Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: An otherwise sharp-witted feminist has a very public and very unnecessary meltdown after being posed with a question in the vein of “are trans women real women?” As if this were kryptonite, all of the critical thinking skills she ordinarily exhibits will shrivel up and die, reducing this feminist to an incoherent blubbering mess who can’t argue herself out of a wet paper bag. Instead of identifying the appropriate rhetorical error (define “real”), they happily and freely frolic into a minefield performing a response that could only be described as “interpretive dance.” Wells are poisoned, dictionaries are consulted, ontologies are confused with empirical fact, migraines are had, shots of rum are quaffed, questions are dodged, and my eyes roll out of my head because I can’t believe people haven’t figured out that the rhetoric of realness is a dead, dead horse.
That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place!” And raising herself to her full height, and her voice to a pitch like rolling thunder, she asked. “And ain’t I a woman?”
–Sojourner Truth, “Ain’t I a Woman?”, 1851
Eighteen fifty one. I’m sure Truth’s speech is far from the earliest example.
Murray, writing in the Sunday Times magazine, said that she was “not transphobic or anti-trans” and called for respect and protection from bullying and violence equally for “transsexuals, transvestites, gays, lesbians and those of us who hold to the sex and sexual preference assumed at birth”.
However, the piece appeared under the less nuanced heading: “Jenni Murray: Be trans, be proud – but don’t call yourself a ‘real woman’. Can someone who has lived as a man, with all the privilege that entails, really lay claim to womanhood? It takes more than a sex change and makeup”.
Murray wrote: “I know that in writing this article I am entering into the most controversial and, at times, vicious, vulgar and threatening debate of our day. I’m diving headfirst into deep and dangerous waters.”
And Chimamanda Adichie…
In the interview, broadcast on 10 March, Adichie said “I think the whole problem of gender in the world is about our experiences. It’s not about how we wear our hair or whether we have a vagina or a penis. It’s about the way the world treats us, and I think if you’ve lived in the world as a man with the privileges that the world accords to men and then sort of change gender, it’s difficult for me to accept that then we can equate your experience with the experience of a woman who has lived from the beginning as a woman and who has not been accorded those privileges that men are.”
…are apparently uninterested in how this dialogue has played out before–and no, I’m not merely referring to Ophelia Benson.