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An Open Letter to Julie Burchill: You Do Not Speak for Me

26/02/2014 13:08 GMT | Updated 27/04/2014 10:59 BST

This is a response to Julie Burchill's article in the Spectator dated February 22nd 2014 in which she criticised intersectionality, and references an article she published in January 2013 attacking transgender activists.

Dear Julie Burchill,

I am the sort of feminist you would probably like. In other words, I am a cisgender (note: not "cisgendered") woman, which simply means that I am not a transwoman. Despite your objection to this term, it is no more of an insult than calling someone heterosexual - it is not a slur, but rather a way of describing people in a neutral way, as opposed to using transgender and 'normal'. (Cis and trans are commonly used prefixes in Latin and in chemistry, so while they may be new to you, there is nothing intrinsically derogatory about either of them).

My point is that I am your target audience, the kind of young 21st century feminist you feel ought to be cheering you on. So I would like to make this as clear as I possibly can, from one 'sister' to another:

Julie Burchill, you do not speak for me.

I will not question your right to call yourself a feminist. I have always believed that feminist is a label we should be able to choose for ourselves, and I have spent long hours arguing that anyone who believes in equal rights for women can consider themselves a feminist. Yes, that includes men, and transgender people. It even includes you.

What I will say, however, is that yours is a type of feminism that I want nothing to do with. It is a type of feminism that places your personal prejudices at the heart of an ideology that should be based on equality, rejecting anyone who disagrees with you. By doing so it dismisses some of the most vulnerable women in society, who face obstacles you could not possibly imagine (far more serious than PMT and menopause), and who need feminism the most.

Now let's talk about transwomen.

I am not trans, or part of the trans community, and I am self-aware enough to realise that trans people are more than capable of speaking for themselves, much more eloquently than I can. But you will not listen to them, so I wonder whether you might be more inclined to listen to a cisgender 'real' feminist like me. Julie Burchill, transwomen are women. Full-stop. They do not need your permission to call themselves women, nor do they need to jump through the arbitrary hoops that you (and most of society) demand. Whatever medical or legal procedures might be necessary or available, transgender people do not owe you an explanation or an excuse for their identity.

Because the fact is, Julie Burchill, you do not get to decide who is and isn't a woman.

I know you disagree with me on this. It is clear from your latest piece, and from the article you published last January, that you do not consider transwomen to be women; to you they are men dressed as women, determined to invade feminist spaces. You call them a "a bunch of dicks in chicks' clothing", "middle-class seat-sniffers", "gender-benders", "a thoroughly monstrous regiment of bellicose transsexuals", and previously "bed-wetters in bad wigs". This is transphobia, as dangerous and bigoted as all those misogynistic and homophobic slurs you probably flinch to hear.

I remember the incident with Suzanne Moore last year: I remember following her side of it on Twitter, before reading your horrifying response in the Observer (which was then taken down, probably because it came dangerously close to hate-speech, but reprinted here). If you've forgotten the tweets in question, this summary might jog your memory - do you remember Moore tweeting "People can just fuck off really. Cut their dicks off and be more feminist than me"? I can recall being stunned (perhaps naively) that two women who claimed to fight so hard for equal rights could viciously attack some of the least privileged women in society. It was such a display of wilful ignorance, revealing an obsession with the idea that transwomen are men who have "cut their dicks off" to try to pretend to be women. I was sickened by the thought that someone who held these views could allege to represent me.

Julie Burchill, intersectionality is not about "in-fighting and back-biting" or "bitching" about nice white feminists. It is simply acknowledging that even within marginalised groups, some people will have more privilege than others. Transwomen, gay women, disabled women and non-white women all face a myriad of other prejudices in addition to the harmful sexism and misogyny that every woman experiences. Intersectionality is about recognising that white cisgender feminists like you and I have an advantage, and that we should be aware of that when we speak. And when we screw up (which we will - everyone does), we should know how to listen, and to apologise. As this comic so beautiful illustrates, privilege is a fact, not an insult.

Unlike you, I do not feel threatened by being asked to "check my privilege". I too read Laurie Penny's piece on hair, and I loved it. But then again, I have the kind of hair she was talking about. Penny was not attacked - she was criticised and asked to consider how her generalisations about female hair were specific to white women. That does not seem too much to ask.

Instead of recognising your relative privilege, you lamented how marginalised feminists are "encouraged to bypass the obvious task of tackling the patriarchy's power", missing the irony that your transphobic attacks place you firmly on the side of the patriarchal culture you say you despise. You even tried to use other issues facing women to argue that transgender rights are irrelevant, echoing the battle-cry of every anti-feminist male who argues that rape statistics and abortion access do not matter because women in third-world countries suffer much worse. You finished by demanding you be left alone to "resume creating a tolerant and united socialism", but there is nothing tolerant about your views or the way you present them.

If the type of feminism you espouse is built on attacking less-privileged women to make yourself look and feel important, you cannot claim to be speaking for women at all.

Sincerely, but without respect,

Rachel Cunliffe