‘What is a woman?” This was the question asked of the Lib Dem leadership hopeful Layla Moran late last month, on the radio programme Political Thinking with Nick Robinson. “You talked of giving straight answers to straight questions,” said Robinson. “Here’s a nice one for you, philosophical: what is a woman?”
There was a pause, before an answer that probably wasn’t as direct as Robinson had hoped. “Well,” said Moran, “a woman is a gender, it is a way to self-identify and there are lots of genders. There is male and that is biological. There is female, which is also biological. A woman is a gender identity which is more akin to being a man. Those are the opposites and then there is also non-binary, which is people who don’t identify with either.”
This seemed confusing to me. So being a man is akin to being a woman? How does that work? I asked the same question on Twitter – what is a woman? – and Naomi Wolf, no less, the author of The Beauty Myth and Vagina: A New Biography, answered that a woman is anyone who wants to be one. It is a personal choice. “Many men and trans people have thanked me for The Beauty Myth,” she wrote. “I didn’t write it only for readers born with uteri.”
The confusion continued on Twitter with a row over a tweet from Piers Morgan, in response to a CNN tweet reading: “Individuals with a cervix are now recommended to start cervical cancers screening at 25.” Morgan replied: “Do you mean women?”, and when Rosie Duffield, MP for Canterbury, liked Morgan’s tweet, she was accused of being a transphobe. Duffield then tweeted: “I’m a ‘transphobe’ for knowing that only women have a cervix...?!” Progressives who presumably want to win back those “red wall” seats called for her sacking.
I am dismayed at the persecution of trans people – and also at the bile directed towards women who are questioning a narrative in which our experience, needs and reality are too often overlooked. Why can’t we use the word “womxn”, someone asked on Twitter. It’s obvious, isn’t it? To erase the word “woman” means we cannot speak of our biology and our experience. Leftwing feminists, me included, see women as a sex class. American “choice feminism” was a disaster; feminism repackaged as capitalist attainment. The backlash is now here, and in some cases it comes in the form of an ideology that overrides the demands of women.
We don’t talk so much now about the terrible violence meted out to women – the appallingly low rate of rape convictions and the huge and growing incidence of domestic violence – because that would be to see women as still oppressed. And there is a popular narrative now that often says we’re not. For some people, victimhood has become the preserve of a tiny percentage of the population – trans and other seriously marginalised communities – who do indeed have a very hard time. But while their difficulties are recognised, women’s difficulties are considered merely the bleatings of privileged females.
If we cannot define what a woman is or name that experience, we cannot organise politically. As the radical feminist Andrea Dworkin once wrote: “Men have the power of naming, a great and sublime power. This power of naming enables men to define experience, to articulate boundaries and values, to designate to each thing its realm and qualities, to determine what can and cannot be expressed to control perception itself.”
For me, the debate around trans issues is not and never has been about toilets or changing rooms. It is about the right of women to define themselves in a system that is afraid we might do just that.
I will happily respect anyone’s pronouns and I ask other people, too, to respect the language that defines my life in a female meat suit. Men are never spoken of as prostate owners, or vehicles for their penises or testicles. I have never yet read a definition of “cis” that I identify with, even though, as a female whose gender expression matches her sex, this is apparently what I am. The fact is, when it comes to my appearance, I started wearing drag – makeup, heels, big hair – as soon as I knew that, in order to use my mind, I would have to appear on the outside entirely different to how I felt on the inside. Gender nonconformity has been an essential part of my life, as it is for so many people, whether this is apparent or not. I always liked the way the Stonewall activist Marsha P Johnson chose to call herself a “street transvestite action revolutionary”. She thought of herself not as a woman but as “a queen”.
All of us are a combination of biology and history, our bodies situated in a time and a place. I neither want to fetishise and essentialise biology nor deny it. It is different for each of us.
It is often argued on Twitter that the struggle for trans rights is the same as the struggle for gay rights. But, crucially, coming out as gay demands nothing from others but equality. There is now a demand from some activists – many of them not trans themselves; many of them men – that the class of women must be renamed.
I reject this. Am I more than a collection of body parts? Am I allowed to talk of my own life? Am I a woman simply out of choice?
What, then, is a woman? These days, I often find it is simply someone who does not agree to let misogynist men speak for us.
• Suzanne Moore is a Guardian columnist