This weekend, the New York Times' Sunday Review section featured an essay on Caitlyn Jenner’s Vanity Fair cover, trans identities, feminism and what “makes” a woman. Throughout most of the piece, writer Elinor Burkett refers to a “we” of cis feminists and a “they” of “trans activists.” These groups are not just distinct, according to Burkett -- they are at odds.
Burkett begins with what she felt were disparate responses from feminists when Larry Summers -- now professor and president emeritus of Harvard University and a veteran of the Clinton and Obama administrations -- and Jenner -- a former Olympian speaking to Diane Sawyer on behalf of herself -- suggested in different ways that gender may be hardwired.
I have fought for many of my 68 years against efforts to put women — our brains, our hearts, our bodies, even our moods — into tidy boxes, to reduce us to hoary stereotypes. Suddenly, I find that many of the people I think of as being on my side — people who proudly call themselves progressive and fervently support the human need for self-determination — are buying into the notion that minor differences in male and female brains lead to major forks in the road and that some sort of gendered destiny is encoded in us.
That’s the kind of nonsense that was used to repress women for centuries. But the desire to support people like Ms. Jenner and their journey toward their truest selves has strangely and unwittingly brought it back.
There is a lot to talk about in this essay, but let’s begin with this: Summers’ statement, whether you agree with it or not, came from a representative of his school's administration. He was responding to a question about why there were so few women in math and science -- not just as majors but as faculty at schools like Harvard.
He said the explanation might be found, in part, “in the special case of science and engineering, there are issues of intrinsic aptitude, and particularly of the variability of aptitude, and that those considerations are reinforced by what are in fact lesser factors involving socialization and continuing discrimination.” He referenced studies that he felt confirmed his view that gender and innate ability play a hand in the gap. The content of his comments was complicated, but the context was clear.
Jenner was speaking for herself, about her own experience of her gender. She said this: “My brain is much more female than it is male. It’s hard for people to understand that. But that’s what my soul is.”
It’s a small point to push back against in an essay so full of grand pronouncements, but it feels necessary to point out that the scale and meaning of both statements is radically different. Any difference in response -- agree or disagree with a hardwired definition of gender, and no matter what you think about what roles biology and socialization play in our lived experiences -- seems warranted when comparing the two. Burkett chose an odd point to hang her argument on.
But the contrast between Summers and Jenner was just a set up to Burkett’s main argument about trans women’s supposed infringement on feminism:
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.
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 Burkett, “being a woman means having accrued certain experiences, endured certain indignities and relished certain courtesies in a culture that reacted to you as one.” It’s an argument that denies trans women’s very existence as well as their place in feminism -- both history and present.
It is also a crude interpretation of gender as socially constructed, gatekeeping presented as solidarity. Burkett’s view is much more essentialist than she lets on. In her rendering, a woman born without ovaries or who becomes infertile because of illness or surgery is not a woman. Neither is a woman who never developed breasts to be glared at during meetings. Nor a woman who is physically stronger than the men in her life. The woman who has never worked outside the home and never negotiated a salary also fails to qualify.
Burkett is correct that women share many experiences of vulnerability, degradation and violation. But not universally. This has always has been an organizing principle within feminism, that recognizing the differences among women -- how white supremacy makes the misogyny experienced by black women distinct or how poverty makes women more vulnerable to sexual violence -- are essential to the movement.
But the social construction of gender is not just about abjection and negative rights -- it’s about liberation and self-determination. Burkett’s rendering rejects this possibility, but only as it applies to trans women.
Judith Butler, a feminist theorist and philosopher whose book “Gender Trouble” is an essential text on the production of gender, has pushed back against the use of her work to erase trans identities. In an interview with Cristan Williams at the TransAdvocate, Butler had this to say about her work in this context:
No matter whether one feels one’s gendered and sexed reality to be firmly fixed or less so, every person should have the right to determine the legal and linguistic terms of their embodied lives. So whether one wants to be free to live out a “hard-wired” sense of sex or a more fluid sense of gender, is less important than the right to be free to live it out, without discrimination, harassment, injury, pathologization or criminalization -- and with full institutional and community support. That is most important in my view.
Butler continues that “some subjective experiences of sex are very firm and fundamental, even unchangeable,” and that “sometimes we do need a language that refers to a basic, fundamental, enduring, and necessary dimension of who we are.” But at the same time: “We do not have to agree upon the ‘origins’ of that sense of self to agree that it is ethically obligatory to support and recognize sexed and gendered modes of being that are crucial to a person’s well-being.”
Burkett is right to note that the landscape around her is changing. Some abortion rights groups are updating their mission statements and the language they use to reflect the fact that trans men can and do need access. Women's colleges are changing policies and accepting trans students. And the mainstream visibility of women like Janet Mock and Lavern Cox have centered trans struggles within feminism in an unprecedented way.
There are difficult, messy conversations about language, power, privilege, political organizing and solidarity that are happening right now. And it is a frustrating thing to see feminist issues that require nuance, the dexterity to hold multiple truths at once and -- perhaps more than anything else, a profound amount of patience and empathy -- being collapsed into clumsy arguments over and over again.
Feminism is having a moment. So is feminist spectacle.