Responding to gender critical feminism: On gender, sex and a generous feminist politics in anxious times

by Davina Cooper | Photo:  Ben Kanter

Can feminism develop and grow if the room for reasonable divergence between us becomes ever narrower? We need spaces where we can discuss feminist politics to improve all our feminisms. The cheerleading, backslapping and feuding of twitter is not a good substitute.

I’ve been wondering how to respond to the social media attacks we’ve been receiving ever since our project, The Future of Legal Gender, launched its survey in the autumn of 2018. The survey was intended to explore how people, in Britain, thought about gender and, more specifically, their views on proposals to reform gender’s place within legal personhood. Writing the survey in ways that would speak to very different constituencies, however, was a challenge given the lack of a shared progressive language about how to talk about gender or sex – even what the terms meant (and were rapidly coming to mean). People from different perspectives attacked the survey, though most relentlessly on Mumsnet.

  • “It is very sinister. Looks like they are purposely mixing up sex and gender to get the results they want.”
  • “I didn’t swear but I did call into question their professorial credentials. It took me ages as I had to use all the boxes to explain for them the difference between sex and gender.”
  • “I can’t answer the questions because I don’t know what they mean when they say gender, maybe they mean gender in which case my answers are one thing, but maybe they mean sex in which case my answers are different! Utter tripe.”

More recently, a short article on a UK Labour Law, responding to the legal challenge brought by Maya Forstater received a similar response. Forstater’s consultancy contract was not renewed due, she argued, to her feminist belief that sex is immutable and matters. I agreed she shouldn’t have been let go (for reasons I won’t elaborate here). However, the suggestion that the concept of sex could be subject to reasonable competing understandings angered several readers. Tweets claimed the article was “unreadable crap”, “idiocy”: “In this single sentence she shows she doesn’t have a clue what feminism is. With such drivel early on can I motivate myself to read the rest?”; and more.

I know people engage with twitter in different ways – some seriously, some as a game or emotional outlet, some as war. But the growing refusal, among many feminists, to recognise versions of feminism that do not centre sex is perturbing.

Feminism has long embraced different positions on the significance of biological sex to women’s subordination. For some, sex is the historically constant basis for women’s oppression; for others, sex is an evolving concept that is assembled and made meaningful through discourses of gender. In this short article, I want to respond to a feminist politics of sex-based women’s rights, that some call “gender critical”. This approach has become hugely prominent within current public discussions of gender. It is also often pitted against a trans-inclusive approach as if these were the only two feminist positions on gender that are possible. This is problematic for reasons I explore more fully elsewhere. What I want to do here, however, is highlight some strengths and limitations of this gender critical version of feminism, show where it shares common ground with liberal trans politics, and suggest an alternative way of thinking about gender, which starts from gender as a social condition that gives rise to different effects rather than as a class-based structure.

Gender critical feminism is often equated with radical feminism. However, radical feminism – as popularised in the 1980s and ’90s by writers such as Catharine MacKinnon – placed sexuality and not bodily sex at the heart of women’s oppression. It was women’s socialisation into heterosexuality, and the eroticisation of male domination, that were identified as being key to women’s subordination to men. In heterosexuality, radical feminists argued, women accepted – even desired – their own subordination. It is striking that this understanding has become largely displaced by a feminism that centres on reproductive capability instead.

Sex-based rights feminism identifies two classes: male and female. Because they are defined by biology, these two classes are stable, materially different, and no movement between them is possible. Gender sticks to biological sex, creating different lives, opportunities and dangers for men and women. As Women’s Spaces in Scotland remarked,  responding to the Scottish Consultation on reforming the Gender Recognition Act, “Gender is a set of stereotypes based on sex. It is a hierarchy which places women in a box marked weak, submissive, maternal, emotional and men in a box marked strong, aggressive, dominant.”

Certainly, there are aspects of gender critical feminism which are non-contentious for many feminists: Gender is a social force that shapes people’s desires, outlooks and experiences in differentiated, unequal and restrictive ways. Gender isn’t something to affirm or celebrate – at least not in its current hegemonic form. Gender leads to women’s exploitation and subordination. It relies on female and male (or woman/ man, feminine/ masculine) as hierarchically related terms – it is very hard (if not impossible) to explain gender currently without using these terms, even if the genders in question are non-binary, agender or queer. And while the notion that gender should be self-determined may seem liberatory, what this liberation actually entails, when we drill down, begs questions about what gender is – since being men or women, masculine or feminine gather meaning, relationally and unequally, largely from each other. Self-determination, as a present-day relationship to gender, also seems to overstate the extent to which gender’s force and effects are captured by elective identification – more is going on with gender than what people say they are.

From a class-based to a societal-based approach

“Regardless of how a person identifies, if she is female, she is at risk of male violence, of discrimination in the workplace etc. on the basis of biology, not feelings” (Women’s Spaces in Scotland, submitted to the Scottish consultation on the GRA).

The starting point and centre of gravity for gender critical feminism is women – a class subject to male domination. In many ways, this version of feminism parallels other class-based accounts of inequality; most prominently Marxist, where a class-based approach to economic exploitation addresses capitalism as a struggle between two principal economic classes.

While class can be understood in more complex and flexible ways, I am interested in alternatives to this framework in order to think away from the class-based account gender critical feminists are deploying.  In Marxism, one other framework, relevant for this discussion, is structuralism. This approached capitalism as the core organising principle of its society that in turn gave rise to other structures – political, cultural and so on. The differences between a class-based and structuralist account of capitalism have been closely picked over, including in debates over the state. In the late 1960s and 1970s, Marxists argued over whether the state was an instrument of the ruling class, used to advance their interests at the expense of the working-class, or a form of governance structured primarily by the logic and needs of capitalism.

Fifty years on, the polarities in this debate – played out most famously between Ralph Miliband and Nicos Poulantzas – have been countered from many angles. However, in the current context of feminism, an instrumental, class-based account, based on the interests of women, has grown to prominence, at the expense of more structural perspectives. It is therefore worth considering what a less class-based approach might offer. In the following discussion, I identify four areas where an alternative feminist perspective can help us to understand how gender operates and what it does.

(To avoid the monolithic, overly-deterministic tendencies associated with structuralism, I’ll refer to this account of gender as a societal-centred one. This does not mean society is a thing. I approach it here as the process of creating complex commonalities, where gender becomes ones means of doing so).

  1. The complexity in what gender creates

Gender critical feminism’s class-based account focuses, unsurprisingly, on how women experience gender, where particular gendered experiences stick to an already determined sex-based class. Lucy Blackburn and Kath Murray write, “the physical, economic and social consequences of being born and living with a female body are so significant that women deserve specific rights and protections in law on that basis.”

But focusing on the sexed body leads to several problems. One is over-generalisation, as many women get folded into the gendered experiences of some women – for instance, in the assumption that all women experience reproduction and parenting. Another is the discounting of the gendered experiences of others who are deemed not to be members of the target group: here women.

in contrast to starting with a sex-based class, I want to suggest we might focus on how diverse gendered subjectivities and experiences form (and reform). This offers a more inclusive and nuanced understanding of gender’s processes. It allows us to trace our socialisation into gender as a relationship, which can also be a problematic relationship, that produces pleasures and familiarity for some, alongside discomfort for others. People  may feel hailed by the early childhood call (it’s a boy or girl) even when the call is not intended for them or refuse to answer to any gendered terms in which being hailed takes place. There are parallels here with socialisation into heterosexuality, which many of us resist; others respond to sexual socialisations intended for their differently sexed friends or siblings.

Katharine Jenkins (2016) puts it well, when she describes gendered subjectivity as an internal map. This does not mean we comply with the map or the terrain of “our” gender, but it provides an orientation to the expectations experienced or imposed upon us. She writes, “On my definition, having a female gender identity does not necessarily involve having internalized norms of femininity in the sense of accepting them on some level. Rather, what is important is that one takes those norms to be relevant to oneself; whether one feels at all moved to actually comply with the relevant norms is a distinct question”. In other words, and this should be a common experience for feminists and others, we are not necessarily socialised into the gender we are told that we are.

Focusing on gender as a societal condition also draws attention to the other things that gender shapes. It is not just people that are gendered. Other aspects of society are gendered as well. This is important for an account which recognises gender does more than produce classes. It also produces, in ways that change by time and place, divisions (such as between domestic and public life), forms of labour, modes of reasoning, language, what is valued, even the ways we think about animal life, and so on.

  1. Recognising culture as part of material reality

Bodies, of course, are not irrelevant to the social power that people experience and have. But genitals, reproductive experiences and capacity, chromosomes, hormones, muscle strength are only one part of this. They also don’t necessarily go together. One aspect of our Future of Legal Gender research is to tease out those bodily differences that matter, where, when, and for whom, and what law might do in response.

Many have commented on the problem of assuming there are two sexed groups, differentiated by body parts, hormones, and physical capacities. But whether or not sex characteristics typically (and usually) divide into two shapes, the more pressing question is: how do our bodies matter in shaping our lives? And here, our reality involves many factors, evolving over time for each of us, and subject to a host of conditions, including of disabilities, diet, life-choices, homelessness, poverty, illnesses and medical interventions.

Blanket claims that bodily sex “matters” overstate historical and geopolitical continuities in how sex is understood, and in its social consequences. Feminist writing has long explored the sex/ gender system. But the notion that this is a single or integrated system needs to be continually reassessed. It may be that, in certain places, and at certain times, gender pulls away from sex – to take on new meanings or to get defined and practiced in other ways. Is the current conflict over gender, in Britain, a place where this is happening? Are we witnessing seeds of gender detaching from sex? While some feminists may disagree that it is happening, there may also be, for some, a sense of loss anchored in an attachment to sex/ gender as an integrated system, despite the ambivalence (even dislike) of the attachment.

Back in 1979, the Marxist feminist Heidi Hartmann criticised Shulamith Firestone for over-emphasising reproduction and biology. Hartmann argued that sex (and gender) have a material reality, but it is not just bodies. How life is socially organised is part of its materiality. And culture matters too. Sexual violence, women’s domestic labour and care work, unequal pay, objectification, the discounting of women’s authority and physical take-up of space – these aren’t determined by biology but involve a complex intersecting mix of factors and forces, including social cultures and perceptions.  In some cases, for some women, reproductive experiences may be an important part of the cluster of factors shaping, say, their low pay, but others will experience low pay for other reasons – gendered and otherwise.

Focusing on reproductive capacity and sex-based muscle strength drives an impoverished understanding of materiality. Feminists continue to recognise social and cultural factors as producing harms, such as sexual violence or gender stereotyping. However, the hostility towards poststructuralism that is evident in much gender critical (and sex-based feminist) writing for foregrounding plural ways of knowing, and for asserting the contribution of meaning to constituting the world (as well as changing it), is spearheading a tendency to present our gendered world as stripped-down.  This leaves us with bodies, on the one hand (the real), and minds or psychology (as delusion or feeling), on the other.

  1. Many drivers of change

Recognising that society and gender consist of more than bodies is important for thinking about change, and the different factors and forces that contribute to it. If women’s oppression derives from their sex, change-prospects look bleak. Men will remain violent; women will remain in need of protection as Kathleen Stock explores.

To think better futures are possible, it helps to identify progressive changes that have already occurred. Otherwise, we remain waiting for the deus ex machina – the moment of rupture or transformation that has not yet arrived.

Class-based accounts focus on the enduring presence of gender oppression, but it is a framework which does allow for change – arising from the gendered struggle between opposing class forces. Women as a class have had some victories, and for women’s oppression to end, they will need further victories over men as a class – although whether this, ultimately, will reverse gender oppression, create equality, or lead to the abolition of gender is less clearly agreed upon. The hopeful future also depends on how gender struggles interface other relations of inequality. These shape which women continue to be most subordinated; and affect how other social relations fill spaces of exploitation – processes that sex-based feminism talks far too little about.

Starting with the interplay of multiple social relations and processes (rather than fixed classes), a feminist account that foregrounds society approaches change differently. Change may come from contradictions, including in tensions between social relations, such as class, race and gender. It may also come from collective acts of agency and reinvention. New conceptions of gender give voice to these changes. The idiom of performance lets us think about how presentation, communication and appearance can be arranged and rearranged; idioms of language or grammar invoke the relationship between malleable collective forms and individual expression.

Is gender, then, a living language, and does this mean something is lost in the fantasy of killing it off (or letting it die)?

Not necessarily.

Treating gender as the socially cultivated building blocks for personal expression can overstate the control and creativity people have. It also begs questions about what this thing called gender is, and why a structure constituted through hierarchical relations is a language (performance or grammar) we might want to retain. Gender may be too thoroughly contaminated by inequality to salvage. At the same time, people do express gender relations with nuance, and some strive to create new forms less anchored in inequality – as the flourishing of post-gender, agender, gender-queer and similar lexicons of gender reveal.

For many feminists, these newly developed, newly claimed terms feel overly-individualistic.  Rather than being taken up as a collective strategy publicly intent on changing gender for everyone, individuals are seen as claiming the right to develop what their gender means, including as its absence. Still, the wholesale dismissal by some feminists of this new flourishing gender politics ignores broader common ground, including one that straddles different generational cultures. Agender, non-binary, gender queer are important contemporary expressions of a politics opposed to “sex as destiny” – even if the terms for its expression are not ones some feminists might choose.

  1. Beyond interests

Gender critical feminism often presents itself as a radical politics. Yet, in many respects, it relies on familiar liberal terms, with its political discourse of interests, rights and protection for women as a vulnerable class. According to Sheila Jeffreys, “The way in which queer and transgender activists use the term ‘gender’ is problematic because it obscures the existence of persons, women, who are biologically female, and their particular interests.”

Focusing on women’s interests sets up, or at least affirms, a conflict between different groups – each with their own set of wants and concerns: of things they need that would benefit them. Rather than a discourse which seeks to transform society for all, terms like interests and protection narrow in, concerned with how a specific group or class is placed. Easily, it can slip into a language of property and “territory” as feminists, and others, seek to protect the goods, spaces and assets (including intangible or legal ones) that they feel they have.

Yet, in this reliance on interests and property there is common ground between gender critical feminists and those who argue that gender should be approached as a freely assumed, diverse identity, despite the bitterness  between the two “sides”.

In both camps, activists assert the importance of their group’s interests and rights, and strive to maintain their territory against invasion. For gender critical feminists, this property is women-only spaces and the term “woman”. For gender-as-identity advocates, the property in question is one’s personal gender identity – seen as belonging (exclusively) to the person who holds and expresses it. As the Yogyakarta principles, a set of aspirational international human rights principles, declare: “gender identity” is “each person’s deeply felt internal and individual experience of gender”.

Adopting a societal account of gender means recognising how gender creates attachments – to names, categories, spaces, selves and others; how gender works through discourses and forms of power that are most prevalent, including unsurprisingly property. But it also allows us to ask: how can we “deterritorialise” gender so it isn’t a relationship of ownership?

This doesn’t necessarily mean collectivising property in gender categories (so we can all claim, without cost or friction, the gender names we want); nor is it about eliminating spaces based on shared (even though they might be loosely shared or depicted) experiences of oppression. It is also not necessarily about reclaiming gender as a publicly owned property which the state allocates and gives meaning to (as with sex registration on birth certificates). More important, I think, is addressing the power that aligns with gender – this includes the inequalities of resources and authority that can’t be accessed simply by claiming a status, for instance, as male.

And we need to address the conditions of organisational precarity and social exploitation that women face – conditions which give rise to feminist protectionist strategies – and not simply argue or wish them away.

At the same time, a politics that attends too intensely on protecting the borders of its category has, I think, got deflected from the challenge of confronting gendered society. It’s like a working-class movement expending its energies (as has sometimes happened) on the question of who counts as working-class: determining what kinds of work, and what kinds of evidence, demonstrate authentic and proper class belonging. Fighting over how to ensure that individual members have the “correct” class status. The cannibalism of this kind of politics has an obvious cost.

***

Feminism has given birth to many versions. While one holds on to women as the fundamental class from which concerns and politics flow, another foregrounds gender as one of several complex currents of inequality shaping society and the people that make it up.

It is, perhaps, easy to overstate the differences between a group-based and societal-based account.  But then feminism has long been a politics of antagonisms.

Reform or revolution, sameness or difference, inclusion or equality, capitalism, race or patriarchy, materialism or ideology, sexuality or sex, recognition or redistribution – feminism too often jolts from one set of antagonistic and polarised options to another.

Can all of them have a place (which may be a critical place)?

Despite the certainties and derision captured on twitter, there seems a shared desire for change even as we don’t know – thinking forward – which strategies for undoing gender’s inequalities will work most effectively or how they will intersect, and bounce off, each other.

The current pandemic has demonstrated the power of local acts to have hugely unanticipated and catastrophic global effects. At a time when we are all attuned to bodily vulnerabilities and the importance of social solidarity, can we find a more generous place for thinking about and responding to the feminist politics of others?

With thanks to the friends and colleagues who gave me feedback on earlier drafts.

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