Sophia Kaufman: Questions raised with signs

Monday, January 30, 2017 - 6:04pm

On January 21st, millions marched. They marched specifically against Donald Trump’s behavior, rhetoric and inauguration, and marched in solidarity around the globe against the treatment of women worldwide. The march aimed to be as intersectional as possible, marching not just to bring light to the struggles of “women” as a single category but to acknowledge that different women face different struggles. Some think this was more successful than others; I’ve been trying to listen to what others have to say about it.

I’ve seen a lot of people struggling with what they saw as a focus on the celebration of “womanhood.” Many felt that some of the popular signs featuring images, cartoons or language around female reproductive organs or primary sex characteristics — not to mention the pink hats — were alienating to the trans women who showed up to march. Much of the coverage of the marches addressed how centering this kind of imagery and rhetoric catered exclusively to cis women. For anyone who doesn’t know, the definition of cisgender (according to Merriam-Webster) is: “relating to, or being a person whose gender identity corresponds with the sex the person had or was identified as having at birth.”

Transgender people face issues that cisgender people do not. Cisgender people don’t have to worry they won’t be allowed to use the bathroom they feel most comfortable using, or have people argue with them about what their “real” name is or face insistent questioning of what’s under their clothes or worry about being misgendered or scroll through a category on Netflix and not see any movies that represent them and their experiences. These are just a few I know, but the list goes on and on — and there are plenty of lists and personal narratives out there written by transgender people who have faced discrimination based on their gender identity firsthand.

From what I could see, there were two conflations in both the rhetoric around the march and the criticism of it afterwards that were getting in the way of productive conversations. The first is a distinction which has only recently trickled into common knowledge, and that many people haven’t come across in an academic setting because we don’t teach anything about it until college (at least in my experience): the conflation of sex and gender. A quick, simplistic crash course for those who haven’t encountered this idea: Sex is what one is assigned at birth based on genitalia and reproductive organs, either male and female. Gender is the social construct built around sex: boy and girl, man and woman. The concept that gender is a social construct — that there is nothing inherent to “womanhood” or “manhood” can be flooring the first time one learns about it, and still hasn’t quite reached public acceptance.

The second conflation I saw was of the privilege of cisgender women and having a female body. I think that cisgender privilege is often just named in a list with other privileges, and not actually examined enough on its own. I think that’s led to some not understanding that the privilege ciswomen have is not actually related to inhabiting a female body; in this case, having female genitalia and female primary and secondary sex characteristics has never been a privileged identity. They have always been abused and harshly regulated, from the history of sterilization of indigenous women and “corrective” rape of queer women, to the disbelief of the female orgasm and the marketing of douching for “freshness” or “cleanliness,” to the inaccessibility and harsh restriction of birth control, to the ancient societal importance placed on virginity tied to hymens and the perpetuation of rape culture. The list goes on and on.

In a lot of spaces, talking about the pain and struggle that comes along with owning a uterus or vagina is still taboo — for example, former Rep. Lisa Brown (D – West Bloomfield) was barred from speaking after she used the word “vagina” in a discussion about abortion. That was in 2012. A few days ago, Trump reinstated the “global gag rule,” making accurate and informed family planning aid (specifically abortion) to other countries incredibly difficult. There were examples of internalized misogyny even at the women’s march; I saw one sign at the Ann Arbor march that read: “I may have one, but I’m no pussy.” I don’t even know where to begin with it.

A lot of these issues don’t occur to those who don’t struggle with them on a daily basis. When I was in high school, I was involved in my school’s “midnight runs,” Friday nights spent driving all over New York City to give food, clothes and toiletries to homeless people on the streets. We collected donations from students beforehand — toothpaste, deodorant, soap and shampoo. The one thing that most of the homeless women asked for first was tampons and pads, which we never had. It just wasn’t something people thought to donate — which was especially interesting considering it was an all-girls school. New York only stopped taxing menstrual products last year.

Signs at the women’s marches that had pictures of uteruses or vaginas weren’t inherently trans exclusive. They were in direct response to not only several of you-know-who’s comments about and lack of respect towards women, most infamously, his “grab them by the p——y” comment.

There were signs at the march that were trans exclusionary — “the future is female,” sign, or “no uterus, no opinion,” — but they were more than that, for anything that reifies the conflation between sex and gender is dangerous and counterproductive. These signs should not be seen as celebrating these symbols as inherent to womanhood, but rather a way to reclaim the space and time needed to fix the issues faced by those who have them. I don’t think the solution would’ve been to not have those signs; these things can’t be taken out of the national conversation. Rather, there should have been more signs about the issues that transgender people, both transgender men and women, face. The conversation needs to be broadened and amplified, and the conversation around cisgender privilege more focused so as to eliminate the confusion.

There is nothing inherent to “womanhood.” The term itself is dubious. Sometimes it seems like the only thing that all women have in common is some level of oppression, no matter how complicated or tiered. I guess that’s part of the reason, beyond its inherent conflation, that I cringe a little inside whenever I see signs saying “the future is female.” I can’t help but think to myself, based on how “female” is treated still — God, I hope not.