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 It has now been replaced by a new ‘All Girl DJ Night’ called Ciao Meow which began 4 July.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.