Author JK Rowling has caused a sensation by defining women as biological females. She recently tweeted “‘People who menstruate.’ I’m sure there used to be a word for those people. Someone help me out. Wumben? Wimpund? Woomud?” In response to belligerent and threatening reactions, she has responded in detail on her website, in a piece simply called “J.K. Rowling writes about her reasons for speaking out on sex and gender issues” 10 June 2020.
She says: “When you throw open the doors of bathrooms and changing rooms to any man who believes or feels he’s a woman… then you open the door to any and all men who wish to come inside. That is the simple truth.”
She also challenges the “argument of many current trans activists” that “if you don’t let a gender dysphoric teenager transition, they will kill themselves”. She quotes comments from psychiatrist Marcus Evans, a former employee at the Tavistock NHS gender clinic in England, who said that such claims do not “align substantially with any robust data or studies in this area. Nor do they align with the cases I have encountered over decades as a psychotherapist.”
For such statements she was told online that “I was transphobic, I was a cunt, a bitch, a TERF, I deserved cancelling, punching and death…. Huge numbers of women are justifiably terrified by the trans activists…. They’re afraid of doxxing, of losing their jobs or their livelihoods, and of violence.” She says we are “living through the most misogynistic period I’ve experienced,” citing “the backlash against feminism and a porn-saturated online culture”, Trump, incels, and “the trans activists who declare that TERFs need punching and re-educating”.
Every progressive minded person should support Rowling’s stand. Below I want to discuss some of the key issues involved.
As Rowling says, “one of the central tenets of trans activism” is “that a person’s gender identity is innate, like sexual orientation.” Her article does not explicitly reject this notion, but she is sympathetic to academic Lisa Littman who “dared challenge” it.
Gender identity is a sexist fantasy. It is usually said to be discovered through communing with one’s inner self, but that simply draws on the sex stereotypes people have observed and internalized over a lifetime. Attempts by pro-gender Marxists to give it a material-world foundation come to nothing. Gender ideologists empty “woman” of references to biology and female socialization, and even, so they claim, sex stereotypes, but this empties the term of all meaning. In practice the emptiness is indeed filled by sex stereotypes.
Everything else in gender ideology flows from this central, sexist fantasy. If you swallow it then transwomen are truly women and deserve to be treated so; young children may be trans; lesbians and gay men may be heteros born in the wrong body; any challenge to the idea is a deep personal violation of vulnerable people. If you swallow this fantasy, Rowling’s comment “I know and love trans people” becomes weasel words.
Under this ideology, discontent with sex stereotypes suddenly becomes a minority concern. Most women’s biology aligns with their gender identity and thus naturalizes the love of lipstick, and contentment with their lot in life. The bold rebellious minority is trans, gender-fluid, etc., though, to be fair, it includes a few “gender non-conforming” or “masculine” cis-women who gratefully find shelter under the trans umbrella, staring out at the herd of boring females who happily clean and bake.
At the same time, all sex-role discontent gets shoehorned into trans identity, hence the explosion in the number of young women wishing to transition. Rowling points out: “ten years ago, the majority of people wanting to transition to the opposite sex were male. That ratio has now reversed. The UK has experienced a 4400% increase in girls being referred for transitioning treatment.”
It should be stressed that anyone has the right to dress and live by the cultural rules of the other sex, and should be defended from bigots. This does not mean redefining women or erasing their lived reality.
Female erasure and the lived experience of women
“If sex isn’t real,” Rowling tweeted, “the lived reality of women globally is erased.”
The attack on Rowling for defending women’s status as a sex forces you back to basics. Human females have distinctive bodily capacities and experiences, such as menstruation, the ability to give birth, larger breasts for lactation, and typically smaller physiques. Socially mediated in today’s world this translates into shame, objectification, typically narrower roles and horizons, and a sense of inferiority to men – as well as permission to express feelings and to relate socially in deeper ways than males. This is the “lived reality” Rowling speaks of and it begins from day one.
The vast majority of the world’s women and girls cannot identify out of their sex or “gender” even at the most superficial level. Leaving aside FGM, child brides and honour killings there are routine burdens and expectations worldwide, based on her sexual biology. A man who spends hours each day with his kids is praised to the skies, for mothers, it’s your lot in life, get on with it.
Women are well aware their lot in life. It can sharpen into a political critique as they connect the personal to the political and begin to grasp their oppression as a sex. This was the purpose of the consciousness-raising sessions run by women’s liberationists in the 1960s and 70s. Revolutionary socialist parties have in the past encouraged the same sort of political generalization, also connecting it to the wider workers’ struggle. Even without such interventions, apolitical women can move this way at times, since so many disparate forms of suffering and personal injustice in their lives involve the word woman.
This is where female erasure kicks in. It isn’t women who have abortions, it’s uterus owners; the shame of menstruation is suffered by menstruators. Female erasure – “efforts to define and enforce oppressive gender constructs on the female sex” – sets up a roadblock to political generalization about women’s oppression as a sex.
In her article Rowling notes “how mentally sexless I felt in youth” and quotes Simone de Beauvoir: “It is perfectly natural for the future woman to feel indignant at the limitations posed upon her by her sex”. Rowling adds: “if I’d been born 30 years later, I too might have tried to transition. The allure of escaping womanhood would have been huge. I struggled with severe OCD as a teenager. If I’d found community and sympathy online that I couldn’t find in my immediate environment, I believe I could have been persuaded to turn myself into the son my father had openly said he’d have preferred.”
The politics of gender ideology
Rowling’s intervention needs to be seen in context. Gender ideology, like the Brexit debate, rests on a complex political terrain.
Gender identity theory has been mainstreamed by the corporate media, conservative as well as liberal, because the capitalist class has a powerful vested interest in perpetuating sexism in a changing world. This is also why major institutions in neoliberal society have been so ready to replace sex with gender in public documents.
However, the logic of gender ideology leads trans activists to make invasive, disruptive claims and demands which, for various reasons, go too far for the more right wing bosses. This has opened space for some right wing liberals to raise typically liberal concerns over attacks on women, children, science, and the work of clinicians and academics. (The left’s pathetic failure to raise these issues is discussed elsewhere on this blog.) Yet such liberals’ defense of women can’t easily be held within right wing boundaries: these commentators find themselves having to criticise the police and elite institutions, for example.
At the same time these right wing liberals, along with some conservatives, have sought to exploit the trans issue to win women away from progressive politics – towards the neoliberalism that hits women hardest, or towards social conservative bigotry. Meanwhile the no-platforming, vilifying left primly denounces feminists for turning to right wing platforms to get their views heard.
Left wing gender critical feminists such as Woman’s Place UK are trying to get us out of this wretched mess, calling on the wider left to defend women on this issue.
Support JK Rowling
JK Rowling is no radical firebrand. On the trans issue, she says, “women are reaching out to each other across party lines”; left wing feminists such as Ruth Serwotka and Helen Lewis have previously pointed out that such left-right alliances are a dangerous illusion for progressive women. But supporting Rowling’s stand on the trans issue does not mean having to endorse all her views.
Rowling’s defense of women against the sexism of gender ideology pits her, in practice, against the interests of the capitalist class and its elite servants, who have sought to use this new sexism as a way to maintain women’s oppression in today’s world. On this issue it is left-liberals and the far left who find themselves on the wrong side of the barricades.
Rowling’s public profile makes her an exceptionally valuable ally in the battle for women’s rights. For this reason she is faced with enormous, vitriolic pushback and to her great credit she is standing up to it. We should all be supporting her in this fight.