On the 21st January 2017, women in every continent gathered on the streets to protest the election of Donald Trump - a man who boasted of grabbing pussies, was accused by over a dozen women of sexual assault, was accused of child rape, and was accused of rape by his ex-wife (she later retracted the claim saying he didn’t do it in a criminal way). I was there - raising my voice against the men who try to silence us through violence.
Many of the women on the global marches wore ‘pussy hats’. These handmade pink hats were designed as a rebuke to the dehumanising, sexually violent language of Trump. They were a symbol against the very specific assault of this presidency against women’s bodies - from the pussies he grabbed to the wombs he immediately legislated against.
The wearing of the pussy hats was important to so many women, as quoted in Paul Mason’s report from the march:
“I can’t stand the colour pink, and that hat looks really shitty on me. But right now it’s my most precious material possession. I’m betting there are lots of people out there who will look at their hats and remember that they need to do something – not just today, but tomorrow and the next.”
A week later, I was on another march - this time protesting the anti-Muslim ban. One protest in another city requested that attendees left their pussy hats and uterus-emblazoned placards at home, over concerns that they were ‘exclusionary’.
I was going to write about this at the time, but I’ve been writing a novel so haven’t done much political blogging. However, this issue raised its head again this week, with an op-ed in the Washington Post by Phoebe Maltz Bovy. In her article, Maltz Bovy asks us to drop the vagina as a protest symbol. She again cites the idea that it’s exclusionary (‘The obvious problem with vagina-motif protest is that it leaves out some women’); and that the use of vagina erases women’s experiences:
“The vast majority of women do indeed have vaginas, but they aren’t preoccupied by that fact day to day. Vagina possession doesn’t explain why Mary voices an idea in a meeting but the boss listens only when Jim repeats it. When Kate does the dishes again, it isn’t because Bob’s genitalia prevented him from loading the dishwasher. Yes, reproduction and child-care-related issues, not to mention sexual assault and domestic abuse, disproportionately affect women, and often involve women’s genitals. But even the women’s issues with some relationship to female anatomy aren’t really about vaginas.”
In her extraordinary book, When I Hit You, Meena Kandasamy describes repeated brutal rape by her husband:
“When I’m through, what you have will be torn and tattered […] This is the aim of his rapes, all this rough sex. Not just a disciplining, but a disabling”
I include this quote to make the point that talking about our vaginas and what men do to them is important, that there’s a reason so much male violence is centred on our vaginas and wombs (pregnancy is a real risk factor in DVA). Biology is not destiny - that is a key demand of feminism. What this means is that so far, men’s oppression of women has been tied up absolutely in biology. The feminist fight is the fight to liberate ourselves from this oppression. We can’t do that, however, unless we are allowed to talk about it.
After all, there’s a reason the American Senate tried to ban the word ‘vagina’ in their debates.
The fact is, I would love it if we could drop the vagina as a protest symbol. I would love it if we could retire our placards shouting ‘get your rosaries off my ovaries.’ Do you think I’m not sick of this shit? Do you think I want to carry on shouting about my vagina and what men think they are entitled to do to it? Do you think I want to carry on waving a metal coat hanger in the air and demanding my reproductive rights? No! I want to finish my novel!
It wasn’t us who made it about our wombs and vaginas. It wasn’t us who created the reason for our pussy hats.
It was Trump.
Trump, and all the men around him.
Trump made it about our pussies when he boasted about grabbing them.
He made it about our wombs when he signed away abortion support for the world’s poorest and most vulnerable women. When his Freedom Caucus got together and signed away funding for maternal healthcare. When attacks on Planned Parenthood mean attacks on abortion rights, as well as care for ovarian and cervical cancer.
Men make it about our pussies when they rape 1500 women in the UK every week.
Men make it about our uteruses when they force women and girls to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term.
Men make it about our genitals when in slums across the developing world, women are raped and assaulted as they go to the toilet.
Men make it about our genitals when they say a good woman is a cut woman.
Men make it about our genitals and wombs when they tax tampons and use the money to fund anti-choice organisations.
I am a fervent and true supporter of inclusivity and I know that the proposed bans on pussy hats came from a well-meaning place of ensuring trans and non binary people did not feel excluded.
This matters. We need to practice intersectionality as feminists and we need to make sure we are inclusive and kind. But when we try and ban mention of pussies and vaginas and wombs in the name of inclusivity, we are in fact ignoring how the attacks on women’s bodies and bodily autonomy is in itself an act of exclusion.
All the issues I cite above are centred in intersectional feminism - from the fact that wealth and class privilege makes it easier to access abortion in countries where it is criminalised, to the dangers of going to the toilet for women in the global south. This latter issue is so, so ignored, by the way.
Take the abortion ban in Ireland. For women carrying to term a foetus with a fatal abnormality, they are literally locked into their homes. They can’t go out because of the trauma involved in having to either repeatedly explain to people that their baby will die, or lie about it. The laws on abortion exclude women from society.
Or take the abortion ban everywhere. Women die every day because they cannot access safe, legal abortion. Male lawmakers’ obsession with women’s wombs excludes women in that it kills us.
The rapes and attacks on women that happen every day in every corner of the world seek to exclude women from public space - and again, these attacks exclude us absolutely when male violence kills us.
We have to be able to name what happens to us. We have to be able to name the body parts that are under attack by male power and male violence. We have to be able to say that men attack our pussies and vaginas; that men legislate against our uteruses; that men do this because we are women and our oppression is a biological oppression.
There was a case of mass rape in Bolivia where women couldn’t accuse their perpetrators because they had never been taught the names of their genitals. They couldn’t describe what had happened to them because they didn’t have the word ‘vagina’. This lack of language excluded them from justice.
Women’s bodies have been unspeakable for so long. We have been denied a voice to name our oppression for so long.
That’s why as long as men try and attack my vagina and the vaginas of my sisters, then I will shout the word as loud as I can. As long as men try and attack my womb and the womb of my sisters, then I will shout the word as loud as I can.
To name the attacks on our vaginas and wombs is not exclusionary.
To try and deny women the language to speak about what patriarchy does to us - that really is.