Who wants to be a ‘real woman’?
The problem with identity politics is that someone is always offended. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the Nigerian novelist and feminist, is learning that lesson. Transgender women are criticising Adichie for apparently failing to accept them as ‘real women’.
During a Channel 4 interview, Adichie was asked if a trans woman was any less of a real woman. She responded: ‘My feeling is that trans women are trans women.’ ‘If you’ve lived in the world as a man’, she continued, ‘with the privileges that the world accords to men, and then switched gender, it’s difficult for me to accept that then we can equate your experience with the experience of a woman who has lived from the beginning in the world as a woman, and who has not been accorded those privileges’.
Trans activist and writer Raquel Willis says Adichie’s ‘cisgender hegemony’ is ‘dangerous’. Willis says that while Adhichie is right that women grow up experiencing oppression, she overlooks the fact that they also grow up with the ‘privilege of being seen, accepted and respected in their gender from birth’. Trans women, Willis and others claim, deal with an extra oppression on top of female oppression – not being seen as female. So Adichie’s refusal to acknowledge them as ‘real women’ is itself a continuation of the oppression of trans women.
This is the Oppression Olympics. Adichie says it is women who are afforded the least privilege, while her trans critics claim trans women get the gold medal for the most oppressed. Adichie and her critics are in essence locked in a battle over which identity group is the most marginalised by society. What an ugly and divisive game.
However, Adichie did hint at something interesting in her interview. Trans politics has thrown open the debate about gender, and in particular it has forced the question of what it means to be a woman, of how we define womanhood. And where much of trans politics seems to define womanhood as something superficial – looking, sounding and acting like a woman – Adichie seems to think womanhood is defined by oppression, by the fact that we supposedly don’t enjoy the same ‘privileges’ as men.
For feminists like Adichie, who have invested so much energy into arguing that women have entirely different lived experiences to men, accepting that someone could change their appearance and call themselves a woman is anathema — it would negate the idea that women suffer in a very particular way, and must have their suffering recognised. This is not a positive critique of trans politics; rather it is an attempt to guard what is seen as the special category of female victimhood.
In the furore over Adichie’s comments, we can see identity politics eating itself. Adichie battles for a view of women as a special breed of victim, while trans women attack her for failing to respect their claim to victimhood. Both parties paint a very reductive picture of women, and in fact are being insulting. In arguing that women – ‘trans’ or ‘real’ – are defined by their oppression, both Adichie and her critics undermine women’s agency. They reduce them to objects to which things happen. There is nothing positive or powerful about being defined as a victim. Adichie said that what she means by gender is ‘not biology [but] sociology’. What she means here is that women are victims of society. Society defines women, she and other feminists argue, in the process undermining the idea that women can take command over our lives and autonomy.
What does it mean to be a woman? Not much, really. The current obsession with gender and identity does nothing for women. In fact, obsessing over what it means to be a woman is a demeaning and narrow way of understanding individuals and their relationship with the world. Women are defined by their individual actions, by what they say and do. Instead of asking what it means to be a woman, we should be asking what women want. If being a ‘real woman’ means participating in the Oppression Olympics with Adichie or her trans critics, then this woman wants no part in it.
Ella Whelan is assistant editor at spiked. Follow her on Twitter: @Ella_M_Whelan
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