Monday, 17 November 2014

The whole woman

The whole Germaine, 1971

I have a lot of time for Germaine Greer. The Australian author and academic, long resident in England, is always worth reading and often worth hearing. I confess I prefer the solid scholarship of her work on art and literature to the polemical rapier thrusts of her feminism, but for the reader there’s something to be got from everything she publishes, even if it’s a just a sense of outrage.

Her views on transsexualism are a case in point. Nearly thirty years after The Female Eunuch, she reluctantly brought out a sequel, The Whole Woman, “the book I said I would never write” (p1). She sees little advance in the interim: yes, the equality agenda has been pursued with great success, but at the expense of the liberation that was promised in the very name of ‘Women’s Liberation’.  One chapter of the later volume is devoted to transsexuals, and it’s clear from the chapter title that they (and we) are in for a rough ride. ‘Pantomime Dames’, she calls them (or us). The ‘liberation’ she hoped for in the 1970s was not the freedom for biological males to declare themselves female and, supported by the law, to insist on being admitted to the XX club. Greer expresses her transphobia with characteristic energy:

Governments that consist of very few women have hurried to recognise as women men who believe that they are women and have had themselves castrated to prove it, because they see women not as another sex but as a non-sex. No so-called sex-change has ever begged for a uterus-and-ovaries transplant; if uterus-and-ovaries transplants were made mandatory for wannabe women they would disappear overnight. The insistence that manmade women be accepted as women is the institutional expression of the mistaken conviction that women are defective males. The biological truth is the opposite; all biologists know that males are defective females… (pp64-5)

How does one begin to unpack that passage? First of all, I’m not sure whether a “uterus-and-ovaries transplant” into a male body is even technically possible. But there might be volunteers, if it were. Certainly, one of the categories documented by Blanchard among his patients is what he called ‘physiologic autogynephilia’ – sexual arousal to the thought of menstruation, pregnancy or lactation. Magnus Hirschfeld, the pioneer in this field, described in 1918 a case of what he called ‘pregnancy transvestism’, and later researchers report the prevalence of fantasies (not necessarily erotic ones) involving pregnancy and menstruation in small samples of MtF transsexuals and heterosexual crossdressers.

What baffles me is how she gets from there to her next proposition: that MtF gender reassignment is “the institutional expression of the mistaken conviction that women are defective males”. This is, of course, a belief with a long ancestry stretching back to the Greeks. The foundation of Galenic anatomy, which came under challenge from the Renaissance onwards, was that we all begin as female, and masculinity is a happy development out of and away from femininity; the female was seen as an incomplete male whose genitals were simply male genitals inverted and carried internally rather than externally. But I fail to see, in the twenty-first century West, any continuing “institutional expression” of such fallacies.

Like many crossdreamers’, my sense of self is quite the opposite. If we’re constructing hierarchies (and perhaps we shouldn’t?) then femaleness is at the top of it, the desired condition, at once a ‘higher’ state and a ‘deeper’ state than maleness. Yet ‘gender identity’, understood as a person’s inner conviction of being male or female, seems to play no part in Greer’s scheme unless it is consonant with their genitalia: “chromosomal sex” (p69) alone entitles a person to be called female, and no dosage of hormones or surgical procedure can relieve gender dysphoria, a “disease” with “no biological marker” (p64) for whose sufferers she plainly feels little sympathy.

Later in the chapter, after what feels like a lengthy digression about Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome (a condition in which the male foetus doesn’t respond to androgens and fails to develop masculine characteristics), Greer turns her fire on the sisterhood:

A good-hearted woman is not supposed to mind that her sex is the catch-all for all cases of gender ambiguity, but her tolerance of spurious femaleness, her consent to treat it as if it is the same as her own gender identity weakens her claim to have a sex of her own and tacitly supports the Freudian stereotype of women as incomplete beings defined by their lack of a penis. Women’s lack of choosiness about who may be called a woman strengthens the impression that women do not see their sex as quite real, and suggests that they too identify themselves as the not-male, the other, any other… (p73)

I have to say I have never in my life encountered a woman who viewed her sex as “not quite real”. The palpable sense of groundedness in their own physical sex is one of the qualities I most envy in cis women. Even if I were to transition, I could never hope to approximate that level of reality.

In a final twist in an argument that was never an argument but only a provocation, Greer contends that the transsexual makes an enemy of his/her mother:

Whatever else it is gender reassignment is an exorcism of the mother. When a man decides to spend his life impersonating his mother (like Norman Bates in Psycho) it is as if he murders her and gets away with it, proving at a stroke that there was nothing to her. His intentions are no more honourable than any female impersonator’s; his achievement is to gag all those who would call his bluff… (p74)  

The casual confusion of crossdressing and transsexuality betrayed by the Hitchcock reference shows how little thought she has given to this issue. The suffering that some TS people endure in coming out to parents here counts for nothing.

Rachael Padman

It’s a curious fact that Greer’s insistence on viewing trans women as simply men-with-a-problem places her in the same camp as the reviled Professor Blanchard. If these two individuals were ever to dine at the same table, would they find common cause on anything else? Her views have already lost her friends in academia. When teaching at Cambridge in the 1990s, Greer unsuccessfully opposed the election to a fellowship of the transsexual physicist Rachael Padman. Greer argued that Padman had been born male, and therefore should not be admitted to Newnham, a women’s college whose statutes only permit the election of female fellows. Greer resigned from the college’s governing body in 1996 after the case attracted negative publicity. While some transsexual activists contend that no distinction should be made between cis women and trans women, Padman herself believes it is important to be “realistic” and accept there are differences. As she said later in a newspaper interview: “It doesn’t matter how empathetic you are before or during transition or how well you are accepted, you have not been born or brought up as a woman and that inevitably makes a difference.”

We transgenderists of every stripe can never be ‘the whole woman’ – but “men who believe that they are women” (p64) are not the deluded pawns in some patriarchal power-game. And we are emphatically not “pantomime dames”.


David Batty, ‘A gender for success’ [interview with Rachael Padman], Guardian, 14 August 2004
Germaine Greer, The Whole Woman (1999)