Burchill, feminism and the ways to define a woman

The Moore-gate train crash

The story so far, for those sensible souls who stay away from Twitter. Suzanne Moore published an article in the New Statesmen about why women should be angry. Amongst the various things that we are supposed to be annoyed about is ‘not having the ideal body shape – that of a Brazilian transsexual.’ This eventually led to a storm on Twitter. Now the original remark is clumsy and lazy. It does not distinguish between male to female and female to male transsexuals, although that should be obvious from the context. But it is also a glib, throwaway comment about something which means a great deal to some people. The words ‘Jessica Rabbit’ would have made the same point but would have been less likely to offend. Moore’s remark glossed over the complexities of who defines an ideal female body. Do male to female transsexuals choose that shape, or is it foisted upon them by a society and a medical profession which states ‘if you want to be a woman, this is what you must look like’?

Moore was politely asked on Twitter if the remark was really necessary, in an otherwise good article. Rather than engage in what might have been a fruitful debate, she responded by becoming increasingly aggressive. Eventually she said “I don’t prioritise this fucking lopping bits of your body over all else that is happening to women Intersectional enough for you?” Understandably, this comment did not go down well and things deteriorated from thereon in. Neither side comes out of this well. I think people were right to pull Moore up on the remark and to start with this was done in a measured and considered way. However, later Moore received threatening tweets and no-one deserves that kind of abuse. Some of them are recorded here, but beware – the blog itself carries many transphobic posts and my understanding is that some of those tweets do not refer to Moore. Moore sank almost as low, tweeting ‘People can just fuck off really. Cut their dicks off and be more feminist than me. Good for them.’ This was wrong for many reasons, not the least of which is that being transgender is about so much more than surgery. And, let’s face it, unless you’re a disciple of Freud being a woman is about a great deal more than whether you have a dick or not.

Moore has subsequently issued an apology of sorts, although not before she had an article published in the Guardian that basically compounded the original error. At this point, perhaps her biggest worry was that Julie Burchill leapt to her defence with an article in the Observer, although it was not so much a defence, as an offensive blitz of self publicity. After two days, the Observer took the piece down. Unfortunately this forced them to delete the 2000+ comments below the line with it, although the majority were much better journalism than Burchill’s drivel.

In a, to be frank rather odd plot twist, this move from the Observer allowed Moore and Burchill to reconstruct this story so that they were the victims and were being silenced by some sort of trans-cabal. This silence took the form of Burchill’s piece being republished in the Telegraph and Moore having another article in the Guardian. However, through all the kerfuffle, the calls for sacking and the shouting about freedom of speech, there were some more reasonable voices that pointed out that whether the Observer should have taken Burchill’s piece down or not, the fact was they should never have published it in the first place.

Burchill’s article

In case you are wondering, Burchill’s article was explicitly in defence of her friend Moore. It must be nice, if you think your friend has been insulted on the internet, to be able to get a major national newspaper to print your thoughts on this. Burchill painted the pair of them as working class feminists striving against the odds to make it in the newspaper industry (signs that you have made it include a need to quaff champagne and eat lobster, apparently). I’ve taken out the argument, which did not take long, and left the insults, which amount to this:

bunch of dicks in chicks’ clothing.

a gaggle of transsexuals telling Suzanne Moore how to write looks a lot like how I’d imagine the Black and White Minstrels telling Usain Bolt how to run would look. [Almost as poorly phrased as it is rude].

the very vociferous transsexual lobby and their grim groupies

their relationship with their phantom limb

trans lobby

To be fair, after having one’s nuts taken off (see what I did there?) by endless decades in academia, it’s all most of them are fit to do. Educated beyond all common sense and honesty, it was a hoot to see the screaming mimis accuse Suze of white feminist privilege


bunch of bed-wetters in bad wigs [the bedwetting is a nasty reference to one of the side effects of some surgery.]

To have your cock cut off and then plead special privileges as women – above natural-born women, who don’t know the meaning of suffering, apparently – is a bit like the old definition of chutzpah: the boy who killed his parents and then asked the jury for clemency on the grounds he was an orphan.

Shims, shemales, whatever you’re calling yourselves these days – don’t threaten or bully us lowly natural-born women, I warn you […] Trust me, you ain’t seen nothing yet. You really won’t like us when we’re angry.

Now there are all sorts of things wrong here. Burchill fundamentally does not understand what it is to be transgender. She’s rude, she’s deliberately and unnecessarily offensive and she’s whipping up hatred against a group of people who have enough to contend with without her starting on them. It would be bad in any newspaper but from the Observer, it was appalling. And it was just bad journalism. Why on earth give someone space to stick up for their mate? That’s what blogs and facebook are for, not national newspapers.

More than that, Burchill is forgetting one of the fundamental tenets of feminism. As Simone de Beauvoir stated “One is not born but becomes a woman”. Feminism is about many things but for me it is about the freedom to make choices, the opportunity to be treated equally and freedom from biological determinism. This is not freedom from biology – I can’t suddenly escape my clinical depression, or gravity, or my liver function or my fundamental need to pee after too much caffeine. But my future and my choices should not be determined by the fact that I am a woman not a man. And how am I supposed to escape biological determinism if ‘feminists’ such as Burchill insist that there is such a difference between someone who is born a woman and someone who becomes one?

And this is a fundamental problem for feminism. On the one hand you want to argue, as a feminist, that being a woman should not define you. And on the other you want to argue that all women have a fundamental, shared experience and a common cause which unites them. So which is it? Are all women potentially different and not to be defined solely by their womanhood, or do they all have something in common that unites them all? And is the thing that unites them basic biology? Because if it is, then escaping from biological determinism just became a lot more difficult. Or is it shared cultural experience on the basis of biology, which is still tricky, but not as difficult to negotiate.

To be a woman: it’s all in the genes

It might help to explore the basic biological definitions of what it means to be female. One of the things that came across clearly in the comments on Burchill’s and Moore’s pieces was the level of ignorance amongst commentators about sex difference. Many people were stating that sex difference is ‘written into your DNA’ that it’s ‘all down to genetics’ and, for those who knew a little more, that women were the ones with XX chromosomes. However, the reality is rather more complex. Nature hasn’t evolved with little labels. It is chaotic and unruly. Within all this chaos, humans spot patterns and we have decided that there are two sexes, male and female. The former produces sperm—small motile gametes— and the latter produces eggs— large ‘passive’ gametes. One gets pregnant, gives birth and nurtures its young and the other, by and large, buggers off.

At school we are generally taught that humans have 46 chromosomes arranged in 23 pairs. One pair defines our sex: if we have XY chromosomes we are male, if we have XX chromosomes we are female, and that is that. This is relatively simple and it seems to give us two definite, easily recognisable sexes. The truth is rather more complex and there are more intersexed individuals (‘hermaphrodites’) than the medical profession, and society, care to admit. Not everybody fits neatly into one category or another.

Historically, sex difference has not always been rigidly defined. Prior to about 1870 men and women were defined as such according to bodily (somatic) differences. Those who fell in between and were neither clearly male nor clearly female could be classified as ‘hermaphrodites’. If necessary, for example in cases of inheritance, a priest or doctor might be asked to assign a definite sex to an individual. However, in general, movement between the sexes and a ‘third sex’ was more readily accepted.

From around 1870, men of science and clinicians divided the sexes according to the gonads: men had testicles and women had ovaries. These were not defined solely by their position in the body, they also showed distinct microscopic anatomical differences. It was very, very rare for anyone to have both ovarian and testicular tissue present in their bodies. Thus the number of ‘true hermaphrodites’ could be narrowed down. Oh there were ‘pseudo-hermaphrodites’, that is individuals who did not appear to be clearly either male or female, but examining their gonadal tissue under the microscope, something which became easier as surgery improved, meant they could almost always be placed in one category or another. And no matter how ‘feminine’ a pseudo hermaphrodite appeared, if she had testicular tissue she was male. Increasingly, the definition of sex difference was becoming divorced from an individual’s appearance.

Thus there was a shift from a somatic (bodily) definition of sex difference to a gonadal definition. In the early twentieth century, with the discovery of genetic material in cells, a genetic definition of sex came to the fore. And this had the advantage of further reducing the number of individuals who did not clearly fit into one sex or the other. The idea was put forward very early in the history of genetics, as biologists Edmund Beecher Wilson and Nettie Stevens declared in 1905 that males had XY chromosomes and females had XX chromosomes. Thus in the early twentieth century, as men such as Oscar Wilde challenged the definition of masculinity and women such as Philippa Garrett Fawcett challenged the definition of femininity (she beat the top man in the Cambridge mathematics tripos), scientists devised a way of telling who was ‘really’ male from who was ‘really’ female.

So historically, that is how we came to decide that the difference between male and female lay in the chromosomes. However, not everyone with XY chromosomes is clearly male, and not everyone with XX chromosomes is clearly female (and for now I’ll leave out the other chromosomal variations).

You can find out a bit more about those variations here: http://anthro.palomar.edu/abnormal/abnormal_5.htm Note that the language is rather laden. Also note that individuals are labelled as male and female even though they do not fit into a clear binary pattern.

This is because, whilst we define sex difference genetically, many of the characteristics we associate with each sex come about because of the endocrine (hormone) system. Sex may be defined genetically but it is differentiated by our hormones. In the case of someone who is androgen insensitive this means that the individual has XY chromosomes but looks female externally. Individuals with this condition often appear tall and athletic but nonetheless develop female secondary sexual characteristics at puberty. Diagnosis often occurs only in their late teens because they do not menstruate.

Legally someone who is androgen insensitive will be female because they are defined as such at birth. And this highlights another complication. Who actually defines sex difference? I don’t mean who put the XX/XY definition in the textbooks, I mean who actually looks at a newborn and says ‘it’s a girl’? The answer is generally an obstetrician or midwife. They decide by looking at the external genitalia which means at this stage, it does actually come down to whether or not you have a penis. And whether or not you have a penis is not entirely determined by your genetics, because of the complex interaction with the endocrine system. So your legal sex and your genetic sex might not match.

Now at this stage you can splutter around and say ‘but, but, really they’re male, they’re XY’ or ‘but these cases are very rare’ or ‘but really there are just two sexes’. This is not, I would suggest, particularly helpful if you are one of the millions of people on the planet who is in some way intersexed. The fact is, a sex might be assigned to you that does not match your genetic sex. And you may well feel that you are the assigned sex, not the genetic one. It seems to me that it is better to accept that the binary categorisation is something that we impose, not something that occurs in nature. So exceptions to the binary categorisation are not somehow odd, or abnormal, or failing in some way. Rather, our categorisation is failing because it is not flexible enough.

You might want to play your trump card and say ‘well really there are two sexes, one that gets pregnant and one that gets the other sex pregnant’ thereby glossing over all the people who can do neither. But even if you do that, nature is wonderful and odd. Here is an account that shows that someone with some XY genetic material nonetheless gave birth. So, the ultimate female accolade, the ability to give birth, does not match our genetic sex.

Where then does this leave our ‘Brazilian transsexual’? Should we allow someone whose bodily appearance is (or was) male to comment on female experience and feminism? Well why on earth not? My understanding is that those who are transgender find that whilst their body has been defined as one sex, their mind is convinced they are a different sex. Now feminism raises important questions. What does it mean to be female? Is there a shared female experience? Can we rely on a biological definition and if so, are we biologically determined? We have individuals who appear female but want to be male, and those who appear male but whose minds say they are female. So, is this not a good place to investigate what it really means to be female? How can it not be?

It seems to me that if we automatically disallow male to female transgendered individuals from women’s groups, then we admit that we are solely defined by our biology. And frankly, as feminists, is that what we really want?

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