Friday, April 9, 2010

The Swiss cheese model of gender.

You may have notice that I write a lot of responses to other people's posts here. That's what this blog is for - when I have something to say but can't fit it in the comment field. And today I found a post called "What makes a woman", via some link-clicking that started in a comment thread on queer theory that I was participating in, and the thoughts it provoked kept me busy for quite some time. It's about the OP's own view on what it is that makes someone a woman, and not a man:
I only ever feel like a woman when someone is making me feel like a woman. By catcalling me from across the street or holding a door open and saying “Ladies first” or by treating me like a child because I have a vagina. The rest of the time, when I’m not being coerced into feeling like a woman by the heteropatriarchy, I feel like a human being.
The OP has every right to be considered a human being and not a woman. The thing is, she's contrasting her experience with that of transgender and transsexual women (emphasis in original):
The transwomen say they are women because they define themselves as women, and demand to be treated accordingly.
But I am a woman because society defined me as a woman, and will treat me accordingly even though I would rather be treated like a human being.
I have to say I'm confused - if the OP is only a woman because society said so, then it seems to me that the first six words of the second sentence should have been unnecessary.

Some people might think that I'm not qualified to write or have an opinion about this, but I don't think I need any qualifications other than a conscience and the capacity for rational thought. The OP writes that society makes "women" by means of shaming, rape, objectification, and rigid gender roles that put women in a subservient position - in other words, by oppressing them.
Experiencing these and a 1001 other things is what makes me a woman instead of a man. I am a woman because I have experienced these things. This is my lived experience. I can go anywhere in the world and recognize half the population as members of Class Woman, because they share this lived experience even if the details are different.
But then the transwomen come along and tell me I have it all wrong. Because anyone who identifies as a woman is a woman now. Their lived experience tells them so.
But this erases my lived experience. Renders it incidental. Strips it of meaning. As if it were a footnote instead of the main text.
Women are oppressed, everywhere, and the oppression itself comes in varying degrees of subtle and blatant. But for me it seems backward to say that oppression makes someone a woman. Gender roles and stereotypes have undeniably been used for oppressive purposes, and they may have even been created for those purposes, but the concept of gender itself can exist without being oppressive. When the hunter-gather society decides that the men will hunt and cook the meat, and the women will gather fruit and take care of the children, it's not a totally equal division of labor, but it's not what I'd call oppressive either. It becomes oppressive when people start to believe that this division happened for some non-utilitarian reason ("God made men for hunting and women for raising babies", etc.) and codify it based on that belief. It becomes oppressive when the men start to believe that their duties are more important and dismiss the women's as unimportant or requiring no skill, and use this to justify a belief that women are inherently inferior. If this continues even in situations where the traditional "male duties" are less important, or when women prove that they can do whichever jobs they want to, or when men are deterred from doing the same through continual reminders that women are inferior and you shouldn't want to be like them... then you have oppression.

I think that trans women would like to be rid of the misogynist and oppressive bullshit just as much as cis women, since they're on the recieving end of just as often. And I'm drawn back to the sentence from earlier in the post -  the phrase "I am a a woman." I think the only safe assumption that you can make about any trans woman is that she'd like to be able to say this exact thing  - "I am a woman" - and be taken at her word, just like anyone else. There's no good reason not to do this. When someone says that she's not a real woman because [_____], they're doing the same thing that's been done to women everywhere for all of human history. They're pointing to their own mental model of  "A Woman" and saying that anyone who is not like this isn't a woman - no matter how she thinks of herself. What perplexes me is that some people have a mental model of  "A Woman" that somehow includes every person in the world who was assigned female at birth - an incredibly diverse group of people - and yet still excludes trans women. On what basis do they do this?

Biological attributes aren't really helpful - just ask the IOC. There are plenty of people who have something other XX chromosomes, or higher levels of testosterone in the bloodstream, or facial hair, or any other attributes that people assume are only found in men. Using "lived experience" as a standard is hardly any better.

What do we make of the "lived experience" of an intersexed person whose gender was incorrectly assigned? Which part of their life counts - the part before or after they realized there'd been a mistake? Does it matter if they don't figure it out until they're adults? Does it matter what their assigned gender was to begin with?

What about trans women who began living as female when they were younger? Does their "male lived experience" still count if it only lasted fourteen years? What about ten years, or eight years?

What about a cis women who has "very masculine features"? How do we know she's not trans? Do we allow her chromosomes as proof, even as we dismiss them as irrelevant for a woman with CAIS? Do we need to see that she has a uterus and ovaries, while allowing women who've had hysterectomies to continue calling themselves women? Do we need to see some childhood photographs where she's wearing a dress, knowing full well that plenty of girls and women don't wear dresses?

How many exceptions do you allow for the sake of including everyone but trans women? How many holes do I have to poke in this paradigm before it falls apart?


  1. She really sounds like she just hates women and is just butthurt because trans women didn't have to stay in the kitchen and bake pies or some shit. Because it's not like, y'know, they had other shit they had to put up with or anything /sarcasm

    It reads like a troll blog if there ever was one.

  2. @Brittnee If this were the first time I'd ever seen someone with the opinion, or even the third time, then I'd think it was trolling. But I come across it much more often than that - so even if this particular post is just trolling, there really are people who think this way.

  3. @Mercury Chaos

    Unfortunately so. I could probably dig a thousand blog posts on how Obama was born in the Soviet Union or something.

    While it's important to refute the foolish or misinformed ideas people spout, I would stick with the ones that have a higher level of objectivity and at least pretend to follow some kind of logical reasoning.

    I'm sure there's white-supremist blogs out there, but I don't think much could be gained from trying to have logical discussions with them about their views.

    Possibly not a fair comparison to this chick, but she makes about as much sense as the crazy racists out there.