I’ve been tangentially following the flap at Pantheacon concerning a women’s only ritual. Now, I’ve never gone to Pantheacon and certainly wasn’t at the ritual in question; my comments don’t really pertain to that situation in one way or another. They’re just my own musings and meanderings regarding gender.
Once upon a time — starting in my teens and intermittently throughout my 20s — I was a Dianic Witch. In my 30s, seeking community and a path, I enrolled in Z Budapest’s Dianic University. These days, I’m a member of the Henge of Keltria and honor Gods as well as Goddesses; one, Manannan, is my patron and equal in prayers to Brighid, my matron.
Frankly, I think the Dianic path can empower young women to a profound degree. I learned my own worth as a female individual — escaping the trap that snagged many of my peers, who could only find value in themselves when they were deemed sexually desirable to and, preferably, in a romantic relationship with a man. By seeing the divine as female, I could see the divine in myself. An added bonus: to Dianics, the sun is as female as the moon, and thus I escaped the gender duality of Wicca that, alas, can reinforce stereotypes of female/passive/receptive/irrational/nurturing and male/active/rational/forceful.
To this day, I privilege female-created art, literature, research and music. It’s a counterweight to the cultural tendency to give more attention to male creations, although I also genuinely enjoy work created by men as well. All things being equal, however, I’ll grab the female-authored novel off the shelf first. It’s a habit from my Dianic days and not a bad one, either, in a world of gender-based power disparity.
Of course, there were aspects of Dianic tradition that concerned me. Diane Stein’s book, Casting the Circle, gave the impression that true “womyn” are lesbians with daughters rather than sons and even female pets. As a heterosexual married woman who has had and loved male ferrets, cats and the like, I find this utterly perplexing. There is also an undercurrent that demeans males, viewing them in very stereotypical terms: interested only in one thing, aggressive, warlike, rapists. Most Dianics are not like this, but on lists you inevitably run into the shrill voices that are.
And the restriction of Dianic practice to women-born-women discomforts me as well. Now, I have known a man — a heterosexual, average guy in feminist circles — who claimed that he was a woman as a matter of semantics. I think his point was to declare gender moot. That’s not at all the stance of the transgender people I’ve met, or the woman I once knew who was born a hermaphrodite, raised as a boy and then began her life as a female in college.
Gender is a complicated thing, forged of plumbing, chromosomes, hormones and brain structures. These factors don’t always align in precisely the same way. The lack of sameness isn’t incorrect or wrong; it’s simply a part of the complex tapestry of animal existence. To declare that transwomen aren’t “real” women is hubris; it’s assuming that we know the cosmic order in all its intricacies, variations and complexities. (Except that it’s never complex to those who judge, is it?)
What is a real woman? Is it reproductive capacity? If so, what about women who are barren, childless by choice, or sterilized via tubal ligation? Is it the plumbing itself? Then what about a woman born without a proper vagina, as the first Queen Elizabeth is rumored to have been, or without functioning ovaries? Is it chromosomes? What about women with androgen insensitivity syndrome, which makes them genetically XY but physically female?
The questions are endless.
This isn’t to say that gender isn’t real. We are a sexual species, after all, and need male and female to produce — or products thereof, as with in-vitro. The cultural roles are quite real as well, even if socially constructed. Just because a social reality doesn’t stem directly from biology doesn’t make it any less real.
I suppose the argument is that transwomen don’t share the common experiences of women such as menstruation, childbirth, cultural under-valuing, etc. and thus are not “true women.” But not all women share those experiences either, or in the same way. I’ve never been a mother and likely will never be, for example. The experiences of an upper class daughter of medical professionals in the West would differ wildly from that of a undocumented immigrant, a working-class Shiite in Bahrain, an African girl married off at age 12 to a man with a polygamous household. And I seriously doubt most women-born-women experience the sheer hatred and prejudice directed at transwomen.
If there is no tried and true definition of “real woman,” then what is the value of female-only space, however you define it? I think it’s the company of others who share your social and cultural background, and thus the valuing of that background. By honoring others like you, you feel yourself to be worthy of honor. You don’t feel assailed or shouted down by those with more social power. You are safe, held, comforted, listened to.
You can’t escape the dark side, however. As much as feminist circles like to tout that they’re open to all women, just look around: most will be the same racial background, social class, age, even body type. It’s the sameness that comforts, and perhaps that’s why transwomen are threatening. A woman of a different color or social status also would be threatening, but it’s not a prejudice that most “enlightened” feminists allow themselves to admit, and thus their discomfort would register in more subtle ways: the forming of cliques, slight social clues that shun the other, etc.
I’ve wondered whether single gender mystery traditions would fall by the wayside in a truly egalitarian society — one in which gender truly didn’t influence the perception or treatment of others, one in which people were not classed according to plumbing, chromosomes, skin color or ethnic background, but seen as fellow individuals worthy of honor. Granted, that’s utopia: the good place, but also no place.