A movement for women’s rights that only helps cis women is just as backwards and regressive as one that only helps white women, or rich women, or straight women.
Last week, The American Conservative published an essay by second-wave feminist Natasha Vargas-Cooper that critiques the movement for transgender equality. I’m not going to link to it because it’s awful, offensive, and annoyingly self-satisfied in that “I’m so brave for sharing my mainstream, regressive point of view” kind of way. I don’t want to subject you to that. However, in its extreme wrongness (if you’re calling yourself a feminist and publishing in The American Conservative, maybe rethink some shit), the article does a great job of illustrating something I’ve been saying for years: All transmisogyny is, first and foremost, misogyny.
Vargas-Cooper argues that feminism and trans liberation have unrelated goals and need not be allies, but that’s ridiculous. A movement for women’s rights that only helps cis women is just as backwards and regressive as one that only helps white women, or rich women, or straight women. You can’t tear down harmful power structures while reproducing them.
But this isn’t just a question of solidarity. Transmisogyny — the hatred, rejection, or erasure of trans women — is fundamentally incompatible with women’s liberation because transmisogyny is rooted in ideology that harms all women, everywhere. Trans-exclusive or “trans-critical” feminism parrots sexist, patriarchal, and flat-out violent rhetoric just for the sake of using it against trans women.
Once I had an argument with a cis dude acquaintance about whether trans women should be allowed to compete in women’s sports. Out of nowhere, he burst out with, “I want a family someday!”
He continued, apparently unaware of how non he was sequituring. “How am I supposed to feel about the fact that there are all these women walking around, and maybe they look just like everyone else, but they don’t have uteruses? Why is it transphobic to say I want a woman who can have children?”
My response was, “It’s not transphobic to want children, but it’s misogynistic as hell to say that anyone who can’t give birth is not a woman.” The idea that a woman’s value, or her gender, is determined by her reproductive function is so deeply objectifying that to call it transphobic is to miss the entire point. Note that in his hypothetical there was no question of whether the woman wanted to give birth; he was only interested in whether she was physically capable of fulfilling his parental desires. The problem with this guy isn’t that he doesn’t want to date trans women. It’s that he sees all women as vessels for his own dreams.
In just this way, whenever you scratch the surface of transmisogyny (even in the guise of “trans-critical feminism”), you find that it’s just one facet of a deeper hatred and distrust of women. Here are four tenets of transmisogyny that are profoundly dangerous to all women:
1. Only reproductive violence matters.
Vargas-Cooper argues that the ability to get pregnant, and the fear of unwanted pregnancy, are the defining struggles of a woman’s life. Since trans women can’t get pregnant, she concludes, they don’t need or deserve the protections of feminism. This, however, is a gross oversimplification, ignoring all the many ways women are oppressed that don’t require a functioning uterus. Trans and cis women alike are harmed by sexual harassment, exploitation, and assault; psychological violence; physical violence; economic oppression; and many more forms of gendered subjugation. Any version of feminism that doesn’t address all of these issues is functionally useless, no matter what it says about pregnancy.
2. The oppression of women is fundamentally biological, not social.
Reproductive coercion is a tool men use to control women, but it’s not the root of the problem. The root of the problem is that men want to control women. They’ll do it through our reproductive capabilities if they can, but they’re very inventive at finding other ways. And women who can’t get pregnant are in no way exempt from men trying to control them. If we imagine that the root of sexism is inside our bodies, we take our eyes off the ball — that ball being social structures built over millennia to protect and benefit men, at the expense of women. Our oppressor is not biology. It’s patriarchy.
3. There are right and wrong ways to have a female body, so the scrutiny and policing of women’s bodies is justified.
“You’re not a real woman if you weren’t born with a vulva” is a very, very dangerous statement. A tragically vast number of trans women experience violence that is directly tied to their perceived failure to meet male expectations of their bodies. In other words, men hurt women because their bodies are not what men want. By embracing anatomical definitions of womanhood, “feminists” excuse treating women’s bodies as objects to be judged and scrutinized by men — and even by other women — and punishing them if they fall short.
Of course, there are countless ways to fall short besides being trans. Indeed, I would guess that just about every woman’s body has been judged insufficient by someone at some time, whether that’s for being too trans, too old, not thin enough, not white enough, not able enough, or simply not available in the way the viewer would prefer.
Even when we pass the test, the scrutiny itself is oppressive. There is no freedom for any woman until we unite in the declaration that no woman’s body is unworthy of safety, privacy, dignity, and protection.
4. Women cannot be trusted to tell the truth about their own lives.
This is the biggest, baddest, most misogynistic myth of all — in fact, it may be the foundational myth of patriarchy. Most, if not all, sexism can be traced back to the idea that men are the experts on women’s lives. This narrative has all kinds of permutations — that women can’t be trusted to know whether they want to have children or whether they’ve consented to sex, to know what career they want or to identify discrimination when it happens. The distrust of women’s judgment underlies everything from mansplaining to rape culture.
If we’re ever going to make serious headway in the struggle against patriarchal oppression, this is where we have to start. We have to fight this destructive lie and replace it with the truth: Women know our own troubles. Women know our own desires. Women know what hurts us.
How can we make those claims if we don’t accept that women are the experts on whether or not they are women? How can we demand the right to be seen as experts on our own lives while simultaneously denying basic self-knowledge to our fellow women?
I don’t think we can. I think any feminism with transmisogyny in its DNA is ultimately working in opposition not just to trans women’s liberation, but to all women’s liberation. If we’re not working for trans women’s liberation, we’re working against it; and if we’re working against trans women, we’re ultimately working against all women, cis and trans, including ourselves. It’s only when women trust each other and lift each other up that we are truly powerful.
Lindsay King-Miller is a queer femme who does not have an indoor voice. Her writing has appeared in Bitch Magazine, Cosmopolitan.com, Buzzfeed, The Hairpin, and numerous other publications. She lives in Denver with her partner, a really cute baby, and two very spoiled cats. She is the author of Ask A Queer Chick (Plume, 2016).