exactly what it has resulted in, and as I clicked “post”, I was literally shaking. My heart was racing, I was terrified. I did not engage in those physiological responses because I thought this was “a game”. Far from it. I did it because I care deeply about the liberation of women as a class from male violence, and I firmly believe that the key to that liberation lies in women being able to accurately describe and reject their oppression. I do not consider the rape and beating of women worldwide at a level the World Health Organisation has deemed to be an “epidemic”, to be a game. I consider it to be a matter of life and death.
But there is another implication in that tweet and one that has cropped up repeatedly in the past week. The implication is one of bad faith. That I cannot have a legitimate political reason for objecting to this term. That I must simply be rejecting it out of spite. Because I think it’s a game, so it doesn’t matter either way. Again, this hints at a total denial of the issues at stake for non-trans women in being told that they identify with their oppression (and I know that there are arguments about the precise meaning of cis: see this post by Rebecca Reilly-Cooper for a brilliant, methodical dissection of the issues surrounding this and why, particularly in the current climate of imprecision, cis cannot be accepted as a term). Our concern for the liberation of women who are oppressed on the basis of being born with bodies that mark us out as violable and inferior is not a legitimate concern. It is a concern that does not exist, therefore it is a position that is occupied out of malice.
This is a huge issue for this debate, because while either side cannot accept that the other has legitimate, political concerns, that affect their ability to liberate themselves, rather than “phobias” (side-note: I have yet to meet a so-called TERF who denies trans women the right to live as they please) or sheer evil intent, this debate simply cannot happen.
I am not going to go again into what the legitimate political concerns are: I have already voiced them, and it was that voicing that led to my being accused of playing a game. All I want to do here, is highlight this issue. And to ask that those who take that position exercise a little empathy. Ask that they step outside their perspective and consider the perspective of the women they denounce. Ask that they consider the “other side” as fully human, with fully human concerns, not as petty, spiteful inconsequential, trivial creatures who play games. Because only when that happens, will we be able to move forward. And until it does, we will be be forced to continue to repeat this mentally damaging (to all sides) cycle of recriminations, attacks and abuse.