What Makes a Woman?
by Elinor Burkett
Oh, NY Times Sunday Review, no.
This strikes me as one of the most mean-spirited op-ed contributions I've read in some time. I mean, good lord.
First off, we're not even going to get into the repeated, incorrect use of the name "Bruce" in this op-ed, and we're not even going to address the horrible analogy between transgenderism and some fictional person transitioning from white to black. We're not even going to waste the space. (But just quickly: o_O)
After painting a dismissive picture of Caitlyn Jenner's general entrée to the world, the piece begins with this assertion:
People who haven’t lived their whole lives as women, whether Ms. Jenner or Mr. Summers, shouldn’t get to define us.
Sure, Larry Summers of Harvard, I follow for this argument. Larry Summers was essentially arguing that tiny ladybrains aren't equipped to handle complex maths and sciences, because apparently it's 1950 and colleges are for Mrs. and Early Childhood Education degrees.
But with regard to Caitlyn Jenner, Burkett seems to be deliberately misunderstanding transgenderism. Jenner's statement to Diane Sawyer about her brain wasn't rooted in science, and Jenner isn't at the head of an internationally lauded research institution, nor is Caitlyn Jenner is not the neuroscientist quoted later in the piece. Caitlyn Jenner is a celebrity, and a transwoman, and she was speaking to Sawyer about emotion and lived experience, not about the physical structure of neurons and grey matter.
Just for starters, as a delayed amuse-bouche if you will, that feels more worthy of one of XO Jane's embarrassing clickbait entries than it does the NYT (well, maybe not lately, now that I think about it), the author calls Caitlyn Jenner a man:
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.
A transgender woman is not a man. A cisgender woman is not a man. A transgender woman is a woman. A cisgender woman is a woman. How is this hard?
Moving on from there to more esoteric concerns than questions of socio-linguistic respect (because my pregnancy hormones will make my head pop off if I think any further about how easy it is to get man/woman right in a discussion of transgender people)...
Their truth is not my truth. Their female identities are not my female identity.
Yeah, no kidding. And my female identity isn't your female identity either. How is this hard? (And how did this get space in the NYT Op-Ed page? This is as bad as when they let Sofia Vergara's ex bully-pulpit her about their cryopreserved embryos.)
Furthermore, Burkett reeeeeeally missed the flashing-lights memo that's everywhere about how demeaning it is to insist on cisnormative beauty/handsomeness standards to qualify as a "successful" trans person. This is what approximately 65% of her argument is staked on: That it's taken as read that we should reward only traditional standards of appearance, rather than remember that not all transpeople have access to the treatments and procedures that Caitlyn Jenner and Laverne Cox, etc., have availed themselves of. (A point on which Cox was very concise and poetic recently, to great social media effect; I saw it everywhere. If Burkett had been paying attention to anything trans before picking up Vanity Fair, I suspect she would've seen it, too.)
Look. I fully acknowledge that I am not a first-wave feminist. Nor am I really a second-wave feminist. Having been born in the early '80's, I'm in that weird sandwich generation that wasn't always concerned with intersectionality (assuming you got started on your feminism young, as I did) but also didn't have to scour ads for "help wanted - female." I acknowledge that. (Because, again, it's not hard: my lived experience is not Burkett's lived experience. Yet somehow we're both women. How is this hard?)
But that there are ciswomen out there who have gone through the wringer of early feminism does not make transwomen any less women. And the idea that speaking to one's lived experience as a transwoman somehow "undermine[s] almost a century of hard-fought arguments that the very definition of female is a social construct that has subordinated us," is like saying the strawberries for the shortcake are moldy, so we have to throw the burgers out. Transgenderism is only possible because the very definition of any gender is a social contract that subordinates people.
You don't even have to agree that "vagina" is an exclusionary term (in the context Burkett discusses, I don't think it is), or think pro-choice groups should omit the word "woman" from their mission statements (I don't think they should), or hold an opinion about whether The Vagina Monologues could stand updating with a transwoman's story or read as a period piece (I vote period piece) to understand that equality and respect are not zero-sum.
As a parting thought:
Many women I know, of all ages and races, speak privately about how insulting we find the language trans activists use to explain themselves.
Ms. Burkett, I think you need to meet some new women, because I know plenty who agree with your cohort, but I know plenty who don't, too.
Someone find me a gif of somebody screaming to the sky, "HOW IS THIS HARD?!"