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8 March 2016updated 04 Oct 2023 10:39am

Can we celebrate all who identify as women on International Women’s Day?

Between 0.1 and 5 per cent of the world's population are trans, genderqueer or intersex. Is International Women's Day for us too?

By Susan Rudy

On International Women’s Day we celebrate the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. But can we celebrate all who identify as women on 8 March?

Between 0.1 and 5 per cent of the world’s population are trans, genderqueer or intersex. Is International Women’s Day for us too?

I say “us” because, despite the fact that I was born female, I don’t always find it easy to identify as a woman. With my short, grey hair and female partner, I am often identified as “sir” and feel an affinity with persons for whom the categories of biological sex and gender don’t easily align.

AH Devor, the world’s first endowed chair in trans studies, finds that the way we make sense of human beings when we encounter them in the world is very different from the way we have been taught to think about sex and gender.

As Devor notes, we have been taught to think about sex and gender in the following ways:

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1) Sex is an intrinsic biological characteristic. There are two, and only two, sexes: male and female.

2) All persons are either one sex or the other. No person can be neither. Normally, no person can be both. No person can change sex without major medical intervention.

3) Genders are the social manifestation of sex. There are two, and only two, genders: men and women, (boys and girls). All males are either boys or men. All females are either girls or women.

But what actually happens when we encounter new human beings in the world?

Very few of us meet each other naked or study each other’s DNA. Upon meeting other humans for the first time, we can, therefore, say very little about their biological sexes.

Devor finds that we make assumptions about a person’s gender based on whether they present as masculine or feminine.

If they present as feminine, we see them as women. If they present as masculine, we see them as men. We assume therefore that they are biologically male or female.

Earlier this year, I saw a photograph at the London opening of Annie Leibovitz’s Women: New Portraits exhibition which helped me to understand how this works.

An extension of her project begun in 1999 with her late partner, Susan Sontag, Liebovitz’s new exhibition includes startling photographic portraits of Lena Dunham, Jane Goodall, Sheryl Sandberg, Aung San Suu Kyi, Gloria Steinem, Amy Winehouse, and dozens of other women.

I want to focus on the portrait of performance artist Jennifer Miller:

Jennifer Miller, by Annie Leibovitz. Photo: Women: New Portraits exhibition

Is Jennifer Miller a woman?

If, as Devor argues, in order to be seen to be a woman, one must be seen to be feminine, Miller is not a woman. She has a beard. Were Miller clothed, we might be tempted to assume that she is a man.

By photographing Miller in the nude, Leibovitz asks us to question how we make sense of the world in terms of sex and gender.

We can see that Miller does not appear to have a penis. We can see that she has breasts. We can see that this person is probably biologically female (see this fascinating blog on the six most common biological sexes).

But Miller does not follow femininity’s rules. She has not waxed her facial hair.

What we learn from the photograph of Jennifer Miller is not that she is a woman. What we learn is that human beings are infinitely complex creatures.

We also learn that, as a society, we have been willing to place limitations on human potential by requiring that persons be seen as either women or men, masculine or feminine. Not both. Not sometimes one, sometimes the other. Not something else entirely.

The reality of Jennifer Miller’s existence in the world as a woman with masculine characteristics will make many viewers uncomfortable. It made me uncomfortable. I could feel the synapses in my brain firing in unexpected ways.

Thinking about the matter of the beard got me thinking about what else those of us who want to be seen as women and yet have masculine characteristics must eliminate from our presentations of self. This thought reminded me of other photographs in the exhibition.

Many of Liebovitz’s women are leaders in their fields. She took photograph after photograph of artists and activists, scientists and politicians, feminists and business leaders.

At the Rhodes Project we curate a profile series that also celebrates many versions of what women can be, by featuring a similarly high-achieving demographic. Rhodes women are leaders in academia, business, law, science and government.

Thinking about the outstanding accomplishments of Leibovitz’s women and the Rhodes women in the masculine sphere of public space, I wondered again why the gender gap in leadership persists. This led me to grasping something new about women and masculinity.

We know that in most cultures masculinity and leadership are closely linked, as stated in this Harvard Business Review article entitled “Women Rising: The Unseen Barriers”:

“The ideal leader, like the ideal man, is decisive, assertive, and independent. In contrast, women are expected to be nice, caretaking, and unselfish. The mismatch between conventionally feminine qualities and the qualities thought necessary for leadership puts female leaders in a double bind.”

What trans, genderqueer and intersex people remind us is that becoming a woman or man in our society requires not only that bodies conform to particular biological sexes, but – even more fundamentally – that the rules of femininity and masculinity be rigorously followed.

Like Jennifer Miller, trans people who identify as women are diverse in terms of biological sex characteristics, yes, but they are also diverse in terms of their ability to adhere to the rules of femininity. The cost of not being able to adhere to the rules is, in the case of trans women, exceptionally high.

Devor’s research demonstrates that, for our understanding of gender and sex, we ignore the “profound importance of biodiversity” at our peril.

But, as one of my favourite feminist poets, Nicole Brossard, wrote: “If patriarchy can take what exists and make it not, surely we can take what exists and make it be.”

“What exists” in all who identify as women are diverse and exceptional bodies, abilities and capacities. Taking this lesson seriously is what we can do for ourselves when we celebrate International Women’s Day on 8 March.

Susan Rudy is executive director of the Rhodes Project, a London-based charity and research centre that collects data about women who have held Rhodes Scholarships. She is also a Visiting Scholar at Said Business School, University of Oxford.

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