On Caster Semenya And The Sin of Womanly Exceptionalism

By Kimberly Congdon, PhD

The International Association of Athletics Federations are going after Caster Semenya again. Subjecting her to what I can only imagine was a gruesome and demeaning “sex verification test” wasn’t enough for them, they’ve now instituted some new rules on testosterone levels and competition. WHY? Oh, for so many reasons. Because we can’t allow women to be exceptional. Because gender exists to categorize people, and when people defy those categories, we punish them. And just as we punish men for failing to be manly enough, we punish women for failing to be womanly enough. Caster Semenya doesn’t fit the IAAF’s definition of  “woman”,  and so she must be punished for her sin. Here’s the thing, though: gender is a social construct. I know this, because people ask if my dog is male or female (sex), not if she’s a man or a woman (gender). It’s about how you feel, and what category society decides to force you in based on the way you choose to express how you feel. The list of items that designate a category have changed over time. In other words, the way we define “man” and “woman” have changed over the course of history. They also vary from culture to culture. But those changes are gradual, and rarely does a society recognize a non-binary definition of gender. So regardless of the nuance of an individual’s identity, society forces them to pick a box and conform to it as best they can. And when they do, they are stuck with ALL the other conditions in that box. Which, for women, means “don’t ever be too good at anything.”

We punish women for their exceptionalism all the time, and when we do, we tend to do it in terms that questions their “woman” credentials – we use language to either imply, or directly declare, that she’s not womanly enough. Women who are too smart, too ambitious, too accomplished – all of them are criticized for those traits. Women are denied the right to be exceptional at anything, because exceptionalism is for men alone. And now, with Caster Semenya, the partriarchy has found a whole new way to apply this form of oppression. Ms. Semenya runs too fast, she improved her own records too quickly, so she can’t possibly be a woman. That’s not an exaggeration of what happened – when her times in the 1500 and 800 meter races improved, the IAAF ordered she undergo a “sex verification test”, because 1. They equate sex and gender, and 2. A woman can’t be that good, so if she is that good, she must not be a woman. While, at the time, the tests failed to confirm she is not a woman, the IAAF attempted to suppress her exceptionalism by forcing her to take hormone suppressants. A legal challenge ultimately ended that, but they’re at it again. They have instituted revised restrictions on testosterone levels for specific races – the races she participates in (what a coincidence!). The idea of exceptional women offends these people SO MUCH that they will force an exceptional woman to deny her own exceptionalism to be allowed to be a woman. She must now take testosterone-suppressing drugs to compete, because the IAAF has decided her exceptionalism is linked to her testosterone levels, and that those levels are too high.

Consider the circular logic these people will accommodate to stop womanly exceptionalism. Ms. Semenya identifies as a woman, and based off whatever humiliating “sex verification test” she was forced to endure, can’t be identified as something other than female, but her testosterone levels are high. Both males and females have testosterone, and the amount varies within the sexes, but males typically have more, and testosterone is a big part of the male stereotype. But testosterone level is not a definition of sex (or gender, fyi). Caster runs like the WIND (good for her). She ran so fast, someone decided she can’t be a woman (because women can’t run that fast). So they tested her womanness by testing her sex (not the same thing). And they decided that her testosterone level (their definition of MANNESS as well as MALENESS) was too high, so even though they can’t prove she’s not a woman, she isn’t enough of a woman by their standards, so they’re forcing her to suppress her own biology, to fit their definition of womanness, which requires her be less great than she is. She can’t be a woman, because she’s too exceptional, but they can’t prove she isn’t a woman using the (already flawed) ways of equating sex and gender, so they pick something about her that they feel is anomalous, and use that to determine she’s not a woman – because she’s too good to be a woman, so she must not be.

So now, Caster Semenya has a choice – be a mediocre woman, or a mediocre man (because her times, while great for women runners, would put her near the bottom of the pack of men runners). There is a deep-seated hatred of women at the root of this treatment of Ms. Semenya. If you want to be a woman, you can’t be exceptional. That’s the statement the IAAF is making with this rule – women are not that good at anything, so if you are that good, you aren’t a woman, and if you want to be a woman, you have to stop being that good. This is what sexism looks like.

ICYMI:

http://bit.ly/2sdBbVF_LipstickRepublic

http://bit.ly/2s4vlGB_LipstickRepublic

http://bit.ly/2x79JhH_LipstickRepublic

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Dr. Congdon is an anthropologist, anatomist, scientist, feminist, activist, conservationist. When those things collide, she writes about it here. She wants you to vote, and stop littering.

A Letter To Barnard

By Rachael Severino

Dear Dean Hinkson,

I am writing to you today to explain why I will not be applying to Barnard College for my Bachelor’s degree this fall.

I would like to start by introducing myself. My name is Rachael. I am a sixteen-year-old Jewish young woman. I have been on the Dean’s List every year and I deeply care about school. My life-long passion lies in writing, and, had I attended your school, I would have majored in English with a concentration in Creative Writing.

Recently, your students voted to take an incredibly anti-Israel stance, which I am sure you are well aware, as there has been quite a bit of backlash. Your school has remarkably strong ties to the Jewish community, evidenced by the fact that roughly 33% of the student population identifies as such. However, more than half the students have turned their back on their peers by campaigning, and subsequently voting, to sever ties with businesses which are pro-Israel.

I have read nothing but heartbroken responses from your students. Holding this vote on the eve of Israel’s Independence Day proves how tremendously disrespectful a portion of your students have become towards their Jewish peers. Students at your school seem to have tunnel vision with regard to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as exhibited by setting up an anti-Israel booth only feet from the Holocaust Remembrance Day booth. Palestinian terrorist groups have a poor habit of abducting, torturing, and murdering Israelis and Jewish tourists, along with stoning anyone in reach of the border. Yet, your students remain blind.

Israel has created a powerful army, and an even more powerful intelligence and counter-terrorism agency, Mossad, to combat being sandwiched between states that hate Jews, who happen to be the indigenous people of Israel. Not becoming martyrs [like other native populations] doesn’t make Jews the villains in this story.

When is one Jewish life important? When stonings, bombings, and beheadings are a staple in everyday life, the Israeli government has the right to defend their people.

The Palestinians are not to blame, but the terrorists who reside among them are.

Those of the Muslim religion have suffered in America for a great deal of time. Having young people come to their aid and rally for a hate-free world is fantastic, but defending Palestinian terrorist groups is not the way to go.

Jewish women have stood arm in arm with their Muslim counterparts in the on-going civil rights battle. Both groups fully understand what it means to long for a safe place to worship, and America, despite being the self-proclaimed land of the free, has not been kind to those who wish to be free when their faith is not Christianity.

Jews know what it means to be without a safe place. They have had a single homeland for only seventy years, preceded by thousands of years displaced and homeless.

Neither the Muslim nor Jewish communities are to blame for this conflict; ignorant groups fueled by hate are.

Your students do not seem to understand the situation at hand and have let centuries of both latent and overt anti-Semitism blind them.

College is meant to be a safe environment – one where students gather information and take steps into their future. How can a Jewish student feel safe when more than half the other attendees are rallying against them and their faith?

Barnard has been hailed as a place of learning that creative, talented, and bright young women of all backgrounds can attend, to both join together and change the world. The women currently at your school are changing things, but not for the better.

Jewish women have suffered since their religion first came to be more than 5,000 years ago. Barnard has spent it’s one hundred and twenty-nine-year long history drawing these women in, providing them with a safe place to flourish; now, it is just another place that stands against them.

Liberal colleges have never been kind to the Jewish people, leaving them out of their activist revolutions and renaming them as the scapegoat. The ignorant who forget history are inclined to repeat it, as your students have so clearly done; yet your history department is renowned. How can this be? How can they be so blinded by hate, even now? It begs the question, what are they learning at your school?

How can the women of your school turn around and hate the most marginalized group to have ever been?

Barnard has taken the horrific role of leading the charge against Jewish-American students.

Your Jewish students have so much to offer your college and the world. Brilliant and talented Jewish women want to go to your school. There are, however, other colleges, with similar opportunities that offer a safer environment. As evidenced in Twitter posts and comments following the vote, many of the 33% of your school are considering their options, including transferring to schools that will not only protect them, but respect them. They are exhausted from constantly defending [out of necessity] who they are, particularly in a space that is supposed to accept and celebrate them as part of the diverse culture at Barnard.

I have wanted to attend your college since I was twelve years old; since I learned about Columbia, but then found Barnard and wanted to attend there even more. Barnard, the school Jewish women raved about and beamed at me for when I said it was my dream school. Barnard, the school my friends oohed and ahhed at. Barnard, the school I would have been proud to mention in my author’s letter on my first book. Barnard, the school I looked at online nearly every night. Barnard, the school that helped mold Sheila Abdus-Salaam, the first African- American women on New York’s highest court, Ann Bernays, a novelist, Katherine Boo, a journalist and recipient of the Pulitzer, Ann Brashaes, an author, Elise Clews Parsons, the “founding mother of anthropology”, Edwidge Danticat, an author, Helen Gahagan Douglas, the first Democrat women elected to the USA Congress, Delia Ephron, an author, playwright, and screenwriter, Muriel Fox, founder of NOW, Cristiana Garcia, a journalist and novelist, Greta Gerwig, an actress, screenwriter, and director, Mary Gordon, an author, and countless others.

Barnard, the school that I have removed from my college list.

Barnard, the school that has become yet another unsafe space.

Barnard, the school that could have been.

With great sadness,
Rachael

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Rachael Severino is a quirky eleventh grader, aspiring author, tiny feminist, and cat enthusiast.