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.