Christabel Pankhurst at a suffragette demonstration, c1910. (Photo by Museum of London/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

Feminism has always been gender critical

Historical feminists knew better than anyone that biological sex is real

Artillery Row

Why can’t the feminists of today be more like the feminists of the past? Feminists such as Mary Wollstonecraft, the suffragettes or one of the other ones, whose names I forget. 

Historical feminists have a lot to recommend them. One, they’re dead, so they’re not going to make any new demands; two, their menfolk are dead, so you can blame them for the lingering impact of patriarchy; three, they were women, so it’s not as though you have to read anything they wrote. Just watch Walt Disney’s Mary Poppins, or failing that, make stuff up. 

An instance of this occurred last week, during Allison Bailey’s employment tribunal against Stonewall and Garden Court Chambers. Bailey, a barrister and longstanding LGB rights campaigner, is claiming unlawful discrimination against her view that gender identity should not be prioritised over biological sex when considering the rights of women and girls. 

Seeking to argue that this is not a standard feminist viewpoint, barrister Jane Russell, representing Garden Court Chambers, argued that “there is a very longstanding history of feminism that has nothing to do with gender critical belief”, using Wollstonecraft and the suffragettes as examples of this. On what basis this might be true was not made clear.

Wollstonecraft would have had no time for their Barbie to GI Joe gender spectrum

True, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Wollstonecraft’s 1792 classic, is not known for taking issue with pronouns in email signatures, the prescribing of puberty blockers or gender-neutral toilets in the Barbican. It is, however, critical of gender. 

“Gender critical feminism” may be a relatively new term, but the concept it is not. Like “cis woman”, it is a way of defining a concept we already know — feminism, woman — because the original term has been co-opted. Earlier feminists were not “gender critical” only in the sense that the linguistic contortions imposed on them were of a different nature to those imposed on feminists today. We should not infer from this that their beliefs were any different. 

Like modern feminists, Wollstonecraft distinguished between the exploitation of female people as a sex class — “one class presses on another; for all are aiming to procure respect on account of the property” — and the socially constructed differences used to justify this exploitation —“those pretty feminine phrases, which the men condescendingly use to soften our slavish dependence”.

Throughout A Vindication, she attacks the impact of gendered socialisation and the conflation of femaleness with the artifice of femininity: 

“The child is not left a moment to its own direction, particularly a girl […] To preserve personal beauty, woman’s glory! the limbs and faculties are cramped with worse than Chinese bands, and the sedentary life which they are condemned to live, whilst boys frolic in the open air, weakens the muscles and relaxes the nerves […] Pursuing these reflections, the fondness for dress, conspicuous in women, may be easily accounted for, without supposing it the result of a desire to please the sex on which they are dependent.” 

I doubt that the woman who wrote those words would now be persuaded that those female people who wish to “frolic in the open air” should squish themselves into binders and change their pronouns to they/them, while those with a “fondness for dress” should check their cis privilege. The woman who railed against “the absurdity […] of supposing that a girl is naturally a coquette” would have had no time for Mermaids and their Barbie to GI Joe gender spectrum. A true radical, she was already thinking beyond such regressive nonsense. 

Expecting the average person to read A Vindication of the Rights of Woman before expressing an opinion on it is, I accept, a stretch. After all, many seem incapable of reading more than one line of The Second Sex or a single word of JK Rowling’s “infamous” blog on sex and gender before claiming to know exactly what the authors mean. 

A culture in which female political thought is not taken seriously makes it easy for anyone to stand in a courtroom and namedrop Wollstonecraft, so certain that the latter must have written some primitive, vaguely feminist stuff — “not having rights makes me sad”, in flowery, eighteenth century language — but nothing of any great sophistication. Yet Wollstonecraft understood, as Judith Butler does, that “the distinction of sex [is] inculcated long before nature makes any difference”. Unlike Butler, she also had a meaningful, coherent analysis of the reason why. 

Wollstonecraft did not use the term “gender”, or indeed “feminism”, because her work predated them. Nonetheless, the only reason I would hesitate to describe her as a gender critical feminist is because I’d rather the “gender critical” part was taken as read. 

Feminism has always been critical of gender as a social hierarchy. It is not the fault of feminism if others have arrived on the scene with such a poor understanding of what gender is and how it functions in relation to biological sex and power.

Rebranding feminism denies us our legacy

The problem with rebranding feminism “gender critical feminism” — much like rebranding women “cis women” — is that it turns our most essential social and political concepts into mere subcategories of broader, looser concepts defined by others. Moreover, such a rebranding repositions feminism as a response to trans activism, denying the longstanding nature of feminism’s rejection of gender. It denies us our legacy, making it that much easier for outsiders to claim women such as Allison Bailey and Mary Wollstonecraft have nothing in common. This is just not true. 

One of the key ways in which female progress is undermined is by the denial of connections between women. We all know that, were it another day of the week, a woman such as Allison Bailey (Black, lesbian, an abuse survivor) would be played off against a woman such as Mary Wollstonecraft (white, middle-class, heterosexual) in order to dismiss the latter as overprivileged and blinkered. That for all their differences, Wollstonecraft and Bailey might be viewed as sisters in their defence of women as a sex class — that female solidarity might span centuries, taking in distinctions of race, class and sexual orientation — is not something anti-feminists would like to hear. 

In 1982’s Women of Ideas, Dale Spender argues that Wollstonecraft was “neither unrepresentative in her own time, or in ours”: “Wollstonecraft is one of a long line of women who have come to understand the significance of male power to name the world and to say what is and what is not important, valuable and ‘logical’”.

Allison Bailey is another such woman, challenging the influence of Stonewall to prescribe how women might “name the world” in their own workplace and beyond. Her feminism is not a recent mutation in response to another group’s demand for rights; it’s what feminism has always been. 

If, rather than play off one group of women whose words we haven’t read against another whose arguments we misrepresent, we read and listened to women themselves, we would already know this.

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