The categories are equal in their relational existence

Lori Watson, Professor of Philosophy and Director of Gender Studies at the University of San Diego, asks: What is a “woman” anyway?

Radical feminism has theorized “woman.” One of its more salient contributions for this context is showing that what it means to be a woman is not an absolute; it’s relative.

The category “woman” and the category “man,” the groups “women” and “men,” are relational. One does not socially exist without the other.   For all the vexing about nature, social categorization is what is being dealt with here.   Men without women don’t exist as socially defined. Women without men don’t exist as such either.   The categories are equal in their relational existence. Unfortunately, such equality doesn’t extend to their social substance, although we are working on it.

The categories are relational.

No doubt women who have been socialized to femininity since birth on the basis of their sex organs do have a relationship to womanness that is in some important sense particular. But so, too, do white women, Black women, Latina women, Asian women, lesbian women, poor and working class women, differently abled women, even if it is not based exclusively on their sex organs. In other words, even if one commonality among all these groups is socialization to and subjection to femininity on the basis of sex organs at birth, that does not exhaust their relation to the category woman. Femininity varies along other hierarchies. Sojourner Truth reminds of this in her “Ain’t I a woman?”[5]

Moreover, gender nonconforming persons, whether trans identified or not, are typically confronted with the hierarchy of gender in often violent and torturous ways. Socialization to masculinity is itself about socially demonstrating one’s ability to dominate. Fail at it, and what are you? A pussy. A fag. In short, a girl, a woman, someone who allows “them”selves to be penetrated, dominated.

And you get called that. You can see and hear men doing that without even going outside; you can just watch all those macho reality shows on the Discover channel.

Now return to our observation that gender is a relational category. Where do trans women stand in relation to men? (For that is the question, not how do trans woman stand solely in relation to women, as is often treated as the only question.) The radical feminist analysis revealed that femininity under conditions of male domination entails widespread forms of discrimination including sexual access for men to women on men’s terms, often with impunity, including often with force. How do trans women stand in relation to these forms of male power? Trans women are often socially marginalized, locked out of employment opportunities for gendered reasons, excluded from housing opportunities, lack basic protections for physical safety and bodily integrity, aggressed against for their perceived gender transgression, raped in order to be taught the meaning of womanhood and for who knows what other “reasons,” forced to sell their bodies for sex for sustenance, and murdered for asserting their right to exist.   That starts to sound a lot like being a woman in this world to me.

In other words it’s being someone’s “bitch.”

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