Feminism's final frontier: The battle for transgender inclusion

Kiwi women may have got the vote 125 years ago, but there's a group still struggling to be accepted by the feminist movement: transgender women. 

Feminism's gone through many phases: the first wave got us the vote, the second got us birth control and the third fought racism and classism as well as misogyny.

We're now in the midst of what could reasonably be called fourth wave feminism, which has presented activists with a question more nebulous and divisive than any other before: do women who were assigned male at birth belong in the movement?

Ruby Johnson was elected chairwoman of the Auckland University Campus Feminist Collective last year, which she says wouldn't have happened 10 or even five years ago.

"It wasn't always an inclusive group, so [being elected] felt really cool."

A transgender woman and an 'intersectional' feminist, she believes to free all women from the bonds of patriarchy, activism must tackle more than sexism alone.

"You're never going to have a society where women are free and equal if homophobia and transphobia are still rampant. Fixing those is part of the problem, because you can't have people having these slurs hurled at them based on their femininity, and then say 'But we respect women anyway'."

Ruby Johnson was elected chairwoman of the Campus Feminist Collective last year.
Ruby Johnson was elected chairwoman of the Campus Feminist Collective last year. Photo credit: Newshub.

Lexie Matheson will speak at four different conferences this year and was recently featured in Auckland Museum's 'Are We There Yet?' women's rights exhibition. But like Ms Johnson, she says until recently she wouldn't have been part of the feminist conversation.

"Ten years ago I would have been a novelty. Now I'm a person valued for what I've got to say, not just because of my genitals or my gender."

As both an academic and a trans woman who's been 'out' since the late 1990s, Ms Matheson is keenly aware of how feminism is constantly changing to reflect our shifting society.

"I find it quite hard when people say 'Do you consider yourself a feminist?' Yes I do, but don't ask me to define what a feminist is. It morphs more quickly and more often than transgender does."

A well-documented yet curiously little-known fact is that trans women have been heavily involved in the fight for equality ever since the American Stonewall riots in 1969.

Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera were at the forefront of the 1969 Stonewall riots.
Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera were at the forefront of the 1969 Stonewall riots. Photo credit: Supplied

Yet some feminists are still opposed to accepting them into the women's movement.

There's been pushback from second-wave feminists like Germaine Greer, who has repeatedly said she doesn't believe trans women can ever be "real" women.

Closer to home, a small but vocal group of activists have argued against trans women's inclusion in women's spaces.

Suffrage is a particularly loaded issue for feminists sceptical about trans inclusivity.  

"If you view transgender women as men, the really easy refrain is 'We had to fight for our vote and you didn't, you were men so you had your vote'," Ms Johnson says.

"But of course, those trans women who were exercising their right to vote weren't exercising it as women, they had to dress up as men and live a lie for their entire life."

She does have some sympathy for those who feel threatened by her existence.

"So many of those people have been hurt by patriarchal constructs and by men. They see anyone with a particular body or who started their life off as a particular way as being inherently unredeemable and unable to fully participate in womanhood or the feminist project.

"I really sympathise with that, but going out and targeting already incredibly marginalised people with some of the highest rates of suicide in the world isn't helping anyone."

Green MP Jan Logie says as a gay woman, she's disappointed to see feminists turning their backs on the trans community.

"I've experienced those same myths about lesbians and queer people, which is why it makes me so sad to see them coming from people who have probably had those same things thrown at them."

Lexie Matheson is a trans activist and academic who is keenly aware of the shifting nature of feminism.
Lexie Matheson is a trans activist and academic who is keenly aware of the shifting nature of feminism. Photo credit: Newshub.

She's advocated for trans rights since before most people were aware of the term, developing member's Bills around changing gender markers and lobbying for trans prisoners to go into the right prison for their identity.

Much like those who opposed gay rights in the 20th century, Ms Logie believes trans-exclusionary radical feminists are on the wrong side of history.

"You listen to the debates in Parliament on the first homosexual law reform and the characterisation of gay people as dangerous mentally ill predators, that was how people who didn't know us described us.

"It comes down to a lack of knowledge and fear and we just need to move past this."

Feminism is not a perfect movement, with certain voices often dominating at the expense of others.

"Some women have sought to say what the feminist agenda is and they've excluded the experience of a huge number of women, whether that's Māori women or women of colour or lesbians or women who didn't have children," Ms Logie says.

"My feminism, my vision of equality in the world, is when all our different realities are heard and we support each other for a world where we all live free in dignity."

The trans community has the backing of many New Zealand feminist groups, including our second oldest women's organisation. The National Council of Women (NCW) was founded in 1896 by Kate Sheppard herself, who by the sounds of things would have been on-board with trans inclusivity.

"One of the things she said which was pretty ahead of her time was 'Whatever separates us, whether it be of class or creed or race, is inhumane and must be counted'," says Carol Beaumont, head of the Auckland branch.

"Even at that time she was recognising that this movement is for all people."

Ms Beaumont says the NCW's recent conference included a focus on trans issues, which was warmly received by its 200 "diverse" female audience members.

"Not a single one of those people had a problem with it."

She says feminism can't pick and choose which women get to be included.

"When we're talking about gender equality, we mean gender equality for everyone."

In Ms Johnson's experience, New Zealand feminism has come a long way. The 28-year-old has marched for abortion rights despite the fact that it's "not her body on the line", and says women need to show solidarity with one another.

"I have a really strong sense of sisterhood with the feminists around me, and that feels great because that's something I've never experienced in my life before."

They say a woman's work is never done, but Ms Matheson says we'll get there a lot quicker with more bodies on the ground.

"To support us and accept us…you've just put another line of people in the march towards total equality," she says.

"We've got a journey to go on as women in New Zealand, and my community has a place in that journey. It's payback for those women who have stood up and prepared to be staunch alongside us. It's time for us to do the same."