Last year Philip or Pip Bunce, a male-born gender-fluid executive, was listed in the “top 100 female champions” of women in business by the Financial Times, the closest thing there is to an official media mouthpiece for Britain’s ruling class. It is a handy enough symbol of elite support for gender ideology, whatever you think of Bunce. The bosses are responsible for the mainstreaming of the transgender trend, and determine its political impact, carried through via establishment political parties like the Tories and US Democrats, managers of public and private bureaucracies, and the corporate media. This is often pointed out by gender critical progressives and is the core argument in Freer Lives.
The capitalist class and its woman problem
The core reason for this support lies in the bosses’ tricky relationship with women. The capitalist class relies on the family to maintain today’s and tomorrow’s wage slaves free of charge. As the welfare state is cut back and the population ages, the system’s demand for this free work is growing. Theoretically the burden could be lumped equally onto men and women, but the deep historical roots of sexism makes it overwhelmingly easier to keep the bulk of it on women’s shoulders. So for the bosses it is vital that women should continue to see themselves as inferior and as natural nurturers and homemakers. At the same time, they want women as wage slaves. Yet in the workplace women confront everyday sexism and the stupidity of over-promoted male managers, even as they themselves gain high-level skills and knowledge, and take part in far wider discussions of social and political issues than women last century, who were much more often confined to the home. This makes today’s women far more likely to challenge their oppression, including, potentially, the burden of unpaid labor.
For the bosses there is no single solution to this contradiction. What we do see is a string of ideological concessions characteristic of the neoliberal era and reflected in news and commentary, books films and TV: yes women have the right to get ahead individually, yes lots of men are contemptible, and gross physical abuse is not on. But while you watch super-heroines and Disney princesses kick male ass, you must remain feminine, wasp-waisted, a sex object, house-tidier and child nurturer. Gender ideology, with its impeccably progressive credentials, has been taken up and used as another strand in this ideological net: sex stereotypes are cool again.
This does not translate into unqualified, block support for every aspect of gender ideology and the transgender trend: some parts of the elite (the capitalist class and its most senior political servants) have some, limited, objections. Firstly, some conservative media barons have drawn a distinction between the trans’ trend’s “good” and “bad” features. Born-into-the-wrong body ideas are good, because they are so sexist, defining women and girls as inherently feminine. But some of the public programs that propagandise for these same ideas, including school-based programs, are bad, since they link transgender to identity politics and the left, and hence to the need for social change. Secondly, sections of the elite may feel uneasy that the unexpected surge in demand for gender reassignment will end up having serious cost implications.
But perhaps the most important issue, from the elite’s viewpoint, is that gender ideology has to do the job, and help reconcile today’s working women to the burden of unpaid labour in the home. All that is thrown into the air if a new women’s movement rises to its feet and begins to engage with or even mobilise wide strata of ordinary women against the new gender sexism. Under that scenario the disruptive impact of the trans phenomenon might start to look like a liability to some bosses. In Britain, gender-critical feminists have made enough impact to put that scenario on the horizon. Their pressure is also pushing liberal sections of the corporate media to hedge their bets, and move to keep up with shifting opinion, by opening some space to the views of gender critical progressives.
Opposition on the right
Beside the elite, there is also some push-back against gender ideology from right wing political formations. The opposition takes a range of forms and involves several overlapping constituencies. Social conservatives have never budged from the idea that biology is the basis for females’ femininity, and rail against gender ideology, abortion and gay rights in the same breath. Some right-of-centre liberals are uneasy about gender ideology’s intrusions upon free speech and civic order, the safety and dignity of women and girls (seen through a right wing lens) and surgical and chemical modification of healthy young bodies. Around the edges of all this, certain right wingers see an opportunity to work with gender-critical feminists, and perhaps win them over, or use them to hurt the left.
The pro-gender left
The pro-gender left have a very different take. They tend to present elite support for gender ideology as either the result of pressure from below, acceptance of the inevitable, common sense, or the result of cultural change sweeping through all social classes. When elite support is mentioned at all, it is usually in very vague terms. (As Roz Kaveney put it in a Guardian article 2017: “the [Tory] government is planning new rules to make it easier for trans people to self-identify their gender… If it seems odd that Theresa May’s government is going to do something this humane and sensible: well, they have to do something.”) By contrast, they seize on any sign of elite opposition to gender ideology as evidence that they are fighting the big end of town.
The fact that the neoliberal right champions gender ideology is also passed over. Instead they focus only on the bigotry of social conservatives and the far right, to present gender ideology as progressive. Feminists and leftists critical of gender ideology are denounced as hindering the fight against this bigotry.
The pro-gender left are not looking reality in the face.
Future posts in this series will look in more detail at the different forms of elite and right wing opposition to gender ideology, and how the left should respond.