Some 40 years ago, in another life, I was discussing women’s rights and the discrimination that women suffer in many areas of life, and particularly in employment. It seemed to me even then that it was not fair that men got well paid jobs over equally well, or even better, qualified women. My friend was unconvinced.
“It’s women that have the babies” he countered. That, for him, was the clinching argument. It was rooted in biology and pre-ordained that men worked and provided, whilst women were the cares, the nurturers, the home makes. The subordination of women came gift wrapped with the second X chromosome. My friend was not, of course, the only person to think this. There is a whole tradition of evolutionary biology making similar arguments, as if male and female roes have been handed down from hunter gatherer societies. And are immutable.
Then, one Friday evening at home during the university summer vacation I had an epiphany. I picked up one of my sister’s degree course textbooks and began to read. The writing was lucid, vivid and laced with humour. I was soon drawn into the first of many feminist texts I was to read. The book was Housewife! by Ann Oakley. In this book Oakley discusses the role of women as housewives and mothers and how these roles are socially determined – therefore contingent. It is not inevitable that women will stay at home and be largely excluded from the labour market, just because they possess certain reproductive organs, maybe I should say cervix in view of the latest social media debates. Oakley gives examples of societies where the roles of women, therefore the social construction of gender is different. In the west, of course, the biological determinants of gender are overdetermined by the needs of industrial capitalism.
Gender roles change over time, and differ between societies at the same time. Gender is not sex and sex is not gender. If sex indeed was the sole determinant of gender feminist politics would make no sense. There would be nothing to struggle for, biology is what is. If you are born with ovaries well, tough. That said, gender, if not reducible to biological sex, is not unrelated to it. It cannot be denied that the construction of gender is determined in large measure by the biological facts of reproduction. As my friend said all those years ago it is women that have the babies and that underlies the social role, or gender, that they are expected to perform. Or, as some feminists will argue, it underlies their oppression.
I think that the difference between sex and gender is that sex is being and gender is doing. Secondly that gender, while it can be lived as an oppression, is more than oppression. Gender is a contested terrain where women are active in shaping their social roles. Many women , for example, see a performance of traditional femininity as liberating and empowering. The history of clothing and make up are a good example of this.
So where does this leave trans people? Well, trans people can never be biologically the same as the majority of people of the gender that they identify with. That is what makes them trans. But surely they can be their chosen gender by performing it and doing this need not entail medical interventions, although in many cases, of course, it well. I do not believe that doing this is the performance and validation of gender stereotypes, and, in my experience, there are many different ways in which trans people perform gender, and the variety reflects the variety of ways in which cis people perform gender. Some feminist critiques seem stuck in the 1970s and hackneyed stereotypes of the trans woman in a faux leather mini skirt, fishnets and stilettoes.
Trans people do not exist in a vaccuum and, like everyone else, are constituted in part by their interactions with others and the perceptions that others have of them. Being trans is not ultimately about “feelings” but about living as you want to and being accepted as who you want to be. If my friends consider me a woman who am I to disagree?
There is for me a sense in which I feel I am moving beyond gender as a label and not getting hung up on the arguments and the toxicity and worrying about “passing” or not. I may write more about this in the future when I have done some more thinking. I am not, primarily a woman or a trans person r nay other label. I am primarily me and enough people love me for me to think that being me is not a bad place to be.