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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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The previous post looked at how the Trades Union Congress (TUC) of England and Wales recently voted to support gender self-ID. That post described the destructive message that the TUC decision sends to working class women and girls, and the support it effectively provides for those who want to suppress discussion and debate with gender-critical progressives.
Yet gender ideology has strong support in the unions, not only among officials but also activists on the ground. The argument from a pro-trans, feminist, female trade unionist seems to go something like this. Supporting trans people is simply support for human rights and decency. Accepting transwomen as women does nothing to disrespect or erase women, it just widens “woman” a bit. Statistics show these people are no threat to women and girls in women-only spaces. No man would try to swap gender just to win at women’s sport, the personal exposure to discrimination would far outweigh any material gains. A bad feminist, am I? I actively oppose sexual harassment, domestic violence, and unequal pay and so do the trans sisters I come across at union and left meetings. Maybe some trans people refuse to accept abortion being called a “woman’s issue” – that’s wrong, but only a few hard liners say stuff like that. If they attack terfs it’s only because of the violence and suicide that you encourage against them through your hatred. Yes we denounced a billboard for displaying the dictionary definition of woman, but this was in the context of hate against trans people and the fact that it was instigated by a known transphobe. The entire left and union movement thinks like I do. You on the other hand have friends like The Sun, The Spectator, The Times, The Telegraph, not to mention Trump.
One of the most important issues facing gender-critical progressives is how to make headway among women like this, and their male comrades. Clearly these women will not be won over through sweeping statements that they are drinkers of Koolaid, handmaids to a men’s movement, or victims of a social contagion. I think it would be helpful to have more discussion as to why so many of our progressive sisters and brothers support gender ideology, and what can be done to win them over. Here is my contribution.
The left wing side of gender ideology
The first issue is to recognise that gender ideology faces two ways. While fundamentally conservative it also has a left wing side. It demands that people born with female genitalia have the right to live as males and vice versa, and in doing so it disrupts the centuries-old belief that stereotypic behaviour emerges naturally from one’s biological sex, a belief still very much alive, and championed by sections of the right. This demand for freedom to live as you wish is what leftists, LGB people and feminists are most fundamentally responding to.
There is actually little disagreement here. Gender critical feminists almost always accept people’s right to adopt the conventional appearance and behaviour of the other sex, in defiance of conservative prejudices – as one, particular personal option for dealing with the restrictive stereotypes they were born to.
But this is lost amid the furore over other aspects of the transgender issue. For gender ideology wraps a progressive demand within the sexist and conservative concept of “gender identity”.
Gender identity is the notion that people’s wish to live as a member of the other sex reflects an inherent femaleness or maleness independent of, and more fundamental than, sex of birth; a concept that requires us to redefine womanhood. This inner self is not, we are assured, simply the internalisation of stereotypes seen and experienced over a lifetime, yet it can only be expressed to the world by adopting sex-stereotypic appearance and behaviour.
Gender identity is usually described in mystical terms, as some kind of personal communion with a mysterious inner truth about oneself. Marxists and left-liberals embarrassed by this magical thinking have strained to provide a material foundation for this inner self, and/or proposed that a scientific understanding of gender identity is “in its infancy” but will surely come in time.
But ideas do not need a scientific grounding to achieve popularity, if there are powerful forces behind them. As an ideological tool gender identity has harnessed support from both left and right, and this in turn has shielded its nebulous core very effectively from challenge.
How gender identity harnesses support on the left
Gender identity explicitly connects the desire to live as a member of the opposite sex to the framework of identity politics. That is, it equates a mystical concept to the material realities faced by black people, gays and others, whose personal lives are deeply violated by political attacks on their ethnicity, same-sex attraction and so on. This is a false analogy, but drawing on the popular concept of “identity” has won acceptance for gender ideology among left-leaning youth.
That support burns white-hot because any challenge to gender ideology is seen as bigotry, as equivalent to racism or homophobia. For example, Australia’s liberal-minded Ethics Centre was denounced when it agreed to host a debate on the topic “A Trans Wo/man Can Never Be Fe/male”:
It’s a bit like debating whether fair-skinned Aboriginal people are really Aboriginal or not. Or asking why all Muslims are terrorists. It might work in an [aggressively right wing] Andrew Bolt column, but pretty much everybody else would accept that the offensive insinuations – even dressed-up as a civilised discussion – are unilluminating and unnecessary. (Max Chalmers, New Matilda 4 December 2015. For the record, attack-dog columnist Andrew Bolt has expressed support for gender identity, see eg here or here.)
The use of the concept of “identity” turns political criticism of an ideology into a damaging personal judgment. As Jane Clare Jones says, it means “collapsing the present ideology of the trans rights movement into the existence of trans people… presenting all critique of its ideology as an act of hatred directed at trans people”.
This ferocious support shields the sexism of the trans trend from criticism, or even scrutiny, on the left. Yet such scrutiny is badly needed. I argued above that the transgender phenomenon faces two ways, and talked about its left-wing side. But of course it has a right wing side too, because it challenges only the most traditionalist, biology-is-destiny form of sex stereotyping. In fact, gender ideologists agree with social conservatives that females are pink and males are blue, they simply relocate the basis of this division from biology to a mystical inner essence. Now any ideology based on sex stereotypes will, without fail, generate misogyny, and so it is with gender ideologists. The woman-hatred comes out in many ways, eg the description of women as non-men, the vagina as a front hole, the glorification of girlyness, and, in response to challenge, the calls to punch, rape or kill “terfs” and the actual use of violence against women’s liberationists.
If trans people were simply seen as people choosing to swap one set of sex roles for another, taking a brave personal strategy to escape the confining roles they were born to, the trans phenomenon would no longer be attempting to redefine femaleness along sexist lines, so the challenge from women’s liberationists would be less heated. There would still be issues to thrash out, but a much stronger basis would exist for an alliance against oppressive sex roles. At the same time, any criticism that was made of transgender would be less inflammatory since it would no longer be seen as attacking an essential quality of the people concerned.
Who is really challenging sex stereotypes?
Gender ideologists also tend to position trans/gender fluid/non-binary people as the key challengers of sex or “gender” stereotypes, the ones leading the way, another reason to support the trans trend. So for example Jay Maddock writes:
The current [Trump] administration’s move to define gender as simply male or female based on genitalia at birth, directly contradicts the recommendations of medical, scientific, and legal professionals. Society has outgrown binary gender roles and expectations. These rigid roles reinforce toxic masculinity and support the patriarchy… Trans people threaten the gender roles that keep them [Trump etc] in control.
When it comes to opposing stereotypes, the place of women is to cheer on transgender people, as the real ones challenging “rigid roles”. The way forward is to open up a spectrum of identities, in which trans people are once again are at the forefront. The notion that women as women can and should fight stereotypes is not actually denied, but it is certainly eclipsed.
The bosses increase left-wing support for gender ideology
In fact gender ideology goes a lot further than this. It says that the great mass of women and girls – the factory- and office-fodder trudging to work each day only to face a second burden of unpaid labour in their working class homes – have a “gender identity” aligned to their birth sex. And since gender identity can only be expressed by looking and behaving according to sex stereotypes, typecasting is naturalised: females self-decorate and notice household dirt due to their innate gender identity. The actual foundation of these traits in in a lifetime of socialisation is obscured – by an ideology with impeccable progressive credentials.
You might think this would challenge support for gender ideology on the liberal and feminist left. In fact, through indirect but very powerful channels, it ends up reinforcing it. Here a mediating role is played by the capitalist class. Gender ideology has proved seductive to the bosses. They have a deep interest in maintaining women’s oppression and have used the corporate media to mainstream this new cool sexism by pouring forth “born into the wrong body” stories: editors and tame journalists read the signals from their lords and masters and jump on board. This includes luminaries on the liberal left writing for The Guardian, The Independent, The Huffington Post, etc who are read and respected by progressive activists, including those in the labour movement. The fact that this “progressive” ideology receives so much support from the Tory party and individual bosses may here and there cause some unease, but it is explained away as a sign of pressure from below, or a recognition of obvious reality.
A further factor cementing progressive people’s loyalty to gender ideology has been the attacks it has received from sections of the political right.
Make no mistake, right wing tabloids have played a very important role in building support for born-into-the-wrong-body, we’re-all-pink-or-blue ideas, contrary to what most leftist seem to think. But there is no doubt that some elements of the right have also challenged aspects of gender ideology, and this opposition is gathering strength, from right-of-centre liberals, the alt-right and social conservatives.
While gender-critical women’s liberationists have been relentlessly attacked on the left, the right has reached out to them, and as a result of this push-and-pull some feminists are drawing closer to to the right, at least to the extent of using its media outlets to get their message across, and praising conservative politicians and other public figures who challenge gender ideology. Again this heavily reinforces support for transgender activists on the left. It will be discussed in the next post.
In September, the annual Trades Union Congress (TUC) covering England and Wales voted “for a simplified, free, statutory gender-recognition process based on self-declaration”. (Motion 41) This would allow people to declare themselves man or woman, and be legally taken as such, regardless of sex of birth. No unions voted against, and as far as I know only three abstained, the Fire Brigades Union, the National Union of Journalists and the Association of Educational Psychologists. Of these the FBU executive has now voted to support gender self-ID, despite resistance from some union members.
This post will discuss the broad impact of the TUC vote. Later posts will suggest some of the more general reasons why it happened and how class politics relates to gender ideology.
Gender identity and the attack on women
By approving Motion 41 the TUC has effectively endorsed the concept of gender identity, the mystical notion that we simply know whether we are man or woman based on some kind of deep personal communion with our inner selves, regardless of our sex of birth – an identity that only be expressed through stereotypically feminine or masculine appearance and behaviour. And in doing that the TUC has fallen in behind the corporate media and the institutions of neoliberalism, in delivering a series of damaging, sexist messages to working class women and girls. Almost all of you, the story goes, have a gender identity aligned to your female body. If you love self-adornment and display, notice dirt in the house more than the men do, love to keep everyone happy, apologise often, let your man run the TV remote, that doesn’t come from socialisation but from a natural, if mysterious, feminine essence, just as the social conservatives say. Discontent with sex stereotypes is now a minority concern, it’s not about querying you own life but about supporting “them” over “there”, unless of course you’re one of “them”, in which case you’re non-mainstream, other; defying convention means a sudden major rupture in your life and maybe your body too, so you might want to think again. If any of this makes you uneasy, watch yourself: one step out of line and you become a “hater”, and will be hated – and that might cost you your job, career, social circle.
Yet there are many reasons to be uneasy about self-ID, quite apart from these sexist messages. Gender self-ID means that natal females are now exposed to new risks in female-only spaces, as has been widely argued by gender-critical feminists and previously discussed on this blog. And as Fair Play for Women points out, self-ID policies also mean “that males who self-identify as women have gained access to schemes set-up to tackle under-representation of females in politics. Teenage males who identity as girls are also racing against girls, and beating them in sports.” There are also concerns that girls and young women may be transitioning as a way to escape the impact of a sexist society, and concerns that homophobia may be driving some people, or their parents, towards transition as a way to escape their same-sex attraction.
From open debate to violence and no-platforming
It is ironical that the union movement has endorsed an ideology so much at odds with its own traditions of dialogue, debate, and democratic decision making. For supporters of gender ideology have used the result of the TUC vote to try to silence further debate. Here are two small but symptomatic examples.
The Wales Equality Alliance tweeted “The TUC has carried a motion to support gender self-declaration. Hopefully Mark Serwotka and Len McCluskey who recently supported an anti trans campaign were paying attention”. The “campaign” they are talking about was a one-off open letter condemning violence against feminist critics by some transgender activists, to which these two union leaders added their names. Rather than being anti-trans, the 150-odd signatories of the letter took care to explain that they had a “range of views” on gender self-ID and the GRA (see earlier discussion here and here). So essentially the WEA is attacking them for defending open debate, free of the threat of violence and intimidation. By “paying attention” the WEA implies that any union leader who tries to resist further violence or intimidation towards left-wing gender critics might pay a high price.
The tension between the democratic traditions of the union movement and the anti-democratic instincts of gender ideologists also comes out in a minor intervention from Ian Murch, a senior official in the National Education Union. He is without doubt committed to free debate within the workers’ movement and the wider society, but when his support for trans self-id was condemned by gender-critical feminists his response (12/9/18) was to tweet a link to an article in the Huffington Post, an article that conveys no sense of that democratic tradition. It makes no attempt to take on the arguments of gender-critical feminists. It simply says opposition is driven by “hate”: that’s it. Opponents are placed beyond the bounds of dialogue, so once again it is right to close them down without discussion.
This is not the method used on other contentious issues within the labour movement. For instance, workers who fear that refugees will take jobs are not dismissed out of hand as haters (even though anti-refugee sentiment might indeed lead to bashings or killings); rather, concerns over jobs are acknowledged and the racist argument is refuted.
Why so much support
One obvious reason for the TUC’s support for gender self-ID was the motion’s progressive wrapping. It talked about equality, and protection of a vulnerable persecuted minority: the “current processes for gender recognition” are “lengthy, intrusive, humiliating, and not fit for purpose”. And this was aligned with fighting for women’s rights. As the official explanation of the motion says:
The fight for women’s rights is far from won. For too many women sexual harassment and domestic violence is a daily reality, alongside unequal pay and other forms of discrimination at work and in society. Unions will always campaign to protect the rights of working women…
One group’s gain need not be another’s loss. On the contrary, we must resist attempts to turn people against one another, and instead find common cause.
However, there is no point in denying the extensive support for gender ideology among women and men within the union movement. The next posts will discuss why gender ideology has so much backing within the western labour movement and the Left, and what this means for gender-critical progressives.
One socialist pushing back at the Trojan horse of gender ideology is Deirdre O’Neill. She has posted two recent articles on Medium.com: “Class, identity politics and transgender ideology” (26 August 2018) and “On not being allowed into leftist spaces” (28 Aug 2018, previously published via the Socialist Feminist Network 6 June 2018)
In the latter piece she describes the way her personal background has given her a lifelong commitment to the working class and to the overthrow of capitalism, and how it also led her to reject middle class feminism. “The essentialism I witnessed in the middle class version of feminism was simply a strategy that worked to denigrate or ignore the experiences and knowledge of working class women and exclude them from the public sphere… the only thing I had in common with middle class women was my biology.” But “precisely on these biological grounds I now find myself aligning with all women who are gender critical.”
In doing so, she also finds herself effectively excluded from most of the left:
It is becoming quite acceptable for certain sections of the left to declare that people like me – women who are ‘gender critical’ – should not be allowed in leftist or anarchist spaces… its lack of critical engagement… is the thing that astounds the most…
The issue here is that significant parts of the left have accepted without question and without debate the fundamental claim of trans activists that transwomen are women. And they have internalized transactivism’s immunization from rational dialogue by denouncing everyone who does not agree with this claim, as ‘bigot’, ‘terf’, full of ‘bile’ and ‘hatred’. The idea that trans rights as currently formulated may clash with women’s rights, seems inconceivable to those who have accepted what seems to me a pre-Enlightenment dogma, that transwomen are women. Is it too much to enquire, without being called a ‘bigot’, that maybe, just maybe, trans rights can be guaranteed on a different basis, without making the claim, trans women are women (or trans men are men)?
There are of course many socialists fighting gender ideology. The points O’Neill raises, however, go to the heart of the issues raised in Freer Lives. I won’t try to cover every topic she discusses, but I’d like to support some key points she makes, adding my own take (which she may or may not support), with some links to my earlier pieces on this blog. On some questions I have a different perspective to O’Neill. I apologise in advance for the length of this post.
The impact of neoliberalism
O’Neill points out how economic changes over the last few decades have laid the foundations for today’s politics, including the rise of transgenderism:
The change from an industrial society to a service society produced a marked shift in focus from the working class as the backbone of the county to the image of a feral underclass responsible for their own poverty. Correspondingly their collective struggle has been eroded and its place filled by the middle class adherence to the politics of identity –a concentration on single issues that celebrate difference and refuses to recognize or engage with the continuing injuries of class.
One of the consequences of the massive changes that have taken place in working class life over the last forty years of neo liberalism has been the erasure of class-consciousness and the loss of the language of class…
This is a crucial point. The erosion of collective working class struggle has reshaped daily life experience for millions of people, particularly in the English speaking west. In 1970 the slogan “one struggle, one fight” made perfect sense. Most working people were in unions, taking strike action for their rights. This underlay and unified the particular battles of women, blacks, and those fighting conscription and war. If you were a young woman who ran into trouble at work, your first go-person could well be a paunchy middle aged male shop steward. Sexism and other prejudices had to be fought within our side of the barricades, but there was a fundamental sense of unity against the System, the Establishment, etc.
By the mid-1970s class struggle was ebbing. A decade on, unions seemed increasingly remote and bureaucratic, the working class weak and politically almost irrelevant. Left wing people saw not “one struggle”, but many. To an extent this does reflect middle class individualism, but the absence of political strike action has given it resonance for millions of working class youth.
As for what has caused the ebb of working class struggle, O’Neill mentions the shift from an industrial to service economy. This is probably the most important underlying factor in the continuing passivity of western working classes, since service industries have historically been hardest to organize. I have discussed other causes elsewhere.
A “pseudo version of political radicalism”
O’Neill points out:
The growth of idealism and the denial of material reality have offered for some on the middle class left a pseudo version of political radicalism. For them the struggle for change is no longer grounded in the politics of class nor do they acknowledge the working class as the potential initiators of change…
There is something very terrifyingly fragile about our commitment to reasoned debate if we can so nonchalantly cast aside facts such as our biological constitution. If anyone can be anything they want just by saying it, where does that leave us? What kind of foundation is there to build on? If you #arewhatyousayyouare where does that leave those of us fighting for a better world? It leaves us nowhere- social, historical knowledge, institutional struggle and cultural experience becomes meaningless. The way in which our lives are shaped by structures over which we often have little control cannot be articulated or resisted. The propagation of the notion of a female essence renders at a stroke unnecessary the history of the struggles women have been involved in for their right to live independent autonomous lives –there’s no ‘wrong side of history’ when you can just ignore its existence.
Postmodernism, which I presume she is talking about, has certainly had a toxic effect on the left, as previously discussed on this blog. But its denial of material reality was just one part of the point-by-point attack on Marxism which it launched in the late 1970s. Its anti-humanism and focus on surface over depth denied any meaning to the concept of liberation. Its irrationalism sent a message that ordinary people could not act together to understand and change the world. Its celebration of localism and fragmented protest left people helpless against a world dominated by inter-locking central banks, global corporations and military alliances. All this paved the way for gender ideology.
Postmodernism was spearheaded by jaded ex-radicals who provided a theoretical polish for the prejudices of the rising new middle class and a rationale for despair and cynicism among youth.
The left’s capitulation, no-platforming, and the refusal to debate
O’Neill attacks the left for its “glaring refusal… to come to terms with the question of transgenderism and its impact on women”, meaning of course biological women. And she also attacks the “the self censorship, the intimidation, the blatant dishonesty, the denial of debate with howls of ‘transphobia’” from a left that has “abandoned its obligation to critically engage, to clarify and to lead on the political issues of the day. Instead it has simply accepted the terms of the debate put forward by the trans militants (including their really basic conflation of sex and gender)”. This is once again a pleasure and relief to read.
For her, these positions indicate a left “in deep crisis”. It is certainly a sign of alarming degeneration when the left not only supports gender sexism but abandons its long tradition of upholding free debate within the progressive side of politics. In Britain, as far as I am aware, the only honorable exceptions to this capitulation have been the Morning Star newspaper, which allows space to gender-critical feminists, and those individuals who have come out against no-platforming and violence against women’s liberationists (including Lindsey German of Counterfire and several union leaders). I have commented on this in earlier posts, in relation to current debates around the GRA and the stances taken by Britain’s Socialist Party and Socialist Workers Party.
Transgender, the left and identity politics
This failure, O’Neill adds, “is rooted in the left’s acceptance of identity politics with its assumption that how a group (or the primary definers within a group) articulates its oppression is the last word in the matter.”
It is true that many if not most left wing individuals embrace some version of identity politics. But far left parties and grouplets often have a more balanced view, supporting identity politics insofar as it highlights oppression while also calling for unity around working class politics. The capitulation, I think, is specific to transgender issues.
As discussed earlier on this blog, I think the capitulation of left groups is a product of the decades-long withdrawal of the working class from the political stage. This has demoralized socialist groups, lost them many members, and produced damaging splits. And they now depend, for influence recruitment and new cadre, on a milieu which has not gone through the industrial struggles of earlier decades: the identity-politics milieu, where gender ideology reigns supreme.
The capitalist class, working women, and gender sexism
Femininity, O’Neill points out, is an aspect of women’s oppression that “fits well into the needs of a capitalist society for unpaid labour… gender relations have always played a role in the reproduction of capitalist society and capitalist reproduction has always depended on the oppression and exploitation of women.”
This, in my view, gets to the core of the trans trend. As previously discussed on this blog, there would be no mass transgender phenomenon without the huge and systematic support it has received from the capitalist class, via the corporate media and other institutions of neoliberalism. Even the right wing tabloids pump out “born-into-the-wrong-body” stories; even the business wing of the US Republican Party is onside.
Supporters of gender ideology don’t grasp this. They interpret neoliberal support for trans ideas as a natural acknowledgment of obvious reality, or they see it as the result of pressure from below. But it did not arise through pressure from below. Unlike the drives for women’s, black and gay rights, the trans trend emerged during a time of demoralization and social torpor, not mass activism. And corporate media support came before the trans trend really took off. It is the bosses who mainstreamed transgender ideas.
This support came because gender sexism is so valuable in the bosses’ ongoing war against working class women.
A new, cool sexism for new times
As O’Neill says:
Rather than fight to create something new, trans ideology recycles old tropes of femininity (‘lady brains’ – really?) and claims them as progressive. Rather than considering ways of radically changing the roles of both men and women, we are being told that the stereotypes women have fought against are actually real and can be appropriated by men to ‘prove’ they are women.
The need for this progressive veneer, I believe, reflects the changing situation faced by the capitalist class. In today’s world women participate massively in the workforce, and see every day that they are equal to men and not so very different. This breeds discontent with sex stereotypes and resistance to women’s inferior status. Traditional femininity – where XX chromosomes are seen to lead directly to ironing and lipstick – is too naïve a notion to deal with this unrest. This is a huge headache for the bosses. They need and want to keep exploiting women’s wage labour, but they also need women to keep accepting their status as inferior, self-decorating natural nurturers who maintain today’s and tomorrow’s wage slaves free of charge in the home.
Transgender ideology helps solve this dilemma for the bosses. Unlike traditional stereotyping it can assume progressive, oppositional or even radical appearance, because it attracts hostility from social conservatives, because trans individuals are vulnerable to personal attack, and because it is supported by most of the left and LGB people. But from this protected position it sends out a number of interlinked, anti-woman messages.
Firstly, it restores the idea of a “female essence”, as O’Neill calls it. Sometimes this takes the form of crude biological determinism of pink/blue brains. Often, though, our inner femininity or masculinity is simply said to be something we “know” or “feel” about ourselves. Stripped of its mysticism (and the strained efforts by some Marxists to give it a material foundation), this “gender identity” is simply the internalization of stereotypes that everyone has experienced or observed throughout their lives, including their very early lives. Most importantly, gender ideology says that the vast majority of women have a feminine gender identity, smoothly matching female stereotypes. It’s all natural and for the best.
Secondly, this “gender identity” allows any challenge to gender ideology to be equated with gay conversion therapy, thus justifying no-platforming, silencing, and a climate of fear among critics, whether in the fields of politics, psychotherapy, academia, the entertainment industry or in everyday life.
Thirdly, discontent with such stereotypes becomes a minority concern: it means being trans, or gender-fluid, being “other” – an issue for them over there, not for us ordinary people. Our role is just to respect and support them.
This surely has a disciplining effect on the majority of women, especially teens and young adults. To protest at female stereotyping becomes a high stakes decision to stand out radically, at time when many teens are desperate to fit in. And somewhere down the track it is known to lead to major violation of your body.
Fifthly: to understand their womanhood, women must not look at their socialization because that would exclude transwomen. They should understand themselves by their appearance and habits of mind, their “performance”.
There is one further benefit to the bosses, I think. Confusion has replaced clarity. In the early 1970s the issue was clear: we all suffer from sex stereotyping, in women’s case this aids and abets their oppression. Those born female undergo sexist conditioning. This is a direct issue for everyone, women most of all. But now that gender is replacing sex, those trying to make sense of the issue walk into in an almost impenetrable fog: what the hell does gender mean? For most people, it links maleness to masculinity and femaleness to femininity. But on the left “gender” is wrapped in a swirling phantasmagoria of meanings and half-meanings. As always, clarity empowers democratic debate and grass roots struggle, while confusion disempowers us, it helps to close down resistance.
The overall effect of these sexist ideas is to bury the concept of women’s oppression. It is hardly a surprise, then, that the Financial Times HERoes in Business list of top female executives now includes Pip Bunce, someone born male who swaps sexual identities during the course of each week.
I have points of difference with O’Neill (and the majority gender critical progressives): I think women are best understood not as a sex class, but simply as the oppressed sex; I think women are oppressed only by capitalism, not by a patriarchy; I don’t believe transgender is best understood as a men’s rights movement, however sexist some transwomen might be. Perhaps these issues can be discussed at a later date.
The previous post on Freer Lives hailed the leadership shown by union officials and leftists in Britain who signed an open letter in the Morning Star condemning violence, and other measures to stifle debate, used by some trans activists against feminist critics. The immediate context was the current debate over proposed changes to Britain’s Gender Recognition Act (GRA). Those signing the letter made it clear that they have “a variety of positions” on the proposed GRA changes; the letter was simply a call for “action within our movement to allow debate to take place”. Prominent among those signing the letter was Mark Serwotka, leftist leader of the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS).
As also discussed last post, the letter was attacked by three members of the Socialist Party who hold lead leadership positions in the PCS. The SP members could not very well oppose the principle of free discussion and debate within the workers’ movement, but neither did they want to do or say anything to offend trans activists. They squirmed out of this tricky place by conflating the issue of violence as a tool against left wing opponents with the issue of violence as experienced by transgender people within the general population – ignoring the fact that women, black people and other groups also regularly experience violence and belittlement without using this as a manipulative device to stifle debate among progressives.
The SP and the Socialist Workers Party
The Socialist Workers Party (SWP) is a long-standing and sometimes bitter rival to the SP on the British Left, but on gender politics, alas, they seem to see eye to eye. An article in the SWP paper Socialist Worker 19/8/18 backed up the SP. Commenting on politics inside the PCS, it stated:
We do not agree with Mark [Serwotka] over the Gender Recognition Act over which we have taken a consistent position, with one of our members seconding Motion A18 at PCS conference this year [supporting changes to the Act]. We believe that Mark was mistaken to sign the recent letter in the Morning Star.
If the SWP’s support for gender ideology is seriously wrong, its opposition to the Morning Star letter is disgraceful.
By supporting gender ideology the SWP is supporting women’s oppression – even while the party continues to fight that oppression in other fields. This is of course very much a class issue. The sexism of trans activists is massively amplified by the corporate media and the institutions of neoliberalism (including right wing tabloids that regularly promote born-into-the-wrong-body mysticism). Gender ideology is now being pumped into schoolgirls en masse (see eg here and here): they are being told that females have “pink brains” and/or an inner essence that forms their “gender identity”, and that for the vast majority this mysterious essence aligns with the sex stereotypes foisted on females from birth. In other words, when girls love girly things and accept second rate status it is not because they have internalised messages from a sexist society, but because of their mystical inner “identity” as feminine females. Only in the case of trans people does biology diverge from one’s feminine or masculine essence. In this way a new generation of young women is being primed for roles as unpaid carers in the home, one of the underpinnings of capitalism. Gender ideology is therefore allowing the bosses to make real headway against working class women, and this overshadows the secondary, progressive element of transgenderism that brings it into conflict with social conservatives.
Debate and no-platforming
The Morning Star letter, however, was not an attack on gender ideology, but a defense of free and open debate within the workers’ movement. It was directed at certain trans activists because they were undermining that free and open debate, not because of their positions on gender or the GRA. The only sense in which the letter implicitly challenges gender ideology is in the extent to which this ideology in itself opposes free and open debate in the workers’ movement: only to the extent that the suffering of trans people is used manipulatively to assign trans activists the right to suppress questioning. And as mentioned above, this entitlement is not demanded for women, black people, Muslim immigrants, Palestinians or any other group whose members suffer or die due to discrimination and persecution.
In principle the SWP opposes no-platforming. For example in a theoretical article late last year they stated (rather apologetically): “No platform is a tactic developed by the working class movement as part of the fight against fascism… No platform is not a tactic to be applied willy-nilly to people whose views we do not like, however offensive they may be.” (See earlier discussion on this blog.) The Morning Star letter provided a chance to commit to this principle clearly in front of the workers’ movement, under the spotlight of a hot issue. The letter was signed by their former comrade Lindsey German, now in Counterfire. It is terrible to see that the SWP failed to sign, or support, the letter.
The SWP tradition
Terrible, and rather alarming, because the SWP and its International Socialist Tendency are not just one more faction competing on the far Left. They offer the best spearhead available to advance the struggle for a better world. For the SWP places the working class at the centre of its politics in a way that is now rare. For most of the last century the Left has been littered with groups who talk about the working class but in reality look to police states, romantic guerrillas or left-wing union officials and parliamentarians. The SWP by contrast has always focused on actual workers in offices, factories, mines, transport systems and so on. In this sense they follow the politics of Marx and Engels in a way almost all other groups have not. This approach allowed them to go on developing their ideas as world events unfolded, escaping the ossified dogmatism of some Trotskyist sects. It meant they gave zero support to Stalinist regimes that crushed their own working classes. The SWP sees the “vanguard party” not as some detached all-knowing elite but as a section of the working class itself, which must continuously prove its claim to leadership (and it realises that such a party has not really existed since the 1920s, but must be recreated). In this sense the SWP is following the politics of Lenin and Trotsky in a way most other claimants do not.
The SWP has worked tirelessly, during the difficult and demoralising decades on neoliberalism, to nurture every spark of working class resistance they can. This approach remains evident in the article on the PCS quoted above, which offers a sober assessment of workplace organisation and carefully thought-out, concrete steps for how the rank and file can advance.
Is there any dissent within the SWP membership on gender ideology? I know of at least one current member of the IS Tendency who has submitted critical letters to SWP publications that were not published. Socialist Worker has published three letters supporting the current party line on the Morning Star letter, and none opposing it, that I am aware of. It is time for the SWP to reconsider this issue, and acknowledge and debate with left-wing critics.
The punch-a-terf, kill-a-terf message pervades social media, always righteously delivered, chin held high. By contrast, the dehumanised “terfs” themselves, that is gender-critical feminists, rarely if ever urge violence against opponents either literally or figuratively. The talk of violence is all on one side. In this as in other ways, gender ideology has introduced new, alien elements into progressive politics.
In Britain this year the talk of violence has turned into action: there have been a series of physical attacks on gender critical feminists from transgender activists (and no physical attacks on trans activists by feminists). The immediate context is the current debate over proposed changes to Britain’s Gender Recognition Act (GRA), which would make it easier for people born as males to be legally acknowledged as females and thus, critics fear, have readier access to female-only spaces.
In early July The Morning Star published a letter headed “Improving the climate of debate around proposed changes to the Gender Recognition Act”. Those signing the letter make it clear that they have “a variety of positions” on the proposed GRA changes; the letter was simply a call for “action within our movement to allow debate to take place”. It was signed by a long list of people including union leaders Len McCluskey and Mark Serwotka, Fire Brigade Union official Paul Embery, and Kiri Tunks, Nation Union of Teachers Vice-President. It was also signed by Lindsey German, a leading member of the Left group Counterfire. The letter states in part:
You may be aware that on April 13 this year, an activist, Tara Wood was convicted of the assault by beating of Maria MacLachlan, a 60-year-old woman who had gathered with others in order to attend a meeting at which they could discuss the potential impact on women and girls of such a change to the law.
On March 8, an incident also occurred on a Bectu picket line in which trans activists, with no connection to the industrial dispute itself, mobbed and verbally attacked a female trade union member on the basis of having recognised her as an attendee at a similar meeting.
And in late April women in Bristol looking to meet and discuss changes to the Gender Recognition Act were met with masked activists blocking entrances to the venue, and deliberately intimidating those wishing to go inside.
More recently, a meeting organised by Woman’s Place UK was targeted with a bomb threat which Hastings Police are investigating as a serious incident.
These cases are part of systematic attempts to shut down meetings organised by women at which they can discuss potential legislative changes and the impact these may have on any sex-based rights already enshrined in law.
They draw the whole of our progressive movement into disrepute.
Some trans rights activists even continue to justify the use of violence, meaning that many women are simply too frightened to attend meetings that are both public and lawful in order that they may discuss their own rights.
Other women, including ordinary women concerned for their rights, as well as those active within the trade union movement and other political campaigns, are also now anxious and fearful that they will be subjected to such attacks when engaging in any political activity, meetings, or protests.
Those who signed the letter have provided much needed leadership. They’ve not only condemned violence within the workers’ and wider progressive movement, they’ve also made that condemnation more meaningful by saying who carried out the attacks.
However, a week later the Socialist Party website published an angry response from three party members who hold leadership positions in Mark Serwotka’s union, the PCS (Public and Commercial Services Union). They argue that “the letter seems to do precisely the opposite to that alluded to in its title”.
The SP statement opposes political violence around the GRA in general terms, without saying who was actually being violent, or that the violence was carried out entirely from one side. Later it complains that the Morning Star letter is “listing only a series of incidents without any attempt to balance them… At no point does the letter acknowledge that, when it comes to violent and threatening behaviour, the vast majority of trans people are unquestionably the victims, not the perpetrators of this kind of behaviour.” In other words, the issue of violence as a political tool against progressive opponents is blurred with, and subordinated to, the issue of violence suffered by transgender people in the general population.
Trans people certainly suffer from discrimination, ranging from vile personal put-downs through to beatings and murder (stemming from their defiance of the most traditional form of sex stereotyping, based on the view that sex of birth should naturally produce feminine behaviour in females and masculinity in males). In this respect they are similar to most if not all oppressed groups, including women (and as the SP statement says, it’s unhelpful to have “different interest groups competing for who is ‘most oppressed'”). But only transgender suffering is routinely used as a manipulative device to silence debate.
Debate between transgender activists and gender-feminists is not entirely absent (see eg The Economist‘s current online forum on transgender). Nevertheless, trans activists have devoted a lot of energy and resources to suppressing debate, by trying to shut down meetings organised by feminist critics, as the Morning Star letter also points out. This involves a range of tactics, such as threatening venues with adverse publicity for hosting gender-critical feminist events, or flooding the organisers with fake bookings (see for example “Making sure a woman’s place is on the platform”, Socialist Feminist Network 29 Nov 2017).
The silencing spreads to the far Left itself in a more subtle way. When there is a dispute between gender-critical feminists and gender ideologists, a great many articles in the Left media (the vast majority, as far as I can see) simply refuse to articulate the concerns of the feminists. Many Left groups loudly defend women’s rights around most issues, but go as quiet as mice as soon as transgender enters the frame. The SP statement offers an example. “Unfortunately,” it says, “the first signatories to the Morning Star letter, Judith Green and Ruth Serwotka, are among those who argue that GRA reform itself is an attack on women. We do not believe it is.” End of story: no articulation of left wing feminists’ concerns around transgender or the GRA, not even to rebut those concerns. The SP statement then devotes space to other topics, voicing progressive positions on women at work, rape, childcare, women’s refuges and so on.
Are there really no legitimate issues of concern to women around transgender? None at all? Take the question of women-only spaces. For the sake of argument let’s say it’s fine for a self-ID’d, burly bearded male-bodied “woman” to walk in on a 14 year old “cis-privileged” girl getting changed. But at the very least, shouldn’t we give some space to acknowledge why some feminists might be worried – eg by noting that females have to fight a lifetime of social conditioning to be passive, nice and uncomplaining; that they live their lives aware of violence against women; that in the event of an attack the woman’s version of events is often doubted? On other issues that divide progressives, eg Brexit, the far Left media is usually careful to acknowledge the concerns of each side. On issues like sex work they often take a nuanced view. The silence is specific to transgender politics.
Behind the silence on the Left is the fear of antagonising transgender activists and their huge support base among progressive-minded youth (a crucial part of which comes from the mainstreaming of gender ideology by the bosses’ media). As for the silence of trans activists themselves on feminist concerns, it seems to come partly from sexism but also from the weak theoretical foundations of their own belief system, and the contradiction between its progressive and conservative elements. A movement that sees itself as progressive, but which relies fundamentally on sex stereotyping, cannot afford to look at itself too closely. Hence the constant push away from political dialogue with progressive opponents, towards manipulative appeals around transgender suffering and organisational moves to close down debate.
Unity in struggle
The SP statement says that the viewpoint of feminists Judith Green and Ruth Serwotka “detracts from the struggle against the real enemy – capitalism and a society run by and for the 1% – and puts up barriers to the kind of united struggle that we need.” But unity is built by acknowledging the needs and concerns of oppressed groups, not papering them over. The document says:
We live in a capitalist society where wealth and power are concentrated in the hands of a tiny few; to change that requires a powerful united movement of all the oppressed; with the organised working class at its core.
Yes indeed. But the SP statement discredits Marxism by using its language to bury the issues around women’s oppression that gender-critical feminists try to raise. Unfortunately this approach currently prevails on the Left and has succeeded in alienating many left wing feminists. (It is therefore a great relief that at least some sections of the Left take a better line, with the Morning Star allowing space to gender-critical progressives, and Lindsey German putting her name to the call for open debate around the GRA.)
When workers do finally go back onto the political offensive, more and more working class women will challenge all forms of their oppression, including sex-stereotyping, and including the specific form of sex-stereotyping on which gender ideology is founded. That reliance on stereotyping inevitably generates misogyny within the transgender camp, in a range of forms. Newly politicised women, and many men, will recognise gender sexism as a hostile force, and fight it. But it looks like they’ll find most Marxists on the other side of that battle. In doing so those socialists will be setting back the essential task of building a revolutionary workers’ party.
There is a real basis for unity, but involves challenging the dominant, conservative elements of transgender thinking. We need to support people’s right to live as a member of the opposite sex, with security and dignity, but without endorsing the sexist redefinition of womanhood that is being mainstreamed by neoliberalism and its corporate media.
In The Guardian 15 Dec 2017 Owen Jones wrote that transgender people face a “relentless media campaign” against them, and are “desperately lacking in influential media allies”:
A Daily Telegraph front page this week was headlined “‘Trans’ survey for 10-year-olds”. The article took issue with the NHS for asking whether children were “comfortable in their gender”. And so we’re back to the 1980s arguments behind Section 28, which barred the “promotion” of homosexuality in schools… Consider these recent headlines.“The transgender zealots are destroying truth itself”, screeched the Mail on Sunday. “The skirt on the drag queen goes swish swish swish”, wailed the Sun, adding “Trans classes for kids age 2” for good measure. “Church: let little boys wear tiaras”, howled the Daily Mail, describing “New advice on transgender bullying for C of E schoolteachers”.
Is the corporate media truly hostile to gender ideology?
What the corporate media actually says
First some reality orientation. Media research has been undertaken by Transgender Trend, in an attempt to account for the soaring number of children being referred to gender reassignment clinics.
We decided to take a section of the media – the UK national daily newspapers – not only to find out the number of articles about ‘transgender kids’ published between April 1 2016 – March 31 2017, but to analyse the content of those articles in order to understand the actual message which the ‘general public’ has been receiving over the twelve-month period….
The researchers identified an “uncontested belief in gender and sex-role stereotypes as evidence that a child is really the opposite sex”, referenced in 22 of the 27 articles on child transitioning. They also found that:
…the caution expressed by clinicians in the articles about gender clinics is not making its way over into other news stories; there is very little note of caution in the child transition stories… It is not, therefore, that editors are unaware of at least some of the risks and questions around diagnosing and treating children as ‘transgender’ but that they choose largely to minimise them and continue to publish cheer-leading child transition stories as if the issue is settled.
Critical articles tended to focus on “political correctness”, particularly involving schools. For example:
The Daily Mail published more articles which were critical or balanced (such as this one) but this was offset by the number of uncritical/celebratory transition stories (such as this). The Sun followed the same pattern, critical of ‘politically correct’ policies in schools (like this) but encouraging of childhood transition (this for example). The Express was also critical of school policies (here) but totally unconcerned about young girls ‘socially transitioning’ at home and school (here).
From this evidence base they conclude:
It is the media which has facilitated the speedy public ‘acceptance and recognition’ of not just ‘transgender and gender diverse people’ but the completely new belief that children are ‘transgender,’ together with the idea that invasive medical intervention is a necessity.
In other words the corporate media studied in this research heavily endorsed the core idea of gender ideology: that there is a gender identity in us all, which is defined through sex stereotypes, and which for the great majority of people closely aligns with their birth sex. In other words it naturalises sex-stereotypic appearances, habits, restrictions and behaviour. By implication, discontent with stereotypes now marks you out as part of a small, sharply defined minority. The researchers add:
Celebratory media coverage of ‘trans kids’ has continued unabated since the Tavistock referral figures were announced this time last year, with ‘serious’ publications like Time magazine and the National Geographic getting in on the act with glossy promotional features.
This coincides with the wholesale replacement of “sex” by “gender” now taking place in the language used in government, neoliberal public and private institutions, and of course the media: “gender” having a vaguely radical connotation for a small minority, while for the rest, the great mass of people, it continues to link males to masculinity and females to all things feminine.
There are many forces committed to transgender ideas, such as postmodern academia and various kinds of “gender specialists”, but none of them have even a fraction of the reach of the corporate media. This trend, as a mass, normalised phenomenon, has been brought to us by the capitalist class.
What the bosses do and don’t need from gender ideology
The capitalist class has every reason to champion the core idea of gender ideology. It cherishes the underlying message that females are naturally feminine, naturally nurturers, naturally inferior. What the bosses need is a way to keep the mass of working women from challenging their role as unpaid drudges in the home, unpaid maintainers of today’s and tomorrow’s wage slaves, at a time when women have flooded into the workforce and can see every day that they are equal to men. Then there are the added secondary benefits of accepting lower pay, and profits for the cosmetics and fashion industries.
For these reasons the capitalist class has abandoned the old biology-is-destiny notions that XX chromosomes lead directly to lipstick and kitchen aprons. Individual bosses may lament this, but the old ideas simply won’t wash in today’s world. In gender ideology they have a more sophisticated way to preserve female stereotyping.
Centuries of propaganda mean that the old ideas linger in the minds of many ordinary people. Opportunist politicians, notably Trump, sometimes find it convenient to play to this gallery, but this does not reflect the underlying reality within major conservative parties like the US Republicans, where gender ideology is “pitting the party’s pro-business branch against social conservatives“.
While the bosses gain from the core ideas of gender ideology, they derive no added benefit from other, unfolding features of trans thinking or the fruits of trans activism, such as censorship and no-platforming, and disputes over woman-only spaces. (As for the actual protection of vulnerable trans individuals from abuse or violence, they couldn’t give a damn.) Even celebrations of child transitioning are only useful insofar as they carry the message that we are all naturally pink or blue inside. The bosses feel no need to support every twist and turn of gender ideology.
There are in fact several reasons why the corporate media might find fault with some aspects of transgender and gender-fluid politics. One is to appease the social conservative section of their audiences, hence the rant by Peter Hitchens in the Sunday Mail that Owen Jones complained of. Another is gender ideology’s entanglement with the Left. And thirdly, elements of this new ideology sit uneasily with the liberal values of some journalists and commentators. These latter two factors will now be discussed.
The attack from the Right
Gender ideology is championed by most progressives and the Left, as previously discussed on this blog. This makes some aspects of gender ideology a target for the tabloids: they hate identity and intersectional politics because it draws attention to many kinds of inequality and suffering inherent to capitalism. They also know that within this this milieu there are far-left activists to keep an eye on. So their coverage reflects the split noted in Transgender Trend’s research: “born-in-wrong-body” good, “political correctness” bad.
The same division has been evident in the Australian media. The Australian, Murdoch’s national flagship, ran a campaign against Safe Schools, an anti-bullying program funded to bring gender ideology into schools, which had some far-Left involvement. At the same time the regionally-based Murdoch papers, with a much larger total circulation, have affirmed gender ideology. A partial exception is the NSW Daily Telegraph, which has combined both approaches. For example it cited Catherine McGregor, “Australia’s most senior ranking transgender military officer” and winner of an Order of Australia award, who initially opposed the Safe Schools program, declaring:
Safe Schools teaches a derivative of Queer Theory, which I believe leads trans people into a blind alley. Most of us transition because gender is important to us and we feel torn between our anatomy and our psychology.
This attack on transgender political correctness has also been joined by more sophisticated right wing outlets like the Spectator and Quillette which have tried, with some success, to win over gender-critical feminists who have been so badly abused by their traditional allies in the Left and in the LGB community.
In Britain there is a further reason to attack gender-related political correctness in the mass media. Jeremy Corbyn’s support for gender ideology has occasionally been used against him as a small part of the corporate media’s campaign to bring Corbyn down by any means possible. His agenda has given hope to millions of ordinary working people, ground down by neoliberal austerity: they are starting to lift their heads, got off their knees: that has to stop. His personal integrity and talent have made him hard to slander so it is a matter of throwing any kind of mud at him and hoping some sticks: antisemitism, transgenderism, whatever works.
The strains on liberalism
Editors, commentators and journalists in the broadcast and print media broadly follow the needs and interests of their corporate overlords, but they do so within a belief-system that they take seriously. There are points of friction between gender ideology and the ideals of liberal democracy, leading to certain challenges from journalists such as Janice Turner and Andrew Gilligan in Britain’s Times and Sunday Times.
There is of course a liberal case for gender ideology: defend persecuted groups; it is simply decent to accept transwomen into women’s spaces (trustworthy sources say they pose no threat); give kids freedom to choose their identities.
Liberals do like free speech, though. Yet any attempts to question gender identity are said to be comparable to gay conversion therapy and so deserve to be silenced, and trans-critical women’s liberationists are haters who should be physically threatened and shut down, even when speaking on unrelated issues.
Liberals support women’s spaces to defend women’s safety and dignity, based on a “common-sense” amalgam of right wing ideas that women are naturally and eternally vulnerable and “different” with left wing ideas that women in our society face discrimination and therefore harassment. Well, it is one thing to open women’s spaces to post-op transwomen, another to let in those who are self-identified, maybe bearded, with no interest in physical transitioning. But since they too have a mystical inner identity as women, they must be allowed to self-id, without a humiliating bureaucratic rigmarole, and have every right to walk in on a 14 year old “cis-privileged” girl getting changed.
Liberals tend toward a humanism that accepts, for example, the evidence base of developmental child psychology. But gender identity thinking says clinicians should never question children who “choose” to take the path toward surgery, sterility and life-long drug dependency. If we all have a mystical gender identity it exists in toddlers as well tweens and adults. Kinder kids should be taught so.
The truly remarkable thing is how few liberal commentators have picked up on these and other points of tension, especially considering the sheer, stupendous extent of the changes demanded by the trans lobby, and the pressures it has put on liberal thinking: such is the hegemony of gender ideology, thanks to support from the ruling class and the lack of challenge from the Left. But the more push-back there is against gender sexism, the more liberal commentators will respond to the ways in which it clashes with liberal values. In Britain, some of this push-back has come from gender-critical women’s liberationists, who are better organised than elsewhere.
Freer Lives now includes a link to a new page, on its left hand menu, called Archived posts grouped by topic, so that previous articles can be searched more easily by subject. It includes some reposts from other sites, which are of course acknowledged. It should be read in conjunction with the other pages on the blog menu, on women’s oppression, sex role stereotyping and the top-down history of the transgender trend.
The topic headings are:
- Elite support for the trans trend
- The Left and gender ideology
- Soothing left wing sensibilities (how the liberal media soothes readers who are uneasy about the sex-stereotypes and other sexism in gender ideology)
- The progressive side of the trans trend, and its limits
- Gender-critical progressives and the Right
- Gender identity, biology, defining women, women’s spaces
- The new women’s movement
- No-platforming and harassment of feminist critics.
Increasingly, anyone who identifies as a woman can access female-only spaces, compete in women’s sport (see eg here and here) and represent women within public and private organisations. These changes are part of the mainstreaming of the transgender trend, and its normalisation by the corporate media (see eg here and here). The mystical idea of gender identity is rapidly being codified in law and statements of public policy where “gender” is replacing “sex”. For information about Britain, see here and here. But this is a worldwide trend, as James Robb points out:
For example, in most provinces of Canada there is no longer an requirement for people to have had gender reassignment surgery in order to change their legal sex designation; Denmark and Argentina have made a similar change. Ontario is likely to issue ‘gender-neutral’ birth certificates by 2018. A government committee has recently recommended a change along similar lines in New Zealand.
These changes raise the broader question of how women are to be defined and understood in our society. This is a political issue for everyone who opposes female oppression. Feminist women, like most women, don’t take well to be being lectured by men about who and what they are. I hope this post is understood as a comradely contribution to a key issue in the struggle for a better world.
The post looks at different political understandings of woman and women’s spaces, how the trans phenomenon has impacted, and where to go from here.
The traditional conservative view
Traditionally women have been seen as those born female and who naturally incline to feminine appearance and behaviour. As a group of Lithuanian MPs put it, “masculinity and femininity” are “imprinted in all parts of human body, its organs and tissues”. The argument is rarely spelled like this; it is more often a “common sense” assumption.
Historically this view has been associated with the confinement of women, physically to the home and ideologically to family-related concerns. James Robb points out that the fight for women’s toilets was taken up by women in nineteenth century Britain as part of the struggle to take part in public life. He adds that the “lack of female-only toilets in schools is a particular focus of campaigns in India by organisations such as Child Rights and You (CRY), which argue that this is an important reason that girls drop out of school.” Within an oppressive society, separate spaces mean more freedom for females.
But in the west, as women pressed forward into public life, separate female spaces were sometimes associated with the idea of inherent female vulnerability. As Alwyn Collinson says:
From the mid-19th century, [British] workplaces, railway carriages, even banks were often gender-segregated. Smaller, more cosily-decorated spaces were cordoned off for ladies to protect the ‘weaker sex’ from contact with the masculine world of business and public pleasure. (Museum of London website 6 September 2017)
Today the traditional common-sense conservative rationale for women’s spaces preserves the assumption that ladies need protection due to natural frailties.
The Left and feminist position, pre-trans
Feminists, Marxists and other leftists supported woman-only spaces on a different basis – not to protect females’ supposedly innate delicacy and mystique but as a partial defense against women’s oppression: within a sexist society males’ generally greater strength and height poses a threat; females are socialised into body-shame, self-blame, and passivity. Prior to the trans trend this was a general understanding on the Left.
It was accepted that female biology, within a sexist society, condemns women inescapably to sex-based dangers, restrictions, objectification, and oppressive socialisation, which individual females internalise to different degrees. Supporting separate spaces for women was part of fighting women’s oppression and therefore it advanced unity in struggle.
But for radical feminists biology is also the dividing line between oppressor and oppressed. They argue that a system of patriarchy has survived intact through different economic epochs, so women as a sex need to organise against it. Most Marxists on the other hand say that women’s oppression has continued through different forms of class society only because each new ruling class has found women’s subjugation useful, once adapted to its own, new way of doing things (just as Christianity has taken on different content in ancient slave states, feudalism and capitalism). They argue women’s oppression can only be overcome by the working class as a whole, while recognising that this will require a sustained struggle against sexism within its ranks.
The capitalist class and its woman problem
Before looking at how the trans trend has altered things, it is crucial to understand the role and interests of the capitalist class, and the issues that women pose for it.
In the 1940s capitalism still needed women to spend most of their time at home to maintain today’s and tomorrow’s wage slaves. So at the end of world war 2 women were driven out of wartime jobs. But during the next two decades a sustained economic boom drew more and more women into the workforce and higher levels of education, and this brought a deep cultural shift. In the public sphere women increasingly realised that they were equal to men, and not so very different. Drives for equal pay began. Women resented the double burden of wage work and unpaid work at home. This growing confidence and anger fed into the radical era of the late 1960s and strengthened the women’s liberation movement. When recession and mass unemployment returned in the mid 1970s the cultural and economic shift had gone too far to bundle women back into the home. Indeed sackings were often in blue collar industries where swathes of the “patriarchy” were hard hit.
Women’s new life experience in the workplace is a major headache for the capitalist class. Yes it wants them in jobs, but it also relies on women’s perception of themselves as inferior and natural nurturers, so that they still accept the huge burden of unpaid work, the great bulk if it in the family home. For example: the Australian Bureau of Statistics has valued unpaid work at $434 billion, or 43.5% of Australia’s GDP (2006 figures). Most of this is done by women, of course, as Australian Labor politician Tanya Plibersek recently emphasised.
Citing the 2016 census figures, Plibersek said the average woman did 14 hours of housework and family organisation per week and the average man fewer than five, while women did three quarters of the child care, and 70 per cent of caring for elderly or disabled family members or friends. (Making Women’s Unpaid Work Count, The Monthly May 2018)
Indeed the bosses want to add to this burden, as they shrink the welfare state. And women’s continued oppression obviously has huge secondary benefits: profits from fashion and cosmetics and from unequal pay, divisions within the working class, etc. For all these reasons the bosses will never accept women’s liberation. How then can they deal with women’s greater confidence and anger?
One way has been to channel women’s discontent toward individualism and liberal feminism. This is managed by an army of editors, tame journalists, think tank experts, by everyone in its propaganda machine; for these people the needs of capitalism and the wishes of their lords and masters constrain what they say and write and, above all, what they allow themselves to think.
Fortunately for the bosses, a new and wonderfully cool form of sexism has now fallen into their lap, reinforcing old stereotypes and therefore the belief in female inferiority. The corporate media and indeed all the public and private institutions of capitalism have seized on this new trend (as previously discussed here and here), and carried it from the margins to the social mainstream.
The transgender view of women and female-only spaces
Transgender ideology says a woman is anyone who deeply feels themselves to be so.
This breaks from the idea that our biology of birth destines us for naturally sex-stereotypic appearance and behaviour. To that extent it shakes up old ways of thinking. It offers one particular way for individuals to escape the sex-stereotypic expectations they were born to. It leads to clashes with social conservatives, and persecution and danger for trans individuals (especially if they sex workers, from oppressed ethnic minorities, or in central and South America: see eg here and here). It gives trans politics progressive credentials, and partly explains its endorsement by most feminists, leftists, liberals and same-sex attracted people.
But the trans trend acts far more as a Trojan horse to disseminate right wing sexist ideas within progressive ranks. Right inevitably dominates left in trans thinking because it relies absolutely on sex stereotypes that are maintained by capitalism for the benefit of capitalism. Female femininity is once again declared to be natural and unchallengeable, though it is now based in a mystical knowledge of one’s inner self (in reality, this is nothing more than the internalisation of a lifetime’s experiences of how females and males are defined. The Marxists who should be explaining this are instead cobbling together pitiful and half-hearted “materialist” justifications for gender identity. See earlier discussion on this blog, also this article.)
Most importantly, trans ideology says that biology aligns with innate gender identity for the vast majority of people. To be a girly girl becomes once again natural and right; it is not due to female socialisation; there is no reason to protest. It is this right wing side of trans thinking that the corporate mass media runs with (it cares far less about trans deaths or harassment by police, for example) and it is these ideas that constitute the message of the trans trend for the great majority of people. Left wing trans activists rarely if ever denounce this celebration of sexist typecasting: to do so would cut too deeply into trans ideology. (It is fine to sneer at Bruce-to-Caitlyn Jenner for being a rich right wing Republican, but not for flaunting crass stereotypes.) Nor do other radical leftists denounce it: to do so would alienate them from trans activists and their host of supporters. The Trojan horse at work.
James Robb is absolutely correct to say that “this particular form of identity politics sets itself squarely against some of the key conquests of the women’s movement and its strengthening of the working class.”
Men and women have every right to adopt the identity of the other sex, as a particular, individual way to escape the stifling expectations they were born to. The problem starts when “woman” itself is redefined: a gigantic shift, which has only occurred, and has only been remotely thinkable, thanks to full support from the capitalist class.
For these reasons, it is wrong to see the battle over woman-only spaces simply as a contest between trans rights and women’s rights, between two groups concerned with competing agendas over safety and privacy. At base, it is one front in the bosses’ battle to maintain sexism, and thus the subordination of all working class women.
The emerging women’s movement
Centred in Britain, a new women’s movement is slowly forcing its way forward, dealing with the distinctive forms of oppression women face in the neoliberal era, including the anti-woman politics of transgender.
The fight to have or retain women-only spaces is one of their demands. This means resisting the right of entry of men who identify as female, and also the growing interest in gender-neutral facilities. For example, firefighter Lucy Masoud takes up the issue of women’s battle for female facilities in fire stations, a demand backed by the London section of the Fire Brigades Union. She also describes the opposition by management and managers’ efforts to pit male and females members against one another. She adds:
And now, thanks to the current push for gender-neutral toilets our hard fought battle for privacy for all may have been for nothing… there are managers out there who are watching this current political landscape very closely and will jump at the chance to cut costs and save money on stations by getting rid of female accommodation altogether and instead installing gender-neutral toilets, changing areas and dormitories. Gender-neutral toilets and shared changing facilities may tick the box for [the] Stonewall index, but it will be at the expense of female firefighters.
Feminists in this emerging movement point out that the transgender conception of woman relies on sex stereotypes. They sometimes add that such a definition obscures the oppressive socialisation that shapes the lives of natal females from their earliest years.
Biology, feminism, the Left and the Right
These feminists also point out that female biology makes oppression inescapable for females of all ages and in all places within our current society: womanhood is not a choice or performance.
But the focus on biology also reflects the politics of patriarchy, the idea that sex itself crucially divides male oppressor from female oppressed. When seen in these terms, the transwomen activists who attack feminist meetings or abuse women online can easily be seen as representing men in general. And when women’s oppression is seen in these terms, women cannot hope to gain liberation just by fighting for their interests alongside men within the wider struggle for socialism.
Such a view has been enormously boosted by the leftists’ and liberals’ response to trans-critical feminists: no-platforming, physical and verbal abuse, hypocritical evasions, sly manoeuvres, and a complete refusal to admit to the issues of women’s rights that these feminists try to raise.
These leftists and liberals are keenly aware of the dangers, suffering and prejudice experienced by trans people; those who are also same-sex attracted might feel a particular empathy. But the complete intolerance and the refusal of any dialogue with trans critics has other sources. They include the acceptance of gender-identity mysticism; the general atmosphere of identity politics, which emphasises division over unity; the confidence that comes from ruling class support; the frisson of radicalism generated by having social conservative enemies; and not least, the capitulation of the Marxist Left on this issue.
The most notable feature of the attack on trans critical feminists is its misogyny. The “punch/kill a terf” slogans and calling trans-critical women “cunts” have been taken up with glee (see also here, or the overview here).
This atmosphere seems to pervade the Left within the British Labour Party. In March this year, feminist writer Harvey Jeni pleaded with the Party to “take a serious stand against this deliberate intimidation and degradation of female members and voters.” Such pleas have been ignored. This had led many left-inclined feminists to quit the Labour Party, just as individual feminist women have felt driven from the Left across the world (here is one moving example from New Zealand).
The Left is not a monolith. The Morning Star newspaper has given space to trans-critical feminists. The British SWP’s publications have not, but the party does argue that progressives should not “clamp down on dissenting views on, say, sex work or trans politics. These ideas should be openly debated.” This is consistent with the SWP tendency’s long-standing support for women’s liberation, highlighted today for example in its support for abortion rights in Ireland. Regrettably, the SWP has not taken a stand against sexism within the pro-trans Left: in a key recent piece on trans politics the author simply “prefers” not to use the term terf, without denouncing the menacing misogyny that so obviously surrounds it.
But while most of the Left stamps on the new women’s movement, sections of the Right have smiled on it, as previously discussed on this blog. Whether alt-Right (eg here) or social conservative (eg here), whether sincere or slimy, the Right explains the trans trend in terms of the moral degeneracy of western liberalism; for them it is purely a cultural phenomenon. (And like some trans-critical feminists, they sometimes see the trans trend as a social contagion or passing fad: completely unrealistic given transgender’s deep value to the capitalist class).
The Right does not want to talk about the oppressive socialisation women experience, since this leads to places they don’t want to go. But they are very happy to talk about biology, because for them it leads back to more traditional biologically-justified forms of sexism; they don’t even have to articulate this argument, since it is the default “common sense” unless explicitly challenged. The Right can also find common ground with trans critical feminists on attacks on free speech (eg here) and on opposition to child sterilisation (see eg this report from a very brave doctor, published however in the right wing Daily Mail, a paper which in 2015 urged a vote for UKIP in three constituencies).
The Right is no friend of women. And any compromise trans-critical progressives make with the Right is sure to be exploited by left wing apologists for trans sexism. So it is important to differentiate trans-critical progressives from the Right’s agenda, at every opportunity.
But rather than wag a finger at hard-pressed women’s liberationists, Marxists should start cleaning up the dog’s breakfast of confusion, capitulation, and evasion on this issue within the Left.