Last week, Rose McGowan abruptly cancelled her book tour following a confrontation at a Barnes & Noble with an audience member on Jan. 31. The protester, a trans woman, accused McGowan of not doing enough for trans women and was escorted out of the event by security while yelling “white cis feminism.” McGowan characterized the incident as a verbal assault and complained on Twitter that her staff and the audience had been insufficiently supportive of her in the wake of the incident.
This isn’t the first time that McGowan, a former Weinstein victim who has vigorously contributed to the #MeToo movement against sexual harassment, has come into conflict with the transgender community. In 2015, McGowan wrote a Facebook post criticizing Caitlyn Jenner which read, in part, “You want to be a woman and stand with us- well learn us. We are more than deciding what to wear. We are more than the stereotypes foisted upon us by people like you. You’re a woman now? Well fucking learn that we have had a VERY different experience than your life of male privilege.” When her post was criticized for its transphobia, McGowan removed it and explained that she had only intended to be critical of Jenner’s comment that the hardest part of being a woman was deciding what to wear.
That largely satisfied her trans critics until last July, when she appeared on RuPaul’s podcast What’s the Tee. In the episode, McGowan brought up the subject of trans women and complained that trans friends of hers had never asked what it was like to grow breasts or get a period. She then said of trans women: “They assume, because they felt like a woman on the inside, that’s not developing as a woman, that’s not growing as a woman, that’s not living in this world as a woman.”
It’s clear from these comments that McGowan believes trans women fall short of full womanhood. She points to specific experiences that she considers central to true womanhood—having a period, growing breasts, being subjected to male attention at an early age. This trans-exclusionary idea of womanhood leads to an impoverished and incomplete feminism, one that doesn’t just alienate trans people but also leaves out the experiences of many cis women.
What could better epitomize the abuse faced by women and girls than the molestation of more than 150 women in gymnastics by physician Larry Nassar? But young female gymnasts train so hard that their young bodies often do not develop breasts or periods at the age-appropriate time—are their experiences thus not truly the experiences of women? In fact, there are many conditions that can result in a woman never having periods. Breasts come in a huge variety of shapes and sizes, and at the end of the day, they’re just a bit of extra tissue—it makes as much sense to say that they’re essential to the experience of womanhood as it would to say that having 10 fingers is essential to the experience of humanity. Many women experience unwanted male attention—but unless you’re willing to say that a disabled woman who has never been treated as a sexual being because of her disability isn’t a real woman, then this experience can’t be at the heart of what it means to be a woman either.
In fact, it’s easy to imagine a disabled woman with a condition that affects the development of both primary and secondary sex characteristics who has none of the traits that McGowan thinks are essential to womanhood—and who remains, stubbornly, defiantly, a woman.
Trans men, on the other hand, may have once checked all of McGowan’s boxes and still benefited from male privilege as unambiguously as any cis man. An anecdote that trans neurobiologist Ben Barres likes to tell to illustrate this point is that a scientist who was unaware of Barres’ transition once said, “Ben Barres gave a great seminar today, but then his work is much better than his sister’s.” Ben Barres was the same person, doing the same work, but maleness gave that work more gravitas, at least to some of his colleagues.
The point is not that a trans woman’s experience is identical to that of a cis woman but that the experiences of women vary widely, and that feminists who forget this—or undermine it in order to exclude trans women—weaken feminism immeasurably. If watching tampon ads as a girl is central to womanhood (another experience McGowan referenced), then what are we saying about girls who grow up without electricity? If being mistreated by men is at the heart of womanhood, then what room is there to imagine strong girls and women of the future who don’t go through any of that? If women and men are one day truly equal, will there still be men and women? I say yes. Trans-exclusionary feminists aren’t quite as sure.
Last, but not least, there’s a danger in seeing girlhood as a permanent stain on one’s soul, something that damages a person irrevocably. Set aside the fact that there are such vast differences between cultures that it hardly makes sense to speak of “being raised female” as if it were a single thing. It dims the prospects for adult women to see these formative experiences as permanently crippling. If a trans woman who spends 20 years being perceived as a man and 60 years being perceived as a woman can’t be said to have experienced what it’s like to be a woman, then this means that early experiences of sexism are the most important fact of a woman’s life, and they can never be overcome. This fatalism, again, impoverishes feminism. It limits what we can hope for women growing up in an imperfect era and resigns us to a view of women as permanently damaged by childhood experiences of sexism.
Feminism that includes trans women is far more hopeful. It allows for the recognition of difference, for the solidarity that grows out of many divergent paths, and for change and growth beyond ones’ formative experiences. It also leaves room for self-determination, for women and men to know themselves better from the inside than others know them from the outside, and to declare who they are without apology. Trans-inclusive feminism also allows trans men to acknowledge what they have in common with cis women, without forcing them to deny the privilege they may experience once they present as male. McGowan, and others like her, fear that trans people will take something away from feminism. In truth, trans experiences can support feminism and strengthen it.
At the book signing, McGowan asked her protester, “What have you done for women?” The answer, Rose, if you’ll accept trans people who want to support you, is plenty.