The public transformation of Bruce Jenner into Caitlyn Jenner has exposed a divisiveness within the feminist community that echoes repressive rhetoric from decades ago. It brings female misogyny to the forefront and is dividing a community that needs cohesion.
It’s not like Caitlyn’s debut revived long-dead sentiments. Even in 2014 this was a hot topic. Then, the New Yorker published an article in which Michelle Goldberg included an example of this bigotry from feminists in 1973, during the time in which Bruce was a rising star in Track & Field. In the article Goldberg includes the following quote from Robin Morgan, giving the keynote speech at the West Coast Lesbian Conference.
“I will not call a male “she”; thirty-two years of suffering in this androcentric society, and of surviving, have earned me the title “woman”; one walk down the street by a male transvestite, five minutes of his being hassled (which he may enjoy), and then he dares, he dares to think he understands our pain? No, in our mothers’ names and in our own, we must not call him sister.”
Granted, the LGBT community may be more cohesive today than it was then. Yet, these sentiments not only rang true within that community then, they still seem to resonate with some self-described “radical feminists” who are in battle with trans people and their allies. The Radical feminists reject the notion of a “female brain,” usually making the statement that if you think differently than a man, it is because society forces you too.
More recently, an opinion by Cathy Young in the Boston Globe on June 13th of this year addresses the issue as still at the forefront in the debate. Feminists who exclude those like Caitlyn Jenner from the feminist umbrella because they are transgender miss a bigger issue. Feminism is about equality. Excluding any woman of any bent from being able to consider themselves female regardless of their stage in gender reassignment, is not truly being about equality. It perpetuates the us vs. them argument that characterizes bigotry and female chauvinism.
In the Boston Globe piece, Young addresses issues about statements made by journalist, Elinor Burkett, supporting Jenner’s transition but voicing concern that transgenderism may be promoting sex stereotypes and erasing female identity. She also talks about how Burkett, like many feminists, goes too far in treating any talk of male/female brain difference as heresy. She’s right that transgender advocacy can lapse into stereotyping that would be blasted as sexist in other contexts.
Caitlyn Jenner’s popularity is hitting chords across a wide swath of varying social groups. Bruce was on my Wheaties box through most of my elementary school years. I watched him win the gold medal, and our favorite sport was the same: track & field. Bruce was a decathlete and I focused on field events. His rise to fame gave me a sports idol to set my personal standards to for years.
Watching his transition to Caitlyn has made me wonder about the other athletes that I met over the years. How many of them were secretly dying inside because what they saw in the mirror didn’t reflect truly who they were inside? How many would eventually gain the courage to make the transitions?
The ridicule any male athlete would face for coming out as gay (still an issue) or feeling as if they were transgendered would have been enormous, especially during the 70’s. They have true knowledge on what these forms of discrimination can look like or feel like and many cases it could have been worse. Women had organizations like NOW to turn for support. Support for the LGBT community was scant, and in the 70’s lynching was still a serious threat.
The same passion and strength that drove Bruce to be a gold medal Olympiad seems to drive Caitlyn to make her public transition. To remove Caitlyn and others like her from the feminism movement by invalidating their feminism is an injustice; it removes a source of profound understanding of a different and important perspective. Feminist who alienate transgender women seem to entirely miss the point.
No one will argue that the ultimate goal of the feminist movement is to make everyone equal and give women the same status and opportunities as our male counterparts. Feminists need to remind themselves that anyone can be raped, discriminated against, cat-called, molested, assaulted, slandered, harassed and any subject to any number of grotesque violations of their persons.
Further compounding this discussion is the question, “What make a woman?” One June 6th of this year, New York Times reporter Elinor Burkett attempted to answer this question.
Former Harvard president Lawrence Summers received a merciless backlash when he stated that men and women’s brains were different. However when Caitlin said they were, she was lionized for her bravery. Caitlin however was still displaying some very interesting feminist stereotypes in her picture spread with corsets, makeup, stockings and such. These are stereotypes that women generally fight against. This representation by Caitlin rubbed Ms. Burkett in the wrong way, and in some aspects she is correct. Some of what bothered her greatly does have some merit to it. From her article she states:
“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.
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 done for 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.”
She brings up some very provocative points that I wish men and women alike would consider, but I think she is forgetting one thing. Who is the real Jenner? The “Bruiser” that everyone knew or “Caitlyn.” In her article she makes some of the same assumptions about Caitlyn that she accuses others of doing, to Jenner and to women in general. She is assuming that “Bruiser” was given a choice in the matter of how he was defined growing up.
She is right to say that some of the trans folks ignore certain realities that women had to deal with during the same time period. Of course they did, because their experiences shaped their ways of thinking as well. Every person is shaped by what they are subjected to growing up, and to dismiss someones statements or thoughts on the process as damaging is to me like calling the kettle black. I get where she’s trying to go with her thoughts, but I think her methodology should be more about questioning how their experiences differed and mirrored women who were always women.
The rest of her article was focused on the idea that she has been trying to fight against the hoary sterotypes and that many of the trans people seem to embrace those ideals. Guess what? There are many women who were born that way who want to BE that way and still have every right to call themselves female or feminist. She does not singularly get to define what makes a woman.
I laud the countless people who are trying to write about the effects of trans people on the feminist movement, but too often they focus on the wrong issues. They have a tendency to point to the physical representation or the “personal” feelings of a given individual as a means to include or exclude them from the equality discussion.
STOP! Just stop!
Caitlyn is a woman, and if she wants to be a sexy, sultry female goddess then what the hell is wrong with that?
If another women’s idea of expressing her femininity is to cut her hair short and wear a suit and tie, she’s still female.
You know what should make a woman in today’s advanced society? Simply stating, “I am a woman.” Everyone’s idea of what that is will differ from the next person.
The same thing goes for men too.
So feminists, you need to ask yourself some hard questions and think about what better suits the push for equality. Will it be this upheaval and uproar over appearances and people who embrace a particular aspect of being female, or will it be all women, regardless of their form of identifying with that fighting together, in unity for equality.
Oh, and by the way? Caitlyn can rock heels, something this woman has YET to accomplish. I’m jealous.
To get a guy’s perspective on the Caitlyn Jenner issue, check out Why the Anti-Caitlyn Jenner Argument is Probably Bullshit.