Owen Jones of The Guardian (Photo By Sam Barnes/Sportsfile for Web Summit via Getty Images)

Yes, I’m on the wrong side of history

Feminists usually are

Artillery Row

Bad news, feminists. After millennia of struggle, a verdict has finally been reached in the Battle of the Sexes. Turns out we’re the losers, not least because “the sexes” don’t even exist. 

Don’t take my word for it. Listen to Owen Jones, Guardian columnist and renowned expert on history’s “right” side. Last week he issued a formal announcement to all those still holding out for a win for Team Vagina (whom he rather quaintly calls “anti-trans activists”, on the basis that anyone who thinks having a vagina matters is “anti-trans”):

You’re going to lose. Comprehensively. You’re going to lose. And actually, a lot of your anger and fury and bile is driven by the fact that you know you’re going to lose.

Crikey. That’s us told. 

To be fair, it’s not as though we’ve not had several years’ warning. Indeed, I’ve always had a particular fondness for Owen’s 2017 effort: “Anti-trans zealots, know this: history will judge you” (it may be just me, but I find it impossible to read “know this” without imagining a Lloyd Russell-Moylesque finger point). In Owen’s world, feminists — the old-style version, who do terribly out-of-date things such as saying “no” to male people — have picked the wrong side. Silly us! If we’d heeded his warnings, we’d have thrown our lot in with those now “progressively” threatening to decapitate us.

That, at least, is how a certain type of man expects us to treat our own political movement. Not as something that matters because women and girls matter, but as something to be twisted and bent out of shape in order to meet the standards of history’s winners. It doesn’t matter if women themselves are left behind. According to this worldview, winning is synonymous with moral superiority, therefore the losers deserve to lose. After all, isn’t that how every good story ends? 

Feminists are used to losing. You can’t shame us this way

I have a confession: I, too, used to think this way. I thought I was on the right side of history and that my side would “win”. This is because I was once what is known as “a child”. Born in 1975, the year in which the Sex Discrimination Act was passed, I was part of a post-Second Wave generation of feminists who were told the future belonged to us. How could it not? It would have been inconceivable to teenaged me that middle-aged me would be living in a country in which rape was effectively decriminalised, and women were being told they faced a hundred year wait for the end of the gender pay gap. But here we are. I grew up. It seems some people don’t have to. 

It’s not that I don’t understand the appeal of “right side of history“ thinking. Clearly there are things people thought in the past that they’d be incredibly embarrassed to own up to today. Everyone likes winning, and nobody likes being embarrassed. Even so, I am not sure whether “people in the future will hate you for thinking this” is a particularly reliable guide for moral conduct. 

For instance, when I see people confidently place their bets on denying there are two sexes, I don’t think “good work! Future people will love you and see me as a massive bigot!” I tend to think these are the people most at risk of going along with the worst, most harmful ideologies — precisely the kind of ideologies to which “right side of history” advocates see themselves as immune — due to fear of not conforming. I see people who prioritise being on the “winning“ side over engaging with conflicting needs, and that is a dangerous thing. 

In 1982’s Women of Ideas, Dale Spender wrote of the foolishness of viewing history “as a steady march of human progress“: 

It is almost beyond our comprehension to question the notion of progress. The absurdity of this concept is not challenged by the insanity of nuclear weapons, the wilful and increasing destruction and pollution of this planet or by the grossly inequitable distribution of resources. Society needs the concept of progress to legitimate as the high point of civilisation many of its current barbaric practices.

Right now, as women and girls in Afghanistan are losing access to education, healthcare and basic safety, as an estimated 142.6 million female people are missing from the world due to sex selection, femicide and neglect, I wonder at the misrepresentation of sex denialism as “progress”. Whose interests does it serve? If you decide that the most oppressed women are those with penises, it becomes easier to claim we’re seeing the end of gender-based oppression, despite everything that’s happening to the world’s uterus owners. It is possible to “win” by shifting the goalposts. I’d rather be an honest loser, though. 

It is strange that Jones is so convinced that feminists are in a frenzy about losing. We are used to it. You can’t shame us this way. Most domestic abusers will go to the grave still regarded as “good men”. The same goes for most rapists, who will never be charged, let alone convicted of anything. If feminists accepted nothing less than “winning”, it would drive us insane. I don’t know a single one who deludes herself that one day, those calling her an evil terf bigot will suddenly see the error of their ways and feel deep shame. It won’t ever happen. 

Some people can fool themselves into believing what’s convenient

For what it’s worth, here’s what I think will happen with regard to feminism and gender identity: sex denialism is not sustainable. There will be a backlash, with conservatives who think people’s personalities must match their sexed bodies, pitched against gender identitarians who think people’s sexed bodies are defined by their personalities. Both groups will blame feminists, despite our being the only ones who think everyone is fine as they are. The right of a male person to claim to be female will be rescinded in some areas — such as sport, which men care about — but not others, such as female-only refuges, which men don’t. Generation Alpha kids will start to find the gender obsession of straight Zoomers and Millennials naff, but some teenage girls will continue to despise their female bodies and have recourse to binding and mastectomies because such things will have been normalised. Politicians and journalists who once aligned themselves with the more extreme, violent excesses of trans activism will pretend they were always more moderate. They will blame “terfs” — women who said what they are now saying, only earlier — for making it impossible to express themselves without sounding “hateful”.

Essentially, I think feminists will have some very partial wins, which will be credited to other people, and that they will be blamed for outcomes about which they have spent years warning others. That’s women’s work for you. I apologise for the fact that this is less exciting than filming myself leering “you’re gonna lose, suckers!” 

Some people can fool themselves into believing what’s convenient. Feminism is no place for that. What would be the point? What is the value of a victory that means continuing to bend yourself into pretzels to accommodate male perceptions of reality? I came to feminism to escape that, not replicate it. 

Feminism isn’t going to “win” in any absolute sense. What it will do is continue to show women that they are not mad, that they matter and that female relationships and legacies matter. It will have some major victories — access to public space, control of our own bodies — which will require constant maintenance. Sometimes these victories will be snatched away. 

When we get old, we will not be able to believe that we still have to protest this fucking shit. We will do it, though. When we are on our deathbeds, I doubt any of us will be thinking “yeah, but did I own Owen Jones?” Our political beliefs are not so fragile, our principles not so fickle. Know this, anti-feminist zealots: you’re just not that important. 

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