Guest post: A response to Judith Butler in the New Statesman

On the 21st January 2019, Judith Butler dictated that ‘the backlash against “gender ideology” must stop’ and argued that ‘Gender theory is neither destructive nor indoctrinating: it simply seeks a form of political freedom’. [1]. How is a theory which argues that women’s oppression is innate, that sex-role stereotypes are natural and in fact override biology, that uses the hard power of the state and the soft power of social ostracisation to enforce its dictums ‘neither destructive nor indoctrinating’? How is a theory which denies women’s sex based oppression and obscures male violence going to be liberating? Maybe we should ask: liberating for who? It would liberate men’s rights to women’s bodies; it would enable men to claim that women just naturally wanted and/or ‘identified with’ their oppression. Women globally are losing their human rights to dignity, safety, self-definition, organisation, expression and freedom of belief. Children are being medicated and mutilated in the service of the idea that biological sex itself is a social construct and that if one does not conform to sex role stereotypes then one is born wrong. How can this be anything but a destructive theory?

Butler observes that ‘In the last few years, protests in Europe, Latin America, and elsewhere have objected to an “ideology of gender”. Elections in France, Colombia, Costa Rica, and Brazil have pivoted on a candidate’s account of gender roles’. Butler fails to name those protesters: women. A growing women’s liberation movement is back. She then posits that these protests are led by evangelical Christians rather than ordinary women, parents, feminists. What could be more right wing than the idea that women have a stereotypical role, and if one does not conform to sexist stereotypes then one must not be a ‘real woman’? What could be more right wing than the notion that lesbians must include penises in their sexuality; that homosexuality in fact doesn’t exist beyond a socially influenced preference that can be ‘unlearned’? These are ideas that gender theory pushes. If biological sex isn’t real, how can one be same-sex attracted?

Butler attempts to reinforce the idea that only the religious are opposed to science denial and claims that ‘Gender equality is taken as a “diabolical ideology” by these critics precisely because they see gender diversity as a historically contingent “social construction” that is imposed on the divinely mandated natural distinction between the sexes’. However, one can believe in material reality and the physical sciences without believing in God. Feminists, never particularly liked by the Church or religious, posit that the social interpretation of sex (gender) is historically contingent and forms a system of oppression which places the masculine at the top and the feminine at the bottom of the hierarchy. It is Butler who is in flat earth territory when she argues that biology is socially constructed.

Although Butler maintains that if ‘one considers gender theory carefully, it is neither destructive nor indoctrinating’ and ‘[I]n fact, it simply seeks a form of political freedom to live in a more equitable and livable world’, it is quite the opposite. How can one have more equity by naturalising a system of oppression? How can one have more equity by trying to legitimise the idea that there is a ‘normal’ way for men and women to behave, what are natural likes and dislikes for them, via legislation? Claiming sex role stereotypes (gender) are innate limits all of humanity.

To be fair to Butler, an effigy of her was burnt in Brazil with protesters shouting ‘take your ideologies to hell’. However, these were not British female trade unionists or feminists who also disagree with Butler, just for different reasons.[2] It is wrong to smear one’s opponents the way Butler does — by lumping us all in together. Notice how in doing this Butler denies women their voices, opinions and lived experience as having a real sexed body. She cannot debate feminists, so instead seeks to pretend that we simply do not exist — presumably because she does not think that we matter.


This is a guest post by Dr. EM (@PankhurstEM ). If you would like to write for the Network, please get in touch, and please follow us on Twitter at @camradfems and on Facebook.

Notes

  1. J. Butler, ‘the backlash against “gender ideology” must stop’, New Statesman America (21 January 2019) https://www.newstatesman.com/2019/01/judith-butler-backlash-against-gender-ideology-must-stop [Accessed 22 January 2019].
  2. https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2017/11/13/judith-butler-discusses-being-burned-effigy-and-protested-brazil