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.