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 been 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.

Danielle Moreau

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

More by Danielle Moreau ›

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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.

    1. 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: https://www.transadvocate.com/is-sadism-popular-with-terfs-a-chat-with-an-ex-gendercrit_n_18568.htm

      * 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.

      1. You serious Harry? Kelly’s entire comment was an outline of the laziness, and you write “what makes it lazy” … ? Seriously? Read it again.

  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…..

    1. The inclusion of the idea and the words to convey “with uteruses and vaginas” is SPECIFICALLY done, supported and not ridiculed in its entirety by the progressives and their movements. The “patriarchy” over here is rolling its eyes.

  4. 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.

    Gender critical feminists don’t argue that gender is innate they argue it isn’t. You’re misrepresenting the gender critical position and presenting it is as the position of our critics.

  5. The final paragraph felt like the start of the argument not the conclusion. I am not in any camp here and would have been interested to read the argument but the author did not actually make one. She just rehashed some history and glossed over the repression of women and girls that occurs to this day as something that was “originally” sex-based to “some extent”.

  6. You have a fundamental misunderstanding of feminists view of sex and gender identity. Biological sex is fixed, not gender. It is gender ideology that reinforces rigid gender roles.

    Feminists argue that gender is socially constructed not innate. Feminists seek to push back against gender stereotypes which are used to keep women in a socially subordinate role. Feminists do however acknowledge biology as being innate. It is due to this biology that patriarchal society has sought to control us and gender roles and stereotypes are used as the system of control.

    Gender ideology reinforces ridgid gender roles. Gender ideology argues that gender is innate. If one’s biology is in opposition to one’s gender identity one must transition the body due to the fixed nature of gender. Gender ideology describes biology as being socially constructed.

    As gender ideology reinforces rigid gender roles they have created categories for those who don’t fit the binary stereotypes. This is why non binary and gender fluid categories have been introduced.

    These are unnecessary in feminism which seeks to fee people from rigid, binary, gender roles. In native American societies, tribes with ridgid gender roles often had more than 2 categories of gender identity. Where as in tribes without rigid gender roles there were no need for additional catogeries.

  7. Thanks for this explanation. I’ve had difficulty finding the right words to describe this, and my frustration as a feminist that *some* aspects of current trans theory enforces stricter and more binary gender roles, which is completely contrary to what some feminists want. We want to be able to have “masculine traits” without being derided as a woman or being told explicitly or via society that if we exhibit those traits, we can’t be a woman.

    I also don’t really see the difference between trans racialism (which is pretty universally derided) and trans genderism (which in mainstream places, has far more support and those who don’t support it are not objecting for logical reasons)

    For transracialism, the argument, especially with white people, is that no matter how you change your appearance, you’ll never be black because you didn’t grow up black and have that experience. Race is a social construct though, just like gender. If one is ok, then the other should be ok, or vice versa. Having the contradiction/double standard messes me up.

    And on some level it feels like males, who like the gender role of women, are then getting to come in and dictate things to females. They have likely dealt with harassment and abuse, but not in the same way as females, never having had the experience of a first period or being treated like a girl for their whole lives. I can’t relate to that, I don’t know what it is like to have grown up a male, and even if I transitioned, I’d still never know what it was like to grow up a male, like I never had to worry about wet dreams or inconvenient erections.

    Part of me wonders “why can’t you stay a male and just not pay attention to what gender norms say?”

    I think a lot of issues with transgender theory is that there is a lot of biology involved, some of which we don’t understand, and presumes pheromones and other things don’t exist. In some ways it’s like an uncanny valley thing, there’s a mismatch in your brain of how to interpret someone.

    I’m just a little surprised that people feel sex is easier to alter than gender.

  8. That because race was created by colonists and gender was a complex interplay that varies from culture to culture and evolved over thousands of years. In some cultures there are AMAB people selected and socialized into feminine roles.
    Finally gender dysphoria is backed by peer reviewed sources, “racial dysphoria” isn’t!

  9. Sorry, crying-laughing, but mostly crying. Hopefully it will not take a hundred years before we can look back and say “Their ideas are over 100 years old and they aren’t good ones”… meaning the ideas/concepts put forward in this article.

    I’m not getting into the argy-bargy – and Danielle, I know you didn’t invent this stuff – but, you know what, what’s considered progress doesn’t always have positive outcomes (there are always unintended consequences).

    I’m in my 72nd year so I’ve been witness to a good part of that 100 years (in some cultures I would be a revered Elder) … and I was involved in the 2nd wave in the 70s! I’ve experienced some of the unintended consequences and seen them play out in various ways … one thing I can suggest is to step outside of any ideological framework and seriously look for, and consider, different viewpoints. Look around at the real world and don’t be taken in by what can appear to be very neat theories.

  10. This article bashes the “feminists with uteruses or vaginas” whilst then arguing that gender critical feminists are the ones who resort feminism to “body parts.” Hypocritical nonsense.

  11. I am a bit more than ‘gender critical’. I would argue that gender is sexist and homophobic garbage that I totally reject. I am also exclusionary (reference to the ‘e’ in the silly term TERF). Being gay, I reserve the right to have same-sex partners and spaces. I support lesbians in this as well. This right to exclude is under attack as we still live in a sexist and gay-hating society. Moreover, transgender people have every right to form their own organisations and exclude others from being involved.

    I also note that Judith Butler was quoted but none of women who have copped the author’s ire. At least it was one of Butler’s more coherent sentences.

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