The redefinition of ‘gender’ harms women
[This is the original text of an article translated into German and published in Schweizer Monat, 1st December 2021. The original (paywalled) is here.]
While ‘feminism’ is a household term, few people are likely to be able to describe the many distinct types of feminism jockeying for prime position in the public imagination. Even fewer are likely to have heard of ‘gender-critical feminism’, the newest and perhaps most controversial type to join the tussle. But feminism’s internecine conflict is spilling out of activist groups and the academy, into public life, and piquing the curiosity of people with no particular interest in feminism and no particular history of thinking of themselves as feminists.
At first glance, it’s hard to see what’s controversial about the commitments of gender-critical feminism, or why they’re inspiring such wrath from other types of feminists that the conflict has become a matter of general interest. Gender-critical feminists, reviving the tradition of radical feminism begun in the late 1960s in the United States, believe that there are two sexes (and differences of sexual development don’t disprove this); that the female sex has been historically subordinated; that sex equality has not yet been achieved in any country, although more progress has been made in some countries than others; and that until there is sex equality, and as a means to achieving it, it remains important to protect female people’s sex-based rights in law.
If it seems unusual that I said ‘female people’s sex-based rights’ here instead of the more direct ‘women’s rights’, the explanation is in the fact that there is conflict over the most basic terms feminists use. Gender-critical feminists think that a ‘woman’ is an adult human female, while many of our opponents disagree, and think that a ‘woman’ is any person who declares themselves to be a woman. If I wanted to put our opponents’ view in our language, then I would say they think a woman is ‘a person of either sex who declares themselves a woman’, but this would bias the matter in our favour, for our opponents are mostly sex denialists. They think that sex is a social construct, or a performance, or ‘points in a multidimensional space’, or a ‘vast, infinitely malleable continuum’. With sex out of the way, all that’s left is ‘gender’, here understood not in the way feminists first conceived it—as ‘sex roles’—but rather reconceived as an identity. ‘Woman’, ‘man’, and ‘nonbinary’, are ways that people feel about themselves, on a par with other aspects of identity like nationality (e.g. ‘Swiss’), ethnicity/culture (e.g. ‘Persian’), relationships (e.g. ‘mother’), career (e.g. ‘journalist’), and more.
The philosopher Charles Taylor wrote in his 1992 essay ‘The Politics of Recognition’ of identity as “a person’s understanding of who they are, of their fundamental defining characteristics as a human being”. A prominent idea at the time was that identity required social recognition, that “a person or group of people can suffer real damage, real distortion, if the people or society around them mirror back to them a confining or demeaning or contemptible picture of themselves”, and that non-recognition could “inflict harm” and “be a form of oppression”. If ‘gender identity’ is a new aspect of identity, and identity requires social recognition (non-recognition can do harm, or be oppressive), then withholding recognition of a person’s ‘gender identity’ is a moral wrong. We seem to have an easy explanation of why there is such a fierce moral reaction to the gender-critical feminists’ commitments.
If gender-critical feminists are right that sex matters, then the sex of people with gender identities matters too. This creates a tension between how gender-critical feminists categorize transwomen, namely by sex, as males; and how many transwomen categorize themselves, namely by gender identity, as ‘women’. This tension becomes a conflict of interests when it comes to previously sex-segregated spaces and services. If these should remain allocated by sex, then trans people will be excluded; if they should be reallocated by gender identity, then there will no longer be single-sex spaces and services. So, are gender identities owed recognition?—and more to the point, are they owed recognition as displacing sexes?
Calling something an aspect of ‘identity’ doesn’t make it unassailable. National identity, for example, has been the target of substantial criticism from cosmopolitans who think it encourages a form of partialism towards co-nationals that can then be used to justify insufficiently compassionate national immigration policy. Someone Australian who strongly identifies as Australian may be criticisable: perhaps they should see themselves as a ‘citizen of the world’ instead. Identities can change: denying that would be unduly constraining of a person’s autonomy and opportunities. Some identities have truth conditions: someone who identifies as a writer but hasn’t written a word in their life is probably making a mistake. If there can be problems with aspects of identity in general, then there’s no reason to think there can’t be problems with ‘gender identity’ in particular.
And indeed, that is exactly what gender-critical feminists maintain. ‘Gender identity’ is not a new aspect of identity, it is an appropriation of an existing concept—gender—that was crucial to feminism. ‘Gender’ was a term for the social and cultural practices imposed on the basis of sex, conditioning women to think of themselves in particular ways, and to act in particular ways. Gender is what makes female people feminine, or at least tries to. This concept is indispensable to feminism. So it is of huge moral significance that other types of feminists are ceding this ground, and not only going along with, but actively policing resistance to the transformation of the concept from something externally imposed to something internally decided and then declared. Gender on the old understanding had nothing to do with identity. Gender on the new understanding is entirely identity. Whether you can understand the conflict between gender-critical feminists and other types of feminists, and now between members of the broader public siding with either camp, depends on whether you can understand what is at stake for women in this change.
‘Recognition’ of gender identity is not merely a way of avoiding doing harm, or being an oppressor. It is a move against one marginalised group (women) and for another (people with declared gender identities). It is an acquiescence to appropriated concepts, and appropriated experiences—for anyone who thinks a declaration of ‘woman’ identity entitles a person to the legal protections of the female sex is granting a male person protections that he is not entitled to and does not need. The social recognition of women, the prior project intended to bring women fully into public life, requires the accommodation of women’s differences. The most important differences are those of sex, and the social and cultural meaning that has come to be attached to being female over thousands of years. When women say there is nothing more to being a woman than being female, thus rejecting men’s ideas about what they should be like, does it not “mirror back to them a confining or demeaning or contemptible picture of themselves” to insist that ‘woman’ is an identity any person can adopt—most commonly expressed by males in a superficially ‘feminine’ presentation?
No ‘recognition’ of another group should be permitted to infringe on this prior project of achieving sex equality, and certainly not when there are alternatives readily available. ‘Gender identities’ can easily be protected as independent attributes rather than being so persistently conflated with sex. Protecting them separately advances both group’s projects; protecting ‘gender identity’ as sex is destructive to women’s equality.
I said above that ‘the social recognition of women… requires the accommodation of women’s differences’. It’s worth unpacking this a little more. Taylor didn’t stop at the idea that identity requires recognition. He wanted to know what exactly recognition required. Was it ‘universalism’, abolishing hierarchies and treating everyone the same? Or was it respect for ‘difference’ and ‘distinctness’, protecting minority groups and individuals against assimilation into the dominant culture? Disagreement over which of these was required lead naturally to tensions: those who thought recognition required universalism saw ‘reverse-discrimination’ measures as violating the principle of treating everyone the same, while those who thought recognition required the accommodation of difference saw ‘difference-blindness’ as a way of pretending at equality while refusing to take the steps required to secure equal outcomes.
Taylor’s question makes more sense in the context of multiculturalism, however, where minority group differences are often positive. Things are not so straightforward when it comes to feminism.
In her 1984 essay ‘Difference and Dominance: On Sex Discrimination’, Catharine MacKinnon had argued that asking about ‘sameness’ and ‘difference’ (in Taylor’s later terms, ‘universalism’ and ‘difference’) in the context of sex equality presumes a male standard. Who is she the same as? Men. Who is she different from? Men. In either case, men are the standard against which she is measured. So if we think equality requires sameness, the implication will be that we make women the same as men; if we think equality requires the accommodation of difference, it will be women’s differences from men that must be accommodated. MacKinnon wrote “To one-sidedly measure one group’s differences against a standard set by the other incarnates partial standards. The moment when one’s particular qualities become part of the standard by which humanity is measured is a millennial moment”. If women and men are different, then they are different from each other. MacKinnon urges us to throw out the whole ‘sameness or difference’ way of thinking, and to replace it with thinking about dominance instead. The task is to challenge and change male dominance. “Take your foot off our necks”, she wrote, “give women equal power in social life”.
The significance of MacKinnon’s insight, I think, is that we must be agnostic about sex difference. Because woman has been denied equal power for so long, we have no way of knowing whether how she happens to be is a matter of her nature, or a matter of her social and cultural shaping. “Can you imagine elevating one half of a population and denigrating the other half and producing a population in which everyone is the same?”, MacKinnon asked. John Stuart Mill had made a similar point in in his 1869 essay ‘The Subjection of Women’, remarking that “What is now called the nature of women is an eminently artificial thing—the result of forced repression in some directions, unnatural stimulation in others”. All we know is that men and women are different from each other now. He perpetrates the bulk of the violence; she performs worse in most sports. ‘Recognition’ of these differences would risk naturalising and entrenching them. Some may be natural, so that may turn out not to have been a bad thing, but we don’t know that yet. The best we can do from this position of uncertainty is adopt a set of instrumental or contingent policies aimed at increasing women’s capacities and opportunities. Operationalizing MacKinnon’s “taking [men’s] [feet] off our necks” means creating spaces, services, and provisions designed to enhance and equalize women’s social power. That is what justifies women’s sports, women’s healthcare, women’s legal protections against sex discrimination. Taylor was not dealing with instances of ‘recognition’ that would cost another marginalized group their equality.
In one sense, gender-critical feminism is not new. It is a new name for an old type of feminism, namely radical feminism. The new name carves out some space for it to adapt radical feminism to the contemporary landscape, dropping ideas that didn’t work, without being accused by the original proponents of making mistakes in what the theory is. But in another sense, gender-critical feminism is new, because it emerges in the context of a mainstream feminism with a tight grip on the public imagination, at least on the political left, and it vehemently opposes it. Gender-critical feminism is not ‘queer’, as most Gender Studies classes would teach that feminism is nowadays, is not for everyone, does not believe everyone has a ‘gender identity’. It rejects the claim that a ‘gender identity’ has anything to do with sex, or should be protected as sex in law. It rejects popular feminist framings of women’s subordination as ‘a woman’s choice’ or women’s ‘exercise of her agency’. It cares about the social structure that shapes a woman’s choices, rather than only the choices she happens to make within it. Gender-critical feminism is not intersectional (or is intersectional in only a very specific, limited way). Most importantly, gender-critical feminism is unapologetically female-focused. Female people (for us, ‘women’) are the largest minority group on the planet, and sex equality is still far from a reality. Gender-critical feminism is what MacKinnon called, in 1983, ‘feminism unmodified’.