Female Trouble

So I got into a fight with Rebecca Solnit, but only because she thought I was attacking her.

She linked this article on her facebook page, and one of her commenters responded with,

Ummm. Lots of us female scientists u can ask too

And I responded to say that this comment was transphobic, because it implies that trans women are not female but male.  I also said that I disliked being referred to as “female,” because it’s sexist – and it’s used, very frequently, by sexist men to say that we are similar to spaniels and milk cows.  I’d quote myself here, but Solnit deleted that comment, and responded:

Ugh. A remark from a stranger so hostile and misdirected I deleted it (it included an ugly face of what I was supposed to be for not toeing her idea of a party line). The reply I decided to leave: The point is that people who now identify as women who have lived as men and vice-versa have unique first-hand experiences of being both major genders. Obviously I think women are experts on female experience–I, a female-type person, like, wrote a book about that–but trans people have a useful vantage point. And sometimes it’s what they don’t know that’s telling–like a person who formerly presented as male who doesn’t know she’s supposed to get out of the way of men and so keeps bumping them might notice that in ways women who’ve unconsciously just gotten out of the way all their lives might not. People accuse me (and anyone) of the craziest things. Because accusatory is just a habitual style of discourse nowadays. #newpuritans

(Right!  I mean, you just wrote an entire book about how toxic it is when men set themselves up as authorities on sexism, and how they respond when their authority is questioned.  You’re definitely not trans – if you thought someone had accused you of transphobia, why would you respond any differently?  Than you did, I mean.)

(The “ugly picture” was actually a picture of Quark, who’s a perfect, albeit fictional, example of a man who uses “female” in a sexist and dehumanizing way.)

And I responded:

I didn’t accuse you of transphobia, Rebecca. I wasn’t referring to you at all. I said that referring to cis women as “female” is transphobic – the comment immediately above mine did that, and it’s problematic for the reasons I outlined. It excludes trans women by implying that they are male. And there really isn’t a clear line between “male” and “man;” we don’t define gender as unrelated to sex, such that “male-not-man” is a valid category.

I _as_ a cis woman also have problems with “female” to describe women for a couple reasons: one, it really does have a history as misogynist language directed at women by men not much more progressive than Quark; two, it implies that discrimination attacks me because I am a female as opposed to a woman. I’m sorry if you thought I was hostile to Nika, and I respect your unfamiliarity with Star Trek, but I don’t think it’s respectful to comment on an article about out trans women scientists implying that they’re Other, and I think it’s important that feminists, Nika and myself included, not make feminist discourse a hostile environment for trans women. (…) 

Serial commenting is usually a terrible idea in situations like this, but please be aware that “female,” “genetic woman,” “biological woman,” and “woman-born-woman” are all used within transphobic feminist discourse to imply that trans women are men – delusional, misogynist, rapine, deceitful men. And to give that prejudice a kind of pseudoscientific legitimacy.

All of these words have their own history as their own kind of intentional slur, and they carry a lot of extremely transphobic baggage. I know that slippage between “female” and “woman” is normal (that’s sort of the whole problem), and not usually intended to be transphobic, and I know you are not yourself transphobic, but “female” does carry a lot of implications around our understanding of assigned sex as real and trans identity as false.

I also explained who Quark was.  See?

I stand by what I said, but I want to clarify what I mean about “female.”

I have heard people say that “female” refers to sex whereas “woman” refers to gender.  Sex is biological – or physical, or physiological.  (Sometimes it’s used to talk about trans identities and bodies, but in that case it usually implies hierarchy – say, between stages of transition.  It’s more often used to distinguish between cis (sex and gender) and trans (gender only).) Gender is socially constructed, or “internal,” that is, related to psyche and identity.  I have seen people attempt to maintain this distinction.

It’s false.

This is not to say that sex determines gender, or that trans people cannot determine their gender or describe it as real and immutable – or related to real human bodies.  Gender and sex are not meaningless categories.  It’s just that we don’t actually make any meaningful distinction between female and woman.  When we refer to something as female, we usually mean that it pertains to women; when we say something pertains to women, we generally assume that it is female.

Rebecca uses those definitions herself – it wouldn’t make sense otherwise to say that women were the experts on female experience.  Females would be, right?  Because those are two different things, right?  Terms like “female men” and “male women” wouldn’t seem so clumsy or counterintuitive – or offensive, somehow much more offensive than “female women,” let alone “trans women.”  She wouldn’t, when challenged, vacillate between “female” and “women.”

You can tell that we see “woman” and “female” as interchangeable, because we use them interchangeably.  See if these phrases look odd to you:

  • female clothing
  • female name
  • female hairstyle

Now consider these:

  • female appearance
  • female sexual behavior
  • female friends

Now look at these:

  • female genitalia
  • female reproduction
  • female infertility

The first set refers to things that are definitely socially constructed, right?  There’s nothing biological about anklets or “Bethany” or french braids.  High heels aren’t female; they’re associated with women.  The second set refers to things that might be related or attributed to biology but could also be related to social categories – and one of them would be odd if it referenced the former.  The third set refers to things that would seem to be related to biology, so maybe those are okay.  (And let’s just assume for argument’s sake that there’s this thick black line between “biology” and social construction.  I know, just give me a few paragraphs.)

But do any of these combinations seem strange to you?  Haven’t you seen all of them before, at one time or another?  Have you noticed any difference, or wondered why a magazine would print “female” when it so obviously means “women’s,” or gotten confused by the use of female in place of women?

Probably not, right?  We normally use “female” and “woman” interchangeably – so much so that “female” is the adjective form of “women.”  And we hardly ever map out any territory that belongs to “female” but not “women.”  Consider:

  • female manhood
  • female fatherhood
  • female brothers


  • female suits
  • female razors
  • female motorcycles

(Did you just picture a pink motorcycle?  Pink razors?  Bianca Jagger?)  How about:

  • female uterus
  • female pregnancy
  • female clitoris

We also quite often use “female sexuality” to talk about heterosexual women.  This is not because lesbians have fewer ovaries than straight women.

The only time we use “female” to mean something other than “women” is when we are trying to place an assertion about women beyond criticism – especially when we want to insulate ourselves from feminist critique or charges of sexism.

This is why “female” is so popular amongst sexist men.  Lots of sexist men use “females” to quietly imply that women are like animals.  (This is why you see “females” so much more often than “males,” and why it is so obvious that Quark is being really goddamn sexist.  It’s demeaning.)  Many sexist men use “female” so they can make their sexism sound authoritative.  This is why PUAs use “female” to describe women’s behavior: they want to make rape culture seem immutable, natural.

This is also why “female” is so popular amongst transphobic feminists.  “Female” is a way of saying that cis women are naturally women – biological women – whereas trans women are neither legitimate nor natural.  It’s a way of saying that trans women are male.  And it almost never occurs with any attempt to differentiate between “female” and “women,” or for that matter between “males” and “men.”  Transphobic feminists usually don’t bother to refer to trans women as women, or cis males as men.

And this is why we should all stop using it to refer to women, but especially when we’re calling some women more biological than others.  That’s not what “female” means.  It doesn’t mean some women have uteruses, or that they menstruate, or that they were assigned female at birth.  It means that some women are real, and those other women – those male ones, those masculine ones, those lesbian ones, those unwomanly ones – are not.


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