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Artillery Row

Feminism has a women problem

Debates about sex and gender have exposed the significance of intrasexual disagreement

A darkly welcome side effect of the cultural stranglehold of gender identity is the overdue shattering of progressive illusions. Men and women are not basically the same — physically nor behaviourally. “You can be whoever you want to be” sounds nice but is unsustainable for a functioning society when taken to its logical end point. 

The gender wars have also meant some uncomfortable reckonings with the facts of female nature. We have, for example, had to rethink the idea that women, as a rule, have each other’s backs. The sisterhood, it turns out, is a myth.

But wait, hasn’t the fight against self-identification in law and the redefining of womanhood revitalised grassroots feminism and bound together women of all walks of life in unity unmatched since the second wave? Absolutely. For some. 

There is a misconception amongst certain gender critical feminists — or reality-based feminists to use Hadley Freeman’s phrase — that men make up a large majority of their vilifiers and hounders. Amongst the powerful minority who hate and harangue those who argue for sex-based rights, many are women. Moreover, they are women who consider themselves dyed-in-the-wool feminists. Helen Joyce articulated this in an interview with Peter Boghossian: male sexual entitlement may be “the toxic beating nuclear reactor at the heart” of gender extremism but “the worst foot soldiers” are young women.

As a young millennial — or zillennial — I fully accept Joyce’s assessment. Although this monster was conceived in critical theory written a good bit before I was born, it was my generation that made it mainstream — 2015, when the oldest of us were taking university lectureships, is a fair marker (in the UK at least) for when gender and queer theory really started to dominate curriculums. However, the female-led dehumanising of women with materialist views on sex goes beyond the battleground of student campuses to the high offices and boardrooms. Here, the ideology generation gap is slightly erased. 

Recently, for instance, Labour MP Kate Osborne proclaimed on Twitter/X that her New Year’s resolution is to “block terfs” in response to Venice Allen’s proclaiming her resolution is to bring Osborne onside. This came off the back of facing off with Kemi Badenoch regarding the controversial resources being used in secondary sex education classes. To give you an idea of who brought a proverbial knife to the fight and who brought a Stonewall pamphlet, when Badenoch pointed out that the “nonsense” being taught to children included biological sex not existing, Osborne’s unblinking response was: “Who says it’s nonsense?”. After the exchange, Osborne claimed to have been targeted with abuse, which is obviously unacceptable. Yet rather than condemn or name those who sent her it, she chose to insinuate Badenoch was to blame. It’s a tactic close to Rule One of the misogyny playbook: women gender critical women are responsible for men’s other people’s actions.

This is but one example of mean-girlism that women who have nailed their colours to the baby pink and blue mast espouse towards their peskily eloquent female dissenters. I can’t possibly highlight every example of self-serving progressive women culpable for women-on-women nastiness in the last few years but to cite a handful: Nancy Kelley, the former head of Stonewall, who compared lesbians not wanting to have sex with male bodies to ‘sexual racists’. Former First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, a self-labelled “feminist to her fingertips” and one of the worst dismissers and, at times, demonisers of women with concerns about self-ID in Scottish law. Last December, SNP MSPs Kirsten Oswald and Kaukab Stewart were pictured beaming under banners at a pro-Gender Recognition Reform rally that read: “Decapitate Terfs” (both denied they were aware of what the signs said).

At last summer’s Edinburgh Fringe, MP Mhairi Black talked of “50-year-old Karens” in reference to women who rejected being redefined in law and during an ITV interview scoffed at the idea of having sympathy for Rosie Duffield when Duffield was shouted at and intimidated by Lloyd Russell-Moyle during a volatile debate back in January 2023. In 2021, Labour’s then-Shadow Minister For Women and Equalities Taiwo Owetami backed the UCU’s decision to throw Professor Kathleen Stock to the wolves after the bullying campaign against her at Sussex University. University administrations are a notorious hotbed of toxic femininity and Professor Stock herself said in an interview with The Times that it was female philosophy academics who “really pushed [her] persecution”. A final example I’ll offer is this 2022 petition against sociologist and UCL lecturer Professor Alice Sullivan, opposing her session at Advance HE to speak about sex and gender. It was written and signed by Athena Swan members and supporters, a programme that was originally set up to promote women in STEM, now expanded to the humanities and all perceived “underrepresented” groups in academia. Very helpfully, the signatories provided their pronouns and a quick ctrl+F search reveals there are twice the number of she/hers as he/hims on the list of around four hundred (I’ve discounted “theys”). I appreciate the gender pronouns will not align with sex on all signatories but it paints an unsisterly enough picture.

When I broach this with old-school radical feminists, I’m often told that these women are suffering from “internalised misogyny”. Honestly, I find this apologist nonsense. The more obvious and straightforward reason these cosseted, high-status women shit on their freethinking female colleagues is because there is little to no professional incentive in elite, left-leaning sectors to behave otherwise. For women who gain financially or professionally from EDI programmes or having intersectional feminist personas, ejecting freethinking, outspoken women with views and data that problematise their very lucrative agenda is not just acceptable but a necessity. Feminism is the radical belief that women are people. People are selfish and pragmatic — and women are nothing if not pragmatic.

It is feminism’s best and worst kept secret that women bully and dehumanise other women as much as men do

It is feminism’s best and worst kept secret that women bully and dehumanise other women as much as men do. To scratch the surface of female (anti)social behaviour leads to the squeamish territory of evolutionary psychology, hence why it is downplayed or evaded. There is a divide, if not quite yet an inhibiting schism, within the gender critical movement between “reactionary feminists” and “gender abolitionist” feminists (although some straddle both sides). The former see it in women’s interests to acknowledge innate psychological differences in males and females, the latter does not. 

In fairness, it is understandable why certain radical feminists are highly wary of what they see as “biological essentialism”. Bad faith evolutionary theory has been historically used to portray women as intellectually and cognitively inferior to men (males are simply programmed to do things like pilot planes and solving equations and women to hoovering and mopping up children), not to mention weaponised against sex-nonconforming people, gay men and lesbians. There are perhaps concerns that spotlighting the misguided feminist ideals that underpin parts of gender/queer theory, gives free reign for reactionary types to blame the entire mess on us wummin and our family-destroying female supremacy mission, rather than, say, pornography, misogyny and hyper-individualism encouraged by big tech and consumerism. I have been hesitant to engage with this subject myself. The last thing I want to do is open the door to people who want an excuse to smear all women as irrational.

However dirty the bathwater, though, throwing the baby out with it is never a good idea. One thing this battle for sex-based rights, child safeguarding and freedom of speech has made evident is that twisting and deconstructing the truth to serve a delusional narrative, however well-intentioned, leads to disastrous outcomes. Moreover, understanding of our evolutionary psychology can be liberating as well as deeply discomfiting. The research of Professor Joyce Benenson, for instance, whose conclusions are derived both from intensive study of children’s social development and primatology, offers constructive and compassionate insight into why female people (on average) are prone to compete, conform and express conflict in the uniquely complex way we do, and how our pseudo-egalitarian yet exclusionary tendencies come from our comparatively greater preoccupation with survival and protecting our kin. From Benenson’s non-partisan findings, depressing but illuminating dots can be joined as to potentially why, in the scrabble for social status and safety in the gender wars and powderkeg of identity politics, women who seek to benefit choose to disdain reality-based feminists rather than stand with them, and why, without major incentive, they are unlikely to switch teams. 

There are no clear solutions — far from it — but knowing where it’s worth or not worth dedicating our movement’s energy is useful. As much as I respect Venice Allen, I’d advise she doesn’t bother trying to “terf” Kate Osborne, nor any of us waste precious time wheedling the EDI petition-signing pronoun-bearers onside anymore. The golden bridge can and should remain extended but, overall, it’s in reality-based feminists’ interests to admit and accept that, when it comes to the sisterhood, #notallwomen.

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