J.K. Rowling and the Measuring of a Woman

J.K. Rowling and the Measuring of a Woman July 7, 2020

Hi and welcome back! Lately, a huge controversy hit social media when J.K. Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter books, offered a series of her own hot takes on transgender people. Some of what she said sounded very much like the stuff we see out of toxic Christians, so today I wanted to talk about the measuring of a woman. What goes into womanhood? Who gets to decide? And who gets excluded by these lists of requirements?

excluding women from womanhood doesn't seem real feminist, j.k. rowling
(Delia Giandeini.)

(Related posts: The Great Evangelical Husband Hunt; The Sacrifice of the Marriage Lamb; My Terrible Bargain; Modest is Nottest. Just to be perfectly clear: Trans women are women. Black lives matter. Women’s rights are human rights.)

Disambiguation.

On May 28, a website called DevEx ran an opinion piece. They titled it “Creating a more equal post-COVID-19 world for people who menstruate.” It discussed the extra burdens that the pandemic has set on the shoulders of those who, well, menstruate:

Importantly, advocates are calling attention to the many gendered aspects of the pandemic, including increased vulnerabilities to gender-based violence during lockdowns, and the risks faced by primary caretakers — particularly women in the household and health care workers, approximately 75% of which are women.

Their authors (three women, it looks like) mentioned that this burden rests on the shoulders of folks they specifically refer to as “girls, women, and gender non-binary persons.” Then, they called for an increased focus on gender rights and charity efforts in various directions during these trying times.

The piece focused on menstruation precisely because, as its authors put it, it “serves as a proxy” for all of these concerns (much like the function abortion serves for a whole bunch of other rights).

You wouldn’t think there’d be much in this article to upset the author of one of the most successful book series of all time, would you? Especially when that author presented a great many and extremely notable progressive ideas to her young audience.

You especially might not expect this extremely wealthy and beloved author to forego actually reading the article in question before firing off her unasked-for opinion.

But both are exactly what seem to have happened.

“Someone Help Me Out.”

On June 6, J.K. Rowling tweeted this:

‘People who menstruate.’ I’m sure there used to be a word for those people. Someone help me out. Wumben? Wimpund? Woomud?

As I noted above, the article actually uses the word she pretends has escaped her mind. In fact, it didn’t mention trans people specifically at all. Its authors simply tried to be inclusive by voicing their concern about the group they referred to as “all people who menstruate.”

However, Rowling reacted like a gang leader to someone trespassing on her turf, if you’ll pardon the pun.

HOW DARE ANYBODY TALK ABOUT MENSTRUATION THAT WAY.

Like, GYAHH.

HOW DARE THEY.

This Didn’t Come Out of the Clear Blue Sky.

Weeks before this incident, Rowling had begun to draw questions and criticism for liking and retweeting stuff from various transphobic bigots (TERFs, or Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists, who go by “gender critical feminists” these days).

But with her June 6 tweet, she finally actually planted her own little flag on the hill she’d decided to die on, metaphorically speaking.

The social media world exploded — mostly with severe disapproval, I’m happy to reveal. Various stars of the Harry Potter movies rebuked her online and stated their firm support of trans rights and inclusion. At least a couple of major Harry Potter fan sites have distanced themselves from the author of their fandom. But non-fans have even gotten involved, like Lindsay Ellis on YouTube.


“Death of an Author II: Rowling Boogaloo.”

In response to all this disapproval, Rowling has only drilled down harder on her opinion. After the first salvos, she only dug deeper.

The Essay.

On June 10, Rowling wrote a lengthy essay on her personal website. That essay brings us the reason for today’s post.

Midway down, Rowling writes:

I’ve read all the arguments about femaleness not residing in the sexed body, and the assertions that biological women don’t have common experiences, and I find them, too, deeply misogynistic and regressive.

I saw that and went Wait, what?

How in the world could that idea be “deeply misogynistic and regressive?”

The Definition of Womanhood.

Other folks have already tackled the various errors Rowling has made in her reasoning. (Irish TimesThe Mighty, Youth IncorporatedCNN, and even NBC News have weighed in there.)

For my own part, I want to focus on this aspect of her outburst:

In starting her own little war against transgender people, Rowling has inadvertently bought into one of the most misogynistic ideas ever:

She appears to think there’s some kind of common, universal definition for womanhood that is deeply and inexorably rooted in biology. She thinks men, in transitioning, seek to appropriate and wear that definition like a “costume” (as she put it) or even eliminate it entirely as a reality, thus depriving women of what makes them different from men in the first place.

And I’ve got news for this ka-ka-kabillionaire author:

That idea just isn’t true.

It wasn’t true when Rowling herself was young and dealing with her own turmoil in figuring out what womanhood meant for herself. 

It’s even less true now.

Who Defines Womanhood?

I’ve noticed that authoritarian people love to define manhood and womanhood: to lay down the law about who qualifies for each particular label. Then, these lawgivers seek to refine each label to decide who’s allowed to warp its entry requirements or even opt out of it to drive outside of their own, proper, and appropriate lane.

Inevitably, whatever definition these lawgivers come up with is one that they themselves happen to fit into and/or consider virtuous.

Then, that definition gets weaponized against anybody who doesn’t fit into it. Indeed, Rowling herself, in her essays and social media posts, has time and again taken it upon herself to decide who may properly call themselves trans and who may not.

When I was younger, authoritarians’ definition for womanhood included stuff like:

  • Menstruation
  • Marriage
  • Motherhood (esp. childbearing and nursing)
  • Nurturing people in general
  • Dresses and makeup
  • Possession of various body parts

To a great degree, women like J.K. Rowling still live by that definition (as do today’s right-wing Christians).

Running Afoul of Others’ Definitions.

But plenty of women — even ones Rowling would approve as women — don’t menstruate. They don’t get married or become mothers. Maybe they’re not into dresses or makeup. And maybe they lack the body parts she thinks define womanhood. Perhaps they were never born with those parts — or maybe they lost them through misadventure or choice years later. Even the kind of childhood women have growing up can be vastly different from their cultures’ life scripts.

As for me, I didn’t even have a typical girlie-girl upbringing — I was a complete tomboy. I vastly preferred boys’ clothes, toys, and shoes! But I never once decided that meant I simply must have been an actual boy. I recognized that they had a lot more options and fun ahead of them in life than I faced, sure, and even in childhood I recognized that reality and bristled at it.

But just like trans women aren’t trying to appropriate femaleness for its own perceived benefits, I didn’t seek to appropriate maleness itself. Instead, I simply adopted the stuff I liked from all over the spectrum of gender, ignored the stuff I didn’t, and came out of it with an extremely strong sense of self as a woman — just like so many other women do.

Just like we must.

Despite how haphazardly I’ve always fit into the typical-woman life script, I have never once, ever in my life, felt like I wasn’t a real, authentic, and true woman. It has never even occurred to me to question my woman-ness. 

That’s because I knew-without-knowing from the start that womanhood transcends life scripts and particular body parts. 

A Social Construct.

When we talk about gender as a social construct, we’re not talking about some weird postmodern thing.

Womanhood is about the experience of being a woman in one’s society. When someone presents as a woman, society treats her differently almost immediately. It expects certain things of her — and accepts or condemns her according to how well she meets those expectations. Those expectations aren’t always (or even probably often) fair or consistent, but they’re a big part of the experience of being a woman.

How a woman gets along in her society varies drastically from how men do, or enbies do, or or or or…

Not to be Captain Obvious, but mileage varies dramatically.

Thus, when a transgender woman transitions, she becomes a woman. Full stop. She begins to take part in that experience, adapting to it and to making it her own.

That notion shouldn’t threaten anybody. And it’s certainly not up to J.K. Rowling to decide who’s allowed to be in the sisterhood, nor to police someone’s reasons for being there.

What Doesn’t Matter.

Biology does not determine womanhood.

Okay, so a trans woman has no ovaries, no uterus, and none of that other plumbing. Big whoop — a lot of cis women don’t.

So she can’t have children. Same big whoop — a whole bunch of cis women either opt out of parenthood or can’t have kids.

So she didn’t have a typical girlie childhood growing up. Back to the big whoop — that’s so culturally-specific I hope I don’t need to speak to it here. Plenty of cis women have tomboy childhoods like I did and yet don’t question their gender as a result.

To me, reducing womanhood to specific body parts and life scripts demeans all women. In trying to create a definition of womanhood that specifically excludes trans women’s right to the label, bigots accidentally lock a whole lot of cis women out of the definition too.

Indeed, all my life I’ve seen various women try to define my own womanhood out of existence, or make their vision of it the standard — seeking to make me less-than so they can feel more-than. That’s definitely the vibe I get from J.K. Rowling and her pals.

(I get the same way about women who post horseshit like “real women have curves.” It’s mean, it’s exclusionary, and it’s just a way to drag other women down to make the person saying it feel better.)

The Power of Love.

Womanhood can incorporate all the nuances that women themselves present, as well as all the disparate options they find and create for their lives.

Womanhood is so powerful that it can absorb all of those collective experiences and all of those differences, and only emerge from the process the stronger.

Trans women don’t destroy or threaten womanhood. They never did, and they never will.

Really, how could they? They are part of womanhood. 

If anything, our growing awareness of transgender topics and people will only bring us to a greater understanding of what womanhood itself is…

… And what it is not and never has been.

A Growing Awareness.

Cis people are still finding our way regarding trans folks.

I expect in coming years the conversation about trans rights and inclusion will find its footing and center increasingly where it needs to center — around trans women themselves. We’re still in the earliest days of that conversation. I’d be an idiot to deny that our social support systems (those of the UK and US alike) direly need refining.They’ve proven inadequate, probably because they’re based on older understandings of gender and sexuality.

But to me, that’s all stuff we can address without marginalizing and dehumanizing any women.

Heck, maybe that growing understanding will one day help women like J.K. Rowling understand that their own attempt to enshrine their favorite definition of womanhood actually excludes, dehumanizes, and marginalizes a lot of the cis women they claim to want to protect and speak for, while actively harming trans women who already face a lot of hassles and dangers. 

And like me, people generally and increasingly want no part of that kind of exclusionary and toxic dialogue.

A Growing Desire for Inclusion.

Instead, it seems to me that increasing numbers of women want inclusion and a definition of womanhood that embraces all the facets and potential of our own lives and those of other women. If nothing else, Rowling’s social-media fight has certainly demonstrated that point.

In trying to define and police womanhood, J.K. Rowling has only revealed the limits of her own understanding of it and her own inability to grow and change for the better.

To sum up: Trans women ARE women. I’m glad that as a society we’re understanding more and more about what goes into gender — and what doesn’t and never has.

NEXT UP: Another Endtimes prophecy went completely bust, and most folks never even knew about it. See you tomorrow!


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Last Notes.

Captain Cassidy’s Law of Wingnut Kinship: Generally speaking, if you find that one of your opinions is shared by alt-right wingnuts and/or fundagelicals, that’s a good indication that it’s time to seriously reexamine that opinion. It doesn’t mean your opinion is wrong, necessarily, just that there’s a very good chance of it.

And this: I find it amusing that the super-TERFy subreddit r/GenderCritical has been banned from Reddit, along with the subreddit those women created afterward to talk about the same stuff, r/Menstruators.

About Captain Cassidy
Captain Cassidy grew up fervently Catholic, converted to the SBC in her teens, and became a Pentecostal shortly afterward. She even volunteered in church (choir, Sunday School) and married an aspiring preacher! But then--record scratch!--she brought everything to a screeching halt when she deconverted in her mid-20s. That was 25 years ago. Now a comfortable None, she blogs on Roll to Disbelieve about psychology, pop culture, politics, relationships, cats, gaming, and more--and where they all intersect with religion. She lives with an adored and adoring husband named Mr. Captain and a sweet, squawky orange tabby cat named Princess Bother Pretty Toes. At any given time, she's running out of bookcase space. You can read more about the author here.

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