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.

15 thoughts on “Be that you are: on gender as class

  1. Loved this. “The female body as held in the patriarchal imagination” . Exactly. Seems we’re all having the same “lightbulb moment” , because I did this…. ” Schrodinger’s Woman. How the notional has become fact, erasing even sex as it’s foundation.”

  2. Excellent stuff, crystallising some thoughts that have been going through my mind for a while. Did you see this LRB column by Stephen Burt last year?

    The workshop itself was helpful but intimidating. ‘To be born woman is to know,’ Yeats wrote, ‘Although they do not talk of it at school,/That one must labour to be beautiful’: adults who weren’t born as women have a hard time learning later on. Among the lessons of the session were that girlish looks need more blush, sophisticated adult looks less, though they may need more mascara. I learned that a business card, held against the temple, prevents eyeshadow overshoot.

    Suddenly femininity is prior to femaleness, somehow.

  3. I struggle with the whole trans/feminism thing. I’m not an academic feminist, I haven’t read any historic works or tomes, I barely have a grasp of the waves. I’m just your average woman who thinks women should be equal. I follow various feminists on Twitter, I read blogs and articles here and there, I discuss things with friends and family, I try to identify and challenge sexism when I see it. I’m not even going to go anywhere near this ‘cis’ thing, I have no real understanding of the term.

    The whole TERF war is boggling and confusing to me. On the one hand, I would think feminists should be inclusive – that’s what we’re about, right? On the other, I see women being hounded for even saying the word ‘vagina’ or referring to wombs and reproduction, and that seems to me to be taking away some of our fundamental rights.

    I’ve been trying to get my head round all of this. Sometimes I’ve found an analogy helps, so I tried a few out. You often hear the phrase ‘If it would sound wrong if it was a man doing it, it’s probably sexist’. I’m not entirely sure this applies here (although your point about trans men is certainly salient), but what about the other comparison? If you replace the word ‘woman’ with ‘person of colour’, what then?

    This is where it kind of fell into place for me. If a white person felt like a person of colour, decided to have skin treatment and then called themselves a person of colour, would they have the right to identify as such with all the baggage that comes with? What would other people of colour think about it? I’m reminded of the South Park episode where Stan doesn’t get how it feels to be a black person – ‘I get it now! I don’t get it!’. The history of people of colour is so bound up with centuries of oppression, inequality and injustice that people not born into that cannot comprehend what that feels like. Would you respect the right of this hypothetical person to have whatever skin colour they chose? Absolutely. Would you think they now ‘got it’, as Stan tried to do? Probably not.

    Is this incredibly simplistic? Aren’t there exceptions, different circumstances, varying degrees, anomalies, shades of grey? Almost certainly, but it has given me a starting point from which to feel my bumbling way around this issue.

  4. This quote from the ever-bogglingly-stupid Serano is the crux for me: “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.”

    If these personality traits are occurring naturally in MALES, and they are and always have been, why are they still labeled “feminine” Instead of HUMAN? The answer, of course, is to stubbornly say that the personality traits LABELED feminine by patriarchal societies actually exist (and should exist) in MALE bodies *completely undermines male supremacy.*

    Can’t have that!

    When women wanted the right to acknowledge our own human personality traits that were LABELED masculine, we started a movement for the liberation of women.

    Now, when men want the right to acknowledge their human personality traits that are LABELED feminine, instead of confronting masculinity – which could be done in partnership with feminism – they simply take over women’s spaces and language. Like the colonizers of women they were socialized to be.

  5. I share much of Jen’s confusion about this. Prior to the current debate I, rather simplistically, thought in terms of equality, of fighting against discrimination, of equal rights at work and under the law and, of course, included trans men and women in this. I still do and I’m sure all the so-called ‘terfs’ don’t want to see anyone discriminated against or oppressed.

    And having studied post-structuralism I also understand that the breaking down of oppressive binary thinking can be a radical act, that there is a world of grey between light and day, good and evil, black and white, and that the privileging of one binary over the other, man over woman, is ideological and an expression of power.

    But whilst this might work for gender, and the false binary of masculinity and femininity, it really doesn’t work for the material basis of female oppression. This is why many on the left grew tired of the ‘linguistic turn’ of deconstruction: it leaves no room for understanding, or even naming, material reality.

    I’m grateful to Sarah,and Glosswitch, and others for articulating this debate in a language that feels true and authentic. It’s hard, feeling on the wrong side of what’s meant to be ‘radical’ but we can’t just wish away oppression by using different terms. Maybe that can come after the revolution. A revolution that exists merely at the level of language games and redefintions is irrelevant for all but the most privileged.

  6. Reblogged this on naefearty and commented:
    While you want for my next exciting episode I am reblogging this post from Sarah Dittum, who expresses so eloquently the politics behind my motivation to expose my private herstory in this blog.
    I am not immune to curiosity about what others have been saying about me, this blog, and my percieved motivations. While Googling “naefearyy”, I came across a number of posts and conversations between trans “activists” and their “allies” and (as expected) I found reactions ranging from, “She is playing the victim,” to, “if she wasn’t a bigot she would understand her partner’s pain” to” She just hates trans women because of one bad experience,
    she is tarring us all with the same brush” to “She is lying”…
    The point of this blog (I know you are reading this, assholes) is to allow the silent women who have been subjucted to this particular form of emotional abuse at the hands of men who think they are women (those same men who are held up as saintly victims by the transgenderist cult) a space to speak our truths. And also to assure all women experiencing or having had experienced this abuse that it is *not your fault*. That it is all connected to the system of *gender*, that has been and continues to be wielded as the ultimate tool of female oppression. The transgenderists want us to

  7. sue: It’s hard, feeling on the wrong side of what’s meant to be ‘radical’ but we can’t just wish away oppression by using different terms. Maybe that can come after the revolution. A revolution that exists merely at the level of language games and redefintions is irrelevant for all but the most privileged.

    Radical means getting to the root. Just accepting everyone for whatever they “identify” as, is not a radical action. It is a liberal idea and liberals are far more concerned with the rights of middle-aged men who decide they are women and want to invade women’s spaces than they are with the actual rights of actual women. There is something inherently lazy in the liberal mindset; it does not want to look long and hard at the world, but to content itself with happy platitudes and absurd notions such as “Why can you just accept men as women?”

    Your analogy with deconstructionism is spot-on.

  8. so great! such a great, clear summary of the “radical feminist” (whatever that means in 2014) position around gender issues. thank you also for putting that De Beauvoir quote in context. really tired of hearing people who haven’t actually read her quote it to support their incoherent ideas about gender performance. i feel like we have a generation of feminists whose knowledge of the movement doesn’t extend beyond pop culture criticism and skimming the Wikipedia page for “Judith Butler.”

  9. I first read “Measure for Measure” a little over 50 years ago. I thought that Angelo was a sexist pervert, and I still think that. He used his political authority to try to rape Isabella, was foiled in that plan when, unbeknownst to Angelo, his fiancé, Mariana, was substituted for Isabella in his bed. Angelo got off way too easy at the end of the play when his only “punishment” was to have to marry his fiancé. What Isabella said hundreds of years ago to Angelo earlier in the play still rings true today:

    “But man, proud man,
    Dressed in a little brief authority,
    Most ignorant of what he’s most assured,
    His glassy essence, like an angry ape
    Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven
    As makes the angels weep.”

    As you know, I am trans, and am also repelled by the views of Julia Serano, who “doth protest too much”, and by the views of Sandy Stone.

  10. The really interesting thing about Measure for Measure is the way it revolves around Isabella’s status, defined not “as a woman” (that’s just the starting point) but as a woman in some sexual relation to a man. At the climax of the play she’s put on the spot and asked if she’s a maid (i.e. a virgin), a wife or a widow, and (truthfully) answers No to all three. This baffles everybody – in a world with no divorce and no (publicly acknowledged) pre-marital sex, there’s literally nothing else a woman can be. Well, almost nothing – the comic relief brothel-keeper Pompey comes in at that point and points out that prostitutes qualify for the triple negative. But that exit is no exit at all – either you’re defined by being married, having been married or not being married yet, or you’re defined as any man’s property.
    That’s the deep bind of patriarchal society, and it has sod-all to do with a boy waking up one morning and wishing he was a girl.
    Also, +1 to Dinah Blue. When I read cross-dressers enthusing about the lovely clothes women get to wear I feel betrayed twice over – as an ally of women who didn’t & don’t want to be defined in those terms, and as a man who would rather like to wear colours other than navy and grey once in a while.

  11. An extraordinarily powerful and compelling essay. I think I may just commit huge swaths to memory so I may quote them (with complete credit to you, of course) when arguing about gender. Thank you.

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