Ain't Nothing But a Vagina Thing

The poster above may have some social conservatives in Texas clutching their pears, but it was feminists who were fighting over whether “A Is For”’s ad campaign was offensive last week. Shortly after the group kicked off its campaign to raise money for four Texas abortion funds, a debate erupted on Twitter accusing the organizers of a concert benefiting several Texas abortion funds for being cissexist and bioessentialist in their advertising campaign. For those who may not have been hip with the lingo, a cisgender person is someone whose gender identity matches the sex they were assigned at birth. Here’s a sampling of the exchanges:

By equating women with their vaginas, a number of contemporary, “third wave” feminists objected, the billing for the fundraiser excludes transgender women who were born without one. In addition, by focusing on the vagina as the crux of female identity, the campaign shuts transgender men out of the reproductive-rights movement. “Transgender men have often been excluded from the reproductive-justice movement,” writes Dr. Jane, a medical professional who deals with trans patients, in an e-mail. “Cissexist ‘radical feminists’ habitually use language like, ‘You have a vagina! Vagina is female! Women have vaginas!’ to make transgender men feel unwelcome at best and dysphoric at worst.” Even when it comes to talking about reproductive rights, “many women find the constant insistence on the word ‘vagina’ to miss the point of their experience,” Dr. Jane says. It’s “bioessentialist,” reducing women to their reproductive organs. “[Vaginas] are a human body part. They're *not* a human, nor should they be used metonymically to mean humans,” Twitter user @noveldevice chimed in.

Before you start rolling your eyes and muttering to yourself about runaway political correctness, let me make the point that the way we linguistically map out the world has important implications. Given that California’s civil unions confer all the same rights and responsibilities as marriage, the legal wrangling over Proposition 8 came down to a debate over the term “marriage” itself. By denying same-sex couples the use of the moniker and requiring them to register for “civil unions,” the state of California was signaling that same-sex relationships were inferior; given the rhetoric surrounding Proposition 8 and all the money thrown at the court battles, you couldn’t say it was a distinction without a difference. The point here is that, in California, the extended battle over Proposition 8 was all about who had the right to describe their union as a “marriage.” When it comes to identity, the words we use have the power to exclude or include certain groups of people, which is why we’ve started using gender-neutral “congressperson” instead of “congressman.” Language matters. Naming reality matters.

Starting in the 1990s, “third wave” feminists began to challenge the idea that gender is a straightforward reflection of one’s biological sex. In Gender Trouble, philosopher Judith Butler argued that the link between the two was mediated by culture. While we perceive expressions of masculinity or femininity—the way we dress, speak, our sexual preferences—to be rooted in biology, they are in fact socially constructed. Through repetition and imitation we create the illusion that our gender is something deeply ingrained, but it’s really a matter of habit. The idea isn’t entirely new, and may date as far back as the 1966 publication of The Social Construction of Reality by sociologists Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann. But in the late 1980s and 1990s, the idea became vogue in academic circles, and started to affect the debates different groups of feminists were having.

This philosophical shift among “third-wave” feminists who viewed gender as socially constructed made the movement far more open to letting trans people into the fold. From the second-wave point of view—that of women who came of age fighting for reproductive rights and workplace equality in the 1960s and 1970s—including those who are not biologically women in the movement undercuts group solidarity. “Feminists have fought—are are still fighting—for women to be able to use frank and correct words for their sexual parts. Now we're not supposed to use the word ‘vagina?’” says noted feminist critic Katha Pollitt. “There is no way you need an abortion, as some transmen do, if you don't have a vagina. Calling it ‘internal genitals,’ as is apparently the preferred term, is just a ridiculous Victorian euphemism.” It’s not so much that shared plumbing guarantees a shared experience; it’s that, the way society is structured, being a biological woman comes along with certain types of social oppression.

The infighting can get ugly. While many second-wave feminists have embraced transgendered people as part of the movement, some, like Julie Bindel, have gone as far as to accuse transgendered people of reinforcing a problematic gender binary system by opting for expensive surgeries to make their bodies align more with traditional notions of what it means to be “male” or “female.” The University of Melbourne’s Sheila Jeffreys argues that transgenderedism is “deeply problematic from a feminist perspective and should be seen as a violation of human rights.”

For many, the kerfuffle over the “A Is For” advertising campaign shows just how useless academic debates about the nature of feminism are, and how divorced from the real-world problems women face. Abortion is, after all, a medical procedure only people with vaginas can have. Mentioning the vagina, labia, or uterus in the context of abortion need not be “bioessentalist”—these are simply body parts that are involved. While you may not need a vagina to identify as a woman, you do need one to have an abortion.

In the same way that third-wave feminists have broadened the movement by being more open to trans experiences, the “gender is a social construction” contingent of the feminist movement needs to relax and cut other feminists a break when it is necessary to talk about the female body. While not everyone in the broad feminist movement may have a vagina, a core constituency—or rather, the vast majority—does, and talking about female anatomy is crucial in fighting for reproductive justice.

 

Comments

The benefit is for abortion funding, and I'm pretty sure a vagina is a prerequisite for an abortion. Abortion is a biological concern not a gender one. Why should it be of more concern that using the word "vagina" excludes those who identify female but don't have a vagina, any more than that it excludes men?

Here's a thought: all this hand-wringing goes away if you change your concern to the treatment of "humans", from concern for those with some subset of biological and / or psychological and / or sociological traits.

I appreciate this article. It does take a turn partway through that really concerns me and that I would like to point out.

It seems like the initial situation was that many women, both cis and trans, got fed up with womanhood being equated with having a vagina over and over again, which is a very legitimate complaint for a number of reasons. I'm really glad this conversation is happening. I can't even count the number of times I've seen trans women stand up for abortion access, even when cis women at the same actions use horribly trans-exclusive messaging. It is an act of serious solidarity when trans women do this, and it is about time for cis women to act in solidarity with trans women as well. I agree also that people who have abortions deserve to not be non-consensually reduced to their vaginas, and that equating womanhood with having a vagina is harmful to trans men as well as to trans and cis women.

There were two things that came across to me as very problematic later in this article. One was the use of "biological woman", which implies that trans women are somehow not biological. This surprised me because I really liked the analysis of how language is important and powerful, and I felt like the beginning of the article for the most part did a good job of using appropriate language to describe cis and trans people. The other thing was the quotes from numerous anti-trans activists portrayed as representative of second wave feminism - certainly there is a vocal minority that claims transmisogyny as an inherent feminist value, but trans women and allied cis women are a longstanding and significant part of the second wave. My experience with second wave feminists who have been active since the 60s/70s is that it is not at all uncommon for cis women in this demographic to be or want to be strong allies with trans women (plus, there are many second wave feminists who are trans women themselves).

Again, I very much appreciate both this article and the original conversation. I'm really glad that pro-choice activism is growing and strengthening in this way.

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