This week one of the most shared articles in my facebook news feed was the provocatively titled “What Makes a Woman” by Elinor Burkett. The bottom line of the piece was that it’s intellectually inconsistent to cheer when Caitlyn Jenner goes on national television declaring that her female brain makes her a woman and to jeer when Larry Summers idiotically says (as he did ten years ago) that women aren’t as successful in math and science as men because of differences in their brains. If Caitlyn gets certain privileges because of her lady brain, the reasoning goes, we have let Larry say mean things about us. If men and women’s brains really are different, maybe he’s right.
Let me put my cards right on the table. I’m a militant nurture-not-nature person when it comes to gender differences. I gave my son dolls and my daughter trucks. It was only when pre-K classmates insinuated that pink was for only girls that my son’s long-treasured Hello Kitty lunch box and pink sneakers were retired. At the same time, I have (as I’ve often mentioned in this blog) all the female problems. My confidence is shaky, my ambition second-guessed (and then my lack of ambition second guessed again. I am sometimes a square of guessing). I have all the lady parts and all the lady problems.
But those problems are social, not biological. The lady parts are just that—parts. Breastfeeding my children was the most embodied and holy feeling I’ve encountered so far, but that doesn’t mean that those who haven’t had that experience are any less women or that I have to be defined by my body to express my faith. Our brains take daily showers in all the stereotypes and social expectations of the world, as Burkett’s article itself quotes: “You can’t pick up a brain and say ‘that’s a girl’s brain’ or ‘that’s a boy’s brain,’ ” Gina Rippon, a neuroscientist at Britain’s Aston University, told The Telegraph last year. The differences between male and female brains are caused by the “drip, drip, drip” of the gendered environment.” Of course that has an impact. Caitlyn Jenner can think whatever “Women are from Mars, Men are from Venus” nonsense about how her emotional sensitivities make her more female as she wants. That’s her business.
Essentialism—the idea that there is anything essentially “male” or “female” about being aggressive or nurturing (or any constellation in between)—is an old debate in feminist circles. We like it when we get to hang out with women and we feel safe. We don’t like it so much when it’s deployed as a weapon from without, limiting who we can be. From a feminist point of view, though—as the underdog in the patriarchy—we have a certain right to deploy whatever tools we want. Because we are not—at this point—in charge, we get to have our cake and eat it too. As I wrote in many an undergraduate essay in my gender studies degree, essentialism is one tool, among many, that can be deployed at will. Using one tool along the way doesn’t mean you’ll need it every time.
Does Caitlyn Jenner have a more female brain that I do? It’s totally possible. Does that jeopardize my or her status as women? I don’t think so. This is where theology comes in, and why Burkett’s collision course isn’t inevitable. As long as there are feminists who want to exclude trans women, there will be trans activists who object to the idea that the play The Vagina Monologues is too cisgender (traditional birth gender)-centric. That’s dialogue, not oppression. You can agree or disagree with either one and still fit. Caitlyn Jenner can describe her gendered experience in a way that doesn’t resonate with mine. That’s her right.
In our baptismal covenant, we promise to respect the dignity of every human being. The dignity of each person to define themselves as they see fit, to express themselves as they desire, in the place where they find God’s breath breathing most freely in them. It’s why racist police brutality is wrong. It’s why men can stay at home with babies and women can earn lots of money. And it’s why Caitlyn gets to be herself. These values are not in conflict. Or, as third grader Q described his gender transition on the NPR show TheTakeway, Instead of a dead flower, [this is like being] a growing flower.”
While it’s true that Caitlyn Jenner’s brain has come for its first six decades or so to inhabit a world where a man is free to walk wherever he wants, as a transwoman she is exponentially more likely to face violence now. If she spent her years as an Olympian longing to be seen as someone else, even in the midst of fame and privilege, she now has the right to be as feminine as she wants. Not because she earned it from her suffering, but because it’s just who she is. I believe her, even if, as Burkett says, “her truth is not my truth.” Our truths don’t have to be the same to be true. Human dignity, by definition, isn’t defined by the world. Our dignity comes from our belovedness as created by God. To extend Q’s metaphor, God wants us all to be growing flowers, period. Whether our stems and petals match in traditional ways isn’t the point.