The reality of women

After a weekend when yet again the validity of trans identities has been called into question, Karen Pollock explores the ideas of realness and authenticity.

It has been hard to miss another discussion of what makes a woman “real” this weekend, prompted by a transphobic, paywalled piece, by Women’s Hour presenter Jenni Mrray. Since it is paywalled I am uncomfortable with addressing the piece directly, although Natacha Kennedy has done a great job here. Instead I am interested in the idea of “realness” in a wider context.

Cis women have struggled for millennia with the accusation of not being real women if they behaved in a way which went against the norms and standards expected of them. The definition of realness was always rooted in the physical modes of reproduction, and desire to express themselves only via reproduction. Women who did not see being a mother as their only ambition were seen to be wanting, often diagnosed with mental illness, and criticised as failing in their expression of woman-hood. To be a woman, a real woman, was to be a womb bearer, and the womb was the essence of a woman’s identity. Motherhood was the only acceptable way for realness to be expressed.Often the only way out of this was to access the religious; Elizabeth as the Virgin Queen, or nuns in general, who were seen as a different form of woman who was allowed to exist because of their spiritual duties. They were allowed to be celibate, not mothers, because they married themselves to the church. In this marriage they often obtained freedom denied other women (to be educated, for example) but at the loss of almost every other freedom.

This left queer women in a double-bind. Until very recently, excluded from the cult of motherhood and outside the walls of respectability their authenticity as women was often called into question. Those older lesbians who did have children very often faced their removal, since their “realness” as women and mothers was called into question by those who wielded state power. The often repeated line was that since lesbians failed to meet the test of being real women (i.e heterosexual) then they must also fail the test of being mothers. Their very existence as lesbians was seen as a form of abuse, and they were very often declared unfit to be mothers. This unfitness is tied up with the idea of being a real woman (as in one declared acceptable as a woman by the gatekeepers). A real woman had to jump through a lot of hoops, and if they refused then their entry into the class of woman was denied.

To be a woman, a real woman, was to be a womb bearer, and the womb was the essence of a woman’s identity. Motherhood was the only acceptable way for realness to be expressed.

Now none of this is news to anyone who has read the divine Simone de Beauvoir. Her quote “one is not born a woman, one becomes one” has launched a 1000 feminist ships. The creation of the identity “woman” which de Beauvoir spoke of, was an act which constantly occurs throughout our lives. She believed that only once we saw the gatekeeping for what it was could we begin to live as our authentic selves. Or as Judith Butler expressed it, “there is no gender identity beyond the expression of gender”.

Many queer women of the 60’s and 70’s rejected the expressions of gender that had been enforced upon them, and declared new, authentic for themselves, ways of being. It may seem a stereotype now to picture them with cropped hair and lumber jack shirts, like a bad viz cartoon but it was a vital rejection of gate-keeping. One did not have to wear make up, dresses or high heels in order to be a woman. Of course, things did not remain in the realm of personal reclamation of woman-hood. As so often happens, an individual rejection became a new rule, a new gate-keeping, and all queer women were told that being femme was in some way not being “real”.

There is that word again, real, four letters which carry so much weight. Even today, in our supposedly more liberated world the question “am I really gay, or lesbian, or bi, or trans?” causes so much suffering for so many. Each time it is asked the underlying fear is, “do I meet the standards set by those with power within my culture and communities?” and the fear can cause many to hide how and who they are – just as our grandmothers had to hide their desires and ambitions to be admitted as real women. The attack on trans women, that they are not really women, simply follows the same tired line as the attack on queer women of 50 years ago. You do not express your gender in a way which we find acceptable, so you must be sick, or dangerous, or a danger to children.

Or as Judith Butler expressed it “There is no gender identity beyond the expression of gender”.

In a two-pronged assault those trans women who most closely conform to the gatekeepers of real womanhood are also attacked, for being too stereotypically woman-like. It is the double-bind of being caught in a system which demands certain markers of womanness in order to define transness (for trans women). It seems obvious to me that the problem here is the definitions of woman which in their narrowness oppress all women, and many other genders. All are kept from being their authentic self by a view of woman which says only certain behaviours, ways of being, are acceptable. In this all I include men and other masculine genders, since when we determine certain ways of being as female or feminine, we deny them to those who are male/masculine.

What is real, authentic, can only be determined internally. When it is validated externally it becomes instantly inauthentic. If I am attempting to conform to your idea of what is real, I am ceasing to be my authentic self. No one is helped by a new series of gatekeepers deciding they get to decide who is allowed to be real, and who is cast out into the darkness.

Follow Karen on Twitter (@CounsellingKaz) 


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