In the history of the women’s suffrage movement, the contributions of males with “gender dysphoria,” who would otherwise be “trans woman” suffragists, seem conspicuously absent.
“And how came Jesus into the world? Through God who created him and woman who bore him. Man, where is your part? But the women are coming up blessed be God and a few of the men are coming up with them. But man [the white man]is in a tight place, the poor slave is on him, woman is coming on him, and he is surely between a hawk and a buzzard.”– Sojourner Truth, “Ain’t I a Woman?” (May 29, 1851), Transcribed by Marius Robinson, The Anti-Slavery Bugle (June 21, 1851)
“My friends, what is man’s idea of womanliness? It is to have a manner which pleases him—quiet, deferential, submissive, approaching him as a subject does a master. He wants no self-assertion on our part, no defiance, no vehement arraignment of him as a robber and a criminal. […] What do we know as yet of the womanly? The women we have seen thus far have been, with rare exceptions, the mere echoes of men. Man has spoken in the State, the Church, and the Home, and made the codes, creeds, and customs which govern every relation in life, and women have simply echoed all his thoughts and walked the paths he prescribed. And this they call womanly!”– Elizabeth Cady Stanton, “Address to the Founding Convention of the National American Woman Suffrage Association” (February, 1890), from The History of Woman Suffrage (Vol. IV) (1902)
“And out of these has come a monstrous thing,– Charlotte Perkins Gilman, “The Anti-Suffragists,” In This Our World, Third Edition (1898)
A strange, down-sucking whirlpool of disgrace,
Women uniting against womanhood,
And using that great name to hide their sin!
Vain are their words as that old king’s command
Who set his will against the rising tide.
But who shall measure the historic shame
Of these poor traitors—traitors are they all—
To great Democracy and Womanhood!”
Recently, I received the wonderful 2019 anthology, The Women’s Suffrage Movement, edited by Sally Roesch Wagner, with a foreword written by Gloria Steinem. As anyone would know who knows me, I adore it, of course, especially the careful selections by Wagner. Unsurprisingly, I was so overjoyed to see the voices of women of color represented, including Ida B. Wells and Mary Church Terrell, many of whom have been overlooked. This anthology seems, to me, to be so valuable in showing how sex, race, and class have intersected in the history of the women’s suffrage movement.
Many people, even liberal feminists who “self-identify” as “third-wave feminists,” for all their talk about “intersectionality,” erase the earliest influences of Indigenous women and Black women on American feminism. But, despite how the collection acknowledges and addresses these critical intersections, I noticed that it exclusively includes the voices of people observed female at birth, to the exclusion of the other sex. No people observed male at birth appear in the anthology, as it focuses only on female voices. More specifically, there seems to be no people observed male at birth who, after living as the dominant sex in male-dominated society, then came to “self-identify” themselves as “female.” How queerly exclusionary!
With my mind ever so inquiring, as it is, I began wondering why there were no “transgender woman” suffragists. There were Black woman suffragists and Indigenous woman suffragists, both groups understanding their intertwining oppressions on the basis of sex and on the basis of race. There were lesbian woman suffragists, although more often than not closeted for being both female and homosexual, alongside working-class woman suffragists. But not one woman talks about how she “self-identified” into her oppression as a woman on the basis of sex. They never assumed that “identity” was the root cause of sexist oppression; indeed, they never assumed sexist oppression itself as the natural order of things into which we “self-identify” ourselves. What a concept: Not seeing one’s oppression as the substance of one’s sense of self as an individual, but rather seeing oppression as systems which we overcome through collective social change. Imagine that.
That said, more people observed male at birth, who historically have held more power and privilege on the basis of sex, could have engaged in solidarity with people observed female at birth. As we know, Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison were among the most radical male allies to the woman suffragists, although not many males cared at all. Or, if they did, then they certainly did not show it or act in favor of womankind without regard for their own interests as men. Anyway, had “trans woman” suffragists existed, they could have come out in support of their so-called “cisgender” sisters and renounced their unearned voting rights on the basis of sex in solidarity with women as a sex. Let us suppose that it did happen. It would have been truly a fascinating act of protest. But, no such thing happened. In my research on the history of the women’s suffrage movement, I have found no case of a “trans woman” suffragist. Perhaps, it is simply because they did not exist. It seems as if they never did, because, then, almost no person observed male at birth wanted to “self-identify” into “femaleness.” Imagine that, too.
In fact, it seems as though there was this astonishing lack of people observed male at birth, especially in the West, wanting to “self-identify” as “female.” Now, white middle-class heterosexual males “self-identify” themselves as “homosexual females,” that is, “lesbians,” and then claim the status of “the oppressed.” For thousands of years, though, women have been classified on the basis of sex, legally and socially, as the property of men simply for being people observed female at birth, simply for being, in fact, women. They have not “self-identified” into that sexist oppression. There certainly were no straight men insisting on being publicly seen as “lesbians” until quite recently when it has become fashionable to do so. And, before anyone asks, females who have “felt” like “men,” with “manly” feelings, were not given the right to vote for having such “manly” feelings as wanting to be treated like a human being and not a piece of property. Indeed, male lawmakers, satisfied with people observed male at birth dominating people observed female at birth, did not change the laws to accommodate such people. Nor did putting on pants, wearing a shirt, binding breasts, and drawing on a beard allow any person of this sort necessarily escape from being classified as property on the basis of sex. It is significant for us to remember that cross-sex hormones and cosmetic surgeries, which seem to be quite profitably in vogue at present time, have not always existed.
No doubt, I would be told that some “females” have always been born into male bodies, where they had to live the internal agony of being a person observed male at birth under male supremacy. I would hear that, even when males oppress females on the basis of sex, that the females being oppressed, by virtue of them being born into female bodies, still “oppress” males who do not like their own male bodies. I would say that “females” never have been born into male bodies, as “males” never have been born into female bodies. It was not true then. It is not true now. It never has been true. It never will be true.
Not even societies with third-gender categories (or more) have seen it as true for a person to be “born in the wrong body”; such categorizations do not make one into “the opposite sex.” Typically, people observed male at birth who are non-masculine are the ones sorted into alternate categories. These categorizations have tended to be a way of separating the minority of non-masculine males from the majority of masculine males. Less egalitarian societies have tended to have more gender categories, not less, because such categories have been used to separate non-masculine males and non-feminine females from the gender-conforming majority.
For thousands of years, being a person observed female at birth has been a life sentence of sexism on the basis of sex in sexist societies around the world, in which men have possessed women. Gender-nonconforming or not, women have not been able to “self-identify” out of their oppression on the basis of sex. Even now, with the rise of male cross-sex hormones and double mastectomies for gender-dysphoric females, it is pure fantasy for us to pretend as if that “passing,” all the hormones and cosmetic surgery, is a way of sufficiently beating the system. Because, in fact, the system, more often than not, beats her first, even when she thinks she has become “him.” Even when she “passes” as a “he,” as has been done, individual choice with one’s “identity” is not a path toward the collective liberation of all women around the world from sexist oppression.
Feminist women find themselves confronted with the charge of being “TERFs” (trans-exclusionary radical feminists) when they do not prioritize people observed male at birth over people observed female at birth. It is, in fact, precisely as simple as this prioritization; any other way of putting the issue obscures the sexual politics of putting male fantasy over female reality. Sex becomes replaced with “gender,” where women as a sex become erased precisely by the people themselves reminding everyone about their erasure, while effectively undermining sex as a category of significance.
Sojourner Truth would be called a “TERF” in our time for speaking the truth, which is that, while not all women do give birth, only women, that is, adult human females, can give birth. Saying that women give birth does not erase women who do not give birth, because it never has done so. Though, I can imagine the thought police coming for Truth. They would remind her that “sex is a spectrum” and that not all people observed female at birth “self-identify” themselves as “women,” or that not all “women” are people observed female at birth. Over and over again, they would tell her that, while pregnancy might be important, as it has been since the beginning of the human species, “all identities matter.” They would say that recognizing reproduction as being central to the historical oppression of women on the basis of sex can exclude some people, especially people observed male at birth, who might feel too excluded from Truth’s supposedly “narrowminded,” supposedly “biologically essentialist” view of womanhood.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton would be called a “TERF” and told that people observed male at birth with “womanly” feelings are “women,” against any person observed female at birth setting any kind of boundary. It would be asked how she, a “cisgender-privileged” woman, like Sojourner Truth, can dare comprehend the lived experiences of a person observed male at birth who “feels” “womanhood.” People observed male at birth with “womanly” feelings somehow can demand, more like men, silence and submission from people observed female at birth, that is, women, in discussions of womanhood. After all, who is any “cisgender-privileged” woman, like either Stanton or Truth, whether white or Black, to define womanhood for a person observed male at birth who lives in “oppression” being a “female” born into a male body? Who are these women to feel so entitled that they exclude men who feel an entitlement, more legitimate than that of females born into female bodies, to being women? What “TERFs.” Women cannot even define themselves as being distinct from men without those men now always already defining women by relation to themselves.
Charlotte Perkins Gilman certainly would be called a “TERF” and told that excluding people observed male at birth from any definition of femaleness is a form of “oppression” against some people observed male at birth. Let us suppose that the nameless woman in “The Yellow Wallpaper” was a “cisgender-privileged, heterosexual-privileged” woman and her husband, John, came out as a “transgender lesbian” named “Joan.” Under the new order of things, she would be seen as his “oppressor,” perhaps for not “validating” his “womanhood” enough, or not being both silent and submissive enough to his demands and his desires. How can she be so focused on herself, like a total narcissist, when her “wife,” who impregnated her, feels so dysphoric by “her” wife suffering with postpartum depression in front of “her”? Can the nameless woman not even think of poor “Joan,” a female” born into a male body, who must constantly be faced with “her” wife as a reminder of female body parts that “she” can never have? What about Joan’s dream of having a baby just like her wife? And, of course, nobody should care about the cisgender-privileged woman going mad. In either reality, the nameless woman, given no compassion by any man, perhaps not very much from many women around her, would lose her mind to madness, as she indeed does.
With this new strain of misogyny, “the left” seems to be not so different from “the right” in their shared privileging of people observed male at birth over people observed female at birth. “The right” pretends to defend womanhood and, instead, defends men possessing women, usually in correspondence with colonization. And, then, “the left” defends men possessing women, while pretending to defend women by defending those men’s colonization of womanhood. Truth, Stanton, and Gilman, among other women in the women’s suffrage movement, would all be seen and stigmatized as “radical feminists” by both “the right” and “the left.”
There are many other examples of how suffragists, whether American or English, white, Black, or Indigenous, working-class or middle-class, would be seen by the “educated” Western liberals in our time. This “educated” demographic would have been anti-suffragists arguing that women are more powerful and more privileged than men who simply feel bad about being men. They perhaps would argue, then as they do now, that people observed female at birth, simply for their sex, somehow hold power and privilege over people observed male at birth. Their trick using sex and “gender identity” as one and the same, while insisting on the two terms as being different, indicates the Orwellian nature of their argument.
It has been claimed that “TERF ideology,” which can be as little as a woman not submitting herself to a man, is the root cause for why otherwise homophobic males kill other members of their own sex. And making women responsible for men, without even as much consideration given to the men, is in and of itself misogyny. Blaming women for what men do makes no sense coming from people who claim to be allies to feminism, unless we live in an Orwellian dystopia. This attempt at attributing men’s deeds to women’s words would be true if and only if the person attempting it believes, in fact, that women make men do what they do to other men and even women. It constitutes a belief in the underlying logic of this rape culture, that is, that women ask for it and men do it to women and, also, albeit rarely, other men.
And so, “trans women are women” seems to be the slogan of the anti-suffragists of our time, both sadistic males and masochistic females, who are, in fact, an appendage of antifeminism, as much as they deny it. “Trans women” respond in rage, even with threats of violence, to feminist women who do not center them as people observed male at birth in feminist activism. This response to women refusing to center people observed male at birth seems eerily similar to how other members of their sex, no matter their “gender identities,” respond to women who do not prioritize male fantasy over female reality.
Always, feminism should exclusively center the lived experiences of people observed female at birth, never people observed male at birth, even gender-nonconforming, male-sexed people who fancy themselves far more “womanly” than the women from whom they demand silence and submission. Women must organize for women, without always subordinating themselves to this group of men or that group of men, no matter the “gender identities” of the sexes.
I am a gender-nonconforming person observed male at birth, but I am not filled with rage over not having my lived experiences centered in a social movement explicitly created for people observed female at birth, whatever their “gender identities,” to resist male supremacy. Only anti-feminists think that women are supposed to submit to men, that people observed male at birth should talk over people observed female at birth in their own social movement. And so, I reject the inherent male supremacy of the slogan “trans women are women” that, once again, prioritizes people observed male at birth over people observed female at birth. Against the male supremacists falsely claiming to be the “true” feminists, I reject male supremacy, because people observed male at birth should not dominate people observed female at birth. No amount of saying “All Identities Matter” will make me submit to a cult of misogyny and homophobia disguising itself as a civil rights movement and, as its camouflage, (mis)appropriating every other social justice issue.
Therefore, as I have demonstrated for us, quite simply, there were no “trans woman” suffragists, because women cannot be born into male bodies. It has never been true and never will be true that anybody can be born in the “wrong” body, because it is a lie being propagated as a “truth.” And, more specifically, gender-nonconforming people observed male at birth, like me, are not less male, or “incorrectly” male, because of our gender nonconformity, or our interests that deviate from what seems typical for members of our sex. Nor should we colonize womanhood in our attempt to save ourselves from our violently homophobic brothers by further oppressing our sisters and collaborating with male supremacy.
Perhaps, the key to ending “transphobic” murders is to acknowledge and address the homophobic male violence, which happens on the basis of sex and on the basis of sexual orientation, behind the murders of members of our own sex. Most of these people who are murdered, who are people observed male at birth, are Black, poor, and prostituted, killed because of how racism, poverty, and homophobia intersect in the devaluation of their lives. Many of their murderers, also, share at least the victims’ sex and race, if not also their class.
Nobody even can observe a “gender identity,” which is why, as a concept, being a system of beliefs about the self in relation to society, it is more akin to “religious identity,” than either sex or race. And, to add, “gender identity” cannot be reasonably compared to sexual orientation, since sexual orientation is rooted in sex, which is observable in cases of heterosexuality, homosexuality, or bisexuality. The criminalization of homosexuality, as such, has been done on the basis of sex and on the basis of sexual orientation as being explicitly rooted in sex, not “gender identity.” The critical factors of sex and sexual orientation in regard to males murdering members of our own sex have not been treated with the special urgency needed.
Such factors, instead, have been erased in favor of rewriting otherwise homosexual males as “heterosexual females,” which has done absolutely nothing for us stopping what is, in fact, homophobic violence. Activists claim that the male violence against “trans women of color” has been increasing, despite all their emphasis on language. To me, it seems self-evident that conflating sex with “gender identity” certainly has done nothing to solve the social problem of male homophobic violence, if not strengthen it. Because telling heterosexual males that some males can be “female,” that penises can be “female sexual reproductive organs,” by virtue of “gender identity,” seems an insufficient solution at stopping homophobic male violence. Unfortunately, screaming “trans women are women,” as a slogan, like “sex work is work,” will not convince heterosexual males that homosexual males are “heterosexual females.” In fact, this sort of mindless rhetoric also reinforces both misogyny and homophobia against all women and, in particular, lesbians, by otherwise heterosexual males “self-identifying” as both “female” and “homosexual.”
Homophobic males would still murder other members of our own sex, whether or not any law compels everyone, whether they truly believe it themselves or not, to see some males as “females.” Western liberals telling people that everyone’s “identity” is “valid,” and saying that some males can be “female,” and that men who like other members of their own sex can be “heterosexual,” will not solve homophobia. More homophobia in the misbegotten denial of same-sex sexual orientation, in favor of emphasizing the performance of “heterosexuality” as being more desirable, will not stop homophobia. It feeds into the very root cause of the homophobic violence, which is, by the way, homophobia. Even if most males saw members of our own sex as “female,” the problem of male violence remains unacknowledged and unaddressed in favor of “identity.” “Identity politics” has devolved from emphasizing collectivism among individuals working toward social change into authoritarian egoism, becoming, in fact, a cult of the self rooted precisely in the performative denial of the self. As such, it has become another form of religious fundamentalism, another idol to be smashed on its own shrine.
But, unfortunately, it has been far easier to shout “TERF” at feminist women and demand silence and submission from them, because that is precisely what male supremacy has made many of us believe as people observed male at birth. In relation, people observed female at birth have learned to see their enforced silence and submission as both “natural” and “normal.” White trans-identified males, many of whom are heterosexual, have used the homophobic, male-perpetrated murders of Black trans-identified males, almost all of whom are homosexual, as a justification for attacking people observed female at birth for being female. Male violence has been blamed on females collectively, once again, with white males still oppressing all females and weaponizing primarily intraracial male violence against Black and brown males to justify intensifying male supremacy at the expense of women as a sex. By and large, this new religion, financially sustained by wealthy, white, Western males, weaponizes people of color as a shield against criticism for its intertwined misogyny and homophobia against women, in general, and lesbians, in particular.
Subjection or Liberation?
We must remember that the women’s suffrage movement was entirely grassroots organizing, from the roots to the branches; it was not top-down, and it never had to fabricate a historical past to have a past. To be clear, it was not about corporations funding it and profiting off people, many of whom are young, falsely believing that they were “born in the wrong bodies” and in need of buying new ones. It was not corrupted by capitalism, as is the traffic in bought and sold bodies. That movement for women was not supported by so many social institutions determined to force women into silence and submission for any act of rebellion seen as the sin of witchcraft. Oh, and that movement, a movement that grew from women working toward the abolition of chattel slavery, was not supported by academia, which, to my knowledge, has tended to favor the status quo.
In the history of all social movements, I have never seen one, other than “transgenderism,” so effectively monetize selling women their own self-hatred as a form of “liberation.” This point follows with the corresponding “sex work is work” ideology, that is among “third-wave feminism’s” pet projects. By contrast, the women’s suffrage movement was definitely not as profitable as a corporate-funded, multimillion-dollar system of lies being marketed to gender-nonconforming youth as “the authentic self,” indeed far from it. People observed male at birth defining femaleness for people observed female at birth, against their will, is itself an act of male supremacy and female erasure, coming from the people claiming to be erased.
I agonize, perhaps more than I should, over why so many women, specifically, sell out their own sex, but, in fact, too many women have bought into all the lies, too. They tell me that they have not. But they have. Or, maybe, they have decided that their self-hatred seems to be the greatest measure of all that they ever can be and ever will be in their lives. But, that masochism, that they have internalized as women, is a distortion of what a human life should be, which is what male supremacy has done to all people observed female at birth from childhood to adulthood. It is a delusion among delusions that sustains the subjection of women, from which women, collectively, must liberate themselves.
All of the dysphoric women saying that they just do not want to be treated like sex objects by men, or that trauma made them “trans,” are expressing something purely human: a simple plea to be treated like human beings. But, they have been offered, at great cost to their bodies and their minds, a flight from femaleness as the final solution to their discomfort and dissociation. I mourn for these women, also perhaps more than I should.
What seems most agitating to me, though, is how many women betray other women, their own sex, all for the favor of men, which is, in fact, not worth the betrayal. And yet, to me, it seems so unsurprising. Women who hate themselves, who then hate other women and side with men against women, honestly, are nothing new in this androcentric culture in which we live. As we close, let us remember these words from Charlotte Perkins Gilman:
“But who shall measure the historic shame
Of these poor traitors—traitors are they all—
To great Democracy and Womanhood!”
All women, of all races and all classes, whose rights on the basis of sex matter in the collective, global women’s liberation movement against sexism, are threatened by this new misogyny, which, as it seems, is not so new, after all. Taking this form, it just looks different, but it is a so-called “progressive” manifestation of male sadism and female masochism doing the work of male supremacy and working to undo women’s rights. We live in a time in which people observed male at birth can speak more freely about femaleness than people observed female at birth. Whether “right-wing” or “left-wing,” male supremacy connects the two sides as one, in that it hurts women as a sex in the fundamental prioritization of the male sex over the female sex. Anti-feminists in the present seem so much like anti-suffragists of the past.
Donovan Cleckley holds a BA in English and Interdisciplinary Studies from the University of Montevallo and is completing an MA in English at Tulane University. His research focuses on sexual politics and the history of the global women’s movement. Learn more about his work at donovan-k-cleckley.com.