Like a natural woman

2 Nov

Murphy Brown


Anybody who watched television between 1988 and 1998 may remember the series Murphy Brown, starring Candice Bergen as a forty-something recovering alcoholic news hound who shattered glass ceilings in spite of all obstacles, and became something of a feminist icon for a short while.

However. Bergen’s character was acclaimed for her portrayal of the many possibilities for women other than marriage and motherhood and maybe even paid work, but not so as it would interfere with a woman’s primary obligations towards marriage and motherhood. So when Murphy found herself pregnant and the show’s musical director chose Carole King’s “You make me feel like a natural woman” to accompany the soft-focus birthing scene, many second wave feminists were outraged.

I’ve linked to the lyrics if you want to see why. I could write a thesis on those lyrics but for now I’ll simply say they’re an outstanding example of patriarchal elephant excrement.

In that single scene the show appeared to undo all the good things by implying that what made Murphy Brown a real woman, a natural woman, was giving birth and embarking on motherhood. Everything preceding those events was less than natural,  the scene suggested, and prior to motherhood Brown was an incomplete and unreal, albeit successful woman.

This message ran counter to everything second wave feminism fought for, and landed us right back in the biology is destiny narrative but wait, there’s more, it then set us on the having it all highway, as Brown struggled to juggle demanding career and demanding infant as a single mother. But at least she was now a natural woman.

Memories of Murphy Brown have resurfaced after a couple of days in the fraught world of uneasy and at times violent interactions between biological women and trans women, and the men who support trans women by threatening biological women, as my three previous posts explain. It isn’t unusual to hear from both sides rhetoric about natural/biological women, feeling like one, being one or not, wanting to be one, living like one if you weren’t born that way, resentment if you were born that way and someone who wasn’t  claims they’re no different from you.

I suppose what I’d like to ask biological women and trans women is what do you mean when you say you feel like a real/natural woman? Because in my experience there’s no such thing. Contrary to patriarchal propaganda, women aren’t homogenous, so do you feel like a woman who got beaten up last night by her male partner? Do you feel like a woman who is CEO of an international corporation? Do you feel like a woman police officer struggling to survive in a male dominated and at times misogynistic environment? Do you feel like a married woman with a couple of kids who gave up her dreams of becoming a doctor to type her husband’s PhD? Do you feel like a homeless woman? Do you feel like a female sex worker? Do you feel like a lesbian academic? Do you feel like a refugee woman on Nauru? Do you feel like Hilary Clinton? A woman in the back streets of New Delhi? A woman living with female genital mutilation? A crown prosecutor? A hippie vegan on a north coast commune? A state or federal politician? An artist? A musician? A catwalk model?

Please tell me, when you say you feel like a woman, and if you say you’ve always felt like a woman, what kind of woman is it you’ve always felt like, and what do you actually mean? Because it seems to me that perhaps the most insulting, demeaning and degrading thing anyone can say is, I feel like I’m really a woman.

What is this thing that makes a woman “real?” And most importantly, who gets to define it?  And what is this assumption that women have something in common other than biology that makes us really women?

This is one of the things I’d like to ask Germaine Greer, as well as some trans activists. Both parties, it seems to me, are operating from the entirely false premise that there is such a thing as a real woman and for mine, in assuming that premise, both parties are contributing to the oppressive stereotypes feminists have been challenging for decades.

Come at me, sisters. Make me feel like a natural woman.


45 Responses to “Like a natural woman”

  1. myzania3350 November 2, 2015 at 12:50 pm #

    Great points….
    I have no clue what a “real” woman is really… go too deep and things get confusing for me – I’m trying to better understand.

    Sidestepping the transgender movement for a minute as I don’t know enough about it.

    I happen to be a woman who likes socially feminine activities, some more regularly than others — but that doesn’t mean I’m more real than another woman who likes activities that ‘were’ stereotypically male.
    Something that annoys me is that there seems to be a lot of either/or in this/these debate(s). …. As I said above – I happen to like feminine activities. Sometimes it feels, with all this discussion about “women being able to do ‘stereotypically male’ things” that I should feel guilty about that? (Though I know I shouldn’t.)
    I don’t know if I’m expressing myself very well about this, but basically: I do not give a toss who likes to do what etc. – just give everyone an equal chance and be respectful about it. Please.

    Thanks Jennifer for making me think a bit and linking those blogs.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jennifer Wilson November 2, 2015 at 12:56 pm #

      Yes, the either/or bothers me as well.
      And I have no time at all for gendered activities – how restricting for everyone, especially children who are made to like one thing and not another because of their sex.
      I’ve seen my sons “mother” their children, it’s perhaps the most wonderful thing I’ve ever see them do.
      Cheers myzania. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      • myzania3350 November 2, 2015 at 1:06 pm #

        🙂 Would be nice if we could just get away with saying, “this is what I like to do”, wouldn’t it, without all the argy-bargy?
        *I meant to put quotation marks around ‘socially feminine’ etc. above.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Jennifer Wilson November 2, 2015 at 3:40 pm #

          Sometimes I do say that.
          Not often enough tho.

          Liked by 1 person

          • myzania3350 November 2, 2015 at 3:51 pm #

            🙂 Thanks to your thought-provoking comments and providing links, I’ve now spent some time today looking into this. Currently reading some of “more radical with age” ‘s stuff.

            Liked by 1 person

  2. townsvilleblog November 2, 2015 at 12:53 pm #

    I don’t watch yank TV shows, I find them either stupid or ridiculous.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jennifer Wilson November 2, 2015 at 3:42 pm #

      Well, we’d argue about that townsville, because I love the good ones.
      It’s true there are many that are utter crap.


  3. rabbitwithfangs November 2, 2015 at 1:11 pm #

    Having my son (the whole experience of pregnancy and birth) was, for me, a huge game changer in how I felt about myself and my body. Having – still having – problems with body image and disordered eating, for me, giving birth put things into a far more health perspective and I found some self-forgiveness and even a bit of self-esteem I never imagined I’d get back. But I don’t think many feminist mothers feel that’s their one defining characteristic, or that it’s ever a ‘necessary’ part of a woman’s experience.
    But it’s a great question you’re asking and as another cis woman, I’m not sure how to answer it either.
    I loathe that song with a burning passion. I think some female musicians have written *great* songs about pregnancy and motherhood (Tori Amos’ ‘Promise’ and Kate Bush’s ‘Room For The Life’ are two that spring to mind.)
    “Who gets to define it?” is a great question. I wouldn’t feel comfortable asking that in most forums, as the chances of being mispercieved as transphobic are high, and I honestly don’t know what the answer is.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jennifer Wilson November 2, 2015 at 3:40 pm #

      I think it’s everything, that question Rabbit. Who gets to define it has the power.
      I loved being pregnant. I loved my babies, feeding them, keeping them alive with my milk. But it’s one part, if a huge part of my life in this female body. It didn’t make me a “real” woman. It just made me happy.
      And sometimes sad.
      I’m glad to know someone else loathes that song. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  4. dconstructions November 2, 2015 at 5:15 pm #

    I never really felt like a man until I began to express like a woman. As soon as I started doing things men weren’t supposed to do my mind just went ohhhh, now I feel like maleness is part of who I am. And then I understood trans people.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Lisi November 2, 2015 at 6:26 pm #

    This to me says it well:

    “In our society, to be a woman is to have arrived there by a certain route: for instance, by having been given a girl’s name, by having been made to wear girl’s clothes, by having been excluded from boys’ activities, by having made certain adaptations to the onset of puberty, and by having been seen and evaluated in specific ways. That is why the social significance of being a penis-free person is different for those who never had a penis than it is for those who used to have one and then cut it off.”

    From Germaine Greer is Right about Trans Women.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. freya November 2, 2015 at 6:47 pm #

    Hi Jennifer, thanks for your recent posts about the Greer transgender controversy, they’ve been very helpful. I’m not sure though that Greer is such an essentialist? I have always placed her as a women-as-class theorist in the line of de Beauvoir. In the BBC interview which has caused so much furore she herself says she does not know what “woman” is. I read her statement as political, in the sense of “strategic essentialism” in which one must necessarily identify as a group as prerequisite to any liberation struggle. I am undecided on the issue in question, like you I am an anti essentialist but I am disturbed by the strange silence and air of oppression that has settled over feminism. I was extremely disturbed by Timothy Laurie’s contribution to the Greer controversy in New Matilda. It was extremely repressive and authoritarian. What do you think? Greer may be blunt in her speech but i find her thought is usually quite subtle.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Lisi November 2, 2015 at 9:01 pm #

      I was taken aback by Laurie’s article in New Matilda. It contained some major errors of fact. It was blatantly obvious that no research had been done and that the author doesn’t particularly like women (to put it mildly).

      Why is it that it is mostly men foisting upon women the notion that trans women are women? Why do they feel compelled to insist that we accept them as women and then label us as ‘transphobic’ when we don’t?

      It seems to me that Laurie hides behind a veneer of platitudes around equality whilst speaking over and for women.

      Laurie works with Fiona Patten and the sex industry lobby. He is a progressive liberal who champions women’s rights to *act* in porn, where women are gang-banged, slapped, gagged; he thinks prostitution is *empowering* for all women and should be decriminalised so that men can enjoy continued access to women’s bodies. He is a part of the Regressive Left, which lost the ability to include women in social justice a long time ago.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Jennifer Wilson November 2, 2015 at 9:22 pm #

        Hi, Lisi, I’m puzzled too by male supporters of trans women attacking feminists who want to think and talk about this situation. Even to mildly question seems to draw slurs of transphobia. There’s some peculiar psychological transaction going on I think, that I haven’t got to the bottom of yet.

        I’m interested to hear Laurie works with Patten.


        • Lisi November 3, 2015 at 12:58 am #

          Jennifer, I too was perplexed by the propensity of some men who call themselves ‘feminists’ to have an apoplexy over trans rights and their vehement attacks on women who draw a line in the sand. A trans woman told me that men who react like this are themselves transphobic–they have a fear and loathing of trans women. Transphobic men are also homophobic men. If you look at research, it is homophobic men who assault and attack trans women.

          Liked by 1 person

      • freya November 2, 2015 at 9:29 pm #

        Thanks Lisi, that explains a lot. I thought it was extraordinarily contradictory for a man, supposedly educated, to feel comfortable prescribing what does and does not constitute feminism. And as Jennifer points out, the logic doesn’t hold up. It felt like he was using gender theory to erase women altogether. How convenient!


    • Jennifer Wilson November 2, 2015 at 9:16 pm #

      Hi, Freya, Wow, I just read that Laurie piece, thanks, I hadn’t got round to it. It’s as you say, repressive, authoritarian, and mansplaining to boot. Pompous as well. I think he’s talking rot, really, his comparisons don’t work and I’m not sure he contribute anything useful to the situation.
      I hadn’t thought of Greer as an essentialist before, and was somewhat thrown by her “really women” comments, which I still can’t quite grasp. Trans supporters have told me she has acquired quite a history of “transphobia” but I haven’t yet tracked all her alleged comments down.
      She can be reckless in speech, or thoughtless perhaps, but her writing is very different I think.
      I’m more inclined to the Judith Butler perspective: that gender is performative, and culturally constructed as binary, so the whole woman trans woman argument is based on a false premise. I think Caitlin Jenner is an interesting example of someone performing gender.
      As for feminism – I don’t recognise it anymore.

      Liked by 1 person

      • freya November 2, 2015 at 9:35 pm #

        I totally agree with the Butler theory myself too (though she’s a bugger to read!) I guess no one can speak for Greer and my interpretation might be wishful thinking. Gotta love her for speaking plainly tho! As for feminism- I’m still clinging to the tattered threads! Nice to find others who think and don’t just react, I was just gob smacked by Laurie’s piece!

        Liked by 1 person

      • Lisi November 3, 2015 at 1:03 am #

        Jennifer, if you listen to Greer’s interview, not once does she say ‘real women’. I know that this is what Laurie writes, but he is wrong/lying. Greer simply states that her belief is that trans women are not women.

        I too have heard about Greer’s transphobia from the transactivists. They often cite the Newnham College ‘transphobic’ incident. Greer was on the board of an all-female college, Newnham. A trans woman by the name of Rachel Padman (I think that’s her name) applied to be a fellow. Greer opposed Padman’s application on the basis that Padman was male.

        Liked by 2 people

  7. Anonymous November 3, 2015 at 8:52 am #

    I feel like a woman who has been denied, not just the awful bits of being a woman, but the good bits too. Like bearing my own children. All the girly conversations I was shut out of as a child. All the maternal advice I never had to help me understand myself and mature. All the times I wanted to dress up as something cool, or pretty, and was denied. All the times I wanted to squeal over a newborn child and hold it close. The dancing lessons at school, the career I wanted. The feeling of my body functioning how it should. Feeling uncomfortable around men in changing rooms. The discomfort about the way some men talk about women in private. The horrible feeling I get when women try to shut me out of conversations, ‘womensplaining’ my ‘manly’ feelings when I discuss my own experience of motherhood (akin to any lesbian non-child bearing mother) and generally being abused by other women who want to exclude me based upon a body part I never wanted and always felt uncomfortable with.

    That’s my experience of womanhood.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jennifer Wilson November 3, 2015 at 9:35 am #

      Thank you for posting this, Someone.
      You reinforce my view that binary gendering is cruel & crippling for human beings.
      It functions through force, physical and psychological.
      I’m taking from your comments that you are currently in the same difficult situation you’ve described as your life.
      I’ve watched, with great pride and strong emotion, my sons “mothering” their children. Again, binary gender roles work to no one’s advantage, imo.
      I want things to be better for you.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Lisi November 3, 2015 at 11:10 am #

      Anonymous, I’m sorry you’ve had these experiences, which speak to the toxicity of masculinity. Until we allow males to express what patriarchy considers ‘sissy and feminine’ many men will continue to feel shame. Men will be forced to live up to an image of masculinity that does them a disservice.

      You mention the horrible feelings you get when women shut you out of conversations. How do you feel when men shut you out–or do they accept you as you are? How have you been ‘abused by other women’? Or do you call ‘abuse’ the fact that many women don’t validate your self-perception and affirm your identity? I would call ‘abuse’ the men who assault and kill trans women.

      Liked by 1 person

    • freya November 3, 2015 at 4:13 pm #

      Anonymous, I feel sorry for your pain, and as a woman I can identify very much with the feeling that you don’t belong in your skin or your culture. I can say that as a woman who identifies and is identified as a woman, I did not experience the idealistic childhood you describe. I felt excluded and uncomfortable. In my youth I might have called myself gender fluid, but in those days, a woman who did not feel comfortable with the social constraints of femininity was a feminist – if she was lucky enough to stumble across this liberating ideology and pursue it despite intense social opposition and ridicule. Feminism is about the liberation from gender stereotypes. You speak as if femininity is a privilege not the distorting and constrictive imposition which many women experience it to be. I feel for your pain, but I wonder do you feel mine?

      Liked by 1 person

      • Jennifer Wilson November 3, 2015 at 5:09 pm #

        Freya, It puzzles me at times why anyone would want to be female – it doesn’t always seem that great an experience to me.
        But I can imagine the anguish of feeling wrong in the body you’re in, and wanting connection with the sex and gender you haven’t been assigned at birth.
        All this is due to restrictive and policed gender roles, imo. Which in turn are due to a multitude of sociopolitical factors, psychology and prejudice. How to get out of this? We’re in the process, though perhaps not to be concluded in my lifetime.


  8. LSWCHP November 3, 2015 at 11:38 am #

    Regarding the question of being a “real” woman, I think you’re right. I don’t think you’ll ever get a satisfactory answer because anyone can define “real” in their own terms. To some people, “real” means being born without a penis. To others, “real” means identifying as a woman regardless of physiology, and so on. Both positions are defensible, but without well defined and mutually agreed premises, the adherents of each position seem unlikely to be converted to the other view, and the discussions seem prone to generating a lot more heat than light.

    The physicist Wolfgang Pauli is credited with coining the wonderful phrase “not even wrong”, to describe an argument based on false premises. RationalWiki says “The phrase implies that not only is someone not making a valid point in a discussion, but they don’t even understand the nature of the discussion itself, or the things that need to be understood in order to participate.”

    I suspect that people who pontificate about “real” women or describe themselves as such are not even wrong.

    Disclosure: I’m a bloke, and acknowledge that women have a lot more at stake in such discussions than I do.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jennifer Wilson November 3, 2015 at 2:41 pm #

      I like that “not even wrong” phrase very much.


      • Forrest Gumpp (@ForrestGumpp) November 3, 2015 at 9:47 pm #

        There is no ‘favorite’ button on your blog. Why is that?

        Liked by 1 person

        • Jennifer Wilson November 4, 2015 at 7:41 am #

          There’s like button instead. Unlike Twitter where now there’s only tacky hearts.


      • Forrest Gumpp (@ForrestGumpp) November 5, 2015 at 11:53 am #

        The phrase ‘not even wrong’ could even be said to constitute an unexpected outworking of the famous ‘Pauli Exclusion Principle’.
        Which was about something else altogether, the space occupied
        by certain sub-atomic particles in particular.

        Just thought you should know.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Jennifer Wilson November 6, 2015 at 1:27 pm #

          Of course I should know, Forrest. I’m always on the lookout for unusual metaphors


  9. freya November 3, 2015 at 4:20 pm #

    Sorry Jennifer I just posted an angry post re anonymous. Please leave it out if you wish. God this is such a hard subject! I just feel that women on the left ar being manipulated into once again being responsible for everyone’s else’s feelings and putting them before ourselves. I absolutely agree with you that the binary of gender is a horrible trap, how could I not? That is a basic premise of feminism. But now it is being used to make it impossible for women to speak out at all.

    Liked by 1 person

    • freya November 3, 2015 at 4:23 pm #

      Oops, I see both my comments went through! Sorry everyone! Oh well, just being honest I guess :/


    • Jennifer Wilson November 3, 2015 at 5:04 pm #

      I won’t remove it unless you want me to, Freya. Your experience is valid, as is everyone’s, and I see no reason to censor expression.

      I hardly ever censor, and then only vile stuff that contributes nothing.

      I agree gender is being used in some quarters to silence women, and was mauled on Twitter for saying that, but being stubborn I’ll say it again.

      No apologies needed. But I will remove the comment if you would rather.

      Liked by 1 person

      • freya November 3, 2015 at 5:12 pm #

        Thanks Jennifer. I’m happy to leave it then. Thanks for creating such a thoughtful space.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Jennifer Wilson November 3, 2015 at 5:12 pm #


          Liked by 1 person

          • Lisi November 3, 2015 at 10:06 pm #

            Yes, I’m sorry my comment was rude too. But this response is typical from a transactivist. I feel that Anonymous’s post was not in good faith and that he was just stirring the pot. Women are an easy target. Much easier to attack women, who are conditioned to feel sorry for people, nurture, look after and feel guilty, than to attack the real enemy: men. I’ve read Blanchard and Bailey and many transactivists are narcissistic and self-absorbed. But there are some wonderful trans women out there: trans women who support our struggles and who understand our need for safe spaces. I would be more than happy to share a safe space with any of them. imho, transactivists are NOT representative of all trans women, the majority of whom are simply struggling to eke out a living doing what they must to survive.

            Liked by 2 people

            • freya November 4, 2015 at 9:23 am #

              Yes, I have seen comments like this elsewhere and wondered if they are genuine. There is blog by a trans person which attempts to tease out all these issues. It’s quite revelatory in exposing some of the violence and misogyny of some trans activists


  10. hudsongodfrey November 5, 2015 at 1:38 am #

    Jennifer, I always thought Murphy Brown was singing that song to the baby rather than the absent father? I also associate it with Aretha Franklin more than Carole King, which makes it slightly less saccharine, though not much. I wonder would it have been less patriarchal if the baby had’ve been a girl, as I thought it should’ve been anyway? Or can you just never stomach a song that predicates womanhood on what is obviously meant to be such a classical monogamous narrative with those undeniably patriarchal overtones even though intellectually I think we’re forced to acknowledge that’s a valid choice many would make even if others don’t yearn for the same?

    Not to get too bogged down in the minutiae of a musical side issue, but take your pick of classic songs that are kinda sexist all the way from “Under my Thumb” from the Stones to Stand by your man” by Tammy Wynette or the Blues Brothers’ Jake & Elwood.

    If we’re not very careful with that kind of vetting of cultural references I think we’d end up either imbuing certain songs with more power to offend that they deserve or reducing our politics to a matter of taste.

    The fact that you used Hilary Clinton as one example probably encapsulates the absurdity of the proposition in one for me. Do you feel like a her on the day she married Bill or the day she found out about Monica or one of the others. Do you feel like her on the day they canned her healthcare bill or the day Obama finally made it happen. Or the day He beat her out of the ’08 Primaries. Or one of the days she was called to face the Benghazi inquisitors.

    Do we see a rich white woman with a privileged background, a woman overshadowed by her husband in classical patriarchal style, or somebody who’s had any number of tough days to deal with. It’s just that we know enough about this particular woman’s life to be able to say that its all of the above and have in all probability formed and opinion about her as to whether we like or dislike her, and rate or oppose her candidacy for President.

    So by the time you got to asking “What makes a woman real and who gets to define it” in Hilary’s case several spin doctors and the combined talents of the best PR agencies and a gaggle of stylists were called for…. As is probably the case for most of her male opponents sans the stylists except for Trump who needs a brace of them to wrangle that incredible coif. I have it on good authority his hair is permanently on loan from Bronwyn Bishop,….

    By the time we’ve all lived an while and managed to figure out what matters in life I’ll wager it isn’t our femininity or masculinity so much as something that converges in the breadth and quality of the lives we’ve lived and continue to enjoy. I don’t know that people who’re consumed with issues about their gender identity are afforded or indeed allow themselves to get to that point. It seems to me that one real impost that gender dysphoria might entail is to be stuck in a permanent state of almost pubescence, in a sense that having mentally never felt oneself to belong might hold in abeyance the entire experience of adulthood and self acceptance beyond that.

    At which point I’d be lying if I said I knew whether the difference between being trans or inter gendered was more or less of a mental construct than one’s taste in music. So what I will say is that nobody actually forces me to listen to Joy Division against my will in the same way my very opinion of your identity seems to be none of my business to be forcing on you against your will. If you are likeable I will invariably choose to like you and if I am a bigoted wanker I assume you won’t like me, if only a lot more of this rested on our relationship with certain music rather than outdated ideas about sexual propriety we’d be able to live with the vagaries of each other’s tastes more readily I imagine.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jennifer Wilson November 5, 2015 at 8:30 am #

      HG, will respond to your posts more fully later – am running out the door for the day’s commitments.
      She was singing the song to the baby – that was the point as far as critics were concerned at the time.
      There’s also Dylan’s Just like a woman which has caused more than its fair share of feminist angst and wrath… the list is long. I think Pink has gone some very very small way to redressing the imbalance.
      Leonard Cohen, whom I adore, can be a right sexist at times…


      • hudsongodfrey November 5, 2015 at 10:33 am #

        Dylan who seems to prefer to be enigmatic would probably decline to answer, but for those of us of a persuasion to cut him some slack the interpretation of just like a woman that is usually offered is that its probably about one particular woman. And I think we all guessed who she was.

        Perhaps the lines “Please don’t let on that you knew me when/I was hungry and it was your world”, somewhat redeem the other sentiments. I find it ambiguous to say the least. I’m just not sure that ambiguity is a such a bad thing in art. Dylan has been known to be lauded for being honestly wrong and sensitive to it after the fact, as often as he has been deified for simply being Dylan.

        Extrapolated to all women its a horrible lyric, I’m just not entirely sure that we should do that. Maybe we want not to because its Bob, but I think as with most things that we don’t have to choose negativity and when we do it occasionally says more about us than the artist.

        Liked by 1 person


  1. Patriarchy, Feminism and Carole King | Power Girrrl - November 4, 2015

    […] read this post from blogger Jennifer Wilson about the Murpny in the eighties and nineties (never saw it, by the way). Anyway, the series […]


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