Rebecca Solnit demonstrates what happens when women give up

I do not know what inspired Rebecca Solnit — long respected as a writer and feminist (although I can’t say I’ve followed her work closely, of late, mostly because I find it a bit predictable and a bit dull) — to write about the “threat” posed by “trans women” to “cis women” last week. Perhaps I have answered my own question. The increasing banality of Solnit’s writing might explain why she published a 1700 word letter in The Guardian, in response to nothing and no one, never making clear why this and why now. Perhaps she has a hat from which she can pull hot takes, or perhaps a predictable and dull editor requested the polemic for clicks. A writer myself, it strikes me that these kinds of pieces are what happens when one runs out of things to say.

“Dear ladies who are fearful and hostile to trans women,” she begins. Which ladies, we will never know. One presumes Solnit has never encountered said ladies, personally, as she declines to offer examples. But that’s not the point. The point was to offer herself a way to launch into an advertisement of her own perceived Cool Girl-ness — the “I have black friends” version of queer politics. Much of the piece documents Solnit’s humble participation in San Fransisco’s LGBTQ scene, where everyone was kind, which I suppose is meant to comfort women who have concerns about, say, violent men raping women in prison and the complete dissolution of female sport.

I wonder what Solnit would say to me if I told her that all the men I knew were “kind” and definitely not rapists, seeing as I have never seen them rape anyone, myself, and that therefore any woman who would prefer my very kind male friends stay out of their change rooms is a bigot? Or if I said that if a man claimed to reject masculinity, he could not possibly pose a threat, and to argue otherwise was, in fact, threatening. I suspect she might have something to say…

Solnit explains that “transwomen do not pose a threat to cis-gender women” without explaining how she knows this and without acknowledging that, in fact, women’s concerns have nothing to do with the “trans” affix, and everything to do with sex — a category Solnit pretends not to understand.

I would argue it’s a mistake to insult your readers in this way — to assume they will be fooled by your lack of honesty and rigour. I would also argue that if a writer is trying to get people onside, losing their trust is not the way to do it.

She claims, “Transphobes are always warning us that if trans people live in peace and legal recognition and even have rights, there will be terrible consequences,” which has never been true, not even once. As one of the women I assume Solnit believes is a “transphobe,” having spent a few years now attempting to defend women’s rights, and explaining, ad nauseam, the difference between sex and gender, I can say for certain that my warnings have not been against allowing those who identify as trans to live in peace and to have rights. Indeed, I have insisted everyone should have the right to live free from harassment and discrimination, with dignity, and authentically. (Provided you are not harming others in the process, of course.) The issue is, alas, that if we offer males the “right” to claim to be female, and be treated as such, women and girls lose the ability to protect their rights. What are women’s rights, after all, if we no longer know what a woman is? Solnit fails to offer an answer either to the “What is a woman?” question, or the question of why women’s rights exist at all.

In an attempt to assure us that, no, she will not be operating in the real world, and no, she will still not be providing evidence to support her statements, Solnit writes, “I assume that we here have long realized, at least to some extent, that dreaded future, and we’re all fine.”

Have we? I suspect Heather Mason, who has been trying to bring attention to the consequences of placing violent men in prisons with women, might disagree. I suspect the girls losing out on scholarships because they simply cannot compete against males in sport might also. The immigrant women Jessica (ne Jonathan) Yaniv dragged through the BC Human Rights Tribunal because they declined to handle his genitals might also not feel “fine.” Who can say for sure. Especially if we don’t listen or ask. And in any case, Rebecca feels fine, which is really the most important thing.

It’s not only the fact Solnit seems to believe we should just take her word for it, but that she seems not to believe in listening to any woman who might like her word considered fairly and accurately as well. To refuse to seek out evidence to support your own claims is bad enough for someone of Solnit’s stature, but to actively misrepresent and lie about what other women say and believe is worse.

The letter continues in this vein, alternating between ignorance and lazy dishonesty. Solnit either doesn’t mind if people think she is a bit slow or she doesn’t mind if they think she is a liar.

She completely misunderstands that “the classic 1972 children’s album Free to Be You,” produced with thanks to second wave feminism, argues against the notion that a boy should not be allowed to enjoy toys and clothes designated for girls. It was titled, “Free to Be You and Me,” for the exact same reason feminists continue to argue we let children be themselves, instead of telling them their bodies and minds are “wrong” and must be altered through hormones and invasive, dangerous surgeries in order for them to truly be themselves. Failing to understand the difference between arguing against sexist gender roles and arguing against biology itself, Solnit doubles down, writing:

“Back then we thought gender really was kind of binary and defined by genitals; science has gotten smarter in the decades since and we now know it’s a complex interplay of chromosomes, hormones, primary and secondary sexual characteristics and other stuff, some of which is in the brain, not the pants, and also that quite a significant number of people are born intersex, and some are misgendered at birth, and male and female never were airtight categories anyway.”

In fact, Rebecca, “gender” is neither “binary” nor “defined by genitals.” It is merely a set of stereotypes assumed about or imposed onto individuals based on their sex, which is indeed “binary.” There is no culture in the world (no, not even “cultures from Native America to India”) that does not understand what a woman is, what a man is, and how babies are made. One might even argue it is just a little bit racist for a white, cisgendered, thin privileged, able bodied, American, middle class woman to claim other, foreign cultures have some kind of mythical understanding of sex, rooted outside material reality, in order to impose her own Western, academic ideologies onto the rest of the world, because this supports her preferred vision. Which apparently is so rosy, women and girls no longer suffer things like FGM, trafficking, child marriage, domestic violence, and rape, simply due to having been born female, and, I suppose, no longer need rights on that basis.

Does Solnit believe that something changes in the moment a man declares himself “trans” that should comfort a girl trying to change after her swimming lessons? Do violent men cease to be violent if they announce they are women? How does this happen? What is the process there? And are women and girls simply supposed to “trust,” as they always have been pressured to? To not speak out or set boundaries when they feel afraid or vulnerable? Is this a feminist message? Or even a rational one? Is Solnit’s new rallying call, “Believe men”?

I don’t care how many times Solnit insists she “has trans friends and nonbinary friends” and god I just love gay people. I don’t care. Because none of this is about prejudice against any identity whatsoever. Not only do most of us, in the women’s movement, have friends of all types, including “non-binary” ones, as we are all “non-binary,” which, just a moment ago, Solnit claimed to understand. Indeed, most humans do not fit tidily into the categories of “masculine” and “feminine,” and have a wide variety of likes, dislikes, and behaviours that do not follow the rigid stereotypes laid out for us. Moreover, her ongoing insistence that this is a “problem” exclusively of “cis-gender straight women” only reveals that Solnit doesn’t know very many lesbians. Particularly not those who would prefer not to be pressured to date people with penises, but told if they do not, their sexual orientation is “phobic.” If you are so very “queer friendly,” Rebecca, might I suggest you avoid perpetuating an ideology that argues women who want to only date other women do so because of irrational fear and hatred.

For a woman who claims to understand why women might fear male violence to turn around and label this a “weird fear” or “misunderstanding,” because, gosh, who can trust women anyway! They are just a bunch of irrational ninnies who can’t tell the difference between a female dick and a male one is nothing if not a complete reversal of everything she has argued to date. And, hey, if Solnit has changed her mind about feminism and male violence against women, fine. We all have the right to do this. But to claim that this about-face is, in fact, feminism, and to gaslight women into believing their concerns are not only absurd, but hateful, is unforgivable.

The historic, global oppression of women and girls is not imaginary. We are not crazy. Women know, just as any sane person does, that men and women are different, and that there are certain circumstances where women deserve protection. In a transition house or shelter, for example. And also, sure, in the washroom. Which seems to be the only space Solnit will acknowledge — a tactic people use to intentionally make women’s concerns about gender identity legislation seem petty. (“Just let them pee!” trans activists and their allies will insist, as though anyone is trying to stop anyone else from peeing…)

Why even bother claiming to support human rights if you are going to simultaneously tell women theirs don’t matter.

There are things to write about, if one is willing to ask sincere questions, take risks, and delve deeper. But Solnit, apparently, has given up on that — comfortable with her status and career, settled in to the analysis she is familiar with, and no real incentive to push further, aside from her own sense of self-worth, intellectual rigour, reputation, political integrity, and passion for critical thought and writing. While infuriating to read, I suppose we might look at this letter and Solnit herself with pity: a woman who gave up, and is now trapped in a bed of her own making.

I remember feeling a similar intellectual boredom a couple of years ago — I wanted to push myself and move beyond the comfortable and familiar. So I did. Solnit, on the other hand, seems to have forgotten that writing is a gift that allows you to pursue truth and authenticity — to stretch your mind as far as it will go. She wrote this letter without thought, integrity, or effort, for an audience who she trusts to also choose the comforting and familiar over delving deeper. It is as irresponsible as it is sad. I don’t know what Solnit believes she is standing up for anymore, if not women and if not her own integrity. Perhaps celebrity shares and book deals are preferable to endless threats, harassment, slander, and ostracization. Fair enough. Why give up your privilege?

Meghan Murphy

Founder & Editor

Meghan Murphy is a freelance writer and journalist from Vancouver, BC. She has been podcasting and writing about feminism since 2010 and has published work in numerous national and international publications, including The Spectator, UnHerd, Quillette, the CBC, New Statesman, Vice, Al Jazeera, The Globe and Mail, and more. Meghan completed a Masters degree in the department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University in 2012 and is now exiled in Mexico with her very photogenic dog.