Gender Criticism Versus Gender Abolition: On Three Recent Books About Gender
By Grace LaveryJuly 31, 2023
Trans: When Ideology Meets Reality by Helen Joyce
Feminism for Women: The Real Tribute to Liberation by Julie Bindel
Material Girls: Why Reality Matters for Feminism by Kathleen Stock
Woman? Very simple, say those who like simple answers: she is a womb, an ovary; she is a female: this word is enough to define her.
—Simone de Beauvoir
WITH A PAMPHLET entitled “The Final Cause of Women” (1869), the Victorian polemicist Frances Power Cobbe embarked on a campaign to persuade the emerging movement for women’s rights that any attempt to define women on biological grounds would lead to idealism and abstraction. “[W]e must not fall into the absurdity of supposing that all women can be adapted to one single type, or that we can talk about ‘Woman,’ (always to be written with a capital W) as if the same characteristics were to be found in every individual species.” Cobbe’s point was that the category “women” was a legal fiction that empowered men to deprive a class of their fellow human beings of legal and civil rights.* Like workers in Victorian factories, women may share little beyond their social rank—some, of course, may be slotted into patriarchy on the basis of their supposed fertility, while others could have been placed there to perform other kinds of reproductive labor. The connection between women was neither biological nor absolute, but derived from their position in society.
Cobbe’s idea was not uncontroversial at the time it was written. But by the end of the 19th century, it had become ubiquitous among women’s rights campaigners. Demands for women’s suffrage were rooted in the notion that “women” were not a naturally occurring type, distinguishable from men on natural grounds, but simply a group of persons that had been denied legal parity. Josephine Butler, an important early suffragist, wrote in 1869 that “the term ‘Women’ is a large and comprehensive one,” and argued that it is specifically in relation to work that the class that bears that title had come into being; accordingly, her collection of essays on the theme of women’s emancipation was not titled like John Stuart Mill’s somewhat grandiose The Subjection of Women (1869) but rather, in respect of the lives and labors of those whom Butler sought to uplift, Woman’s Work and Woman’s Culture (1869).
In the postwar feminisms of the 20th century, the notion that “woman” was a social category, rather than a naturally occurring type, became more fraught, not least because the institutionalization of evolutionary theory seemed to confirm that—though perhaps “man” and “woman” were social types—“female” and “male” attributes, nonetheless, were relatively similar across all mammalian species. So, when Simone de Beauvoir famously argued that “[o]ne is not born, but rather becomes, woman,” the object of her critique was not patriarchy but biology. Her following sentence reads: “No biological, psychic, or economic destiny defines the figure that the human female takes on in society.” Beauvoir’s feminism depended on a refusal of the notion that different sex characteristics produced differently sexed organisms and the conviction that, while biological traits could be sexed, whole people can’t in any reliable or comprehensive way. As she wrote in The Second Sex (1949):
The existence of heterogenetic gametes alone does not necessarily mean there are two distinct sexes; the differentiation of reproductive cells often does not bring about a division of the species into two types: both can belong to the same individual. This is true of hermaphroditic species, so common in plants, and also in many invertebrates, among which are the annulates and mollusks. Reproduction takes place either by self-fertilization or by cross-fertilization. Some biologists use this fact to claim the justification of the established order. They consider gonochorism—that is, the system in which the different gonads belong to distinct individuals—as an improvement on hermaphroditism, realized by evolution; others, by contrast, consider gonochorism primitive: for those biologists, hermaphroditism would thus be its degeneration. In any case, these notions of superiority of one system over another involve highly contestable theories concerning evolution. All that can be affirmed with certainty is that these two means of reproduction coexist in nature, that they both perpetuate species, and that the heterogeneity of both gametes and gonad-producing organisms seems to be accidental. The differentiation of individuals into males and females thus occurs as an irreducible and contingent fact.
So, according to Beauvoir, sex is differentiable at the scale of the cell, but since there exist organisms in which sex cells of both sexes are found, we therefore cannot use the fact of sexual dimorphism as a basis for the sexual classification of individuals or groups. It is not that Beauvoir refuses to talk about female organisms altogether—she does so frequently—it is that such organisms are inferred, rather than emerging into the world fully formed. “Assigned at birth,” if one likes—or before, or after. Femaleness “irreducible and contingent,” in Beauvoir’s beautiful, enigmatic phrase. Her answer to the apparent problem of evolutionary biology was widely embraced by feminists in Europe, the United States, and the United Kingdom, with some lesbian feminists going so far as to argue that the term “woman” was no longer relevant to feminist organizing. Monique Wittig, for example, infamously declared that “[l]esbians are not women”—meaning that there was no basis, biological or social, on which those placed into sexual passivity and reproductive labor by compulsory heterosexuality could be said to share interests with lesbians, whose social roles are entirely different.
Towards the end of the century, a number of lesbian feminists looked to the emerging social norms of gay and lesbian communities to found new sexual and political taxonomies. Queer feminism, or queer theory, was developed on one front by lesbian feminists such as Judith Butler and Gayle Rubin, and on the other by gay men like D. A. Miller and Leo Bersani; at its core was an attempt to displace the melancholia of heterosexuality from its position as the implied ground of feminist organizing and community. If feminism was primarily about women’s work and heterosexual reproduction, what use was it to communities with no interest in having children, and in which biological sex was naturally no basis for the division of domestic labor? Judith Butler’s argument that biological sex was “discursive” translated into a psychoanalytic register what Beauvoir had pursued in terms of practical science; the pronouncement that a newborn “is a boy,” for example, may be derived from a doctor’s observation of the baby’s sexual characteristics, but if one agrees with Beauvoir that sexual characteristics are no basis for designating the sex of an organism, then that pronouncement, however consequential, is neither a natural nor an inevitable extrapolation of the data he (presumptively he) has observed.
Enter the gender-critical movement. With the important exception of Julie Bindel, these are writers with relatively little training in feminist theory but whose thought has become perhaps the dominant trend in contemporary British philosophy. Helen Joyce, an Irish mathematics scholar who had a stint editing the finance pages of The Economist, embarks upon the 2022 reprint of her book Trans: Where Ideology Meets Reality with the following words: “The arguments in this book are based on facts that until recently were universally accepted: that humans cannot change sex; that males are on average much stronger than females and commit nearly all violent and sexual crime.”
An emphasis on the novelty of the position Joyce calls “gender self-identification” underpins much that follows. It is as though Joyce has wandered into a classroom during the penultimate lecture of the course, declared that feminist philosophy as such is garbage, demanded the right to deliver the final lecture herself, and inexplicably been granted it. The only novelty in any of these books is the fact that those demanding “sex-based rights”—the notion that civil rights should be apportioned differently to members of different sex classes, the idea that Frances Power Cobbe, Josephine Butler, Margaret Oliphant, Simone de Beauvoir, and Judith Butler have consistently stood against for 17 decades—believe themselves to be “feminists.” But the word is taken.
The word “reality” crops up in the subtitle of Kathleen Stock’s new book too—Material Girls: Why Reality Matters for Feminism. In her first book, Only Imagine: Fiction, Interpretation, and Imagination (2017), Stock, a philosopher of literature, defends what she calls the principle of “extreme intentionalism”—the idea that a literary text means nothing more than, less than, or different from the intention of its author. Of course, this depends on what the word “means” means—an enthusiastic reader of French fiction, Stock knows that the French verb for to mean, vouloir dire, translates literally as “to want to say.” But a sense that the Frenchies have been up to no good with the English language suffuses Stock’s critique of feminism, and slots Material Girls into the grand tradition of English critics of “postmodern” Gallic nonsense—heir not so much to Beauvoir but to E. P. Thompson’s “The Poverty of Theory” (1978).
For Stock, too, the enemy of “reality” is “gender identity theory,” which she no more bothers to define than does Joyce. Still, this theory is purportedly novel (“in the first quarter of the twenty-first century—quite unexpectedly—a philosophical theory about something called ‘gender identity’ gripped public consciousness”), is portrayed with an air of intellectual credibility, and is the object of “concerted” efforts “in various countries including the UK to have equality law altered to protect gender identity.” Strange, given the ubiquity and ferocity of “gender identity theory,” that Stock cannot find a single philosophical source for this “philosophical theory.” The closest we get to a text worth disputing is, of all things, a pamphlet produced by the LGBT advocacy organization Stonewall—neither a governmental nor a scholarly entity—which defines gender identity as “[a] person’s innate sense of their own gender, whether male, female or something else […] which may or may not correspond to the sex assigned at birth.” At other times, Stock’s critique targets “politicians, officials, and other public figures,” mostly unnamed, and the ungrateful brats from the Harry Potter movies “whose reputations were made in the films of [J. K.] Rowling’s books.”
But as becomes clear in Stock’s “whistle-stop tour of big moments in the history of gender identity theory,” her real target has a simpler name than she implies: it’s just feminism. She waves her hands to expelliarmus Beauvoir (“Whether or not de Beauvoir actually intended the conceptual separation of being female from womanhood is moot. I don’t think she did.”); later, she assures us that “Beauvoir was fairly obviously talking only about females”—never mind that the tenor of Beauvoir’s argument was clearly that the “existence of heterogenetic gametes alone does not necessarily mean there are two distinct sexes.” Wittig warrants only a cheerful mystification of in intellectu and de re definitions of “Earth.” Judith Butler, gender-critical enemy number one, shows up only to “tel[l] us gender is a performance”—a laughable misreading of Butler’s sense of the “performative” that snags many a first-year undergraduate, but should surely be within the grasp of the first philosopher since J. L. Austin to be entered into the Order of the British Empire. Other feminist texts—Julia Serano’s Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity (2007), the Yogyakarta Principles, blog posts by anti-transphobic feminists associated with the Michigan Womyn’s Musical Festival—are narrated en route to the unhappy present, when the notion that roughly half of all people simply are male and the rest are female seems, at long last, to have lost some of its self-evidence.
That notion, of course, Stock does not deign to defend; neither does Joyce, nor Bindel. Why bother? The rhetorical form that these books takes derives less from “The Emperor’s New Clothes” than from Barry Goldwater: in your heart, you know they’re men.
The authors would likely demur from the comparison with Goldwater—they loudly proclaim themselves leftists, and Julie Bindel at least sounds credible doing so. In the grand tradition of British conservatives insisting that they are the real leftists and that left movements have lost their way, the author whose influence they broadcast most loudly is the George Orwell of Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949). Joyce puts the novel’s famous line, “Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four,” underneath an Audre Lorde quotation on the epigraph page of Trans. It’s a little odd to see Orwell cast in the role of feminist, a role he certainly abjured, both in his stunningly sexist portrayal of women in his fiction and in everything else he wrote. (Several book-length feminist critiques of Orwell have been written over the years, including Daphne Patai’s The Orwell Mystique: A Study in Male Ideology, published, as it goes, in 1984.) If Orwell and the gender-critical writers share an affinity deeper than a preference for remedial arithmetic, it might derive from Orwell’s legendary hatred of femininity. In the years before composing Nineteen Eighty-Four, and without using his well-known pseudonym, Eric Arthur Blair kept a column in the commonsensically leftish journal Tribune, where he would frequently deal with the “woman question,” arguing that “the Modern Girl has been just the same for quite 2,000 years” and that “[o]ne of the big failures in human history has been the age-long attempt to stop women painting their faces.” Makeup bad, nail polish worse: “It is very unusual to meet a man who does not think painting your fingernails scarlet is a disgusting habit, but hundreds of thousands of women go on doing it all the same.”
For Stock, Bindel, and Joyce, when “make-up” comes up, the word “stereotype” is not far behind. Bindel, in particular, seems very sure that people would only wear makeup if compelled to do so by the patriarchy (the inverse of Orwell’s argument, which is that patriarchy fails to prevent women adorning themselves):
In the early second wave, feminists were criticized for attacking women who wanted to wear make-up, get married, or who chose to stay home and raise a family. But feminists were not and are not attacking other women for what they choose. Rather we are asking, “What are the forces that shape choices?”
There is certainly something rousing about Bindel’s refusal of the Hobson’s choice of neoliberal postfeminism. Her chapter on those “vicious” “trans activists” possesses a title that typifies gender-critical rhetoric (either Orwellian plainspokenness or Goldwaterian obfuscation, depending on your perspective): “Saying It As It Is.” The chapter begins, curiously, with a narrative in which nobody says it as it is, concerning Bindel planning a visit to the Kenyan village of Umoja, from which men have been banned, when her editor calls her and tells her that the villagers have asked her not to attend because of her transphobia. Then: “It took me a full ten seconds to work out he was joking.” Later, an Australian feminist named Clementine Ford wrote an editorial in response to the article Bindel had published about Umoja, noting that “approximately 50 per cent of transgender people experience sexual violence in their lifetime and trans women of colour in particular face an increased risk of this form of violence.” Ford argues that, given the shared experiences of sexual violence that trans and cis women experience, the residents of Umoja “have to be inclusive of all women no matter their race, physical ability or chromosomal make up.” Bindel’s reaction to Ford’s editorial is genuinely breathtaking: “I emailed the editor who had joked about me being accused by village elders of transphobia prior to my trip. ‘Parody is dead,’ I told him.”
Why on earth Bindel chose to recount an anecdote in which the punch line is an imprecise, racist joke trivializing the mass rape of Black trans women, I have no idea. But she declines to inform her readers whether, indeed, Umoja excludes trans women from its community and, if so, on what basis—karyotype, inspection of genitals, hunch, etc. The Umoja website declines to offer any definition of “women,” choosing instead to focus on the issues on which its members campaign, which include sexual violence, female genital cutting, drought, spousal abuse, and others—some of which affect cis women, and others of which affect cis and trans women. Bindel insists that sex, and not gender, is the only ground on which all women (and only women) might be knowable to each other, an idea she explores by interrupting the Umoja anecdote to discuss a traumatic experience of menstruating in front of gawking schoolmates. But it might have occurred to her that this experience is not, in general, very much like the traumatic experience of growing up in an area without running water, or where genital cutting is practiced. Providing services to women does not, generally, require any kind of comprehensive definition of women—at least, the Umoja website appears to do well enough without one. Bindel’s experience contradicts her own claims: women do not need to share all experiences (and not all women need to share any individual experience) to be welcome in Umoja. Trans women, who suffer heightened rates of spousal abuse and sexual violence relative to cis women, would seem to be welcome on the same grounds as Bindel herself, who experiences some, but not all, of the forms of oppression against which Umoja has been established to provide refuge.
In any case, the Umoja narrative is most notable for what it reveals about Bindel’s style: the gleeful tendency to crack crass jokes at the most tasteless moments imaginable (“parody is dead”). In this respect, Bindel belongs to the literary school of Magdalen Berns, an influential anti-trans activist vlogger who died in 2019. Berns was well known for turning any self-regarding or even minimally introspective thoughts from trans women, or indeed cis women who failed to share her commitment to the chromosome, into little jokes, usually about dicks or wanking, that prevented too much thinking from happening.
Sophomoric, perhaps, but this is what passes for gutsiness with these authors. A few years before she wrote Material Girls, Stock wrote a blog post entitled “When Bindels speak,” in which she revels in her colleague’s “vividly Rabelaisian” prose—as well as that of Germaine Greer, which feels “like a bucket of cold salt water has been chucked over me after days of humid air.”
Feminism for Women comes closer than Trans or Material Girls to an actual feminist history of anti-transgender activism: the strain of anti-trans feminism that emerged alongside and within the radical feminist movements of the 1960s and ’70s. For those feminists, no concession to trans women’s claims of personhood was necessary or tolerable: in women’s rights activist Robin Morgan’s keynote speech at the 1973 West Coast Lesbian Conference, she denounced trans folk musician Beth Elliott as “an opportunist, an infiltrator, and a destroyer—with the mentality of a rapist.” Conversely, Joyce and Stock go out of their way to insist upon “compassionate concessions that enable a suffering minority to live full lives, in safety and dignity” (Joyce, gag-inducing) and proclaim that trans people “deserve laws and policies that properly protect them from discrimination and violence” (Stock, pointedly refusing to explain what “discrimination” means).
It is strange, nonetheless, that none of these books is prepared to engage with, or even to acknowledge, this earlier generation of trans-exclusionary feminists. For Morgan, “woman” was a biological category; she would have signed off on Joyce’s statement that “sex is why women are oppressed, and gender is how women are oppressed.” (That spry sentence, indeed, might prevail against a stiff field to rank as the most trivial in Trans: breezy, confident, composed of simple words … and on no more than a second’s reflection, complete and utter bullshit.) Janice Raymond, infamously, wrote in 1979 that “the problem of transsexualism would best be served by morally mandating it out of existence.” Does Stock agree? She writes, “Any philosophical critiques that do sometimes (rarely) emerge—especially by non-trans academics—are regularly treated as equivalent to actual attacks on trans people.” So why not cite Janice Raymond or Robin Morgan? The commitment to novelty, to asserting the uniquely “postmodern” dimension of a question that long precedes modernism, stands out as perhaps the most ruthlessly incompetent dimension of this work.
The successes that these three books have enjoyed, and the legal and political gains they have helped to secure for the broader gender-critical movement, have been extraordinary to witness in the decade since the optimistically called “trans tipping point.” That movement has persuaded apparently rational people that hormone blockers prescribed to teenagers who already describe themselves as transgender cause those teenagers to transition, that “sex-based rights” have always been the normal and natural goal of feminist organizing (much as Oceania has always been at war with Eurasia), and that the billionaire author of a set of dreary novels about a private school for special wizards has been censored—though how, or by whom, or for what exactly is never really clear. Material Girls, Trans, and Feminism for Women have received across-the-board raves in right- and left-wing newspapers; they have stirred hitherto dormant dons into the leonine postures of culture warriors, and have elicited from the grandees of the British cultural establishment—Tom Stoppard, Ian McEwan, Andrew Davies, and many others of whom one expected more—a sequence of passionate open letters, full of grand and utterly misplaced hymns to free speech.
The success of gender-critical thought has been so remarkable, and the capture of the British public sphere so comprehensive, that even to point, childishly, and inquire whether the beautiful finery in which this new philosophy is arrayed really, um, exists is to invite the charge of having done a cancel culture. Promoting these ideas on the grounds of free speech, rather than on their merits, has proven a stroke of tactical genius. Think of all the iconoclastic jouissance one could access if the simplistic philosophical nostra of yesterday—Cartesian dualism, say; or the Platonist theory of forms—had not been refined, but had actually been censored! Stupidity would become wisdom; ignorance, strength. Freedom would be the freedom to submit “2+2=4” as one’s doctoral thesis in pure mathematics, and to anticipate warm praise for one’s principled refusal to challenge the assumptions of the proverbial man on the Clapham omnibus. It’s hard to think of an analogy in postwar British history—the closest I can come up with is the extraordinary fact that, 12 months after 9/11 and the invasion of Afghanistan, scads of British activists of all parties decided that the moment’s major political issue was either the enforcement of a ban on fox hunting or else the repeal of such a ban. Now, at the moment of economic collapse, biopolitical crisis, national fragmentation, and ecocidal catastrophe, nothing generates a more passionate celebrity endorsement than the opportunity to badger some junior shadow minister to define “woman” for however long it takes for her to utter a particular three-word shibboleth. The author of a gentle 1990s sitcom about some comical priests has turned into a terrifying nocturnal maniac, who spends every waking hour belittling the appearance of some provincial teenager. Worse, he seems to think that doing so makes him a feminist. Worse still, some feminists appear to be indulging him in that delusion—though, to her credit, Kathleen Stock declines to do so.
For all the drama around these books, though, it’s a little unfair to group them together. Material Girls is the work of an anti-feminist gadfly, circumventing peer review to talk about philosophers she doesn’t really understand; Trans is an incoherent set of vapid polemics by an author of singular incuriosity, by far the least credible of the three; and Feminism for Women is a reactionary feminist’s cri de coeur—at its best, genuinely stirring, even for those readers unwilling to cheer on Bindel’s more lurid cruelties. One does find odd connections among them: Bindel and Stock both think that the word “gender” is used as a “polite” euphemism for “sex,” which is a weird idea; the scapegoating of Judith Butler for queer and lesbian feminism is ubiquitous, though only in Trans does one suspect that the philosopher’s Jewishness might be part of the author’s concern. Joyce, rather worryingly, blames the rise of “gender self-identification” on George Soros and other “wealthy people” who “have shaped the global agenda,” language that wouldn’t look out of place in The Daily Stormer. The source for Joyce’s claim appears to have been Jennifer Bilek, with whom Joyce has scheduled events and tweeted bibliographical recommendations, and who has written a theory of “why so many of the men involved in the transgender/transhumanist agenda are jewish [sic].” Joyce denies that she is antisemitic and has threatened legal action against those who have found antisemitic elements in Trans. (Full disclosure: I withdrew from a scheduled public debate with Helen Joyce after I learned that the host she had chosen for the event had published articles I considered antisemitic.)
One point on where the three books differ, though, is whether it is ever possible for trans women to pass as women. Joyce thinks it’s very rare: “[V]ery few trans people ‘pass’ as their desired sex.” Citation needed, natch. Bindel, whom one suspects has in fact met a transsexual offline, perhaps even before Caitlyn Jenner was listed among Glamour magazine’s “Women of the Year 2015,” is more concerned with what “passes for feminism” than with who passes as a woman. Trans women seem frequently to pass in Material Girls, though Stock is careful to note that the true postmodern weirdos seem not to want to, “in line with Judith Butler’s ideas about gender as performance.” If they can, of course, then to exclude them from public spaces, one would need a method for examining all women who show up at the shelter, the prison, or Umoja. And one would also need a firm sense of exactly what one was looking for: genitals, chromosomes, and gametes all have a claim to be the holy gender-critical grail.
Feminism, from Frances Power Cobbe to the present, has had a different and better answer: gender abolitionism. Gender abolitionists haven’t cared what a woman is, who wants to be one, or why; they have argued against all legal discrimination between men and women. Yes, this would mean the end of gender recognition certificates, as well as many other elements of legal segregation that we take for granted. But it would better reflect the reality that scientists and feminists have been insisting on since the 1860s: that “men” and “women” are inferred from sexual characteristics, and that some of those traits are and can be changed. Gender is how women are oppressed; sex is the excuse patriarchy uses for the oppression of women. Reality—the reality shared by women, actual women, in the world—really does matter for feminism. Metaphysical definitions of the category “woman” really, really don’t.
Grace Lavery is a writer and academic who lives in New York. Her book Quaint, Exquisite: Victorian Aesthetics and the Idea of Japan (Princeton, 2019) won the NAVSA Best Book of the Year prize from the North American Victorian Studies Association. A noted scholar and prominent trans activist, she is the author of the transition memoir Please Miss (2022) and the recently published Pleasure and Efficacy: Of Pen Names, Cover Versions, and Other Trans Techniques (Princeton, 2023).
* I am grateful to Katherine Hobbs for introducing me to Cobbe’s wonderfully engaging and complex feminism.
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