April 10, 2017
By Krithika Pennathur
What does it mean to be a woman?
This is a question many women ask themselves everyday. We are overwhelmed with photoshopped images which tell us to have unrealistic body standards and with overly sexualized images of women in film. We are supposed to be intelligent, but also to know our place in a professional setting. When a woman is assertive, she is branded a bitch. Women are criticized daily on their personalities, motherhood (or lack thereof), and professionalism. To simply put it, women are constantly under the scrutiny of others, and subject to the opinions of others. With these mixed standards being put on women, it can be overwhelming. However, I firmly believe that it is up to that individual woman to define themselves and their womanhood.
To return to my question- what does it mean to be a woman? The answer is this: If you identify as a woman, you are a woman. There is no hierarchy as to, “this woman is more of a woman than this person.” It doesn’t matter if you don’t have a vagina; you are a woman if you identify as one.
I consider there to be three aspects of gender: identity, expression, and attribution.
Identity. I have found that people often confuse gender and biological sex. Gender is inherently different than biological sex, and the two should not be referred to synonymously. As a friend once told me, “Gender is what’s between your ears and biological sex is what is between your legs.”
Expression. There is a set of rules that is attached with a performance of a certain gender. This set of rules develops into the idea of masculinity and femininity. If men aren’t considered as masculine and women aren’t considered as feminine, they can be subject to scrutiny.
Attribution: Based on a specific performance of gender and/or knowledge of biological sex, you may be perceived as one gender or another. Mis-attribution of gender is incredibly harmful.
It is a rather simple concept, I would think. I would think that some of the most eloquent feminists of our generation would think so too. But one weekend brought a painful reminder that some people just support their cis-sters (cisgender sisters), as opposed to ALL of their sisters.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a Nigerian-American feminist and writer, gave a problematic interview on the subject. Apparently, she finds it difficult to equate the experiences of trans women with the experiences of women in general. She later explains that they had male privilege before switching their genders, which is why she ultimately believes that trans women aren’t really women.
One of Adichie’s famous TED talks stated that it is dangerous to believe a single story. However, Adichie is going against her TED talk and is now preaching a single story about trans experiences as a cisgender woman.
It is important to note that Adichie does not originally come from an American society. Sex-based oppression does not look the same as it does in American society. Coming from Nigeria, the women there have had to worry about issues such as Female Genital Mutilation and lack of an opportunity for a grade-school education. I, along with other US women, have had the privilege to sleep without worrying about these issues.
The problem goes beyond Adichie. The problem is with the ways in which cisgender people allow themselves to exclusively equate womanhood with cisgender women. This trans-exclusionary definition of womanhood is unacceptable. It is not Adichie’s place, as a cisgender woman, or even my place, as a cisgender woman, to tell transwoman how to live their lives. As cisgender women, it is our job to support transwomen by not speaking for them or over them.
As a person who identifies as a cisgender woman, I have a lot of privilege. I do not have to worry about gender dysphoria, which is the idea that I am being trapped in the wrong gender. I do not have to worry about using a bathroom that does not belong with my gender identity. I do not have to worry about backlash in the way I perform my gender and the wrong attribution of my gender.
To Adichie and all of those cisgender feminists who are trans-exclusionary, please check yourself and recognize your faults. You aren’t real allies and frankly, I’m not here for your exclusive feminism.
Krithika Pennathur is a sophomore English Writing (nonfiction track) and History major pursuing minors in Chemistry and Statistics and certificates in Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies & Public and Professional Writing at the University of Pittsburgh.