TERFs, Essentialism, and Normality

Gender critical radical feminists (henceforth GCers) believe that trans women are not women. They believe we are essentially male because of our biology. They divide the world into female and male – ignoring intersex people as “anomalies”.  They argue that the only way to be a woman is to be female. But what does it mean to be female? GCers often use the definition that females are those creatures that produce eggs and can get pregnant. Trans women do not produce eggs and cannot get pregnant from sperm (though uterus transplants now make it possible for trans women to have a womb), thus trans women are not female and thus not women.

But you might retort: not all cis females can get pregnant. Many are infertile. Does this mean these cis females are not female? Not women? Here’s where things get tricky. GCers fall back on a “normality” clause such that the infertile cis females belong to a class of beings where, if things go “normally” in development, they will be able to get pregnant. Thus females are those beings who “normally” can get pregnant. GCers then argue that this class of beings is globally oppressed on the basis of their biological sex (which normally can get pregnant). If you are of the class that normally can get pregnant then you are oppressed in virtue of belonging to that class.

But going down this route is philosophically dangerous. The crux of the issue is defining the notion of “normal”. Who gets to decide what’s normal and what’s abornmal? If you say that male and females are “normal” and intersex people/trans/infertile people are “abnormal” – how is that judgment made? GCers might try to rely on statistical normality i.e. go by what the “majority” of cases indicate. Trans/intersex people make up probably like ~1-2% of the total human population. And so we are “abnormal” in this respect. But why should we rely on a statistical definition of normality? After all it’s perfectly consistent to say instead that it’s “normal” for intersex people to be born – they are just rare. Because rarity does not automatically equate to “abnormal” – for the same reason that rare biological traits are not necessarily always pathological. The problem is that normality judgments cannot just be read off of nature so easily – there is almost always an element of human subjectivity in trying to define what is to count as “normal”.

There’s an analogous debate happening about vegetative state patients. Are they people? If we define personhood in terms of consciousness then vegetative state patients are not persons. But we could also say veg state patients belong to the class of humans where it is “normal” to have consciousness and that anyone who belongs to that class is a person. See how dangerous “normality” arguments are? They reflect a kind of magical thinking whereby you have a linking property that connects reality to the ideal world of what’s “normal”. But vegetative state patients are NOT persons if we define personhood not in terms of normality but in terms of the actual reality of their mental state. The same thing happens in the abortion debate. Pro-lifers says that even if fetuses do not have consciousness they belong to the class of beings that, if things go normally, will eventually turn into persons with consciousness. But the reality is that fetuses are not persons: they are clumps of cells with no consciousness.

Similarly, the reality of some cis females not being able to get pregnant cries out for a new definition of womanhood that does not rely on the magical thinking of normality. It doesn’t matter if “normally” women can get pregnant because in reality some woman do not have any biological capacity to reproduce and yet they are 100% women just the same. So why not say the same thing for trans women? Trans women cannot get pregnant and yet they are women. The problem with normality arguments is that they are essentialist, trying to find the singular “essence” of womanhood and pinning that down on one category, namely, biological sex. But we know that in reality biological sex is complicated by intersex/trans people – biological reality is not easily cleaved into two categories (male and female) unless you are willing to write off a huge segment of the population as “abnormal” even though there’s nothing physically wrong with them in the sense of being more likely to die.

In conclusion, it’s philosophically suspect for GCers to try and define womanhood in terms of the biological capacity to get pregnant because it’s essentialist nonsense masquerading as legit science when in reality their arguments are not scientific at all but rather ideological. Their first assumption is that trans women CANNOT be women and then they try to find a definition of womanhood that gives them that conclusion while at the same time arguing they’re doing this in order to fight oppression against cis females. But it’s not a competition. Trans women are also oppressed by patriarchy – often in the exact same way cis women are. Trans women and cis females are thus natural allies and it saddens me that so many don’t understand that. ALL women, trans or otherwise, need to work together and acknowledge our intersecting identities and privileges in order to fight patriarchal oppression.


Filed under feminism, Gender studies, Trans studies

5 responses to “TERFs, Essentialism, and Normality

  1. Well written post. It all comes down to arrogance doesn’t it? When people are so sure they’re better than another.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Errrr....

    This is a terrible argument.

    First, it’s not that female=woman, it’s that those who are born female are socialized as women and those who are born male are socialized as men. Males benefit from socialization in such a way that as men, they hold a place of power over women, who are socialized in such a way that they are expected to be subordinate to men.

    Your normal vs abnormal point is so unbelievably trivial that I wont even address it

    Intersex people have their own issues that are not the same thing as transgender issues. Being intersex is something physical, being transgender has to do with rejecting the social norms associated with your biological sex. Intersex people deal with identity issues that are much more complex than what transgender people deal with largely because gender constructs work in such a way that intersex people have a socially impossible identity from birth. They are generally expected to be one or the other, even though they are neither. Their issues are much bigger than the issues of trans gendered individuals who are not intersex at birth, which is the vast, vast majority of trans people.

    Also, it is a mischaracterization to claim that radical feminists define woman by being their being able to become pregnant. The only socially relevant factor is that one presents as female to the world, that one has female genitalia and are perceived as such. While gender identity is performed, it does not change the biological reality of the sexes. It does not change the fact that gender is a performance that is expected based upon what sex one is.

    It is perfectly acceptable for women to not want transwomen in their spaces. It is perfectly acceptable for women to not see transwomen as women. You are not entitled to a particular perception from anyone. You are not entitled to change another person’s thoughts or views. Any community is allowed to exclude anyone for any reason so long as doing so does not interfere with their human rights (why one cannot deny economic service based on race). This includes women who want to exclude transwomen. Demanding access to women’s spaces infringes upon the privacy rights of women. Especially those who have experienced sexual violence who may be bothered by an obvious transwoman in their space.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Val-^.^

      You assume that our socialization as “men” actually makes us men. I was socialized with men and guess what, I’ve never felt entirely correct for being categorized with them. I was waiting to grow into a man, but never did because my gender is female.

      You make the argument that trans people don’t have a biological condition, if so then why do I feel this way? (Also the more research into trans health, the more it is leaning towards it being a biological condition) Yes I’m rejecting the constrains society has put on me, but it has very little to do with gender expression. Yes I sometimes use my gender expression to help convey my gender to people better, because I want people to correctly gender me. If I could, and I mostly do this now anyway, be seen as female when I wear androgynous clothing I would be completely fine with it. (And if you want to go into the trope of what I like to do then here’s a list, I like engineering, math, science, video games, sports, dresses, clothing shopping, shoes, every so often do makeup and hair. Growing up I played house, dolls, legos, dinosaurs, knex, blocks, cars, dress up, etc. Though what I like has nothing to do with my gender.)
      I am female always have, always will, just have an intersex condition where my biological sex is different than my gender (and I’m taking about internal gender not social gender).

      I can see not having trans women who haven’t started transition/just started not be in female only spaces, but if I was not allowed to be in those areas (started transition 5+ years ago) I would feel discriminated against because I dont fit into male spaces, never have, and there is no intersex areas, so I feel left out and ostracized.
      And trans women can, and are very frequently victims of sexual violence …


    • Rose

      [[“Especially those who have experienced sexual violence who may be bothered by an obvious transwoman in their space.”]]

      This is such a repulsive argument on any level.

      “Women who have experienced sexual violence at the hands of minorities may be bothered by a minority in their space”.

      “Women who have experienced sexual violence at the hands of a gay woman may be bothered by a gay woman in their space”.

      “Someone who got robbed by a black man once might be bothered by some black folk moving in next door”.

      I’m not responsible for the crimes of men, particularly since whats between my legs is now pretty much non-functioning and I’ve got a level of strength relative to the average cisgender woman (and actually my cisgender wife has T levels higher than mine and is physically stronger than me by far).

      Segregating bathrooms serves only one purpose and has only EVER served one purpose, and it was to give a sexually objectified group of people a private space away from the sexual objectifiers whose physical strength outpaces their own. Trans women meet both criteria. They’re sexually objectified by men and their physical strength makes them virtually incapable of evenly matched self-defense.

      Trans women belong in the women’s bathrooms and this is TOTALLY regardless of whether they actually are women or not. It doesn’t matter. They look like women and socially function like women and they have the same safety and privacy concerns as women.

      And if you have an issue with it, you are welcome to take the risk you’re asking transgender women to take every day and start using the men’s bathrooms.


  3. Anne

    “Trans women belong in the women’s bathrooms and this is TOTALLY regardless of whether they actually are women or not. It doesn’t matter. They look like women and socially function like women and they have the same safety and privacy concerns as women.”

    I would rather see singular unisex, lockable bathrooms in every establishment. Each will have one urinal, one toilet, one menstruation wastebin, one pad/tampon dispenser, and a changing table.

    Because this would give everyone peace of mind.

    “And if you have an issue with it, you are welcome to take the risk you’re asking transgender women to take every day and start using the men’s bathrooms.”

    Yes, we know what the risk and fear of male violence is and yes, some of us “privileged” “cis” women have been on the receiving end of male violence or witnessed it happen to another woman. The news is also filled with the stories of women who experienced male violence and some women didn’t survive male violence.

    But because it’s so normalized that it’s invisible or no big deal. Or worse, something males will masturbate to because pain and torture boner >>> empathy… yuck. Sigh.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s