Was Ulrike von Kleist a real woman? Certainly not according to her half-brother, the writer Heinrich von Kleist. In a letter dating from 1801, he complains that although he adores Ulrike, nature must have made a mistake in creating a creature that is “neither man nor woman, and shifts, like an amphibian, between two species.”
Of course, Ulrike may not have viewed herself in such presciently non-binary terms. What we do know is that she was fiercely independent, ignoring her sibling’s advice that it was her destiny to be a wife and mother, and that she often took to wearing men’s clothing while travelling. Is this enough to make a person “neither man nor woman”? It’s always been my view that Kleist’s letter tells us far more about his sexism (and that of his background) than Ulrike’s gender. But then again, maybe I’m wrong. Over 200 years after his death, it seems our most progressive voices would now be taking his side.
Take, for instance, the responses to Jenni Murray’s recent Sunday Times piece on trans politics and womanhood, some of which have questioned whether Murray herself has the right to call herself a “real woman”. One could argue that Murray has only herself to blame for having sought to set any boundaries at all. She is, after all, both old(ish) and female. It’s not really her place.
It can feel like the only acceptable role for someone like Murray in any gender identity debate is that of a kindly but ignorant old granny. She’s free to dry everyone’s tears, tell them how special they are, offer grateful applause every time someone uses big words to explain womanhood to her on account of the fact that “we didn’t learn any of that in my day”. But to have opinions of her own? That wouldn’t really do, not for someone who, as far as both left and right are concerned, has already entered No Woman’s Land.
According to Pink News’s Josh Jackman, fretful over a supposed “epidemic” of feminists having opinions about womanhood (at least since Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie dared to get in on the act), a woman is “anyone who self-defines as a woman”. Like Heinrich von Kleist, Jackman doesn’t associate womanhood with any social or embodied experience, but instead with a declared identification with femininity. The trouble is, this isn’t making womanhood a more flexible category. After all, what happens to the female who rejects femininity without also being prepared to embrace masculinity? Well, she’s not really anything. Like Ulrike von Kleist, like Jenni Murray, like any feminist – myself included – she’s a nothing, “weder Mann noch Weib.”
This is particularly true for the older woman. If the conservative right sees woman as a reproductive and/or sexual object while the left sees her as an identity, what does that make the adult human female who is no longer reproductively exploitable but who also refuses to identify with the cultural trappings and social expectations of womanhood? It makes her an aberration. The predictable slew of “Is Jenni Murray a ‘real woman’?” tweets and think pieces which followed Murray’s Sunday Times article were from people who would doubtless have claimed to have been using the term “real woman” ironically. Yet one cannot “ironically” use sexism to win an argument if the argument also requires that one’s sexism be taken at face value.
“Jenni Murray is 66 and (I’m guessing) no longer menstruating,” declared one tweeter. “Does that mean, by her own definition, that she’s not a real woman any more?” Well, no, since you ask, as Murray defined womanhood neither as reproductive capacity nor as femininity. (She did so in terms of class experience. For those who do not believe female people have inner lives – who cannot see them as anything other than vessels or templates – this may have been difficult to grasp). Yet the fact remains that Murray is a post-menopausal woman and our cultural assumptions about such women – that they are superfluous, conservative, ignorant – remain embedded in that tweet.
In the Mirror, ex-Apprentice contestant Saira Khan, when not condemning Murray for being “out of touch” for her views on gender, expressed dismay at the broadcaster’s lack of “empathy” and “warmth” on the one occasion when they met (one doubts Khan ever expected the same from, say, Alan Sugar).
Regardless of her views, it seems Murray really isn’t very feminine, at least if one takes that to mean kind, accommodating, motherly, self-sacrificing – all the things little girls are trained to be from the moment they’re born. It’s at this point that one can’t help wondering whether Murray’s biggest sin isn’t that she reinforced the boundaries of womanhood. It’s that – by ageing, by outliving her reproductive exploitability, by refusing to put other people’s feelings first, by asserting the validity of her own experiences – she has overstepped them.
It does not surprise me at all that older feminists tends to be more gender critical, nor that younger feminists tend to dismiss them as ill-educated or out of touch (with many notable exceptions). We’d all like to transcend the body. We’d all like to find a way of playing the femininity game in a way that lets us win. It takes a long time to discover that neither of these things is possible. You will get old. You will displease people. You will not be able to make room for others indefinitely. You will learn that when people told you the only alternative to womanhood as reproduction was womanhood as femininity, they were lying. There is womanhood as the vast, diverse experiences of female human beings the world over, experiences which do not offset or qualify some mythical masculinity, but which simply matter in and of themselves.
If only we could accept this, there would be no battles over boundaries or inclusion. If we recognise the humanity and diversity of female individuals, then humanity becomes the common ground we all share. But this would require the buy-in of men who’d rather see women as amphibians than as human beings. Jenni Murray may be 66, but the mentality of those judging her is stuck in 1801.