by Mia McKenzie
I’ve been thinking a lot about shared female identity. A lot of people seem to think that being born with female parts bonds you in some significant way to other people who are born with female parts. In order to get the most out of all that bonded-female-parts-ness, there are events and outings that welcome female-born people only, places where we can listen to the music “we” like and talk about our periods or something. It goes like this: “women” have a different experience in the world than “men” and therefore understand each other on some deep level and in some universal way because of that experience. While I agree, of course, with that first part, I find the last part really tricky.
I don’t feel any universal connection with all people who are born with female parts. I’m not sure I know anyone who actually does, not when you really break it down. Because, despite what mainstream (white) feminism and tampon commercials would have us believe, “shared” female experience isn’t really all that “shared” at all.
Let’s take for example a well-known issue that affects women–the issue of “equal pay.” We’ve all heard the statistic: in the US, women make 77 cents for every dollar a man makes on average. That sucks. But it’s not quite the shared experience it seems. A recent report by the National Partnership for Women & Families shows that black women only make 70 cents for every dollar a man makes on average, and only 64 cents compared to every dollar paid to a white, non-Hispanic man. And Latinas make only 55 cents for every dollar made by a white, non-Hispanic man. Well, damn. That 77 cents never looked so good.
Of course, it’s not just economics. There are many ways in which factors such as race, sexuality, gender presentation, and (dis)ability make the “collective” experience of one group of women vastly different from that of another. According to RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network), 91% of people who are raped in the US are women. So, rape is a universal issue for women, right? Of course. When you break it down, though, “universal” gets complicated. The rate of rape and attempted rape for white women is 17.7%. For American Indian/Alaskan women it’s 34.1%. And women with disabilities are raped at a rate at least twice that of women overall. So, while “women” have a collective experience of being more vulnerable to rape, some women are a whole lot more vulnerable to it than others. While that first statistic is always used to suggest a shared female experience of the world, the statistics that follow it show that women’s experiences aren’t really all that shared. Or at least not equally shared. Not anywhere near equally.
Despite these and a hundred other examples, the myth of shared female experience prevails. Why? Well, the easy answer is that because “women” are so vulnerable to so many different injustices, even if that vulnerability is vastly different from one group to another, lumping us all in together gives us a louder voice and more power to change things. Even if that’s true, the downside of all this lumping together is significant. Because it allows the people with the loudest voices within the group to always be dominating the conversation. And because those voices rarely, if ever, even understand the experiences of the less-heard members of the group, not only can they not speak for them (which they shouldn’t be doing anyway), they can rarely even understand the importance of making space for them to speak for themselves.
This is why today’s mainstream feminist movements are still so white, even though women of color are 36.3% of the women in this country. It’s why, even though “marriage equality” is all over the news all the time, you rarely see lesbians of color, and you never see disabled lesbians or trans* lesbians, on TV. Because the voice of the privileged majority, even within a presumed non-privileged group, doesn’t end up raising the voices of the less-heard group; it usually just drowns them out. What you end up with is groups within groups that feel, and are, completely disconnected from one another. So is the case with women in this country. (This also describes queer community and people of color community as a whole, and QTPOC community specifically.)
Yet, the myth of shared female experience prevails. It gets used by certain groups, including Michigan Women’s Music Festival, to exclude trans* women because they presumably don’t have all the parts necessary to participate in this “universal” female experience that doesn’t actually exist anyway. The idea that cis women who attend this festival have a shared experience of womanhood–an experience that stretches like a rainbow bridge across race, sexuality, (dis)ability and economic class–that is so certain that no one without a vagina could possibly understand any of it is, frankly, absurd.
As a black, queer, cis woman who was raised working class, I feel almost completely disconnected from the experiences of white, straight, trans* women who were raised wealthy. And much more so from the experiences of white, straight, cis women who were raised middle-class. Put me in a room full of either of these groups of women and I wouldn’t be able to get away fast enough. I’d feel incredibly out of place.
In fact, put me in a room full of black lesbians and I won’t likely do a whole lot of bonding. A room full of queer black women nerd-types? Ok, now we’re getting closer.
Here’s a quick list of rooms full of people where I will likely bond, in order of best to worst.
1. Black queer women who are nerdy in bookish ways, regardless of economic class.
2. Other queer women of color who are nerdy in bookish ways, who are working class.
3. Other queer women of color who are nerdy in bookish ways, regardless of class.
4. Black women, regardless of class and sexuality, who are nerdy in bookish ways.
5. Other women of color, regardless of class and sexuality, who are nerdy in bookish ways.
You see how complicated this is already??? A room full of white women is going to be somewhere around number 1006. Seriously, a “room full” of white women of any sort is a room I’m going to leave really quickly, and probably only have stumbled into by accident while looking for the bathroom.
My point is, possession of vaginas in and of themselves are neither what define women nor what bond women to each other.
Shared experiences of the world, which include experiences of race, sexuality, (dis)ability, economic class, any number of nuanced
vulnerabilities, love of french fries, etc. is what bonds women to each other. And continuing to talk about “women” as this vagina-having-but-otherwise-unspecific group, rather than looking closer and breaking down the ways in which our specific experiences of the world are impacted by race, sexuality, etc., only perpetuates the inequalities we’re supposed to be trying to eradicate.
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