Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Womanhood Isn’t Just About Our “Cis”ters

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Alexis Record

Feminist, humanist, friendly advocate.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is a Nigerian author whose body of work is both celebrated and profound. As a black woman, Adichie knows what it is to experience discrimination on multiple fronts. Her book, Americanah, speaks about race, immigration and why black hair is political. Her TED talk about feminism remains one of my favorites. While I have found her to be a wealth of wisdom when it comes to speaking about her own experiences, her ill-informed comments about trans women have left me disappointed.

In an interview with Channel 4 News, Adichie questioned if trans women were real women, and while she did not deny their existence or directly advocate their abuse (“Transgendered people should be allowed to be”), she stopped short of welcoming them into full membership as women.

“My feeling,” Adichie said, “is trans women are trans women.” Her caveat being that they should not be included into the qualification-free woman label since they have a different experience. This creates a sort of gendered sub-category.

Welcome to True Womanhood™! Terms and conditions apply!

Adichie’s argument is being uncritically accepted by many cispeople. Several online comments have sympathized with Adichie’s core sentiment, if not her wording. It makes a bit of sense based on what we know of discrimination, sexism, and privilege. If men have male privilege, and trans women start out their lives assigned the male gender, then it almost seems logical that they would be different, if not separate, from other women.

“If you lived in the world as a man, with the privileges that the world accords to men, and then sort of change, switch gender, it’s difficult for me to accept that then we can equate your experience with the experience of a woman who has lived from the beginning in the world as a woman and who has not been accorded those privileges that men are.”

Of course, living as the assigned gender, and then magically making a “switch” to the opposite one is not the reality of many, if not most, trans people. Laverne Cox has responded to Adichie’s comments in a series of thoughtful tweets. “I would contend that I did not enjoy male privilege prior to my transition,” Cox explains, “Patriarchy and cissexism punished my femininity and gender nonconformity. The irony of my life is prior to transition I was called a girl and after I am often called a man.”

To be clear, trans women are women. Period. (Though periods are not required.)

Trans women have two identities: trans and woman. “Trans” sets them apart with experiences unique to them, which in many cases involves more discrimination than the average woman. But it does not propel them out of womanhood like some sort of experience-evaluating ejector seat.

If we accepted Adichie’s definition of womenhood, who else would we kick out of the club? Women with disabilities have unique experiences that are not typical of all women. We don’t put them outside the woman category; we accept they fit into two categories. Extremely wealthy women can go without any of the hardships of typical women. Are they still women when they have a radically different experience? Women in matriarchal societies do not experience the kinds of sexism other societies do. Are they less experienced as women? Young women have not spent the same number of years “womaning” as older women. In fact, many have spent just as much time being a woman as fully transitioned trans women have. Should we give them half membership? Should we say, “Young women are young woman” and separate them from the main group?

Where does it end? Who else needs qualifiers before their woman status? What Adichie is inadvertently doing is putting a group of women outside of womanhood because it doesn’t look like what she thinks womanhood should look like. Good thing this group of women is not already extremely marginalized. Oh, wait.

Adichie has already responded to the backlash by stating she did not want to be disingenuous by ignoring the fact that trans experiences are not the mainstream experiences of most women. That’s an important distinction, but one no one I know is arguing. What we are critiquing is her comments that slap the woman card out of some women’s hands. As Adichie continues to advocate for LGBT rights in Nigeria, I hope she will educate herself on the issues facing trans women. She might discover that in most cases they have done more to earn their womanly stripes than any woman just handed the label.

Giving other women the same label does not reduce our own womanhood. It’s not pie. Womanhood is big enough for all of us.