Elinor Burkett recently wrote an opinion piece for the New York Times defending the older feminist position. It's interesting how closely she follows typical liberal ideas in her argument.
The basic liberal idea is that society should be based on a principle of "equal freedom," meaning that the individual is to be equally free to choose for themselves who they are and what they do. This means that unchosen, predetermined qualities, such as our biological sex or our race, are thought of in negative terms as oppressive restrictions from which the individual is to be liberated.
This explains Elinor Burkett's first argument. She observes that when a transsexual man says that he has a female brain that many on the left applaud him, even though this suggests that there are real, hardwired differences between men and women that aren't self-determined:
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.
...By defining womanhood the way he did to Ms. Sawyer, Mr. Jenner and the many advocates for transgender rights who take a similar tack...undermine almost a century of hard-fought arguments that the very definition of female is a social construct that has subordinated us.
Elinor Burkett fears that if our biological sex - the fact of being male or female - is found to matter in some way, that there will be a limitation on how we as individuals chart our own individual destiny. It might mean, for instance, that a woman might not become a combat fighter in the army, because she was born a woman and not a man - something she cannot determine for herself.
It is difficult, though, to live by the liberal principle consistently. Our sex is important to our identity: it's not easy to see yourself as an "it". And it is clearly the case that being a woman does still matter for Elinor Burkett, no matter how feminist she is. And so her second argument is that transsexual men are undermining female identity.
She makes a good argument that this is so, and I will quote her on this shortly. But the point to be made here is that it is this very fact, that transsexualism undermines female identity, which makes it such a radically liberal force and which explains why it has so much traction in a liberal society. So this may not have been the best argument for Elinor Burkett to focus on if she wishes to win support from a liberal establishment.
How does transsexualism undermine a female identity? Well, if a man in his fifties is suddenly considered to be a woman, then all the things that women uniquely experience in life don't matter so much when it comes to what it means to be a woman:
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...
Elinor Burkett is running a fine line argument here. She is arguing that it is bad for women to be defined by hard-wired biological characteristics, such as differences between the male and female brain, but good for women to be defined collectively by shared life experiences, both negative and positive (on the positive side she writes that she has "relished certain courtesies" that she has received due to her sex). Again, I can't see this as being persuasive within a liberal framework when the liberal goal is to sever the connection between our biological sex and what happens in our life.
Elinor Burkett then lists a series of very strange outcomes of supporting transsexualism. They are strange to me and perhaps to older feminists, but no doubt they seem radically chic to younger liberals and will become part of the liberal mainstream over time.
For instance, if men can be considered women, then it becomes non-inclusive to link womanhood to having a vagina. Therefore, this:
In January 2014, the actress Martha Plimpton, an abortion-rights advocate, sent out a tweet about a benefit for Texas abortion funding called “A Night of a Thousand Vaginas.” Suddenly, she was swamped by criticism for using the word “vagina.” “Given the constant genital policing, you can’t expect trans folks to feel included by an event title focused on a policed, binary genital,” responded @DrJaneChi.
WHEN Ms. Plimpton explained that she would continue to say “vagina” — and why shouldn’t she, given that without a vagina, there is no pregnancy or abortion? — her feed overflowed anew with indignation, Michelle Goldberg reported in The Nation. “So you’re really committed to doubling down on using a term that you’ve been told many times is exclusionary & harmful?” asked one blogger. Ms. Plimpton became, to use the new trans insult, a terf, which stands for “trans exclusionary radical feminist.”
In January, Project: Theatre at Mount Holyoke College, a self-described liberal arts college for women, canceled a performance of Eve Ensler’s iconic feminist play “The Vagina Monologues” because it offered an “extremely narrow perspective on what it means to be a woman,” explained Erin Murphy, the student group’s chairwoman.
Let me get this right: The word “vagina” is exclusionary and offers an extremely narrow perspective on womanhood, so the 3.5 billion of us who have vaginas, along with the trans people who want them, should describe ours with the politically correct terminology trans activists are pushing on us: “front hole” or “internal genitalia”?
Similarly, there are transsexual women who identify as men but who still have functioning female genitalia. Therefore, to be inclusive means that abortion and contraceptive services can't be marketed to women alone:
Even the word “woman” has come under assault by some of the very people who claim the right to be considered women. The hashtags #StandWithTexasWomen, popularized after Wendy Davis, then a state senator, attempted to filibuster the Texas Legislature to prevent passage of a draconian anti-abortion law, and #WeTrustWomen, are also under attack since they, too, are exclusionary.
“Abortion rights and reproductive justice is not a women’s issue,” wrote Emmett Stoffer, one of many self-described transgender persons to blog on the topic. It is “a uterus owner’s issue.” Mr. Stoffer was referring to the possibility that a woman who is taking hormones or undergoing surgery to become a man, or who does not identify as a woman, can still have a uterus, become pregnant and need an abortion.
Accordingly, abortion rights groups are under pressure to modify their mission statements to omit the word woman, as Katha Pollitt recently reported in The Nation. Those who have given in, like the New York Abortion Access Fund, now offer their services to “people” and to “callers.” Fund Texas Women, which covers the travel and hotel expenses of abortion seekers with no nearby clinic, recently changed its name to Fund Texas Choice. “With a name like Fund Texas Women, we were publicly excluding trans people who needed to get an abortion but were not women,” the group explains on its website.
And what about those who are legally women but who consider themselves men? They can use female services but they don't want to be referred to as women:
Women’s colleges are contorting themselves into knots to accommodate female students who consider themselves men, but usually not men who are living as women. Now these institutions, whose core mission is to cultivate female leaders, have student government and dormitory presidents who identify as males.
As Ruth Padawer reported in The New York Times Magazine last fall, Wellesley students are increasingly replacing the word “sisterhood” with “siblinghood,” and faculty members are confronted with complaints from trans students about their universal use of the pronoun she — although Wellesley rightly brags about its long history as the “world’s pre-eminent college for women.”
Elinor Burkett shares the same underlying liberal theory as the transsexuals, but she is facing some unexpected loss of control in how the theory is played out. She liked the old way in which she got to be part of a movement in which women were defined as an oppressed group smashing apart oppressive social constructs to live liberated lives, in which women like herself could keep older privileges of womanhood but also have access to things they wanted in a more androgynous social setting.
But the theory has now reached a more radical moment, so that there is no longer a comfortable "women's movement," not when the notion of womanhood itself is in such flux. What now does it mean to be a woman? In our liberal society a woman's body doesn't make a woman, nor her distinct life experiences. Transsexuals reach back to traditional markers of femininity to make their womanhood distinct, but this isn't acceptable to feminists. Can you have a women's movement when there is confusion about what actually makes a woman?