In the Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir states that whenever a woman seeks to act like a human being she is said to be imitating the male. For women are unmen, a lesser class, who in the eyes of the patriarchy fail at being human. She also raises the question of “What is a woman?”
If her functioning as a female is not enough to define woman, if we decline also to explain her through “the eternal feminine,” and if nevertheless we admit, provisionally, that women do exist, then we must face the question: what is a woman?
Soujourner Truth raised the same issue in her essay “Ain’t I a Woman?” Pointing out the discrepancies of what the white man says women are capable of and require and their treatment of female Blacks.
That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain’t I a woman?
The question of “What is a woman” has a new urgency with the challenges to traditional feminist theory that LGBT and trans* discourses have brought to bear on issues of sex, gender and sexuality. Most questions over the definition of “woman”, have been genitally focussed. In “The Straight Mind” Monique Whittig suggests that lesbianism is a way to transcend “womanness” – the subservient state of being sub-human. Together with Adrienne Rich, she formed the basis of political lesbianism as a challenge to the patriarchal orthodoxy which demands compulsory heterosexuality, by defining “woman” as
[that which is defined by] is a specific social relation to a man, a relation that we have previously called servitude, a relation which implies personal and physical obligation as well as economic obligation, a relation which lesbians escape by refusing to become or to stay heterosexual.
While trans* activism although increasingly rejecting the post-op/pre-op division has traditionally been focussed on the external appearance of the body and particularly the appearance and functioning of the genitalia and secondary sexual characteristics.
Yet what really is the fundamental distinction between people which gives rise to a power structure which can be exploited so that some can obtain power over others? And what is that power in aid of? Looking carefully, gender identity, sexuality and genitalia are only shadows of the fundamental distinction. The fundamental distinction is that some humans produce units of labour – they are the means of reproduction. Separated from secondary notions which give indicators to the ability or willingness to produce units of labour makes for a category of “unmen”. Those who are not fit to control the means of reproduction by virtue of their empathy towards them. This distinction is the basis of patriarchy – compulsory sexuality, cisnormativity and heteronormativity all combine under the patriarchy to suppress the unmen.
Ciswomen in state sanctioned relationships with men
These are the highest level of the unmen. The creme de la creme of the oppression. Capable of producing units of labour under a relationship which is state sanctioned, they can be owned and controlled by the person whom the state as decreed as their lawful owner. Valuable, and becoming rarer, they are the jewel of the patriarchy.
Knowingly infertile ciswomen in state sanctioned relationships with men
The pill produced a major barrier to the patriarchal control. For the first time, women were able to avoid reproduction without the knowledge or consent of their owner. Control over their reproductive abilities challenges the very purpose of women as the producer of units of labour. The attack on reproductive rights is an attack on this category of unmen.
Women in non-state sanctioned relationships with men.
The increasing acceptance of women without an owner loosens patriarchical control. Uncontrolled individually it is for the state and wider society to impose that control upon them and to pressurise them to accept individual ownership. Slut-shaming, benefit rules and the demonisation of single mothers work to pressurise women into relationships of the state approved kind – marriage, quasi-marriage and pre-marriage.
Women in relationships with women
Refusing male control within relationships by seeking sexual relationships with women, lesbianism is an abhorrence. Refusing sexual activity likely to lead to the production of future labour units coupled with a rejection of the duties of wifely conduct in favour of a relationship in which the power structure is negotiated rather than pre-defined, the lesbian ignores her duties as the means of reproduction. As Whittig suggests a lesbian existence avoids the servitude of heterosexuality, while flaunting their capacity as a reproductive entity.
Deceptive and wily, these women avoid the role of their biological sex as controllers of the means of reproduction by identifying as one of them instead. They challenge patriarchal control from both directions: infertile and unable to produce units of labour they are of no reproductive benefit; unwilling to impregnate and control they are of no benefit to patriarchical control. Transwomen forge the largest challenge to the system of patriarchy by refuting both roles – they are neither the means of reproduction, nor willing to control them and thereby break down the duality which gives rise to such control.
Rejecting their female bio-sex in favour of a male gender sees trans-men in a difficult position. Aware of and subject to patriarchical control and its manifestations for a considerable period of their lives, as well as frequently still being at risk of some of the dangers of a female bio-sex (PIV-rape; forced impregnation), sees them in a conflicted gender position. Unable to rape or impregnate, they do not have the full controlling capacities of men, and are seen as objects of suspicion among them, yet their current gender identification provides them with the male privilege that supports male domination
Men in relationships with men
Men who reject relationships with women in favour of relationships with other men again challenge the patriarchy. Unavailable to control the means of reproduction individually, they are never the less recipients of male privilege. The misogyny which abounds within some sections of the male gay community, as gay men assert their identification with the controllers of the means of reproduction as a means of assuring their place as a superior entity within the duality, yet their refusal to fulfil their sexual role as penetrators and impregnators of the means of reproduction gives rise to a hatred and a demand for conformance.
Those who actively reject their ascribed function as the controllers while still having the capacity and gender identity to do so are the lowest level of the unmen. Conformance to gender and sexual norms gives them male privilege which they actively reject, yet capable of slipping back into the powerful role within the duality, they are attacked for the political choices that they have made, as the patriarchy seeks to re-recruit them to the cause. Aware of, yet unaffected by patriarchical oppression; participating in ownership structures yet decrying ownership and with the capacity to exert male domination, yet a decision not to do so, they seek to transcend their gendered and sexualised identity to attain a post-patriarchal existence.
…and lastly we come to Teh Menz. There are unmen among them of course: the infertile, the cuckolded, and those who struggle with their attraction to men, but they are seen as objects of sympathy. They would be men if they could and support is given to allow them to fulfil their function. Viagra, the parental rights of a husband and cures for homosexuality all seek to overcome the difficulties that some men find in asserting their patriarchal role. Rather than approaching issues of gender and sexuality from the viewpoint of defining women and suggesting ways in which they may become human, perhaps we should look at destroying the category of men, who deny the unmen their humanity. Teh Menz are the beneficiaries and reproducers of patriarchy, and it is in the interests of all of the unmen to challenge them.
I am aware in writing this that the categories I have defined above are neither exclusive, nor easily put into the hierarchical relationship that I have implied, nevertheless, reproduction and the control over future units of labour form the basis of patriarchal domination and control. Each category of unmen is excluded from patriarchal power within particular sphere, yet can use it to their advantage. The patriarchal bargain – where women and other unmen conform to the norms expected of their gender or sexuality at particular times can give them contextual power while upholding the system of domination.
Patriarchy is a many tentacled monster, entrapping people in a myriad of different ways, ultimately it comes down to control of the means of reproduction: fertile bio-sexed women, who are at the same time both highly valuable and utterly worthless.