Rachel Anne Williams
May 15 · 7 min read

How a failed feminism fails to live up to its name

“Gender critical” feminism (henceforth GC feminism) claims to be critical of gender. They see gender as a social construct, and a harmful one at that. They see the system of gender as nothing but stereotypes about the male and female sex and furthermore that these stereotypes operate together to oppress cis females on account of the bodies they possess.

GC feminists define “women” simply as those people who are bearers of eggs and have the innate potential to get pregnant. They ignore intersex people as anomalies and deny that sex is a multidimensional spectrum. GC feminists focus much of their time and energy criticizing trans people, and especially trans women, for trying to replace this bioessentialist definition of womanhood with one that’s more expansive, one that includes trans women under the umbrella of womanhood, one that recognizes trans men as men and not deluded, self-hating women, and one that recognizes nonbinary people as valid in their rejection of the limitations of the gender binary to define who they are.

GC feminists argue that if we expand the concept of womanhood to include trans women we will not have a firm foot by which to name and combat the unique struggles of people who are capable of getting pregnant. Their feminism is not one whereby it recognizes the interlinked struggles of trans women and cis women, one that does not recognize trans men as men, and one that does not believe it’s acceptable for trans women to exist as women or be treated as women.

GC feminism claims to be critical of gender because they want to destroy gender and replace it with definitions based entirely on whether you possess eggs or sperm. They want to replace all forced sex stereotyping with a world that is devoid of the artificial constructions of gender. They want trans women to identify as feminine men, not the women they are. Or better yet they might even prefer trans women just revert to being masculine men, as many GC feminists see the free adoption of femininity regressive. They think non-binary people are confused and just making up new genders because they are caught up in enticing social trends. GC feminism thinks that trans rights set back the progress of women’s rights and does not recognize that trans women are a part of women’s rights.

But is GC feminism really critical of gender? How can you claim to be so critical of something but fail to truly understand what gender is? While it is true that the system of gender does involve stereotypes based on sex, this does not represent all that gender represents. Gender can also be liberatory. Trans folks know this. We know how how dangerous it is to say “If you are female, you must act like this” or “If you are male, you must act like this.” But where we disagree with GC feminists is we do not believe that if you were assigned male at birth you must thereby be male and you must thereby be a man and must thereby never identify as a woman. We see gender as offering a way out of the repressive binds of our assigned genders, that forces us to act and identify a certain way simple because of the shape of our genitals.

But how can you be assigned male at birth and yet not a male? How can you be born with the potential to create sperm and yet not be male? Because sex and gender are far more complicated than GC feminists admit. They are interrelated and cannot be disentangled so cleanly.

Suppose we were scientists and knew nothing about men or women and we wanted to go out into the world and study their characteristics. If we started with the assumption that trans women are indeed women then we wouldn’t conclude that women can’t have penises or that men can’t have vaginas. If we started with that basic premise we wouldn’t reduce the concepts of womanhood and manhood down to such a simplistic biological definition. We would realize that it’s not so easy to pick out men and women based on their physiology and we might realize that physiology does not define gender and that gender is related to physiology but cannot be reduced to it.

But what does define gender? In my view, gender does not admit of easy definition. Just like pain does not admit of easy definition. It is experiential. The words in a dictionary cannot capture the reality of a toothache. Gender is best determined based on asking someone. The best way to determine if someone is in pain is to ask them. And the best way to determine if someone is a woman or a man or something else is to ask them. We are all our own best experts on our own pain and we are all our own best experts on our gender. Nobody except us can tell us what our gender is. This is why gender is based on self-identification.

GC feminists like to imagine these hypothetical scenarios whereby cis men go around identifying as women and causing all kinds of havoc and therefore self-identification must be problematic and we should only define womanhood in terms of basic physiology. But this objection is not only based on fear-mongering hypothetical scenarios that have never come to fruition but also fundamentally misunderstands the nature of self-identification.

The question of how you self-identify is not determined on a whim. The question: “what is your gender?” must be sincere. If these hypothetical cis men were asked, randomly and earnestly, out on the street, or by their significant others or friends, what their gender was, they wouldn’t say “woman”. Because that’s not how they live their lives. They don’t go around 24/7 identifying as women because there would be points in their life, where, if you asked them, they’d identify as men. They couldn’t keep up the charade forever. They’d be socially embarrassed at work or in their friends group or love life if they went around pretending to be someone they’re not. And besides, society already has laws in place for disturbing the peace in public places like bathrooms, locker rooms, or shelters, etc.

But what about gender fluid people? Aren’t there trans people who would, if you asked them, say they’re a man one day and a woman the next? What facilities are they supposed to go in? Here’s where we come to another principle: we are ourselves the best experts on what bathrooms we should use. If an assigned-male genderfluid trans women doesn’t think it’d be appropriate to use the men’s room, then it’s probably not appropriate for them to use the men’s room. And vice versa for the women’s room. No trans person wants to cause a ruckus in the bathroom or in any public space. We are already at risk for violent assaults and hate-mongering and know this firsthand so, like anybody with common sense, we are quite capable of assessing our own passability/blendability and determining what the most appropriate bathroom/gendered space is.

In reality, this “genderfluid” objection is based purely on hypothetical fear-mongering because genderfluid people are (1) relatively rare in the trans community and (2) aren’t rapidly fluctuating in their physical appearance day-to-day and most trans people who don’t “pass” as their gender know the right bathroom to go into that will minimize any chance of causing a stir. And besides, there are cis women with beards. Are they causing a ruckus everywhere they go, posing a threat to women? Turns out, 99% of people wanting to use a restroom or locker room truly just want to do their business in peace. And shelters also have detailed policies in place to assess whether someone would be problematic if they stayed at the shelter.

Furthermore, it begs the question: why are there so few unisex options available for trans people? I bet a lot if not most genderfluid people, when they are feeling “most incongruous”, would use a unisex facility if given the choice.

GC feminist fails to be truly gender critical because if it really did a critical analysis of gender it would realize that trans people are natural allies to feminism. GC feminism is right that sex stereotypes hurt women. But they also hurt men. And trans people. And intersex people. And nonbinary people. They hurt everybody. And the solution is not to construct restrictive definitions of gender that are exclusive of trans people. The solution is to celebrate our differences and work together to dismantle oppressive systems of power that lead to things like Republicans banning abortions, or failing to give mothers maternity leave, addressing domestic violence, giving women equal pay in the workplace, or any number of pressing issues that feminists care about.

LGBTQ issues are a part of this movement. Trans issues are a part of this movement. That’s what intersectional feminism is all about: celebrating our differences and working together for the common good. The only thing that stops GC feminists from recognizing this is ideological blinders. They have been sold on a false ideology, one that has failed to truly protect the women it proclaims to care about and actively harms some of the most marginalized people on the planet. It’s a failed form of feminism. It’s not gender critical. Its desire to get rid of gender altogether is merely a veiled threat to eradicate trans people from public existence, to prevent us from getting the medical care necessary for our transitions and for our well-being. To force trans kids to suffer needlessly. If GC feminism was truly critical of gender, it would realize that biology is not destiny. Being assigned male or female does not define your gender. Only we can define our own genders.

Rachel Anne Williams

Written by

Author & writer, ex-academic philosopher. Author of Transgressive: A Trans Woman on Gender, Feminism, and Politics with @JKPBooks — Out now!

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