Joan of Arc Becomes Latest Flashpoint in TERF Fight

We have been discussing the ongoing controversies — and prosecutions — over what are called Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists (TERFs). The term is used for feminists who have voiced opposition to transgender policies and laws that they believe “erase” or “marginalize” biological women. The most famous such figure is author J.K. Rowling who has not only been the subject of a global cancel campaign but was recently listed by Buzzfeed with figures like cult leader Jim Jones, Benedict Arnold and O.J. Simpson as “villains.” Now, Joan of Arc is a flashpoint in the debate after Kit Heyam, lecturer at Queen Mary University of London, called for the use of “they/them” pronouns and declared that Joan of Arc and Queen Elizabeth should not be viewed as females but “gender nonconformists.”  That has led feminists and others to object that Heyam and others are actually advancing gender stereotypes of women.

In an essay, Heyam discusses the new play, “I, Joan,” which “tells Joan of Arc’s story anew” as “alive, queer, and full of hope,.”  Heyman notes how both historical figures performed tasks ordinarily reserved to men.

“The ninth-century English ruler Æthelflæd, who governed Mercia after the death of their husband, was later described as ‘conducting…Armies, as if she had changed her sex’: to take on a male-coded military role was, in some sense, for Æthelflæd to become male.

Elizabeth I, similarly, described themself regularly in speeches as ‘king’, ‘queen’ and ‘prince’, choosing strategically to emphasize their female identity or their male monarchical role at different points…”

I must confess that I take the emphasis on clothing and conduct to be a tad superficial as evidence of gender nonconformity as opposed to women who refused to be confined by social convention. For example, the fact that Elizabeth referred to herself as “prince” on occasion is consistent with the nomenclature of the time. Today it would be similar to a female fire fighter referring to herself as a “fireman” out of convention. Likewise, while she was known as the “Virgin Queen” and died without marrying or producing children, she had a variety of lovers and love interests. There were a myriad of reasons making marriage complex and risky for Elizabeth I.

Heyam’s position would seem to suggest that these figures should not be considered women because they dared to engage in activities reserved to men.

Feminist philosopher Jane Clare Jones objected that Heyam’s position suggests that

“anyone who does ‘manly’ things must be a man, and anyone who does ‘womanly’ things must be a woman…This is how we end up in a situation in which historical women who have performed traditionally ‘masculine’ roles end up being re-categorised as ‘trans men’ or ‘non-binary’ or ‘not-women’ in some way.”

I actually thought Heyam’s article was most interesting in explaining the importance of these figures to the trans community.  Heyam identifies as a “non-binary trans person” and wrote:

“When I hear Joan say, from 1431, ‘It was necessary’, I hear echoes of myself years ago, asking to be called they rather than she, telling people, ‘I don’t know why, but it’s what makes me happy.’ This doesn’t mean I can describe the real Joan as a trans person in the same way I am: it wouldn’t be fair to them, wouldn’t show them the respect they deserve, if I were to impose upon them my own way of seeing the world. But their story is nonetheless important to me, as it is to many other people of all genders, as a source of historical community; as a story which reminds us that our selves can be messy and our decisions multifaceted; and as a story of someone who insisted on disrupting and challenging gender, and remained so committed to this challenge that they were prepared to die for it. This history is powerfully liberating for all of us.”

That is a poignant and fascinating perspective. It could not justify, in my mind, treating these figures as nonconforming with they/them pronouns, but it show how these historical figures can resonate with people like Heyam in their own lives.

I only wish that feminists like Rowling and others can be afforded greater civility and tolerance in expressing their own views in this area. These are all valuable perspective and make for a rich and interesting debate. Unfortunately, while Heyam is legitimately welcomed in sharing her theories on these figures, it is increasingly difficult for writers like Rowling to appear on campuses to share their own countervailing views.

121 thoughts on “Joan of Arc Becomes Latest Flashpoint in TERF Fight”

  1. Your text implies Elizabeth I was not what she said she was – a virgin (“had a variety of lovers…”). The link you provide says she was a virgin. It is modern sensibility to think an unmarried woman, especially in an age before birth control, would always take lovers. Most males appear to not understand this. Just accept that not all women have sex instead of forcing a male-centered, modern view on Elizabeth. Wouldn’t her reasons for not taking a husband (danger, etc.) apply even as reason not to take a lover?

    1. Anonymous:

      I would argue that the meaning of “lover” in Elizabeth’s time often simply referred to a suitor, or hopeful suitor. In Pride and Prejudice, set in the early 1800s, Mr. Benett commented that Mr Wickham “simpers and smirks and makes love to us all.” He was not referring to a Roman orgy.

      I agree with you that Queen Elizabeth likely remained a virgin. There was too great a risk were she to bear a child out of wedlock. Marrying would put her at the mercy of a man, the deadly consequence thereof she’d observed from Henry VIII. For her to rule in the most safety possible, she had to remain unwed, and be wary of outraging her subjects.

  2. The more psychopathology a person has the more they insist that others have the same viewpoint and beliefs as they do. Normal people may voice their opinion but don’t attempt to force their beliefs on society at large.

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