Material Girls: why biological sex matters

Kathleen Stock's marvellous new book provides a rigorous, feminist critique of trans ideology.

Ann Furedi

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Topics Books Feminism Politics UK

Kathleen Stock is known as a feminist activist with a commitment to maintaining the biological, sex-based notion of what it is to be a woman. She has endured ‘cancel’ campaigns by students at her university and nationally, but has remained steadfast in her belief that biological sex matters and that one does not become a woman by identifying as one.

Her book Material Girls is a punchy, polemical read that examines the following four principles of gender politics and trans activism: everyone has an inner gender identity; our gender identity might not match our biological sex; gender identity is what makes you a man, a woman or another gender; and, perhaps most crucially, the existence of trans people means that everyone is morally obliged to acknowledge and legally protect gender identity instead of biological sex.

She considers the origins of these ideas and why they have such traction today. She also looks at the problems that arise when activists dictate a change in language-use to others who do not share their assumptions.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I should say I admire Kathleen Stock enormously. As a postgraduate student in her department of philosophy at the University of Sussex, I have seen the malign allegations against her and felt the oppressive effect of an environment in which intellectual disagreement is reduced to personal insult. Whatever you think of Stock’s arguments, you have to concede it takes guts to endure the opposition she faces. And her department deserves credit for supporting her. After all, academics today are not known for sticking to their guns when criticised by students.

That Stock is a philosopher means she is ideally placed to take on those now insisting we change the language we employ in relation to men and women. This is because philosophers, particularly in the analytic tradition, take language and its relationship to concepts seriously. They do so not because they want to be annoyingly nit-picky, but because words, and their precise relationship to meaning and concepts, matter.

Language is at the heart of far more than how we communicate with others – it shapes our thoughts and, through this, our consciousness. It is no exaggeration to say that our language shapes how and what we think, and even who we are as individuals.

This, after all, is why trans activists are so determined to change language. They claim that for as long as we think in the binary terms of man (as exclusively male) and woman (as exclusively female), we are ‘othering’ those who identify as trans – those, that is, who are set apart as being a bit queer (in the sense my mother used it, which is to say ‘peculiar’).

Of course it also follows that, if the concept of women is expanded to include all people who self-identify as women, the meaning of my own perception of myself as a woman is challenged. It means that those common social experiences connected to a common biology (from the cramps of first menstruation through to the hot flushes of menopause – and all the reproductive-related moments in between) are seen as belonging to only a subset of some women – and they’re shared, of course, by some (trans) men, too.

This change represents a seismic shift in what it means ‘to be’, and an equal disruption to what it means ‘to know’. Given trans-inclusive language, especially the extension of the word ‘woman’ to describe biological males, challenges what we know and who we are, it is hardly a surprise that philosophers are leading the fightback. Stock holds that, ‘Features of the world, and our collective human interests in them, are not arbitrary, and that’s what we should be trying to make concepts responsive to’. Too right.

We really do need to consider the importance of biological sex, over and above one’s subjective gender identity. And we certainly need the freedom to discuss and debate these issues. As Stock reminds us:

‘It’s standard practice in philosophy and academia more generally to subject theories and their postulates to trenchant critique. Does a given theory explain the evidence well? Are their rival theories that might explain the evidence better?… To rule these questions out as automatically “transphobic” is potentially to give a pass to bad theorising.’

Stock explains that there is a good reason for the trenchant criticism: ‘History is littered with bad theories and empty theoretical concepts.’

However, she is absolutely clear that our understanding of the relationship between sex and gender should not affect the way trans people are treated in society. ‘They deserve to be safe, to be visible throughout society without shame or stigma’, she writes, ‘and to have exactly the life opportunities non-trans people do’. She states that ‘trans people are trans people. We should get over it.’

To most people that would seem a sensible, tolerant and largely uncontroversial statement. But it also mirrors and challenges the slogan of LGBT advocacy groups like Stonewall. Three years ago, Stonewall asserted: ‘Trans women are women… Get over it.’ Since then, it has become heretical to challenge the appropriation of the word ‘woman’, which can now be used to describe a person with a penis and male DNA.

Indeed, those who dare to think that this extension of the concept of women is wrong are demonised. As Stock writes, ‘By common consent of many powerful national bodies, it is gender identity that now determines what public spaces you may enter, what resources may be available to you, and how you should be categorised for the purposes of data collection’.

Why does all this matter, some might ask? Aren’t we just playing abstract philosophical games with people’s lives? Stock says it matters because such abstract games cause real material harm – and I believe she is right.

On a small scale it causes harm when we change language to accommodate trans inclusivity, and exclude others who have low literacy skills in English or are unfamiliar with trans advocacy. Replacing the word vagina with ‘front-hole’ and failing to explain that people with cervixes are usually known as women does not make things more clear to most people. When a campaign for the decriminalisation of abortion appeals to people to ‘Trust Women’ with their reproductive decisions, it is clear that it is referring to women as the people who have abortions. An appeal to ‘Trust People with Female Assigned Reproductive Systems’ might be intelligible to trans activists, but it just confuses everyone else.

On a larger scale, it causes harm when a generation of children is taught that they have an inner psychological sense of their male or female (or something other) identity. When a (now-female) adolescent tells me that she has always known she would need to transition because she ‘feels like a boy’, what does that mean? What does (s)he think a boy feels like? What does (s)he believe (s)he can do as a boy that would be impossible as a girl? Perhaps today’s attempt to escape from biological sex just serves to reinforce its stereotypes. It’s worth remembering that in the 1970s, sociologists like Ann Oakley described gender in terms of the social roles prescribed for the two sexes. They did so in order that we might free ourselves from these roles, that we might escape these gendered stereotypes of masculine and feminine. Today’s trans activists, however, embrace these stereotypes. They even want people to adapt their bodies to them

After reading Material Girls, I’m left wondering whether Stock believes that the concept of gender and the language of gender-inclusivity was an inevitable progression of Simone de Beauvoir’s claim that ‘one is not born, but rather becomes a woman’. I am, however, sure that de Beauvoir never for one moment anticipated that her claim would be used to lend credibility to the idea that identity could be divorced from the materiality of sex.

Stock is right to say there is a material reality to being a girl. And she is right to demand the space to say it.

Ann Furedi is author of The Moral Case for Abortion. Follow her on Twitter: @AnnFuredi.

Material Girls: Why Reality Matters for Feminism, by Kathleen Stock, is published by Fleet. (Order this book from Amazon(UK).)

Picture by: Getty.

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