Chelsea Hill, Queens University.
What makes someone a woman?
I know for me and many other women, it can be difficult to pinpoint what truly determines gender identity.
Back in October, Always, a brand that sells female hygiene products like pads and tampons. decided to remove the Venus symbol (which is associated with the female sex and femininity) from their packaging. The goal of the organization was to be more inclusive of trans and non-binary people, but this rebranding of their packaging sparked anger from some people. For those angered by this decision, it appears that the answer to the question of womanhood is simple: it is solely one’s biology that makes a woman.
Certain people are outraged because they feel that this decision effectively erases women, some even going so far as to call for a boycott of the company. In response to Always’ new packaging, one angry customer stated: “So that’s ‘Always’ boycotted in my family where there are five females. Men cannot have periods. Stop erasing women.”
This language is reminiscent of a certain ideological group known as Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminists or TERFs. People who associate with this group firmly believe that anyone assigned female at birth is a member of an oppressed class, and anyone assigned male is automatically an oppressor. As for gender, they question its existence for any purpose besides aiding in the oppression of women. In other words, gender is only a system which oppresses women by imposing femininity on people assigned female at birth. This reasoning allows TERFs to dismiss the concept of self-identification and therefore the existence of transgender people entirely.
The reality is that not all people who menstruate identify as female. The resistance to Always’ change uses the reduction of the female identity to biology as a way of disputing this reality. This practice dates back centuries and has been used time and time again to oppress women. For instance, assigned gender roles like the relegation of women to domestic life were developed due to the reproductive features of a biological woman’s anatomy. So why are certain women using this reasoning to fight for the rights of cisgender women? Groups like the Women’s Liberation Front or WoLF, who follow the TERF ideology have, been denying the idea of gender identity as anything more than “an ideology that has no grounding in science” to fight against the rights of transgender people, while simultaneously trying to advocate for the equality of cis-gender women.
In the WoLF’s debrief to the US Supreme Court for the Title VII LGBTQ Workplace case last monththey argued that “Legally redefining ‘female’ as anyone who claims to be female results in the erasure of female people as a class.” However, this argument fails to hold for anyone who sees gender identity as somethingbeyond one’s genetic makeup. The lived experiences of women go far beyond our relationship to our bodies and their physical appearance. Taking an intersectional feminist approach, we can consider many factors that influence the lived experiences of female-identifying people, such as race, gender, and socioeconomic status. Depending on our positionality, many aspects of our identity have either worked for or against us. So, women as a class will certainly continue to exist when we look beyond the scope of biological sex. The inclusion of trans men and those who identify as non-binary by Always looks to consider the experience of those who have been largely excluded in conversations regarding menstruation, not to erase the experiences of cis women entirely.
Getting your period can be difficult for anyone, but for many trans and non-binary individuals it can bring up a whole host of feelings. Along with the physical symptoms that some cisgender women go through, such as cramps, mood swings and breakouts, there are also emotional trials that diverge from the more universal experiences of menstruation. For instance, one trans individual recounts: “My period ruins my entire mood and often involves suicidal ideation, due to how strongly it magnifies my gender dysphoria.”
So, to all the people who are outraged by this decision, calling it excessive or unnecessary, it is important that you consider how your cisgender privilege has played a role in this view point. Inclusion does not look to erase the experiences of women, but only to consider the diversity of people who experience menstruation.
Barrett, Michele. Rethinking Women’s Oppression: A Reply to Brenner and Ramas. July 1984. 1 November 2019.
Bell, Jen. What it’s like to get your period when you’re trans. 18 February 2019. 1 November 2019.
Burns, Katelyn. “The rise of anti-trans “radical” feminists, explained.” Vox 5 September 2019.
Greep, Monica and Sanchez Manning. “‘Stop erasing women’: BOYCOTT against Always sanitary towels after brand ditched Venus logo from their products in response to Trans-rights campaigners who say men use them too.” Daily Mail 21 October 2019.
Hensley, Laura. “Always removes female symbol from pads to be more inclusive to trans, non-binary users.” Global News 23 October 2019.
Millhiser, Ian. “The Supreme Court showdown over LGBTQ discrimination, explained.” Vox 8 October 2019.