Who gets to be a woman writer?

In the Year of Publishing Women, we ask: who does the idea of ‘woman writer’ include? Writer and activist Juliet Jacques responds.

Growing up as a trans person who aspired to be a writer, I was often told two things. Firstly, that writing was not a viable way to make a living, and that I should pursue something more remunerative; and secondly, that coming out as trans would lead to social exclusion and a loss of job prospects, and that I could never “really” be a woman anyway.

Now, four years after Time magazine’s famous ‘Transgender Tipping Point’ cover of May 2014, which suggested that a historically marginalised community had established a level of visibility that could never be rolled back, English PEN have asked my opinion on who the idea of ‘a woman writer’ includes or excludes.

A decade ago, having internalised the trans-exclusionary position on our identities, I didn’t think of trans-liberatory writing as part of a feminist discourse, even though the latter responded directly to the former.

Indeed, the trans-liberatory text that launched Transgender Studies as a discipline in 1987 – The Empire Strikes Back: A Post-Transsexual Manifesto by artist/theorist Sandy Stone – was a direct reply to Janice G. Raymond’s infamous feminist text The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the Modern She-Male (1979), which was itself prompted by Stone’s employment as a sound engineer at the women-only music collective Olivia Records.

Transgender History author Susan Stryker suggests that The Transsexual Empire ‘did not invent anti-transsexual prejudice, but did more to justify and perpetrate it than perhaps any other book’. Raymond argued – contrary to the 1970s slogan – that biology is destiny, and that transsexual women could never be anything other than men; and furthermore, that their transitions were part of a plot to infiltrate the feminist movement, and that they should be excluded from women-only spaces. (Trans men and anyone who did not identify within the male-female binary did not fit her theoretical framework and so were almost entirely ignored.) Stone’s response did not open by replying directly to Raymond, but instead with a critique of transsexual memoirs, and their reluctance to explore space between (or beyond) male and female. If trans authors did this, said Stone, it would break down the stereotype of the gender-conforming transsexual woman on which anti-trans prejudice relied, and create a new genre of writing that would lead to a far more productive conversation about what gender-variant living actually involved.

It was through reading those who followed Stone’s imperative – Kate Bornstein, Leslie Feinberg, Julia Serano, Roz Kaveney and others – that I began to think differently about the connection between trans writing and feminism. I knew there were many feminisms, but through their writing, I discovered a vibrant trans feminism, angry about discrimination and violence wherever they saw it, aware of how transphobia intersected with other prejudices, discussing the ways in which sexism, homophobia and transphobia were all manifestations of misogyny. (It’s interesting that in The Laugh of the Medusa, her essay about how women could create new writing through engaging with their physical and sexual experiences, Hélène Cixous reinforced this point by naming a gay man, Jean Genet in her list of those who enacted her principles of écriture féminin.)

The writers I read raised questions about the essentialism that reduces experiences of oppression solely to biology without losing sight of the fact that reproductive rights, the right to abortion, the fight against sexual violence and for people to determine their gender identities share a common concern: the right to bodily autonomy.

Considering the ways in which trans and non-binary people are affected by misogyny does not mean opening the category of ‘woman writer’ until it becomes meaningless: the straw-man argument that ‘any male writer could put on a dress and call himself a woman writer’ ignores the fact that the risks of being a trans woman anywhere in the world are huge, with transphobia intensifying the misogyny that all women face.

Coming out and living as trans is not something that anyone, least of all an author, does on a whim – especially in countries where speaking out about prejudice against LGBTQI people, or just being an LGBTQI person, could mean a prison sentence, or even death.

Rather, I think the category of ‘woman writer’ can include anyone who covers gender-based oppression and violence from a position of lived experience, but only – and most importantly – if they want or need for the category to contain them. In any case, ‘woman writer’ has endless sub-categories within it – of gender identity, nationality, family history, political affiliation and many more. But that’s not to say someone can only be a woman writer if she documents these issues, or that a woman writer should only document these issues. The operative word here is writer, and the crucial thing in the Year of Publishing Women is to get as many female voices out into the world as possible: ones that range not just in background but also style, form and content.

 


Juliet Jacques is a writer and filmmaker based in London. She is the author of two books: Rayner Heppenstall: A Critical Study (Dalkey Archive Press, 2007), and Trans: A Memoir (Verso, 2015). She writes short fiction, as well as journalism on literature, film, art, music, politics, gender, sexuality and football.

Image credit: Joanna Walsh