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Who is feminism for?

A controversial new book argues that gender-critical feminism is bigger than the trans debate

In advance of the publication by Oxford University Press of Holly Lawford-Smith’s recent book Gender-Critical Feminism, an open letter was circulated by “members of the international scholarly community” attempting to block its publication. According to the letter’s signatories, Lawford-Smith has a track record of “mobilis[ing] transphobic rhetoric and bigotry”. Superficially, such an open letter clearly violates basic academic norms on freedom of expression and enquiry. In philosophy, the book remains the standard form for making a theoretical position available for evaluation, critique and comparison with alternatives. For self-described international scholars to be justified in neglecting such basic academic norms in the case of Lawford-Smith’s book, the position that it defends would have to be very wrong indeed.

This position is, that women have distinctive interests. These interests are grounded in the fact that women are the female sex class: a social group that makes up half of humanity and whose members have been subject to oppression across time and place, in significant part because they are female. Given that women have distinctive interests, feminism should be “a movement for women as women”. That is, it should aim to eliminate gender, understood as the mechanisms — the social practices, norms and beliefs — that are specific to women’s oppression. 

Of course, there can and should be social movements that target whatever mechanisms are specific to other forms of oppression. But women have the right to a movement of their own. Equally, they have the rights “to establish and enforce boundaries”, “to freedom of association and self-determination”, and to their own “spaces, services and provisions”.

If it is not already obvious what makes this conception of feminism so wrong that it can be ruled out in advance of explicit consideration, the complaint is that it has “trans-exclusionary” consequences. In particular, if women are the female sex class, then the claim that women have the right to their own movement implies that women have the right to a movement to which no male has a right — even if that male identifies as a woman. 

Excluding transwomen is not an axiom of gender-critical feminism

Similarly, the claim that women have the right to their own spaces, services and provisions implies that women have the right to spaces, services and provisions to which no male has a right — even if that male identifies as a woman. 

Unfortunately, these consequences are incompatible with the presently fashionable idea that no more is required for one to be a woman than that one identifies as a woman. Therefore some males — namely, transwomen — are women and hence have the right to everything to which women as a class have a right. In the popular image, gender-critical feminists are closely associated with, and frequently vilified for, their refusal simply to concede that transwomen have all the same rights as women. 

It is doubtful that anything Lawford-Smith says in her book will convince committed enemies of gender-critical feminism that these ideas are not motivated by “transphobic bigotry”. Indeed, it is not obvious that anything could. But Gender-Critical Feminism does the next best thing. Namely, it illustrates that the “trans-exclusionary” consequences of gender-critical feminism are, in fact, consequences of a far more general feminist theoretical picture.

It is common for enemies of gender-critical feminism to treat it as an axiom that transwomen are to be included in feminism. Yet that transwomen are to be excluded to feminism is not an axiom of gender-critical feminism. Rather, as Lawford-Smith writes:

gender-critical feminism is not about trans people. It has implications for trans people, in that it includes transmen and not transwomen. But those implications fall out of its larger feminist analysis, and are only important because they come into conflict with gender identity activism, which is currently enjoying widespread institutional power.

Correspondingly, only one chapter of Gender-Critical Feminism (“Trans/gender”) primarily concerns gender identity activism, and even that chapter primarily serves to detail the costs for girls and women of such activism. (Other recent books by gender-critical feminists — like Material Girls by Kathleen Stock and Trans by Helen Joyce — provide much more detailed treatments.)

The rest of the book is spent explaining the motivation for gender-critical feminism and exploring its consequences for some other questions of practical and theoretical interest. In particular, Lawford-Smith argues from gender-critical feminism to the provisional conclusion that feminists should support the “Nordic model” of prostitution, which criminalises the men who buy sex, but decriminalises the women with whom sex is bought. 

Lawford-Smith has an acute instinct for the costs of inclusion

She also neatly demonstrates that an alternative picture of feminism, in which it should be for women as people — that is, aim to advance women’s interests, but not their distinctive interests — collapses into a picture on which feminism should be “for (almost) everyone and about (almost) everything”. 

What begins to emerge from the book is a simple and powerful feminist picture, with significant connections backwards to earlier feminist movements — two chapters explain the continuities and differences between gender-critical feminism and the preceding radical feminist tradition — and forwards to ongoing feminist concerns.

More generally, Lawford-Smith has an acute methodological instinct for the costs and limits of inclusion — not just as they relate to feminist thought and action, but as they relate to all thought and action. Thus, in the book’s final chapter (“A gender-critical manifesto”), she writes that “focusing on women as people… overburdens feminist activists and theorists with more content than they can possibly manage”. The result is to make feminism “hopelessly broad and unfocused”, and so to destroy it from within. 

Importantly, this is itself to be read as an instance of a far more general point: that all successful thought and action requires treating some considerations as irrelevant. In short, it is not possible to take everything or everyone into account at once. Much of the force of Gender-Critical Feminism derives from its refusal simply to concede that this general constraint on successful thought and action has an exception in the specific case of women and their distinctive sex-based interests.

This and other aspects of the methodology of Gender-Critical Feminism serve to reinforce the sense that if it were evaluated by default philosophical standards, it would succeed by those standards. Not least of these features is Lawford-Smith’s own careful application of standard scientific criteria on theory choice “like coherence, simplicity, and explanatory power” to the candidate explanations that she considers. 

Unfortunately, such standards are not likely to be widely applied. Instead, in “the international scholarly community” there seems to have emerged a taboo on asserting the dual claims that women are female and that women have the right to their own movement, spaces, services and provisions. Acquiescence to this taboo is a particular embarrassment for philosophy, which at its best is willing to take seriously the surprising consequences of simple and informative generalisations about any subject matter.

In that respect and others, Gender-Critical Feminism exemplifies philosophy at its best. It deserves to be read by any philosopher who still suspects that it is justified for female people to organise as a sex class and by any gender-critical feminist who has not yet lost hope that philosophy can have something to offer.

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