The Rowling furore part 1

My name is Penelope Wallace. I am a white, middle-aged, middle-class, able-bodied Christian British woman, living in England but with Scottish roots.

This isn’t everything I am, but it’s a start.

On 10th June 2020 the author JK Rowling posted a blog on trans and gender issues which I reposted approvingly on my Facebook page. Strident criticisms of the post then started to be drawn to my attention by people I respect, and I have to say that I don’t approve of it as much as I did. I’m on a journey.


In our house when I was growing up there was a book describing the city of Oxford, by one James Morris. James, who became Jan in 1972, was the first example of “changing sex”, as it was then known, that I ever heard of.

I am scientifically illiterate, but I thought I understood that people who feel strongly that they identify with, should be, or are, a different gender from the one nature appeared to assign them, can go through a legal and medical process to change sex, or transition. People who transition to female (or are in the process of transitioning) are called “trans women”, and vice versa.

This is the way in which I shall use the expression “trans women” in this post, but I don’t think it’s the way everyone uses it, and that is what this post is about. 

There may be – probably are – people who do not accept that trans women (as defined above) are “real” women. With the possible difficult exception of sporting contests (an issue which I don’t have the knowledge, time or courage to get into here) I can’t see any justification for such an attitude. Women born female are cis women; women born male are trans women. All are women.

Where for me it becomes tricky is with someone who wishes to identify and be treated as female, despite having a male physiology which they do not intend to change. I have just learned that this is the widening from “transsexual” to “transgender.”

(I should say that I hope I am courteous enough to call anyone I’m introduced to by the name they wish to be called by, and to refer to them by the pronoun (he, she or they) that they choose. And of course that nobody should be bullied, abused or harassed for their gender identity. Discrimination against transgender people is wrong. Of course.)

Some people are born of indeterminate sex, or indeed identify as indeterminate gender, as intersex or non-binary. Some people reject society’s gender stereotypes, which as you’d expect I applaud.

But surely the vast majority of infants are born with identifiably male or female bodies; and the vast majority of them go on to develop physically along certain sexually-differentiated lines. Girls start to menstruate and develop breasts; boys’ voices drop, etc.

Women, in general

  • are  smaller and physically weaker than men (although also longer-lived)
  • have breasts, the primary function of which is to suckle children, but which are also a secondary sexual characteristic
  • are liable to menstruate for a large number of years, during which they are fertile; then they pass through the menopause, after which they are not fertile
  • experience both sex and sexual desire differently from men; and in particular are much more likely to be sexually attacked
  • conceive, carry and suckle children
  • grow hair very differently
  • and you can add other differences.

Physical differences, including hormonal differences, are part of, and I would say essential to, the definition of men and women. I would and do object strongly to any suggestion that these definitions should be changed to make them un-physical.

I know lots of lovely men, but I doubt many of them would deny that over the millennia women have been the victims of discrimination and oppression. All, or virtually all, of the reasons, justifications and methods of oppressing women have arisen from these physical differences. I started making a list of the ways, but this post is already going to be rather long. I’ll just give three: women are raped as a tactic in war in order to spread the conqueror’s genes; women are supposed to stay at home with the children therefore their careers and salaries don’t matter; more trivially, women are encouraged to remove a lot of their body hair and pretend they are not mammals, for the delectation of men.

For a few hundred years, feminists, of whom I am proud to be one, have been making some progress in pointing out, often in the teeth of ferocious opposition, that these physical differences (and their consequences) should not make women second-class citizensbut do mean that women need certain provisions or protections… ranging from sanitary provision to maternity leave to domestic abuse helplines.

Of course it’s true that not all women share all these experiences; and in particular trans women don’t experience some of them. But they share some, as much as they can – for example, trans women can menstruate, and have their breasts ogled.

I have read an anti-Rowling response  denying women’s shared physical experience, saying “There is a huge spectrum of what women’s lives look like and how their bodies behave” and using as one example “not all women are raped.”

Well, no. Happily. Not all women are raped. But all women, cis and trans, are vulnerable to rape, and you’d better believe we are aware of that fact. I say this as a woman who’s led an extremely privileged life in a peaceful country.

So back to the beginning of this piece. There are parts of my identity that I can change, with a greater or less degree of difficulty: my name, religion, nationality, and indeed gender or sex.

But I can’t change my race. I can’t change the year I was born (therefore my age changes whether I like it or not).

And just wanting to be, or “self-identifying as” a man, or a woman, does not make it so. Therefore to say that someone is a woman who has and continues to have a physiologically male body seems, to me, simply incorrect, and even nonsense.

I think this makes me, in the eyes of some, a TERF (Trans Excluding Radical Feminist), transphobic, and a bigot, all pejorative terms.

There’s more to be said about Rowling’s post, but that’s enough for now. If you wish to re-educate me, please do it politely. If you think this is a non-debate, investigate on social media…

Next post hopefully on 10th July. 

Love from the PPI Blogger

  • Matthew Perry

    26th June 2020 at 9:21 pm Reply

    Thanks for an interesting piece. I do not think I have read the original article, but I will have my pennyworth anyway. One of the dangers of the present attitudes is the way that young people who do not fit the mould of what is “normal” for their gender are encouraged to consider gender realignment. This affects both “boyish” girls – those who do not want to wear pink, do not fit in to typical teen and preteen sterotypes – often affecting girls on the autistic spectrum – and boys whose interests are less macho than their peers. These young people are encouraged into drastic hormonal and even surgical actions, when all many of them need is tolerance and acceptance of who they are. We should mostly allow people to be themselves more and be whho they were born to be.

  • Judith Leader

    30th June 2020 at 2:10 pm Reply

    Ambiguous Genitalia is rare and the baby may have other physical problems. There is a very readable article from the well respected Mayo Clinic:
    I don’t think anybody can understand everything other people go through, think etc. however we/I can listen, learn and most importantly, unless it causes harm to other people, respect a persons choice.

    I was asked by a very concerned Korean Christian Pastor if he thought it was ok for his daughter to be studying chemistry at university as he really only knew about theology. I was really impressed that he wanted to know and support his daughter. I am very ignorant about the subject except for the fact my brother studied the subject and lectured in it. I was able to tell him the positive side, I know anything can be used for wrong things but it isn’t not knowing that is wrong, it is not wanting to know and rejecting knowledge/people/ differences that causes prejudice and hatred. This is obvious in the world we live in. Incidentally being of advanced years, old, when I started work men got paid more than women on principal, because men were the main earners apparently. I don’t remember when it changed but I do know that equality between men and women doing the same job is still an issue.

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