Tag Archives: essentialism

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.

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Filed under feminism, Gender studies, Trans studies