Gender wobbles


I just read this (May 2006) post by Amananta.

It is a balanced account of the hostility between transfolk and radical feminists (more balanced than I could manage from my own privileged position of self-confidence), an exploration of the reason of things.

Comments are closed over there so I’m saying right here – thanks for this Amananta. I don’t agree with every word and after the recent furore right here on my own blog I’m not going to go into any deep analysis – but this is good and valuable. Thank you.

Less than two years ago my “opinion” of transfolk was one of extreme othering, of downright transphobia – I didn’t hate transpeople but I knew nothing about them and deemed from my place of ignorance that they were weird, freakish, incomprehensible.

Then I met, or rather came across, a transwoman named Alison. I saw her as a man in a dress. A big man in a dress, a hairy one, wearing – ridiculously – make-up and nylons while camping in a muddy field with a bunch of hippies. She said very little – she was attending a workshop / discussion about what it means to be a woman, and she was there to listen, not to speak*. I didn’t want a man in a dress in the Women’s Dome. I didn’t want her to be there, but I didn’t want to be the one who said “No”, either.

(*It turned out that she was much less intrusive, much less imposing, than a young woman who liked to dress as a boy and play with gender, a young woman whose presence was not put to the vote, and who was so busy denying that motherhood has any necessary connection with womanhood that she did not stop to hear that for many women, for me, experiences of motherhood and womanhood are in fact connected…)

I didn’t want a man in a dress in the Women’s Dome. Yet out of that discomfort, out of that politeness, came a process in which I began to question for myself what it means to be a woman, what it means to be trans. I began to question my own bigotry – and it was not an easy journey. (Here are some posts I wrote as I travelled: one, two, three.)

I found that transgenderism / transsexualism is not the weird fetish of disturbed freaks, but a genuine – and very difficult – lived reality. I looked at some of the statistics for mental health and suicide rates among transpeople – both those who transition and those who do not. I read the blogs of transfolk, mainly transwomen – some who are out in real life, some who are not. I looked into medical evidence about the causes of transgenderism and found that there is no certainty about the true cause – whether it is physical / biological or whether it is mental / emotional / social or whether the individual cause varies from person to person. Sometimes intersex biology is relevant, sometimes not. From all this I learned that gender identity is a real phenomenon, even if we do not all consciously experience it; and I learned that gender dysphoria (where gender identify does not match biological sex attributes) is a real phenomenon, even if few of us are unfortunate enough to experience it.

What I found is that the definition of class Woman is not a simple matter, and I am not the person who can define what a woman is.

Radical feminists – especially those who are separatists or who advocate (as I do) the need for woman-only space – often struggle with this. We often act as though we know exactly what a woman is, and that a transwoman is not a woman. Even if we recognise that the question is not straightforward, we still struggle with the inclusion of transwomen in women-only spaces.

Sometimes our exclusion is expressed by straightforwardly characterising transwomen as men, so that it is then self-evident that they should be excluded from woman-only spaces. This really isn’t a very profound analysis. I was saddened to see Debs using it the other day to justify the exclusion of transwomen from her otherwise excellent proposal for a national meeting of radical feminists.

Debs uses the following quotes (taken from the anti-trans site Questioning Transgender) to explain her position:

Womyn only space is time and place where the welfare of the class of womyn and its core constituents, females who were raised as girls and perceive themselves as womyn, are the primary concern. In this space the desires of others are secondary. If even one womon’s perception of safety from male violence is diminished by the presence of individuals who are or were or claim to be members of the class of men, those individuals should be excluded. If any womyn find it easier to try new things or to explore their lives without the presence of non-womyn, that should be allowed.

from “Exploring the Value of Women-Only Spaces” by Kya Ogyn

[T]he transgender movement has been taken so unquestioningly to heart by so many lesbians, feminists, and progressives, there is such dogma surrounding it, and there is such a taboo on challenging it, that I am unwilling to fudge even a little on how dangerous it is to feminism and women… Somehow we have a movement whereby men’s interests have found a clever way to siphon off lesbian and feminist energies into a liberal agenda of identity politics, individual freedom, and inclusion which make us forget altogether about challenging patriarchy. To the extent feminists partake in this, we have nursed a viper to our movement which is now out to destroy what precious little women’s space we have managed to eke out.

from “Men in Ewes’ Clothing: The Stealth Politics of the Transgender Movement” by Karla Mantilla

These writers, as portrayed in these quotes anyway, are not speaking truth.

They fail to consider at all the very first question, whether transwomen are in fact “men” at all or whether they should be acknowledged as members of “the class of womyn”. They assume that transwomen are “really” men, and take it from there. They posit a gender binary and place transwomen firmly, unanalytically, on the male side: pretty unradical for a movement that is supposed to be about questioning the gender binary. Ogyn asserts that “females who were raised as girls” are primary – without saying why. Is it simply because this is, numerically and in terms of sheer weight of privilege, the dominant group? If so then again this is hardly a strong radical feminist position. If not – what? (more on this below) Mantilla asserts that the transgender movement is dangerous to feminism and women because it involves the promotion of “men’s interests” at the expense of feminist energy. But, even if we overlook this blunt non-analysis of gender identity, we are not talking about diverting the radical feminist movement into a transgender movement; we are talking about the inclusion of radical feminist transwomen in a radical feminist woman-only space. The one does not lead to the other.

There are more subtle arguments in favour of excluding transwomen. The second part of that Ogyn quote is a good example of one of these: the appeal for consideration to be given to women who fear male violence or who may be discouraged or intimidated if they had to worry about the sneering of “non-womyn”. But again don’t we need to think and explore a bit more carefully before defining transwomen as “non-women”? And we need to remember also that transwomen are often often at huge risk themselves from the same male sexual violence and the same male sneering. (Some data, stats about young queers, a personal perspective.)

I do get that this is hard. I get that – especially for women who have been traumatised by men, women who have good reason to fear men, women who do in fact (as I once did) view transwomen as just men in drag – this is very hard indeed. Doing the right thing is often hard. It is still the right thing.

I keep making a connection in my mind with people who have suffered in war or conflict who are then asked to make peace with those whom they identify as their (former) enemies. We can understand if a person who suffered and was traumatised by long years in a prison camp, a rape camp, a concentration camp, if this person cannot forgive the group of people responsible for the suffering, is intensely distrustful and triggered by the mere presence of a person who looks like those people or shares their nationality… We understand, but understanding is not the same as condoning the organisation of, say, racist mental health spaces from which even innocent members of that group or nation are excluded – even members who were themselves traumatised, who fled as refugees, who reject their birth nationality and claim citizenship in their place of asylum…

I understand that this is hard. We want to protect those among us who have been hurt, who are still hurting. The question is not whether we want to protect women who are asking for safety. The question is whether we can actually achieve that by the exclusion of transwomen, and whether it is even acceptable to offer such protection when it comes at the expense of transwomen, by perpetuating the poorly analysed othering of transwomen, by ignoring the hurts and the violence that transwomen experience precisely because of their (desire to have) membership of class Woman. I don’t think so.

There is one more argument for trans-exclusion that I want to cover. It is touched upon in the Ogyn quote about “females who were raised as girls.” The idea is that transwomen, because they were raised as boys, cannot understand female oppression, that they have absorbed a degree of male entitlement that is impossible to reconcile with radical feminist women-only spaces. This is a big fat stereotype. If you tell a radical, young, woman-loving transwoman of colour that she is too dangerous and privileged to be allowed into your radfem women-only space then she will, if she is strong enough, laugh in your face. Rightly so.

Undoubtedly there are transwomen who fit this stereotype. I have come across them, or at least come across transwomen who present that way. They have a sense of entitlement that seems wholly incompatible with their membership of class (trans)Woman. A lifestory that seems to me not uncommon – and I appreciate that this is in itself a stereotype – is the story of a person who has lived and survived well as a man until middle age, a person who may be married or even have children, who is typically white and middle class, typically well-educated and/or fairly successful in their chosen (traditional, male-dominated) occupation. In middle age the person begins to feel safe enough, or desperate enough, to come out and/or transition. These transwomen certainly do have a good chance of ending up with major entitlement complexes – but it is not because they were “raised as boys” – it is because they have lived the whole damn white supremacist hetero-patriarchal male wet dream. They have experienced huge levels of race / sex / class privilege despite their (closet) transgenderism. It is hardly surprising if such a person develops an unhealthy sense of entitlement, leading to an exaggerated (but genuinely felt) outrage at the new experience of exclusion and oppression after coming out or transitioning. These are the transwomen who give transfolk a bad name: protected as they are by their whiteness, money, class, it is hard for them to have any real clue that theirs is not the only oppression in town. This lack of clue can indeed make them a potential danger – especially since they are likely to be the most powerful activists in the transgender lobby, the least desperate to stay under the radar, the most likely to turn up and protest their exclusion from women-only events.

Transwomen like this do, I think, exist.

Nevertheless, I still advocate the inclusion of transwomen in woman-only spaces. Even the entitled / privileged ones.

Let’s remember that many women – even self-professed radical feminist women – have entitlement complexes as well. Those of us who are (or in some cases have been) white, middle-class, well-educated, married, able-bodied – we too are indoctrinated into a sense of entitlement, despite our vaginas, that we must fight to recognise and abandon.

Let’s also remember that the sometimes disproportionately vocal group of entitled / privileged transwomen are not representative of all transwomen. There are some amazing, consciouis, wonderful, feminist transwomen out there. Women who have been trans since forever, women who have never felt comfort or experienced freedom in the “privilege” of being raised as a gender dysphoric boy. These are the transwomen that I want to reach out to, to welcome, to engage with, to just include.

I’d like to introduce a couple of them.

SabrinaStar, who sadly seems to have stopped blogging at Monstrous Regiment is a transwoman who showed me a lot of things. I am grateful to her. In this post on the right to be equally objectified she writes thoughtfully about why it is that transwomen squee about being called “pretty” and about why feminist WBW find that annoying.

Little Light, who I never did read as much as I should have, is another awesome transwoman. Her iconic prose poem the seam of skin and scales is so powerful and amazing that I’m going to have to insist you read it, or at least this excerpt:

What I say may be in a language incomprehensible, but there is a time for that, and it is right now, because this is a monster’s creed. It is for the cobbled-together, the sewn-up, the grafted-on. It is for the golden, the under-the-earth, the foreign, the travels-by-night; the filthy ship-sinking cave-dwelling bone-cracking gorgeousness that says hell no, I am not tidy. I am not easy. I am not what you suppose me to be and until you listen to my voice and look me in my eyes, I will cling fast to this life no matter how far you drive me, how deep, with how many torches and pitchforks, biting back the whole way down. I will not give you my suicide. I will not give you my surrender.

Read this one too. In it Little Light shares a story of what it was like one night to be (young and) transgendered and idealistic.

Read those blogs, read those posts and tell me which of these writers are “non-women”. Tell me which of them is dangerous, anti-feminist. Tell me which of them is labouring under the weight of unexamined privilege. Tell me which is a viper in our midst, too entitled / privileged to have any hope of understanding the radical feminist perspective. Can you do that? I can’t.

*********************************

It is time that radical feminism did some analysis of this transphobia. It is time we tried to understand why Alison dressed in drag. It is time we learned to recognise that the boundary between male and female is not what patriarchy has taught us, and stopped abusing our power as gatekeepers of class Woman. It is time we moved away from imagining all transwomen as dangerous imposters, men in drag seeking to infiltrate our movement, our spaces.

This is difficult. I know it is. If we renounce the privilege of policing the boundaries of woman-only space, then how can we keep out the truly dangerous elements? If transwomen are permitted entry to class Woman, then where shall we draw the line? These are difficult questions. I don’t pretend that I know the answers. But not knowing the answers is not a reason to cling to our WBW privilege, to continuing excluding and rejecting the feminism of transwomen.

Working out exactly how to make a trans-inclusive woman only space may be difficult, it may be a challenge. I would like us to try and meet that challenge. Or maybe, if we don’t yet know how to do that, at least to acknowledge that it exists… Anyone?

This quiz is really weird (I mean, the questions??) but I still feel compelled to report the results:

Should you be MALE or FEMALE?*
created with QuizFarm.com
You scored as Neither You think neither like a man nor like a woman. What you are you may decide for yourself. Most people will consider you strange, alien, weird or funny. You are probably quite interesting.

Neither
57%
Male
43%
Either
43%
Female
39%

The hotly-debated question of how transwomen fit with feminism generally, and women-only spaces in particular, is one I have grappled with a few times. And I still think it is a thorny one.

On the one hand, I can see how women who have experienced abuse and assault at the hands of men would become anti-male to the point of wanting to exclude transwomen from their women-only safe spaces, simply on the ground that transwomen have (to a greater or lesser extent) a male physiology. In fact, I can totally understand and even empathise with that emotional response.

On the other hand, that emotional response – while totally understandable – is actually somewhat bigoted, no?

Should transwomen really be denied access to women-only festivals and other events or places – even domestic abuse shelters – on the ground that some women-born-women cannot welcome or accept them due to ignorance and/or bigotry? And should transwomen really be prohibited from providing support to rape victims on the ground that some of them will be horrified by the idea that their counsellor is “really” a man? Or from teaching PE to girls on the ground that some of them, or their parents, will be horrified by the idea that the woman who oversees their changing room is “really” a man?

In the case of domestic abuse shelters or rape counselling services – perhaps we can’t fairly expect a traumatised woman to overcome her ignorance and/or bigotry and accept transwomen as safe allies – perhaps we should we forgive them their bigotry in these extreme cases. Perhaps, to some extent, we should even cater to that ignorance and bigotry by allowing them emergency spaces where they can dictate who they think is a “safe” entrant, even at the price of excluding transwomen. Perhaps.

But does that mean they get a free pass to exclude transwomen in less extreme situations such as women-only festivals and female locker rooms?

No. Just as women cannot justifiably be excluded from men’s clubs; just as lesbians cannot justifiably be prevented from teaching girls PE or gay men from teaching boys; just as disabled people cannot acceptably be excluded from Tescos. It just isn’t on.

***************************

Meanwhile, if you are still pondering – as I am – the question how transgenderism (I think that is a word, right?) intersects with the radical feminist objective of breaking down gender roles and barriers, this post from TransAdvocate is well worth a read, as well as the NOW article by Susan Cole to which Marti refers.

Updated to add: also, this personal account from Sabrina Star.

Medieval man's riding bootsI was speculating the other day about the drabness of male clothing. At work, they wear plain suits, usually in boring dark colours, with plain shirts and – if they really want to express their individuality and stylish good taste – a nice, subtly elegant tie. At leisure they wear, pretty much universally, plain jeans/trousers and a plain T-shirt or some variation on that theme. Men’s clothes are, generally speaking, really boring. How they suffer.

Twas not ever thus. Back in the olden days, men used to dress up in gorgeous colours and glorious finery. Dressing up was about making a show of your wealth, proving that you could afford to buy clothes that were coloured with expensive dyes or dripping with jewels. As such, since showing off was no doubt just as much a manly endeavour then as it is now, it was positively fabulous to dress up in bright and sumptuous manly clothes.

(See here for some examples.)

Men certainly didn’t wear the same clothes as women (unless they were poor enough to have no choice, that is) because I suspect that it has always been important in patriarchy for men and women to be demarcated by costume. I also suspect, and all the evidence of which I am aware bears this out, that women’s costume has always been more restrictive and less practical than men’s clothing, in order to emphasise and enhance their oppression. Nevertheless, there was certainly a time when men sought to express themselves through flamboyant outfits and wore beautiful clothes and fabulous jewels to show off their wealth.

My theory – which, I confess, I have not troubled to test against any actual historical facts – is this.

In the mid to late 17th century, when England was experiencing both the overthrow and the restoration of the monarchy, there was a real surge in protestant feeling and protestant religion – protesting against, among other things, the catholic church’s obsession with wealth and with the accumulation and display of riches. An important strand was puritanism, protesting against pretty much anything that was fun or pleasurable (which included dressing up in ostentatious finery).

My theory is that in the rough-and-tumble of this revolutionary thinking, this turning away from things of the flesh and from worldly pleasures, the pleasure of dressing up got lumped in with sex, got lumped in with sensuality, got lumped in with idleness and weakness and folly. For good reason – when a man could spend as much on a single pair of shoes as a whole village of peasants would earn in a year* there has to be something wrong in the world.

[* Figures may not be based on actual research.]

My theory goes further. Not only did sartorial pleasure get mixed up with the pleasure of sex, sensuality, and with the sins of weakness, idleness and folly – but the whole jolly lot got mixed up that old chestnut, femininity. After all, if you are a seventeenth century puritan seeking to locate the source of all evil in worldly pleasure, where do you look? Why, to women of course.

When all the fuss had died down and people quietly started returning to worldly vices, men managed to rescue the sensual pleasures of food and drink for themselves, and they certainly didn’t forget lust or covetousness. But they apparently forgot to reclaim their ancient right to dress in pretty clothes.

More fool them. I think it is no coincidence that men who do wear fun clothes are men seeking liberation from their own oppression. The flower power of the 1960s, the bright stripey trousers of hippies at a festival, the outrageous costumes in gay pride parades, and even the small rebellion of a snazzy tie in a grey office – they all reach out for what we women already know. Dressing up is fun. Men should be allowed to do it to!

Wrap your mind round this one...Under the Gender Recognition Act 2004, a transperson can, if they meet the defined criteria, obtain legal recognition of their “acquired gender”*. This is followed by rights to marry, get a new birth certificate, and generally (subject to a few exceptions, which I may get into another day) be treated in the same way as people who were born in the acquired gender.

[*I'm going to use the expression "acquired gender" as a kind of shorthand to refer to people acquiring, as a matter of law, recognition of what they believe is their true gender - and also because this is the expression used in the Act. I don't mean to suggest anything else.]

Before this Act, insurance companies were allowed to set premiums based on the birth-assigned gender of a transsexual person because there was no legal recognition of the person’s acquired gender. MtF transsexuals could be charged “male” rates for car insurance and life insurance, for example, no matter how long they had lived as women and no matter whether they were out in real life. No more. The current rules are that if you have a policy at the time when you get legal recognition of your gender then that policy can continue at the existing rates (based on your previous legal gender) BUT any new policy you apply for will have to be offered at the rates applicable to your acquired gender.

This has prompted some grumbling in the insurance sector. Life insurance is usually cheaper for women because they have a longer life expectancy. Some suggest that “just because a man has had a sex change operation does not mean his life expectancy will suddenly go up to match the life expectancy of a woman”, and therefore that it is unfair on insurers to force them to charge “female” rates on a “male” risk. Similarly, car insurance is usually cheaper for women and health insurance is usually cheaper for men. “Just because you’ve had the op” doesn’t mean your risk profile from an insurer’s point of view has changed – so the argument goes, such as it is.

I recently had cause in my professional capacity to explain to someone why this is all bigotry and horse-poo.

The actuarial statistics used to determine whether men or women are more likely to die young, have car crashes, fall ill or generally make a nuisance of themselves to insurers are based on HUGE samples. While they are statistically accurate at huge sample level, they completely fail to take into account individual characteristics. So much is obvious – statistics tell you trends, not truths. We all know of countless “exceptions” to statistical “rules”, particularly where these “rules” are as sweeping as actuarial tables tend to be. Actuarial statistics, however huge the sample on which they are based, are not destiny. And, in fact, there are no actuarial statistics on the life expectancy of transpeople of either/any gender. There are no actuarial statistics on the likelihood of a transperson falling ill or having a car crash. None.

So why should we assume that a transperson’s actuarial likelihood of making any given type of insurance claim should be based on their birth-assigned gender rather than their acquired gender? What factual basis is there for any such assumption? There is none. There is no objective reason to think this way. There is only bigotry and ignorance – and horse-poo.

(All this of course begs the question of whether it is reasonable and fair to assess insurance premiums based on gender characteristics AT ALL, but I don’t want to go there today.)

So, as I mentioned, I recently got the opportunity to explain this to someone in the course of my work, and perhaps to pass a little enlightenment their way. I found it extremely satisfying to do this, and had that warm glowing feeling of rattling patriarchy’s tool-shed again. Good old me!

And then I had the thought that is really behind this post:
Do I get a cookie now?

Girls Shorts setBoys shorts

Now that good weather is more or less upon us, I have been looking out for some shorts for Ariel – a couple of last year’s pairs still fit but she needed a few more pairs.

Thus, I have “discovered” that:

  • Little girls don’t wear shorts, on the whole. They wear dresses and skirts. It is surprisingly difficult to find shorts at all in the girls section.
  • Such shorts as there are for girls, unsurprisingly, are all pink and frilly and not very practical or even very funky at all. They are just: pale, cute, disarming. Did I mention pink?
  • You would NEVER find a nice practical, hardwearing pair of shorts like the ones in the second photo above in the girls section. Not never ever no-how.
  • Also, girls shorts are SMALL. I mean, a pair of shorts in “age 2-3″ for a girl is absolutely TINY compared with a pair of shorts in the same size for a boy*.

[* I have noticed the same for other clothes too. Recently I bought Ariel, in the same shop and from the same range, a girls T-shirt in age 3-4 and a boys T-shirt in age 2-3. The boy's T-shirt was bigger.Why is that? Is it because girls are supposed to wear skimpy, cute clothes while boys get comfy, practical ones? Is it because little tight t-shirts and little tight shorts, and more revealing clothing generally, are more appropriate to the sex class? Whatever the hell. They really screwed that one up, anyway - for surely these days no appearance-conscious toddler can look or feel sexxy in shorts so small that her nappy bulges out through the leg holes!?]

Fortunately, I am not shy of wading into the boy section to buy plain denim knee-length shorts and a multi-pack of baggy cotton ones in bright colours. Blue, red green – no pink though – although, you know, if these styles came in pink, that would be funky too.

I have nothing against dresses. I have nothing against pink. I will go so far as to admit that I actually like the colour pink. I even like getting a bit girly sometimes, if we’re in the mood – so does Ariel. We like our pretties!

Proof: the other day I spent actual money on a rare find in town – a nice pinafore DRESS (albeit in a sensible hard-wearing fabric and an unadorned non-puke-making beige colour) which Ariel wore today with a pink – yes, PINK – stripy T-shirt. So, no, it isn’t always boys clothes – just in case you were wondering.

But I really resent the lack of choice; and I like plenty of other colours too. It’s the lack of CHOICE that ticks me off.

Yesterday, Ofsted published a new report into the quality of “Foundation stage” education.

This is the education given to children between the ages of three and five, when compulsory education starts. It is primarily about learning through play, however the activities and learning are directed by teachers and progress is assessed, so it’s about a lot more than just giving them some toys to play with and some activities to do, and letting the learning happen.

To be honest, the whole idea of the foundation stage gives me the squeams. I just feel that children of that age are too small to be taught and directed and measured and monitored.

Do you tell them that they are being assessed, and that they expected to achieve certain goals by certain ages? In which case how do they feel about that? Does anyone ask them? Or do you do it in a quiet, underhand way without telling them what you are about? In which case, it strikes me as just a little dishonest and disrespectful. And at what point do you decide that a three or four year old child is “failing”? At what point do differently developing children get labelled as “average”, “failing”, “gifted”, “special needs”, “difficult” or whatever? How old does a child have to be before it is appropriate to judge whether he or she is “good at numbers” or “good at art” or “good at sport” – and, by implication at least, “not so good” at other activities?

When a person is old enough to choose that form of learning and that kind of assessment, I have no problem. But it does seem a little unfair to oblige children to undergo the experience. And it seems especially unfair when those children are so young and so undeveloped that they are particularly vulnerable to labelling and to being judged, rather than accepted, encouraged and supported unconditionally.

But that isn’t quite what I wanted to write about today, because it isn’t what the news has focussed on. We are back to the “girls do better than boys” question that so frequently arises.

Here are some quotes from the Ofsted report:Boytoy - Quad bike

6. Girls reached higher standards than boys in all areas of learning. The following extracts from inspectors’ notes are typical:

In language for communication, boys are performing less well than girls. Boys do not speak with as much confidence or show an awareness of the listener. Boys are beginning to talk in imaginative situations but are not as able as girls to take this very far.

Girls played for sustained periods in the nursery shop. They selected goods from shelves, talked to their babies and paid at the till. They collaborated well and took turns to fill shelves, manage the till and be the customers. A few boys played on a bus constructed with large bricks, although they needed adult help to adopt roles and extend the play, and quickly lost interest when the adult moved to another activity.

7. Girls applied themselves to table top activities more readily than boys and were willing to sit for longer periods of time without becoming restless. They were also keener to put up their hands to answer questions and to show their work. Boys enjoyed the practical elements of the curriculum and showed good spatial awareness, for example in reversing wheeled toys into bays and in orientating jigsaw pieces. They were less interested in recording their work and rarely chose to do this when they could choose activities freely.

8. While boys were more proficient in using a range of large equipment, girls showed better dexterity. In activities where they could choose freely what to do, girls more frequently used small equipment, sorting and playing with small world toys; boys preferred to use large equipment outside. Not all settings were aware of gender differences, or made the link between children’s choices of play activity and their progress in other areas of learning, for example, girls’ development of their writing through play.

Girltoy - Pink kitchen16. In their creative development, girls achieved more rapidly than boys because they chose creative activities more frequently and persisted with them for longer. There was a strong link between communication skills and creativity, particularly in imaginative play. Girls’ better linguistic development helped them to sustain imaginative activities and involve others in their fantasy play. Girls were much more likely to chatter to themselves and others whilst playing whereas boys’ play was sometimes silent and frequently done in isolation from others. Girls listened to each other and developed their play cooperatively through a shared conversation, frequently organising the roles that each would take and suggesting ideas to each other. One girl, seen giving out roles in the home corner, said: ‘I’m going to be dad and read the paper, [to a girl] you can be nanny and make the dinner, and [to a boy] you can be the dog!’

17. The serious point to be drawn is that the inspector observed the boy’s willingness to adopt the role of the dog: it was physical and demanded little engagement or talk. He lay on the floor, then sniffed around the home corner and barked. This observation was typical of many others where boys’ play was alongside the main activity rather than as a catalyst to it. On the occasions where boys’ play was more collaborative it was usually in ‘raiding’ games. In these activities, they enjoyed running around together outside, sometimes shouting, but rarely developing their play through talk.

Now, I dread to think what will be made of this in due course. I predict a good deal of chatter from the usual suspects (Daily Mail, anyone?) on the subject of why nursery schools are failing boys who “biologically” need to get out and run around on tractors rather than being forced to sit doing boring activities with the prissy girls. Ofsted itself seems to assume that there is something inherently different about boys and girls which makes their learning needs so different.

However, the clues to the real reason are within the report itself:

Firstly, let’s look at paragraph 15: “The rate at which children acquired language affected their progress in other areas of learning. Progress, particularly in imaginative aspects of the curriculum, was less evident where the children’s linguistic skills were poor. Some children engaged in imaginative play, for example, using the telephone to book Bob the Builder to mend a door but, for many children, their limited language restricts their ability take their play further.”

And paragraph 19: “Unsurprisingly, and reflecting the Rose review’s report, the level of support given to children learning English as an additional language had a direct impact on their achievement across the board. In settings where the children received regular, appropriate support in learning English, their achievement was good and their confidence grew. However, where practitioners and teachers thought that they would just ‘pick it up’, underachievement was considerable.”

What allows some children to progress faster than others is their progress in acquiring language. As already noted above girls had better language skills, and were consequently more likely to get involved in creative and imaginative play whereas boys were more likely to want to run around pretending to be a dog or shouting a lot without actually talking.

What is holding boys back is not that they are being prevented from doing the fun activities that they biologically prefer and forced to do the boring activities that girls biologically prefer. What is holding them back is that they are not being enabled to develop their language skills as fast as girls develop theirs. The answer is not to let boys run wild and ignore their slower language development, but to help them develop their language.

I am also interested to ask why boys are slower to acquire language than girls. Instinctively, I shy away from the idea that there is some biological reason, and that early language acquisition is a female sex characteristic. For one thing, I can’t see any plausible reason why nature would design her creatures in this way. I would suggest that there is a much more likely reason, in the way that girls and boys are differently raised.

By the time children get to the foundation stage they are already socialised into their gender roles. Take a look at paragraph 56 in the Ofsted report: “Regular and effective staff training about diversity and equality meant that adults recognised and understood children’s often complex and particular needs. In one setting it led to prompt identification of the way in which boys and girls were choosing stereotypical play activities. This was tackled swiftly: practitioners discussed with the children the choices they had made and encouraged them to try other activities.”

Children were already adopting stereotypical play activities – girls in the play kitchen baking cakes for their babies, boys on the bus driving to the Saturday game.

My belief is that this different treatment of babies and toddlers must lead girls and boys to develop their skills differently. In particular, it seems to me to be highly likely that girls are encouraged to develop language skills because it facilitates the kind of play that girls are expected to enjoy and the kind of interactive relationships which girls are rewarded for developing.

For example: Small girls are encouraged to chatter, they are given dolls and similar toys to play with which encourages them to interact and communicate. They are praised for being loving, for role-playing relationships and for interacting with people – and not praised for being little tearaways. They are told that they are and will be just like mummy who (by dint of her own conditioning) is probably much more sedentary and communicative than daddy. Small boys, on the other hand, are encouraged to run around and are given trucks and balls to play with, which encourages them to enjoy physical play with less interaction. They are praised for being good at climbing or sliding, for role-playing physical games (“I’m a pirate mummy!”), and not praised for chatting away to a doll or teddy bear. They are told that they are and will be just like daddy who, again because of his own conditioning, is likley to be more into football than conversation.

Is it any wonder that they develop different preferences and aptitudes?

Finally, I was also interested in an almost throwaway comment in paragraph 11 of the report: “On the whole, girls’ progress was more rapid than that of boys. Boys often needed to be encouraged to persist with tasks, especially those they found difficult.” This fits neatly with other remarks to the effect that boys seemed to need greater adult intervention and supervision for them to get the most out of their play activities.

I suspect that boys need more adult interaction for a reason.

Do they want it more because they aren’t used to doing things by themselves at home, and they are used to being a teeny bit spoiled? That might be true in some more overtly man/boy-centred households or societies, but I don’t think it is on the whole true here. If anything, I suspect that the opposite is true and that boys are crying out for the interaction that they don’t get at home. If at home they are expected to just get on with things, to play by themselves, to be independent “little men”, to prefer boisterous romps to actual conversations – it is hardly surprising that they want and need a little more support when it comes to trying different activities at nursery school.

The report does not mention anything about whether girls need extra adult support for more boisterous, “masculine” activities – which is a shame.

I strongly suspect that they often do need this, for a number of reasons, mainly based on my own memories and experience but also based on a working assumption that if boys need more support when doing “feminine” activities like drawing or puzzles then girls will need more support when doing “masculine” activities like running and jumping.

I also strongly suspect that they do not get it. For one thing, foundation stage education is not aimed at encouraging children to run and jump, but about preparing them for a school life in which they will have to spend most of their time sitting about reading, writing and listening. Thus, there is no incentive for anyone to encourage either girls or boys to develop their skill and confidence at more physical kinds of play. Games lessons are and always have been an afterthought, a sop to the people who complain about how our children are too fat and our sports teams are too useless. Boisterousness of any kind has never been something that schools have valued overmuch, and so encouraging it in girls is way down the priority list. And that’s ignoring the question whether female boisterousness may be viewed as even less desirable than the male version or whether it is simply assumed that girls are “naturally” quieter so that encouraging them to jump up and down and shout a lot would be not only unladylike, but also a pointless exercise in fighting biology.

No wonder so many girls hate PE.

Arrow leftI’ve been thinking a bit lately about transpeople.

I’ve been reading some blogs by transpeople, I’ve been reading something of what feminists have to say about transpeople, I’ve been rethinking some of the ideas I have previously explored myself (see here and here for early stumblings). Quite a lot of people find that first post of mine by googling “What does it mean to be a woman?” and it bugs me, because I’ve had new thoughts since then.

Cards on the table. I’ve never actually (knowingly) met a transperson in the flesh, other than a transwoman who attended this workshop I talked about in my first “What does it mean to be a woman?” post, but who was there more to listen than to speak. So a lot of what I say here is theoretical. And therefore of limited validity and usefulness. Still. I feel the need to say it and so, without further ado – other than an advance apology for any offence caused by my ignorance and general bigotry (plus a request for enlightenment if that should be the case) – here goes.

The way I see it, transpeople are an oppressed group.

Transmen and transwomen no doubt experience that oppression in different ways, and no doubt a lot depends on the extent to which, if at all, you’ve had procedures done to change your body to fit your identity, whether you live full-time in the gender with which you identify, whether you easily “pass” as that gender, whether you are out, how your sexuality fits in with your gender, and a whole host of other complicated things that don’t actually have a whole lot to do with your underlying personhood.

Similarly women, people of colour, disabled people, children and homosexual people (among others) are oppressed groups. Hell, men are oppressed too: the patriarchy oppresses everyone.

Again, how a person experiences that oppression depends on a whole load of factors unrelated to her underlying personhood. Women experience our oppression differently depending on our race, ability, age, sexuality, prettiness, marital status, depending on whether we are mothers, depending on our class and relative wealth, depending on all sorts of things. People of colour experience their oppression differently depending on, again, all sorts of things such as their sex / gender, sexuality, disability, class, and so on.

I could carry on like this ad nauseam, but I’m sure you get the picture.

The point is, most or all people fall into at least one oppressed group, and at least one privileged group. Because everybody has their own, individual collection of characteristics – some of which lead to oppression and some of which lead to privilege – everybody experiences oppression / privilege in their own, unique way.

As a feminist, I am kind of against oppression. With a bit of luck, by the time we’ve got around to overthrowing patriarchy we will have got rid of all forms. (Not holding my breath, mind.)

Being against oppression means that I am opposed to the oppression not just of women but also of people of colour, disabled people, homosexual people, chlidren and, bringing the subject neatly back to its starting point, transpeople.

However. I’m just one woman, with one woman’s experiences. I can’t fight it all.

I must choose my battles. I choose the one that touches me most clearly – the cause of women. Specifically, the cause of middle class white non-disabled women who are more or less heterosexual, with an emphasis on single working mothers. Women like me. I try to educate myself on the experiences of other women, and I hope I support their battles where I can – at least, I hope I don’t get in the way. That is not the same as thinking I can actually fight those battles. I can’t, because they are not my battles to fight.

So. Transwomen.

I try to educate myself on the experiences of transwomen. I don’t try hard enough to really understand their many and varied experiences – because, you know, time is limited. I don’t pretend to fight the good fight for transwomen, but I hope at least that I’m not standing in their way waving my own little Oppression Stick.

Back to a question I was pondering some months ago. Do transwomen belong in women-only spaces? Before, I was wary and unsure. Now I am not hesitant: yes, they do. Yes, they are welcome*.

[* I don't rule out the possibility of exceptions, of specific women-only groups where the inclusion of transwomen is not appropriate for some reason. I just can't think of any exceptions off the top of my head, other than groups such as PND support groups - which would exclude transwomen because they don't have PND rather than because they are "not women".]

I reach my conclusions in this way – by thinking about the intersecting oppression / privilege matrix in which we all have to find our place. (You see, there was a point to all that waffle up above.) By thinking about why it is OK to have women-only spaces but not OK to have men-only spaces; why it is OK to have spaces for people of colour, but not OK to have spaces for white people.

It is acceptable to have a space for an oppressed group, because they need a safe space to escape from and talk about their experiences. A woman’s voice is often silenced in a mixed-sex group. Similarly, in a mixed-race group, the white people are rarely interested in talking about the specific perspective of the people of colour.

It is not acceptable to have a similar space for privileged groups because they do not need to protect themselves from their non-privileged counterparts. They can discuss their experiences freely even in a mixed setting. And, moreover, to allow such exclusive groups merely perpetuates the exclusion and reinforces the privilege and the sense of entitlement.

Taking this one step further, while it is acceptable to have a space for an oppressed group, it is not acceptable to exclude from that group people who belong to an even-more-oppressed sub-group. In a disabled-people-only group, it would be wrong to exclude disabled women or disabled people of colour, even though it is not wrong for able-bodied people to be excluded.

Similarly, in a women-only group, it is wrong to exclude transwomen – just the same as it would be wrong to exclude lesbians, women of colour or disabled women. It is not wrong to exclude men, because they are privileged relative to women. But it is wrong to exclude transwomen because, even though their experiences of oppression are different from those of other women, they undeniably are a sub-group of the category “women” and because transwomen are not privileged relative to women in general.

I hope I am still making sense.

I had two other things I wanted to say.

Firstly, I would like to acknowledge that a transwoman may be a very unpleasant person, just as womb-carrying woman may be a very unpleasant person. Women-born-women do not have a monopoly on obnoxiousness. And, just as adversity and oppression and discrimination can turn a person into a sensitive and compassionate soul, it can turn her into a bitter and hateful, resentful sourpuss. But unless and until experience shows me otherwise, I refuse to believe the suggestions that I have seen made by other feminist writers that transwomen as a group bring their “male entitlement” – or other unwelcome male perspectives and characteristics – into women’s spaces and make those spaces unsafe for “real” women, and that therefore exclusion of all transwomen from such spaces is justified.

Secondly, I would like to make a specific retraction. I have previously suggested that:

So, it seems, transsexuals want to say: There are gender roles, and this is valid. I belong to gender role X. Unfortunately, I was born, biologically, as gender Y and therefore in order to reflect my true gender I need to switch sides… In other words, by everything they stand for, what transsexuals do does not break down gender divisions. It reinforces them…That means that, yes, I am wary of transsexualism as a principle (if not as a coping strategy used by individuals in seriously uncomfortable situations and in a society where relatively inflexible gender roles are a fact of life) and, as a principle, I feel that it is at odds with my feminism.

I take all that back. It was based on a very limited, nay a wholly inaccurate understanding of “what transsexuals stand for”. Some transsexuals may well uphold and reinforce gender divisions. Many others are more interested in breaking those barriers down. Further, transsexualism is not a “principle” – it is not an ideology that a person can “stand for”. It is a label used to refer to one small but important part of certain people’s identity. That’s all.

That’s all.

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