The Woman’s Place UK site has recently published an excellent article by socialist feminist Jayne Egerton: “There’s more than one way to ‘erase’ women – Women’s rights under attack in Victor Orban’s Hungary”. She notes the growing “anti gender” movements in central and eastern Europe:
These movements privilege biological understandings of what it means to be a man or a woman but only do so in order to insist that our biology should determine (and restrict) our lives. They want to hang on [to] the man/woman binary because they believe that gendered roles and expectations, ones which place women below men, are determined by sex.
For the Hungarian government, the field of gender studies “is seen as promoting too fluid an understanding of male and female roles in the place of a fixed social order in which women’s biological destiny is to be married mothers.” Hungary’s National Assembly recently “refused to ratify the Istanbul Convention, the Council of Europe’s Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence.” The reason:
It was claimed that the convention promoted “gender ideology” and particular issue was taken with the section that defined gender as “socially constructed roles, behaviours, activities and attributes that a given society considers appropriate for women and men.” Hungarian politicians object to an understanding of gender which recognises that women’s ‘role’ can change, even improve (!), as societies change…
No alliances with social conservatives
“Unless we establish very clear lines between ourselves and right wing, religious fundamentalists,” Egerton points out, “we are in danger of being swallowed up and used by the most anti-women, global forces, the canniest of which offer themselves as ‘partners’ in the fight against gender ideology”. She cites the example of “the Heritage Foundation, a hugely powerful Christian Right think tank which has platformed radical feminists.”
The Heritage Foundation has particular chutzpah. Whilst claiming to be an ally in the feminist fight to preserve female only spaces and sex-based rights, it opposes reproductive rights, lesbian and gay rights and any measures to counter discrimination against women, notably the Equal Rights Amendment. In fact, it blames feminists for the current state of affairs – though Ryan Anderson would never be rude enough to say so at their shared events. “Transgender theories are part of the feminist goal of a sexual revolution that eliminates the proprietary family and celebrates non-monogamous sexual experiences.”
When it’s not cynically partnering with (a small number) of radical feminists as ‘cover’, the Heritage Foundation enjoys the company of the Holy See, the universal government of the Catholic Church which operates from Vatican City State. The Vatican has opposed the notion of gender since the early-2000s, arguing that males and females have intrinsic attributes which aren’t shaped by social forces. Recently, they published an educational document called “Male and female he created them”.
“Woman’s Place UK,” Egerton adds, “has consistently stated an opposition to working with, or supporting the work of the religious right (and their female representatives). Not simply because it is strategically disastrous but because it is wrong in principle.”
On this basis she criticises “those gender critical feminists, albeit small in number, who are responding positively to the news from Hungary, on the basis that Orban recognises the immutability of sex. Whilst Baroness Nicholson might see no problem in adding Hungary to her list of causes for celebration, feminists shouldn’t lose sight of a much bigger picture.” (Baroness Nicholson was a Conservative MP who switched to the Liberal Democrats. The Independent says she “voted against the same-sex marriage bill in 2013” and “suggested that the introduction of same-sex marriage that year had degraded ‘the status of women and of girls… as a binary class’”.)
Jayne Egerton’s article is very welcome and very important. It follows on from WPUK’s previous statement of opposition to feminist alliances with social conservatives in the USA, as discussed earlier on Freer Lives.
But right wing opposition to gender ideology is not restricted to social conservatives.
A more subtle and refined poison
The trans lobby attacks not just traditionalism, but key liberal values: women’s rights, the well-being of children and teens, science, and free speech, including the right to hold meetings and peaceful protests, the right of clinicians to explore the symptoms and personal histories of their suffering trans patients, and the right of academics to debate touchy issues. Most liberal commentators blind themselves to these attacks on liberal values, influenced by the sexist fantasy of “gender identity” and by the support given to this fantasy by their lords and masters in the corporate media, and on the left. Right wing liberals, on the other hand, despise the left and often work for, or look to, those media bosses who don’t go all the way with the trans lobby. This frees them up to be the standard bearers for liberalism on this issue.
The social conservative bigots and right wing liberals have different agendas but have not polarized out into sharply opposing camps. Instead there is a messy mix of gender critical ideas spread across the right, in outlets including the Wall Street Journal; The Spectator; the right-of-centre, establishment Times and Sunday Times; pseudo-oppositional sites like Spiked, Areo, and Quillette, and the alt-right Breitbart News.
They all want to win gender critical women away from the left. I suspect that the liberal end of this spectrum has had most success here, since their feminist credentials are so much stronger. Lenin once described Protestantism as a more subtle and refined poison than Russian Orthodoxy; I think the same principle applies here.
It is true, of course, that right wing liberals are sincerely appalled by the trans lobby’s attacks on women (see eg this piece by Helen Joyce in Quillette) but so are social conservatives, in their own way. The question is not their moral sincerity but the politics behind their stand, and where it leads. Right wing liberals are fighting for neoliberalism, the system that has inflicted decades of misery on working people, on women even more than men. Neoliberalism is the modern form of capitalism, which needs women’s oppression as underpinning. And while some right wing liberals may react against gender ideology, or aspects of it, neoliberalism as a system has mainstreamed it, because it helps perpetuate sexism under modern social conditions. (Because women’s presence in the workforce makes them more socially aware and harder to hoodwink than the atomized, stay-at-home housewives of the past, the sexism they get fed needs to be slimier.) The left may be wretchedly wrong about gender ideology, but they are 100% correct to hate and fight neoliberalism.
Here and there a right wing liberal may take a high profile stand against gender ideology, and even come to symbolize the struggle against it – in which case they should be supported to the hilt on that specific issue. That is a world away from routinely, uncritically citing outlets or commentators who challenge gender ideology one moment and slag off the unions or the left a moment later. Uncritical support for right wing liberals is like an alliance with bigots: strategically disastrous, and wrong in principle.
[This article was updated 7 July 2020, after publication. The main change was to add “liberalism” to its title]