We can’t have a women’s movement if we don’t call ourselves women

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When National Geographic magazine put together the newsstand cover (above right) for its January 2017 “Gender Revolution” special edition, it left something out. The cover is a group shot designed to show the range of genders now available in the heralded revolution, a cluster of seven people each annotated with an identity: “intersex non-binary”, “transgender female”, “transgender female” (a second one), “bi-gender”, “transgender male”, “androgynous”, and “male”. What’s missing? As feminists noted once the cover was circulated – but as National Geographic either didn’t notice, or didn’t consider notable – there’s no “female” here.

There are females, of course (at a guess, I would say three of the models are natal females and three natal males), but “female” is not counted as a gender identity. Female is written out. Inside the magazine, you’ll find features which reveal that, actually, femaleness is a highly pertinent characteristic: you can read about the poverty and violence inflicted on girls in developing nations, the pressures of bullying and body-shaming on girls in America, and how the two-tiered market in children’s toys might be harming girls through pinkification. Being female is a matter of life and death, but, per the cover, “female” is not a label under which people may gather.

Here I suppose I should concede National Geographic’s good intentions. National Geographic did not, I assume, deliberately set out to produce an issue showing that female people are exploited and abused for being female, while also announcing that “female” does not exist. Nor is National Geographic doing anything particularly new or shocking by deleting women as a class: reproductive rights organisations now talk about “pregnant people” rather than women in order to be “inclusive”, and even references to vaginas can be damned as transphobic. But if it the express motivation of this cover had been to tauntingly depoliticise everything the inside pages have to tell about the place of women and girls in the world, the patriarchy would give it a 10/10 for threat neutralisation.

It’s often claimed that “the binary” is in and of itself a patriarchal tool, and the role of feminists should be to “disrupt the binary”, as if even to recognise the existence of sexual biology in humans is to give warrant to sex-based oppression. What this cover shows is that male dominance has nothing to fear at all from the splintering of “gender” into multifarious “gender identities”. On the cover, the “male” is simply and unrevealingly dressed. He stands with his whole body facing the camera. Other models dip their heads beguilingly, or pose in three-quarter profile with a becomingly flexed leg; there are flashes of midriff and clearly defined breasts; the “transgender male” (a natal female adolescent) wears a dandyish bow-tie. But “male” has unadorned authority. “Male” exists in simple relief against the contrasting background of all these other types. He is the one, and the rest are all “other”.

One of the most marked qualities of the “gender revolution” has been that, where transsexuality was predominantly about males transitioning to live as women (with transmen making up a very small proportion of transitioners), the more recent framing of transgender has involved a huge surge in female adolescents presenting for treatment. As Rosamund Urwin of the Evening Standard wrote in a report from May on the Tavistock gender identity clinic: “Last year, almost twice as many natal females (929) were referred to the centre as natal males (490) and yet, until six years ago, natal males used to be the majority.”

How can we explain this reversal? In a way, maybe the surprise is that there haven’t always been more females than males making the flit from their culturally sanctioned gender. “Woman” is a role marked by inferiority and destined for service. As the editorial in the January issue of National Geographic points out, being female means being subject to abuses on a global scale. It means child marriage, bleeding in a hut at the edge of your village during your period, being taunted with smartphone porn by boys in school, being paid less than men, doing more housework, being told you talk too much, talk wrong, that you’re either unfuckable or only there to be fucked.

In the circumstances, wanting out of the class “woman” is eminently rational. And being a woman is only going to get rougher in Trump’s America. Michelle Goldberg is correct in her bleak, eloquent Slate column when she writes that Trump’s presidency means the backlash is on. Abortion rights, protections against sexual discrimination, action against sexual violence – these things will be the first to go. Even if you don’t “feel female”, you will be exposed by being female. A label is no defense against male violence. You can disown your body, but your body is too valuable a commodity to be left alone. It can make babies. It can make dinners, mop floors. It can make a man orgasm. You are a resource to be colonised, and simply stating that you are not one by refusing the title “woman” will never function as a “keep out” sign.

To survive, to resist, we need to organise. To organise, we need to acknowledge what we hold in common. Throughout feminism’s waves and wanings, that’s been the basis of every success: identifying the oppressions imposed on us as women, and working together as women against them. Our female bodies are the battleground, and we can’t escape that even if we deny it by claiming some variant identity such as “non-binary” or “bi-gender”. We need a women’s movement. Even those of us who think we don’t need it, will need it. And for that, we need to call ourselves – our female selves – women, without compromise or qualification.