by Ciaran Hunter (he/him)
The links for Parts 1 and 2 of this series can be found at the end of this post
Earlier we touched on the concept of the Woman as an ideal marked by an almost divine Suffering, and I very briefly introduced the question that is the focus of this post. If one bases their identity around suffering, both the experience and potential for experience, then what effect does this have on that identity itself? If one’s very identity is so tightly bound to this conception of Suffering then will it not follow that to relieve suffering is to release one’s very sense of self? Once the stated goal of eliminating violence against women is stripped away, and once medical advances reach the point where women no longer suffer the pain or discomfort of menstruation, pregnancy, or menopause then what happens to the Woman? And how could this conception of the Woman, if it were to grow and become more accepted in mainstream feminism, affect the struggle for Liberation itself? Questions and more questions. I won’t pretend to have all, most, or some of the answers. Indeed, as a cis-male, I wouldn’t dream of telling women how they should or should not achieve their own liberation. However, following on from the stated logic of the TERF thought process, I think that there is indeed scope to explore how the Woman and women truly relate.
Firstly, and quite importantly, who does the Woman represent? Obviously, the Woman is supposed to represent all cisgender women, to the extent to which cisgender women become the only kind of woman. However, aside from the obvious sidelining of trans women, and AFAB non-binary and non-conforming people, there are severe limitations to the universality of this universal deity. This problem, one of representation as much as it is about the nature of gendered existence, is hardly a new one. Particularly for feminism. Judith Butler asked, in her book Gender Trouble (1990), just how stable the category of woman was if one wished to further political and representational goals. Representation itself is, necessarily, about the packaging and rationalisation of a people, a concept, or any politically constituted entity into something knowable. However, this packaging operates to hide the packaging process. The process of making something representable enough to be represented is glossed over in order to underpin the reality of the thing being represented. The representation of womanhood as pain and suffering takes for granted that there already existed womanhood in the first place. Thus, this Suffering Woman is only the representation of women if we already have a prior understanding of the very thing she is supposed to represent. And if we do already have a prior understanding, then the very processes which produced the Suffering Woman have produced the suffering of women. So, if we are represented by a manifestation of the very political tools that led our suffering, are we then not binding ourselves ever tighter to those processes?
Or, to put it another way, for the TERF rhetoric to have any sensibility at all it must already have a prior understanding by which it retroactively applies its arguments for representation. The Suffering Woman can only be an idea to bind women together if there was already an understanding of two things. One, that there already exists a universal category of ‘woman’ that transcends the boundaries of individuality. And, two, that suffering can be considered both an unequally distributed resource along gendered lines and at the same time a universally applied resource within the bounds of a gender defined by this suffering. That is, women are women because of an unequal experience of suffering, and the experience of suffering is unequal because women experience it unequally. In great looping arcs, this self-referential system of representation ties us in knots and draws the constraints of language tight around our struggling minds. At this point, it’s usual for the English language to give up and head off for a drink, mostly for the same reasons as to why feminism finds itself collapsing into a kind of prolix speechlessness when it comes into contact with its own boundaries. The very language with which we attempt to critically examine such concepts as ‘woman’ or ‘man’, has these understandings of gender inbuilt. Like a Gordian knot that requires us to untangle it before we can reach the sword to cleave it.
In this respect, it’s entirely reasonable to attempt to come to some kind of emphatic statement of who or what we are. Especially if the ‘we’ in question experience some of the worst examples of sustained and systemic violence in history on a global scale. Political activism can hardly hope to succeed if there is no target for that activism itself, liberation is all very well and good as an ideal, but there has to be something more concrete. Again, we’re in danger of slipping into the kind of mental gymnastics where one must constitute oneself through the very means by which one is oppressed. Grabbing the red-hot iron to fight against a branding. The necessity of operating within a system that has produced the very machinery of government through which your own oppression has been handily manufactured and preserved is one of the many necessary evils that abound. There is, however, a delicate balance to be maintained between turning the machinery of oppression on itself and accepting these machines as somehow apolitical tools. Every right, every legal case, every category is a result of centuries of social, political, religious, and legal context that has evolved in order to produce the contemporary context. Our very sense of ourselves as selves hinges on accepted notions of the body, of individualism, of medicalised orders of thinking, and upon the very capitalist system which these ideas serve.
The concept of ‘woman’ is not immune from such processes, indeed it’s fairly clear that it is a product of these processes. The very definition of the woman relies heavily, at least in our current climate, upon an understanding of biological sex. More specifically, on how well the body serves its purpose of reproduction, a purpose itself produced by societal constructions of value and kinship. Now, this is not to say that there are not, broadly speaking, differentiations between people’s external and internal genitalia and sex organs. However, the extent to which these organs constitute, or should constitute, the definition of gender is not something that exists independent of societal constructions. That our bodies are sexed based on the apparent external genitalia we present at birth is not an ahistorical or unbiased fact of nature. We need only look to the myriad of gender and sexual identities that abound outwith the minority world capitalist conceptions of sex and gender, and their imposition through colonial occupation.
Therefore, the Suffering Woman’s womanhood cannot be said to exist independent of culture, or to be securely tied down to independent scientific ‘fact’. Instead, her womanhood is a direct result of choices, both conscious and unconscious, made over the millennia regarding the ordering and division of humans from one another. It is itself a direct result of the differentiation of power, the division of the human into those who have it and those who do not. It is a continuation of patriarchal ideals, and the imposition of a fleshy prison onto women whilst men are defined by character and intellect. To truly throw off these shackles, or to at least make a spirited attempt at it, women may need to critically assess where their womanhood comes from. Shifting the focus away from the physical and the painful will allow for the progression of true liberation. One that veers away from a myopic focus on suffering as some kind of badge of honour, and instead turns towards the realities of vulnerability, fully embodying a conscious vulnerability that can remove the reliance on unequal distributions of power for the sake of so-called stability.
Ciaran is a graduate of religion (BA Hons) and Gender Studies (PGDip) with a particular interest in, and focus on, ideas of embodiment in queer theory, particularly how non-binary gender identities can illustrate our relationship to gender itself. He is also extremely interested in ‘Third’ Gender identities from majority world cultures, Queer themes in mythology and contemporary religions, and any opportunity to critique heterocisnormative assumptions. Forever striving in vain to find a book that collates Queer Myths into a single reference source.
Parts 1 and 2 of this series can be found here: