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26th November 2015

Patriarchy vs. Matriarchy

Grace Iona Annesley-Mair casts a critical eye over offensive comments made by prominent feminist Germaine Greer

Germaine Greer’s recent transphobic comments have pissed off many people—including myself. When asked about her ban from talking at Cardiff University in a BBC interview during October, she responded by stating “just because you lop off your dick and then wear a dress, doesn’t make you a fucking woman.” She also stated that “most women” didn’t think that post or non-operative transgender people “look like, sound like, or behave like women.”

After watching the BBC interview, while observing the media firestorm, I felt irritated at the language Greer used and disconcerted by the way in which she discussed trans issues in such a blunt, inconsiderate and uncomplex way.

I’ll take this opportunity to say that while she may assume that “most women” think they way she does, I am not one of them. Greer’s comments seem to be laden with problematic assumptions about what it is to be a woman. First and foremost, the focus of her rhetoric seemed to miss a key tenet of feminist thinking: The distinction between sex and gender, the latter being a socially constructed phenomenon rather than an absolute truth. Secondly, Greer only seemed to mention one dimension of transitioning, namely the transition from male to female rather than the other way around. From the interview it would have appeared that gender reassignment is something only men do, which of course, is not at all true.

Even more troubling is the implicit assumption behind Greer’s words that by virtue of having a vagina from birth, that somehow each and every individual woman has the same life experience, and that we all “look,” “sound” and “behave” the same way. To put it bluntly, she—whether intentionally or not—reinforced the rigid biological and gender binaries which feminism has sought to challenge. It’s a problematic assumption and is a little too reminiscent of the ‘biology as destiny’ argument.

I hate to burst bubbles, but what constitutes being a woman is far more complicated than anatomy alone. What Greer does in this interview is what so many feminists campaigned against: Society’s obsession with our genitals. Being a woman—whichever way it comes about—is complex, and we know that womanhood is subject to a myriad of other factors which shape individual experience: sex, gender, ethnicity and disability, to name just a few.

By focusing on one side of transitioning negatively, Greer overlooked the importance of how the stories of the trans community can offer another layer of complexity to how we understand our fellow human beings and the world around us. It is worth mentioning that that trans people can offer important insights for feminist analysis. What better way to understand the workings of male privilege, or constructions of masculine and feminine identities than from someone who has seen these constructions from both sides? More to the point, people who have transitioned to become a woman will, inevitably and regrettably, have to live under the same oppressive norms that women are subject to, such as sexism and sexual harassment.

In the context of transphobic comments from feminists with public platforms like Greer and Julie Bindel, who stated that she didn’t have “a problem with men disposing of their genitals, but it does not make them women,” the need to build an inclusive feminist movement which does not shout down the experiences of others becomes clear. Of course, one can argue that Greer and Bindel were excluded or censored. However, I think its worth asking if they would be outraged if a man with misogynistic views was banned from the safe space of university—would it still be a problem then? Or is misogyny somehow palatable when directed at trans woman from a cisgender woman?

I always want to value the insights of feminists who have come before me and to take seriously their lessons and contributions to the movement. I also believe that its a two-way street. It is important for Greer and Bindel to do the same: Feminists across the board should listen to and acknowledge the voices which have been so routinely stifled and marginalised. They should also not try to reinforce the criteria of womanhood as something defined by biology alone.

Most significantly, Greer has a platform. Of course, Greer is known to have an appetite for the controversial. However, an appetite for the controversial doesn’t mean that we should take such comments lightly. While her statements did not explicitly endorse alienation or violence, they implied that the trans community did not belong and could not belong in the feminist camp. Her words stigmatised the trans community, and that is something as a feminist that I will not condone.

Safe spaces are few and far between, and university is one of them. This kind of rhetoric, whether intended or not runs the risk of legitimising bigotry and ostracising trans people by making them outsiders. To reduce a community to a product of their sexual organs alone is to demean, degrade and to belittle. The trans community is campaigning for the same thing which feminists do: safe spaces, bodily autonomy and the right to choose your own destiny, regardless of your sexual organs.

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