Women born women?

As a controversial conference restricts entry to 'women born women', Helen G analyses this phrase

, 21 May 2012

‘Women born women.’ What a deceptively simple sounding phrase.

It’s also the entry criteria for a UK conference for radical feminists, (which Laura blogged about on The F-Word last week).

But this phrase just doesn’t make sense, in my opinion. It’s also wrong.

Type the phrase ‘women born women’ into Google and the first result will take you to Wikipedia, which says:

The term was developed during second-wave feminism to designate spaces for, by, and about women who were identified as female at birth, then raised as girls, and then who chose to live as women.

If we accept gender is ‘gradually acquired’ – rather than a biological absolute – then it can therefore be subject to change

You might think that’s clear enough but, for me, it immediately begs the question, “What’s a woman?”

From an ideological perspective, I immediately think of the famous quote by the feminist theorist Simone de Beauvoir, who said in The Second Sex, her seminal 1949 work of feminist theory:

One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.

An early book jacket for The Second SexThis was subsequently interpreted by the philosopher Judith Butler as making a distinction between sex and gender. Gender, she argued, is “an aspect of identity which is ‘gradually acquired'”.

If we accept gender is ‘gradually acquired’ – rather than a biological absolute – then it is not immutable, rather it is fluid and can therefore be subject to change.

If my interpretation is correct, then the phrase ‘women born women’, as it is used today by some second-wave feminists, appears to deny that gender is socially constructed at all.

Perhaps, then, the term ‘women’ is meant to be taken as referring to sex, rather than gender? After all, the two terms have long been used interchangeably by many people, so those who use ‘women born women’ so freely wouldn’t be alone in that misunderstanding.

However, I find that hard to accept when it comes from people who would have us believe they have an in-depth knowledge of gender issues by virtue of being feminists.

Babies are born, not women (or men, or any other gender)

After all, the separation of sex and gender is nothing new, either. As the historian Alice Dreger noted in her essay ‘Doctors containing hermaphrodites: the Victorian legacy‘, it’s been around since at least the early 1880s, if not longer:

Increasingly as the 19th century and then the 20th century progressed, medical and scientific men did all they could, conceptually and practically, to limit each and every body to a single sex. In the 19th century it wasn’t enough to just pick; the sex assigned had to be what they called the ‘true sex’ of the body. Every body was assumed likely to have a single true sex, male or female, a true sex that could be masked by ambiguous anatomy or ‘strange’ behavior, but unmasked by the able medical man…

The clinical problem was how to figure out what each person’s true sex was. The combinations could be quite confusing – breasts on men, beards on women, genitals that seemed to be a little of both or a lot of neither. Medical men fretted over cases in which so many traits seemed to contradict the ‘sex’ of other traits, traits including voice pitch, genitalia, hair distribution, fingernail quality, breast development, angle of the knees, quality of the gaze, sorts of desires. In fact, even though they never doubted that there were two, and only two, distinct human sexes, medical men of the 19th century had a devil of a time agreeing what sex was, or more specifically, on what should count as the necessary or sufficient signs of sex.

This idea, that there are only two sexes and two genders – they are are permanently fixed, with innate, essential differences between men and women – survives to this day in some quarters. But it underscores the more literal shortcoming of the phrase ‘women born women’.

What about women who may have undergone hysterectomies and are, to all intents and purposes, not ‘reproductively female’?

Babies are born, not women (or men, or any other gender). Traditionally, very soon after birth, and following a brief inspection of the baby’s visible genitalia – which takes no account of reproductive ability – a binary sex is assigned by the midwife, obstetrician or other medical professional in attendance. “It’s a boy,” they’ll say, or “It’s a girl.” And, having been assigned a medically and socially constructed sex, the many cultural stereotypes associated with it will begin to be applied to the baby by family, relatives and society at large: the process of gendering to which we are all subjected, regardless of our own self-perceptions.

If both sex and gender are constructs, then where does that leave the proponents of ‘women born women’?

“Ah, but,” they’ll usually say, as they surreptitiously move the goalposts, “there’s more to it than the sex you’re assigned at birth. It’s about your chromosomes: if you have a 46XX karyotope then you’re female, and if you have a 46XY karyotope then you’re male.”

To my mind, this assertion simply doesn’t hold up to close inspection. For one thing, chromosome analyses – DNA tests – are not routinely carried out on newborn babies for the purposes of determining their sex. And what about people born with intersex variations? Many intersex babies who are born with ambiguous genitalia are subject to enforced genital mutilation for the express purpose of enabling society to pin a binary tag on them.

Do they grow up to become ‘women born women’? The Organisation Internationale des Intersexués’ Australian site lists 19 recognised types of intersex differences in its FAQ. By way of illustration that chromosomes don’t necessarily determine sex, this report in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism makes interesting reading:

A 46,XY mother who developed as a normal woman underwent spontaneous puberty, reached menarche, menstruated regularly, experienced two unassisted pregnancies, and gave birth to a 46,XY daughter with complete gonadal dysgenesis.

So it seems that differentiating on the basis of unobservable characteristics like chromosomes, or on one’s genital configuration at birth, or on whether one has a uterus and ovaries, doesn’t offer an indisputable definition of ‘women born women’ either.

The aim was always to simply exclude – based on what some people aren’t, rather than what they are

Demanding that ‘women born women’ be ‘reproductively female’ opens another can of worms: are trans men who have not undergone surgery included?

What about women who may have undergone hysterectomies and are, to all intents and purposes, not ‘reproductively female’?

What about women who were assigned female at birth but grew up infertile, for whatever reasons?

And, of course, trans women who have undergone surgery are also sterile – does this exclude them from being considered ‘women born women’ (assuming that they would wish to be included in that category)?

In addition, ideologically, these viewpoints both seem to be so much at odds with each other as to render the term so flawed and unworkable to the point of being meaningless.

Why, then, does the term continue to have so much traction amongst some second-wave feminists? If we go back to the Wikipedia page I linked at the start of this piece, the section on the scope of the term offers a clue:

Womyn-born womyn policies center around the idea that women’s experiences under patriarchy are unique, learned, and transformative. Repeating Judith Butler’s assertions that gender is a performance, proponents of ‘womyn-born womyn’ spaces seek to create spaces wherein the enforced and policed performances of ‘girl’ in patriarchy can be reshaped outside of the presence of those not subjected to those limitations. Transgender women are excluded because they have not lived under the strictures of the enforced performance of ‘girl’, having instead been subjected to the performance of ‘boy’. Advocates of womyn-born womyn spaces argue that the experience of having been born and raised as a ‘girl’ under patriarchy is not one that transgender women share with womyn-born womyn.

Can you meaningfully quantify the way in which I’ve internalised society’s endemic sexism as compared to a cis man or a cis woman?

In other words, ‘women born women’ is an ideological construct of second-wave feminism, founded on pre-existing patriarchal definitions. As problematic as that may be – and make no mistake that it is – it at least tacitly acknowledges the constructed nature of gender, yet at the same time it seeks to remove the agency to change, as well as denying us bodily autonomy.

I will admit that I find it impossible to square those features with any feminism to which I could safely subscribe.

So where did it lose its way? Why did this happen? I really can’t see any other answer than to create a tool of exclusion for use against women who weren’t assigned female at birth, to keep them out of spaces designated for the use of women who were assigned female at birth.

The aim was always to simply exclude – based on what some people aren’t, rather than what they are. That, in my opinion, is ciscentric othering writ large, gender policing by people who simultaneously claim to want to dismantle gender.

The latter part of that last Wikipedia quote is particularly interesting as it introduces, albeit tacitly, the subject of how we internalise patriarchal stereotypes of what is meant by ‘woman’, ‘female’, ‘man’ and ‘male’.

As a woman who is also transsexual, the idea that I’m not a woman because I wasn’t “born and raised as a ‘girl’ under patriarchy” is a very curious notion, to say the least. Can you meaningfully quantify the way in which I’ve internalised society’s endemic sexism as compared to a cis man or a cis woman?

Yes, there are some aspects of patriarchal sexism I internalised as a child who was raised as a cis boy that I may not have internalised (or may have internalised differently) if I had been brought up as a cis girl.

Still from Frankenstein, with the caption:

At the same time, I grew up in a family with a mother, father and sister – and I don’t believe that either my sister or I were subject to deliberate gender segregation, either at home or at school, apart from the same sexist brainwashing to which all children were subjected.

So I remain highly dubious about an exclusion clause based on whether someone was socialised as a boy or a girl, which is embodied in the term ‘women born women’.

And let’s not forget that the way in which I internalised (cis)sexism may very well have been hugely different from a cis boy, especially given the further variations in the way (cis)sexism was handed out to me on the basis of other people’s perceptions of me as an effeminate gay male.

I take great comfort in the increasing numbers of visible and vocal cis women whose acceptance of trans women like me is helping us all to shape new inclusive and intersectional feminisms

All these things together lead me to think that all this emphasis on trans women’s pre-transition socialisation fails to understand some of the nuances of growing up trans in a cissexist supremacy and so is, or should be, the last nail in the coffin of the corpse of feminisms that exclude trans people.

That it isn’t, is profoundly dispiriting to me as a feminist woman who is also transsexual.

I do, however, take great comfort in the increasing numbers of visible and vocal cis women whose acceptance of trans women like me is helping us all work together to shape new inclusive and intersectional feminisms and safer spaces, in which exclusion rooted in cissexism and transphobia is already a thing of the past.

These are the feminisms of the here and now, and they sustain me during my bleaker moments. I am proud and blessed to know the kind, loving and committed women, my sisters and my friends, who are engaged in these feminisms and helping to dismantle such toxic concepts as ‘women born women’.

Comments From You

The Goldfish // Posted 22 May 2012 at 11:36 am

This is a great article. A trans friend of mine explained that she did have a girlhood, only one unusual feature of her girlhood was being treated like a boy. Being disabled from my teens, I have missed out on many of the experiences that transphobic feminists argue are universal to “women born women” – for example, nobody has taken much interest in my reproductivity at all, let alone tried to control it or pressured me into motherhood. Not that that’s universal for disabled women, but that’s kind of the point – there are very few universal experiences for women, so it would be ridiculous to exclude any woman on the grounds that she’s had a few novel experiences.

Trans women remain one of the most powerless, abused, dismissed and physically endangered group among us – and all those negative treatments are about gender. If feminism is not for trans women, it’s surely not for anyone.

June42 // Posted 22 May 2012 at 8:57 pm


I happen to have one of the 19 conditions listed by the Australian sire – Turner Syndrome



I am a feminist in no small part due to the appalling way I was treated by Doctors growing up and the way society discounts infertile women

The deepest and most meaningful friendships I have are with my wonderful Turner Syndrome sisters – they have taught me about female strength. I can tell you a few horror stories about the treatment we have received (I know of two cases of forced removal of ovaries) Some have given birth after IVF.

Me and my Turner Syndrome have to battle this assumption that we are at very best second rate women or indeed intersex because in most cases our ovaries failed before we were born.

I also find the term cis-woman deeply problematic for several reasons- I do not want anyone calling me a cis-woman

I for one will be attending this conference

June42 // Posted 22 May 2012 at 9:11 pm


I have Turner Syndrome one of the nineteeen conditions that the Australian site says is ‘intersex’ It is not described as such in any standard description- to wit




I do indeed suffer from Gonadal dysgenesis (i.e. my ovaries failed before I was born) and am on HRT.

I have a great many close friends with Turner Syndrome (TS) and they are my dearest closest friends. They have taught me about female strength. Believe me we have a few horror stories about the medical profession (I know of two forced removal of ovaries for starters)

My feminism is informed by my personal experiences of the medical profession and the way society and indeed my family has made me feel because I am infertile. My infertility has allowed me to see so many other things that I can give to the world

Me and My TS sisters have to deal with our condition being wrongly described as ‘intersex’

I will be attending this conference – with pride

Cecily // Posted 23 May 2012 at 11:20 pm

Why would you think that being intersex makes your any less of a woman? And why on earth is “cis” problematic? I would think with what you’ve gone through you might have a better understanding of the issues trans people face, but honestly I think you’re being a bit cissexist yourself. You say you fight against being seen as a “second-class woman,” but by attending the conference “with pride,” you’re showing your support for doing the exact same thing to others.

Zoe // Posted 24 May 2012 at 4:11 am

Re: the “nineteen kinds”

“Some common diagnoses that may lead to intersex are:”

The 19 are common; there’s many more. Moreover, “diagnosis” is problematic. People are not generally “diagnosed” as left-handed, or red-haired, or blue-eyed, or Polynesian. They *are* diagnosed though as colour-blind, hirsute, or with albinism. Where the line is between “natural variation” and pathology is more an ideological question than a medical one.

Jane Fae // Posted 24 May 2012 at 9:47 am

Missed this the first time through: it is a razor sharp piece, presenting and dissecting the issues and argument in a powerful fashion.

I doubt this will be the last word on the topic – nothing ever is – but i think it sets the bar very high for those who wish to come back.

Thanks, Helen.


anywavewilldo // Posted 24 May 2012 at 12:32 pm

I also think women-born-women is an oxymoron from a radical feminist point of view. Of course I believe we become women via the fictions of gender.

However I do think that humans have ‘sex’ i.e. a biological anatomy and physiology.

I’m sure we have more than 2 sexes but that ‘female’ is one of them, and one that is very commonly occuring. Sex and gender interrelate deeply for most women and the patriarchal oppression of women is specifically ‘designed for’ the common forms of female anatomy and physiology even if other women do not have this. [credit for articulating this idea goes to Lisa Millbank/radicaltransfeminist – see below]

“I think one of the reasons those models of oppression have cissexism designed in is because the oppression of women is designed to oppress cis women.

I think that most feminist writing, including most radical feminist writing, is having to work at the 101 level and painstakingly articulate what patriarchy does to women. Because patriarchy’s idea of women is a cartoon (complete with eyelashes) and that cartoon is cissexual and gendered-as-feminine, that means talking about cis bodies a lot.”

[from a conversation on tumblr between radtransfem and kwerey http://kwerey.tumblr.com/post/23159907467/i-think-i-just-became-a-radical-feminist%5D

If we accept that trans* women have a ‘girlhood’ or ‘were always women’ or ‘were born women’ then we are just accepting another form of strategic essentialism – that is using biological and continuity arguments in a political struggle.

All women *become* women, but most trans* women will have been both boys and men for some parts of their lives and as such will have been part of the dominant patriarchal class even if it didn’t fit or didn’t feel right. This is not true of non-trans/cis women and it makes a difference.

I think the closest political anaolgy I have for this is the issues within the radical Disabled people’s movements concerning people who had impairments from at or near birth and those that became impaired later in adulthood. People disabled by society from infancy have a very different experience and perspective on Disability, education, autonomy, housing, environment etc. than people recently disabled by society following an impairment.

After time more recently disabled people may go through a political change where they no longer think/feel as they did in the non-disabled world but they will have retained experiences from their time as non-disabled even if they are not as ‘validated’ by society subsequently. for example, better schooling, skills and confidence, feelings of autonomy and self.

[NB to follow this argument you need to understand the ‘social model of disability’ and it’s variants – I’d reccomend it to all feminist anyway]

intersectional feminism means talking about power and hierarchy – don’t throw sex out with the genderwater*

regards, anywave

* info: from the British idiom ‘don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater’

julieandjim // Posted 19 May 2013 at 10:21 pm

Great article. I loved reading The Second Sex myself but after reading Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble was quite persuaded by her criticism of the sex/gender distinction (useful as it was for understanding gender norms). I always interpreted the sex/gender distinction as suggesting that you had a biological sex and a cultural/socially constructed gender. So biological men develop/conditioned to develop masculine genders and biological women are conditioned to develop feminine genders. So, under this theory, does being trans imply a mismatch between your biological sex and your gender? Which can then be ‘fixed’ by changing your sex to match the gender that society believes belongs to that sex? Perhaps this isn’t the implication but if so I never felt comfortable with it. As you say, Butler didn’t agree with the sex gender distinction as she felt sex was not binary but that it was more like a scatter plot – no pattern at all. She gives lots of examples of people who were identified as male or female at birth but who then turned out to have conflicting chromosomes. But if Judith Butler were really right that there is no such thing as biological sex then why do trans people feel like they do about their sex? And if there is a distinction between sex and gender then why should we pander to patriarchy and society by changing ourselves (in whatever way – getting bigger boobs, wearing make up or altering our genitals) so that our biological sex fits with what society expects of our gender? These are all questions ( not arguments) so I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts.

Lisa // Posted 20 May 2013 at 12:21 pm

Great article, Helen, which I don’t think I fully appreciated the first few times I read it. Glad to be reminded it exists and to read more deeply.

Wanted to come back on this paraphrase of my ideas by anywavewilldo as it’s been a while and I can add something.

> Sex and gender interrelate deeply for most

> women and the patriarchal oppression of women

> is specifically ‘designed for’ the common forms

> of female anatomy and physiology even if other

> women do not have this.

“Designed for” doesn’t imply “is better at oppressing”, although it sounds like it would. Sexism’s “designed for” enough cis white women to survive it, provided they accept enough shitty bargains. That’s the form men want them in. Us trans* women, who don’t have access to all of those bargains? Well, maybe it’s not designed for us to survive it.

Compare a bad prank. You glue up your friend’s door while she’s out, so she can’t get into her room. Hilarious! (not really) It’s designed to prank her. However, you didn’t care or think about her lover who was in the room while you glued it up. She dies in a fire. It wasn’t designed to prank her, her survival wasn’t taken into account.

When talking about the intentionality of sexism, we can talk about how it’s intended to do certain things to cis white women. But it’s past when we can pretend that the effects on other women are really still “accidental”. Patriarchy knows we exist. If it continues to perpetrate acts against us it knows we can’t survive, that’s as good as “intention”. Knowingly creating unsurvivable conditions is still intention to kill.

anywavewilldo // Posted 21 May 2013 at 10:32 pm

I have to say that my views on this are evolving all the time – I think that’s what we should all be doing so lahlah… I particularly credit both Helen and Lisa as core thinkers whose work I find sustaining in this process.

anyway I think I would now not get so much into if women are or are not having a boyhood or manhood if they are raised male and also although I think we can learn a great deal from Disability liberation the analogy seems more and more clunky. I think I perceive (while being cis sexed) a little how trans* women experience gender hierarchy during the time they have not transitioned and how this differs from how cis men experience it – so I’m working on continuing to think how this is similar and different to how cis-sexed women experience gender hierarchy and how we can mutually aid ourselves as women by incorporating both these strands of experience into a radical materialist feminism.

As for ‘born women’ – I’m not buying it from any angle: as I think I’ve said before, more or less, I’m not oppressed because I have a vulva* I’m oppressed because of what class position I was assigned to from when my vulva was noticed. After a very short time my vulva was fairly irrelevant and there are more ways into the sex class ‘woman’ that the admittedly very common way I got into it. Also when I say sex is a thing I don’t think of it in isolation – gender fictions mark the body in entirely ‘real’ ways.

[*I say vulva not vagina as sex at birth inspection is very quick and only notes external genitals unless they are non-normative]

To come to Lisa’s points on intentionality and intensity of oppression: yes I agree that patriarchy does require some cis-sexed women to survive but can obliterate trans* women entirely and that is a very harsh reality. On the flip side in infancy many cis-sexed girl infants are not born or are killed or neglected to death fairly soon so perhaps trans* women have better early life chances but worse latter life chances? All in all I think women have so very much more to gain from mutual aid and solidarity than we do in trying to quantify our oppression. We could mourn without ending for many decades and not even begin to be done. I hope for a time soon to come when women of both cis and trans history can conciousness-raise together with love and kindness in resistance to what is done to us – then rise up.

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