The recent spate of actual or effective no-platforming incidents (most recently, Kate Smurthwaite’s effectual no-platforming by Goldsmith’s College) has brought into the public eye a cultural shift by which I am greatly worried. Political opinions – particularly feminist ones – which used to be regarded as reasonably uncontroversial (except by overt misogynists), which are not libellous, and which do not incite violence, are being widely labelled by many in universities, on social media, and in mainstream political parties, as offensive. Their proponents are accused of ‘bigotry’, and such opinions are being driven out of the realm of legitimate political debate by tactics such as ‘no platforming’, allegations of ‘hate speech’, and extreme misrepresentations of those political positions.
I have increasingly become aware that many writers (past and present), whom I greatly admire, and my own feminist views – political philosophy on which I was raised; feminism that I was schooled in alongside, for example, the history of the Civil Rights movement – are falling foul of this cultural shift. For this reason, I have felt uneasy for some time about writing or talking openly about feminism. But it is an issue about which I care passionately, so I want to add my voice to those protesting against illiberal attempts to silence such debate.
As an academic as well as a writer, I fervently believe that universities should encourage students and academics to read and listen to a range of opinions far beyond their own comforting, personal ‘truths’. I do not consider it desirable or beneficial to enshrine protection from the possibility of ‘taking offence’. If an argument offends (either by challenging beliefs, or by seeming incoherent or plain wrong), then research, think, read, talk, listen, write, and construct a counter-argument. As long as debate remains non-libellous, does not promote physical violence, and does not involve physical abuse in its construction, then I believe it should be heard, even if – sometimes especially if – that leads to its considered refutation.
Before I begin blogging on individual issues, I want to set out exactly what I do, and do not, believe.
My feminist views derive from movements variously labelled as second wave, socialist, Marxist, radical, and gender-critical feminism.
I do not believe that men and women currently occupy an equal status, either in Britain or globally. Among the 27 EU member states, there is a gender pay gap (relative difference in average gross hourly earnings) between men and women of 17.5%. A woman working full-time in the UK earns, on average, £5000 less per year than a man doing the equivalent job. Men outnumber women 4 to 1 in parliament, and out of a cabinet of 23, only 4 are women. 2 women a week are killed by a current or former male partner. Approximately 85,000 women on average are raped in England and Wales each year, by men.
I believe that the key forms of oppression against women are structural, rooted in the operations of the state’s dominant institutions and systems (one example is unequal maternity and paternity leave policies). These interweave with oppression perpetuated by cultural norms and shibboleths (eg. ideas of boys’ and girls’ ‘innate’ behaviour). Together with the physical oppression of one sex by another (through rape, abuse and domestic violence), these constitute patriarchy. Oppression *is* often carried out by individuals, upon other individuals, but it is usually bolstered, facilitated, and approved by the structures and culture of patriarchy. Individuals’ behaviour can often be most usefully analysed in terms of structural patterns.
I believe that women’s bodies are often the site upon which patriarchal oppression operates, either directly, through domestic violence, rape and FGM, or indirectly, through damaging norms of beauty or lack of scientific research into female physical processes (eg. female ‘ejaculation’). It has also been argued that class inequality between men and women is predicated on the exploitation of women’s bodies, particularly their reproductive capacity, which renders women either a resource to be managed, or physically weaker for a period of time. I believe it is fundamentally important to talk about women’s bodies, both as sites of oppression and violence, but also as sources of lived experience, both positive and negative, and as sites of knowledge and research. I believe that the language and concept of sex, of ‘male’ and ‘female’, is useful for the purpose.
I believe that the concept of ‘gender’ (that is, a collection of socially constructed norms and expectations pertaining to and differentiating between, ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’, usually mapped onto, respectively, men’s and women’s bodies) constricts the full potential of ‘human’. Plenty of excellent research debunks the notion that men and women’s brains innately predispose them to certain skills (cf the neuroscientist Cordelia Fine’s book Delusions of Gender). Little girls in Britain in 2014 tend to like pink, not out of any innate predisposition, but because, among other contributory factors, they receive praise (overt and/or covert) for conforming to gender norms.
I believe that, in a patriarchy, gender is a key part of the cultural reinforcement of patriarchal power structures. For example, gender norms encourage little girls to wear constricting clothing (dresses and heels), to play quietly, to be mindful of others (often in a submissive role), and to play with toys relating to domestic roles and the development of emotional acuity. Gender norms encourage little boys to play boisterously and assertively, to develop independence and dominance, to wear clothes practical for physical exploration, and to play in a way that develops physical strength, spatial awareness and knowledge. These gender norms operate through mechanisms that include many toys, parenting books, ideogically-driven research, parents themselves, folklore, websites, and children’s TV.
I believe that the patriarchal construction of gender is damaging and constricting for all concerned, boys as well as girls. For both sexes, gender norms constrict the full possibilities of being human. However, because patriarchy assigns greater economic, political, physical and cultural power to boys and men, women’s oppression under patriarchy in general, and under the patriarchal concept of gender specifically, is greater than men’s. Gender is one means by which men oppress women.
I believe that a chief objective of feminism is to dismantle the constrictions of gender norms. This is not a matter of rejecting everything associated with ‘femininity’ as inferior, and allowing women into the ‘masculine’ club. ‘Equality’ is not so much the aim; liberation is. *Everyone* needs to be freed from the constrictions imposed by gender. In a post-gender world, boys and girls might, without judgement, all be able to (indeed, would be equally likely to) wear dresses and cargo pants, play with dolls, toy kitchens, cars, construction toys, climb trees, wade through mud, sit in a corner quietly reading, shout and woop, or cuddle and comfort. In adult society, so-called domestic work (child-rearing etc) would be valued as much as, if not more than, traditionally masculine activities such as economics, business or politics. Men and women might engage in almost everything in equal numbers, and be assigned equal value for doing so. The sex categories ‘male’ and ‘female’ would continue to exist as descriptive terms for biological attributes, but, stripped of the gender assumptions that are usually mapped onto them, would no longer represent unequal power. As a society, as a world, we are clearly not there. An important feminist strategy is to witness, document, ‘call out’, question and critique unsubstantiated claims of gender essentialism. Recognising such claims exist, and pointing out their influence, is certainly not the same as approving of their existence.
I do not believe that women’s achievement of power within traditional patriarchal structures – eg. acquiring ‘erotic capital’ by exploiting particular attributes (especially beauty and sex appeal) deemed praiseworthy by patriarchal capitalism – is satisfactory or ambitious enough. In some cases, I believe it is abuse. As a ‘radical’ (meaning, ‘to the roots’) feminist, I want to see those structures dismantled for the benefit of the many, not upheld for the benefit of a few. In a post-gender world, pornography might be possible, if the industry were run by men and women in equal numbers, for men and women in equal numbers; if there was no exploitation; no abuse; if the visual and verbal aesthetics could take the female gaze (and other preferences) into account. But I have no idea what such truly post-gender pornography would look like.
Because I don’t believe in the existence of innately masculine or feminine brains, and because I believe in the aspiration to dismantle gender, I personally do not believe that there needs to be a correlation between an individual’s sex and an individual’s so-called ‘gender identity’. In fact, from a philosophical viewpoint, I believe that the claim that someone has ‘a woman’s brain’ (either in a man’s body or in a woman’s body) reinforces the essentialist claim that such a thing as a ‘woman’s brain’ even exists in a meaningful way. It upholds the notion of gender. Sometimes people refer to having, not so much a gendered brain, but a gendered essence, something like a soul: ‘I feel like a woman’. Beyond recognising that I have a woman’s body, and that society treats me like a woman, much of which treatment I inevitably internalise, I do not personally feel that I have a gendered essence – just a personality. But I accept that some people feel that they do have such a gendered essence. (Likewise, I don’t feel that I have a soul, but I accept that others feel that they do.) Similarly, although I don’t see the upholding of gender norms to be a form of personal liberation or social change, in a society in which all sorts of cosmetic surgery is freely available, I believe that sane adult individuals have the right to alter their bodies however they please, for whatever reason: including in order to synchronise their sex with their perceived gender identity. I believe they have the right to do this without facing harassment or discrimination.
I believe that the relevance of the question ‘what is a woman?’ depends upon the context in which it is being asked (this could equally apply to the question ‘what is a man?’, but because this issue is most hotly contested as it pertains to women, I’ll use that terminology). For the most part, I believe that the category ‘woman’ is constituted by two or three constituent factors. The first two are:
(1) biological attributes
(2) subjection to patriarchal gender norms via socialisation. As Rebecca Reilly-Cooper has written, as well as knowing that ‘I’m a woman [because of…] my physical body, my biology’, ‘I know that I am a woman because everybody I meet treats me as if I were a woman, and they always have done’. Often (1) and (2) are intertwined: the way in which society treats a woman is often fundamentally linked to that woman’s physicality.
Sometimes these two factors that comprise the category ‘woman’ are joined by a third claim:
(3) that in order to be a woman, what is necessary is to feel like a woman, or identify as a woman. (As I have said, if this feeling is something separate from biology and socialisation, I personally don’t know what it is. However, as I have also said, I am willing to accept that some people feel that they do have such a sense. The claim ‘I identify as a woman’ seems to be something different, however: a statement of wanting to be (like) a woman.)
I believe that the relevance of the claims (1), (2) and (3) to the definition of ‘woman’ shift according to context.
In a theatrical production, it isn’t necessary for an actor to have (1) a woman’s biological attributes, or (2) to usually be treated as a woman in the wider social landscape, in order to play a woman’s part. In such contexts, (3), feeling like a woman, identifying as a woman, is more important.
But sometimes (3) is not sufficient to claim the category of ‘woman’ if (1) or (2) are lacking. For example, at a recent Green Party hustings, the chair observed that women had hardly spoken at all, having previously been dominated in the discussion by men. The chair asked to hear from a woman. A man called Simon, who ‘present[s] as male’ but ‘identi[fies] as a woman’, asked to speak and was welcomed. In this context, the chair asked women to speak because the way in which women are socialised from birth means they are usually encouraged to be quiet and submissive, and that the hustings had upheld that oppressive pattern. Whether or not Simon currently identifies as a woman was irrelevant in this context: society treats him as male, and his socialisation has encouraged him to be louder and more dominant. It was not appropriate, in this context, for him to claim the category ‘woman’.
Another example: it has been reported that the US Supreme Court has recently upheld a claim by an insurance company that its decision to fire a woman because she wanted to express milk at work, was not a form of sex discrimination because, in some circumstances, men (either transmen or men with certain hormonal qualities) can lactate too (although it is important to note that the ability to lactate a little is different from the ability to breastfeed an infant or express bottles of milk). This case demonstrates how emptying the category ‘woman’ of (1), of its biological characteristics, means that in some contexts it becomes virtually impossible to challenge instances of sex-based discrimination and abuse. In societies in which oppression occurs because of a certain demographic’s shared physical attributes (eg. racial characteristics, sex characteristics, or other characteristics such as disability), social reformers need specific terminology to refer to demographic groups facing such discrimination, in order to point to it, name it, witness it, document it, and challenge it.
I don’t believe that a single, monolithic category of ‘discrimination’ or ‘oppression’ is as useful to understand, document or challenge differentiated forms of discrimination or oppression (including the way in which they intersect), as a more nuanced form of analysis. Sometimes the forms of discrimination experienced by different demographic groups share characteristics; in some ways they don’t. There is no question that transgender people face appalling discrimination and violence: of the 43,748 hate crimes reported in England and Wales in 2011-12, 1% (315) were transgender hate crimes. That represents a large proportion of transgender people in the UK, and a 2014 study showed that 44% of transgender people in the EU reported facing repeated violence. (It is important to remember that the majority of transphobic attacks are perpetrated by men who are not acting on the instigation of radical feminist writings.) In some contexts, there are significant similarities between the types of oppression levelled at women and trans-women. For example, almost all physical attacks against transgender people and women are perpetrated by men. But often the discrimination perpetuated against transwomen and women is different, and originates in different sources, for different reasons (as in the example of the US insurance company’s discrimination against a breastfeeding woman). In such cases, it is essential to be able to use such terms as ‘man’, ‘woman’, ‘transwoman’ and ‘transman’ in order to label and challenge the abuse.
I believe in an individual’s right to express or perform their chosen identity, as long as that expression does not encroach on the rights of another oppressed demographic. As the two examples above demonstrate, the language of ‘gender identity’ does, in some contexts, encroach upon and damage the ability to challenge women’s oppression. As a feminist and mother of three girls, I also worry about the effect of essentialist ideology on women, who are encouraged to believe unsubstantiated claims about the predisposition of women to engage in activities and roles that are often accorded inferior value and constrict their full potential. I believe that the type of systemic oppression faced by certain demographic groups (eg. women, transgender people) can only be adequately interpreted and challenged with a structural, class-based analysis. Individual identity seems powerful, but it is no match for the weight of social oppression that threatens to beat and bind the individual into submission. No-one can identify their way out of being oppressed.