by Deirdre O’Neill
It is becoming quite acceptable for certain sections of the left to declare that people like me – women who are ‘gender critical’ – should not be allowed in leftist or anarchist spaces. Leaving aside the arrogance and implicit authoritarianism of this claim, its lack of critical engagement with the stance of ‘gender critical’ women is the thing that astounds the most. I have been involved in radical politics all my life so I find it incredible (and that’s putting it politely) that people I do not know, who have no knowledge of me or my personal and political trajectory think they have the right to declare me not welcome in ‘leftist spaces’.
The issue here is that significant parts of the left have accepted without question and without debate the fundamental claim of trans activists that transwomen are women. And they have internalized transactivism’s immunization from rational dialogue by denouncing everyone who does not agree with this claim, as ‘bigot’, ‘terf’, full of ‘bile’ and ‘hatred’. The idea that trans rights as currently formulated may clash with women’s rights, seems inconceivable to those who have accepted what seems to me a pre-Enlightenment dogma, that trans women are women. Is it too much to enquire, without being called a ‘bigot’, that maybe, just maybe, trans rights can be guaranteed on a different basis, without making the claim, trans women are women (or trans men are men)? But first a little more about me — that someone who does not belong in left spaces apparently.
I am a Marxist. I was brought up a Marxist by my Irish Republican dad who left Belfast at the age of 16 to work here in England so he could send money home to his mother. As we, his children, grew up he told us many stories about the houses with rooms to rent where the windows had signs in them saying ‘no blacks, no dogs, no Irish’. He suffered racism all his life, from being called ‘paddy’ by people he did not know, to being the butt of jokes about how stupid the Irish are, to being labelled a terrorist and stopped by the police when ‘the troubles’ were on in the 1970’s, for the crime of having an Irish accent.
Both my parents were manual workers; my dad worked on building sites and my mum was a cleaner and then a school dinner lady. I left school at 16 with no qualifications and brought my daughter up on a council estate while claiming benefits and cleaning the houses of the middle classes to make sure we could eat. I know what it is to be vilified, looked down on and wonder where the next meal is coming from consequentially I interpret the world through the perspective of class.
I went to university at thirty five, now have a PhD and have been teaching in the university sector for the last 20 or so years, so I also know what it is like to inhabit the world of the middle classes. I have never been or ever wanted to be fully accepted into that world. I have written about class, made films about class, my politics are class based, I am acutely aware of the everyday injuries (and rewards) of being working class. As a working class woman I long ago rejected middle class feminism as an off shoot of capitalism where privileged women argued for the right to be treated the same and paid the same as middle class men –but whose feminism did nothing to overthrow the structural inequalities that meant their success would still be dependent on the labour of the working class women who clean their houses and look after their children.
I have sketched in these biographical details because I want to make it clear that I have direct experience of oppression and exploitation on many fronts mostly because of my class but also my Irishness and lately my sex. I do not write the following from a privileged position.
Class and women’s liberation
My aim as a working class woman has always been to overthrow capitalism (not on my own, obviously), not adapt myself to fit more easily into it. Therefore the concept of a universal sisterhood where I joined with other women on the basis we were all women appeared to me idealistic in the extreme. I considered it nothing more than an abstraction that ignored the very real differences of income, educational achievement, occupational status and life choices of working class women like me.
In fact I have always found I have more in common with working class men than I could ever have with middle class women. We share experiences of hardship, exploitation and struggle. As far as I was concerned the only thing I had in common with middle class women was my biology — the experiences we share are biological ones — menstruation, child birth, miscarriages, lactation, abortions, the menopause etc. (even though not all women experience all of these).
But it is precisely on these biological grounds I now find my self aligning with all women who are gender-critical.
It is important to realise how gender relations have always played a role in the reproduction of capitalist society and capitalist reproduction has always depended on the oppression and exploitation of women. But for working class women that oppression and exploitation has manifested itself differently from the privileged lives of middle and upper class women. Understanding how patriarchy manifests in class specific ways has always informed my feminism. The essentialism I witnessed in the middle class version of feminism was simply a strategy that worked to denigrate or ignore the experiences and knowledge of working class women and exclude them from the public sphere.
Although not a class in the way that Marx proposed it, women are, as a biological category, different from men for all the reasons I have just stated but also because of the way in which gendered expectations construct a (classed) version of women –call it femininity — that fits well into the needs of a capitalist society for unpaid labour.
But biological sex allows us to make distinctions based on biological needs as well as recognizing biologically-determined capacities. Recognising this in a positive rather than discriminatory way allows society to give women’s rights over their bodies and needs — a struggle which as the recent Irish referendum on the Eighth Amendment shows, is ongoing.
Sex is the scaffolding upon which gender roles are constructed. It depends upon both the conscious and unconscious wielding of power reinforced by cultural norms that are both personal and institutional. The idea that one can individually and on the basis of feelings opt out of these realities is an extraordinary basis for left politics as far as I am concerned.
Gender = imposed sex stereotypes
Biological women have certain gendered expectations imposed on them — in just the same way that men have gendered expectations imposed upon them. And while I would argue it is impossible to change sex it is possible to feel uncomfortable with the imposition of gendered expectations. The imposition of rigid gender roles is never completely and unquestionably successful because variables such as personality, family dynamics and societal influences exert a greater or lesser influence on their development. Boys and men who do not conform to rigid gender expectations of toughness, rationality etc. are not the opposite sex they are men who do not conform to gendered expectations.
Gender stereotypes of women occur when biological attributes are transformed into ‘female traits’. Mimicking these ‘traits’ does not mean it is possible to change your biological make up – it simply means you have learned and accepted some very specific and selective ways in which women are constrained to behave so that they can both please and be dominated by men –that is how gender is produced. People are not born gendered, gender is something they learn — therefore it is possible for men to learn to act like women, to ‘perform’ femininity -but they can never be women.
But rather than define and defend their own rights, as gays and lesbians did, as people of colour have had to do, the trans movement makes an extraordinary and unprecedented move in the history of human rights: they want to claim not the universal rights that all people should have access to but the rights of another group (women) by claiming and appropriating their identities. This means appropriating those rights that have been put in place specifically to advantage or simply protect biological women such as, for example, all women short lists. This then is a question of power — and for an oppressed minority trans women have demonstrated amazing definitional power, persuading politicians, trade unionists, educationalists and even the medical profession that biological sex is a matter of self-identification by conflating and confusing sex with gender.
Transgender movement – neither progressive nor radical
The transgender movement is neither progressive nor radical because it has no wish to transcend the limitations of capitalism but rather to isolate the signifiers of a socially constructed femininity in order to reinforce and reproduce them. Therefore the potential for a radical rejection of a patriarchal capitalist society is impossible within trans ideology, which works to maintain the divisions that contribute to its continuing existence. Instead of working towards a more androgynous society in which there are not female qualities and male qualities separate and imposed on each gender, the trans movement wishes to sustain the divisions that reinforce the oppression of women and places unrealistic demands on men in relation to the concept of masculinity.
As someone who was a teenager in the 1970s when there was a real and sustained attempt to break down the socially-constructed roles associated with gender I have been genuinely shocked by the re-emergence of old established – and I thought discredited – ideas related to how men and women should dress and behave and the talk of such essentialist concepts as ‘lady brains’.
In a hierarchal capitalist society questions of power are essential, the wielding of power means access to advantages, privileges and most importantly profits that those without power are denied. Historically speaking it has been men who have wielded the most power between the sexes therefore I would argue what we are witnessing with the trans movement is a group of men who wish to be treated as women exhibiting the traditional socialized behavioral dominance of the male sex. The acceptance of the trans narrative as a given has resulted in the systemic validation of one group of people at the expense of another. It is only by including the experiences of all groups that we can understand fully the broader social and political ramifications of the trans movement.
Making women conform to the needs of men
It is important to acknowledge that sexism is an historical process that manifests itself differently in different historical epochs. This latest manifestation of the social relations between men and women has much in common with previous ones concerned as it is with the subjugation of biological females, their disciplining and the insistence they conform to the needs of men. It is to all intents and purposes yet another patriarchal strategy designed to keep women subservient to the demands of men by actually erasing the category of women as a meaningful one.
Why else would this particular movement demand the removal of sex-based safeguards designed to protect women based on their biology? Why would they wish to remove the strategies that have been put in place to ensure biological women are represented within the public political sphere? Why would children who exhibit gender nonconformity be railroaded into socially constructed gender positions and encouraged to begin medicalization to align their gender (now conceived as fixed) with a sex different to the one they are born with? Why else would they demand a change in the language we use to describe women’s bodily functions such as childbirth and breast-feeding? And why would any nuanced discussion of these things be dismissed with accusations of bigotry and hate speech? Gender relations cannot be transformed while the objective realities of sex and sex-based oppression are ignored.
Far from abolishing gender distinctions the trans movement has actually entrenched them further and allowed women who disagree with them to be shouted down by men and other women. The insistence on men being accepted as women does nothing to change the conditions of the vast majority of women – particularly working class women, how could it? What we have is the ideological legitimation of men illustrating quite starkly that ‘gender’ relations are not simply about the attitudes men and women have towards each other but the part those relations play in society. The multiple subject positions of left identity politics has fractured the left and allowed the existing social relations of capitalism to remain in place. That is why the trans movement must be situated within the wider context of social, institutional and structural relations and considered from the standpoint of the lived social relations of capitalism. Feminism, to be truly effective, must be part and parcel of the fight against capitalism.
Capitalism and the rise of transgender ideology and movement
The deregulation of society that began with Thatcherism and accelerated under Blair — has meant that the cultural, social, economic and moral barriers to individual gratification have gradually been eroded. Rewriting the script of sexed power dynamics not only trivializes the objective reality of the lives of women but also instills liberal banalities celebrating individualism as the ultimate in progressive politics. This as we are witnessing allows for a move away from analysis towards an emphasis on feelings and self-validation.
The rise of individualism and the centering of individual wants as human rights at the expense of collective needs represent both the extension of a consumer society and the guarantee of its reproduction. It means nothing is safe if anything can be appropriated, if anything can be claimed to belong to those who simply want it or feel it, without situating that want within the social relations within which it is embedded.
I began this by talking about my identity and background — but only to underscore that I know all about discrimination, not to play top trumps with my working class Irish identity. We have to get right the question of rights – for women and for trans people. Non-pathological engagement with objective realities (such as not pursuing practices that make the planet uninhabitable) requires the extension of democracy, including the extension – not the contraction – of democratic debate. If the left allows the trans militants to silence women, shut us down, make violent threats, nod approvingly every time they pressure venues to close their doors to our meetings, employers to sack them, organisations such as the Labour Party which they are members of, to expel them, then we are heading for very dark times indeed.
The above article first appeared last year on Medium. Thanks heaps to Deirdre for passing it our way.