Don’t let sensitivity to transsexuals’ cause lead to a redefinition of what it means to be a woman

All the time, I encounter companies that run into language problems trying to describe themselves. A company that produces 95% of its revenues from metal fabrication will broaden their mission statement to encompass business lines that might produce negligible revenue. When common sense suggests the corporation just say, “we fabricate metal parts,” an attorney or board member will protest, “but that leaves out that little software company we own that hasn’t turned a profit yet”; a short mission statement thus grows to several paragraphs. The most extreme example was when a wishy-washy Westinghouse wrote some 30 years ago that its mission was to create value for shareholders, which pretty much could apply to any public company.

It seems as if some of the thought police are now stuck in the same tarry mess—trying to redefine a large group to accommodate the traits of a very small part of it. I’m talking about certain supporters of those who feel that their true sex is not the one manifested by their physical sexual characteristics.

In a recent New York Times opinion piece, Elinor Burkett, a journalist and former professor of women’s studies, gave several examples of language police becoming upset when someone implied that you have to be a vagina to be a woman:

  • The wonderful actress Martha Plimpton was flamed on the Internet and by Michelle Goldberg in Nation for sending out a Tweet about a Texas benefit to raise money for abortions that was called “A Night of a Thousand Vaginas.” People objected that Plimpton implied that the only way to be a woman is to have a vagina, which was “exclusionary and hurtful” to transsexual women.
  • Mount Holyoke College recently cancelled a performance of the groundbreaking “Vagina Monologues” because it offered an “extremely narrow perspective on what it means to be a woman.”

Wait a minute! I’ve seen a variety of estimates on what percentage of the population is transsexual. The numbers are across the board, and the newer the study, the higher the final estimate seems to be. But I have seen no study that estimates the transsexual part of the population as more than .3% of the population, and I’ve seen other estimates that those assigned the male sex who think they are female total a miniscule .027% of the population, which computes to just one in every 3,639 assigned males who believes she is really a woman. This total, by the way, includes all the transsexuals who have had what they call “bottom surgery” and now have a vagina. The number of transsexuals without vaginas is smaller still, in fact, statistically insignificant.

It doesn’t make sense to change the definition of womanhood to accommodate such a small group of outliers. I don’t see that either the “Vagina Monologues” or cleverly stating that only vaginas can undergo an abortion shows disrespect to transsexuals. Whether one says the “Vagina Monologues” is about women or about women with vaginas is the most moot of points since it would not be such a popular play if it did not speak directly to the human experience of all of us, regardless of sexual predilection or orientation.

Transsexuals who have taken the meds and had the operations are women—and they have vaginas. Those who haven’t taken the leap are transsexuals. As transsexuals, they deserve all the rights and respect that we should give all minority groups and individuals in the United States. I support their efforts to lower society’s prejudice against transsexuals, to educate the public and to encourage those who are confronting the possibility that they are not the sex assigned to them. But an insistence on twisting basic definitions that we have accepted for millennia not only irritates the centrists whose natural conservatism sometimes impedes their ability to accept social change. It also upsets long-term feminists and other natural allies of transsexuals. There is nothing about saying that a woman has a vagina that should upset anyone or make anyone feel less of whatever sex they identify with.

The more insidious aspect of the current problem of defining “womanhood” is the idea that someone who has secondary male sexual traits is a woman because she thinks she’s a woman. It is not a false leap in logic from “she thinks she’s a woman” to “she thinks like a woman.” In fact, if we don’t make that leap, we invalidate the person assigned the wrong sex.

Defining a woman by how she thinks, however, gives considerable fire power to those who believe that women do not have the emotional or intellectual capacity for certain positions, such as president of the United States, because it admits that there are differences in how men and women think. Feminists find that they have to make the argument that those traits that distinguish males from females have nothing to do with what it takes to lead a country or corporation or conduct scientific research; those intellectual traits are shared equally by men and women. This approach invites a careful or careless trepanning of the mind into a series of thought processes, categorizing these thought processes as “shared” or “unshared,” and then analyzing each of these processes to determine if they help or hurt one’s ability to succeed as a professional. Of course, point of view will determine the results of the analysis, as some might find a greater willingness to negotiate fundamentally sound or a sign of weakness, depending on the perspective.

It quickly gets pretty messy. The complexity of the final argument is likely to confuse or distract people from the main idea, which is that women are equal to men in capabilities and should have equal opportunities and success in society and in the workplace. But with the question of male-female differences in thinking seemingly validated by the presence of one fraction of a percent of the population, the best argument against the idea that women are inferior intellectually may still remain the record of men botching up things whenever they have been in charge.


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