Socialist feminism without the socialism

Submitted by Matthew on 13 December, 2017 - 11:18 Author: Cathy Nugent
Womens power emblem

The setting up of a socialist feminist network/website should have been worth investigating.

But a look at its contents indicates that the network/website has been set up purely to voice concerns over forthcoming possible amendments to the Gender Recognition Act (GRA), specifically that transgender people will be able to register a change of gender by self-declaration.

The site includes a Q&A on the GRA and promotion of a new campaign Women's Place UK. That campaign's statement says that while it supports transgender rights it believes self-declaration may undermine the integrity of women-only spaces; in the forthcoming consultation on the GRA women's groups (unspecified) should be consulted.

I disagree with this stance against self-declaration. If self-definition (and thereby self-declaration in a registering process) is a false or insufficient basis on which people should be allowed to live their lives, in this case be a woman, what do you put in its place? It can only be a more or less elaborate system of institutionalised vetting procedures where a transwoman is not a good enough woman, a semi-woman, and second class citizen, who can never gain entry to parts of society that other women have automatic access to.

But these arguments have been dealt with in previous issues of Solidarity (448 and 452) and are not what I want to take up here. As a socialist feminist I was annoyed by the description of socialist feminism which the site puts forward. For brevity, I'll focus on this statement from the Q&A:

"Feminists do not conflate sex and gender. Sex is a scientific term for one's biology, and this cannot be changed. As materialists we believe the root of women's oppression lies in her biology, a view underpinning socialist theory for generations. Gender theory does not provide an alternative credible analysis and it is regressive. Queer theorists see the intimate connection between biological sex and oppression and react by trying to dismantle the notion of biological sex whilst socialists and feminists react by seeking to dismantle oppression."

I agree that biological sex and gender should not be conflated, but that is hardly controversial.

If there is an increasing conflation of the two categories in the world it is in ordinary discourse: What's your gender, male or female? asks the official form. To which the only reply is with annotation in the margin of the form saying, "female is my biological sex!"

But I see no evidence that queer theorists and gender theorists (which I take to mean academic writing of a certain kind) make that conflation.

In fact, by sometimes obsessively looking at how sex, gender and sexuality do not match up, or are not socially represented in neat and normal patterns, and by focussing on the fluidity of gender and sexuality, those awful gender theorists (Judith Butler is coming, run for the hills!) may, arguably, be doing good work in stopping conflation between sex and gender.

Perhaps the pop at queer theorists and gender theorists is an unstated (and thus dishonest) criticism of some trans activists who do indeed try to dismantle the notion of biological sex. On the other hand, for some, questioning may be a fairer description of the trans activist's argument. On her blog, trans activist Mey Valdivia Rude says sex isn't the Ultimate Biological Reality and argues biological sex is a composite reality where the component parts internal genitalia, external genitalia and gonads don't always match up. She stretches her point quite a lot, but there is a rational core to the point.

In her latest book Testosterone Rex, Cordelia Fine argues that while sex differences between biological males and females are important and interesting, they are often counter-intuitive, and differ radically from social expectations (or, dare we say it, are socially constructed). Differences between sexes have to be understood alongside difference within sexes, range across many different human physical functions, are much more rarely linked to human behaviours than we might imagine and include a vast range of small, essentially very small, and very relative differences. Fine says:

"Humans rank pretty low on the Spectacular Bodily Sex Differences Scale. As [the sociologist] Lisa Wade points out, if we were as sexually dimorphic as the elephant seal, the average human male would tower six feet above the average woman and weigh 550 pounds. "

One of Fine's underlying arguments seems very relevant here. Humans, she says, are adaptive animals. Our biology tells the story of an adaptation, across a human history where male and female humans have worked together collectively to produce a subsistence.

This argument is relevant to my main objection to the next statement which I think is crude and misleading about women's oppression, socialist and socialist feminist politics: "As materialists we believe the root of women's oppression lies in her biology, a view underpinning socialist theory for generations".

Women's biology is not the root of our oppression at all! And it has never been the underpinning of socialist theory.

Socialist feminism in the modern women's movement (from the late 60s), was based on an understanding that women's oppression was rooted in a lethal combination of class and socially-constructed sexual differences — that is gender. Or more precisely, there was a division of labour in society organised around biological sex — women bore and raised children, and did certain kinds of waged labour, which was justified on certain assumed innate capacities (gender ideology). This division of labour is embedded in class-based (and latterly capitalist) social production and is useful for capitalists.

The theory was based on Engels' summary of anthropological evidence about how class society arose alongside the conversion of a benign sexual division of labour (matriarchy, Engels thought, wrongly as it turns out, but only somewhat), into a key mechanism of women's oppression. (In The Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State.)

This development took place over millennia, at different rates across the world, but roughly coinciding with the transition from hunter-gathering societies to horticultural and/or more intensive agricultural production.

Among socialist feminists there were a vast range of lively debates about how the combination of class and sex/gender worked, whether it compromised on the importance of patriarchy in causing human misery, whether the housewife was a new political subject (Wages for Housework), how the family wage functioned and the treachery of the trade union bureaucracy, and last but not least whether the anthropological evidence Engels had to go on could still be relied on.

But never was it said that socialist theory rested on a biological reductionism. One can only argue that if you neither know about or care about the richness of the socialist feminist tradition or only want, for another political purpose, to raise the importance of the biological above the complexities of human society. That is not the socialist project.