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Feminists must reject left and right

Until either right or left consistently ask how something will affect women, feminists must cut them loose

This article is taken from the November issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.


To anyone who doubted the continuing influence of the American Empire, the international response to the death of Ruth Bader Ginsberg served as a sobering reminder. British political Twitter — forever focused on American events — was immediately filled with feverish speculation as to who might replace her on the US Supreme Court. The Glasgow City women’s football club announced that they would carry her name on their strip as a tribute to this “feminist icon and role model”.

Women I know who are not American, have never lived in America, and have spent very little time in America, expressed their sincere distress. Most of these grief-stricken Brits would not be able to name a single judge in, say, France or Australia, and perhaps not even in this country. But then, American political events are always granted a special status. This American dominance has a warping effect on the tone and priorities of feminism in this country, and usually to our cost, since British feminists who keep their gaze fixed across the Atlantic, looking to Big Sister America for guidance, often fail to remember that American feminists have not actually achieved all that much.

In Britain, the detachment of feminism from both the left and right may already be under way

This is a country with no statutory maternity rights, that has never managed to adopt the Equal Rights Amendment after almost a century of campaigning, that falls in the bottom half of the world rankings for female political representation, and that has never had a female head of state. Yes, it has produced some of the most interesting and influential feminist thinkers in history. It is also the world headquarters of the porn industry.

American feminists have spent almost half a century fighting tooth and nail to defend their most precious and fragile achievement, Roe v. Wade, the 1973 case that prevents state legislatures from prohibiting first-trimester abortions. The loss of Ginsberg from the Supreme Court may imperil Roe, which was a key reason for the outpouring of anxiety following news of her death. But this is a feminist issue that has far less resonance on the British mainland, since abortion up to 28 weeks was legalised in England, Wales and Scotland in 1967. For American feminists, abortion is, quite understandably, the pre-eminent issue; for British feminists, it is not.

This particular difference between Britain and America is emblematic of a more general difference between the two countries which has had an important effect on the history of Anglophone feminism. Put simply, the American right has an entirely different character from the British right: it is louder, more extreme, more religious, and also more powerful. It presents a genuinely formidable threat to the defenders of Roe, and indeed the defenders of some of the most basic feminist principles: a woman’s rights to earn money, own property, and in all other ways live a legal and economic life separate from that of her father or husband.

Andrea Dworkin’s 1978 book Right-Wing Women gives a sense of American feminists’ fear of the right. Her central question — why would any woman ally herself with the right? — is answered in a single word: fear. Women, Dworkin argues, are justifiably frightened of the world, and right-wing men promise to keep them safe. In return, these women must abhor abortion, lesbianism, anti-racism and socialism.

She writes of speaking to right-wing women and finding them alien creatures: “Conservatives were ludicrous, terrifying, bizarre, instructive, and, as other feminists have reported, sometimes strangely moving.” These women had, to Dworkin’s mind, made a pact with the devil. And yet Dworkin was able to tread a line that other American feminists seem unable to. While she was explicit in her rejection of the right, she always remained mistrustful of the left. It is in Right-Wing Women that one of her most famous statements is to be found:

The difference between left-wing and right-wing when it comes to women is only about where exactly on our necks their boots should be placed. To right-wing men, we are private property. To left-wing men, we are public property.

The mistake that feminists have made again and again, not only in America but also in this country, is to prioritise animosity towards the right over a clear-eyed understanding of the attitude that the left takes towards women. The results of that mistake are, I think, beginning to become too glaring to ignore.

I’m not suggesting that feminists should join forces with the right, certainly not the extreme religious right that Dworkin wrote of. I’m suggesting something else: that feminists should cut themselves loose from both left and right, since both political traditions were until very recently entirely dominated by men and male interests, meaning that a productive form of feminist politics needs to be deliberately orthogonal to the traditional political spectrum.

The trans movement presents the physical differences between men and women as trivial

For Americans, this suggestion may be too alarming to countenance, given the fearsome power of their right, which so often sends American feminists scurrying back to the treacherous arms of the left. But in Britain, the detachment of feminism from both the left and right may already be under way.

The recent triumph of British feminists against the proposed reforms to the Gender Recognition Act (GRA) illustrates the point. In 2017, the May government announced a consultation on the process by which transgender people are able to change their legal sex. The preference of LGBT advocacy groups like Stonewall is a system of self-ID, which would permit people to change their legal sex with minimal gatekeeping: no psychiatric consultation, no need to “live as” the opposite sex for a period before making a formal application, and no necessity to undergo any medical interventions whatsoever.

Self-ID would allow anyone, at any time, to simply declare themselves a member of the opposite sex, and the government would be obliged to officially recognise that declaration. To supporters of self-ID, this would be a welcome step towards demedicalising and destigmatising transgender identification. For a section of feminists, however, it is considered deeply dangerous.

The trans movement is invested in presenting the physical differences between men and women as trivial and cosmetic, easily surmounted through medical interventions, or else overlooked altogether. Gender-critical feminists who oppose trans activism insist instead that the differences are profoundly important. Not only do women bear children, they are also smaller and weaker than men, which leads to an inherent imbalance of power at an interpersonal level. To put it bluntly, most men can kill most women with their bare hands, but not vice versa.

Gender-critical feminists have therefore expressed alarm at the ease with which ill-intentioned men could harm women by gaining access to women-only spaces such as refuges, prisons and changing facilities under a system of self-ID. Those fears are not fanciful, since they have already been realised even under the existing and supposedly safer system, when for instance the serial sex offender Karen White (born Stephen Terence Wood) was transferred to a women’s prison and later convicted of sexually assaulting female inmates. If self-ID were ever introduced, we could expect an increase in the number of Karen Whites.

And yet anyone who has been paying even the slightest bit of attention to this debate over the last few years will know that the concerns of gender critical feminists have not been received well by many prominent figures on the left, who have framed the tension between the desires of transgender people and the fears of women, not as a challenging conflict necessitating careful deliberation, but as an expression of feminist bigotry. Gender-critical women have lost their jobs, been arrested and been monstered in the press simply for criticising trans activism, and a lot of them have been made very, very angry.

Freed from the  pull of tribalism, the gender-critical message was able to appeal to common sense

But these feminists now seem to have triumphed. As James Kirkup wrote following the announcement that the GRA would not be rewritten to include self-ID:

Today’s announcement is a product of remarkable grassroots political organisation . . . The real political opposition to self-ID came from “ordinary” women who saw the proposal as a potential threat to their legal rights and standing. Some of them came to the issue via Mumsnet . . . Others attended townhall meetings of A Woman’s Place UK, a group set up by women with their roots in the trade union movement.

The mention of trade unionism here is important because most British gender-critical feminists come from the left, and many have been actively involved in the Labour Party, the Green Party, or other explicitly left-leaning political groups. Left-wing gender-critical feminists will often point to this fact as evidence that they are not motivated by bigotry, arguing that it is the mainstream left that is guilty of hypocrisy by disregarding women’s very real concerns.

This vexed relationship with the left is something that many American commentators seem to find confusing. A 2019 article on the Vox website attempted to explain to readers the origins of “Terfs” (Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists, a term most gender-critical feminists reject):

Terf ideology has become the de facto face of feminism in the UK, helped along by media leadership from Rupert Murdoch and The Times of London. Any vague opposition to gender-critical thought in the UK brings along accusations of “silencing women” and a splashy feature or op-ed in a British national newspaper.

The writer explains the influence of gender-critical feminism in Britain as a result of both “historical imperialism” and “the influence of the broader UK skeptical movement”. I’d argue that a much more likely explanation is the non-partisan nature of the debate in Britain, where the division between left and right on the GRA debate is not at all clear. It was a Conservative government that first proposed the reforms, and a Conservative government that halted them.

There are both advocates for and critics of the trans movement to be found throughout Westminster, where the link to party affiliation is not obvious. Gender-critical opinions can be read in both the Spectator and the Morning Star, and while the Guardian columnist Owen Jones is one of the most committed critics of the gender-critical movement, the Labour donor J.K. Rowling is nowadays its most famous proponent.

This means that attempts to discredit gender-critical feminists by associating them with the right — a tactic that works well in America — simply won’t wash here. The relationship between traditional left/right politics and this new feminist movement is too hazy, and this is, I suspect, the key reason for the movement’s success. Freed from the destructive pull of tribalism, the gender-critical message was able to cut through and attract supporters from across the political spectrum through a simple appeal to common sense.

Totting up the successes and failures of the different parties does not give us a clear winner

After all, only a committed ideologue could really believe that allowing Karen White into a women’s prison was a good idea. The gender-critical argument was always a persuasive one: it just needed an audience that was willing to be persuaded. In America, political polarisation is too severe, and the extreme right too frightening, to allow a non-partisan debate to be had. In Britain, it is apparently still possible.

But, despite its eventual success, the battle over the GRA has brought to the surface a latent tension between feminists and the left, from which the fiercest anti-“terf” rhetoric came, and which proved itself to be a source of only patchy and capricious support. Some left-wing gender-critical feminists still prefer to think of this incident as a blip: a moment of madness on the left, out of character, and remedied through a return to “proper” leftist politics. I’m not so sure.

It is true that the roots of feminism are closely bound up with the left. The Second Wave was in many ways modelled on the black civil rights movement in America and anti-colonial movements in other parts of the world. And radical feminism in particular (from which gender-critical feminism springs) is founded on a model of society that is fundamentally Marxist, in that women are understood as an oppressed class, men as the oppressor class, and reproductive and sexual labour as the goods that are coercively extracted.

But the history is complicated because although the Second Wave emerged from the wider left it was also frequently in conflict with it. For instance in 1969, at the New Left’s counter-inaugural to the Nixon inauguration in Washington, feminists who rose to speak were heckled by male comrades shouting, “Take her off stage and fuck her!” and “Fuck her down a dark alley!” The antagonistic attitude of some left-wing men towards feminism is not new.

Moreover, in terms of female political representation in this country, the Conservative Party undoubtedly leads, having now given the country two female prime ministers, as well as the first female MP to take her seat, Nancy Astor. Meanwhile, the Labour Party has yet to elect a female leader.

Feminists wedded to the left will protest that this kind of representation is merely window dressing, and that Margaret Thatcher, in particular, cannot be thought of as a feminist of any kind. Perhaps this is true, but it is also true that some of the most important legislation in the history of postwar British feminism was passed under Tory governments: the introduction of statutory maternity pay, the criminalisation of coercive control, and the prohibition of female genital mutilation.

The same is true of Labour governments, who introduced paternity pay, and passed the Abortion and the Equal Pay Acts. At the same time, cases of sexual violence and egregious male chauvinism can be found within organisations of both the right and left, including Labour and the Conservatives. Totting up the successes and failures of the different parties does not give us a clear winner.

Some readers will wonder why we need to tot up anything at all. Since women make up slightly more than half of the population, and are quite clearly as diverse a group of people as men are, with their own range of political ideas and priorities, why should we even bother to speak of “men” and “women”, when we could slice the political cake along some other dimension? This is a fair point. But a key claim of the feminist movement historically — and one that I hold to, despite my unorthodox position on many feminist questions — is that there are enough important similarities between women to give them a coherent set of political interests.

In the past, these interests were often disregarded, or attended to only selectively and unreliably by male representatives of various kinds. But while there is often no conflict between the interests of men and women, in some cases there is, or else a particular women’s issue (maternity healthcare, say) is simply not thought about by most men, and so is inevitably neglected in a political environment that fails to ask, “And how will this affect women?”

Prominent members of the left embraced the trans movement because they didn’t care to ask, “And how will this affect women?” They saw it as a no-brainer, the natural conclusion of the liberal principle of self-determination, the arc of history bending ever onwards towards justice. And this is not the only issue on which women have been failed by the left.

The sex industry is another. A core commitment of the left since the 1960s has been the throwing off of bourgeois sexual norms, and that commitment has now resolved itself into the principle that any sex act is benign so long as all parties (nominally) consent. Feminist critics of porn and prostitution who do not accept this principle, and want to draw attention to the many abuses that take place within the sex industry, therefore find themselves rejected on the left. Andrea Dworkin wrote of the pain of this hypocrisy in 1981:

The new pornography is left-wing; and the new pornography is a vast graveyard where the Left has gone to die. The Left cannot have its whores and its politics too.

The harshness of the criminal justice system is a further source of tension. The criminologist Barbara Wootton once said, “If men behaved like women, the courts would be idle and the prisons empty.” Violent (particularly sexually violent) crime is overwhelmingly committed by men, and women are in a unique position in that they are very often victims but only rarely perpetrators. This means that, as a group, women have a rational incentive to support tough-on-crime policies, and these are policies that are more often supported by right-leaning parties, particularly now, when “defund the police” has become such a fashionable slogan on the left.

Many on the left are uncomfortable with this sex-based analysis of crime because it runs head-on into the race-based analysis of crime, which as a rule is considered more important. In this country, we saw this play out most devastatingly in Rotherham and other cities affected by child-grooming gangs. It is now clear that part of the reason for the failure to pursue the perpetrators was a fear on the part of senior figures within the police and local authorities that they might be accused of racism.

Package deal ethics produces not only blind tribalism but also incoherence

This cowardly reluctance persisted among the left-wing bien pensants long after the scandal was revealed, meaning that many of the young victims of the grooming gangs emerged from their abuse to find themselves friendless, abandoned by those who profess to be most concerned with the protection of the vulnerable and marginalised. Some of these women joined campaigns associated with the far right, falsely believing them to offer safety, when in fact they offered nothing of the sort. There were left-wing feminists who reached out to these victims, but they were women (like Julie Bindel, the first journalist to write about the story in the national press) who already had a conflicted relationship with the left. As Bindel has since written, “It is precisely because the liberal left has refused to tackle the thorny issues surrounding race and ethnicity that the likes of Ukip are able to colonise it so successfully.”

There’s nothing wrong with anti-racism, criticism of the criminal justice system, or the questioning of bourgeois sexual norms — all of these pursuits are potentially feminist. But there is a problem when this is done without anyone asking, “And how will this affect women?” Again and again, this question has not been asked on the left.

Rather than persist in asking the question, the solution that many feminists affiliated with the left come to, particularly in America, is to suppress the thought, and unthinkingly absorb into their campaigning priorities whatever it is that other groups on the left demand. So when there is no conflict between what feminists want and what these other groups want — when, for instance, the perpetrators of violence against women and girls are safely-privileged rich white men like Harvey Weinstein — then the feminist view can win out. But when a man comes from an oppressed group ranked higher than women on the left’s list of priorities (which means, as far as I can tell, any group under the sun), most feminists of the left will immediately bow to whatever it is that is demanded of them. Any woman who refuses is condemned as a “terf”, a “Karen”, or worse.

The political philosopher James Mumford writes in his recent book Vexed: Ethics Beyond Political Tribes of the constraining nature of what he calls “package deal ethics” — that is, the perceived obligation to sign up to a pre-prepared set of political ideas, rather than select each idea on its own merits. Package deal ethics produces not only blind tribalism but also incoherence, since the ideas within the traditional packages often contradict one another. Mumford encourages readers to resist:

[O]ur best chance of getting it right, of aligning our action with the good, depends on our ability to slough off our political identities and affirm certain fundamental principles across the political spectrum . . . We have to wrest ourselves free of package deals in order to determine the right courses of action.

For feminists, affiliation with the left may have historic resonance, but it is a bad package deal. While there is no reason not to take certain ideas from the left — for instance, support for redistributive taxation and a generous welfare state — there are other ideas that inherently conflict with women’s interests, or else must be tempered by careful consideration of the potential consequences.

British feminism needs to stop looking to America, where ever-worsening political polarisation means that feminists are reluctant to disentangle themselves from a painful but familiar relationship with the left, despite repeated demonstrations that their interests never have been, and never will be, granted proper respect. My hope is that the grassroots British feminist movement that has been enlivened by the conflict over the GRA will manage what their American sisters haven’t, in recognising the need to leave the left. Neither right nor left are in the habit of consistently asking, “And how will this affect women?” Until they are, feminists must reject both.

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