Germaine Greer is right about trans-women

Germaine Greer does not think new clothes, new hormones, or sex-reassignment surgery can turn men into women (or, I assume, women into men).   She is right about that, and a Cardiff University controversy about her planned lecture this month is a tsunami in a teaspoon.

Of course gender is not fixed at birth. Simone de Beauvoir was right that no one is born a woman. Possibly, no one is even born female. Sex is cluster-concept, a bundle of attributes, some of which do not develop until puberty or later. And gender is another cluster-concept.  Gender is constituted by norms and values that are conventionally considered appropriate for people of a given sex. Gender is a lot more vague than sex, and a lot more historically and geographically variable.

But gender has another interesting feature.  It is path dependent.  To be a woman is for the pertinent norms and values to apply a result of a certain life history. Being a woman is not only ‘socially constructed’, as they say, it is also constructed by the path from one’s past to one’s present.   In our society, to be a woman is to have arrived there by a certain route: for instance, by having been given a girl’s name, by having been made to wear girl’s clothes, by having been excluded from boys’ activities, by having made certain adaptations to the onset of puberty, and by having been seen and evaluated in specific ways.   That is why the social significance of being a penis-free person is different for those who never had a penis than it is for those who used to have one and then cut it off.

The path dependence of gender is not unique. Many social categories are shaped by the way they come to take hold. It is one thing to grow up with English as one’s mother tongue, another to speak English as a second language; one thing to be born to privilege, another to be a ‘self made man’; one thing to be raised a Jew, another to be an adult convert. Admittedly, it would be silly to say that fluent learners of English are utterly different from native speakers, that millionaire parvenus have nothing in common with trust-fund babies, or that converts are simply not Jews. These things aren’t black or white. But by the same token it would be just as silly to say they are all simply white. And that is the sense in which MTF transgendered people are not women.

But that is Greer’s point. She says, ‘I just don’t think that surgery turns a man into a woman. (…) I mean, an un-man is not necessarily a woman.’ People focus on her first sentence at the expense of the second. Greer is not saying that MTF people are stuck being men, no matter how they feel, what they choose, how they are seen, or how they are treated. She is not saying that the oppression of transgendered people has nothing in common with the oppression of women.  She is saying that ceasing to be a man does not make one a woman. These things aren’t black or white.

Obviously, the fact that something is true need not stop people taking offense at it. But there is actually no evidence of widespread offense at Greer’s remarks. I called the controversy a ‘tsunami in a teaspoon’ because, contrary to what you might suppose from the press, the students were mostly untroubled by Greer’s comments. Not one in a hundred even felt moved to click on an anti-Greer petition. No serious opposition was mounted; no policy of exclusion was formulated. There was no ‘hecklers’ veto’; in fact, there was a pretty effective hecklers’ veto veto.

So this is all rather puzzling. Greer’s remarks are correct and are neither dangerous nor hateful. The number of critics of students who supposedly want to ‘no-platform’ speakers dwarfs the number of students who want to ‘no-platform‘ anyone.  Maybe the transgender tsunami hit the press, not because of some seismic event in our universities, but because commentators want threats to freedom of speech and inquiry to come from a politically safe source.   And what safer, softer, target than an imaginary recrudescence of virulent PC-ism in our student unions?

30 thoughts on “Germaine Greer is right about trans-women

  1. A good discussion about gender and social constructs, though you go off the rails at the end. A couple of thousand students signed a petition for her talk to be cancelled because of offense at her views which, as you say, aren’t offensive. That’s pathetic. And you don’t need to spend much time in cyberspace to see lots of ranting and raving about Greer’s “transphobia.”

    Liked by 1 person

      • …not having got a response yet, I’ll elaborate. What I see is one person asking Weinberg, “Do you endorse the whole post or just the paragraph?”, another saying “Your original post looked like it endorsed more than just that paragraph?”, and another person saying that your post contains a lot of offensive stuff. All of which is speech responding to speech. I can’t anything authoritarian about it, unless vigorous criticism is authoritarian.

        I also think that the criticism, far from being stupid, is obviously correct, but that’s more of a judgment call.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. “Being a woman is not only ‘socially constructed’, as they say, it is also constructed by the path from one’s past to one’s present.”

    And someone who has felt off since childhood in relation to their assigned role has lived a path. Unfortunately that doesn’t solve the problem of people who want to see things as binaries.

    It would have been interesting watching the confusion if Rachel Dolezal had been a white man identifying as a black woman. Somehow Dolezal has few defenders. Why?

    “commentators want threats to freedom of speech and inquiry to come from a politically safe source.” Actually, yes. Criticizing Dolezal is politically safe; agreeing with Greer is not. And many people remember the marchers for “free speech” in Paris but few of those seem to notice that speaking out for BDS is now illegal in France. http://forward.com/news/breaking-news/323207/france-court-upholds-bds-is-discrimination-ruling/

    (…)

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  3. (…)

    The claim that the oppression of transgendered people has nothing in common with the oppression of women seems incorrect in the light of everything that we know about intersectionality. Greer has a point, but she is wrong.

    (Incidentally, Greer didn’t help her point by making it personal about Jenner. To be fair, this wasn’t entirely her fault; Kirsty Wark, the the Newsnight interviewer, brought it up, to which Greer instantly replied, “Must you?”)

    What I don’t understand is when it became not okay to be wrong.

    Isn’t that what academics are supposed to do? You’re supposed to broadcast your theory to the widest audience, and defend it vigorously, in the knowledge that others will probably disagree and perhaps even show it to be wrong. I can’t think of anyone who has consistently done this better than Germaine Greer. Her consistent willingness to put herself “out there” and change her mind as needed is something we should all aspire to.

    While that remark of Greer’s was wrong, it was not transphobic. And more to the point, what she said should have been the start of a new thread of the conversation, not the end of it.

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    • I don’t think Greer claims that the oppression of transgendered people has nothing in common with the oppression of women. It obviously does. It also has a lot in common with the oppression of gay people, and the oppression of people of colour. That doesn’t make transgendered people gay, or black.

      Liked by 3 people

    • I thought her point was that the *experience* of trans women is not the experience of women. Menstruation, pregnancy, childbirth, breastfeeding, so many things that are distinctive to the experience of so many women and around which so much of feminist activism has centered, these are all things that someone who has been a man for 50 years and became a woman two weeks ago is not going to have experienced. And this seems just obviously right. So much so that it’s hard to believe anyone would contradict it.

      This article, by an old-guard feminist, also made many of the same points. And she also was pilloried for it.

      http://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/07/opinion/sunday/what-makes-a-woman.html?_r=0

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  4. Almost everyone has some views on any topic which are neither hateful nor dangerous, and it’s good that you should draw attention to the fact that this is also true of Germaine Greer. But, given that she has also written things like this:

    ‘Nowadays we are all likely to meet people who think they are women, have women’s names, and feminine clothes and lots of eyeshadow, who seem to us to be some kind of ghastly parody, though it isn’t polite to say so. We pretend that all the people passing for female really are. Other delusions may be challenged, but not a man’s delusion that he is female’

    I’m less puzzled than you are about why people are upset.

    If you’re confident that there’s nothing hateful about calling people ‘ghastly parodies’, I’ll defer to your learned opinion: but not without noting that others who are less deferential might reasonably feel otherwise.

    Similarly with ‘deluded’ – obviously, we shouldn’t stigmatize people with mental illnesses, but to describe someone in the vocabulary of mental illness is very often a stigmatising move. (Incidentally, this kind of rhetoric also strikes me as rather inconsistent with the more eirenic ‘these matters aren’t black and white’ line that you take when representing Greer’s position. So I wonder whether you are characterising her position accurately here.)

    Here’s a link for the article from which the quotation was taken, by the way:

    http://www.theguardian.com/sport/2009/aug/20/germaine-greer-caster-semenya

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    • Les, I agree with Brian inasmuch as I don’t think this is ‘an imaginary recrudescence’. There is quite a lot of this censoriousness about right now, both among actual student politicians and among the overgrown student politicians – the SJWs – who inhabit parts of the web. Their groupthink makes the student politicians of thirty years ago (parodied in The Young Ones) look pretty sensible. I agree with you, on the other hand, that a focus on this recrudescence mainly serves to distract us from much deeper problems we face. While we are fretting about the more comic symptoms of rampant me-me-me individualism, especially symptoms exhibited by daft young identity-politicians who falsely believe themselves to be progressives, we have less time to focus on the much darker aspects of contemporary capitalism for which these young people are shills or stooges. Squabbles about the cultural superstructure are what keep the economic base out of the firing line.

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    • Greer is a radical feminist. She’s said much worse things about men. I wonder if all the folks who are so outraged now were outraged then. Or do they only care about meanness, when it is directed towards some people but not others?

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  5. Hi Dr. Green,

    Your discussion of the issue in question, as Brian worded it, is illuminating. I was wondering what you think about my initial reception of what you wrote here:

    1. My impression is that there is an ontological dispute about gender implicit in this debate, but that more people are interested in spinning the debate as an issue of free speech or of transphobia rather than a need to get our ontology of gender right; but I don’t expect politics to ever know what ontology means. In any case, my second impression is that the ontological dispute has become a nasty, verminous verbal dispute à la Eli Hirsch. More precisely, parties to the debate argue over what constitutes being a woman, and they debate over whether any alleged necessary conditions of womanhood are, in fact, necessary conditions; of course, they talk over each other in disagreement, not always agreeing to the conditions that each side of the debate thinks is necessary.

    2. Dr. Green, you write: “in our society, to be a woman is to have arrived there by a certain route . . .”
    You fail to mention some obstacles to your thesis: When does a person arrive at being a woman? What are the relevant similarities or significant dissimilarities people face on their journey to being molded into what a society thinks exemplifies the female gender? I feel like these questions are worth asking because otherwise we run the risk of imagining gender as this tattoo first sketched and outlined at birth by society, filled in over time until it is complete and practically irremovable without extensive surgery that in most cases fails to convince people of the tattoo’s (gender’s) erasure or replacement. I call such a picture a risk because gender is never as real as a tattoo is, so there are some relevant dissimilarities implicit in that picture

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  6. I’m curious about how path-dependence is supposed to work here. Consider the following case:

    Carson was born in 1993. She has XX chromosomes and a vagina. She was listed as ‘female’ on her birth certificate. Her parents are both self-identified feminists, and they made sure not to impose gendered limitations on her. She was never forced to wear a dress or go around covered in pink. Her parents sent her to a progressive school with strict policies about gender-neutrality, since the teachers and other parents share feminist commitments. When Carson reached puberty, she did not have her period. She was diagnosed with Mullerian agenesis; she will never menstruate or be able to conceive a child. As a young adult, Carson chooses to keep her hair short and has a generally ‘butch’ appearance. Some people sometimes mistake her for a young man, but she confidently and consistently self-identifies as female.

    According to you, is Carson a woman? If so, please identify the ‘path’ that makes her so.

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    • Feminists who are critical of aspects of transgender ideology have a name for this time of derailment. It’s called “co-opting intersex narratives”, or COINing for short. Even if the phenomenon of intersexuality shows that there are some difficulties in application of the concepts “woman” and “man” or “male” and “female”, this really isn’t relevant because the amount of people who identify as trans far exceeds the amount of people who are intersex. It is far clearer that Catelyn Jenner is not a woman, but of course it’s becoming verboten to say what should be obvious nowadays.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Greer’s point is not that someone like Carson is not a woman; it is that someone like Jenner is not. She evidently believes that a person who is biologically one sex and mentally the other, is neither.

      But I don’t think that her position can be maintained. I think your question about the “path,” points to the conclusion that it is not the path that makes the man or woman, but the biology (putting aside those people who’s biology is indeterminate.)

      So when you say “She (was born with) XX chromosomes and a vagina,” that’s pretty much an end on it, to anyone but an academic. She’s a woman.

      And Jenner was born with XY chromosomes and a penis, so he’s a man. Cutting off his penis (assuming he ever actually gets that done) doesn’t make him a woman. Greer is right – just for the wrong reason.

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  7. I don’t think this is a convincing argument for excluding trans women. First, you acknowledge that gender is a cluster concept that comes with “a bundle of attributes” but then you only focus on the historical attributes that are unique to non-trans women. There are two problems with this:

    First, there is a semantic problem. If you acknowledge that gender is a cluster concept, why are the many actually shared attributes not sufficient? The whole point of cluster concepts is that not everyone needs to have every attribute. So why exactly do we need to think of the historical attributes that are not shared as necessary conditions? For example, why do you cite “having been made to wear girl’s clothes” as important and “new clothes” as not important? Why not consider the sub-bundle of attributes that is actually shared sufficient for using the term “woman”?

    Second, there is an ethical problem. Even if you were right that “woman” is currently used in a way that these historical attributes are necessary conditions, this may still be a harmful linguistic practice. If our current talk about women indeed excludes trans women, why not adopt a less harmful way of using the term “woman” in which the shared attributes become sufficient? Linguistic practices can be oppressive but this is no reason to justify them. This point is not new in the literature (remember Fausto-Sterling’s “First, Do No Harm”? Or Haslanger’s “ameliorative project”?). Greer’s attempt to exclude trans women as “parodies” of “real women” seems like a prime example of using philosophical tools to sell harmful linguistic practices as metaphysical truths.

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    • Many readers are concerned about the ethical problem David Ludwig mentions in his thoughtful post, and also another set of ethical problems.

      The first problem is that, if I am correct that our concept of ‘woman’ excludes MTF transgendered people, then it is a morally pernicious concept and should be reformed. I think it is clear that I neither denied nor affirmed that. I do assume that there is a fact of the matter about what our concept of woman is (and that it is not ‘in one’s head’) though I say that it is vague (and vaguer than ‘female’–a different concept.) But I obviously don’t think it is vague along the paths I mention. I think there is lots of evidence that ‘woman’ is path-dependent. No one thinks we could cure ‘gender discrimination’ in the bar by encouraging male lawyers to transition to MTF; most people, on discovering that an MTF person was once a man will revise or qualify a number of judgments and inferences they make about that person, and so on. Now, supposing I’m right, is it a matter of regret, and if so, how should we address it? I share the common view that we have too few stable and publicly recognised gender categories, and–with more hesitation–the view that these categories anyway just box people in. What to do? Make the boxes bigger? More boxes? No boxes? Our concept of race has similar properties, and I think that it is a matter of regret that we have that concept at all. I don’t see how it improves things if we modify the concept of ‘black’ or african american’ to include Rachel Dolezal. Here I favour no boxes. I’m also tempted by the view that, that ‘woman’ should also not be extended, since that entrenches the salience of the (morally defective) concept. So it’s no boxes or more boxes. I’m not sure we can get to no boxes–I was persuaded by one of Haslanger’s arguments for the salience of sex, and there is a conceptual relation between sex and gender. So I lean towards more boxes. Some TG/TS people feel the same way. They want to be accepted and recognised *as TG/TS*, or *as FTM* etc, and not boxed in to the binary at all. They feel it oppressive that, just because they are unwilling or perhaps unable to see themselves as ‘men’ they must therefore see themselves as ‘women’. I see merit in their argument. And also merit in the argument that we should always use the pronouns, predicates etc that people would like us to use when speaking of them. That is not just required by courtesy, but by respect.

      The other ethical questions have to do with the nature of hostility towards and discrimination againt TG/TS people, and the sort of remedies that we should pursue. I made no claims about any of that. I cannot defend the point here, but I think sex discrimination and gender discrimination (and sexual orientation discrimination) are different things. Of course they are related. An anti-discrimination measure useful in one area sometimes prove useful in others. But sometimes they don’t and sometimes they are counterproductive. (I’ve written about these matters elsewhere.) These are complex questions of political philosophy and legal strategy. None of the replies to my OP have so far seem to cast any light on the political-legal questions, at least not so far as I can see. And some of them are obscurantist, self-indulgent, posturing.

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    • Even if you were right that “woman” is currently used in a way that these historical attributes are necessary conditions, this may still be a harmful linguistic practice. If our current talk about women indeed excludes trans women, why not adopt a less harmful way of using the term “woman” in which the shared attributes become sufficient? Linguistic practices can be oppressive but this is no reason to justify them

      ———————————–

      I see great danger in making the word “harm” this elastic. It certainly has the potential to render a classically liberal politics impossible, and for all of its faults, it strikes me as the best politics we’ve yet devised. The others all wind up becoming authoritarian at one point or another.

      More Mill and less Marcuse is what I’m suggesting. At least if we want to remain a free people.

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  8. Dr. Green,
    People see what they expect to see. And while clothes “make the man,” they apparently don’t make the woman. It is true that “woman” is a product of social conditioning. But there are instincts, perhaps undeveloped, or perhaps atrophied, that every transperson feels; and these perceptions, archetypes, and instincts are not of the classic expectation of the gender they were born into.

    The issue is what to do about it. For a transperson, to not do something about it is live an invisible and practically unlived life. For everyone else, it’s really not your concern, or why is it? Why does every bloke and lassie think they are experts on someone else’s experience and what it means?

    If you woke up one day and deduced you were actually an exo-archeologist, it would not make you one. And that is the essential missed point in all these kinds of useless opinion pieces: Most anyone who actually looks at these folks, in depth, personally, eventually learns to see what they were experiencing and “gets it.” Transgenderism is a great example of existential experience. For everyone else, married to their own experience and projecting it on others, how would they like if it transpeople were able to create an exclusion zone around others’ gender identity?

    Be that as it may, apparently people are just not busy enough. I think the wise course is to honor and respect the heartfelt experience of all people, you, Greer, and everyone else. And we should work hard to understand you and how you got to be the way you are. In the end, it is only through understanding in an open-minded way that we can widen our world to include other perspectives.

    In the Americas, the “native” Americans were quite accepting and respectful of transgender people, treating them as honored members of their tribes. Perhaps that is an example that all of the high-flying academics can study in order to maintain the reservoir of respect that we have for them.

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    • I agree with you: if one day I woke up with the firm conviction that I am an exo-archeologist, it would not make me one. Nor could I become one by dressing like an exo-archeologist, changing my CV to create the impression that I am an exo-archeologist, etc. There is a usually a difference between ‘feeling like an X’, ‘dressing like an X’, ‘identifying as an X’ etc and actually being an X. I think that is true when x=woman.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. It’s funny, all of this argument about who is and who isn’t a woman is almost purely academic. While people argue back and forth about whether or not I, a transwoman, GET to use the labels “woman” or “female”, I just do… every single day. The people I interact with view me as a woman, treat me as a woman, call me “mom”, ask when I had my last menstrual cycle when I’m at the doctor’s office, open doors, and affix glass ceilings above me. From my perspective, whether or not I am a woman is academic nonsense, and has very little to do with my real life.

    I think, to deny me access to public women’s spaces (restrooms)- simply because I was placed in a certain category by my doctor and family at birth- would cause harm me and my children. It would be the equivalent of a scarlet letter, or the African car on the “separate but equal” train. I don’t care about privately-held “womyn’s spaces”. A private group has the right to define me any way they want. Go ahead, call me “a man” or “a transgender”… whatever you need to do to exclude me and feel like you’re with your own kind (whatever that means). I’m not interested in people who employ “one-drop” rules anyway (one drop of male privilege means you’re not a woman). I’m not going to force my way into spaces where I am not welcome.

    In my lived experience, however, I think of myself as a woman. I “feel” like a woman (and I definitely know what that means to me personally). I am a “mom” to my kids. And finally, I will fight tooth and nail for the public status of female/woman because I understand that the public-at-large is not a gender-studies class, and will never accept anything but the gender binary. It runs too deep, in every human society on Earth. I live in one such society, and if I want to be a participant, I use the agreed-upon labels. That’s the way it is.

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    • This strikes me as the right view. Life isn’t a philosophy class, and the question of how transgendered people should be treated cannot be determined by figuring out whether an MTF transgendered person is, or is not, best thought of as a kind of woman. I guess your last point–that the ‘gender binary’ can’t realistically be overcome explains why some transgender people feel such as strong need to be treated as cisgender people. But not all. Some think that asserting their (say) ‘womanhood’ just makes things worse. Maybe it is like those people of mixed race who thought that justice should not require passing as white?

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      • I think the trans community is complex, and includes people who simply want to blend and belong to the current social paradigms, and those who wish to challenge, change and/or destroy those paradigms. The motivation ffor transition ranges too, from those who feel they are innately cross-gendered (not unlike intersex), to those who are engaged in a pursuit of political/idealistic social change. I put myself squarely in the first group, and whether or not some people respect my insight or texperiences, I still live every day of my life as a woman. And society views me as a woman. My life is much better for it too. Less depression, more enthusiasm, better relationships, more opportunity, less internal conflict. That a human being is able to enjoy their life post-transition in a way they cohld never do before, that means something to me.

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  10. Thank you for an interesting post. I’m not sure if I agree that trans women aren’t ‘real’ women, but I do believe that trans women are not equivalent to cis-women. The trend towards the employment of the terms ‘trans’ and ‘cis’ only reinforces the sense of there being a necessary categorical distinction between the two. Also, something that is frequently missed when these issues is discussed is that gender is not just about commonality, it’s about exclusion. While the trans woman may wish to assert membership of the category ‘woman’, there are women who might wish to exclude the category ‘men’ (for instance, in a women’s refuge), so it’s not sufficient to say that ‘my gender is nobody else’s business’. This, allied with a shift (in some sectors) towards identifying gender as essentially metaphysical, existing independent of physical correlates of any kind, suggests to me that gender as a category will disappear rather than opening membership to any who want it. (The developed form of this argument can be found here:
    http://beattheprophet.blogspot.co.uk/2016/02/gender-categories-impossible-to-kill-or.html?m=1

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