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Simone de Beauvoir was against essentialism–including neurological essentialism.

Date: April 29, 2013

In Transphobia Has No Place in Feminism, writer Lauren Rankin repeats a popular pro-trans argument that the (dominant) radical feminist stance on trans women (i.e. they are not women) is contradicted by Simone de Beauvior’s famous quote, “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.” Lauren writes:

Any assumption that cisgender women are the only true women is a blatant form of bigotry. And honestly, it’s in direct violation of Feminism 101. After all, Simone De Beauvoir said more than half a century ago “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.”

Feminism is predicated on the idea that gender is a social construct, that women are not defined by their biology, and that the category of “woman” is informed and constructed by social gender norms. If women are more than what’s between their legs, why do some feminists continue to perpetuate a patriarchal notion that biology is destiny?

I agree that “any assumption that cisgender women are the only true women is a blatant form of bigotry”–not necessarily because I believe that trans women are “true women,” but because I don’t know what “true women” means in the first place–but I don’t feel that the use of de Beauvoir’s quote in this context is appropriate.

This famous quote comes from the beginning of the book two of The Second Sex, which is a chapter about the development of gendered characteristics in childhood. de Beauvoir writes:

No biological, psychological, or economic fate determines the figure that the human female presents in society […] Only the intervention of someone else can establish an individual as an Other. […] If, well before puberty and sometimes even from early infancy, she seems to us to be already sexually determined, this is not because mysterious instincts directly doom her to passivity, coquetry, maternity; it is because the influence of others upon the child is a factor almost from the start, and thus she is indoctrinated with her vocation from her earliest years.

Simone de Beauvoir does negate the “patriarchal notion that biology is destiny,” but that notion is not what (most) radical feminists actually subscribe to. Radical feminists believe, as did de Beauvoir, that one becomes a woman through and as a result of “the intervention of someone else” that indoctrinates female children into feminine gender roles.

On the other hand, trans activists and allies sometimes claim that trans women are women because of some “mysterious instincts,” as de Beauvoir calls it–a form of neuroessentialism. They might, possibly, be right about the etiology of gender identity, but they cannot use de Beauvoir’s words to support that position.

My position–following Naomi Scheman’s statement that “transsexual lives are lived, hence livable”–has always been that trans women are women because they just are; trans existence does not require any theoretical justification any more than cis existence does. But when trans activists and allies resort to a mis-interpretation of classical feminist text to argue against the anti-trans bigotry within feminism, I worry that it only bolsters radical feminists’ confidence that they are the only real feminists who understand feminism.

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