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Artillery Row

A vision of victimhood

Feminists have to do better in the fight against trans ideology

Though I’m grateful for feminists leading the resistance against the encroachment of trans ideology in schools and the public square, I confess their vision of womanhood disappoints me almost as much.

Trans activists claim that a woman is chosen, not born. The so-called TERFs (a poorly chosen epithet, in an unusual misstep from the progressive propaganda machine — no wonder that its intended targets have happily adopted it when it sounds like nothing so much as “tough”) fire back the necessary retort: a woman is an adult human female.

This scientific definition is precise and verifiable, like a chemical formula. Water is two hydrogen atoms bonded with an oxygen, with a few exceptions like heavy water. Likewise, the reality of biological sex is stamped on our very DNA, with rare complications. The power of such a definition shows in politicians’ fumbling responses, as they try to deny the basic anatomical facts derived from it.

Bare facts can’t win back the hearts of young women

Biology gives us more than enough purchase on reality to debunk trans mythology, but it leaves something wanting. If all we know about water is its chemical make-up, what do we really know? In the realm of public opinion, bare facts can’t win back the hearts of young women deceived by gender ideology. Accordingly, feminists often augment this definition with an argument that boils down to, “Men can’t be women because they aren’t victimised as much”.

One could reflect at length on the tension at the heart of the feminist movement, which simultaneously affirms women’s mightiness and yet lobbies for special privileges and protections in recognition of our unique vulnerabilities. In the age of social justice, the two faces of the paradox have collapsed into each other, in an uncertain amalgam where declaring one’s victimhood equates with strength.

The result does not galvanise me. I reject the hopeless caricature of womanhood imagined by men donning mini-skirts and stilettos, because I affirm that the differences between the sexes are more than physical, more than environmental.

It is not biological determinism to state that human beings sharing the same genetic and anatomical make-up also tend to share less tangible characteristics. It is a statistically verifiable norm. The average woman is slower and weaker than the average man, for instance. As embodied creatures, we can trace this difference to biological factors: the distribution of muscle mass that allows men to deliver more force, relative bone density that renders women more susceptible to fractures and concussions.

We accept these norms to the extent that we recognise the need for single-sex spaces and competitions. When it comes to contact sports and rape crisis centres, feminists have led the charge in amassing critical evidence, figures and anecdotes to make the case for legislating accordingly.

Liberally-minded women are less willing to recognise sex-based differences in social spheres, like family and careers. Instead the conversation diverts into accusations of patriarchy, oppression and abuse. Women and men are no more indistinguishable in our social interactions than on the field or in a lab, however. Why else would not only women, but also male patients prefer female staff at crisis centres?

‘We are the bigger victims’ does not suffice

Without pretending to even attempt to exhaust the subject, I’ll offer just one possibility for a distinctive characteristic of womanhood: Women are more relational.

We are more likely to derive our greatest satisfaction from interpersonal vocations. Regardless of the field, be it physics or a nursing home, we gravitate towards collaborative roles. We are built to nurture life, prioritising care over strength. The implication of this is that most women will find more satisfaction in building a family than in amassing power and capital (unless, of course, our family, mentors and friends let us know they would be happier if we did otherwise).

The relational quality of womanhood is why I embrace “he” as the neutral pronoun in English. Say “she” and my thought is, who? “She” suggests someone specific, someone who exists in relationship to others. Woman, after all, has never existed in isolation. The first woman was also the first wife — the first man was only himself. Why envy him his solitude? He abandoned it gladly. 

Besides our relationality, we might consider how women show more affinity and desire for beauty, or that we incline to moderation whereas men tend towards extremes. The possibilities of particularly feminine virtues multiply once we admit they might exist. “We are the bigger victims” does not suffice as a rallying cry, or an identity. If we define ourselves by our oppression then, as soon as we achieve liberation, we disappear.

The clash with trans activism has focused public attention on whether men and women are interchangeable. Feminists have rightly responded that the differences between the sexes cannot be erased by plastic surgery. Now let those differences be something we can celebrate, so that when we encourage young women to accept themselves as the sex they were born as, we offer them a compelling vision of what that might mean.

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