For the Record: On ‘Bodies With Vaginas’


I feel a need to go on record regarding the latest transgender/women’s rights controversy that has broken out this month. Since Summer 2020 I’ve found myself in the unexpected and unpleasant position as lone defender of transgender women in debates on Facebook. In addition to Facebook I’ve posted a flurry of entries here on the blog. I had never expected to focus so much on this issue, but here we are.

Latest Issue of The Lancet Sparks Uproar

Now comes the newest issue of The Lancet, a prestigious weekly peer-reviewed medical journal published in Britain. This issue features a cover story entitled ‘Periods on Display.’ The article reviews an exhibition at London’s Vagina Museum on the history of menstruation. (I confess I had never heard of this museum before now.) The article uses the word “women” throughout except for one line where the phrase “bodies with vaginas” is used instead. The Lancet chose to highlight this by placing the quote front and center on its cover.

“Historically, the anatomy and physiology of bodies with vaginas have been neglected — for example, the paucity in understanding of endometriosis and the way women’s pain has been seen as more likely to have an emotional or psychological cause, a hangover from centuries of theorising about hysteria.”

– Sophia Davis in The Lancet

Outrage has exploded across social media, academia, the medical profession, women’s rights organizations, and beyond. This is just a sample of the furor on Twitter.

Along with The Lancet, the ACLU has joined this new practice of erasing women as well. It posted the following last week on Twitter. I first saw it on a friend’s Facebook feed.

The full ACLU image:

I give benefit of the doubt and believe that substitution of terms like “person” for “woman” or the term “themself” for “himself”/”herself” as being done with the best of intentions. The intent, I trust, is to be fair and inclusive of transgender people. Worthy goals, I think, but the practice has serious consequences for society as a whole that I will discuss below.

Rights & Responsibilities

As I said at the opening above, for over a year I’ve been fighting a battle on Facebook and this blog defending transgender women. I have to think a few socialists on Facebook have given me up as a Hopelessly Anti-Communist Woke Liberal Looney Tune. Nonetheless I stand steadfastly by my defense of my community — LGBT people of all stripes — and in particular my defense of the transgender community since they are most under fire these days.

This isn’t to say that everything transgender gets an automatic pass. It can’t be “anything goes.”

With rights come responsibility. The rights of one person or group must not nullify the rights of another person or group. Now this gets messy, I realize. For instance some people will assert that the right of same-sex couples to marry inherently, by definition, diminishes the right of opposite-sex couples to marry. There’s not much I can do about such logic, so I’ll press forward.

While I support and defend transgender people I acknowledge there are a few problem areas that we need to address as a community and as a society. At the risk of alienating some in the transgender community, two particular issues come to mind for me:

  • Sports competition is a big one. Total inclusion in every sport isn’t practical or fair, but nor is total exclusion. Reasonable guidelines need to established. The Women’s Sports Policy Working Group is one effort underway to address this.
  • While I think transgender women should be allowed access to restrooms, locker rooms, etc., I don’t think it’s in anyone’s best interests to expose cisgender women and girls to male genitalia. At times it can traumatize those observing and in general I think it risks undermining broad public support for transgender rights. From a pragmatic standpoint, it’s not strategically wise. But access is a right, I believe, so accommodations must be made to enable transgender women who have not gone through surgery to shower and dress, etc., with discretion. Restrooms, store changing rooms and similar places have stalls and doors where there should be no problem. Many locker rooms and change rooms, however, need modification. I oppose the frequent alternative of limiting transgender people to single-person unisex restrooms, especially when far away and inconvenient to reach.

Inclusion Without Exclusion

I’ll go back to Sarah Graham’s tweet above: “It IS possible to be inclusive AND accurate AND acknowledge medical misogyny (& transphobia) all at once, without reducing anyone to their anatomy.”

Transgender women are entitled to dignity, respect and basic democratic rights including housing and job protections, full access to medical care, and more. I personally fail to see why transgender women’s rights and cisgender women’s rights cannot co-exist side-by-side equally — but it seems cisgender women’s rights are being subordinated to transgender women’s rights in a way that negates and erases cisgender women and all their advances over the decades.

When treated this way, transgender rights are doing to women’s rights in actual fact what gay marriage opponents claim is happening to heterosexual marriage. If cisgender women must become generic “people,” indistinct from others, separated from their identities and history, then everything the women’s movement has fought for and won is undermined.

The Militant explained the implications of this:

For the working class under capitalism, the lion’s share of the financial, emotional and practical responsibility for child rearing falls on children’s mothers, including shopping, cooking, and keeping up a clean and decent place to live, usually while holding down a job. In the U.S., 40% of babies are born to unmarried women. Nearly 16 million children lived with a single mother in the U.S. in 2019. Many working-class women have difficulty obtaining family planning and prenatal and postnatal care. Women earn on the average 81% of what men earn…

Women’s subjugation developed with the rise of class society. Under capitalism the rulers use it as a central way to divide working people and to superexploit women, driving down the wages of all workers…

Women’s oppression will not be eradicated by women refusing to be women, but by deepening the fight for women’s rights and other struggles in the interests of the working class.

That starts today by supporting workers’ fight for higher wages, safe working conditions and dignity at Amazon, Marathon and ATI steel. It requires demanding the prosecution of the cops who killed Breonna Taylor and pointing to the example set by women and men who have taken to the streets in Argentina and Poland recently to fight for abortion rights — a fight that needs to be emulated here….

There are other portions of this same Militant article that I disagree with — basically a fundamental denial that there can be such thing as a ‘transgender person’ beyond someone’s (probably misguided) notion — but that can be a separate discussion. Even as we argue whether there’s any authenticity or legitimacy to transgenderism, recognition and understanding of the historic role of cisgender women in class society is essential. To throw it away is as damaging as if we were to throw away Black history or Jewish history.

So, for the record…

  • I support full and equal rights for transgender women to participate in society as women in the ways I’ve touched on here, and in others ways…
  • …but I do not support a blurring, diminishment or erasure of the history of cisgender women. We must retain and expand an understanding of their fight and the conquests of the women’s rights movement, and the important role they must and will play in working-class struggle going forward.
  • For this reason I disapprove replacing the words “woman” or “women” with broad generic terms like “person” or “people.” Likewise I disapprove of using a generic third-person term like “themself” in place of “herself” or “himself.”
  • At the same time I support and defend the right of individuals to choose a name and pronouns that match their personal gender identity, and I believe these choices should be respected and used by others.
  • While I concede there are a few practical and thorny issues to work through, I believe that transgender women’s rights and cisgender women’s rights can co-exist. They need not be mutually exclusive. There is no reason the historic achievements and victories of cisgender women need be lost.

Maybe someday in a hundred years or so there will be uterine transplants enabling someone who was born cisgender male anatomically to bear children. If this happens we can reassess a lot of things at that time. For now, today, such a scenario is close to science fiction. At this time only those born as cisgender women experience menstruation, only cisgender women can get pregnant and only cisgender women can give birth.

These qualifications notwithstanding, I will continue my defense of the transgender community, and transgender women specifically, with all my heart and soul.

The essay was slightly revised on October 2, 2021, to articulate more succinctly the bullet points made “For the Record” in the last section.

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3 thoughts on “For the Record: On ‘Bodies With Vaginas’

    1. Thanks, my friend. We’re good, I assure you. The differences between me, the party and most supporters are significant in my view. The difference in perception of magnitude is itself indicative. But I’m satisfied at this point. My support for the SWP on other matters remains. I’ve feel I’ve clarified the nuances of my positions as best I can and I’m ready to move on. I’ll be focusing the blog in another direction soon.

  1. Well said, Bob. I have some serious issues with the constant attacks on cisgender people, especially when it’s in the context of someone trying to better understand some things. In my case, I have been labeled a TERF just for asking questions about the non-binary experience. That made no sense but the bully didn’t care.
    Frankly, I find some of the rhetoric around being non-binary to be wholly anti-feminist and it drives me crazy. The whole idea of feminism, when you get right down to it, is equality, equity and a rejection of manufactured gender roles so that Bob and can be Bob as Bob defines it and so on.

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