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Monday 7 November 2022

Gender Theories and Gender Critical Alternatives Which is the Progressive Cause?


When I got married in 1978 both my partner and I were under parental pressure to do so. We did it in the most minimal available form: with a special licence you could marry in a civil ceremony with just two witnesses, no guests, and no rings. The bride and the two female witnesses wore black. No photographs were taken. Had the option of a civil partnership been available, we would have taken it. Marriage was a reactionary institution to the reproduction of which neither of us really wished to contribute. We had read our Germaine Greer and much else besides.

When the campaign for the legalisation of gay marriage got under way it was not something about which I could get enthusiastic. Civil partnerships, yes. But marriage? Are you really sure? And you want it in church too? There we must part company: churches are not on the right side of history, whatever their denomination. In other words, here was a supposedly progressive cause to which any right-thinking Guardian reader was supposed to sign up but which left me cold. I will leave you to fight it out with the C of E - they’re pretty desperate anyway so you will win - and I will continue to believe that the C of E should be disestablished and its assets confiscated by the state, Henry the Eighth Mark Two. The National Secular Society makes a better progressive cause than yours but one which - partly thanks to modern identity politics - makes progress at a snail’s pace.

Transgender activists now pose me a similar problem. Their cause does not seem either particularly progressive or otherwise well-founded. Worse, in this case, the cause is clearly being advanced by bullying and intimidation. It feels more like a right-wing movement than a progressive one.

I’ve just read a 2021 statement on the official  LSE website signed by “The LSE Department of Gender Studies” taking issue with those who believe that “Sex Matters” and who have formed a Gender Critical Research Network based at the Open University. The LSE - in an official-looking statement - wants to see it disestablished. The text bears close reading; I will pick out just this:

 in framing “sex” as immutable, binary, and essentialist, the gender critical perspective runs counter to decades of scholarship…

The easy one here is “binary”. In my reading, gender critical theorists who believe that sex matters take more interest in non-binary intersex people than their opponents. Indeed, biological intersex is a problem for them and they try to marginalise its reality, as for example in Zoe Playdon’s recent book The Hidden Case of Ewan Forbes (2021). The reality, recognised by the reactionary "sex matters" people, is that intersex people have life very hard because most societies and cultures have not found ways of accommodating them, starting from the insistence of the state’s birth registrars that for social purposes Sex be declared as binary. Michel Foucault’s edition of the life of Herculine Barbin fits well on a gender critical reading list precisely because it is all about a culture failing to find space for a nature, and a nature reduced to despair.

“Essentialist” is almost as easy. Second wave feminists who sharply distinguished Sex from Gender did not do so with a view to privileging Sex but at least partly as a way into exploring the complex, dynamic relationship between the two which allowed for the realities of tomboys and cissies, for active resistance to role stereotypes, but also for some biological realities hard to shift: child-bearing, breast-feeding most obviously. They were clear that though many, maybe most, sex-related roles and expectations were socially constructed a few weren’t - and that was important. In the same way, when Foucault studied the medico-legal discourses constructed around the parricide case of Pierre Riviere, he did not claim as a social construction the dead bodies numbering three. (I attended the seminars and can vouch for that).The three dead bodies were what we (and philosophers too) call “brute facts”.

Worse is to come for the LSE’s claim. The progressive test question is frequently posed, “Are transgender women women?” (what Kathleen Stock and others  call “the Witch Question”). That is an essentialist question intended to allow for only two possible answers, Yes or No. There is not even any space to reply that it depends on whether the person in question has had surgery or other treatment.  The rhetoric currently mobilised in both theory and sloganising is that people are who they say they are, a foolish claim which expresses nothing more than an overweening sense of entitlement and privilege. An undergraduate  might try to give it some grounding in “scholarship” by using the words “performativity” and “Judith Butler” but that is not the same as having read and understood anything.

“Immutability”? No one can predict what science will do next, for good or ill. But actually existing people and those billions who have preceded them have been pretty much alike, biologically, so much so that if God had really wanted to pull off an indisputable miracle, Jesus would have been born to Joseph.


The LSE statement several times stresses that it is on the side of “research” and “scholarship”, unlike the gender critical people who don’t engage in either. At the LSE they claim the mantle of academic respectability. That’s just bullshit. The treadmills of contemporary university departments of humanities and social sciences produce very little research or scholarship. Their faculties and students are mainly engaged in making claims which illustrate conclusions of a political-cum-theoretical nature which have already been reached. The so-called “academic journals” are full of such stuff and  Ph Ds are awarded for it.  No one expects to be surprised by the results of their “research” or the findings of their “scholarship”. This is true for both gender "theorists", gender critical "theorists", and many other kinds of "theorist" - though who is the most tedious I don’t really know. The big question is whether they belong in universities at all. At the moment, they are going out of their way to prove that they don’t.

There is a difference between research which has fairly obvious political implications which may be uncomfortable, the kind of research of which climate change research might be taken as exemplary, and ancillary writing designed to illustrate and defend positions (scientific/political/theoretical) already arrived at. It’s true that when the state employs thousands of people to teach gender studies to many more thousands of moderately qualified students it’s unreasonable to expect that they will come up with genuine, startling, new conclusions on a regular basis. It doesn’t happen in the physical sciences, so why expect it in the humanities and social sciences?

Early (1970s - 1990s)  exploratory writing in the fields of feminism, gender studies, and queer studies was refreshing and exciting; now it’s been routinized into conservative academic curricula of depressing uniformity, where courses are taught by people who - when it comes down to it -are principally agitated by the Pensions Question. The rhetoric of the LSE statement uses the kind of exhausted tropes which one expects in the leaflets of sectarian political groups; but it also, very obviously, seeks to be inclusive of each interest group around the sectarian table. Everyone has to have their course to teach; ‘twas ever thus and students will be told that all those courses are important because if they weren’t someone would be out of a job. 

Conclusion? I doubt the position in Gender Studies or its Critical twin is retrievable. The antagonisms and hostilities are clearly at a toxic level. I would advise students to vote with their feet. Take an interest in the issues and campaign with  a group, by all means. Read the books in your own time. But study something else.