Oh, Ms. Greer

I’ve been doing work with and for trans women for about 15 years now. Arguably, I have met more trans women than most people on this planet. Older transitioners, young transitioners, passing, non-passing, those who pursue medical options, those who don’t, very feminine trans women, butch trans women, trans women who had children before they transitioned, trans women who had children after transition, trans women who are partnered to men, or to women, or to neither.

And the thing I tell most audiences at the outset is this: once you know one trans person, you know one trans person, & that is all you know.

So Germaine Greer has met a few trans women and she has made a decision about all trans women, and she has decided that trans women are not women. She has also clarified that she did not say this to prohibit trans women from getting surgery or other medical treatment, and also clarified that she thinks people who chose Jenner for the cover of Glamour were motivated by misogyny.

I am going to give her the benefit of the doubt and assume she is not making such a sweeping statement based on personal and anecdotal evidence. After that, we have only biology and theory as lines of reasoning for what a woman is. Let’s start with biology.

Here is what I think: trans women are not just women. They are female. This is a hang-up on the part of many feminists who are still stuck in some world where biology is destiny (oh, the irony!). Because if ‘woman’ is a social construct, and deBeauvoir was right, we become women by living as women in the world, by facing oppression based on gender. For some women, that social conditioning starts with birth, because of a vagina and a doctor’s declaration. For others, it starts at 15, or 45, or 75.

Trans women are aware that they are female and are meant to have bodies that allow others to gender them correctly. Harry Benjamin, when he started working with trans women, noticed that we had tried many ways over many years to convince trans women they are not women and that not only hadn’t worked but it caused undue (& for him, anti-Hippocratic) suffering. But bodies, unlike brains, are changeable. So he designed a way to make it work.

Because definitions of sex are based on only a very few things: chromosomes (which we now know there is a panoply of chromosomal variation, not just XX & XY but XO and XXY, etc.) and hormone dominance. The combination of those two is what creates a sexed body, but we also know that bodies with vaginas sometimes come with XY chromosomes and vice versa. We also really have no goddamned good idea what part of the brain “tells” us our sex, and mostly, for those of us who are not trans, we never face a disruption between our bodies/glands/hormones and the way we are socialized. But trans people do. Some experience a crippling, brutal disruption. They experience gendered oppression internally and externally, as it were.

Which is all my way of saying: ‘female’, like ‘woman’, is also an unstable category. Its very definition is changing, has changed, due to what we know about bodies, chromosomes, hormones, and fetal development, and what we know about brain sex even moreso.

Which is what leads us to theory for a definition of woman. As a feminist, my compassion is with those who experience gendered oppression of whatever kind. My intersectional feminism respects that all women experience gendered oppression in different ways: for black women, for instance, gendered oppression is racialized. For poor women, gendered oppression is classed. For trans women, gendered oppression is transphobic.

I don’t know why Germaine Greer missed out on 30+ years of gender theory which allows her to posit that woman is a stable, universal, and identifiable category. I really don’t. It hasn’t been for a very long time. I also don’t know how she can be any kind of post structural feminist and not acknowledge that socialization is what makes a woman a woman – it is, in essence, what we raise females to be, and it is made of how we treat women, including their right to self determine, to have bodily autonomy, and to resist definitions of woman-ness that oppress and restrict them.

And I don’t know of a group of women right now who are more restricted or oppressed by someone else’s definition of ‘woman’ than trans women (except, of course, black women and lesbians and childfree women and post menopausal women). ‘Woman’ is, after all, a category of patriarchy’s making, and it pains me to see a feminist borrow tools from the master’s toolbox and call them liberation.

Germaine Greer is wrong. And her speech, whether she admits to it or not, carries a greater resonance – and a greater burden – because we expect such remarkable feminism and knowledge from her. She is not dismissable nor stupid, but she is still wrong. Because everything I know as a feminist is built on inclusion; ‘woman’ is an alliance, not an identity you choose; it is the sum of all of the parts of what it is to live in a patriarchy and to feel no power and a tremendous threat of violence if you don’t follow the rules. And if there is anyone in the world who is experiencing those things right now, it is trans women. She is not just upsetting people by saying what she says. She is giving those who hate trans women permission to make their lives more miserable. And there is nothing, NOTHING, feminist about asserting the rights of the oppressors over the dignity and value of the oppressed.

Her stance is not just harmful and illogical but more than anything else it seems spiteful, exclusive, and lacking in compassion. It is not my feminism, and no feminist worth her salt would exclude other women based on how good or how bad they are at being women. And she is doing exactly that. Let her fade; let her be remembered for the good work she did do when she was still keeping up with the reading and while her fire was lit for ending oppression and not causing more of it.

There is nothing to see here. Ms. Greer has left the building.

10 Replies to “Oh, Ms. Greer”

  1. Thanks for that post Helen. Yesterday I was reading a Yahoo article on this and the comments that followed it, and participating in the commenting myself. Even by the standards of articles relevant to trans people it was a depressing experience. There were very few sane voices, and far more nasty ones than usual. I wonder whether Ms. Greer has any idea of what she has done. (Perhaps you could send her a copy of your post. Someone needs to try to get her to think, even if it’s only to stop her doing the same sort of thing again.)

    She could have made a much more nuanced comment on Caitlyn Jenner. She could have noted the way Caitlyn is being portrayed in the media, with all that emphasis on “glamor”, and then pointed out that the (over-)emphasis on visual appearance is something that doesn’t do women (genetic or trans) any favors. That would have been a sensible remark, a feminist remark, and a remark that most of us would have empathized with. I wonder whether thoughts of that kind were behind her remarks, even though what came out of her mouth was rather different.

  2. Thank you Helen for your calm and reasoned reply. I have to say I was disappointed to hear what Germaine said. It does our cause no good. Thank you for setting the record straight. Devon.

  3. Well, you already know I’m a shameless fan of anything you write, but this is a particularly robust critique of Ms. Greer and those who still are mired in old concepts.
    I am writing something , and what you wrote here helps make my point better than I ever could so I probably am going to quote and credit you.


  4. Thank you for this remarkable piece of writing Helen. It shows deep insight into the nature of trans gender and a very thoughtful position on the role trans people can play within the feminist movement.

    Biological evolution requires latent diversity within any species to maximize the probability of survival of random environmental threats. We are all biologically different in many ways for that reason thanks to both genetics and epigenetic expression.

    Evolutionary nature works in mysterious ways so the absolute binary will most likely prove to be an illusion at some point.

    There seems to be some neurophysiology acceptance of the concept of a “body map” that gives us that deep physical perception of maleness or femaleness about the body and of which one we feel we are.

    A difference between the sensation that this body map creates, and the reality of the physical body, generates the sense of dysphoria felt by trans people just as certainly as a photon induced chemical reaction within the eye begins the sensation of color.

    The rest of what has gone into the conceptualization of “woman” might well have been all a social-psychological phenomenon.

    Cisgender people experience a kind of inverted gender dysphoria experience when they hear a female voice coming from a male bodied person or a male voice coming from a female bodied trans person. Finding out what that is will be the new challenge.

    Getting too caught up arguing against the validity of conservative rhetoric is to give in to the planned senseless diversion of our energies; there are times however, when someone says something so wrong it must be countered.

  5. Well said; thank you. However, Ms Greer is repeating – with additional profanities – exactly what she wrote in ‘The Female Eunuch’ in the late 1960s, so it is consistent, and persistent transphobia, that has done huge harm over the years, quite deliberately, and despite many attempts to educate her.

    Back then, when I was transitioning, those views were the standard medical and psychological teaching, but medics, at least in the “first world” have moved on. It may be that Ms Greer has the sort of mind that doesn’t.

    Back then, the ambitious young controversialist that was the young Ms Greer, making her name in London after turning her back on Australia, would certainly have encountered a few trans women, who may all have seemed as she now characterises us all. There were bewigged and make-up caked elderly transitioners, drag artistes, and showgirls – employment was limited. As a child I dreaded becoming those. The others were rotting in asylums, their brains fried by ECT.

    But more diversities found ways to emerge, and Ms Greer has resolutely refused to notice.

    When I – a young feminist in the 70s – found what she had written in ‘The Female Eunuch’ It was shocking, and very dispiriting. But one learns that controversialists do what they must do, regardless. It is her stock-in-trade, the source of her fortune. She will never change. We must live regardless.

  6. At a time when trans issues are greeting so much more coverage (certainly here in the UK), it was so depressing to hear Ms Greer’s ill-considered comments. Thank you Helen for so eloquently defending our corner. As a trans woman it is very easy to feel frail and undermined and comments like hers are at best unkind, at worst damaging. Yours, Helen, give me strength and heart. I love your blog – it’s a constant inspiration. Xx

  7. It is pretty shameful (but not surprising) that someone like Ms. Greer, who faced discrimination and bigotry, would exhibit bigotry herself.

  8. Thank you OATC for making my points so eloquently.
    I remember dipping into her book ‘The Change’, I think it was and becoming enraged as a transwoman that she maintained that gender dysphoria was a lifestyle choice instead of there being at least potentially a choice about your dysphoria (e.g. live or die etc). I am habitually calm in nature and respectful of books and so it came as a surprise to me that I threw the book across the room in a rage.
    Germaine is considered an intelligent woman but in my experience of her over the past few years the evidence of her intelligence is lacking or perhaps replaced by this lust for the limelight. All rather sad.
    Dr Rosie Jones

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