Pussy_Riot_by_Igor_Mukhin2
Type
Polemic
Category
Sexism
Transgender rights

No pussies in peril

Modern Australian society is riven with sexism, from the horrifying rates of violence against women ­– more than one woman is murdered in Australia every week – to our labour market, which is characterised by significant vertical and horizontal segmentation, causing a gender pay gap of 17.9 per cent. Both gender violence and the gender pay gap reflect systemic and structural oppression which all Australian women face – oppression that can result in internalised misogyny that assumes the marginalisation of women is natural. This diminishes the self-esteem of individual women and encourages lateral violence between women. It is precisely this internalisation of oppression that, historically, made consciousness-raising an essential strategy of feminist, women-only spaces. Today, there is still the need to construct and defend such spaces to enable women to collectively fight misogyny.

This tradition informs Brigitte Lewis’s recent Overland article ‘Pussy Power in Peril’, which examined the cancellation of the Pussy Power DJ night at Fitzroy’s Little and Oliver bar. Lewis’s piece seeks to defend the event’s choice of name, which many (including myself) felt excluded trans women. In doing so, however, Lewis also uses language that excludes trans women, frames challenges to this exclusion as a threat to ‘females’, and demonstrates a heavy reliance views which are commonly used to exclude trans women from the feminist movement completely.

The Pussy Power event, which was launched on 9 May 2015, was a night that profiled ‘femme DJs’. Almost immediately, concerned patrons queried the use of the phrase ‘pussy power’ on the event’s Facebook page, arguing it was trans-exclusive and therefore trans-misogynistic. Requests were made for a name change. For more than a month, no changes were made, until the entire event was suddenly cancelled in mid-June. It has now been replaced by a new ‘All Girl DJ Night’ called Ciao Meow which began 4 July.

Lewis takes issue with the objections of trans women and the cancellation of Pussy Power, attributing the event’s abrupt abandonment to an ‘activist boycott’ and implying that the event’s success depended on trans women’s support (and their ‘activist’ allies) and that trans women were obliged to attend. (There was apparently no obligation for organisers to create an event that people actually wanted to attend.)

Central to Lewis’ argument that the event was trans-inclusive was its by-line, which read:

Female, Male, transgender, gay, straight, bisexual, Agender/Neutrois, Androgyne/Androgynous, Bigender, Cis/Cisgender, Female to Male/FTM, Gender Fluid, Gender Nonconforming/Variant, Gender Questioning, Genderqueer, Intersex, Male to Female/MTF, Neither, Non-binary, Pangender, Other, Trans/Transgender, Transsexual, Two-spirit friendly event. Basically what we are trying to say is EVERYONE IS WELCOME. LET’S RECLAIM SATURDAY NIGHTS TOGETHER.

But simply stating an event is inclusive does not automatically make it so. The phrase ‘pussy power’ promotes the idea that having a vagina is synonymous with being a woman. This is problematic on two levels: it excludes those women who do not have a vagina from the category of women; it also erases the gender identity of trans men and non-binary people who have vaginas by insisting that they are women. This is cis-sexism.

Apart from the important reality that associating vaginas with womanhood can trigger dysphoria for some trans people, trans women, like other trans people, face the constant negation of their gender identities. Trans women in particular face active exclusion from women’s spaces and the erasure of their very existence.

Trans women do not want to be included in a women’s event on the basis of being trans but on the basis of being women. In practice, ‘trans inclusivity’ at women-only events tends be used to include trans men and non-binary people with vaginas. A trans woman who does not pass can still expect to be interrogated about their gender at such events.

Lewis argues that Pussy Power ‘was meant to be subversive, a tongue-in-cheek alliteration, a literal call to party’ as a consequence of ‘pussy’ having always been ‘a dirty word. If you’re a “pussy”, you’re weak, you’re a girl and you throw like one too.’ But it is questionable how transgressive or subversive the phrase ‘pussy power’ actually is. Firstly, it has been used in chauvinistic ways since at least 1969. Secondly, a subversive reclamation cannot justify trans-erasure.

Lewis defends the use of ‘pussy power’ on the basis that not using it would marginalise ‘women with vaginas’. This is disingenuous. Not using the title simply avoids the erasure of trans women from the category of women. It might be marginalising if there was a reality in which trans women were centred in all discourses about women – but since this is not the case, Lewis’s concern is hyperbole. Trans women’s rejection of the title of the event is not about the use of the word pussy to describe genitalia, but the assertion that possessing a vagina is synonymous with or central to being a woman.

Lewis justifies the use of the word ‘pussy’ on the basis that cis women (that is, self-identified women who were assigned female at birth) experience discrimination. She points to the existence of the gender pay gap – although she acknowledges that trans women experience more discrimination and links to the Gay and Lesbian Health Victoria’s Private Lives 2 report. But using language that excludes trans women is never justified, irrespective of cis women’s experience of discrimination, and in advocating for it, Lewis fails to recognise that trans and cis women have a shared interest in combating misogyny.

Lewis acknowledges the need for ‘broader conceptions of what “woman” is’ – yet, she herself has imposed limits on the definition of being ‘female’ as having a vagina – which she describes as being either ‘biologically female’ or ‘surgically constructed’. She ends with a quote from trans feminist Julia Serano: ‘to believe that a woman is a woman because of her sex chromosomes, reproductive organs or socialisation denies the reality that every single day, we classify each person we see as either female or male based on a small number of visual cues and a ton of assumptions. The one thing that women share is that we are all perceived as women and treated accordingly.’ Yet this perception is not based on having a vagina, as you generally can’t tell much about a person’s genitalia by looking at them fully clothed. It is the way a person dresses and carries themselves and the extent that this fits our conception of the label ‘woman’.

Lewis and the event organisers’ use of the terms ‘femme’, ‘female’ and ‘woman’ as if they were interchangeable is telling. These terms are not interchangeable. ‘Female’ relates to biological sex, ‘woman’ is a gender category, and ‘femme’ is a form of gender expression. Having or not having a vagina does not determine whether you are female, a woman or femme. A night that seeks to highlight femme DJs could conceivably feature people from any gender identity, because anyone can present as femme.

As both an academic and a member of the board of the Victorian Gay and Lesbian Lobby, Lewis should know how to discuss the transgender experience in more appropriate and sensitive ways. If we are to combat the misogyny that devastates the lives of millions of women, we need a feminism that is inclusive of all women. A feminism that marginalises trans women merely echoes the patriarchal power dynamics that exclude all women, and weakens the struggle against misogyny from within.

 

Image by Igor Mukhin.

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Lisbeth is a trans feminist and union activist who writes on trans rights, feminism and the international labour movement.

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Comments

  1. Females have the right to define themselves and name our body parts. We can say vulva, vagina, pussy, ovaries, period, pregnancy, breastfeeding, we can put it all on cupcakes if we choose. We can center events on ourselves and congregate as with the people we wish to, or need to. There are things transwomen will never experience or understand about being a female, just as there are things transwomen experience that females don’t. That’s ok. We are all different. If a female wants to name an event Pussy Power and you are invited, go and have fun. Our feelings are equally important to yours and it’s not a personal slight. But no, everything has to be about you, 100% of the time. News flash: you don’t get to tell us what to do.

    All of this insistence on gagging women’s right to name their bodies and to congregate as we choose will be your downfall. I wish you jobs, housing, medical care that is reasonable and freedom from violence. But transwomen will NOT have the right to erase me or my body. Females are catching on to this erasure. You won’t be able to drown us out or delete words you don’t like forever. Women will rise.

  2. Way to miss the point of the article, but you know just argue against strawpeople.

    Where in the article do I say that people can’t talk about their body parts or label them how they want?

    The article critiques the use of a phrase “pussy power” for an event on the basis that it excludes people that the event organisers (and original) claimed to be seeking to include. I also point out that the phrase “pussy power” is fraught due to the history of misogynists using it in denigrating way to sexualise women.

  3. As a feminist woman, I don’t believe there are any experiences common to people with XX chromosomes, vaginas, and the secondary sexual characteristic associated with femininity that justify keeping the term woman exclusive. In my experience, the identity woman is always ironic; all women both exceed and fail at the ideal of womanhood.

    I don’t, in other words, believe “[t]here are things transwomen will never experience or understand about being a woman” is a legitimate reason for excluding transwomen from women’s events.

    Because there are things every other woman will never experience or understand about my experience as a woman.

    But there is one thing people identified as women, because of our vaginas, XX chromosomes, and/or secondary sexual characteristics, OR because we choose to identify as women, with or without measures such as hormone treatment, clothing and hair style choice, surgery, name change etc., share: the experience of sexism.

    And sexism sux. As you’ve stated, it leads to murder, poverty and lack of opportunities.

    The violence, exclusion, and prejudice experienced by transfolk also sucks. Exclusion diminishes everyone’s experience. I think feminism and transgender activism can and must work together.

    To do so, of course feminism has to be responsible and acknowledge that essentialist ideas about gender, or prejudiced ideas about people who don’t conform to binary gender, are cruel and counterproductive.

    Transgender activism also needs to be rigorous about essentialism, and recognise that women who are not transidentified are not, a priori, capitulating to gender roles.

    Pussy, as you’ve identified, is a term used to denigrate and sexualise women. Pussy Power, like the band name Pussy Riot, is a joyful and ironic appropriation of this term, which satirises the fear and disgust associated with images of women. As a challenge to sexism, it works.

    I am not convinced that, as a challenge to sexism, it excludes anyone, except sexists.

    If the event were called “Vagina power”, there might be reason to be critical. If it were called “Natural, no surgery, no intervention, no hormone shots, and conforming to a strict range of labial, clitoral and vaginal measurements Vagina Power” it would absolutely be exclusive, offensive, and also really unwieldy.

    But Pussy Power is a name that consciously acknowledges and subverts the lies sexual discrimination and prejudice are based in.

    Terms like Pussy Power represent rejection of gender roles and challenge gender binarism. They say “look further, don’t accept what your told”. This is a message that is valuable for everyone.

    I think the term Pussy Power is not exclusive, since it isn’t an assertion of a claim to anatomical or physiological supremacy, but the subversion of ideas about sexist supremacy.

    But if the challenge to sexism expressed by the term Pussy Power still seems wounding and exclusive, it would be good to hear genuine, actual suggestions about how we can address sexism – the factual oppression of people because they are perceived to have characteristics associated with femininity – in a way that neither excludes transfolk or suggests feminist women who aren’t transidentified are capitulating to gender norms.

    • There is a fairly large amount material, which is trans exclusionary, that seeks to link womanhood with having a vagina (or if you like the term pussy) – it isn’t surprising the use of that title would be seen as hostile and exclusionary by trans women. A fact that is attested to by the fact that a reasonably large number of trans women indicated that they felt it was exclusionary. So large in fact, that Brigitte in her original article indicated that she felt that cancellation of the night was due to a boycott by “activists” opposed to the title.

      Insisting that you need to be convinced that it is exclusionary is cissexist, because you are elevating the experiences of a cis person above that of trans people.

      As I point out in the article the phrase “pussy power” has a problematic history (at least since 1969) – having been used to belittle and sexualise women.

      In terms of fighting sexism – the title of an event no matter how subversive is a fairly minimal step in the process. Maybe actually doing some feminist campaigning would be a better step to fight sexism than calling a DJ night “pussy power”.

    • SouthWest, I’m so appreciative of your clear and calm explanation of a need for both being inclusive , and allowing diverse experiences voice.

      I especially liked this: “And sexism sux. As you’ve stated, it leads to murder, poverty and lack of opportunities.

      The violence, exclusion, and prejudice experienced by transfolk also sucks. Exclusion diminishes everyone’s experience. I think feminism and transgender activism can and must work together.

      To do so, of course feminism has to be responsible and acknowledge that essentialist ideas about gender, or prejudiced ideas about people who don’t conform to binary gender, are cruel and counterproductive.

      Transgender activism also needs to be rigorous about essentialism, and recognise that women who are not transidentified are not, a priori, capitulating to gender roles.”

      I’m really inspitred by reading your words, as they align with my own struggles to balance inclusiveness and voicing distinct experience, showing respect for people’s gender identification, while not permitting the creep of binary assumptions about gender. Do you have a blog or another contact to connect with your writing/ responses?

  4. I would like to clarify my suggestion that feminism and transgender activism should act together; ultimately, both are failing unless they become the same thing. Because both are rooted in the same resistance to stereotypes and oppression linked to sex.

    This doesn’t mean one of them is subsumed to the other, of course; the specific ways in which prejudice and oppression are experienced, and joy and agency are celebrated, need to be named and explored. But they are part of the same movement toward justice, and necessary to one another.

  5. Hi Lisbeth,

    Thanks for engaging with my article.

    I find your response utterly condescending and a complete misinterpretation of my argument, which as you so deftly quote, is summed up by my final sentences –

    “to believe that a woman is a woman because of her sex chromosomes, reproductive organs or socialisation denies the reality that every single day, we classify each person we see as either female or male based on a small number of visual cues and a ton of assumptions. The one thing that women share is that we are all perceived as women and treated accordingly.”

    My point being that all women should be celebrated and how we understand what a woman is needs to be expanded to include every manifestation of identification. This inclusion should allow women DJ’s to be celebrated who by their own identification name themselves as femme and have vagina’s/pussy’s. If you don’t want to celebrate women with vagina’s that OK. But don’t frame my argument as cis sexist just because I believe the category of woman includes, you and me.

    • I’m sorry you found my response condescending. I personally found your article pretty obnoxious, insulting, dishonest but each to their own.

      The night wasn’t inclusive – people didn’t want to go as a result. Something that you took exception to.

      Again having a vagina has nothing to do with being femme – cis men can be femme. Insisting that it does is bizarre. Discounting the concerns of trans women over exclusionary language because you think you know better is cissexist.

      Just as an aside did you read all of the comments defending your article by trans exclusionary radical feminists? Did you read all of the transmisogynistic invective? If you can read those comments and not think there was a problem with your article that is pretty telling.

  6. An inclusive feminism should include diverse voices of females (regardless of gender) and women (regardless of biosex), as well as people of non-binary sex or non-binary gender who are impacted by sexism. What we need to avoid though is silencing, where people attempt to annihilate or neutralise any voice representing specific experience different to their own. We need to allow events and forums which welcome expressions about embodied experience (whether of transwomen, female women, intersex women or other non-binary variations), without having this erased by gender-essentialists, just as we should welcome connections based on gender, without expecting it is something everyone endorses or relates to. Can we please drop the “cis” tag/slur/ assumption? It is an aggressive assertion of erasing binary thinking , where it is assumed that conclusions can be drawn about someones gender elements simply because they aren’t trans. It’s time to respect that people’s embodied experiences of bio-sex and their relationships to gender are more complex than a binary- something that will be better understood if we let people speak. uncensored, of their own experiences.

  7. I just wanted to thank SouthWest for so clearly articulating the importance of a warm solidarity which doesn’t erase diverse experiences and their expression.

  8. I never said that trans women can’t be femme – ever – or tried to fit women into one reductive category like you’re suggesting. I haven’t discounted concerns because I know better – I’ve put forward my opinion – like you have – and everyone who comments doesn’t necessarily reflect my views – just like they don’t reflect yours – I hear your concerns and I understand them and respect them but that doesn’t mean I’m inciting transmisogynistic invective at all – that is not what my article was about – it was pushing for the exact thing your accusing me of not doing – inclusion – if you want to get academic on discourse – pussy is a signifier of female experience – it speaks beyond the essentialised vagina you are trying link it to – and as a symbol of that which cannot be spoken of or signified in language which makes it both powerful and powerless.

    Its symbolic value is important not what you’re tenuously trying to link it to – if discourse is as powerful as you suggest – shouldn’t we be on the same side – fighting for all kinds of representations of womanhood – all of the signifiers?

    And on the issue of discourse – are you campaigning against poof doof and homo too – or only pussy power – if not why not?

  9. I’m interested in having a dialogue about the ways feminists and trans activists can work together. I certainly think the two groups need to align and support one another, but I’m not convinced it’s useful to conflate feminism with trans activism.

    I can see why a night like Pussy Power, that aims to include trans people, could use a rename if trans women find the original language diminishing. We all have the right to be respected and feel comfortable.

    But, as a couple of people have mentioned, there is an issue – strongly felt by many cis women – that our bodies are denigrated and culturally required to be modified or hidden and their functions obscured. So to appropriate language like ‘pussy’, and to depict vaginas with pubic hair, menstrual blood and so on, is an important part of the feminist struggle. Not as important as battling violence against women and structural discrimination in the form of political representation and equal pay, but significant nonetheless.

    Trans women obviously face monstrous discrimination and violence, including symbolic violence, and feminists can and must unite with them in condemnation of that. But it seems clear that feminism and trans activism face very distinct challenges, and the tactics they use to overcome those challenges will be different. So perhaps it’s more useful to seek an alliance between the two movements – but not to commandeer the language or political tactics that either group finds to be effective or necessary in their campaigns.

    • “But it seems clear that feminism and trans activism face very distinct challenges…”

      I’m not convinced that this is clear in the slightest.
      It is only ‘clear’ if one continues to see trans women and women as largely — or at least potentially — separate categories. Trans women are women, and the struggles of trans women are women’s struggles. It’s not that feminists should ‘stand up for’ the rights of trans women who face oppression just as we would ‘stand up for’ any oppressed minority. Rather, it is that the oppression of trans women IS ACTUALLY THE OPPRESSION OF WOMEN. Trans women working within feminism have always, and do still, fight misogyny that harms cis women as well as trans women. And yet, continually, we cis feminists fail to include our trans sisters in the most basic and fundamental way.

      Yes, vaginas and their functions are often seen as ‘icky’ – or worse – in patriarchal culture. It’s important to try to fight this, to remove stigma and shame from having a vulva. But honestly, equating gender with a body part is not a kind of reclamation that makes me feel safer or more powerful. I think rather it’s a kind of lazy habit of mind. I have often seen feminists perpetuate the idea that having a penis conveys privileges like higher salaries, instead of having a male gender identity and presentation, which is the more interesting and knotty truth of it. This is not just cutesy short-hand, it’s actually gender-essentialism-lite, and feminists should be above it.

      I agree that menstruation, pubic hair, birth, the clitoris — and the social and political meanings of these — are sometimes important for feminists to write and speak about. But this is not difficult to do in ways that don’t alienate. And one of those ways is not to take the specificity of the body and make it stand in for gender. So, we might have to talk about genitals slightly less when what we’re talking about isn’t really genitals. But are feminism’s challenges so tied up with genitals? Are they really? What is it about giving up the sole right to define the use of value of terms like ‘Pussy’ that hurts so much? Where is the resistance coming from? Why do some feminists appear to fear trans women, who are some of the people who suffer most bitterly under patriarchy, more than they fear patriarchy itself?

      And when will we stop having these boring circular conversations?

      The fact is trans people don’t need an invitation to feminism or to feminist events. They are already here. They have already been here for decades.

      Perhaps cis feminists need to stop talking as if we alone — and we rightfully — dictate the conversation and can choose to condescend to invite other women to the table. Perhaps we should stfu and listen to the other women who are *already at our table*. That’s why I’m glad Lisbeth Latham was able to respond to Brigette Lewis’ piece (in a very restrained way, I thought!). But personally, I hope the conversation can move on now in Overland and elsewhere from who invites whom to their party.

      • Of course gender is socially constructed, but sex is irreducible. To say gender is the only relevant factor is naive 1980s theory that we should have moved past by now. Sex is precisely the reason that there are different challenges for feminists and trans women. The reason trans women face more insidious discrimination and violence than cis women is because of social attitudes to the relationship between their sex and gender. I’m not talking about being condescending and ‘inviting other women to the table’. I’m talking about recognising differences so that we can move forward, together, more effectively.

  10. Gender and sexual anatomy are totally different – the point being, I would think – is to do away with gender differences totally – so notions of gender no longer exist – whereupon, save for the use of surgery – sexual differences would still exist.

  11. Gender is just a facade, sex is everything. Transgenders who do not have sexual reassignment surgery are really just full-time-transvestites, and that is shown by the fact that they often start out as part-time transvestites, like Bradley Manning.

  12. It seems pretty obvious that, historically, using exclusionary language in radical struggle messes up the struggle – whether that’s white union members refusing anti-racist language or feminists trying their best to hide the fact that there might be feminists who were also lesbians. (This last is particularly relevant because the logic of the time was the same as what is used against trans women – that lesbians were not “real” women for the purposes of political organizing because they did not have the same experience as straight women.)

    But we still go through this again and again and again. My sense is that it’s an individual failure to deal with resentment – we build our political identities around being the oppressed ones, and then when someone suggests that we ourselves may be participating in oppressing others, or that we ourselves are not in fact the greatest sufferers, we can’t handle the challenge to our self-conception. In those moments, we have far more in common with right wing whites who insist that they’re the real victims of [everything, really] than we do with leftists or progressives. In both cases, we’re insisting that the story absolutely must be about us and how put-upon we are rather.

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