This two-part post examines the article Socialism and the fight against Transphobia, by Stephanie Hanlon and Adrienne Wallace, which leads the most recent edition of the Irish Marxist Review (IMR vol 8 no 23). Part 1 of this post looked at the authors’ treatment of gender identity. Part 2 now examines the issue of sexual and gender binaries.
Many gender ideologists go on about pink and blue brains, men inside women’s bodies and vice versa, and these concepts are widely employed in the corporate mass media’s propagandising. These formulations retain the concept of a binary between women and men. But the IMR authors, like many other left-leaning gender ideologists, dispute the whole idea of a binary:
Gender Critical Feminism (GFC) is an alternative term for Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminism, as there is no major ideological difference between them. Both argue that because sex is a “natural binary”, trans people are always the sex they were assigned at birth. Intersex people either do not exist or are “anomalies” produced as a result of birth defects…
And they say the very idea of a sexual binary is politically conservative:
Transgenderism blows the typical and repressive gender binary that has concreted the oppressive family structure, which capitalism has reified, right out of the water. It points to a whole human mosaic of sexuality, genders and relationships that do not conform to any norms. And while there is no definite answer with regards what defines our gender Identity one thing is for sure – it rests on an array of complex social, biological and psychological forces and has the potential to challenge one of the oldest oppressions of women and the working class- the nuclear family.
This passage makes ridiculous claims. Women’s liberationists and Marxists have long called for a world where everyone is free to adopt whatever sexuality and personal relationships they choose, within a humanistic, mutually respectful and loving framework. These ideas are not innovations granted to us by gender ideology. The only new arguments here are false ones: that the concept of a female-male sexual binary is a mere ideological construct, which somehow contributes to the capitalist family unit, and women’s oppression.
Overwhelming evidence for the sexual binary
It is true that some (not all!) scientists are now supporting this claim. The frailty of their case is well summarised in Do women exist? a measured, carefully argued piece by James Robb. “Distinct sexes,” he points out, “arose in natural history as a condition of sexual reproduction… There is no form of sexual reproduction known which involves more or less than two sexes. Sexual reproduction is universally binary”.
Scientists who support gender ideology highlight the existence of chromosomal abnormalities: we are not all simply XX and XY. But Robb notes the distinction between “the genetic ‘information’ influencing sex and the actual physical form of sex.”
“Chromosome arrangement,” he points out, “is one of the primary mechanisms determining sex in an individual, but not the only one. Hormones also play a major role, and these are not all governed by genes on the X or Y chromosomes.” And importantly, the “outcome of sex determination, the sex of a human being, is the form of the reproductive tract. There are only male and female forms.”
As for intersex people: “even among the small percentage of the population who have atypical chromosome arrangements and intersex conditions, ambiguity of the reproductive organs is rare… many people born with sex chromosomes other than the typical XX or XY pattern have some kind of developmental and/or reproductive disability, and often lifelong health problems,” making them “the exceptions that prove the rule of two sexes”. In any case, the intersex argument is simply thrown in when convenient; it is not as though transgender identity relies on such a condition, or that intersex people in general identify as trans.
The only reason why the sexual binary is now challenged is to justify trans identity. The fact that this has been taken up by some scientists does not reflect scientific method, or the knowledge accumulated through it. Rather, it reflects the fact that the ruling ideas are the ideas of the ruling class. That class is using gender ideology as a new way to hold down women. And as the capitalist system declines, its apologists veer further away from materialism toward idealist and irrationalist views of the world, and this impacts on science.
Traditionalism and the sexual binary
Traditional sexism links the materially-based sexual binary to an imaginary, ideologically-driven binary of feminine and masculine personality types, or ideals; feminine and masculine are said to be grounded in the sexual division itself. This is the age-old “common sense” that does not need to be articulated or argued for, but can be left unsaid, since the audience is assumed to share these prejudices.
Gender ideologists try to blur the distinction between traditionalist sexism and gender-critical progressivism, to tar us with the same brush. Some traditionalist sexists do this too, trying to work with or even win over gender critical feminists; they are happy with formulations such as “woman is biological” since, by itself, it can be understood as “woman is biological and therefore naturally feminine”. This is a problem, since gender critical feminists, censored by the left, sometimes resort to conservative platforms to have their voice heard. Traditionalists don’t like any alternative to the hetero-normative, traditional nuclear family, whether from feminists, Marxists, gay rights activists or gender ideologists. Their vision of women and the family is linked to nationalism, union-bashing, and old fashioned sexism. Traditionalists are gathering strength in many parts of the world, blurring with racists and a resurgent far right. For these reasons it is essential to differentiate ourselves from the conservatives at every possible opportunity – to reassert that our fight is also the fight for abortion rights, against lesbophobia and homophobia, and against sexism in all its forms.
Neither gender ideology nor social conservativism, but women’s liberation
Marxist organisations like the SWP have made a massive error in their failure to defend women from the neoliberal sexism of gender ideology. In the face of their hostility a great many feminists have turned to right wing platforms to have their concerns heard; some have cast aside many years of allegiance to the left.
When western working classes finally move back into large scale political strike activity, masses of working women will shake off both gender ideology and any new-found friends among anti-union conservatives. When that happens there will be an opportunity, and an urgent need, to win them to a revolutionary socialist workers party. But that same upturn of struggle will confront the SWP with its own monumental errors in supporting gender sexism, and that will generate a new internal crisis for it.
The article Socialism and the fight against Transphobia, by Stephanie Hanlon and Adrienne Wallace, leads the most recent edition of the Irish Marxist Review, (vol 8 no 23) and is the latest defense of gender ideology in the SWP’s international tendency. This post takes up some of the main arguments in the IMR piece, which are shared with the broader tendency and other parts of the far left.
The two IMR authors present their case as anti-sexist:
The rigid gender stereotypes used as the bedrock for the nuclear family have transformed into a shower of pink and blue toys, acceptable clothing and deeply socialized norms in 21st Century capitalism. Women’s oppression is the oldest oppression and will be the most difficult to overcome as the roots are located in an institution that shapes the most intimate sphere of human life, in relationships between men, women and children in the family. As Sue Caldwell argues; “These gender stereotypes have remained a powerful force despite the many changes in women’s lives, opportunities and expectations, especially over the last 50 years.”
From a passage like this you might imagine that the IMR authors, and the SWP generally, would make a sharp distinction between biological females and the feminine gender roles despicably imposed on them. But gender ideologists, even the Marxist kind, argue that female is joined at the hip with feminine, and male with masculine, so much so that “gender” can replace “sex” as the way to distinguish men and women. This sounds very much like social conservatism. Not so, the authors say: “The trans community reshapes and challenges our perceptions of gender and sex, rather than as some claim, reinforcing it. Gender identity can exist without equating it to socialised gender norms or to a sexed brain.” We leftist critics, on the other hand, suffer from “oppositional sexism”, which, “as put forward by [Julie] Serano is the belief that the masculine and the feminine are; ‘…rigid, mutually exclusive categories, each possessing a unique and non-overlapping set of attributes, aptitudes, abilities and desires’.”
Gender and gender identity
If “gender” does not mean traditional femininity and masculinity, what does it mean? Its ideologists are remarkably vague on this central question. What does it mean to be a woman when this category no longer defined by biology, the lifetime experience of female socialisation, or even sex stereotypes? Just a mysterious, nebulous, immaterial something. The notion is nevertheless put to use: male-bodied people with no pretensions to conventional female appearance can simply self-ID as a women and use women-only spaces, if they identify as a woman. Those who desist from transgender identification can be dismissed out of hand, by the various pontiffs of gender ideology, as never having “really” had the gender identity they once claimed. Gender identity is real, the black racial identity claimed by a white person like Rachel Dolezal is not – again, simply because the gender pontiffs declare it to be so. All these claims rely on the coalition of unquestioning political support for gender identity stretching from the far left to the Tories and the warmongering leaders of the US Democrats: the case only holds up, that is, if nobody points out that the emperor has no clothes.
The SWP has previously tried to squirm free of this central dilemma by declaring that gender identity has a material basis in some kind of subtle and complex interaction between the biological and the social. But they add that this is so complex and subtle that its definitive nature can be established only through future research, or else given up on as too complex to ever establish. The IMR authors now repeat this line: “while there is no definite answer with regards what defines our gender Identity one thing is for sure – it rests on an array of complex social, biological and psychological forces…”. The SWP’s whole case for accepting gender identity is grounded on this quicksand. If we have not established the theoretical basis for gender identity, and may never do so, how can the concept provide a principled way to guide current political work?
Since there is no material basis for “gender identity” the vacuum is filled, in practice, by sex stereotypes, precisely the “socialised gender norms” that the authors claim to have moved on from. Feminine continues to mean self-decorating, nurturing, narrowly channelled in mind and habits: that is the feminine inherited from centuries of women’s oppression, the feminine still poured forth every day by the corporate media and entertainment industries, the concept of feminine taken for granted among the mass of working class people, whatever else it may mean within the identity-politics milieu.
Squaring the circle
As Marxists, the authors keep trying to separate themselves from sexist tropes used to attack women, but are held back at every turn by their support for gender ideology. They make another attempt to square the circle here:
Feminists are right to critique the highly socialised gender norms women and men are forced into as a form of oppression, and they are right to challenge their dominance within society. The distinction we must make however is that gendered roles are an expression of oppression and not the root of the problem. As previously discussed in this article, the roots of oppression can be located in the rise of class society. The trans community have wrongly been accused of reinforcing these rigid gender roles and it has been claimed that “accepting” the existence of Trans people reinforces gender stereotyping and the oppressive ideology it begets. For example, Trans-women who choose to wear make-up, shave body hair and wear dresses have been seen by some as further perpetuating the beauty standards that capitalism imposes on us and upholding an idealized version of femininity. There is, however, a clear difference between socialized gender norms and Gender Identity. Gender Identity is the personal sense of one’s own gender – it can correlate with assigned sex at birth, or can differ from it. To assert one’s sense of gender identity can often overlap with the desire to conform to the prevailing gender norms and to be accepted by wider society as your gender identity. It is deeply unfair to heap the responsibility of countering regressive gender stereotypes onto the trans-community.
This seems to be saying: all sorts of people, trans and “cis”, give in to sex stereotypes in their personal lives; we should focus instead on the real problem – class, and the underlying structural causes of women’s oppression.
This red-herring reference to class is the sort of thing that discredits Marxism among women’s liberationists. Yes women’s oppression has deep roots in class society, but one of the ways it is perpetuated is via sex stereotyping. The fight against stereotypes is a step toward addressing the deep structural issues.
In personal life, yes, people of all sorts accommodate to sex stereotypes, including “cis” folk. It would be unfair to single out trans people for blame if this was the issue. But it’s not, for two reasons. The first is that lesbians, gay men and heterosexuals are not defined by stereotypes, whereas trans people are: only through stereotypes can they externalise their “gender identity”. This does not preclude people from living as a member of the opposite sex, but it does make it politically important for them to distance themselves from the use of transgender identity for sexist typecasting. Which leads to the second, and I think far more important issue: transgenderism has been mainstreamed by the corporate media precisely because of its stereotypic presentation of girls and women, which helps to entrench women’s oppression, on which the bosses rely.
Not in our name? Why gender ideologists don’t confront their sexism
The IMR authors tell us that they are eager for solidarity between women and the trans cause: “socialists, while being clear in their support for trans rights, should strive for unity and comradely engagement”. Does that involve socialists and left wing trans activists attacking the corporate media’s use of born-into-the-wrong-body stories to reassert stereotypes? Does it mean trans activists publishing articles and running up petitions declaring “Not in our name! Stop using trans people as sexist tropes for your attack on our cis-women comrades!” Alas no. When they attack Bruce-to-Caitlyn Jenner, for example, it is for being a rich right wing Republican, not for sexist caricatures. Left-wing transwomen may personally prefer quieter stereotypes than heels, lingerie and girls-night gossip. But they cannot challenge the corporate world’s sexist portrayals of trans identity without hacking away at the roots of gender ideology. And they take the SWP in tow. The issue is addressed by transgender activists like Kristina Harrison (@KJ_Harrison) and Debbie Hayton (@DebbieHayton) who sharply reject the sexist typecasts. But they can only do this because they reject the sexism of gender ideology itself.
The next part of this article will discuss the politics surrounding the sexual and gender binaries.
Relentlessly conservative, The Herald Sun is the Murdoch newspaper in the Australian state of Victoria, with the largest circulation paper of any daily in the country. On 29 May 2015 it ran an article called The transgender conversation we had to have (paywall, title slightly changed online). Transwoman Marco Fink, it tells us, “used to envy the girls at primary school, their freedom to wear dresses and express their femininity”. It approvingly cites Roz Ward, a co-ordinator of Safe Schools Victoria, who “says transgender adults recall childhood experiences of being forced to wear a dress or of having all their sister’s dolls removed from the house to stop them playing with them. ‘Now if you ask any specialist in the transgender field they would say that is really damaging to a child’s health and wellbeing,’ she says.” So as well as handcuffing femaleness to femininity, the article positions trans specialists as the definitive or only people with something to say on the issue of discontent with sex stereotypes. There is nothing special about this article, and that is the point. It simply exemplifies the outpouring of support for gender ideology in the Australian and British newspapers. Research from Transgender Trend demonstrates that the print media in Britain consistently popularised the idea that children could be born into the wrong body and used this to explain their discontent with sex stereotypes.
What some of these same newspapers object to is transgender activists’ links to the political Left and identity politics, as previously discussed on this blog. While the Murdoch Herald Sun cited Roz Ward’s authority to promote gender identity, Murdoch’s national flagship, The Australian, later campaigned for her to be sacked from Safe Schools, essentially because she was in a far Left group. Another Murdoch paper made an explicit if half-hearted attempts to separate gender ideology from identity politics, highlighting the attack on queer theory by a prominent conservative transwoman, Catherine McGregor.
This approach is too stiff-necked for most of the capitalist class which treats identity politics as minor irritant, or something that can be entirely incorporated via stories around same-sex celebrities and “confronting” fashion shows.
A recent edition of the SWP’s Socialist Review (January 2019) led with the article The war on trans, written by Laura Miles. The article continues the SWP’s support for gender ideology. In the February edition, SR published a response from gender-critical socialist Sybil Cock, in the Letters section; under her letter was an editorial reply from SR. Among other things this editorial reply mentioned Women’s Place UK (WPUK), accusing it of having “helped fuel the rise in transphobia”, a claim which was then, understandably, contested by WPUK itself.
Considering the level of anger that exists around these issues, it is not surprising that these exchanges have been tense. But it is a great step forward for the SWP to begin to engage with left-wing gender critics within its media outlets, which much of the far left has so far refused to do.
This post picks up on some of the issues raised in the original Miles article, and links back to previous discussions of these issues on Freer Lives.
Gender-critical progressives defend the right of people to adopt the conventional appearance and behaviour of the opposite sex, and for adults to change their bodies along these lines if they choose to. It is one, valid, personal way to challenge the straitjacket of stereotypic expectations, and helps to show that these are not biologically ordained. Some people who identify as transgender are comfortable with this kind of formulation and have no conflict with feminists who defend women on the basis of their sex. But when gender ideologists talk of “gender identity” they mean something different: that transwoman are women in the full sense, and the whole category of “woman” must be redefined to accommodate this.
In the SR article Laura Miles claims:
Like sexuality, our gender identity is a deep-seated reality, not a “whim” or “a feeling”, emerging through complex interactions between our sense of self, our physical bodies and how we perceive them, the expectations of others, and our material circumstances.
This “deep seated reality” is given a simulacrum of truth by its regular endorsement from the corporate media (including the right wing media which attacks other aspects of the transgender phenomenon) and other neoliberal institutions, and also from the liberal and far left: since everyone agrees, it must be correct. And once this ideological construct is accepted as fact, then to challenge it automatically means attacking a core part of every vulnerable trans person, it is equivalent to denying the authenticity of someone’s same-sex attraction, and is just as oppressive as racism. Through this sleight-of-hand, gender critical leftists become instant bigots.
The corporate media has promoted the idea of gender identity because they want to mainstream its sexist definition of women, but it is the practical implications of this concept that have caused the most heated conflict on the left. One of the most contentious is the idea that male-bodied people, including those who make no attempt to change their bodies, can self-ID as women and therefore access women-only spaces (see previous discussions on this blog here and here). Gender-critical feminists oppose this. “For many trans people and trans rights supporters” that in itself is “evidence of transphobia”, according SR’s reply to Sybil Cock (do these “supporters” include the SWP? It appears so.) But to repeat, the claim of transphobia only stands up if you accept the existence of an innate gender identity.
Gender identity in this sense is not real. It is usually understood in mystical terms: something from “deep within”, but not based on either biology or the internalization of sex stereotypes, so effectively from the Beyond. Although the individual is said to be the supreme authority on their gender id, this only holds when they go with the flow; desisters, for example, can be dismissed as never “really” having had the gender identity they temporarily assumed.
Critics sometimes compare gender identity theory to the ethnically-white Rachel Dolezal’s claims to be a black person:
When asked… what being “black” means to her, Dolezal said that “sometimes how we feel is more powerful than how we’re born, and blackness can be defined as philosophical, cultural, biological, you know, it’s a lot of different things to a lot of different people.” (People 2 Nov 2015)
Gender ideologists can dismiss this view out of hand, on the grounds that racial identity doesn’t have the same mysterious inner truth about it as gender. They get away with this because gender identity mysticism is socially endorsed, ultimately via corporate support, while Dolezal’s racial identitarianism is not (see articles by Adolph Reed Jr in Common Dreams 15 June 2015 and Elaine Graham-Leigh in Counterfire 1 Mar 2018).
The SWP has strained to give gender identity a material foundation, as some kind of subtle interaction between body and society. But they end up arguing that this interaction is too varied and complex to understand, and fall back on nothing more than bald assertions of the “reality” of gender identity.
The tradition of debate
Socialists must unconditionally support the rights of oppressed people to express their sexuality and gender identity. So when the right attack identity theory by denying the legitimacy of anti-oppressive struggles, people on the left should never relay arguments against trans rights that open the door to the right’s attacks. Sadly that is what has been happening over trans rights in some cases recently.
This idea that leftists “should never relay arguments against trans rights” sounds very much like an attempt to shut down debate within the left. If so this would be an accommodation to the identity politics milieu, a move away from the SWP’s tradition of frank and fearless debate in pursuit of clarity, the underpinning of workers’ democratic decision making. So it is even more welcome to see the Socialist Review now beginning to “relay” such arguments itself, by giving space, however limited, to a gender-critical socialist.
Gender critical progressives are not “opening the doors to the right’s attacks”, but opposing an ideology that is backed by western capitalist classes, the Tories, US Democrats and the neoliberal right generally. The SWP avoids looking at the support given to gender ideology from the ruling class and the instruments of its rule. For example Miles’ article notes “the Women and Equalities Parliamentary Committee’s publication of 30 trans-supportive recommendations in January 2016”, without asking why a Tory-dominated committee would support this new ideology so wholeheartedly.
Certainly it is vital to distance ourselves from social conservatives and the far right. Their attack on gender ideology is driven by a reactionary wish to preserve traditional biology-based stereotyping, and is part of a wider, powerful and dangerous attack on workers, women, gays, immigrants and oppressed ethnic groups. It is also important to distance ourselves from right-of-centre liberals: despite agreement with us on concrete issues such as opposition to no-platforming and child sterilization they too have an anti-worker agenda and are no friends of women’s liberation. But if we held back from certain demands because they were also supported in some sense by sections of the right, we could not have opposed Russia’s bestial bombing of Syria lest we supported US neocons, nor could we support Britain leaving the EU lest we line up with racists.
We need to advance whatever demands are required, in ways that differentiate ourselves from right wingers who give the same demands or slogans a different content. So, for example, we support female-only spaces because females are oppressed by the social system, not out of some idea that females are inherently dainty or eternally vulnerable. We use the concept “woman is biological” because their biology marks females out for oppressive treatment from the moment of birth, and it is not a “performance” they can opt out of. But if conservatives use “woman is biological” to play to traditional sexism, to imply that the stereotypically feminine woman emerges naturally from female biology, we must explicitly oppose that, rather than letting left and right wing concepts flow together under the same formulation of words.
Does the link between gender-critical progressives and the right go beyond the superficial, the use of similar phrases? When the left does not take up the cause of the oppressed, the right will sometimes do so, in its own way, and so it is in this instance. Sections of the right have expressed sympathy with gender critical feminists on issues like free speech, and protecting children and teens from life-changing surgical and chemical procedures. Some right wing media outlets have given space to left-wing gender critics, pursuing their own agenda. Not all gender-critical feminists are leftists; some have responded to overtures from different sections of the right. But the great majority have felt driven to use the corporate media and right wing outlets by no-platforming and ferocious hostility from most of the left and the identity politics milieu (see eg here). “It is indeed unfortunate that it has been largely the right wing and liberal press that has enabled the views of gender critical socialists to be heard,” as Sybil Cock says. Left wing gender ideologists have used this to try to vindicate their claims against such progressives; instead, they should remove the beam in their own eye and start looking seriously at how their ideas abet women’s oppression.
The material bases of same-sex attraction and gender identity
Miles writes that
some trans critics are promoting double standards. Like the right, they deny the reality of gender identity (“identity is not material”, they claim). But they don’t deny the reality of sexual preferences, although they’ve not demonstrated any crucial differences between sexuality and gender identity.
There are certainly crucial differences between sexual preference and “gender identity”.
Same sex attraction must have arisen out of humanity’s break with the animal kingdom as we became laboring, speaking, conscious creatures. It is sometimes said that certain other animals with relatively complex social groups display same-sex attraction. Whether this is so or not, it is certainly true that when we became truly human the sexual impulse was no longer limited to a narrow unvarying routine; though still grounded in bodily biology, our sexuality was now decisively shaped by society and caught up in the immense complexity and thus variability of the socialized human being. Sexuality was freed up to go in all sorts of directions. And since variation of sexual preference is innately human, we can expect same sex attraction to persist in a future, truly free society, the communism envisioned by Marx.
However, the human drive to imagine and explore, and the inherent variability between human individuals, clashed with another aspect of early human society. Only women could bear and suckle young, and these roles also constrained them from certain types of work. So during pre-class societies there was a sexual division of labour, which was then, like everything else, codified in beliefs and rituals within each culture. Some people must have felt far better suited to the roles and attributes assigned to the other sex and forbidden to theirs. This clash was also bound to intensify when the division of sex roles deepened with the rise of class society. (While the constraint would have been felt by both women and men, women would have had less opportunity to present as a member of the other sex, because they had less opportunity for self-expression in almost every way. But individual women also had the added incentive to present as men, to escape their sexual oppression.)
The clash between these two elements of society explains the appearance of social groups outside the main female and male cultural categories, groups which here and there were given formal acknowledgment, such as the Two Spirit people noted by the SWP’s Sue Caldwell (see also this feminist critique of gender ideologists’ appropriation of the Two Spirit people). But unlike same-sex attraction, the drive to adopt the cultural attributes of the other sex can be expected to disappear under a truly free society, when sex roles themselves fall away, and you can be whatever sort of person you wish.
In any case, however, this wish to identify with the opposite sex, adopt its roles, or claim some kind of cultural membership within it, is very different to modern gender ideology, which with its explicit redefinition of women and men as a whole: this is very recent. The long history of resistance to sex roles does nothing at all to support the existence of an innate “gender identity”.
Wrong, and sexist…
Gender identity is an ideological concept, not a fact: its current popularity has other causes. The idea of innate gender identity is also sexist, chiefly because it defines females through sex stereotypes. These stereotypes are not emphasized among pro-gender leftists, but are precisely what the corporate mass media picks up on when it propagandizes about kids born into the wrong body and the brave mums supporting them – disseminated far beyond identity politics circles into working class suburbia. Left wing gender ideologues do not challenge the media on this – they cannot, without hacking into the core of gender ideology itself. The sexist definition of women also, inevitably, encourages misogynistic attitudes among some transwomen, examples of which gender critical progressives regularly cite on social media.
…but we need to debate it
Leftist supporters of gender ideology disagree: this should lead to debate. But there is of course a qualitative difference between tactical debates over “which way forward” and debates where one side is supporting oppression, eg via a government ban on Muslim headscarves in the name of feminism or secularism. The issue of gender causes particularly bitter fights because each side thinks the other is supporting oppression, and this has high-stakes practical consequences. Yet the only reason for thinking that gender-critical progressives support oppression lies in the idea of innate gender identity, and this too should be up for debate.
Last year Philip or Pip Bunce, a male-born gender-fluid executive, was listed in the “top 100 female champions” of women in business by the Financial Times, the closest thing there is to an official media mouthpiece for Britain’s ruling class. It is a handy enough symbol of elite support for gender ideology, whatever you think of Bunce. The bosses are responsible for the mainstreaming of the transgender trend, and determine its political impact, carried through via establishment political parties like the Tories and US Democrats, managers of public and private bureaucracies, and the corporate media. This is often pointed out by gender critical progressives and is the core argument in Freer Lives.
The capitalist class and its woman problem
The core reason for this support lies in the bosses’ tricky relationship with women. The capitalist class relies on the family to maintain today’s and tomorrow’s wage slaves free of charge. As the welfare state is cut back and the population ages, the system’s demand for this free work is growing. Theoretically the burden could be lumped equally onto men and women, but the deep historical roots of sexism makes it overwhelmingly easier to keep the bulk of it on women’s shoulders. So for the bosses it is vital that women should continue to see themselves as inferior and as natural nurturers and homemakers. At the same time, they want women as wage slaves. Yet in the workplace women confront everyday sexism and the stupidity of over-promoted male managers, even as they themselves gain high-level skills and knowledge, and take part in far wider discussions of social and political issues than women last century, who were much more often confined to the home. This makes today’s women far more likely to challenge their oppression, including, potentially, the burden of unpaid labor.
For the bosses there is no single solution to this contradiction. What we do see is a string of ideological concessions characteristic of the neoliberal era and reflected in news and commentary, books films and TV: yes women have the right to get ahead individually, yes lots of men are contemptible, and gross physical abuse is not on. But while you watch super-heroines and Disney princesses kick male ass, you must remain feminine, wasp-waisted, a sex object, house-tidier and child nurturer. Gender ideology, with its impeccably progressive credentials, has been taken up and used as another strand in this ideological net: sex stereotypes are cool again.
This does not translate into unqualified, block support for every aspect of gender ideology and the transgender trend: some parts of the elite (the capitalist class and its most senior political servants) have some, limited, objections. Firstly, some conservative media barons have drawn a distinction between the trans’ trend’s “good” and “bad” features. Born-into-the-wrong body ideas are good, because they are so sexist, defining women and girls as inherently feminine. But some of the public programs that propagandise for these same ideas, including school-based programs, are bad, since they link transgender to identity politics and the left, and hence to the need for social change. Secondly, sections of the elite may feel uneasy that the unexpected surge in demand for gender reassignment will end up having serious cost implications.
But perhaps the most important issue, from the elite’s viewpoint, is that gender ideology has to do the job, and help reconcile today’s working women to the burden of unpaid labour in the home. All that is thrown into the air if a new women’s movement rises to its feet and begins to engage with or even mobilise wide strata of ordinary women against the new gender sexism. Under that scenario the disruptive impact of the trans phenomenon might start to look like a liability to some bosses. In Britain, gender-critical feminists have made enough impact to put that scenario on the horizon. Their pressure is also pushing liberal sections of the corporate media to hedge their bets, and move to keep up with shifting opinion, by opening some space to the views of gender critical progressives.
Opposition on the right
Beside the elite, there is also some push-back against gender ideology from right wing political formations. The opposition takes a range of forms and involves several overlapping constituencies. Social conservatives have never budged from the idea that biology is the basis for females’ femininity, and rail against gender ideology, abortion and gay rights in the same breath. Some right-of-centre liberals are uneasy about gender ideology’s intrusions upon free speech and civic order, the safety and dignity of women and girls (seen through a right wing lens) and surgical and chemical modification of healthy young bodies. Around the edges of all this, certain right wingers see an opportunity to work with gender-critical feminists, and perhaps win them over, or use them to hurt the left.
The pro-gender left
The pro-gender left have a very different take. They tend to present elite support for gender ideology as either the result of pressure from below, acceptance of the inevitable, common sense, or the result of cultural change sweeping through all social classes. When elite support is mentioned at all, it is usually in very vague terms. (As Roz Kaveney put it in a Guardian article 2017: “the [Tory] government is planning new rules to make it easier for trans people to self-identify their gender… If it seems odd that Theresa May’s government is going to do something this humane and sensible: well, they have to do something.”) By contrast, they seize on any sign of elite opposition to gender ideology as evidence that they are fighting the big end of town.
The fact that the neoliberal right champions gender ideology is also passed over. Instead they focus only on the bigotry of social conservatives and the far right, to present gender ideology as progressive. Feminists and leftists critical of gender ideology are denounced as hindering the fight against this bigotry.
The pro-gender left are not looking reality in the face.
Future posts in this series will look in more detail at the different forms of elite and right wing opposition to gender ideology, and how the left should respond.
Britain’s Communist Party has called for the protection of women’s spaces and preservation of “separate spaces and distinct services to protect women from violence and abuse”. An article in the Morning Star 18/11/2018 reports:
The party’s biennial congress said that women’s rights won over decades of struggle were “under sustained ideological attack,” thanks to the “growth and ascendancy of neoliberal philosophy across a range of intellectual fields… Delegates discussed the attacks on women who raised concerns about self-identification and attempts to no-platform or silence them, including attacks on the Morning Star for agreeing to publish articles on the subject.”
4thWaveNow reached out to Gallus Mag of GenderTrender after WordPress dumped the site yesterday. In her most recent post, Gallus Mag broke the full story of a Canadian MTF trans activist who has launched “human rights” complaints against a group of women’s salon workers who were unwilling to touch and wax male genitalia. GallusMag revealed other details about the activist’s prior social media activities, some of which pertained to underage girls.
GenderTrender’s importance as a groundbreaking investigative reporting outlet covering the excesses of transgender activism cannot be overestimated. The site has also served as an incubator and launching pad for many other bloggers and writers; 4thWaveNow’s founder counts herself among them. The loss of GenderTrender is a huge blow. It is also the latest casualty in a growing clash between–on one side, a loose coalition of feminists, parents, gay and lesbian people, detransitioners, free speech advocates, and many supporters; and…
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