“To have your cock cut off and then plead special privileges as women – above natural-born women, who don’t know the meaning of suffering, apparently – is a bit like the old definition of chutzpah: the boy who killed his parents and then asked the jury for clemency on the grounds he was an orphan.”
This is how Julie Burchill chose to characterise transsexual inequality in Sunday’s Observer. The piece was a follow-up to a fight between her long-standing friend and fellow journo, Suzanne Moore, and the “transsexual lobby”. In its deceptively plain and respectable typeface, the piece exemplifies the problem of populist feminist debate: introspective, self-referential, and happily couched within the gentility of leftist Comment sections, feminism is defined in the public consciousness by a small set of loudly proclaimed representatives. The debate is small and insular, and founded on the preservation of small and insular groups of interest. It’s reflective of a political sphere in which black women have their own distinct and separate niche, as though middle-ground feminism is effectively synonymous with a middleclass, white majority.
The recent history of feminism goes some way to explaining this state of affairs. Women in the media have, in the past few decades, admirably and doggedly kept women’s issues in the spotlight, and in referring to themselves as feminists, forwarded the idea of feminism as an integral element of daily politics. Yet as a result, the evolution of feminism as a public entity has been shaped largely in the discussions of a narrow media elite. The vast majority of the public aren’t interested enough, committed enough, or possessed of enough time to explore the happenings of global feminist activism, or youth feminist blogging, or intellectual feminist criticism. They get their feminism from the media, to the effect that the “ivory-tower” accusations so often levelled at leftist media come to colour the image of feminism; and feminism has plenty of that, without the Observer’s help. When “the issues” are referred to – rape conviction rates, the gender pay gap, or similar – the term “feminism” does not feature. It is used, instead, in pieces like Burchill’s, debating the internal politics of a self-defined world. As a result, feminism becomes easily separated from the issues, to the detriment of that great mass of activists who do their incredible and essential work under the unhappy banner of “feminism”.
Part of the problem is the nature of “feminism” as a political entity: neither disparate nor united; unsupported by a concrete agenda, or even common policies. The term means something different in every instance of its use. If a word is, in operation, defined largely by the way in which it is understood as opposed to the meaning intended, then “feminism” is almost always lost in reception. It’s paradoxical, then, that feminism has got a reputation for exclusivity partly because it is so diverse and universal. It’s impossible to find cohesion in an ideology that encompasses the interests of half the world’s population.
The answer is not to try. Cohesion isn’t necessary in feminism, any more than it is possible. Unity, community, must be maintained though, even where agreement is not. So often the “core principles” of feminism come down to debates between essentially compatible camps; which not only perpetuates a detrimental public image and detracts from the important interests of the warring parties, but also obfuscates the ideology of the movement as a whole.
Julie Burchill has made the feminist debate about herself and her cohort, pitting a false, generalised “us” against a false, generalised “them”. But the interests and opinions of transsexuals as individuals within a movement differ no more widely to the “average” feminist, than “average” feminist’s opinions differ to one another. A broad church must respect the individuality of its followers, and help unite the inevitable groupings it contains. Burchill, in attacking any interest that chooses to group beneath feminism’s banner, is guilty of defaming the larger, already embittered, company.
Feminism is founded on an immoveable principle of equality. If any element within the whole is seen to hold preference or primacy, or if any element is set below the rest, then the entire ideology is undermined.