Earlier this year, Cardiff University had to vote whether to cancel a planned lecture by Germaine Greer at the request of their woman’s officer Rachael Melhuish, who advanced a threat of ‘No Platform’ against the second-wave feminist icon. The issue at task was Greer’s view on transgender women, namely that they aren’t women at all. Melhuish takes this as transphobia, hence bigotry, and hence pushed for censorship. There’s much that could be said about this incident, but here I want to take it as an opportunity to consider one of the essential clashes of gender concepts within the feminist movements.
For the most part, I’m reluctant to talk about gender in public. Despite all the great achievements of the feminist movements since the original fight for suffrage in the nineteenth century, we have now reached a point in time where all discussion of gender is dominated by feminist voices. This is a more important point than is usually considered. While we have certainly not reached a time where anything that could be called gender equality is the norm, we no longer live at a time when all power relations are resolutely male. If we accept ‘male’ and ‘female’ as the unfeasibly broad categories that they are, there is both male and female power at work in our world. While that has always been the case in some sense, I don’t believe it is unfair to say that ‘female power’ has never been greater than it is right now. That is certainly a cause for celebration for anyone for whom equality is an ideal to aspire to. It is also a sign that feminism – itself also a rather excessively broad term – is in dire need of reflection upon its own situations.
What I hope to present here is only a rather minor contribution to the discussion. To be frank, I could not hope to eclipse the intersectionality critique in its importance for contemporary feminism, and it is worth briefly explaining the thrust of this cluster of arguments before I develop my own. The stepping point for intersectionality is Kimberlé Crenshaw’s 1989 legal theory paper “Demarginalizing the intersection of race and sex” that argues that you cannot understand what it is to be a black woman solely in terms of being black and being a woman, because the intersection between these two categories has its own experience – one that Crenshaw suggests can be more significant than either of its supposedly constituent elements. This has lead to a long overdue recognition that feminism was largely a set of movements driven by middle class white women in affluent nations who were frequently imposing their ideals upon women whose situation was radically different. I do not believe the significance of intersectionality has come even close to being addressed at this time.
We come, then, to the start of my concerns. The stated objective of contemporary feminism is attain equality for women, and I shall trust that this claim is not in dispute, which of course it could be. But there are two vast problems with this mission statement that create complications for the feminist movements, namely the concepts of ‘equality’ and ‘women’. The problems of taking ‘equality’ as an ideal are discussed in my book of moral philosophy, Chaos Ethics, and I will not pursue this point here beyond saying that any attempt to make some set of beings equal is necessarily founded upon other beings being excluded from the set. This does not make equality a non-viable ideal, but it requires more careful understanding than is usually provided. What I instead want to pick up here is the other horn of this beast, ‘women’, or more broadly ‘female’. Because feminism as it is often presented now requires this concept to be strongly construed – and that is a source of significant problems.
It is vital to appreciate why I insist on talking about ‘feminist movements’ and not ‘feminists’: feminism is an umbrella under which radically different perspectives shelter, and umbrellas are objects that all too conveniently turn into weapons when wielded in rage. It therefore matters greatly which feminist movement or movements we are talking about when we make claims about feminism. A significant number of people who identify as feminists take a deconstructive view on gender, which is to say that they claim that the importance of gender is overemphasised, that male and female humans share more in common by virtue of being human than they are distinct by having different genitalia and hormonal patterns. On the deconstructive view, it is a mistake to put too much faith into the concept of ‘male’ and ‘female’ (or any equivalent term) because to do so is to artificially endorse, empower, or (as the scholars like to say) reify terms that lead us astray from the true basis of our potential equality – that we are all human. This view has significant support from those scientists who claim to speak for gender, although this in no way closes the issue since the sciences thankfully lack this kind of authority to silence voices.
But elsewhere in the feminist movements, a vast number of people who identify as feminists take a strict view on gender, with firmly construed concepts of what it is to be ‘female’ (sometimes with the additional assumption that what is not ‘female’ is ‘male’), a position that is diametrically opposed to the deconstructive view for evident reasons. This becomes particularly clear when dealing with the questions raised by transgender people, that is, those who have lived their lives under conflicting influences of both male and female gender identities, and (in many cases) have participated in medical and surgical interventions to ‘reassign’ their gender. This word ‘reassign’ is clear evidence of a strict view on gender: it makes rather less sense to ‘reassign’ a gender on most deconstructive views. (I put this term in scare quotes because I question the unstated assumption here about the power of doctors, not to question the logic of transgender experience, an issue tied up in the usage of the term ‘cis’ that must wait for another occasion.)
Now we return to the opening point: the attempted exclusion of Germaine Greer from the people worthy of respect on purportedly feminist grounds. I am far from the only person troubled by this; Zoe Williams expresses the problem with admirable brevity. In terms of the concepts of gender, however, feminist movements who decide to ally conceptually with transgender people must use a strict view since the forms of life described by this term are ones in which such strict concepts of gender are required to make them coherent. On the deconstructive view, it simply cannot matter sufficiently that any given construal of gender is of a certain character that you would have to recognise yourself as governed by the wrong gender concept and need to identify with the other gender concept, since there are always more than two concepts of gender on this perspective. The kinds of experiences entailed in transgender identities are only available to people operating with strict gender concepts. One consequence of this is that to take on the issues of transgender people is to risk enforcing strict gender conceptions that at least some feminists would rather we did not take so strongly or uncritically.
So which strict gender concepts are we expected to adopt? It’s far from clear, and trangender people are no better positioned to answer this question than anyone else. Those on the deconstructive view recognise a panoply of different strict gender concepts and, generally speaking, deny any of them has any coherent force or authority. Where, then, does the deconstructive view leave transgender people whose existence has been transformed by experiences of specific, strict gender concepts? Germaine Greer thinks transgender women are ‘not women’, because that’s what her strict gender view means to her; Rachael Melhuish presumably thinks transgender women ‘are women’, or her attacks on Greer make no sense, and Melhuish comes from a background of recognizing and advancing the intersectionality critique. This strongly suggests to me that intersectionality is not an answer to any problem but merely a question that we have not yet become skilled at answering, and answering it in this specific context might well be about working out how the deconstructive view and the myriad strict views of genders can interrelate without being explicitly opposed to one another.
Here is where the problems of feminism cross into the problems of equality, and cease to be the exclusive purview of feminists. Indeed, issues of equality – and of gender – were never exclusive to feminism, and intersectionality is the wake up call that should have made that clearer than it still is. We are a long way from any plausible possibility of decommissioning feminism as no longer necessary, but we are always a little too close to instituting a perverse kind of Feminine Empire under a mis-wielded banner of equality. That such a metaphorical empire would not be the most powerful institution of its kind is hardly an argument in its favour. Rather, as Zoe Williams points out, any attempt to move in such a direction merely empowers the existing status quo. With every kind of movement, you have to be careful where it is that you are moving towards.
Feminist movements in general (and individual feminists like Melhuish) are not mistaken in thinking that action in support of transgender people is needed, but they are gravely mistaken if they think failing to respect other feminists, like Germaine Greer, is honourable conduct. One can disagree with the views of a person without having to target them for censorship, and one can respect a remarkable pioneer in the history of feminism for fighting a difficult political battle at a time when it was far, far, more challenging to do so without ever coming close to accepting every aspect of her worldview without question or challenge. If Greer’s views on some topic are misguided, we owe it to both her and ourselves to debate her on the topic.
If we’re all going to live together in some kind of equality, we must be open to negotiating what equality means, for it cannot be calculated in advance, much less enforced by any arbitrary faction. In this political challenge, every concept of gender, race, and identity should be perpetually open to re-negotiation. That state of affairs can only be fostered by open discourse, it can never be advanced by censorship. The moment it swings the other way, we have all lost.
The opening image is Summer Days, an acrylic painting by Julia De Sano that is for sale here. As ever, no copyright infringement is intended and I will take the image down if asked.
Debate and commentary is always welcome, but please try to remain polite to all participants regardless of their perspective.