So, after a summer recess of trying to forget that the world is manifoldly going to hell in a handcart, this week’s exciting ‘Back to Twitter’ experience has involved a good deal of feminists being berated for ‘reducing women to their genitals/biology/anatomy/whatever.’ This woke-approved soundbite has been around for an AGE, and my usual reaction to it is a long slow disbelieving blink. (It’s always slightly staggering when some wokebro comes along to pronounce on your ‘unstellar feminism’ based on his complete inability to grasp the relation between ‘biology’ and ‘destiny’). Anyway, I’m not about to write a thousand-odd words to clarify this for the benefit of the TRAs (it’s pretty clear the TRAs are not interested in anything being clarified) or even for their male accomplices (who evidently have no intention of relinquishing their shiny new ‘get out of misogyny free’ cards). I do, however, care about the many young women who are buying this bullshit, and I especially care about the degree to which they are buying this bullshit because of uninterrogated, internalised assumptions about the horror of being female. (Women? Being raised to devalue their femaleness? In a patriarchy? Nah mate).
The first thing to note about the way this apparently seductive soundbite works is that it relies on equivocations in the meanings of ‘defined by’ and ‘reduced to.’ And, moreover, these equivocations hinge, fundamentally, on an inability to think both the ‘female’ AND the ‘human’ bit contained in the proposition ‘women = adult human female.’
So, let’s for a moment take out the ‘human’ bit of the meaning of woman, and just think about the meaning of ‘female.’ Female is a biological or anatomical classification. It is ‘being the member of the reproductive sex class that produces large immobile gametes,’ a classification that exists reliably across the vast majority of living species, and is accompanied by a range of secondary sexual characteristics (like seriously people, we called the whole class of animals we belong to ‘mammals’ because the females have mammary glands capable of producing milk and now you want everyone to pretend that whether female people have boobs or not is all staggeringly opaque.) Anyway, I have mostly resisted getting involved in the conversation about what ‘woman’ means because I find it all basically irrelevant to the current debate. (‘Female people exist. Existence precedes essence. Next.’ As far as I’m concerned). To wit: What I’m interested in is defending the political rights of female people, and no matter how many times TRAs insist on telling us sex in unfathomably ‘complex,’ it really isn’t. Female animals make big gametes. That’s just what female means.
The idea, therefore, that there is something ‘reductive’ about saying that female animals are female because they belong to the sex class that makes big gametes makes absolutely no sense. What must be meant, therefore, is that there is something damaging, or harmful, or morally bad, about ‘defining’ women by, or ‘reducing women’ to their anatomical reproductive function. Which of course there is. But the sense conveyed here, notably, involves bringing the ‘human’ bit of ‘adult human female’ back into play. When we say women are adult human females we are defining the female part of their being in terms of a reproductive and, when it comes down to it, animal function. We are very much not, however, ‘defining’ the entirety of the being of adult human females in terms of that function (what is conveyed by this second sense of ‘defined by’ is actually something more like ‘limiting the entire existence of women to their reproductive function,’ which would make us um, Thomas Aquinas (‘Yes Judy, I know you think we’re all mad Catholics’)). What is going on here, in the minds of the TRAs and their allies (I’m being generous here, I don’t think the TRAs actually believe half the shit they throw at the ‘let’s undermine the existence of women’ wall), is, as always, the endless inability to think sex independently of gender. This is the sense in which they are, in fact, entirely in hock to a conservative patriarchal metaphysics of gender (which they then project onto us, before merrily accusing us of being the anti-feminists). If feminists insist that women are female, then, they suppose, we must mean that women are thereby yoked to all the patriarchal bullshit about how female people should or should not behave, and we must mean that the lives of women are to be valued solely in terms of their reproductive function. While of course, because we have a sex/gender distinction, we mean nothing of the sort.
It’s worth noting here that this abject failure to understand the difference and relation between sex and gender is a manifestation of a more general problem which permeates trans activist discourse (and maddeningly also, the minds of the third wave feminists who support them)…that is, the abject failure to adequately think the difference and relation between nature and culture, or between biology and history. This one comes up over and over. We see it especially in discussions around the origins of patriarchy, or when we try and get TRAs to produce an even barely passable account of why women are oppressed. When we make the claim that women are oppressed because of their biology, we are obviously not claiming that the patriarchal system of gender which positions women as a reproductive and sexual resource arose inevitably on the basis of that biology (Firestone was wrong on this one). Patriarchy is a socio-historical construct. Feminists are not biological determinists. But socio-historical constructs do not arise willy-nilly with no relation to material constraints. (As I say when I get exasperated, try building a house out of candy-floss and tell me how ‘arbitrary’ social constructs are.) Turning women into a resource in a manner which abnegated their humanity and freedom was not a necessary outcome of their biology – to explain that you have to explain why a certain form of masculinity is so. damn. committed. to turning its material dependencies into appropriable property. But for persons to be converted into materially appropriable resources, they have to have some quality that makes them valuable as such. Which, in women’s case, was our reproductive and sexual use to men (first and foremost, followed closely by our domestic and emotional service). That is, women’s biology is a necessary but not sufficient condition of patriarchal domination and, therefore, any undoing of patriarchy will have to reckon with women’s reproductive and sexual function and men’s long-inculcated entitlement to it. Beauvoir was right that biology is not destiny. But delivering that promise demands we challenge the entire socio-historic edifice that has constrained women’s destiny in order to appropriate their biology, and we won’t get there by playing make-believe with unicorns and piles of glitter.
The thing that really concerns me here, however, is why this little soundbite is seemingly so seductive to young women. To return to our proposition about women being ‘adult human females’ what this comes down to is an inability to think the being-together of femaleness and humanness. This is not at all surprising. Patriarchy has constructed the being of women as a kind of maternal-bovine non-being, a life made up of self-abnegating sexual-reproductive service, while dispensing all the exciting, creative, self-actualising, human-like activity to the penis people. (Note: I am not saying this is what maternity is, I am saying this is what ‘woman-as-mother’ is in the patriarchal imaginary). Given that we’re all raised inside the patriarchal imagination, it is pretty easy to see why girls and young women decide they rather fancy the ‘human-box,’ and then further conclude that the way to do this is to renounce their femaleness. Pretty much every feminist I know has walked this way. Pretty much all of us were, at some point or other, the kind of woman who considered it an unerring compliment to be told that we were ‘one of the boys.’ Pretty much all of us believed that unlike those other silly girls we were never going to be constrained by either the yoke of femininity or the obdurateness of embodiment. Until we got pregnant. Or were sexually assaulted. Or discovered that no matter how rational and male-identified we were, the penis people were still never going to take us seriously. Because we were women.
At some point in there, it occurred to us that in trying to divest ourselves (impossibly) of our femaleness, we were simply agreeing that women were lesser humans. It occurred to us that all the patriarchal devaluation about what female people are and what female people can do, all the images, too, of motherhood as bovine-passivity rather than an active and axiomatically creative endeavour, were just so much masculinist hogwash held in place by the enormous edifice of binary hierarchy our adversaries seem so certain they’re smashing. There is no challenge to patriarchal gender in colluding with its devaluation of femaleness. There is no challenge to patriarchal metaphysics in recoiling from the body, in thinking that because it is the historic and ongoing site of our appropriation, freedom depends on dissolving into an immaterial masculinist mind. And there is no path to liberation for human females in thinking our humanity can only be won by renouncing our femaleness.
The task of feminism is to assert, and to fight for, the humanity of female people.
It is the radical notion that women are people.
Not the radical notion that if women are people, they cannot be female.
 To note, I don’t think the whole ‘what is a woman’-conversation is entirely pointless, insofar as we can sensibly discuss whether woman means only ‘adult human female’ and the extent to which that definition can be supplemented (maybe) or replaced (no) by one grounded entirely in gender. However, insofar as a great deal of my concern with this debate is about the erasure of sex, I am entirely uninterested in getting sidetracked into quibbling about what a woman is when people are outright trying to undermine the existence of female people. They exist. They have rights. Get the fuck over it.