Sorry. You Don’t Get to Define Womanhood Either

With the exception of a few private conversations, I have done my best to stay out of the public conversation regarding Caitlyn Jenner’s transition and splashy coming out on the pages of Vanity Fair.  To be honest, I have found the general state of the discourse too ignorant, too sensational, too celebratory, too charged, just too everything and so I opted to do something I generally do not. I thrust my head as firmly and deeply into the sand as possible.

Photo by Ted Eytan, Washington, DC, USA

But (and who would have thought anything different could have happened really), I have been dragged out of the sands by what is being billed as an emerging dispute between feminists and trans-activists largely sparked by Elinor Burkett’s rather well-written opinion piece in the Sunday New York Times. As someone who claims both feminism and trans-activism and, perhaps more importantly, someone who is profoundly saddened by divisions that render communities of difference ripe for the conquering, I simply could not keep quiet on this.


So, the verdict?  I agree with just about everything Dr. Burkett argues here and I think she is dead wrong.

You should read her article if you have not.  It is well-written and thought provoking and the summary I offer here is incomplete.  But the gist (and I am being very, very gisty) is that Burkett takes exception to the way that Jenner came out as trans and to the subsequent conversations about what defines “womanhood.”  Like me, she finds the biological determinism lurking just beneath the surface of a statement like “my brain is much more female than it is male” troubling.  Like me, she wishes that Jenner’s public entrance into womanhood did not have to be vis-a-vis a hypersexualized, corseted,  airbrushed and high-heeled stereotype of idealized feminine beauty.  Like me, she seems to struggle with celebrating a woman who has for most of her life enjoyed the privileges of money-backed, fame-charged masculinity, who then articulates that what they look forward to most in their public womanhood is the chance to wear nail polish. She writes:

People who haven’t lived their whole lives as women, whether Ms. Jenner or Mr. Summers, shouldn’t get to define us. That’s something men have been doing for much too long. And as much as I recognize and endorse the right of men to throw off the mantle of maleness, they cannot stake their claim to dignity as transgender people by trampling on mine as a woman.


This is where I think Dr. Burkett starts to go astray.  It’s that “us” hanging on the end of that first sentence there.  She has done a remarkable job elsewhere in this piece arguing that it is not simply biology, neurology or genitals, that define women, but the cumulative impact of lived experience–the “drip, drip, drip of the gendered environment.”  I could not agree with this more–culture and context really, really matter.  But in that us, she makes the mistake of presuming that the identities of all “women born woman” are shaped by a common set of lived experiences.  With that, I could not disagree more.  She goes on to articulate her vision of the common lived experiences that, for her, define womenhood:

Their truth is not my truth. Their female identities are not my female identity. They haven’t traveled through the world as women and been shaped by all that this entails. They haven’t suffered through business meetings with men talking to their breasts or woken up after sex terrified they’d forgotten to take their birth control pills the day before. They haven’t had to cope with the onset of their periods in the middle of a crowded subway, the humiliation of discovering that their male work partners’ checks were far larger than theirs, or the fear of being too weak to ward off rapists.

For me and many women, feminist and otherwise, one of the difficult parts of witnessing and wanting to rally behind the movement for transgender rights is the language that a growing number of trans individuals insist on, the notions of femininity that they’re articulating, and their disregard for the fact that being a woman means having accrued certain experiences, endured certain indignities and relished certain courtesies in a culture that reacted to you as one.

Don’t get me wrong. I think it is extremely important to understand these experiences, as they help us to see the constructed and performed nature of feminine identity and how it, in so many ways, infuses our everyday lives with an inequality so subtle and so pervasive that most of us don’t see a problem.  But I vehemently disagree that these are definitive experiences.

Dr. Burkett passionately argues that transwomen do not get to define womanhood (particularly when the definitions offered by women like Jenner are so problematic).  I would say to Dr. Burkett, you don’t get to define womanhood either.  For as abhorrent as I might find Jenner’s seemingly uncritical reductions of womanhood to nail polish, sexualized attire, and some sort of half-baked biologism; I find Burkett’s reduction of womanhood to a series of injustices and victimhoods equally as repugnant.  To argue that womanhood is defined (not influenced, but defined) by the experience of sexism is perhaps the most disaffirming thing I have read in a long time.  Not to mention that the definitive experiences of sexism she offers as examples–rife with business meetings, access to birth control, subway commutes and career oriented pay–smack of a privileged, middle-class, heterosexual, urban whiteness.

Burkett does something here that I see often and it bothers me more and more every time I see it.  She assumes that Jenner’s very public articulation of how she defines her identity as a woman has some bearing on her own.  Look again, she writes, “they [transwomen] cannot stake their claim to dignity as transgender people by trampling on mine as a woman.”  She, and apparently many other women, have gone beyond finding the discourse around Jenner’s coming out problematic, she has taken it personally and in doing so, closed rank–drawn the boundaries around a definition of womanhood that is just as inflexible and just as problematic.  We, Dr. Burkett and I, may not like how Jenner chose to articulate her identity as a woman, but as feminists we must remind ourselves that “the very definition of female is a social construct” and that individuals have the freedom to define that construct for themselves.

Every day I am frustrated and disappointed by the young men and women in my classes, who choose to define their black identities in ways I find counterproductive to the fight against racism.  But ultimately, their freedom to define and redefine “blackness” for themselves is at the core of anti-racism as a movement and philosophy.  Indeed, taking away someone’s right to self-define, even in ways I abhor, would be one of the gravest acts of violence and oppression I could commit.

My identity as a woman, my experience of womanhood, looks nothing like Caitlyn Jenner’s and it looks nothing like Elinor Burkett’s.  It is inseparable from my blackness, my queerness, my education and my home life, my struggles and my success.  It also involves wearing bras and bow ties, loving shoes and sports, plucking my eyebrows and cultivating a pair of fierce armpit beards.  When I define in this way, I am not thinking about you, because it is not about you…and it is a special kind of hubris to presume that I am.

4 Replies to “Sorry. You Don’t Get to Define Womanhood Either”

  1. YES. I had a similar version of this argument with a friend who was put off by Beyonce’s brand of feminism — that it was too sexy and only further pandered to the male gaze. After some thought I realized, but wait, we need ALL KINDS OF WOMEN defining feminism. Isn’t that the whole point?

    It take a big heart to make room, and you do it, and that is inspiring.

  2. Thank you for pointing out the Burkett article, which I agree is very well written, and for your commentary, which is better. I’ve just discovered your blog and will continue to follow what you write; I am really feeling the way your pieces tackle thorny topics with compassion and principle.

  3. It is sad to read some rather ignorant comments in this opinion piece. Saying that Caitlin enjoyed her experience as a man before transitioning is an assumption that leads to your agreement of this terribly reductive, dangerous Burkett article. Jenner’s life presenting as a man must have been riddled with massive amounts of psychological burden, and she had to keep it bottled up for so long. If you interpret this as Jenner’s “maleness” being a part of a masculine construct defining femininity, then you’ve merely fallen into the trap of ignoring how the mysogynistic gender social construct has all but forced Caitlyn to not transition earlier. Furthermore, while you and Ms. Burkett cling so desperately tight to Jenner’s nail polish comment, you fail to realize the beauty of simplicity. Would it have been better if she said something less trite, like – for example – I would like to look in the mirror naked and not want to chop off my penis? No! What this comment means is: as a man, I’ve been forced to present as a man. It would have been social hell for me to present as a woman. Now that I am out, I can enjoy these simple things WITHOUT being viewed as a freak. Sadly, some people will always view her as a freak, and people who should be sharing her joy with misinterpret her decisions in their ignorance of the fact that male privilege does NOT extend to men who straddle gender boundaries (see drag queens and gender queers).

    1. Anthony,
      Thanks for your comments. I’d like to make some clarifications if I might. First, I did not intend to (and do not believe that I did) make any sort of judgement about Caitlin Jenner’s relative happiness. The phrase “enjoyed the privileges of money-backed, fame-charged masculinity,” uses a very common definition of the verb to enjoy – “possess and benefit from.” For example, “security forces enjoy legal immunity from prosecution” (this does not mean they were laughing and cavorting their way to immunity). So, FAR from asserting that Jenner’s life was simple or happy, I am suggesting that we cannot separate her coming out, nor her definitions of femininity from the fact that she was, for a lifetime, the beneficiary of one of the most privileged subject positions in American social life (rich, white, famous, male, athlete). And while I wholeheartedly acknowledge this same subject position served to make her transition fraught and messy, it would be difficult to deny that having lived such a life eased some aspects of her transition in ways most trans folks only dream of.

      And, as I wrote in my piece. I have the right…as do all people…to have a visceral response to hearing a comment like the one Jenner made about nail polish in light of the fact that I have lived my entire life fighting expectations of feminine beauty (being a gender-queer person myself), and suffering because I do not meet them. But I hope you realized that the entire premise of this piece was to acknowledge that my feelings about this, and Ms. Burkett’s, have to be my own and that I cannot and WILL NOT say that Jenner “should have” done anything other than she did in coming out and living her life.

      This post asserts, if nothing else, that her ability to self-define is paramount, not only to the cause of trans equality, but also to feminism.

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