Where Metaphysics Meets Politics in Gender Critical Feminism

Mary Leng
Mary Leng
Jun 14, 2019 · 10 min read

Recently the philosopher Catarina Dutilh-Novaes posted some thoughts on gender critical feminism in a thread on Twitter that I thought were worth thinking about. In particular, I was interested to see Catarina’s characterisation of the gender critical position, as although she correctly identifies that this position involves an interplay between both metaphysical claims and political (and policy related) claims, I felt her characterization didn’t really get things right on where the divide between metaphysical and political falls, or on precisely the nature of the claims being made on each side of this divide. Knowing that Catarina is an astute philosopher engaging in this debate in good faith, I suspect that means those of us on the gender critical side have not ourselves been particularly clear on this, so I thought it would be a good exercise to try to clarify at least my own position.

1. Metaphysical Claim: Female People Exist

The metaphysical claim Catarina understands us as making is what she calls a version of ‘biological essentialism’, which she takes to be the position “that a person who was ‘born male’ can never become female properly speaking, and the insistence on sex rather than gender as the relevant category”. Catarina’s terminology here is perhaps misleading: I understand ‘biological essentialism’ to be the rather different claim, roughly that the personality traits typically associated with the two biological sexes are essential to them, rather than a result of gendered socialization. We are certainly not biological essentialists in that sense!

How about the two claims that Catarina explicitly includes under this label, i.e. that a person ‘born male’ can never properly speaking ‘become female’, and the insistence on sex rather than gender as the relevant category. The latter of these claims seems to me to properly fall on the political side rather than the metaphysical side, so I’ll set this aside for now. The former claim, that a person ‘born male’ can never properly speaking ‘become female’ is at best a consequence of the metaphysical claim we take ourselves to be making, rather than central to its characterisation.

The sole metaphysical claim that our argument depends on is the claim that almost all humans unproblematically fall into one of two distinct biological categories — male and female. This is not to say that there aren’t sometimes difficult to categorise cases — some differences of sexual development mean that for some people categorising them into one or other of these groups is not straightforward. But a fuzzy boundary is still a boundary and most of us (and even most people with differences of sexual development) fall straightforwardly on one side or the other. Catarina may think of this as biological essentialism. In my view it is just scientific realism: we recognise apparent sex differences; science investigates their nature and confirms that the observed differences in secondary sex characteristics we see are generally a result of differences in primary sex characteristics (so that those of the sex class that — all going well — produce large gametes also tend to be recognisable as such because of other more obvious external physical features that — again all going well — develop in that sex class).

So that’s the metaphysics out of the way: there are genuine physical differences between male and female human bodies, and these are for the most part easily recognised (so that in most cases whether a person is male or female can be correctly observed and recorded at birth). I am led to this position through scientific realism, but it is perhaps worth noting that a distinction between biological sex and gender could still be made even on a constructivist account of kinds/properties, to the extent that sex is associated with biological kinds and classification and gender with social classification.

2. Political Claim: Being Female Matters

Pretty much everything else though, is political, and falls out of an understanding of the political and social differences that have resulted from this mundane biological fact. Because it is massively politically relevant that female people are (a) in general physically weaker than male people, and (b) of the category of humans that can be impregnated by male people and can carry and birth children. These two elements have — historically and contingently — led to the development of patriarchal structures, whereby males as the physically dominant group who are not made further vulnerable by pregnancy and childbirth, were able to take control of female reproductive labour and view females as tradable goods. The historical development of patriarchy as a system of oppression of female people by male people, to the benefit of males, has had massive implications both historically and now. Even from before they are born females are still seen as lesser — the prevalence of sex-selective abortion is a case in point. Once born and recognised as female, the forces of female socialization come in to remind us to take up less space, and to know our place. We just celebrated 100 years of (some) female people being allowed to vote in the UK, but even still females are poorly represented in politics, and female voices are listened to less. In order to be taken even half as seriously as males, it often feels like we have to do twice as much, and indeed to do so (as was said of Ginger Rogers as compared with Fred Astaire) “backwards and in high heels”. Even if we are not recognised as female and discounted/mistreated as a result of that recognition, our female bodies still lead to structural disadvantages in a world designed by males for males with females as a mere afterthought. The idea of females as incomplete/deficient males has led to historically poor understanding of female bodies in their own right; even now female bodies are under-researched and under-catered-for in multiple ways, as admirably documented in Caroline Criado-Perez’s recent book ‘Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men’. So the first political point we make building on the metaphysical distinction between male and female bodies is that the fact that someone is female matters politically. It matters because females have been the subjects of patriarchal oppression in a system whose effects still reverberate.

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Ginger Rogers: backwards, in high heels

This brings us to Catarina’s ‘metaphysical’ claim, that I suggested above was better thought of as political: “the insistence on sex rather than gender as the relevant category”. This claim could be unpacked in different ways to mean different things, particularly as ‘gender’ could mean one of several things here. The description I have given above of the forces of patriarchy make clear my view that it is because of our sex that female people have been oppressed under patriarchy, and continue to suffer harms in a patriarchal structured society. But of course although I didn’t explicitly use the word, the system of gender, considered as a system of norms and expectations on female people has played a massive role in how we have been oppressed. So ‘sex rather than gender’ in Catarina’s contrast does not seem quite right. I take it that our sex is politically relevant precisely because of the system of gender and gendered expectations. But there is another understanding of the word ‘gender’ here that gets closer to our position. Because an artefact of patriarchal enforcement of differential social roles or gendered expectations on males and females is that individuals can internalise those roles/expectations, and identify with them or against them. Some people have a strong sense of a gender identity that is more typically attached to the opposite sex than to their own, and this can be particularly distressing in a society that strictly enforces gendered norms on sexed bodies. Perhaps when Catarina contrasts “the insistence on sex rather than gender as the relevant category” she means that we insist on sex rather than gender-identity as the thing that matters politically (e.g. in the question — that we will come to — of who to count as a woman)?

If so then there is a sense in which Catarina is right and a sense in which she is wrong in this characterization of our position. For we certainly wish to claim that there are many contexts in which sex — rather than gender identity — remains of the utmost political relevance, and that therefore it would be a mistake to replace categorization on grounds of sex with categorization on grounds of gender identity. The recent Scottish census discussions are a case in point. Some of us argued there, against proposals to replace the ‘sex’ question on the census with a ‘gender identity’ question, that failure to keep accurate records of sex makes it difficult to track the effects of sex discrimination. (Similarly, from time to time activists have suggested that we should cease the practice of recording sex at birth; if such a proposal were taken up, we would have no way of estimating the prevalence of sex-selective abortion, which we know about precisely because we record and compare numbers of live male and female births.) So yes, we think that there are many occasions on which it is sex, rather than gender identity, that it matters to know about.

On the other hand, Catarina’s characterisation of our view as insisting on sex rather than gender identity as the relevant category suggests that we are invested in denying any relevance to gender identity at all. That is certainly not my position and not something that I think falls out of the gender-critical position generally. Again, going back to the Scottish Census discussions, what was argued was not that we ask one question and ask only about sex, but that we collect data on sex and also on gender identity. Indeed, it was suggested that doing so was important in particular for transgender individuals, because we cannot adequately record and respond to discrimination against transgender individuals if we only capture information about gender identity and not about sex (since caring about gender identity alone does not tell you who is transgender and therefore likely to face discrimination on grounds of a gender identity that does not match their sex). Most of us think that the current UK Equality Act is right in including both sex and gender reassignment as separate protected characteristics. Many of us are also open to the idea that ‘gender reassignment’ could be appropriately replaced by ‘gender identity’ in that law (there are some concerns about how we could or should protect against discrimination on grounds of gender identity rather than e.g. outward expressions of gender, so room for reasonable disagreement here, but my own view is that this kind of worry would apply equally well to protections against discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation, which is also something that may be undisclosed and indiscernible). So it is unfair to think of us as thinking that sex rather than gender identity is the only politically relevant category, rather than thinking that both are politically relevant and we need to retain language and concepts that allow us to talk about, record, and protect both features.

A final understanding of Catarina’s claim that we insist on ‘sex rather than gender as the relevant category’ might be in relation to what’s relevant in determining who to count as a woman. Here Catarina is right that most of us have come to the view that sex should be the relevant category here. I have avoided using the word ‘woman’ as much as possible in what I have said so far, however, to indicate that much of what we think and take to be politically relevant can be thought about — and legislated for — independently of answering the vexed question of ‘what is a woman?’. One could agree with all I’ve said so far but still think that there is a politically important sense of ‘woman’ in which trans women are women (and trans men are men), so long as one is willing to recognise the further politically important fact that trans women are nevertheless not female (and trans men are so), and that being female is politically important too.

But that said, I, along with others, have come to the view that we ought to reserve the term ‘woman’ for ‘adult human females’. This is not in my case intended as an analytic claim about the definition of the word, or a metaphysical claim about the nature of ‘women’. Rather, in my view, it is a political proposal to be evaluated alongside others in the tradition of ‘ameliorative definition’. Claiming this does not, for example, imply that I reject the observation that historically the gendered term ‘woman’ has been constructed so as to carry with it so much more than ‘adult human female’, so that one could be clearly seen as female without adequately meeting the criteria for being a proper ‘woman’. Rather, I take the view that given that females are expected to become women, as feminists we should be stripping back the stereotyped gendered expectations from this term so that all there is to being a woman is to be an adult human female. However, I recognise that this proposal competes with other proposals about how best to use gendered terms in light of gendered socialization, gendered expectations, and their effects. In terms of policy recommendations, as I’ve said, so long as we recognise sex alongside gender identity as a politically relevant feature, not much hangs on whether we adopt my preferred definition of ‘woman’ as opposed to alternatives on the table that give more weight to gender identity.

The remainder of Catarina’s discussion concerns policy recommendations regarding access to spaces. I don’t want to discuss this in detail here: much has been said on this issue already, and it’s really not my focus. What I would like to say is that, so long as we recognise both sex and gender identity as separate politically important features, and keep language that allows us to discuss these features separately, then it strikes me that the ‘spaces’ issue should not and does not admit of a one size fits all answer. In each case we need to ask the question why this service/space/provision has been designated as woman only? And we need to ask on a case by case basis whether, given this justification, interpreting ‘woman’ as ‘female’ or as ‘female-identified’ would undermine that justification. We need further to consider what harms to female people and to people with a feminine gender identity would result from interpreting ‘woman’ in the case in question one way or the other, and to consider what other provisions/solutions might be put in place to offset those harms. In my view it’s likely that the discussions will go different ways in different cases, depending on whether, e.g., we’re talking about bathrooms with floor-to-ceiling stall divisions or women’s sports. Those are conversations we can have and will be difficult to navigate, but we can only have them if we keep the language and distinctions that enable us to do so.

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