The last article described the reasons why the capitalist class supports the core ideas of gender ideology, particularly the central, mystical concept of gender identity; but it also discussed points of potential divergence between gender ideology and the bosses’ interests, which have created space for opposition from some sections of the right. The current article looks at the rise of right-of-centre liberal opposition.
Almost all liberal criticism of gender ideology has come from the right of centre. A notable example is The Economist. Its breezy endorsement of the trans trend in 2015 (see previous post) has been replaced by well-articulated concerns. These were expressed in a lead article 27 October 2018 (paywall) and the more detailed briefing 25 October 2018 (paywall). Two months later the journal’s finance editor, Helen Joyce, wrote a piece about gender ideology in the right wing website Quillette covering much the same ground. All this follows a series of invited essays in The Economist earlier in the year, where views considered transphobic by gender ideologists were included. The journal also raised some concerns the year before: see leader (paywall, full text here) and briefing (paywall, full text here) both 16 November 17.
Stereotypes have come roaring back
The Economist points out that “outdated gender stereotypes have come roaring back under self-id” (leader 2018); “once you abandon anatomy, attempts to help children determine for themselves whether they are boys or girls soon fall back on stereotypes: if you’re a leader and planner you’re a boy; if you’re nurturing and a gossip you’re a girl” (briefing 2018). The surge in the number of girls visiting gender clinics may be “because some girls ‘seem unable to find a place for themselves in a sea of sparkly pink princess dresses, and then, after puberty, in a hypersexualised pop culture.’” (briefing 2017) Puberty blockers then “start a cascade of intervention, in which almost every child given them goes on to take cross-sex hormones… Advocacy groups commonly say that children asked to wait are likely to kill themselves. There is little or no evidence for this.” (briefing 2018).
In defence of women’s spaces, it points out that men “commit almost all sexual crimes… Were just 1% of the men in prison in Britain for sexual crimes to identify as women, it would double the number of women in prison for such offences…There is no reason to think that identifying as a woman makes a male any less dangerous (or any more)… By contrast, there is every reason to think that predatory males will claim to be trans in order to commit crimes more easily.” (briefing 2018) The magazine further points to the stifling of opposition views of academics and clinicians, to disguised homophobia as a motive for transitioning, and to the demoralising intrusion of male-bodies people into women’s and girls’ sport.
It adds that young girls are now taught to doubt their own judgement and instincts, eroding their resistance to molestation. “If one child queries the presence of another of the opposite sex in a single-sex space, it is the child with concerns, if anyone, who should be removed. This protects trans people, but it teaches children that they should remain silent if something makes them feel uncomfortable or unsafe. It flouts safeguards designed to stop paedophiles insinuating themselves into children’s confidence. These were put in place only recently, after society grasped the prevalence of child sexual abuse. It is odd to loosen them.” (briefing 2018)
These are precisely the sort of issues that you would expect to concern liberals, whether left or right of centre. The remarkable thing is how few liberals of either hue have been raising such issues until fairly recently. This almost complete silence reflects the fact that gender ideology has been supported on the one hand by the bosses, and on the other hand by the identity politics milieu, heavily influenced by postmodernism and the political retreat of the working class. The fact that a right wing liberal journal like The Economist can now express concerns like these underlines the space opening up for establishment criticism of gender ideology, or at least some elements of it.
Similarly, we see The Times and Sunday Times allowing space for journalists like Andrew Gilligan and Janice Turner to raise concerns around free speech, the surgical and chemical mutilation of healthy children, and the intrusion of male-bodied people into women’s sports. Turner makes telling points about the violation of women’s spaces and the privileging of trans concerns over those of young girls; the imposition of affirmation-only policies and the very effective pressure stopping professionals speaking out. See for example her article Children sacrificed to appease trans lobby, The Times 11 Nov 2017 (pay wall; full text is reproduced here, along with a religious blogger’s commentary).
Further to the right, The Spectator has also criticised trans ideology. When Janice Turner’s Times article was attacked by Labour MP Stephen Doughty, James Kirkup on the Spectator’s blog defended her robustly. (1 May 2018) Another Spectator critic of gender ideology is Brendan O’Neill, who has been glowingly compared to Dutch bigot Geert Wilders and to hardline conservatives in Australia (Truth from stones – non-Christians getting it right, CultureWatch 16 June 2017).
While right-of-centre liberal sources sometimes make powerful criticisms of the effects of gender ideology, they are much weaker in explaining the source of its current influence. The Economist, for instance, explains it in terms of social media, but why does it hold so much sway there? Unlike the campaigns for women’s or gay liberation, the trans trend has never been a mass movement on the ground; its social media base has been fed not by mass activism but by mainstream corporate outlets. Janice Turner suggests that suddenly-naïve politicians are simply “deluded” about this “craze”. The Economist and Turner both mention electoral opportunism, but this puts the cart before the horse – it is establishment forces which mainstreamed gender ideology in the first place; politicians have simply added to the deluge of “born-in-the-wrong-body” propaganda produced by the liberal and conservative media. A more likely explanation why so many politicians dote on the trans trend is that gender ideology aids the bosses by reinforcing the oppression of women, to which capitalism is addicted. But right wing commentators cannot articulate this fact, even to themselves.
So we face the bizarre, sickening situation where the sexism of gender ideology is challenged mainly from the right of centre: articles about its reinforcement of sex stereotypes, about its violation of women’s spaces, about the sterilisation of children, about the harassment and silencing of physicians, academics and women’s liberationists, are set amidst pieces attacking Corbyn, unions, indeed almost every progressive cause urging ordinary working people to get off their knees. Left wing gender ideologists naturally seize on this juxtaposition to discredit progressive opponents and justify their campaigns to silence, revile and intimidate feminist critics.
Resistance in Britain
Resistance to this situation is strongest in Britain, where an important minority of feminists and Marxists have held the line against gender ideology and are pushing back. The Marxists include the Morning Star and Weekly Worker newspapers (eg here) and Counterfire (eg here). The feminists include groups such as Women’s Place UK and the Socialist Feminist Network. These feminists have started to have an impact on the liberal left media. For example, The Guardian has finally drawn limits to its support for gender sexism (earning the ire of its counterpart in the USA, who do not as yet feel the same sort of heat).
A much sharper response has recently appeared in the liberal New Statesman (22 May 2019) where associate editor Helen Lewis has cheered on Women’s Place UK, as “a loose collection of volunteers with roots in the trade union movement… A Woman’s Place draws its organising strength from socialist women, but many feel rejected by their own side”.
Her article covers a meeting of WPUK on 20 May this year. Transgender activists have repeatedly tried to disrupt such meetings, she points out, “describing them as hate speech. Venues have cancelled Woman’s Place bookings because of protests (and their associated security costs). An event in Oxford last year attracted condemnation from the student union, which accused the group of being ‘at the centre of this past year’s violent anti-transgender rhetoric and media abuse’”. But things are changing:
Gender-critical feminism is gaining ground, after decades in the wilderness. I could feel the relief of women who are used to Twitter beastings and whispered conversations, who were now able to see there are others like them…
The most stirring speech of the night was from Selina Todd, a historian of the working class, who made the case that queer theory and the transgender movement represented a move away from collectivist politics towards individualism. “Gender was not, and is not, an identity freely chosen,” she said.
Gender critical feminists, Lewis points out, “see gender as a social force, imposed on women from outside: wear pink, do your hair, suck up all that unpaid caring labour.” By contrast, “’trans inclusive’” feminists “believe in ‘gender identity’ – an innate state of being. They use phrases such as ‘born in the wrong body’.”
No dalliance with the right
Lewis argues against the “extremists” on both sides of the trans-feminist debate, in a way that did not strike me as particularly clear or helpful. But she also makes very strong – indeed, absolutely vital – points, on the need for progressive gender critics to avoid dalliance with the right:
[Julie] Bindel has ended up writing for the Daily Mail and Unherd as much as the Guardian. Earlier this year, activists from radical feminist group the Women’s Liberation Front (unwisely, in my view) sat on a panel hosted by the US conservative Heritage Foundation, which opposes LGBT rights.
With no home on the left, gender-critical feminism must resist allying with right-wingers who share none of its wider goals.
Who share none of its wider goals, and often work actively against those goals. Social conservative bigots opposed to abortion and same-sex rights are not coming from a pro-woman place, but nor are those sections of the liberal right who are now stepping back a little from aspects of gender ideology. They are all committed to an economic agenda that has brought misery to working class women over the last four decades: more vulnerable than men in the jobs market but also suffering when their male partners face overwork or unemployment; much more heavily burdened than men with unpaid caring roles for children, for the elderly, for those with disabilities, roles which are ramping up with every new neoliberal cutback to the welfare state.
Most of the left has failed to support women’s liberationists’ battle against gender sexism. In many cases they have also supported no-platforming and gross abuse of such women. In response some feminists have developed a loathing of the left as a whole, sometimes also buying into the slander of Jeremy Corbyn as anti-semitic. But moving to the right simply aids a different and much more pervasive anti-woman agenda. It gives left-wing gender ideologists ammunition against progressive critics. It creates a roadblock to winning over large numbers of progressive women and men who are trying to make sense of the gender debate. I believe the only way ahead is to keep up the pressure on left organisations to revisit their support for gender ideology, until they too reject this slimy, neoliberal, pseudo-progressive attack on women.