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Womyn-born womyn (WBW) is a term developed during second-wave feminism to designate spaces for, by, and about women who were identified as female at birth, were raised as girls, and identify as women (or womyn).
Events and organizations that have womyn-born womyn-only policies bar access to any persons who were assigned male at birth, including trans women and the young children of attendees. This policy has raised a number of concerns because no logical distinction can be found between forbidding people from inclusion who, decades ago, were born with the wrong chromosomal arrangement and forbidding people from inclusion based on race. Today, an event restricted to white people born white would, rightfully so, be seen as racist. According to Michigan Womyn's Music Festival co-founder Lisa Vogel during a Bitch magazine roundup, "What womyn-born womyn means to us is women who were born as women, who have lived their entire experience as women, and who identify as women."[full citation needed]
The term gained usage and popularity during the second wave feminist movement. In 1978, the Lesbian Organization of Toronto adopted a womyn-born womyn-only policy in response to a request for admittance by a transgender woman who identified as lesbian. Womyn-born womyn policies focused on the unique nature of the feminine experience over the course of a lifetime, and that could only be experienced by someone who experienced life presenting as a woman. The intent was to create a space for only women, defined not by identity but experience, resulting in the exclusion of transgender women.
Second-wave feminism is a period in the feminist movement lasting from the 1960s until around the 1980s. Some feminists of the period such as Janice Raymond, Mary Daly, and Sheila Jeffreys, were proponents of womyn-born womyn policies. The policies created controversy and scholarly discussion, and there is opposition to them.
Raymond's The Transsexual Empire is often seen as the characterizing work of this movement. It is famous for its view of trans women as privileged men who didn't previously live in the oppression of the patriarchy, stating, "We know who we are. We know that we are women who are born with female chromosomes and anatomy, and that whether or not we were socialised to be so-called normal women, patriarchy has treated and will treat us like women. Transsexuals have not had this same history."
Jeffreys was similarly outspoken in her criticisms of trans women, arguing that the feminine characteristics they are adopting are simply those that women must adopt to avoid punishment from the patriarchy. She believed the stereotypical attributes that trans women adopt enforced the patriarchy and were political signifiers of the oppression of women.
Judith Butler, despite being opposed to womyn-born womyn policies, is often used as an argument for them by modern second-wave feminists. Butler's Gender Trouble was released in 1990, and contained discussion of performativity versus performance, which second-wave feminists used to exclude trans women on account of their performativity through repetition of gender norms, which is "real only to the extent that it is performed", which was used as a separator from experience.
Olivia Records, a feminist music collective, was an exception to this policy, employing transgender employees such as Sandy Stone. In response to this, Michigan Womyn's Music Festival's primary owner in 1977, Lisa Vogel, issued a letter to the music collective along with other second wave feminists:
We are writing concerning your decision to employ Sandy Stone as your recording engineer and sound technician. We feel that it was and is irresponsible of you to have presented this person as a woman to the women’s community when in fact he is a post-operative transsexual.
Given the narrow options available to us, it is also likely that many of us would have to work with Stone. Some of us have already done so without the knowledge that this person was not a woman. When we did discover the truth about Stone and tried to discuss this with you, we were told that you considered him very much a woman, a lesbian, and that you trusted him more than middle class, heterosexual women. This was very painful to hear and indicated a great lack of respect and love for women and our struggle. We do not believe that a man without a penis is a woman any more than we would accept a white woman with dyed skin as a Black woman.
Although transgender and intersex people have been present in women-only spaces for decades (often closeted), the term garnered wider attention in response to the exclusion of trans women from the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival. The festival has publicly declared that it is intended for womyn-born womyn. Music festivals, specifically those geared at lesbians, commonly used to enact womyn-born womyn policies throughout the latter quarter of the twentieth century.
With the advent of third-wave feminism, the festivals started to disappear, and there were more protestations against womyn-born womyn policies. The twenty-first century brought with it much opposition to womyn-born womyn musical festivals. RadFem Fest continues to have womyn-born womyn policies, albeit expressed in different ways to address outrage over the policy, as seen in social media outbursts and protests in the modern era. The policy for the 2015 conference is rephrased in explanatory form, reading "RadFems Resist is a women only, feminist event...We welcome all women who were raised and socialized as girls to join us. We are gender abolitionists who have been raised and socialized as girls and women *because of our female bodies* in the context of patriarchy. Women who view gender differently, as a benign spectrum of self expression rather than a human created power hierarchy, will find other events where they can organise with like minded people." In 1992, a gender survey was taken at the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival. It asked, "Do you think male-to-female transsexuals should be welcome at Michigan?" Out of the 633 women surveyed, 73.1% responded yes and 22.6% responded no, signaling a shift in feminist thought. The Michigan Womyn's Music Festival was closed in 2015 due to backlash over the policy and diminishing attendance, and other once-popular festivals have also closed.
The feminist sex wars signaled a divide in second-wave feminism on issues of sex expression, pornography, sexuality, and gender identity. It led to many trans-affirming feminist views, and more criticism toward the womyn-born womyn culture that thrived in radical feminism. With the rise of third-wave feminism, the radical feminism that supports womyn-born womyn policies and agendas became less prevalent.
Judith Butler was characteristic in her approach to third-wave feminist opposition of womyn-born womyn politics. The fluidity in gender, a more modern adaptation in feminist thought, is reflected in her views, "We form ourselves within the vocabularies that we did not choose, and sometimes we have to reject those vocabularies, or actively develop new ones. For instance, gender assignment is a 'construction' and yet many genderqueer and trans people refuse those assignments in part or in full. That refusal opens the way for a more radical form of self-determination, one that happens in solidarity with others who are undergoing a similar struggle." This is in response to claims by Jeffreys and others of the time who believed that those born womyn embodied true patriarchal struggle, while transgender women still benefited from the patriarchy. In a more direct reaction from Butler, she states, "The feminist police comes along to expose the construction and dispute a trans person's sense of their lived reality. I oppose this use of social construction absolutely, and consider it to be a false, misleading, and oppressive use of the theory." Some prominent figures in the second wave also readjusted views when presented with changing times, such as Gloria Steinem, who previously referred to transgender women as men with mutilated bodies in the late 1970s. She has since revised her beliefs, as stated in a 2013 opinion piece: "I believe that transgender people, including those who have transitioned, are living out real, authentic lives. Those lives should be celebrated, not questioned."
The understanding of gender, gender politics, and trans politics has changed over the latter half of the twentieth century. It has led to more LGBTQ-led opposition to womyn-born womyn policies and the music festivals that tend to employ them. In 1992, LGBTQ protesters, specifically transgender women, created Camp Trans, a protest outside of the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival. Transgender activists passed out flyers and staged protests in opposition to the womyn-born womyn policies that excluded transgender women. Transgender activist Julia Serano said the festival to be insensitive and ignorant: "[The] idea that the femaleness of my mind, personality, lived experiences, and the rest of my body can somehow be trumped by the mere presence of a penis can only be described as phallocentric."
Kelsie Brynn Jones, a noted transgender woman and journalist, writes that "in [radical feminists'] words, a transgender woman is a nothing but a 'self loathing gay man' and they claim that trans women are gay men who, rather than stand up and come out as gay, would rather 'hide' by being transgender, as if it makes things more palatable for friends, family and co-workers. The reverse is unfortunately the truth." Activists fighting for transgender-inclusionary policies often refer to those who promote womyn-born womyn policies as TERFs, standing for Trans-excluding radical feminists.
Nancy Burkholder was thrown out of the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival in 1991 because she is transgender. With protection and support from the Lesbian Avengers, she and others against the womyn-born womyn policy formed Camp Trans. It was originally a small group of transgender women who handed out leaflets to the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival attendees and held workshops across the road from the festival.
Camp Trans kept appearing as a protest event noncontinuously for the next two decades.
There have been several instances where transgender women have been denied access to or even been evicted from women's spaces.
- Michigan Womyn's Music Festival
- Vancouver Rape Relief & Women's Shelter
- Mountain Moving Coffeehouse
- Lesbian Organization of Toronto
- Feminist views on transgender and transsexual people
- List of transgender-related topics
- List of transgender-rights organizations
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