Last month, the Women’s March was noticeably awash with not only pink “pussyhats” but also protest signs that included the word pussy. At the protests, phrases like “My pussy grabs back,” “This pussy has teeth,” and “Pussy power” seemed to be ubiquitous. Such language demonstrates women’s attempts to reclaim the word after now-President Donald Trump said on a hot mic that famous men can “grab [women] by the pussy” whenever they want, slinging the word into headlines and on to the political stage. However, despite the success of the Pussyhat Project, which outfitted protestors with pink hats across the country, some feminists and trans people are criticizing the rise of pussy-centric rhetoric, which is likely to continue in future protests, because it excludes trans women from a movement that’s all about inclusivity. To parse out the politics of reclaiming the word and how to further it as a term of inclusivity, Playboy Contributing Writer Lilly O'Donnell, a cis woman, sat down with a transgender woman named Alyssa Gonzalez. As Gonzalez summarizes, “There needs to be explicit efforts to devote some of the movement’s energy to trans-specific issues.”
LILLY O'DONNELL: I absolutely want the current women’s movement, which is at the forefront of the Trump resistance, to be inclusive of all women, but I’m hesitant to give up the pussy rhetoric. For generations, women have been told that pussy is shameful. Now, millions of women are embracing the word and the identity that comes with it, screaming it from the streets without shame. That’s a beautiful thing, given its history.
That said, I acknowledge that I don’t know what it feels like to be a trans woman surrounded by signs that align womanhood with anatomy I wasn’t born with. I know I can’t magically make someone’s feeling of exclusion go away by cis-splaining my interpretation of pussy power, which is why I asked you to have this conversation with me. So, first off, can you explain why the rhetoric is problematic?
ALYSSA GONZALEZ: It’s common for people to imagine a very tightly defined gender binary as the way our world works. In this view, women are people who have vulvas, cervixes, uteruses and breasts, and men are people with Adam’s apples, penises and testes. But it’s not that simple. Transgender women often lack vulvas and transgender men usually have them.
Women who don’t have vulvas have a hard time believing we’re welcome when signs and rhetoric equate anatomy—and its various functions—with being a woman (or conversely, that equate manhood with having a penis or testes). It suggests to us that the people holding those signs think I’m “really” a man—and might keep thinking that even after the last traces of what I used to look like are medically purged.
O'DONNELL: To me, pussy power is about so much more than anatomy. It’s that ineffable, visceral feminine energy all women have—including trans women. In that way, this issue feels to me like a matter of clearing up semantics and making it clear that pussy power is for all women, not just those whose biology matches the catch phrase.
GONZALEZ: I’m all for a “This Pussy Grabs Back!” sign if a “My Girldick Is Not For You!” sign is just as welcome next to it. The rhetoric that equates having a vulva or uterus with being a woman, or declares menstruation an essential feature of womanhood, has to get shut down. What the people organizing movements like this need to understand is that, if it’s a women’s movement, it’s for all women. So they need to tailor their messaging to a mixed crowd of women of every race, anatomy, social class, ability status and so on. They need to take up issues that affect particular subsets of women (black, trans, poor, etc.) more than others, so that we can tell that those communities know the movement is here for them, too.
At the Women’s March, many black women carried signs asking if white women were going to show up for the next Black Lives Movement march, too. It’s very easy for a social movement run by well-off white people to decide that the concerns of other groups are “peripheral” and “secondary” while expecting their own concerns to have everyone’s enthusiasm. That’s what’s not okay.
O'DONNELL: So the problem is not just about using the word pussy, but a lack of effort to actively center the concerns of trans people and not just tack them on to an agenda as an afterthought.
GONZALEZ: Yes. If women like me as well as non-women who are subject to uterus-related laws and norms are going to feel welcome, there needs to be explicit efforts to acknowledge transgender people and devote some of the movement’s energy to trans-specific issues.
For example, if the organizers include in their speeches how vulnerable my people’s many undocumented immigrants are to every kind of predation, and if they have someone on hand to remind the crowd that reproductive freedom means we can’t be okay with disabled women being involuntarily sterilized, that helps. We need hats and slogans because they seize attention and resonate with the public, but we also need to leverage that to get other issues into focus. Otherwise, these marches aren’t for women, they’re for well-off white cis women, like their critics have been saying.
O'DONNELL: Do you think that if the movement coalescing since the March takes the steps to actively include trans issues, we’ll be able to keep the positive elements of pussy rhetoric without it being exclusionary?
GONZALEZ: The short answer is I think we can. The hats and signs are important and shouldn’t be discarded. Reproductive freedom and sexual assault are both issues that affect women profoundly, and effective rhetoric for dealing with these issues ought to be retained. Trans women with and without vulvas are sexually assaulted at rates much higher than other women, and trans men face this hazard too, so directly challenging the new president’s quip about grabbing people by the genitals is necessary. But overall, trans people, regardless of gender or anatomy, have a long history of being involved in large social movements; declaring us allies and then treating our concerns as a bargaining chip to trade for what they actually want; that is what has to stop.