As identity politics has aroused much acrimony, antipathy and argument over recent years, assertions that the identity of women is now being erased by legislation and language to embrace inclusivity and tolerance of trans women are taking central stage in a controversial, new drama playing out in the theatre of the absurd.
While biologically I am a woman, my identity is another issue altogether.
As a girl who loved football, climbed trees, played chess, studied sciences in senior school, delighted in derailing trains over a miniature track, built makeshift machines with a Meccano set and constructed houses with Lego, I enjoyed these activities as part of a normal childhood. Another indulgent pastime was spending hours playing with dolls, designing and making their clothes as well as attending girls-only birthday parties after school. Blissfully oblivious to gender stereotypes, I was a girl who could be a tomboy and kick a football around with the boys or a princess admiring myself in the mirror wearing my mother’s tiara and high heels.
Fast forward to obtaining my dream job as a cadet journalist in 1968 at Melbourne’s top selling daily newspaper, I soon realised my biology was a big negative in its male-dominated workplace. Reporting on football matches was prohibited much to the amusement of male colleagues and likewise crime, supposedly because these news topics were female unfriendly. Sexual harassment was rife, as were jokes about my ample breasts and invitations for sex. Playing along with the sex games when I was in the mood for flirtatious banter, I learned to stand up for myself and to say no with conviction. My work was always top priority. Aggressive and vociferous at times about ensuring women received a fair go, I was dissuaded about my prospects in Australia and believed working in England would offer greater avenues for advancement in the future.
Three years later at 21 when Helen Reddy belted out “I am Woman”, I roared loudly with her sentiments, joyfully celebrating my female identity.
Travelling to London 20 months later to enrich my journalistic experience, I had become even more aware of how my biology could interfere with opportunities and professional development. Defining my existence and destiny by being female was too often used as a simplistic justification for rejection. This reality initiated a more profound exploration of my identity, including the concept of identity itself, questioning how and why the word unwittingly implied a one-dimensional perception that denied one’s humanity. In particular, female identity seemed prone to impeding many women from reaching their potential. I was determined not to be one of them, changing my perspective completely.
In the UK, I freelanced for the first year, reading many books about women as second-wave feminism announced itself across the media. Then securing a job in an independent provincial TV company as a researcher, I continued delving into feminist literature and after two and a half years up north, returned to London as a researcher for a much bigger, and more prestigious, independent TV company. I was 26-years-old. To say I was shocked by its employment environs is an understatement. The unconscious assumptions, biased attitudes and generalised stereotypes about women were all pervasive, with most of the women working there seemingly chosen as decorative appendages for fragile male egos. I found myself having to work more than twice as hard to prove I was just as good as my male peers for a pittance of their wage. Sex discrimination was rampant and harassment a way of life. Being female started making me angry, and unconsciously, took less care of my appearance and was more surly with male colleagues
A few men then asked if I was a lesbian, their inquiry laced with disparaging intent, a pitiful irony as I had sometimes been debased as a slut in Melbourne due to my alleged promiscuity with men. When a 30something gay colleague was abused and bullied for his sexuality, I became aware of the underlying politics of homophobia and the nasty nature of sexual slurs. Neither he nor I accepted the implied contempt for our biology and appearance, leading me to read books about men to better understand relationships, identity and how gender generalisations could be so destructive for us all.
It was an unexpected surprise to find myself relating to the experiences and interests of many males, realising that my personality and lifestyle were in many ways, more typically male than female. This fostered a new appreciation of self that rendered my biology a mere superficial, if not insignificant and irrelevant, manifestation of my identity. Similarly to many young men, I was on my own, employed in a still male dominated workplace, without a regular boyfriend though frequently enjoyed heterosexual dalliances. Ambitious and financially independent with my own apartment, I eschewed the fairytale fantasy of marriage and children for my immediate agenda.
A jocular visit to a palm reader in a market one weekend confirmed my new understanding when he told me “There is a strong masculine streak in you but you need to bring out the feminine more!” My identity as a female, and my joy at that identity, was suddenly undermined by acknowledging this identity as incredibly limiting, proscriptive and a betrayal of who I really was. Being perceived exclusively as a woman was like wearing a social strait-jacket, with attached strings to manipulate like a puppet. I was so much more than the summation of my female parts with far more to offer as a well-rounded human being.
Abandoning the concept of identity itself, I replaced it by appreciating a sense of self that encompassed non-specific gender qualities, characteristics and interests that could not be easily boxed and labelled. Identity as a woman seemed a fraudulent fiction denying my complexity and individuality. I became a person instead.
Decades have since passed and realities for women both in the workplace and beyond have certainly changed, with equal opportunities more accessible and available, though a gender pay gap still exists. While sexual violence, harassment and abuse receive increasing public focus and attention, they still sadly permeate many people’s lived experience. Some things remain unchanged.
In those years, I was never a mother or married, with menopause been and gone and my sense of self as a single person only becoming stronger and less vulnerable to the limited understanding of identity politics. Certainly, I like my breasts, having a vagina and still enjoy sex with men, with my appearance as a woman important for me. I dress fashionably, eat healthily and exercise to stay slim and trim, though jettisoned my high heels from my shoe collection many years ago. That notwithstanding, having my biology and/or appearance represent my totality as assumed by others, seems unreasonable, irrational and illogical.
When transgender individuals became part of the 21st century lexicon, I briefly identified with them. While I did not suffer from gender dysphoria, I did feel my female body distorted the perception of others who ignored my androgynous mindset. Soon realising transgender identity conjured up a biological conundrum, I resumed identifying as a person that just happened to be female. However, the proposed language changes such as “pregnant person”, “chest-feeding”, “human milk” and even the abolition of mother and father, now circulating in the West in various parliaments, engender a far more confrontational and challenging attack on many women’s identity. All women are so much more than the summation of their physicality, with their intellect, ideas and imagination surpassing the boundaries of their bodies.
Trans women are clearly a minority, but the outrage expressed against their demands for more inclusive and tolerant language seems disproportionate and disturbing. The claim that the identity of women is being erased by these demands subsumes these women only identify through their biology, with words that reflect that biology paramount in their self-affirmation. Twentieth century British-Austrian philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein, stated: “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world”, suggesting these women are not only content to limit the language that defines them, but want to live in a world limited by that language. The traditional ideology of womanhood reigns sacrosanct in their world, with a vocabulary that opens up a new way of seeing obviously a threat to how they see themselves.
The trans semantics have on another level, seemingly extrapolated from the sublime to the ridiculous, as trans women will never lactate or give birth. That they may choose to consider themselves as mothers of a baby born to a biological woman should be their right, without eradicating the word or diminishing its significance for other women.
Perhaps allowing trans women to be perceived as mothers could actually help destroy gender stereotypes and enhance the acceptance of real diversity for humankind. At the same time, changing the language by legislation is a step too far for common sense, with trans women and biological women both deserving the freedom of choice to define their bodies and identities with words they want. Imposing trans linguistics on all women legally subverts that freedom of choice by being antidemocratic and downright dictatorial.
Identity politics about women illustrates biology is a major concern for millions of them and men too, intimating that Western culture has a long way to go to realistically and appropriately accept difference. It also seems imperative to appreciate that words do, and can, mean different things to different people. The word “love” is but just one example that connotes different meanings to different people. To hope the meaning of words is understood similarly by everyone is to misunderstand how words can be selected to shape and influence thoughts, beliefs and lifestyle, however unconscious. Today, words are often considered as homage to the PC brigade and more specifically, as smart spin. The truth is, language is complex and words can be misconstrued, misinterpreted and misjudged. The choice has to be individual.
Dismissing identity politics as a denial of my intrinsic self-worth, I continue to choose person as more indicative of who I am, acknowledging being happily female at the same time. How others perceive my identity is their problem, not mine.