In her most recent column, “Who Has Abortions?,” Katha Pollitt says, “We can, and should, support trans men and other gender-non-conforming people without erasing women from the fight for reproductive rights.” I agree. I’ve got a draft of quite a few fragments and links for a long blog post on feminism and trans politics–on reproductive rights, on women’s colleges, on how TERFS have derailed real conversations about feminism in trans communities, and on the outsized role those on the trans-masculine side of the gender spectrum play in setting out the official gender line for trans politics. I’ve not had the time to pull it all together, so instead, I’m just posting bits and pieces. Pollitt’s column today prodded me into posting the first bit.
But yes, I think Pollitt is right on this one. Here’s part of her explanation:
The real damage of abolishing “women” in abortion contexts, though, is to our political analysis. What happens to Dr. Tiller’s motto, “Trust Women”? There was a whole feminist philosophy expressed in those two words: women are competent moral actors and they, not men, clergy or the state, are the experts on their own lives, and should be the ones to decide how to shape them. It is because abortion gives power specifically to women that it was criminalized. How did Selina Meyer put it on Veep? If men got pregnant, you could get an abortion at an ATM. Restricting abortion is all about keeping women under the male thumb: controlling women’s sexual and reproductive capacities is what patriarchy is all about. Indeed, that women should decide for themselves is controversial even now. Although the Supreme Court ruled decades ago that men were not entitled to be notified if their wife was planning to end a pregnancy, some polls show large majorities of Americans believe husbands have a right to know. Once you start talking about “people,” not “women,” you lose what abortion means historically, symbolically and socially.
I think it’s entirely possible to point out that it’s not just women who become pregnant and still keep in focus the bare political fact that abortion rights and access are gender issues, that it’s almost only women who get pregnant and who need abortions, and that abortion rights and access are under assault all over the US precisely because it’s primarily a “women’s issue.” Obviously abortion access shouldn’t be restricted by gender identity and providers should clearly communicate this in the messaging. Trans men need to know they can access to these services.
That said, taking “women” out of abortion rights rhetoric, putting “vagina” on the list of unacceptable words, has the faint reek of misogyny. Pollitt doesn’t call it by that name, but she writes:
But a feminism that can’t say “women”—or “vagina” or “sisterhood” or even the cutesy “ladyparts”— is cutting the ground from under itself. It’s not just about slogans like “the War on Women“ or “Stand with Texas Women, “ important as they are and challenging as it would be to replace them with gender-neutral language that carried the same emotional charge. How do you even talk about women’s being underrepresented politically, or earning less than men, or being victims of rape and domestic violence? In an era where politics is all about identity, as a tool for organizing and claiming public space, are women about to lose theirs?
It’s not just reproductive rights language that is fast being “de-gendered.” Women’s colleges are also being asked to get rid of that exclusionary category. Many of us have long argued that women’s colleges need to admit trans women, regardless of the gender listed on their identity documents. And students who were admitted to women’s colleges as women and whose gender identity shifts during their college years need to be allowed to stay, and supported in their transition. But some of the discussions about changing who counts as a woman for college admission have morphed into an argument that everyone but cisgender men should be eligible to apply. Monica Potts, at the New Republic, says this is simply misogyny.
Feminist blogger and prison abolitionist Emma Caterine sees it differently. As she argues in a piece bluntly titled, “Trans Women are Not Agents of the Patriarchy”:
One of Potts’ main concerns is the push on women’s campuses to eradicate words like “sisterhood” from use. But this isn’t an example of trans activism, as Potts puts it, being “indistinguishable from old-school misogyny”; that’s just old-school misogyny disguised as trans activism. Trans activism fights to make a world that is better for trans people, and while trans men are an important part of that, the fight to make a place for themselves at women’s colleges has nothing to do with them being trans and everything to do with them being entitled men.
Trans women are on the precipice of being recognized as women at women’s-only institutions. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that now is also the moment when those institutions are being asked to retreat from their historic mission of educating women. It’s certainly not the intention of the activists calling for the all-but cis men rule, but the effect is to suggest that once trans women gain entrance, all bets are off, everything is up for grabs. The unstated but inescapable implication of all this–that trans women aren’t women. That’s trans-misogyny.