Earlier this year (way back in March), columnist for The Nation Katha Pollitt wrote an article titled “Who Has Abortions?” Pollitt’s thesis was essentially that as some organizations shifted to move inclusive language around issues of reproductive rights, women were being erased. For instance, saying “pregnant people” as opposed to “pregnant women.” (Why “pregnant people?” Well, some trans men can get pregnant, some non-binary people assigned female at birth can get pregnant, and so on; despite being assigned female at birth, they’re not “women.” But we’ll get to more about that in a moment. Also, I highly recommend checking out this essay from a trans man who had an abortion.)
Her argument essentially boiled down to the fact that to the best of any of our knowledge, the vast majority of people in need of abortions are, in fact, cis women. That’s hard to argue with. It’s just one of a few articles she’s written where she’s taken the position that trans people are encroaching on feminism and women’s issues. You can read the whole thing over at The Nation.
After it was published, Cheryl Chastine, a physician who provides abortions, asked if I was interested in offering a comment for a post she was working on over at RH Reality Check titled “Cisgender Women Aren’t the Only People Who Seek Abortions, and Activists’ Language Should Reflect That.” I was happy to oblige, and sent her the below message, focusing on my view of where Pollitt’s argument veers away from exclusion on the basis of tactics, and into an area that might be actively transphobic:
So! Let’s take a look at this paragraph, for starters:
“The real damage of abolishing ‘women’ in abortion contexts, though, is to our political analysis. What happens to Dr. Tiller’s motto, ‘Trust Women’? There was a whole feminist philosophy expressed in those two words: women are competent moral actors and they, not men, clergy or the state, are the experts on their own lives, and should be the ones to decide how to shape them. It is because abortion gives power specifically to women that it was criminalized. How did Selina Meyer put it on Veep? If men got pregnant, you could get an abortion at an ATM. Restricting abortion is all about keeping women under the male thumb: controlling women’s sexual and reproductive capacities is what patriarchy is all about. Indeed, that women should decide for themselves is controversial even now. Although the Supreme Court ruled decades ago that men were not entitled to be notified if their wife was planning to end a pregnancy, some polls show large majorities of Americans believe husbands have a right to know. Once you start talking about ‘people,’ not ‘women,’ you lose what abortion means historically, symbolically and socially. It becomes hard to understand why it isn’t simply about the right to life of the ‘unborn.’ After all, men get pregnant too”
In this paragraph, Pollitt engages in what seems like an almost deliberate attempt to take the meaning behind Dr. Tiller’s message out of context. “Trust women” in its truest, most earnest form, is a promotion of bodily autonomy. It’s trusting an individual to make their own choices, and to eliminate gatekeepers. The individual woman (or trans man, non-binary person, and so on) should be empowered to make decisions about their lives, not the collective “women.” Taken from that point of view, from Pollitt’s framing, one woman should have control over another’s body. This is harmful, and in its own way, an utterly oppressive viewpoint.
Fighting for the right to have an abortion is a fight for bodily autonomy. That is what needs to be defended here. We’re not fighting to replace our male oppressors with female oppressors, as Pollitt seems to suggest. Should Sarah Palin have a say in whether or not another woman can get an abortion? No. Bureaucrats of any gender should be removed from any decision-making process.
Pollitt appears content to ignore trans people who were assigned female at birth simply because they don’t make up a significant (in her mind) number of abortion-seekers. Is that what feminism is all about? About ignoring groups, reinforcing stigma, and only fighting for the rights of the chosen majority? Her remarks, like those recently made by Patricia Arquette and Madonna, fail one of the earliest, most consistent goals of feminism: to achieve equality, and to fight back against gender expectations. “Well, this is what women do” is reductive, and actually reinforces gender roles. When people push for inclusive language, they’re fighting the stigma that comes along with being someone who doesn’t identify as a woman and yet seeks an abortion. When they push for inclusive language, they’re fighting to empower people of all genders to make decisions about their own body, not to hand those choices off to others.
Perhaps one of the most tragic things about Pollitt’s remarks is the fact that in discounting trans inclusion, she has essentially spit in the face of all trans people regardless of their reproductive capabilities. Abortion is an issue of bodily autonomy. Being trans is an issue of bodily autonomy. Abortion is a trans issue.
A number of states require that trans people effectively be sterilized in order to update their identifying documents. In many countries, that remains the case. That’s wrong, as it’s ceding power to a bureaucrat to make personal medical decisions. It’s always sad to see a self-described feminist make the argument that in simply trying to exist trans people are somehow aiding the patriarchy, when the reality is the opposite: trans existence and identities push back against social expectations, push back on the idea that someone else should be given the right to control our bodies, and pushes back on the concept that biology is destiny. By clinging on to existing exclusionary language, Pollitt and others are reinforcing gendered expectations and norms, and in a way, making the world a more misogynistic landscape.
So why am I bringing this up now? For one, I somewhat stumbled across that while going through other notes. Secondly, because yesterday Pollitt published another essay that seems to take a swing at trans people, and I just wanted to touch on that for a second. So here goes:
Her essay “Feminism Needs More Thinkers Who Aren’t Right 100 Percent of the Time,” sounds fine from the headline. I’m not right 100% of the time. No one is. (All yr favorites are problematic, right?) It quickly devolved into a full-blown defense of transphobia within feminism. (Also, it should be noted that throughout, Pollitt uses scare quotes around words like “transphobia” and “misogyny” when applied to the treatment of trans women.)
Throughout, she defends Australian feminist Germaine Greer, who became the subject of controversy after students at Cardiff University objected to Greer’s planned on-campus speech, and started a petition asking for her invite to be rescinded. As much of the media has done during this dust-up, Pollitt covered it from the point of view that petitioning the university was in itself an act of “no-platforming” Greer, infringing on Greer’s freedom to speak. I’m not about to get into a debate about whether someone using their free speech to protest another person’s presumably paid speaking gig is “silencing” anyone, but that’s kind of what’s been discussed.
“Why can’t feminists, like other people, be valued for what they get right—rather than declared personae non gratae for what they get wrong?” Pollitt writes. “It’s hard to find an intellectually curious, energetic writer or scholar or activist or human being who hasn’t said or written something very, very mistaken.”
I wholeheartedly agree with those words. 100%. But here’s the rub. Nowhere in the article does Pollitt state that Greer’s beliefs about transgender women are wrong. Maybe she doesn’t think they are. Maybe she agrees. Who knows? That’s her business.
Where I feel Pollitt missed the mark here is in how she described Greer’s words. It’s not as though she simply disagreed on policy or strategy or anything like that — but rather, against the legitimacy of trans people. Pollitt describes Greer as not “singing 100 percent in unison” with transgender women. That’s an understatement if I’ve ever heard one.
And while Pollitt neglected to include a single statement of Greer’s for her audience to consider, she did find it in her to point out that some people tweeted mean things at Greer, highlighting an isolated October 26th tweet from someone with less than 400 Twitter followers referring to Greer as “an insane old woman” who “should be in an old peoples home.” That’s certainly unacceptable, but comparing that to someone who gets paid thousands of dollars per speech, has a worldwide platform, and is filled with anti-transgender vitriol, that seems a bit unfair.
But anyway, as I was saying about what Greer has said about trans people (since Pollitt didn’t list anything).
Here are some of her statements about trans people:
“Just because you lop off your penis and then wear a dress doesn’t make you a fucking woman. I’ve asked my doctor to give me long ears and liver spots and I’m going to wear a brown coat, but that won’t turn me in to a fucking cocker spaniel. I do understand that some people are born intersex and they deserve support in coming to terms with their gender, but it’s not the same thing. A man who gets his dick chopped off is actually inflicting an extraordinary act of violence on himself.”
“I’m not saying that people should not be allowed to go through [sexual reassignment surgery]. All I’m saying is that it doesn’t make them a woman.”
“I think misogyny plays a really big part in all of this, that a man who goes to these lengths to become a woman will be a better woman than someone who is just born a woman.”
Undergoing sexual reassignment surgery is “unethical” because it “removes healthy tissue and creates a lifelong dependence on medicine.” (Yes, this is at odds with another statement.)
She argued that intersex athletes shouldn’t be allowed to compete (yes, again, I know that’s at odds with another statement), and added, “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.”
Trans women are “men who believe that they are women and have had themselves castrated.”
But yet Pollitt didn’t see fit to include a single example? That’s bizarre, dishonest. These statements aren’t an example of someone being “not right 100% of the time,” but rather someone who believes healthcare, legal protections, and basic human respect should be withheld from a certain group of women.
Naturally, Pollitt’s article became immediately popular with less than trans-friendly feminists. Meghan Daum, an LA Times opinion writer who argued that criticizing parents who refused to acknowledge their daughter’s existence as a trans girl (which eventually led to her death) “compounds the bigotry” wrote “YES! Thank you Katha!” Jill Filipovic, who defended a New York Times op-ed by Elinor Burkett that said Caitlyn Jenner wasn’t a woman, wrote “We need debate, not banishment. Yesss, @kathapollitt.”
But here’s the thing — My identity? My legitimacy as a woman? No, that’s not up for “debate,” and shame on anyone who thinks they have a right to delegitimize anyone else. You can’t debate a fact, and it’s a fact that I am a woman. It’s no surprise that Pollitt’s loudest supporters for promoting “debate” about the existence of trans people are themselves very far from being allies to trans people at all.
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