Writing Women
4 min read

Writing Women

On writing about women when you used to look like one.

I got called out a few weeks ago for failures in writing about women. I won’t go into  detail here – it’s an ongoing conversation – but basically, in response to a new manuscript, I was told that I don’t understand some aspects of women’s experience, and there were moments when I needed to treat my heroine with more dignity, empathy, and clarity about where I stood in relation to her.

When I felt this critique tap my elbow, the muscles of my arm leapt up reflexively, and without my intervention, they pointed to my bona fides. A feminist small press published my first novel. That novel was about three women. There is only one male character of note, and he’s shallow, cruel, vain, and briefly shown. Characters deal with infertility, pink-collar work, period blood on wilderness hikes — at one point two characters like each other and share a laboratory — voila, all the tenets of feminist fiction, which means I write feminist fiction, which means I cannot write fiction that is not feminist. QED!

But this reader hadn’t read that book. She only had the manuscript in front of her, and the failings she saw were the the failings it had — possibly failings The Breath of the Sun had as well, except that they were masked by my old name on the cover. And that reminded me that Breath was also the first manuscript I’d ever written about a woman. I’d set myself the task of writing a distinctly feminine and feminist fantasy, in order to confront my discomfort with writing as a woman. It wasn’t a task that I could achieve without thinking consciously about it at every single juncture. And this brought me to a peculiar question. Did I know what it was like to be a woman?

You’d think I would. I lived that way, as I never stop reminding people in these exact words, for 36 years. (Thirty-six! A multiple of twelve!) I know what it’s like to be raised as a girl in the eighties, which means being told on alternate days that you can do anything and that you can’t do anything. I was a Girl Scout, from Daisies through Seniors. I’ve worn several types of special underwear, and I’ve protected it from blood. I’ve been hit on insistently by strangers, and by the occasional man I thought was a mentor and friend. I have had complex and erotically charged romantic friendships. I have married a bearded web developer in the rare book room at Powell’s.

But this is the same fruitless presentation of credentials as before. These things don’t add up to an experience of womanhood. They add up to a life spent trying to see my thoughts and feelings through a lens that was not my prescription. And — to whip out another set of credentials, this time the transmasculine one — I found that it didn’t make any sense to be a lesbian, to be a straight or bisexual woman, to be a married woman, to be a Girl Scout, to be an ambitious woman, to be a charming woman, to be a woman who’s happy with what she’s got. There was no feminine identity that worked, within the narrow range of feminine identities I could imagine.

And I think that’s the key. My imagination remained narrow, except for the vivid fantasies I used to elide my body. I never said to myself, “I should try to be more expansive and experimental in how I portray women,” even though it was true. After all, I was a woman, and that meant everything I wrote was the right way to write about women — except that I wasn’t, and it wasn’t.

It’s a funny thing about trans mascs and feminism. We often spend years committing and recommitting to it. We imagined that the reason we don’t feel like women is insufficient feminism, so we do our best to read, write, live, as passionate feminists. At the same time, since that commitment is largely an attempt to suppress ourselves, it ends up warped and peculiarly inflected, shot through with resentment that has to be worked through in a different way from the resentment of cis women, or cis men, or trans women, or nonbinary people who aren’t trans mascs. Other types of people also struggle to work through their internalized misogyny. Other kinds of people may fail to write effective female characters, or feminist books. But trans mascs struggle and fail in our own special way.

I don’t think I do know what it’s like to be a woman. I could say I know what it’s like because I’ve felt responsible for people’s feelings, or know how to match a blouse to accessories. (It’s true! Quiz me anytime between now and my natural death, and I will tell you all about amethysts). To say that, though, would mostly just be an insult to women. Parallel experiences and acquired skills aren’t the same as understanding. I don’t want to valorize or pedestalize women or their understanding, either; we are all people. But, look, I’m watching my arms type this. After a year and four months on testosterone, they are muscular and detailed, rich in veins and fuzz. They have finally begun to look correct to me, the way my instincts tell me they should look. It’s impossible simultaneously to know that this is how my arms should be, and to imagine that the acquired skill of dressing in women’s clothing is the same as being a woman. Cis men who do drag must feel a bit like this. Their arms look normal to them, and they are proud of understanding amethysts.

Feminism is about self-examination. I interpreted that incorrectly until I began living openly as a man. I examined myself, but only for flaws. For failings of feminine skill, failure to display solidarity, the things that could spill out and humiliate me. I see now that the real self-examination is about humility, not humiliation. It’s about recognizing that, if you are a woman, you haven’t experienced everything that all women experience. If you are a man, you may have experienced some things that women do, but not all of them, and not in the same way. And so I rewrote some of those scenes to give my heroine more dignity, to let her respond to others’ cruelty in a more complex way, and to make it clearer where I stood: near, but not of. Like, but not the same.