Your Womanhood Isn’t in Your Womb - The Danger of Gender Essentialism

Artwork by Alexandra Mitrutoiu

"Womanhood is a state of being and an experience that is not solely contingent on either the ability to bear children or the possession of certain genitalia. Condensing womanhood to these arbitrary prerequisites supports the patriarchy, a system under which women are often perceived as mere baby-making machines "

The title of this article is self-explanatory and needs no further discussion for some. For others however, this very straightforward concept seems harder to grasp. Transphobia continues to dehumanise, exclude and kill transgender people, especially transwomen of colour. One thing that contributes to this discrimination is the promotion of gender essentialist arguments that are used to deny trans women their womanhood. 

Gender essentialism is the theory that certain traits and attributes are inherently masculine or feminine, which is used to define both womanhood and manhood as fundamentally feminine and masculine, respectively. Gender essentialism upholds binary understandings of gender, with ‘man’ and ‘woman’ being the only acceptable categories as they are supposedly determined by biology and complete opposites. In simpler terms, penis = man = masculine, and vagina = woman = feminine. Under this binary there is no room for trans, gender-nonconforming, and intersex people.

Last month, on her surprisingly-public-yet-personal Instagram account, musician Summer Walker posted a fake news article about two men celebrating ‘the world’s first anal birth’ after a successful ‘rectal-ovary transplant’ with the caption “lol. welp I guess us women and our wombs won’t be needed anymore.” These kinds of headlines serve the sole purpose of promoting bigoted ideas by spreading false and inflammatory information – falsehoods that are guaranteed to be sensationalised in today’s world. Summer’s response contains a common gender essentialist argument – that womanhood is synonymous with the possession of a womb, and thus the ability to bear children. Quite obviously, while her argument discredits transwomen, it also does a disservice to both ciswomen who cannot bear children biologically, and intersex women. 

Womanhood is a state of being and an experience that is not solely contingent on either the ability to bear children or the possession of certain genitalia. Condensing womanhood to these arbitrary prerequisites supports the patriarchy, a system under which women are often perceived as mere baby-making machines – useful only for their ability to have sex and subsequently children, oftentimes nothing more and nothing less.

Others argue that experiences of sexism and gendered violence are what characterise womanhood as both a concept and a lived experience. While ciswomen of course experience these things, this argument completely denies and invalidates the reality of transmisogyny that trans women face daily. The fact that trans women face gendered violence and discrimination regularly - as it is permitted by the systems under which we currently live - is exactly that; a fact. It is an objective and undeniable truth. We are all suffering here, some more than others, and it is unfortunately trans women who face unprecedented violence and descrimination in our society.

Trans women do not owe anyone ‘proof’ of their gender. These abstract and conceptual hoops, that are still somehow tangible and through which trans women must jump, should not exist. All gender essentialism does is maintain the existence of such hoops, in turn denying trans women their womanhood. In addition, synonymising womanhood with vaginas, which upholds the gender binary, forcibly includes those assigned female at birth (AFAB) that are not women – such as non-binary, agender, and genderqueer AFAB people. 

The policing of trans people and their bodies goes far beyond our everyday interactions, and digital conversations on social media. In the UK, the government has recently ruled out making changes to the 2004 Gender Recognition Act (GRA) that would make it easier for trans people to have their gender legally changed and recognised. Thousands of people have asked the government to allow people to change their birth certificates without a medical diagnosis of gender dysphoria. At present, the GRA requires that a person provide a medical diagnosis as well as evidence of living as their gender for at least two years before their birth certificate can be changed. However, the average waiting time for a first appointment at a gender identity clinic is 18 months.

In addition to this, following a wave of anti-trans media coverage, it was recently announced that thousands of trans people are to lose access to gender-related healthcare from GenderGP, a private healthcare provider. GenderGP often supports trans people that are facing lengthy waiting lists for medical care from the NHS.  Following an unfair report of a recent investigation by the General Pharmaceutical Counci, ClearChemist (GenderGP’s prescribing chemist) has told GenderGP that they are no longer able to fulfil their prescriptions. News coverage, including a Twitter thread from broadcast journalist and GP Faye Kirkland, on behalf of the BBC, drew negative and unwanted attention to GenderGP. An article from The Sunday Times reported that parents of trans children were using GenderGP’s services to ‘avoid some checks and safeguards that protect children who are referred for NHS treatment’, implying that parents were not acting in their children’s best interests, further sensationalising the topic of trans healthcare.

Transgender people face enough difficulty from the establishment without individuals proclaiming definitions of womanhood that purposely exclude transwomen and invalidate AFAB trans and gender-nonconforming people. These two circumstances merge and perpetuate a wholly unsympathetic and antagonistic environment for trans people, especially transwomen. None of this is to say that ciswomen with vaginas should not love and celebrate them and proclaim ‘Pussy Power’ should they want to. All that womanhood is, its very essence, cannot be entirely encompassed by experiences of having a vagina, childbearing, and sexism. There must be more to womanhood than this, especially when this excludes our trans and intersex sisters that need extra care, love, respect, and safety, perhaps now more than ever. There has to be more nuance to it than this – more room for flexibility and self-definition. Ultimately, endorsing the idea that womanhood has everything to do with having certain genitalia does nothing for anyone.

Article by Janiene Farquharson