by Terri Hopkinson
This article was originally posted at autismbc.ca/blog/international-womens-day-autism-and-gender-diversity. AutismBC is a small, non-profit and registered charity that encourages the inclusion and acceptance of the entire autism community of BC. For more resources and stories about autism, visit autismbc.ca/blog.
A brief history of International Women’s Day
International Women’s Day (IWD) began in 1911 as a cry for women’s labour and suffrage rights. Inspired by the international suffrage movements of the late 1800s, over a million people gathered at rallies in Austria, Denmark, Germany, and Switzerland. In 1975, it was celebrated for the first time by the United Nations. Work throughout the 2000s and 2010s has brought the event further into the public consciousness. Now, every March 8th, you’re likely to see mentions of IWD all over social media in hashtags, on the news, and in the workplace.
It’s been over a century since the first IWD. In that time, as the 60s cigarette magazine ads went, we’ve “come a long way, baby.” But there is still so much further to go and we are still struggling to discuss feminist issues in an intersectional way. According to a World Bank Report, from a legal perspective, only ten countries in the world have full equal rights for women. From a social perspective, I’d argue true gender equality can’t be found anywhere yet.
Gender diversity in feminism
Because of its age, IWD is rooted in the first and second waves of feminism. Throughout the 20th century, these movements advocated for reproductive rights, higher education, to see more women in positions of power, and other anti-patriarchal issues. However, a common criticism of this style of feminism is that it lacks gender diversity. It primarily focuses on the rights and freedoms of white, abled, cisgender women, with disregard for how misogyny cannot be divorced from the racism, ableism, and transphobia experienced by everyone else in the social class named “woman.” IWD should not only be spent celebrating the accomplishments of cis women but also recognizing and empowering trans women and non-binary people. A day focussed on the fight for gender equality should not be exclusionary. Erasing those who do not fit the gender binary is counterproductive. Misogyny is not unique to those who identify as women. It affects anyone who society labels a woman, regardless of how they identify. Unfortunately, to be treated as a woman is to experience discrimination, dismissal, and violence. This is further compounded by interpretations of race, ability, and poverty.
What does this have to do with autism?
Autistic non-binary, transgender, and gender non-conforming people exist at the intersection of sexism, transphobia, and ableism. Gender-diverse people (those who do not identify with the sex they were assigned at birth) are three to six times more likely to be autistic than cisgender people. Sexism (and other forms of discrimination rooted in patriarchy) can shape the experience of gender-diverse autistic people from how they are treated by their peers to the care they receive.
One barrier that many autistic people assigned female at birth (AFAB) often experience is the gender disparity in diagnosis. Historically, autism was thought to be a predominately male disorder, leading to AFAB autistic people being persistently underserved by the diagnostic process. This can cause clinicians to make their interpretations through a gender-biased lens (often unknowingly). Traits that are associated with autistic males might look completely different in females. Even when AFAB people present traits similar to their male counterparts, this can go overlooked or be interpreted completely differently. For example, AFAB autistic people commonly have special interests in the arts or psychology; because these are not the typical special interests of assigned male at birth (AMAB) autistic people, the trait might be dismissed.
Some traits and behaviours associated with autism are actively encouraged or expected in those socialized to be women, leading to masking and further obfuscation of the issue. An autistic male might be labelled “withdrawn” for their tendency to be quiet and keep to themselves, while an autistic female displaying the same behaviour might be praised for being “demure.” On the other end of the spectrum, displaying “excessive emotions” may lead to a male being diagnosed with autism as we do not expect emotionality from masculine people. For females, we often get stereotyped as emotional and moody (“You’re too sensitive. It must be that time of the month.”) and displaying emotion, even at an extreme, leads to a general diagnosis of “woman.”
The pressures of performing femininity
The pressures to fit into a gender mould are magnified if you are also trying to obscure autistic traits and combat gender dysphoria. As Janette T. Bundic pointed out in her recent blog for AutismBC, wearing makeup can be a way for some to mask their autism. In a culture of unattainable beauty standards and fatphobia, our worth can feel inextricably tied to our appearance. But not everyone has the time and money to achieve those beauty standards, not everyone expresses their gender the same way, and not everyone feels comfortable performing femininity.
Our society draws a very clear, rigid line around the concept of femininity. As there is so much pressure to exist only within those lines, many AFAB people learn to mask their autistic traits readily and skillfully (another reason many go undiagnosed). This masking can go so deep that the person themselves do not know it is happening. It is the same pressure all women and AFAB people feel to look and act a certain way that causes this deep-seated masking, and it can be dangerous; masking is not only tiring and frustrating, but it can also be detrimental to a person’s mental health and self-worth.
When talking about emotional and physical capacity, a common metaphor used in the disability community is Spoon Theory. Simply put, this metaphor uses spoons as a visual representation of the energy and capacity of a disabled person in a given day. Learning to act and present yourself in a very specific way that may not come naturally can be exhausting, but it’s not the only aspect of patriarchal expectations that can take up a lot of spoons. AFAB people are traditionally expected to handle the lion’s share of household labour and childrearing. Between masking, inequitable division of labour, and the emotional labour expected of AFAB people, autistic people may find themselves running out of spoons very quickly.
Celebrating International Women’s Day
Remember to keep an intersectional perspective about IWD this year. You may see a lot of language referring to women and to female bodies but really this day is for anyone and everyone fighting for gender equality.
Celebrate the accomplishments of gender-diverse people, celebrate the accomplishments of autistic people, and recognize the struggles, joy, and beauty that lives at the intersection of these identities.