Photo by Julia Dorian
Artillery Row

Gender-critical critical

Who supports the rise of gender identity?

Recent years have witnessed the formation of an unlikely alliance between left-leaning “gender-critical” feminists and the conservative right — specifically over the issue of transgenderism. Both ideological tendencies uphold the inescapable importance of biological sex, disputing the idea that men can become women and vice versa. 

Who would have guessed, fifteen years ago, that writers Suzanne Moore and Julie Bindel would be alienated from left-wing media and academic institutions? Who would have guessed that a philosopher like Kathleen Stock would end up being more at home in the Telegraph than in the Guardian?

It would be wrong to frame this “alliance” as being entirely cohesive and uncritical. Left-leaning feminists have not become conservatives, and conservatives have not become left-leaning feminists. In The Critic, for example, Victoria Smith took on Matt Walsh, the creator of What Is A Woman?, over his anti-feminist opinions. Still, we — and I speak as one of the right-wingers here — have found at least some common cause.

Gender-critical feminists have been more effective in conserving than actual conservatives

I admire a lot about the “gender critical” feminists. Many of them saw how consequential this issue was going to be before most of us knew quite what it was. Many of them have risked a lot for their opinions. Some of them, of course, are very valued contributors to this magazine.

Conservatives can learn from them. Seeing the violent fantasies that gendercritical feminists are exposed to, for example, provides a useful insight into how certain unhinged men — not always men, but mostly men — treat women. Quite apart from anything else, gender-critical feminists have been more effective in conserving the values and rituals that they uphold than actual conservatives.

Gender-critical feminists and right-wingers have arrived at many of the same conclusions, but that doesn’t mean we share our analytical premises. For example, gender-critical feminists tend to believe that the demands of trans rights activists are reducible to male entitlement — that the phenomenon represents the patriarchy in a very different set of clothes.

I disagree with this. First, there are many people who identify as trans men — fewer than identify as trans women, as far as I know, but many nonetheless. For all the disagreements I’m sure I would have with such people, I don’t think they are expressing female entitlement.

Second, it is not as if men have dominated trans rights activism. Many politicians at the forefront of extending trans rights have been women. It was Nicola Sturgeon who put a male rapist in a women’s prison. It was Jacinda Ardern who defended the inclusion of a male weightlifter in the women’s category at the Tokyo Olympics. It was Penny Mordaunt whose chances in the 2022 Conservative leadership election were hamstrung by her support for self-ID.

More women support expanding trans rights than men do

Actually, according to YouGov, British women are significantly likelier than British men to support expanded trans rights. This is true across the board. It even applies to questions of whether trans women should be allowed access to women’s spaces like toilets and changing rooms. Asked if “allowing transgender women to use spaces reserved for women, such as women’s toilets or changing rooms, does or does not present a genuine risk of harm to women”, 34 per cent of women said it does, and 38 per cent of women said it doesn’t. Among men, meanwhile, 45 per cent said it does and 26 per cent said it doesn’t

Another poll asked Britons about whether criminals who identify as trans women should be allowed into women’s prisons. In general, women were likelier to agree that they should be allowed in than men — the only exception being in the case of rapists who have not had gender reassignment surgery (though, mercifully, most people of both sexes agreed that they should be in prison with men).

The same divide — if a smaller one — exists in the United States. According to a Pew poll from 2022, 46 per cent of men think societal views related to transgender and nonbinary people are changing “too quickly”, and 21 per cent think they aren’t changing quickly enough. Among women, meanwhile, the difference is 41 per cent to 30. 

To be clear, I’m not trying to claim some sort of culture war stolen valour here. It’s entirely true that women have been more active in defending single-sex spaces than men, for example, as there is of course a difference between holding an opinion and doing something about it. Nor am I suggesting that the fact that more women support expanding trans rights than men, means gender-critical feminists are wrong about their implications for women. People vote against their own interests all the time.

Nonetheless, the preponderance of women who support such policies as opening single-sex spaces to trans people, makes it difficult to understand how the phenomenon can be explained with reference to such concepts as misogyny and patriarchal entitlement. The saving grace of such a theory, as far as I can tell, would be to claim that women are exhibiting some form of false consciousness — but that seems like a rather insulting proposition. It also struggles to explain why men are more critical.

This difference is not exclusive to the gender question. Women are in general less conservative on social issues. This is not always the case — for example, women are significantly more hostile towards polyamorous relationships — but it often is. Women are much likelier to support gay marriage, for example, and to oppose “offensive” speech. To explain this would take a different, longer essay (possibly by a different author) but the trans divide seems like a continuation of that trend.

I am not suggesting that the hatred of women plays no role in the trans debate. It clearly does — as activists often remind us by directing eroticised violent fantasies at women. The hatred of women and the entitlement of men cannot explain the erosion of single-sex spaces and the concept of biologically inherited womanhood when it is happening to such a degree of applause from women. Appealing to other adult human females is a more difficult task for gender-critical feminists than criticising men — but it has to be done.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover