On Gender-critical disputes


(moved from Medium)

Helen Joyce comes up with really good allegories and mental models at the rate of about one a week. But the one that I keep coming back to is one she told me the first time I met her, when I was still scrambling to keep my job at CGD, and trying to understand how it was that my smart and normally convivial colleagues had succumbed to repeating and enforcing irrational, circular nonsense.


Helen (a mathematician by training) said that pretending that human beings can change sex is like saying 1=0, and that the rules and laws we use for sense-making and decision-making are like a series of interconnected equations. The 1=0 untruth proliferates through them it breaks things: single-sex becomes mixed-sex, fair becomes unfair, truth becomes lie. It works like kryptonite on safeguards, and causes organisations to operate in direct opposition to their purpose. People who need or want to remain inside those institutions create layers of argument (which may be impenetrable even to themselves) in order to protect the untruth and avoid being cast out.

On the sidelines of FiLiA in October, Helen and I had a long conversation with Jane Clare Jones about our respective positions in the internecine feminist wars.

(this picture was in Oxford, not at Filia)

I’m a feminist in the Rebecca West sense. I don’t claim to know precisely what feminism is; “I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat, or a prostitute.”  I subscribe to the radical notion that women are full human beings, but I don’t subscribe to radical feminism, because I think it’s fundamentally wrong about human nature, I am happy to work with people with whom I disagree where we have common goals.

I have co-founded a human-rights organisation, and I think that the human-rights framework is the way to resolve the question of how society should treat people who identify as transgender (respect their basic human rights and liberties, but don’t respect their fantasy).

Pretending that 1=0 harms everyone’s human rights. It harms women and girls (and, as Julie Bindel points out, it hurts the most powerless women and girls first and hardest), but also parents and children, religious people, people who care about truth and people who care about science. Ultimately, it harms anyone who wants to be able to do their job with integrity, and the people who depend on institutions acting with integrity (which is everyone, but again the least powerful most of all).

So I will talk with everyone who cares about this truth, and who is not seeking to destroy basic human rights (the principle of being “worthy of respect in a democratic society”).

Like most ordinary women in this fight, I think that Woman’s Place UK has done an amazing job in holding indoor events and articulating left-wing arguments, and I think that Standing for Women does an amazing job in holding outdoor events where any woman can speak. The cross-party working with parliamentarians by political activists of all stripes is also crucial.

In our long discussion with Jane in Cardiff, I encouraged her to take her beef with those she disagrees with off Twitter and to write it in long-form, focusing on the principles rather than the interpersonal conflicts and hurts. She and her colleagues at Radical Notion have had a go at that this month.


The essays and articles are long and winding (some of the footnotes are long enough to be blog posts in their own right). They add up to a broadside against people who work with anyone, the religious (Christians specifically), conservatives, and those with an evolutionary understanding of human psychology and society. Mary Harrington, Helen Joyce, Kellie-Jay Keen and Kathleen Stock all come in for personal criticism (Kellie-Jay Keen most of all).

I am she-who-cannot-be-named, but clearly I am one of the women doing-feminism-wrong.

I attend Standing for Women events and wear their merch; I follow @troonytunes; I view men dressing as women as a form of “womanface” (this is racist, apparently); I want to defend the word and concept of woman, not just female; I think Matt Walsh made a good film. I don’t think men who think they are women are oppressed, and I do think they can be laughed at.

Worse than this, I have taken part in events with Alliance Defending Freedom, and have even gone for a drink with them afterwards. I refused to denounce Kellie-Jay Keen because Hearts of Oak came to the Standing for Women event in Brighton and made a video. All this puts me outside the narrow bounds of acceptability defined by the Radical Notion team. Fair enough, that’s their party. I never applied to be part of the sisterhood. I don’t see much hope for it having mass appeal, though.

The criticisms of Kellie-Jay Keen, Kathleen Stock, Helen Joyce and Mary Harrington are long, personal, wrong and tedious (I just don’t recognise much of what they are describing and it would take me far too long to explain why). The articles vacillate incoherently between “we are not the same movement” and “we are mobilizing as a collective”.

Blame it on the Patriarchy

I think the reason the authors end up making long-winded and unsatisfactory arguments is because they start out from an idea about the world that is fundamentally wrong.

The editorial piece by Rose Rickford spells out the 1=0 statement in its first line: “Patriarchy is not universal, and it is not inevitable. It was developed by people through historical processes for the material purpose of controlling and appropriating women’s bodies and labour.”

I think the idea that the thing called “patriarchy” was overlaid on top of (and after) the evolution of human bodies and minds is just as untrue as the idea that men can become women, or the nonsense that the “binary system of gender” is a Western, colonial export.

Every human being who was ever born was gestated inside the body of a woman (and until 1983 that woman was in every case the biological mother of that child). A foetus “appropriates” its mother’s body progressively from the moment of conception, stripping the calcium from her teeth and bones if it needs to, squashing her organs and stretching her pelvis. A baby may kill its mother on its way out. The whole process is primal and brutal. It is inevitable, universal, and in no sense man-made. “Patriarchy”, if it means appropriating women’s bodies for the production of children, is baked-in.

We share the basics of this with other animals, but human beings have some specific features: hidden ovulation (and therefore uncertain paternity) and long, dependent childhoods. It is our long and labour-intensive childhood that enables our species to be uniquely versatile in the ecological niches it occupies, and devastatingly creative in the problems we solve and create for each other. Human behavioural and intellectual flexibility, big brains, long dependent childhoods, painful birth, uncertain paternity, intensive parental involvement and sexual politics are inherent to humanity (it’s what the Bible seeks to explain in the story of The Fall).

The mother-child dyad and the mother-father-child triad are essential parts of who we are, in the same way that women are the “big gamete” people and men the “small gamete” ones. And this is not just about infancy. For a child to survive to reproductive adulthood, it must “appropriate” resources (food, energy, attention and protection), almost always from its mother and usually from its father too, for 15 years or more. Social structures co-evolved alongside the bodies and minds built to do this (men built for the small-gamete route to the future and women for the large-gamete one).

There are no societies that do not view nuclear family relationships as centrally important. The emotions that underpin them — lust, love, shame, sexual jealousy, the parent-child bond, guilt, anger, pride and so on — are evolved and universally recognisable.

There are no societies where women are not vulnerable to rape, or where men are not capable of it. There are no societies where women do not bear the risks and physical impacts of pregnancy, and the responsibility for their infants. There are no societies where men are not on average stronger, faster and more powerful than women. There are no societies where the question of who is the father of the child, and the role of the father in providing for that child, are not viewed as important, or which lack social norms, status and structures reflecting this.

The idea that these features of “patriarchy” did not co-evolve with our big-brained, creative, flexible, language-using species is as improbable as people being “born in the wrong body”.

While I recognise the painful split that Jane describes, her division of the two teams into “true feminists” and “gender-critical identitarianism” is off the mark.

I think what we are seeing is the contradictions of a philosophy that does not make sense (it envisages a world where male violence is universal, but not biological; where women and men’s interests are negotiated on a “sex-class” basis; where family can be replaced by collective, and where prosperity exists without capitalism). It is another case of when ideology meets reality.

By contrast, what might be called “Mumsnet feminism” focuses on the messy material reality of mothers, fathers (good and bad, present and absent) and children, who need care and protection. It may be low on theory but it can see gender ideology and queer theory for what it is; an attack on the social structures that protect children (many of which are derided as part of the patriarchy by those who see the world this way).

A key theme running through criticisms of the “populists” in the magazine is disapproval at calling-out the behaviour of male sexual deviants in dresses, and at “othering” people who pretend to be the opposite sex.

But this is the dark heart of what we have not been allowed to talk about. Pronouns are rohypnol. Language is an evolved, hard-wired risk-appraisal protocol. So too is the ability to see things, say what we see and recognise patterns. The moral disgust reflex is part of this. So too is laughter and ridicule.

Jane argues that we should try to repress feelings of distaste, disgust or mirth at men in women’s clothing (and sometimes that is the polite or prudent thing to do). But encouraging people to repress the tools of pattern recognition and risk appraisal, and cast-out those who don’t is how the gender ideology movement works. It make things unsayable and lowers people’s barriers. Men in women’s spaces should raise alarm. This is the practical truth that the thought-control and language-control has been trying to obscure.

Freedom of expression, the ability to make arguments and observations in plain, simple language is crucial. So too is the ability to mock and laugh (which is a means of saying that something isn’t right). None of this should be forbidden.

I hope that when the battle for clarity about biological sex in law and policy has been won, a new Darwinian feminist synthesis might develop. Understanding how we came to be does not mean accepting that we cannot change anything.

Right now, though, I am busy trying to work with and communicate with whoever is concerned by gender ideology. Jane Clare Jones and her colleagues may choose to work with a smaller circle that doesn’t include me, or Helen, Kellie-Jay, Kathleen Stock or Mary Harrington, or religious women and men, or conservative women and men, or so many ordinary people who just want to say men are not women, and children need protecting.

In a choice between being part of an ideologically pure sisterhood and pragmatic and effective impact, I would chose impact.

4 Responses to “On Gender-critical disputes”

  1. 1 Amanda Harper

    Following you from Medium….

    Excellent response, Maya. I hope it’s OK if I add my own long form response to the Radical Notion here.

    I started reading the feminism vs femalism article, got about half way thru then skimmed it. Kudos to you for keeping at it.

    The article spends a long time defining the axis of oppression of women due to sex, then does a quick hand wave to say that some women are also oppressed on the axis of oppression of race and economic class, so anti-racism and anti-capitalism are part of feminism, too.

    Thus, their feminism is indistinguishable from Leftism, in a quick two sentences. And off to the races for a discussion of white nationalism.

    Some women are also discriminated against on the basis of disability, but it didn’t make the list.

    Some women are also discriminated against because of the location of their birth. Or the religion into which they are born.

    A feminism that must accept all Leftie dogma including multi-culturalism is quickly defanged by cultural relativism.

    So many prominent inclusional feminists were unable to frame a coherent response to the mass sexual assault in Cologne, Germany, New Year’s eve 2016. Mustn’t say a word that could possibly be critical of allowing masses of young Muslim men into a country and the possible threats to actual women already living there. Perhaps it was understandable that the young poor brown men assaulted the privileged white women. Hierarchy of oppression and all that, best to sweep it all under the rug with the German authorities.

    (In the US, the presidential candidate Trump called it an awful event that we could not allow to happen here, so he would protect American women by fixing the immigration system. [promise not kept] The feminist candidate Hillary Clinton ignored it, said nothing. Such a great feminist triumph when she….did not become president)

    Holly Lawford Smith wrote an article in Quillette recently which discussed a recent forum on feminism that couldn’t focus on the struggles of women *as women* because it had to be inclusive of concerns of race and trans, focusing on the most marginalized, always. No need to hear from white hetero cis-privileged Karens at all.

    For feminism to be worthy of the name, it really must focus on the rights and needs of female people. Seems obvious to me, as a non-academic, anyway.

    If anyone confronts me during a discussion and says I’m not a real feminist, I say ‘Fine. You can have feminism, I’ll keep working for women’s rights.’

    Women are not an identity. Being an adult human female human being is our reality. I don’t identify as a woman, I am a woman.

    If that’s now called femalism, I’ll sign up.

  2. 2 Josh

    The idea that wealth creation without capitalism is impossible is purely an item of faith. A tiny, unaccountable cadre of rentiers at the top of the economy does NOT create wealth. Labor does that.

  3. 3 Lynne Harne

    Not everything can be explained through evolutionary theory – infact alot of neo-Darwinism is untrue and challenged through anthropology which you clearly haven’t read and I suggest you do, .starting with the great feminist pioneer Margaret Mead. For example the nuclear family cannot be found in every society, matriarchies where women raised children collectively, pre-dated patriarchal control over children and mothers, only when men discovered their biological role in reproduction. As Mead showed however there were still varied cultural differences in the societies she studied. You also talk as though rape is a natural phenomena, it’s not it is promoted through the social construction of male supremacy and therefore sense of entitlement to women’s bodies .Even the suffragettes knew that when they called for chastity in men

  4. “Right now, though, I am busy trying to work with and communicate with whoever is concerned by gender ideology.”

    Brava! Practical philosophy. We can work with others on a common goal without having to agree on everything else.

    Re: Amanda Harper’s comment above on Hillary Clinton losing — she won the popular vote by around 3 million. In the UK that would be an election win. The US Electoral College system is a non-democratic system which gives sparsely populated states increased representation at the expense of states with larger population. For example, a ballot for one person in Montana may be equivalent to the ballots for 2 persons in California. The US Senate has an similar system which is even worse as far as proportional representation. Trump lost the popular vote but won the Electoral College. Makes no sense, but there it is.

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