I thought Claudia Raven’s attempt to navigate the recent discussion around trans rights and women’s rights was far too unquestioning of the dominant left narrative on the issues.
A recurrent feature of that narrative is to minimise or dismiss the concerns raised by some feminists as exaggerations, shallow or, worse still, transphobic.
I agree that we should be for the freedom to break out of gender roles, including the championing of the rights of transgender people, transsexuals, and transvestites, opposition to discrimination on grounds of gender identity as well as sexuality and for the provision of support for those suffering from body dysmorphia. Within a shared support for those rights, however, there is scope for significant discussion.
First, I think we should treat the concerns of feminists with some respect and seriousness. Claudia defines the questioners as “mainly based on radical feminism” and then ascribes to them “the narrow view that women’s oppression is entirely caused by biological differences”. But that is a caricature, even of radical feminism.
In fact, all sorts of feminists, not least socialist feminists, have raised concerns. Later in her article this is grudgingly acknowledged when there is mention of feminist arguments rooted in Marxism and materialism. She summarises these as the belief that “biological sex is the basis for women’s oppression” and “that gender is a value system designed to maintain the sexual hierarchy”. These are important ideas which, if they are mistaken, deserve some serious debunking. This isn’t achieved by simply placing inverted commas around words like materialism, as if to dismiss the very idea that there might some serious points here.
Beyond that Claudia offers the statement that “Workers Liberty understands that women’s oppression is more complex than biology”. This understanding goes well beyond WL and is common to all socialist, and very many radical, feminists. To say that women’s oppression is “more complex than” biological sex is not to deny that it is nevertheless very much about biological sex.
The oppression of the working class is more complex than what happens at the point of production but it would be evasion and miseducation to take this to mean that the relations of production were unimportant or just one of a number of factors, no more important than any of the others.
As the old Women’s Fightback pamphlet, The Case for Socialist Feminism stated “That women should be the sex to be subjugated is facilitated by her biological functions”. It has been startling to see women and other feminists who defend these ideas dismissed in such cavalier fashion.
Secondly, definitions and material realities do matter. The feminists under attack, by and large, define women as a biological sex, humans with specific sexual characteristics including the capacity (typically though with exceptions and as against men) to reproduce.
Their opponents seem reluctant to define the term at all, more concerned to ensure that it’s a description open to anyone who wants to claim it. Is that not a problem? Maybe only an intellectual problem but surely a problem.
Third, there appears to me to be a persistent use of the terms sex and gender as if they are interchangeable. In this way a social construct which (I assume) we want to see abolished is treated in the same way as a basic biological reality which we cannot.
There is a broader problem with this in that it can reinforce and perpetuate the very gender stereotypes it purports to transcend. The left now is awash with talk of “behaving like a woman”, being “a real woman/man”. There was a time when we challenged such ideas.
Finally, while I can’t decide how much all of this matters in practice, I do think it matters. Maybe some of the practical concerns raised by some feminists are misplaced. For sure some will be less serious than others.
However, the rape victim who requests that her counsellor is a natal woman is not a transphobe. The lesbian who refuses to see anyone with a penis as a potential sexual partner is not a bigot.
The support and advice given to young people with concerns about their gender identity should be holistic and broad and not assume that transition is always the appropriate response. And the growing number of people who have detransitioned and want to talk about it are in no way equivalent to the gay conversion bigots of the past. I have seen the opposite asserted about all of these issues in recent weeks.
We won’t get either the theory and understanding or the public policy issues right if we treat the debate as one between liberationists and oppressors, not least because these debates are also taking place within the trans community and not simply outside it.
Many feminists who have raised concerns do so not because they “don’t yet get it” but because they have genuine questions. We should make an effort to properly address those concerns.