Be that you are: on gender as class

“Be that you are,
That is, a woman; if you be more, you’re none;
If you be one, as you are well express’d
By all external warrants, show it now,
By putting on the destined livery.”
– Shakespeare, Measure for Measure

Be that you are. The impossibility of that phase – delivered by the corrupt Angelo to the virginal Isabella – bit into my brain when I read the play at 16 for my A-levels. If you are something, I wondered, then how is it possible to not already be it? The answer is something I didn’t understand then, something that at 32 I am dimly beginning to comprehend; and the answer is intimately entwined with the vicious double-nature of the category “woman”.

Simone de Beauvoir grasped the same awful truth Angelo expresses when she wrote: “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.” In these gender-worshipping times we live in, de Beauvoir’s phrase is often interpreted to mean than the status of “woman” is something one opts into, rather than something in any way conditional on one’s body. The feminist writer and activist Lauren Rankin, for example, says that:

“Any assumption that cisgender women are the only true women is a blatant form of bigotry. And honestly, it’s in direct violation of Feminism 101. After all, Simone De Beauvoir said more than half a century ago ‘One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.’

Feminism is predicated on the idea that gender is a social construct, that women are not defined by their biology, and that the category of ‘woman’ is informed and constructed by social gender norms. If women are more than what’s between their legs, why do some feminists continue to perpetuate a patriarchal notion that biology is destiny?”
Lauren Rankin, Transphobia Has No Place in Feminism

In this use of de Beauvoir’s epigram, a profound separation is made between the physical body and the social role of woman. Rankin argues not only that the physical body does not inherently determine the social role of “woman”, but that it is objectifyingly anti-feminist even to suggest a connection between the two. This is to go substantially further than de Beauvoir does; in fact it’s to go many miles in another direction entirely. This is how de Beauvoir goes on to define “woman”: “the figure that the human female presents in society.” Womanhood is cultivated rather than innate, says de Beauvoir, but there is a common characteristic among those in whom womanhood is cultivated: they are human females.

I’ve been reading a lot of second-wave writing recently, inspired by the New Statesman’s Second Wave Week (and I recommend all the essays in that series whole-heartedly). One of the things that is most shocking in reading older feminist texts is their boldness. This boldness is an insult to the contemporary Whiggism that tells us everything is getting better – continuously, gradually. The demands that boldness made have not been realised: the end to male supremacy that Dworkin imagined over three decades ago has not come about, not even close.

And feminists writing today write in different tone: we are quiescent, accommodating, almost apologetic compared to the thunder and fury of our last-century sisters. We are careful to make our case. We don’t ask more than our due (who determines our due? Presumably whoever we are asking it of). Our requests are transitional, our ends are ameliorative more than revolutionary. This is not because we are worse thinkers, or morally corrupt. It is because we have lived in a time of backlash. Those who are older than me will know the violence of the strike that pushed them down. Those my age or younger will simply know the unimaginability of anything but this wheedling state. We have learnt to be what we are.

Yet what we are, we cannot say. The condition of the human female in society is becoming increasingly one that is unspeakable. This is something that is to do with trans politics, but I want to be absolutely clear at this point: it is not something that has been caused by the existence of trans people, the vast majority of whom simply wish to live without harming or being harmed. The backlash has taken several forms. The first was the “choice feminism” of the 1980s and 90s – a decontextualised sort of anti-politics that told us whatever a woman does is good, particularly if what she does is what she would have done without feminism to tell her she can be a person in her own right. Then we had the neurosexism of the 1990s and 2000s (so deftly addressed by Cordelia Fine in her book Delusions of Gender), which reassured us that whatever women choose, they choose because that is what women do.

And from these, in the late-00s and 2010s, has been birthed the rhetoric of trans advocacy (which, I reiterate, is not the same as trans people themselves), a chimerical compound of the two previous strands of backlash. Within the lore of trans advocacy, as seen in the extract from Lauren Rankin above, the individual’s stated choice is always the ultimate arbiter, to the point that physical sex may no longer be considered as a material condition: “male” and “female” are said to be “assigned”, and should the individual disagree with their “assignation”, the individual’s judgement is sovereign. This leads us to a situation where, counter to all that is known about mammalian biology, it is possible for trans theorist and activist Julia Serano to claim that the presence of a penis is perfectly consistent with a state of “femaleness” (Whipping Girl, p. 16).

So if trans ideology holds that “femaleness” is not determined by our sex organs, where does this mysterious quality spring from? This is where neurosexism makes its contribution to the anti-feminist monstrosity. In Delusions of Gender, Fine meticulously delineates how neurosexism fails to question the conditions of sexism in which we live, while it simultaneously reassures us that the sexist outcomes of our society are the unavoidable expression of inherent male and female natures:

“Is it realistic, you will begin to wonder, to expect two kinds of people, with two such different brains, to ever have similar values, achievements, lives? If it’s our differently wired brains that make us different, maybe we can sit back and relax. If you want the answer to persisting gender inequalities, stop peering suspiciously at society and take a look right over here, please, at this brain scan.”
– Cordelia Fine, Delusions of Gender

Trans ideology has pretended to break the relationship between the “two kinds of people” and the two kinds of body, male and female. But in actuality, what it has done is simply reaffirm the “two kinds” while denying the possibility of identifying a reproductive framework that might explain why those kinds have been culturally constituted as they are. Here is Serano, distinguishing between “socialised” and “innately” feminine traits:

“Evidence that [feminine aesthetic preferences and ways of expressing oneself] may be hardwired comes from the fact that they typically appear early in childhood and often in contradiction to one’s socialization. […] This indicates that some aspects of feminine verbal and aesthetic expression precede and/or supersede gender socialization.”
– Julia Serano, Whipping Girl

I would like to know very much where Serano has found these individuals who manage to reach early childhood free from the gendering influence of socialisation: Fine describes experiments showing that mothers are more attentive to baby girls’ emotional states and more applauding of baby boys’ crawling abilities, despite the fact that the male and female infants were identical both in demonstrativeness and motor skills. From the very smallest stage, parents are assisting their children in the process of becoming what they must be, woman or man. The girls are taught to be feeling and receptive, the boys to be active and powerful. In fact, what is being established is a class system – for that is what gender is.

It is rare to hear gender spoken of as a class system now, when we have learnt to think of it instead as an “identity” with infinite permutations all made sacred by the neoliberal spirit of individuality. That sounds more nuanced, doesn’t it? Much more sophisticated. It is an obfuscation. To learn what gender truly is, we must dig back, into the prehistory of humanity and into the second-wave writings that are so little regarded now as to seem practically prehistoric:

“[T]he natural reproductive difference between the sexes led directly to the first division of labour at the origins of class, as well as furnishing the paradigm of caste (discrimination based on biological characteristics).”
– Shulamith Firestone, Dialectic of Sex

The biological characteristics Firestone refers to are, of course, the sexual characteristics that decide our likely reproductive role. In the asymmetry of mammalian reproduction, control of the resource-rich female body is highly prized. Among humans, gender is the social system that gives males that precious power. It is not natural for men to be dominant and women to be submissive, but it is naturalised by the norms of patriarchy.

Where Firestone’s radical feminism sought to expose and disentangle this relationship between what one is and what one is supposed to be, the trans advocacy of Serano reaffirms its inherency – for when trans people are a minority of less than 1%, what Serano’s claims about gender really amount to is the assertion that gender has got it right for the more than 99% of us deemed to be “cis”.

Denying the connection between reproductive sex and socialised gender is a way to make gender appear innocuous. Serano even denies that femaleness is of much moment at all to misogyny these days: “much of the sexism faced by women today targets their femininity (or assumed femininity) rather than their femaleness,” she states in the essay Empowering Femininity. If only we could let women put on their destined livery of lipstick and prettiness without condemnation, the suggestion seems to be, then all would be well.

But the destined livery of women is too often violently imposed. Forced marriage, domestic violence, FGM, rape, sexual harassment, the denial of abortion, the compulsion to sacrifice oneself to the care of others – these things are not imposed on women because we are feminine, they are imposed because we are female. By enforcing our inferiority to male needs and male desires, these forms of violence enforce our femininity – the signs and symbols of which change, but the meaning of which is always to be less than the man. (“[I]f you be more, you’re none,” says Angelo. There is no escape for Isabella.)

Once we accept that trans ideology does not alter the sex-class system, we can begin to understand why the flash points of trans activism so often seem to be around female resistance to male supremacy. Campaigns for reproductive rights are attacked for being triggeringly objectifying when they are anatomically precise (as Night of 1,000 Vaginas was described) or transphobically essentialist when they refer to women as a whole (a charge aimed at the group Lady Parts Justice by trans writer Parker Molloy). Meanwhile, men’s health campaigns are placed under no such pressure.

Domestic violence shelters are charged with transphobia for exercising judgement on whether they can provide services to trans women along with their other clients; men-only enclaves such as the tech industry, politics or sports are left uncriticised for their exclusion of trans men. At the end of Michelle Goldberg’s article What is a Woman?, she quotes interviewee Sandy Stone’s injunction to radical feminists: “I am going to have to say, It’s your place to stay out of spaces where transgender male-to-female people go. It’s not our job to avoid you.” Women’s self-defined space is made permeable, penetrable, borderless – just as the female body is held to be in the patriarchal imagination.

This is the replication of old habits of male supremacy, made fresh by the new jargon of trans advocacy. This is the backlash, lashing still. Our sex does not decide what we will become, but society, speaking with the patriarch voice of Angelo, continues to tells us to be that which we are in its eyes. Our bodies are a material condition of our lives: we cannot free ourselves from tyranny by identifying it away. The control of bodies is the object of gender: again, we cannot resist that control by pretending not to recognise it. Instead of wishful thinking and faith in a vague sort of general progressivism, we need to deploy the radical analysis of gender to understand how male and female humans are coerced into masculinity and femininity. And we need to do it urgently: there are trans people who know they need a form of politics not moulded by the dull shapes patriarchy, and the backlash against women has gone on too long.