Published:  12:00 AM, 21 February 2017

What makes a woman?


Do women and men have different brains? Back when Lawrence H. Summers was president of Harvard and suggested that they did, the reaction was swift and merciless. Pundits branded him sexist. Alumni withheld donations.

But when Bruce Jenner said much the same thing in an interview with Diane Sawyer, he was lionized for his bravery, even for his progressivism.

This was the prelude to a new photo spread and interview in Vanity Fair that offered us a glimpse into Caitlyn Jenner's idea of a woman: a cleavage-boosting corset, sultry poses, thick mascara and the prospect of regular "girls' nights" of banter about hair and makeup. Ms. Jenner was greeted with even more thunderous applause.

ESPN announced it would give Ms. Jenner an award for courage. President Obama also praised her. Not to be outdone, Chelsea Manning hopped on Ms. Jenner's gender train on Twitter, gushing, "I am so much more aware of my emotions; much more sensitive emotionally (and physically)."

I have fought for many of my 68 years against efforts to put women - our brains, our hearts, our bodies, even our moods - into tidy boxes, to reduce us to hoary stereotypes.

Suddenly, I find that many of the people I think of as being on my side - people who proudly call themselves progressive and fervently support the human need for self-determination - are buying into the notion that minor differences in male and female brains lead to major forks in the road and that some sort of gendered destiny is encoded in us.

Their truth is not my truth. Their female identities are not my female identity. They haven't traveled through the world as women and been shaped by all that this entails.

They haven't suffered through business meetings with men talking to their breasts or woken up after sex terrified they'd forgotten to take their birth control pills the day before. They haven't had to cope with the onset of their periods in the middle of a crowded subway, the humiliation of discovering that their male work partners' checks were far larger than theirs, or the fear of being too weak to ward off rapists.

Many women I know, of all ages and races, speak privately about how insulting we find the language trans activists use to explain themselves. After Mr. Jenner talked about his brain, one friend called it an outrage and asked in exasperation, "Is he saying that he's bad at math, weeps during bad movies and is hard-wired for empathy?" After the release of the Vanity Fair photos of Ms. Jenner, Susan Ager, a Michigan journalist, wrote on her facebook page, "I fully support Caitlyn Jenner, but I wish she hadn't chosen to come out as a sex babe."

For the most part, we bite our tongues and do not express the anger we openly and rightly heaped on Mr. Summers, put off by the mudslinging match that has broken out on the radical fringes of both the women's and the trans movements over events limited to "women-born women," access to bathrooms and who has suffered the greater persecution.

In January 2014, the actress Martha Plimpton, an abortion-rights advocate, sent out a tweet about a benefit for Texas abortion funding called "A Night of a Thousand Vaginas." Suddenly, she was swamped by criticism for using the word "vagina." "Given the constant genital policing, you can't expect trans folks to feel included by an event title focused on a policed, binary genital," responded @DrJaneChi.

Even the word "woman" has come under assault by some of the very people who claim the right to be considered women. The hashtags #StandWithTexasWomen, popularized after Wendy Davis, then a state senator, attempted to filibuster the Texas Legislature to prevent passage of a draconian anti-abortion law, and #WeTrustWomen, are also under attack since they, too, are exclusionary.

Women's colleges are contorting themselves into knots to accommodate female students who consider themselves men, but usually not men who are living as women. Now these institutions, whose core mission is to cultivate female leaders, have student government and dormitory presidents who identify as males.

In fact, it's hard to believe that this hard-won loosening of gender constraints for women isn't at least a partial explanation for why three times as many gender reassignment surgeries are performed on men. Men are, comparatively speaking, more bound, even strangled, by gender stereotyping.

The struggle to move beyond such stereotypes is far from over, and trans activists could be women's natural allies moving forward. So long as humans produce X and Y chromosomes that lead to the development of penises and vaginas, almost all of us will be "assigned" genders at birth. But what we do with those genders - the roles we assign ourselves, and each other, based on them - is almost entirely mutable.

Bruce Jenner told Ms. Sawyer that what he looked forward to most in his transition was the chance to wear nail polish, not for a furtive, fugitive instant, but until it chips off. I want that for Bruce, now Caitlyn, too. But I also want her to remember: Nail polish does not a woman make.

The writer is a journalist, a former
professor of women's studies and an Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker

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