For the year the 100-year anniversary of partial suffrage in UK, we are running a series of blog posts inspired by Sojourner Truth and her most famous speech “Ain’t I a Woman? “delivered in 1851 was a powerful rebuke to many anti-feminist arguments of the day. It became, and continues to serve, as a classic expression of women’s rights and we would like to take this opportunity to encourage all members of the King’s community to think critically about the media representation of women and the additional struggles faced by those who do not always share the same spotlight – BME, LGBT+, migrant, refugee and disabled women.
We are grateful to Poppy Kirby-Green for contributing to our Women’s History Month blog series.
Sojourner Truth’s ‘Ain’t I A Woman’ speech was a fundamental challenge to the narrow definitions of ‘woman’ that white men had created. As an African American woman her womanhood was questioned and marginalised, an experience that trans women of all backgrounds can empathise with – that is why on this International Women’s day I think that it is key that we collectively challenge those who would seek to police the boundaries of womanhood using an outdated and essentialist patriarchal binary.
Truth noted her physical strength was equal to any man’s, and yet she still experienced deeply misogynist and racist violence and oppression, showing that ultimately it is not physical attributes that determine who we are, but how we move through the world and are treated. The global oppression of trans women demonstrates this – we may not be biologically identical to cis women, yet we are still subject to physical and sexual violence, harassment, objectification and exploitation by the sex trade as well as being suffocated by conventional beauty norms. Trans women of colour globally face additional barriers to transphobia, and misogyny, including racism and in many cases poverty, yet their voices and experiences are rarely involved in (often hostile) cultural and political discourse around trans people.
The oppression that trans women face is shared with women across the world, yet painfully and shamefully there are many who would seek to deny us our womanhood. By insisting that trans women are in fact ‘men’, transphobes render our suffering under patriarchy as invisible, and deny our political and social experiences as women. Trans men are regularly excluded from conversations around trans rights, which tend to myopically focus on the ‘threat’ of trans women who are unable to adequately conform to the gender binary. With cruel irony, trans women seeking refuge from patriarchy in women-only spaces are cast as deviants and predators, a trope that has been used against queer people for millennia. The few trans women that do get represented often have to meet cisnormative beauty standards and conform to conventional femininity in order to be seen as valid in their womanhood. Less privileged trans women whose existence challenges the gender binary, whether by choice or circumstance are typically erased, or depicted as somehow failing womanhood.
On International Women’s Day, I hope that all of us, whether male, female or non-binary can take something from Sojourner’s Truth words all those years ago, that womanhood should not be an exclusive member’s club with a narrow set of criteria, that needs gatekeeping, but a welcoming sisterhood in which the most marginalised women have a voice.