Ever since the days when they fought for the right to vote, women’s movements everywhere have been forced to define what it means to be feminist.
They have rallied around what they view as the “shared” experiences of women, and come up against the usual criticism — that the feminist movement caters to white, wealthy, politically liberal heterosexual women. That a woman’s identity is shaped by her race, her class, her sexual orientation.
But often, they’re faced with an even more complex question: What does it mean to be a woman? And does it matter how a person arrives at being a woman?
In an interview with the United Kingdom’s Channel 4, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the Nigerian best-selling author of “Americanah” and “Half of a Yellow Sun, was asked: “If you’re a trans woman who grew up identifying as a man, who grew up enjoying the privileges of being a man, does that take away from becoming a woman? Are you any less of a real woman?”
Adichie, who is not transgender, responded: “So when people talk about, you know, ‘Are trans women women?’ — my feeling is trans women are trans women.”
Her comments propelled her to the center of a nuanced, long-running gender identity debate between some feminists and transgender rights activists. The dilemma is based on the belief that most trans women were born assigned to the male gender and were raised male until they decided to transition. As a result, some feminists argue, transgender women spent a fraction — or large part — of their early lives experiencing male privilege.
In the interview, Adichie — a highly respected voice in the modern feminist movement — explained that gender identity is based on experiences, and does not revolve around “how we wear our hair or whether we have a vagina or a penis.”
“It’s about the way the world treats us, and I think if you’ve lived in the world as a man with the privileges that the world accords to men and then sort of change 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 as a woman and who has not been accorded those privileges that men are.”
She said that while she supports transgender rights, she believes their experiences should not be “conflated” with women’s experiences.
“I don’t think it’s a good thing to talk about women’s issues being exactly the same as the issues of trans women because I don’t think that’s true,” she said.
Adichie, famous for her 2013 TED talk, “We Should All Be Feminists,” which was featured in a Beyoncé song, later clarified her comments on Facebook. “Of course trans women are part of feminism,” she wrote, while standing by her argument that their experiences are different from those of people born female.
“Gender matters because of socialization,” she said. “And our socialization shapes how we occupy our space in the world,” adding that “there is space in feminism for different experiences.”
Adichie’s comments sparked outrage over the weekend among transgender people and transgender rights activists, who insisted that “transgender women ARE women” and disputed the idea that transgender women in general experienced privilege before transitioning.
The dispute delivered yet another divisive blow to a feminist movement that has been struggling to unify women for protests and rallies in the weeks and months after the election. Such divisions came to the forefront during the Women’s March on Inauguration weekend, where some conservative and antiabortion women felt isolated, and during the Day Without a Woman strike, which raised concerns about the ability of low-wage women to participate.
The conversation over Adichie’s words begged the question: What role do transgender women play in the feminist movement?
Laverne Cox, the transgender, Emmy-nominated actress, did not directly mention Adichie, but said in tweets that growing up as a feminine boy, she did not feel privileged. Her gender was “constantly policed,” and she was bullied and shamed.
“The irony of my life is prior to transition I was called a girl and after I am often called a man,” she said, adding that “there’s no universal experience of gender, of womanhood.”
Raquel Willis, a Black queer transgender activist and the communications associate for Transgender Law Center, argued in 22 tweets Friday night that it was “nonsensical” and “privileged” to require trans women to experience certain instances of oppression to “prove their womanhood.”
“Yes, folks raised as girls are plagued with oppression in a different way than people not raised as girls. No one denies that,” she wrote. However, those girls and women “experience the privilege of being seen, accepted and respected in their gender from birth.”
This particular debate began more than 40 years ago, at the height of the second-wave feminist movement, a New Yorker piece from August 2014 pointed out. In one example from 1973, at the West Coast Lesbian Conference, in Los Angeles, the group split over a scheduled performance by the folk singer Beth Elliott, who is what was then called a “transsexual.”
Robin Morgan, the keynote speaker, said:
I will not call a male “she”; thirty-two years of suffering in this androcentric society, and of surviving, have earned me the title “woman”; one walk down the street by a male transvestite, five minutes of his being hassled (which he may enjoy), and then he dares, he dares to think he understands our pain? No, in our mothers’ names and in our own, we must not call him sister.
One writer argued in a New York Times Sunday Review piece that transgender women have a different female identity, one that lacks the experiences and struggles that growing up as a woman entails. The writer, Elinor Burkett, a journalist and former professor of women’s studies, argued that Caitlyn Jenner’s experience as Bruce, for example, “included a hefty dose of male privilege few women could possibly imagine.” He was awarded a university athletic scholarship at a time when universities offered little funding for women’s sports. When he looked for a job to support himself during his training for the 1976 Olympics, he could get by on the $9,000 he earned annually, unlike young women whose median pay was little more than half that of men.
Transgender women “haven’t suffered through business meetings with men talking to their breasts,” Burkett writes. “They haven’t had to cope with the onset of their periods in the middle of a crowded subway, the humiliation of discovering that their male work partners’ checks were far larger than theirs.”
In response to Adichie’s comments, Julia Serano, author of “Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity,” called out non-transgender women who feel the “audacity” to comment on the experiences of transgender women without having personally lived them.
Meanwhile, Serano has previously written that before her transition, “nothing could have truly prepared” her for what male privilege would entail.
“I underestimated just how frustrating, infuriating and hurtful it would feel to have strangers regularly hurl cat calls and sexual innuendos at me, or to have men speak down to me, talk over me, and sometimes even practically put on baby-talk voices when addressing me,” she said.
Morgan M Page, a trans writer, artist and activist, challenged the argument that non-transgender women, or “cisgender women,” share common experiences that transgender women don’t.
Is it menstruation or childbirth? she asked on Twitter, because there are many women who experience neither, for various reasons.
“Is it experiences of pervasive sexual violence & harassment? Because trans women actually experience high rates of both.”
At the heart of this conflict is the reality that all women share very different experiences from each other, whether they are transgender or not, Page said.
And encapsulating these nuanced, “varying paths” makes it ever-difficult to define what it means to be a feminist.
One user summarized Adichie’s words, and the surrounding debate:
“What I hear is someone trying to find the words that acknowledge those varying paths without offending, although her words have offended many.”
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