What makes a woman? According to Cyndi Lauper, it’s that when the working day is done, they just wanna have fun. According to Shania Twain, it’s really going wild, doing it in style and feeling the way you feel. And according to Twitter, the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy thinks it’s “being nurturing, caring, social, emotional, vulnerable, and concerned with appearance” – unless you’re northern and working-class, in which case you’re a woman if you’re strong and aggressive.
Screenshots of the report, commissioned by BACP and written by Dr Meg-John Barker, senior lecturer in psychology at the Open University, started appearing on Twitter late last week. They appear to have initially been tweeted by Helen Joyce. Twitter and the press immediately jumped on it, fuming that an organisation as rational as the BACP can endorse seemingly baffling and outdated notions that women are vain and vulnerable, while men are “competitive, ambitious, independent, rational, tough, sexual, confident, dominant, (take) risks, and (care) about their work”.
When you read the screenshot, the outrage seems, mostly, justifiable. Feminism has spent years fighting against the idea that women are all one way and men are all another, no? When I received the brief to write this up this morning, I was fully prepared to rip the report to shreds for being outdated, sexist and stupid.
Then I read it.
The screenshots on Twitter – which, I’ve later realised, were predominantly being shared by people with histories of objecting to trans rights and the idea that gender and sex are anything but binary – show a tiny part of a 66-page report on the best practice for counsellors and psychiatrists, focusing specifically on issues of gender, sexuality and relationship diversity. The sections screenshotted on Twitter are the ones where Barker is defining how women and men and trans, cisgender and non-binary people are commonly, socially and culturally understood, in order for those ideas to be later dismantled.
Read the screenshot on its own and it seems incredibly shocking that someone has dared to say that “being a woman in a British cultural context often means adhering to social norms of femininity”. See it in the context of a non-binary author exploring how psychiatrists should better understand and meet the needs of different demographics in society, it is eminently sensible. I want my counsellors and psychiatrists to think about intersectionality! I want them to recognise the difference in experiences of women from different backgrounds, races, regions, ages, physical abilities and neurodivergence, when it comes to treating women for their mental health! I want them to understand that there is a societal expectation for how women “should” behave and how the fact that most women do not adhere to that expectation screws them up! Dr Barker is saying excellent, sensible things here, but the quote was taken hugely out of context in order to make a point – the erroneous point that whenever we progress trans rights, we must stamp on women to do so.
Gender is a knotty, messy, complicated thing, because people are messy and complicated. It’s OK to not have the answers all the time, to not have clear-cut definitions and rules, especially when it comes to people’s lives
I keep seeing this happening. As conversations about gender progress, people seem to be very worried that allowing trans people to, well, to exist means that we’re dragging ourselves back to a world in which men act one way and women act another. One annotation on the screenshot reads “I don’t know if it could be made any clearer that transgender ideology promotes sexist stereotypes. Also, should women be defined by sexist stereotypes rather than biology?”
No. I don’t think that women should be defined by sexist stereotypes. I also don’t think they should be defined by biology. It is entirely possible to reject the two. Look, here I go: I don’t think someone’s personality is defined by their gender, whether they’re cisgender or transgender. I also think it’s entirely possible to reject gender norms while living in the gender you were assigned at birth. Here I go again: I understand how it feels to be a woman who doesn’t fit the gender norm, to be a woman who is combative and ambitious and career-focused, and who still has absolutely no desire to live as a man. It’s entirely possible to hold these two views in your mind at once.
Here’s something I don’t understand: why I am a woman. If I had to make a list of what makes me a woman, it’d probably be a sheet of A4 with a shrug emoji printed on it. Here’s something else I don’t understand: how it feels to be a person born into a female body, who later realises that they’re a man, or neither a man or a woman. But that’s OK! I don’t have to understand it to know it’s a real and important feeling. I don’t understand Spanish, either, but I still recognise it as a valid language.
Gender is a knotty, messy, complicated thing, because people are messy and complicated. It’s OK to not have the answers all the time, to not have clear-cut definitions and rules, especially when it comes to people’s lives. Both feminists and trans-activists want to dismantle strict, patriarchal ideas of gender. We should be working together to do so, not against each other with these endless fights. It is infuriating that we seem to see rights as a zero-sum game, that whenever there are conflicts between the rights of cis women and trans people the knee-jerk reaction is that we have to throw it all out, rather than work through them together. And it’s enraging that some people on Twitter took the out-of-context words of someone who is trying to help seriously vulnerable people feel safe, seen and understood, and twisted them in order to provoke outrage.