The Woman in the A-Line Dress

Dr. Helena Michie

I am fascinated by the card itself. Clinton has turned Trump’s disparaging and silencing comments into a trump card of sorts; insistently pink, it suggests the triumph of a new suit to be played when men like Trump engage in gamesmanship. Some people have compared it to a metro card–a sly and self-deprecating allusion to Clinton’s troubles with subway turnstiles in her attempt to portray herself as an ordinary person–an ordinary woman. The cleverness of the card lies in its status as a thing, a real object, and on Clinton’s power to transform Trump’s metaphor into something literal. So far I have not seen a real one: I have ordered mine, available from the Clinton campaign for a donation as small as $1, but I got a message saying I would have to wait six to eight weeks to get it in the mail, to slip it into my wallet between my overused Visa and my driver’s license. Do these cards exist? Can I expedite my card the way one can (I hope) a passport? I am anxious to hold it in my hand, but I am also anxious to see the reverse side: right now, the card is strangely, intriguingly flat. Although it is everywhere on the Internet, I know no one who has turned it over.

But, for now, I can see only the front of the card, and my eyes linger on a familiar figure: the outline of a person in an A-line dress that countless visits to pubic bathrooms have taught us all to understand as, to recognize as standing for, “woman.” In these days of LGBT discrimination ordinances, Clinton’s card is not a transgender card. It does not question what it means to be a woman, or suggest that not all people would be comfortable being sorted into two genders and two bathrooms. About twenty years ago, when feminist scholars were beginning to ask questions about the usefulness of gender categories, I wrote a paper (now lost to at least three hard drive crashes and incompetent filing) about bathroom doors. In that paper I argued that for all of the then-current talk about gender bending and blurred boundaries there appeared to be a moment of bodily emergency in which we were always forced to choose, sometimes between “Señors” and “Señoritas,” sometimes between “Pointers” and “Setters,” more often between the ubiquitous figure in the A-line dress and her opposite, the hipless figure in pants. It did not matter that in 1994, when the paper was written, almost no women wore A-line dresses–that, in fact, the majority of women at any given moment were probably wearing pants. What mattered was that gender was legible even in a time of another kind of gender emergency when gender roles seemed so subject to change. Our sense of sexual binaries is so strong that we are not usually fatally confused by “Pointers” and “Setters.” We pause perhaps, especially if the public bathroom is in a bar or a restaurant and we have had a few drinks, but the boundaries between men and women are so powerful that we are able to translate canine breeds into human genders (almost) without thinking. We are experts at this sort of translation.

This is not to say that mistakes are never made. People who define themselves a “men” walk into women’s bathrooms and women into men’s. These moments have traditionally been framed in terms of embarrassment, apology, and hasty exit at the sight, say, of a urinal, a sanitary napkin machine, or a person of the “opposite” sex. Anti-transgender discussions have turned gender embarrassment explicitly into gender shame, but perhaps “shame” can be read back onto these accidental moments of non-belonging.

So what does it mean that the woman card is so very much about this familiar figure of woman, this guardian of bathroom doors and gender binaries? I think feminist scholars have a lot to learn from the card’s fidelity to the lived experience of women. Although I don’t know if this material will end up on the back of the card, the image of the woman card on the Clinton website comes with statistics about gendered pay inequities and about women’s lack of access to reproductive health. As my colleagues have noted, academic feminism, even in women’s studies departments and programs,–many of which have added other elements like sexuality and gender to their names–has tended to move away from the category of “women” and to think more globally about gender. This happened for some very good reasons–reasons that are surfacing in the vicious attempts to turn non-discrimination legislation into bathroom ordinances. Identity categories can be confusing, proscriptive, and dangerous.

But it is also crucial to think about women as women. And some gender studies programs, including our own, are thinking about how important it is to think once again about what used to be dismissed as “identity feminism.” I still recoil a little when I see the A-line dress, but the woman card is–for better or for worse–a call to identity–an identity card.