Vancouver Feminists and Gender Politics

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What does it mean to be a woman?

Is it having breasts and getting a period? Explain that to a woman who’s had a mastectomy or a hysterectomy. Is she less than female?

Does it mean being a mother and a wife? Where does that leave women who are childless by choice, or infertile, happily single, divorced or widowed, lesbian or celibate?

Does being a woman involve being victimized, or harassed on the street, or afraid to walk alone after dark?

Does that mean women lack power, or strength, or courage? Is it less than womanly to have muscles, to walk with a swagger, to compete in martial arts or boxing?

Does being a woman mean wearing dresses and makeup and obsessing over weight and breast size? Does it mean being vain, does it mean hating oneself?

Does being a woman mean being oppressed? What about women who are born into wealth and privilege and who wield power over others?

Does being a woman mean being bad, worthless, less than? Does it mean being essentially good, nurturing and pure?

Does being a woman require a fondness for Meg Ryan films, for Oprah book club picks, for bubble baths and Kate Spade purses?

Is it just the opposite of being a man?

Having been a woman my whole life, I couldn’t begin to tell you what it means to be a one. Any time I begin to make any kind of generalization about what it means to be female — chromosomes and hormones aside — it all falls to pieces.

This confusion, this questioning, just might be one of the greatest achievements of feminism. Proof that sex shouldn’t limit people's opportunities and choices, proof that all the traditional good and bad qualities ascribed to maleness and femaleness aren’t the exclusive domain of either gender, proof that just maybe biology is no longer destiny.

After her six-year battle with the feminists at the Vancouver Rape Crisis and Women’s Shelter, however, Kimberley Nixon might feel otherwise.

Last week, British Columbia’s Human Rights Tribunal ruled in favour of Nixon in her complaint against Vancouver Rape Relief and ordered the centre to pay her $7,500 in damages, the province’s highest award ever for injury to dignity.

Back in 1995, Nixon was kicked out of a VRR training group for peer counsellors by a shelter representative who discovered that Nixon had not always been female. A transsexual woman, who had gender reassignment surgery in 1990, Nixon, though born biologically male, has lived as a female for more than 20 years.

Vancouver Rape Relief, which is one of Canada’s first women-run organizations for female victims of physical violence and sexual assault, has a women-only policy — one that excludes women who weren’t born with female genitalia. Though Nixon is legally a woman, the women at VRR felt that it was inappropriate for someone “without the life experience of being treated as a woman” to train as a peer counsellor.

Ironically, Nixon had been drawn to the centre in the first place because she had been through an abusive relationship with a man and she thought her experience might be useful.

Equally offensive was VRR’s narrow-minded assumption that all women have the same life experience and that simply being born a woman makes one more empathetic, supportive and capable than someone who wasn’t. What do the women at VRR then make of violent women like Karla Homolka or anti-feminist (and often anti-female) women like writers Camille Paglia and Donna Laframboise, or bellicose women like Margaret Thatcher and Condoleeza Rice?

What has their life experience taught them?

Despite the VRR’s claims, this wasn’t, at its heart, a test case “to defend the human right to women-only space” because Kimberley Nixon is a woman. This was about fear and ignorance, which are just as oppressive when they drive feminists as when they drive anyone else.

That’s why Nixon’s deserved victory feels hollow. For one thing, the VRR, which undeniably provides excellent and essential services to abused women, has exhausted much of its limited resources in the six-year fight.

For another, while the tribunal has ordered the centre to never again contravene the human rights code in the same manner, no one at VRR seems happy about the ruling. Kimberley Nixon and women like her might now be allowed to volunteer at Vancouver Rape Crisis, but it won’t be a real victory until they are welcomed.

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