Transgressing Gender: Another Level

Transgressing Gender: Another Level

Today’s post is the (edited) text of the opening keynote speech I gave at the University of California, Davis this past Saturday, December 1st for their “Ain’t I a Woman” Empowerment Conference.  It was the first time this conference had been held in 40 years.  It was last held as the first official event of the Women’s Research and Resources Center (WRRC) at UC-Davis.

Act One – Sojourner

“Well, children, where there is so much racket there must be something out of kilter. I think that ‘twixt the Negroes of the South and the women at the North, all talking about rights, the white men will be in a fix pretty soon. But what’s all this here talking about?

That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain’t I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain’t I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man – when I could get it – and bear the lash as well! And ain’t I a woman? I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain’t I a woman?

Then they talk about this thing in the head; what’s this they call it? [member of audience whispers, “intellect”] That’s it, honey. What’s that got to do with women’s rights or Negroes’ rights? If my cup won’t hold but a pint, and yours holds a quart, wouldn’t you be mean not to let me have my little half measure full?

Then that little man in black there, he says women can’t have as much rights as men, ’cause Christ wasn’t a woman! Where did your Christ come from? Where did your Christ come from? From God and a woman! Man had nothing to do with Him.

If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back, and get it right side up again! And now they is asking to do it, the men better let them.

Obliged to you for hearing me, and now old Sojourner ain’t got nothing more to say.”1

It has been one hundred and sixty-one years to the month since Sojourner Truth first spoke these words in Akron, Ohio at the Women’s Rights Convention being held at a local church.2  Perhaps it is fitting then that your keynote speaker this year comes to you from Ohio, albeit the opposite side of the state, to address this body at this empowerment conference.  Perhaps it is also fitting that I am the one to deliver this year’s speech, seeing as how I, like Sojourner Truth, disrupts, and possibly even transgresses, what it means to be a Woman.

Let me explain.  This convention on women’s rights that took place in 1851 was held in a church, which is neither irrelevant nor incidental to the situation.  Prior to Sojourner Truth taking the floor – and she did take the floor – several Christian ministers, all men, from various denominations, including Methodist, Baptist, Episcopal, Presbyterian, and Universalist ministers had spoken and dominated the discourse.  Frances Dane Gage, who convened the meeting in Akron, wrote that women did not typically speak in public.  I would argue that furthermore speaking publicly in church was not encouraged for women and that therefore the setting of this convention in a church did as much to silence women from speaking out about women’s rights as did any general social norm about women speaking in public.

Gage wrote in 1863, 12 years after the incident, that Sojourner had walked into the church with “the air of a queen up the aisle” and decided to take her seat on the pulpit steps. For those of you not familiar with traditional Christian church architecture and layout, that would be like her coming to the front of this auditorium and sitting right here [pointing to bottom of podium perhaps], facing you in the audience.  It was a bold act.  And from the moment she came in, Gage recalls that people began imploring her not to allow Sojourner to say anything to the crowd lest their cause, women’s suffrage, be lost on account of it getting “mixed up with” abolition and Negroes.

Recall that in 1851, we are still a decade before the first shots were fired in the Civil War and the South seceded from the Union.  We see Sojourner here in Akron before the election of Lincoln to the presidency and his pragmatic and strategic use of emancipation and the Thirteenth Amendment to cripple the South and set off Reconstruction in the aftermath of his assassination in 1865.  At the moment that Sojourner Truth enters that Women’s Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio, John Brown, Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass and other fervent abolitionists were working in Oberlin, Ohio and other cities along the Underground Railroad to render slavery all but dead by the time the Civil War begins.3

What is not dead, nor close to dying, not in 1851 and seemingly not even in 2012, is the idea of Woman naturalistically defined.  As Simone de Beauvoir wrote women are not born, but one becomes a woman.4  Sojourner Truth asks repeatedly in the first paragraph of her speech, “Ain’t I a woman?”  The answer that came back really was a resounding “no” as the cult of true womanhood that was at its height in the second-half of the nineteenth century, ascribed the title and status of “Woman” based on race and social class criteria that Sojourner Truth would never meet.  Even by 1913, when the women of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. would become the only Black women’s group, just a couple of months after its founding, to walk in the women’s suffrage march in Washington, D.C., the vote, having been secured and quickly undermined for Black men, was primarily still promoted as a fundamentally White woman’s right.

Sojourner Truth deftly undermines the patriarchal argument against women’s suffrage on biological, intellectual, and theological grounds.  She not only challenges her own exclusion from the circle of women whose rights were being argued for, but she also successfully argues for the expansion of women’s rights using the same worldview of the men who were objecting to those rights.  Gage later exalts over how Sojourner won the crowd over to their cause and notably does not use language that would include Sojourner in that cause.

So, no, Sojourner, you may be female, but you sho’ ain’t a Woman in 1851, not in the minds of your audience.  Which leaves me wondering, would Sojourner be a Woman today in 2012?  Am I, or anyone else who flaunts gender boundaries and binaries, a “Woman” in 2012?  Perhaps we ought even to ask whether becoming a “Woman” is something anybody should want.

Act Two: Gender Performances

But first let’s return to Simone de Beauvoir’s assertion that a woman isn’t born but becomes.  This can be because one’s biological sex is not equated to one’s gender.  Gender is not inherent in our biology; our hormones, reproductive organs, and sexual desires do not dictate, or necessarily inform, our gender.  We come to gender through the omnipresent socialization that is begun at birth and even before birth.  As soon as a woman is found to be pregnant, information concerning the sex of the fetus is demanded – ostensibly so that people know what to buy the child, what colors, what kinds of clothes, what toys.  After the child is born, these accoutrements are required so that people know how to treat the baby.

I will never forget an interaction I had with a woman when my daughter was about 6 months old (she’s now 13 years and 6 months, so that lets you know how much this stuck in my craw).  I was out for Sunday brunch, my daughter was wearing a Tigger outfit.  She had very little hair at the time and it was brushed down – no bows, no ribbons, no headband squishing her tender skull, and there were no earrings in her earlobes.  I had taken her into the restroom to change her diaper and a woman also in the restroom began to remark on how cute he was and that he was such an adorable little boy.  I corrected the woman twice, “it’s a girl actually.”  She immediately took umbrage with me, chastised me for not marking my daughter appropriately as a girl, so that unsuspecting, well-meaning people like her would know how to properly address my child.

I didn’t realize before this moment that perhaps Tigger – and all of Winnie the Pooh’s characters except for Kanga – were meant for boys and by adorning my helpless child in Tigger’s costume, I was violating her gender coding.  Was I trying to pass my girl-child off as a boy?  Cast my daughter in the role of a son?  Had I disrupted the natural order set in place by God Himself at the creation as those ministers in 1851 tried to claim?  Indeed, I was a bad mother, because I had failed to make my child’s sex – and therefore presumably her gender – publicly visible for inspection and appraisal.  I’m reminded of Foucault’s Panopticon; we are constantly under surveillance as a means of control.6

Becoming a Woman means fulfilling a set of naturalized expectations for comportment, pedigree, beauty, and social graces that have been reserved for White middle-class and upper-class women and to which other females – of different races and pedigrees – would seek to emulate and thereby (hope to) be granted the status of woman.  This is what Judith Butler argues in her essay on performative gender5, that gender is not merely performed as though it was an individual act, but rather gender is rehearsed before a public audience in such a way that it is no longer a private commodity to be traded by the individual, but rather the result of a public, communal construction.  Gender – the binary of masculinity and femininity – reflects, communicates, and seeks to promulgate a social status that is meant to support patriarchy and heteronormative privileges with the cooperation of religious authorities.

Consequently, when gender is constructed under the auspices of interlocking systems of oppression – patriarchy does not stand alone but works in concert with heterosexism, racism, classism, ableism, and religious dogmatism – who becomes woman and who becomes man reflect the narrow social constructions of those oppressive structures.  The social norms that have been developed to enforce compliance are hard to resist and often become co-opted even by people trying to transgress gender binaries and gender role conformity.

What do I mean by this?7

Masculinity and manhood still have naturalized, rehearsed performances that rely on the oppression of women and femininity, and the assumptions of women’s incapacity and second-class citizenship.  I see this when I look at television commercials for men’s hygiene products (e.g., Axe), as well as in ads marketing soft drinks (e.g., Dr Pepper Ten), even in commercials for website hosting (e.g.,  Men are socialized to relate to women as objects, whether of desire, protection (more the territorial than nurturing kind), or manipulation.  Regardless of how benign the objectification may be, it still reflects patriarchy.  Ultimately, how masculine-of-center lesbians and transmen perform and embody masculinity reveals how little work our society has done to change our performative gender acts.  In addition, it challenges masculine-of-center lesbians and transmen to consider their gender performances as opportunities to truly transgress patriarchal gender as manifested in hegemonic masculinity and hegemonic femininity.

Unfortunately, I’ve seen masculine-of-center lesbians and transmen relate to women in ways that reflect the worst patriarchal behavior I’ve seen in cisgender men.  I had a masculine-of-center lesbian once tell me that while moving boxes with a transman, he said to her, “Let me get that for you; this is a man’s job.”  Although she set him straight, it was his easy recitation of this familiar gender performance of the role “man” that is most troubling.

The same kinds of habitually rehearsed gendered norms happen at the other end of the gender continuum.  In those performances, cisgender women, effeminate gay men, and transwomen often default to “being a woman” as a rationale for their indecisiveness, love of shopping, chocolate, and Oprah, and supposedly superior nurturing skills.  This is how women are supposed to behave, think, look and departing from that usually has social consequence.  For example, it’s often considered “cute” when a girl is a tomboy as a child, but as they get older, they are expected to drop that performance and become what they really are – a woman.

Thus we perform a gender whose definition has been so rehearsed and become so “natural” that we can hardly think our way out of these performances.  This brings me back to the questions that ended part one of this speech: Am I a woman?  Should I, or anyone else, what to become a woman?

Act Three: Gender Transgressions

In order to answer these questions, we must first consider our context.  We are in the United States in 2012, particularly in northern California (as opposed to Danbury, CT or rural Alabama) and these are all factors that are significant.  Although the common setting of the United States and the year allow some social norms to be recognizable in otherwise variant parts of the country, local culture does add contour to the act.  So, with that in mind, consider that you were preparing for a theatrical role as the part of Woman.  What would you need to portray Woman as realistically as possible?

  • What would her costume be?
  • How would Woman speak, what vocabulary would be used, the pace and rhythm of speech would be set with what in mind?
  • What is the timbre of Woman’s voice?
  • What gender pronouns would Woman use?
  • What are Woman’s props, biological and otherwise?
  • How long is Woman’s hair?
  • Would Woman be the lead role or a supporting cast member?
  • What is Woman’s sexuality?
  • What would Woman’s backstory be concerning Man?
  • What is Woman’s motivation in the play?

Consider how much the patriarchal messages we’ve learned have informed our Woman.  Is there any part of her that patriarchy has left untouched?  What do your responses say about your own gender performances?  Take a moment and share with the person you introduced yourself to earlier.

Given this modern day performative Woman, what would be said about Sojourner Truth?  I know that I don’t see Sojourner or myself much at all in this character.  Some things fit, a lot of other things don’t.  If I reject the role of performative Woman, then what am I?  Ain’t I a woman?  Do I want to be?  As Monique Wittig has argued, “lesbians are not women” because woman has meaning only in heterosexual relationship to men.8  Take note of whether you assigned your Woman to be heterosexual and likely to be in the supporting role relative to a lead character that you assigned as Man; heterosexuality is used as a site for the practice of patriarchy.  Yet, gay and lesbian relationships can also be sites for the practice of patriarchy inasmuch as the people in those relationships still engage each other through a patriarchal relationship dynamic manifested in rehearsed, naturalized (i.e., performative) gender acts.

The reality is that in the theater of lived experience, most females do not fulfill the role of Woman as scripted and rehearsed with 100% precision, 100% of the time.  Yet, have I done enough to disrupt patriarchal rehearsals of womanhood by changing how I dress or speak only?  Given all that I have argued above, I would say no.  However, if I act too far outside the rehearsed, naturalized norm that is Woman, am I affecting transformation within the rehearsed performances of Woman-hood that are happening constantly everywhere around me?  Alas, I have no clue.

But, just maybe, if enough people “act out,” perform ourselves outside the rehearsed Woman and Man roles, perhaps Woman and Man will become empty categories and several new dynamic, evolving, innovative genders will take their place.  Now, that would be truly transgressing gender.

[End scene. Exit stage left.]



1 The text of Sojourner’s speech was found online at the Modern History Sourcebook collection,

2 More information about Sojourner’s speech and Frances Dane Gage’s enhanced description of the setting and reaction of the crowd can be found online at the Sojourner Truth website,

3 For further discussion and critique of Lincoln’s role in emancipation, the Thirteenth Amendment, and the end of slavery, please read this excellent critique of Spielberg’s film Lincoln by Aaron Bady in the Jacobin, “Lincoln Against the Radicals,”

4 Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, 1949.

5 Judith Butler, “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory,” 1988. Available online at There is also a great short video clip of Judith Butler speaking about performative gender available on YouTube:

6 Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, 1975.  You can read more about it at the website,

7 These next two paragraphs are adapted from my article in the third issue of TRUTH Magazine, “Gender Transgression 2.0.” Information about the magazine is available at

8 Monique Wittig, The Straight Mind, 1978.