There’s been another round of awfulness from TERFs and their allies the TUMFs (Trans-Unaware Mainstream/Media Feminists – term coined by Julia Serano). To be honest, it feels like it never stops.
But the same old arguments that trans women are not women, are men, are not as they see themselves, keep getting hurled out with a venom that surely is out of proportion to the thing they are trying to defend.
The thing that strikes me most strongly is how confident TERFs seem to be that they know what a woman is. I feel as though it would be very entertaining to see them confronted with a Socratic dialogue on the subject. “It seems you know what a woman is. Perhaps you can explain it to me…”
But I was unsatisfied with the response I saw some people giving to the TERFs that, “A trans woman is a woman because she says she’s a woman”. To say one is a woman, that must mean something about what one is.
If a woman is defined by XX chromosomes, then almost no one we meet can be known to be a woman. I personally do not have the ability to test for chromosomes by sight or touch, so I can never know that a person I meet has XX, XY or any other configuration, unless they tell me. Heck, I don’t even know what my own chromosomes are (I would guess XY, but I have no direct knowledge to say that guess is accurate or not).
If a woman is defined by any particular phenotype or anatomical feature, then it is simple to render any cis woman no longer a woman by the means of surgery. Examples from real life can be found for most of these anatomical arguments, and it doesn’t take much to imagine situations for the others.
This is not the first time I’ve considered such questions, of course. I thought about building a lifeform and giving the new person a gender.
I’ve also thought about the “social” definitions about “experience” before: for example, when I considered what it means to me to call myself “mum” rather than “dad”. A similar process of questioning seems appropriate on the broader question of what it is to be a woman. With the simplistic “social roles” argument from TERFs and TUMFs that trans women somehow uphold social gender by seeking to transition rather than adopt “traditionally feminine” roles while living as men, this type of questioning (in which I directly rejected “motherly duties” as the definition on which I felt the pull to that identity) seems important to engage in.
In that post, I concluded that “mum” is not a fixed definition, but a concept (I called it an “idea” in my conclusions there) or conceptual space in which various aspects of “motherness” contribute but none is sufficient or necessary.
When it comes to womanhood, this still feels lacking in some way, and I think that this is because most descriptions of transness do encompass some sense of embodied reality: something relating to one’s physical expression in the world (which is why various forms of surgery to affirm gender are important). There is a sense of oneself in the world, and it is this sense that creates gender, including nonbinary, genderqueer and genderfluid selfhood.
There is no intrinsic physical quality that can be used to “prove” this subjective experience.
From there, the only way we can access the essence of a person’s womanhood (or manhood, or other gendered identity) is to listen to them when they express what it is they feel inside. It isn’t that “they are a woman because they say they are a woman”, but rather, “the only way we have to know whether they are a woman, is for them to tell us”.