Fundamentally misunderstanding gender critical feminism

Ani O’Brien
May 8 · 12 min read

Maybe we could find common ground if you knew what we stood for.

It has been a while since I was sufficiently frustrated to sit down and write a bit by bit response to a piece of writing, but here I am baffled at how utterly misunderstood our position as gender critical feminists is. However, it is not my frustration nor my bewilderment that has me writing this tonight after sitting in Auckland traffic for over an hour. Nope. It is a pathetic skerrick of hope I have that if people who have expressed so much hate for us can be so fundamentally wrong about what we stand for then perhaps if they learnt the truth we could find just a little bit of middle ground.

Gotta love a trier, right?

The piece is What is ‘Gender Critical’ anyway? On essentialism and transphobia by Danielle Moreau — hopefully I can help her find out.

Transphobes are having a moment in Aotearoa. Attempts to pass a bill allowing transgender people to change the sex on their birth certificates without having to go through the courts have been met by vigorous opposition from a small but well-organised group of Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminists (TERFs) or — as they would rather be called — ‘gender critical feminists’. These activists, who probably number in the dozens rather than thousands, have been joined on social media and petition websites by a large contingent of overseas allies, most notably from the UK. In the process, we have learned of the existence in that country of a trans-exclusionary subculture that has been radicalised by, of all places, the parenting forum Mumsnet.

First of all, thank you. Our campaign to halt the BDMRR Bill and sex self-identification was hard work and I appreciate that you could see how well organised it was. However, the persistent myth that we are two ‘TERFs’ in a trenchcoat is as ever totally inaccurate. Likewise, the conspiracy theory of an army of Mumsnet poms wielding cups of tea and scary opinions is laughable. We are in contact with gender critical feminists in the UK though…and Canada…the United States, Australia, France, South Korea, Portugal, Argentina, Nigeria, and more. There is an international community of gender critical feminists because we are all fighting a lot of the same battles. We support each other; commiserate, celebrate, and share resources. We are just like any other community.

It may be a good time, then, to examine what being ‘gender critical’ actually means.

At first blush, the phrase ‘gender critical feminist’ is essentially meaningless: all feminism is ‘gender critical’ by definition. The TERF label is at least partially descriptive, since exponents of this ideology are certainly trans-exclusionary, but it may be too generous to suggest that they are either radical or feminists. Feminism is a big tent, but it is hard to welcome into it a group so dedicated to returning us to the values of the Victorians.

Feminism is at its roots (that’s where the name Radical Feminism comes from by the way) gender critical. Past iterations of feminism were entirely gender critical, but there is little that can be said to be gender critical about third wave feminism. This is why gender critical feminists reject it. We prefer the radical analysis of our foremothers. Radical does not mean wild or extreme it simply refers to “relating to or affecting the fundamental nature of something”. It is about stripping everything back and analysing the nature of female oppression. For gender critical or radical feminists our “central tenet is that women as a biological class are globally oppressed by men as a biological class.”

What makes TERF ideology reactionary rather than radical is its dedication to binary gender essentialism. The concept of gender essentialism is practically timeless, and reaction to it is key to understanding why feminist theory exists in the first place. Gender essentialism is the idea that there is an innate, immutable ‘womanness’ or ‘manness’ which expresses itself in what we consider ‘femininity’ or ‘masculinity’. It posits, for example, that women as a group are naturally more caring and empathetic and men as a group are more aggressive and clever, and — crucially — that these gendered qualities exist inherently, without societal influence. Another key aspect of essentialism is that it is often, but not always, tied to bodies and ‘biology’. So, because a lot of women give birth, gender essentialism associates childcare with women because they are biologically ‘destined’ for it.

I’ll ignore the incorrect use of the word radical for the rest of this piece and move on to the extraordinary claim that we are dedicated to “gender essentialism.” Not only are gender critical feminists not gender essentialists, we are actually the complete opposite. In our CRITIQUE of gender we are more accurately described as gender ABOLITIONISTS. There is nothing immutable about gender. It is not innate. Rather, based on thousands of years of socialisation, survival, hierarchy, and oppression, gender is the set of stereotypes and roles that we as societies have imposed on the sexes. A more accurate moniker for gender critical feminists would be “sex essentialist”. That is because we believe that it is our biological sex and our biological sex alone that makes us women. It is not the gender stereotypes that we are socialised to associate with womanhood. It is not the “empathy” or outward expressions of femininity like how we dress or style our hair. Our POTENTIAL to become pregnant is a core part of our femaleness and it is central to a lot of the experiences women have in common. I say ‘potential’ because not all women want to or are able to get pregnant. However, it is society’s perception of us as potential ‘breeders’ that brings with it some of our most acute oppressions around bodily autonomy and biological functions.

I am going to take my refutation of the assertion that gender critical feminists are “gender essentialists” a step further. I contend that it is in fact proponents of gender identity ideology who are gender essentialist. After all, it is they who think gender is so innate that someone can be born in the wrong body. They conceptualise gender as a kind of soul that exists as separate from the biology of the person. Is it not terribly gender essentialist to suggest that a man who feels an innate sense of ‘womanness’ because he is (perhaps) empathetic, nurturing, gentle, sensitive, and presents femininely, must actually be a woman? Because no man could possibly possess those characteristics and present in that way? Rather than embrace the feminine man or the masculine women, gender identity ideology would have them switch place to ‘match’ their gender identity to the ‘appropriate’ sex.

Destined for it?

Feminism’s first wave, popularly associated with the suffragists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, bought into gender essentialism in a big way. This wasn’t entirely their fault, for several reasons. They were heavily influenced by the dichotomous Victorian concept of ‘separate spheres’ for men and women — men in the world, women in the home — even if they tried to reject it in some limited ways. ‘HOUSEKEEPERS need the ballot to regulate the sanitary conditions under which they and their families must live… MOTHERS need the ballot to regulate the moral conditions under which their children must be brought up’, said the New York Woman Suffrage Association in 1915. The suffrage movement was more broadly linked to things like the temperance movement, and the temperance movement used essentialist ideas about women and their caring, empathetic natures in order to influence politics and get alcohol banned. (Alcohol was a huge issue for women mainly because they had so few other legal rights, and so drunk husbands could beat and rape them with no real recourse. We know now, unfortunately, that alcohol is not the thing doing the raping and beating.)

I have nothing to dispute here, but I will just point out that the history of the construction of public toilet facilities specifically for women is a fascinating part of the opening up of the public sphere to the female sex class.

Another reason for the first wave’s reliance on essentialism is that reliable contraception had yet to be invented. If you are not familiar with feminist theory, the cause and effect may seem quite tenuous here, but it is difficult for anyone to conceive of non-gendered, unfettered humanity if you are forced into a brood mare situation from young adulthood. As a result of these factors, among others, the first wave had painted itself into a theoretical corner with its essentialism. Buying into dichotomist ideas about gender used by patriarchy since time immemorial meant accepting hard limits. It meant accepting inferiority and never being able to achieve true equity.

I don’t agree that first wave feminists “relied” on gender essentialism. The realities of their sex (as you point out with reference to the lack of contraception) and the gender roles they enacted were simply all they knew. They weren’t using gender essentialism. It was the framework in which they existed and in fighting for a place in political life they were only beginning to peel the layers off their oppression.

With few exceptions, the second wave of feminist theory questioned and rejected gender essentialism. One of the important aspects of why the second wave was different from the first wave of feminist theory is that by this stage reliable contraception had being invented, accepted, and come into wide use. People were, for the first time, able to divorce their existence from sexual reproduction. Linda Cisler, in 1969: ‘different reproductive roles are the basic dichotomy in humankind, and have been used to rationalize all the other, ascribed differences between men and women and to justify all the oppression women have suffered.’ Feminists argued that social influence was the primary reason we assumed women were such-a-way and men were such-a-way; that men had written nearly all the history and psychology to that date; that patriarchy created hegemonic propaganda based on binary essentialist ideas. Second-wave writers were exhilarated by the newfound theoretical power to refute their inferiority, and you can feel it emanating from their engaged, emphatic, often uproarious writings.

In this paragraph, you see the beginnings of the gender critical movement. We as a movement identify far more with second wave feminism than with the convoluted nonsense that has followed. Cisler’s quote neatly encapsulates our true position on sex and gender. This is gender critical theory.

The second wave did, of course, get many things wrong. It tried to use its new powers of analysis to make ‘womanness’ many different things, theorising that women were a ‘class’, or ignoring voices that dealt with racism. Many of its ideas weren’t nuanced. Being associated with their bodies for their whole lives, and exploited within those bodies, gave some feminists from this era problematic ideas about sex and sexuality. There was also a subculture of hippy mysticism that associated the female reproductive organs with purity or power.

It is bizarre and, I cynically think, intentional that this idea of gender critical feminists as only white keeps getting rolled out. Believe it or not, when founder of race critical theory, Kimberlé Crenshaw, coined the term ‘intersectionality’, she used it to analyse the intersections of sex, race, and class, and this analysis is a core part of gender critical theory. This piece by Dr Holly Lawford-Smith explains really well what intersectionality really is and what it isn’t. We understand the ways race and class make us different while analysing how as a female class our lived experiences are unique from our male counterparts.

Call me a hippy, but I love celebrating the wonder of the female body. The world we live in is a jumble of phallic one-up-manship. The male is everywhere; our architecture, art, cultures, everything! Phalluses everywhere! I love that second wave feminists decided to do a bit of collective self love. As females we are pitted against our own body from day dot and I fail to see what is wrong with celebrating its power. To be honest, it is a bit of fun too. Having shared iconography that represents shared realities is a wonderful part of bonding as a community of any kind.

However, although feminists with uteruses or vaginas wanted to know more about them — because that knowledge had been systematically hidden or controlled by ‘men of science’ — they rejected being defined by their bodies. Binary gender essentialism was, in sum, not the primary theoretical view of second-wave feminists. In fact, second-wave theory laid much of the groundwork for our current, welcome conception of a society-wide removal of a restrictive gender binary. Karen Sacks wrote in 1970: ‘For women to merely fight men would be to miss the point. The point is to change the social order …. Perhaps for the first time in human history we are faced with the possibility of a pan-human, non-exploitative society.’ By 1986 Judith Butler had taken the ideas of Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex to their logical conclusion: ‘it is no longer possible to attribute the values or social functions of women to biological necessity … it becomes unclear whether being a given sex has any necessary consequence for becoming a given gender.’

Women still don’t know enough about our bodies. Research and funding for male bodies and medicine far outstrips that for females. Simply compare the money and care that has gone into developing erectile dysfunction medication to the relative void of information on the debilitating condition endometriosis which affects approximately 10% of women. The true form of the clitoris and all its glory were not known until shamefully recently either. We have every right to be obsessed with learning about our bodies; there is so much yet to learn.

Judith Butler has a lot to answer for. Her post-modern, deconstructive anarchism is at the heart of the worst parts of gender identity ideology. Please tell me you aren’t going to quote Foucault. However, that particular quote is one of her more benign. She is right that as women we should not be valued primarily on our biological ability to bear life. Our lives need not be dictated by breeding, however, that does not erase our bodies. It does not erase the fact that society still treats us in certain ways because of their perception of our ability to become pregnant. We are still oppressed in many ways because we belong to the sex class of female.

TERFs ultimately tie rights to body parts. Their approach seems to be that, because women were originally oppressed to some extent because of their bodies, their rights should be forever tied to qualities within those bodies, when in fact the precise opposite is true. Their reactionary ideology, with its obsession with binary gender essentialism, is actively harmful to all genders. TERFs aren’t even calling back to the second wave — they’re calling back to the first wave. Their ideas are over one hundred years old, and they aren’t good ones.

This is a bizarre conclusion to draw. But I’m glad I got to the end without having to read a Michel Foucault quote so, thank you. I have a question for you, Danielle. A genuine one.

It is our bodies which have always differentiated us from men. It is the fact, as you say, that before contraception we spent our lives pregnant and in the home. It is our bodies and our potential to become mothers that sees us valued less in the workforce (as well as gendered sex stereotypes). It is because we are female that we are overwhelmingly the victims of sexual violence, but rarely the perpetrators. It is because we are female that in some parts of the world little girls have their genitals mutilated, are married off to men, and deprived of education. I am terribly and genuinely confused as to what you think sexism, female oppression, and male violence are, if not based around our respective realities as members of our sex classes. What is feminism for if not to liberate the female sex class?

This does not mean that any of this oppression is our destiny. However, we simply must know what we are fighting for and against if we are to effect change. Sex is WHY we are oppressed. Gender is HOW we are oppressed.

I really hope you read some of this at least. I’m not telling you how to think, I’m telling you how we think. You have seriously misunderstood our position on things that seem to form the basis for why you hate us. It is your choice if you wish to still paint a picture of us as the antithesis of decency, but I wanted to make sure you’re at least hating us for positions we actually hold.

My Twitter DMs are always open for respectful, confidential conversation. I welcome questions and hope that maybe some of you who are afraid to be seen engaging in taboo subjects with blacklisted people will feel comfortable to reach out privately.

We need to talk to avoid further misunderstandings.

Disappointing update: