Votes for our mothers
Transgender rights

What is ‘gender critical’ anyway? On essentialism and transphobia

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.

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.

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.

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.)

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.

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.

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.

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.’

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.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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Danielle Moreau is a part-time legal researcher and a full-time parent and feminist in Auckland. She tweets at @dimsie.

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  1. Good to see this being discussed, but not sure the writer has a handle on what gender critical feminists are actually arguing. Feel the clue is in the name, in that they appear to be arguing for sex based rights (hence the “radical feminist” element of the pejorative term TERF) and the dismantling of gender as performative. This position opposes, rather than supports, the notion that gender is something essentialist and metaphysical — that you can be born into the wrong body with a feminine brain or spirit, for example. This misunderstanding of positions on both sides of the argument — often based on a conflation of sex and gender — does seem to make it difficult for them to engage rationally with each other.

    • The author seems to be using “Gender Essentialist” as if it is synonymous with “Sex Essentialist”. We can debate their meaning, but we should acknowledge that “sex essentialism”, distinct from “gender essentialism” (if such a distinction can be made*), is one frequently levelled at the Gender Critical movement. This interview makes the case well, and also offers criticisms of “dismantle gender” as a goal and the ways gender critical feminists act to fulfil it:

      * My feelings about the “Sex/Gender” distinction is that common usage of both terms under patriarchy renders it incoherent, and any project to disentangle the two is doomed to degenerate into useless terminology squabbling.

  2. What a lazy article.

    The writer clearly is criticising (poorly and lazily) a caricature of a gender-critical thought.

    She describes “terfs” without naming or quoting anyone in particular. A typical rhetorical trick for when one wants to build a strawman to beat down.

    It’s also worth pointing out that the writer gives the impression that she has never read de Beauvoir. de Beauvoir very clearly advocated for the liberation of people born female from being defined by and according to the values of people born male.

    Judith Butler doesn’t extend de Beauvoir’s thought at all, but entirely departs from it by concluding that maleness and femaleness are ontologies, not realities.

    I’m fine with reading ideological grudge articles. These are among my favourite things to read.

    But I prefer it when a writer has at least a basic understanding of what they are writing about when embarking on a grudge piece.

  3. I think that all I need to know is in this sentence;

    “However, although feminists with uteruses or vaginas”

    The hoops that you have to jump through to please the patriarchy these days…..

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