Orthodoxy and its discontents
It seems that there is common ground between the patriarchal right and some advocates of trans rights, argues Amanda MacLean. This article is based on her talk given to the CPGB’s Summer Communist University
In 17th century Scotland, the Calvinist kirk - the church - enforced a rigid orthodoxy. The profession of faith was central to salvation, and true believers would not tolerate the sinful to be among the people of god. Sinners must be castigated and publicly shamed, and were expected to repent for their sins.
Today on the left a new orthodoxy - trans rights orthodoxy - has appeared, using the same methods. But I am a non-believer and a heretic. I refuse to make the profession of faith that ‘trans women are women, trans men are men, and non-binary genders are valid’. I object to that statement - especially when the term ‘trans women’ includes male people who have made no changes to their bodies at all, and never will.
Since I am not prepared to say that, to believe it literally, then I am - allegedly - a trans-exclusionary bigot on the far right, a social and political conservative who hates trans people. Please reserve judgement on that until you have read this article!
In actual fact, this article is not just about transgender people. Trans rights orthodoxy promotes ideas around sex and gender that affect all of us - every human being on the planet, past and present. And, because it does affect all of us, it is important to examine the orthodoxy with a broad perspective, not just a narrow focus on trans people - who make up a very small percentage of humanity. For instance, we keep hearing statements such as ‘nothing will change for women’ because ‘rights are not like pie - giving trans people rights doesn’t mean taking rights away from anyone else’.1 But the concepts that are being advanced by trans rights orthodoxy affect us all, and are about us all. When we widen our view, we see a very different picture from what we are being told to see.
This is important, because gender-critical views are frequently framed as being rightwing, with (frankly ludicrous) accusations of alliances with fascists and the far right - and allegations of funding coming from the same sources! It is true that, when the focus is solely on transgender people, it is a pretty straightforward split between ‘Trans women are women’, on the one hand, and ‘No they’re not’, on the other. And there is clear agreement on that between leftwing gender-critical feminists and others, from right across the political spectrum, who may very well not consider themselves feminists at all.
But the debate is not just about trans rights - it is about what sex and gender actually are - which is relevant to all humanity. So, when we consider gender in relation to the whole of humanity, the picture flips around: trans rights orthodoxy has far more in common with socially conservative views than gender-critical feminism does.
Let us therefore look at what trans rights orthodoxy says about all of us, and particularly about women - because it is what it says about women that sets alarm bells ringing.
The orthodoxy tells us that, as far as our bodies go, sex is much more complicated than we were taught in high school - hormones, chromosomes, anatomy do not always match up. And all sides of the argument go into vast amounts of wrangling about XX or XY chromosomes, hormone levels, Mullerian and Wolffian developmental pathways, whether someone is born with, or loses, this or that bit of the body ... much of the time ignoring the significance of why any of this actually matters.
It matters because it is about how human beings produce brand new human beings out of their bodies. There are only two ways of doing that. I am not talking about child-rearing here - there are lots of ways to structure families and childcare. I am talking about the actual production of babies out of the human body. Whether you are a man or a woman is about which of two - and only two - reproductive roles a person can expect to be able to have in their lifetime. Put simply, there is a kind of body that has a very clear tendency to produce babies, and another that never produces babies, but is essential to getting them started.
Those kinds of bodies are easily identifiable at birth - the reproductive role a person can expect to be able to have in their lifetime can be identified at that time with an extremely high degree of accuracy. We have words for people with those kinds of bodies - girl and boy or woman and man - and we use those words through people’s lives, irrespective of whether they actually have children or not. We use them because having children is extremely important for human relationships and human society.
Sometimes people have developmental disorders, which can affect any part of the body. Some people are born with developmental disorders of the female or male reproductive system. In the same way that a person with a developmental disorder of the kidney still has a kidney, a person who has a developmental disorder of the female reproductive system still has a female reproductive system - and is therefore a woman. And the same applies to a person who has a developmental disorder of the male reproductive system. People are born as boys and girls and they grow up to be men and women.
I am saying all this in such simple terms, because trans orthodoxy uses the existence of developmental disorders to throw that distinction between male and female into confusion - it argues that developmental disorders mean that the categories ‘male’ and ‘female’ result from an artificial binary split imposed on what it presents as a flowing spectrum.
In short, if you want to argue that sex is a spectrum rather than two very clear categories, I invite you to do two things: first of all, visit a farm; and secondly, please be consistent and apply the same thinking to all other scientific categories. Because I would suggest that the concepts of the male and female sexes are actually far clearer than, for instance, the species concept. Feel free to argue that there are not in fact different species in existence in this world, but do not expect everyone to agree with you.
No doubt some will be thinking that I am a disgusting bigot for what I have just written. But all I have said is that there are two clear and distinct sexes in the human species. I have put absolutely no limits or expectations on the people that I have just described as men and women. I have not said a single word about what people with the kinds of bodies we call male and female are like - apart from reproductive differences. I have not spoken about what they can or cannot do, or what they should do, or must do. I have not described, or suggested, anything whatsoever about their psychology, their behaviour, about what clothing, mannerisms, interests or social roles they have - or that they should have or be allowed to have.
If you think I am a sexist bigot, that is because you think the words ‘man’ and ‘woman’ mean something different and I would strongly suggest that it is you who are attaching a lot more sexist baggage to those words than I am. To repeat, when I use the words ‘man’ and ‘woman’, I am referring only to people with one of those two potential lifetime reproductive roles, and you should interpret what I say through that lens.
As for the sexist baggage that some people attach to the words ‘man’ and ‘woman’, it has a long history. Until recently, it has been the job of the feminist movement to separate those words from that sexist baggage: the assumptions, for instance, that women are all naturally nurturing (and men are not), naturally stay-at-home, naturally timid, naturally dependent - I could go on, but we all know the drill - while men are naturally assertive, independent, adventurous and are the stuff that leaders and thinkers are made of. Such assumptions and expectations are what is called biological essentialism - the idea that people with female or male bodies have innate and unchangeable feminine or masculine natures that determine our place in the world and mean that there is little we can do to change the structure of society.
That is clearly a highly conservative view. And there is very little hard evidence to back it up. Psychologists and brain scientists over the years have put large amounts of effort into searching for scientific evidence to support these conservative assumptions. And, sure, individual studies may show some differences. But when you look across the whole field of data, meta-analyses reveal very few significant differences indeed, and those that do exist are small, hugely variable between individuals, show large amounts of overlap between the male and female populations, exhibit cultural differences, change over time, and are affected by learning, by practice and by expectations. That does not sound like innate difference to me.
And, quite apart from the science, our own experience of life tells us that these conservative stereotypes are not true. We all have experience of being corralled into what is considered to be the ‘right’ behaviour for our sex. We know that people are instructed throughout life about what are ‘gender-appropriate’ behaviours: eg, ‘That’s not very ladylike’; ‘Boys don’t cry’. If these behaviours were innate, we would not need endless reminders about how we should conduct ourselves.
But people still insist, in the media and anecdotally, that there are innate differences between men and women in psychology, interests and abilities, and that these have largely determined our place in society. It is this conservative notion of unchanging and distinct male and female brains that is one of the pillars of trans rights orthodoxy. Transgender people are believed to have a mismatch between their brains (the source of their identity) and their bodies - they have literally a woman’s brain in a man’s body, or vice versa. But there is no identifiable, distinct male or female brain, so that simply is not possible.
Trans rights orthodoxy claims to free women from being defined by our bodies, to be inclusive, to break down gender stereotypes. This all sounds very progressive, but there is no way it lives up to its claims - in fact it does the opposite.
The word ‘woman’ itself is being redefined and it is in these attempts to redefine that word that trans rights orthodoxy shows its true colours.2 Here are some examples. This is from Katharine Jenkins, a British philosopher: a woman is someone who “experiences the norms that are associated with women in her social context as relevant to her”.3
And here is an extract from a longer definition that was proposed by the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy: “Being a woman in a British cultural context often means adhering to social norms of femininity, such as being nurturing, caring, social, emotional, vulnerable and concerned with appearance.” Meanwhile, Grace Lavery, an associate professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who is trans, states: “A woman is a person who is, or has been, presumed to adopt a passive role in sexual intercourse and a reproductive role in economic life.”
And finally there is this from Andrea Long Chu, who is also trans, and the author of Females: a concern: “Femaleness is a universal sex defined by self-negation … I’ll define as female any psychic operation in which the self is sacrificed to make room for the desires of another.”
Those definitions are from the mouths of transgender activists and their allies. Their primary concern is that trans feminine people are understood to be women, and this is what they are themselves claiming to be. It is up to trans feminine people if they want to be thought of like this - that is none of my business. But where it becomes my business is when they start defining me in this way. And that is what happens when you change the word ‘woman’ in order for trans feminine people to be women - which is the only reason anyone is suggesting these changes. When you change the word like this and define it according to traditional stereotypes, you also change what you are saying about not just that small group of people who are trans, but about half the human race.
But like a lot of women I do not accept being redefined like this. It is not part of any feminism or progressive movement that I recognise and it should not have any place in our politics. These are exactly the stereotypes, the roles, the expectations, that women have fought so hard to escape. Yet here is the transgender movement bringing them right back and telling us that this is what we innately and inescapably are. So please don’t tell me that this is leftwing and that I am a conservative, reactionary bigot for rejecting it.
Another point is that these new definitions are supposedly about inclusivity. They are created to allow trans feminine people who call themselves women to join the club, so to speak. But how many women get kicked out by these new definitions? Boudicca? Harriet Tubman? Maybe Rosa Luxemburg and Constance Markowitz. Definitely the suffragettes. And I will be going with them, if this becomes the ‘new normal’. In reality this is just the ‘same old, same old’ that we have been hearing for centuries. Some of us are not really women - in other words, we are not the right kind of women. Half the human race - the half that is currently happy to call themselves women - either get classified as subservient and subordinate, or are not really women at all, because we are not ‘doing woman right’. Just as familiar are the insults, bullying and sexualised threats that typify the abuse hurled at women who dare to disagree with the trans rights orthodoxy.
The fact that the orthodoxy is suggesting this, and uses the same old witch-hunt tactics, but is still hailed as a progressive movement on the side of the downtrodden, is incredible to me. But I do not think that a lot of people who support the movement have really grasped that it is saying this. Again, that is because of the very narrow focus on trans people - maybe 1% of the population who they believe are innately trans - with a ‘female’ gender identity in a man’s body or vice versa. But those new definitions of woman apply equally to all other women - those they call ‘cis’ women, who are supposed to have just the same female ‘gender identity’, but are privileged to be born with female bodies as well.
Some people might see a definition of women that centres on traditional norms - on passivity and submission - as positive. Personally, I think it is an insult - possibly a deliberate one - to very many women, both alive and dead.
Women are not and never have been innately subordinate. We learn to be habitually subordinate, just as men learn to be habitually dominant. Dominant and submissive behaviours are strategies that all human beings can display. Which strategy you choose depends on the circumstances, how much there is to gain or lose, and on your chances of winning. Patriarchal societies rig the system in favour of men. So, of course, men act dominantly - the odds are in their favour to win.
I am with Engels on the fact that women’s oppression - what he called the world historic defeat of the female sex - was a result of the shift to agriculture and the development of new technologies that created large amounts of property. Property became something that was owned not collectively, but individually, and men monopolised ownership, and insisted that they pass it on to their direct descendants.
How does a man know who his direct descendants are? For a woman, it is easy: the people you gave birth to. For a man, it is very different. To be certain that the children you are raising - the ones you want to pass your property on to - are your own and not another man’s, you cannot rely on trust. You cannot rely on asking sweetly, or on promises. If women are allowed free agency over their own sexuality, they may well sleep with other men, not just sleep with you. So, if you are really serious, you need to control women to make sure you are the only man to have sex with the mother - or mothers - of the children who will inherit your wealth. Exerting that control requires some class-A bullying, which is what physical and sexual intimidation, harassment and assault are. And it helps to have some societal rules establishing the fact that you are in control, and laws that disenfranchise the people you are bullying, and for them to be brought up and educated into submission.
This is the basis of the patriarchal oppression of women. I wrote more about this in the Weekly Worker in my article, ‘A world without gender’.4 I argued that the fundamental characteristics of femininity (and by femininity I mean the behaviours that patriarchal societies promote and value in women) are the hallmarks of submissive behaviour in primates and many other animals: dropping or averting the gaze, making themselves small, moving out of the way, surrendering territory and resources. Animals make themselves large, take up space and monopolise resources when they are socially dominant - these behaviours map directly to ‘masculinity’. As human society and culture developed under the new conditions brought on by agriculture and property ownership, these behaviours became stylised into the familiar behaviours that are expected of men and women across patriarchal societies.
In our movement, we seek to combat and redress inequalities in power relations. I believe that this is the heart of the left. Often, we focus on economics, because the unequal distribution of wealth - of capital - creates hierarchy: a class of social dominants who exploit and oppress the subordinate classes below them in the hierarchy. It is no coincidence that people in lower classes are expected to bow, to lower their heads, to drop their gaze in the presence of those above them in the social hierarchy - this is another example of a stylised display of primate submission.
And we also stand in opposition to racism, which is yet another manifestation of an extreme dominance hierarchy. We oppose its ideology and its methods. And, similarly, we should oppose with equal energy, equal commitment, equal strength, the social and dominance hierarchy of men over women that is inherent in patriarchal sexism. Defining women as innately submissive and subordinate is one of the methods of that oppressive system. And yet here it is turning up in what is supposedly a ‘liberation’ movement. I am having none of it.
Defined by bodies?
Trans rights orthodoxy also claims to stop women from being defined by our bodies. Of course, it depends what you mean by ‘being defined by our bodies’ in the first place. Personally, I would define the word ‘woman’ as ‘adult human female’. That does not mean that women ourselves as people, as human beings, are nothing but female. All it does - or all it needs to do - is create an understanding of which group of people, materially, we are talking about.
But the notion of ‘woman’ as ‘identity’ creates a difficulty in engaging with trans ideologists, because it is virtually impossible to get them to take on board the understanding that we are not talking about an identity. To them an identity translates as, roughly speaking, a sense of self - what is important to someone about themselves, the central pillar of how they think about themselves. So if you say, ‘I am a woman, and woman means adult human female’, what they hear is: ‘I think of myself as a walking reproductive system; my reproductive body parts are the most important things about who I am’ - when in fact all you are doing is identifying yourself as someone who is female, which can be important in a number of circumstances, for material reasons. It does not mean that you think it is the most important thing about yourself, or the only thing that people should know about you.
That is something of an aside, but, if it does nothing else, it demonstrates the difficulties in communicating on the issue, because to an extent we are talking different languages.
Anyway, the whole point of the feminist movement in the 20th century - and, be in no doubt about it, despite many flaws, many disagreements, many setbacks, it did make major changes to many women’s lives that we still benefit from today - was not that women were not a reproductive class, but that the fact of belonging to that reproductive class must no longer be allowed to limit women to traditional, home-based and subservient roles. That is what is meant by saying that women should not be defined by our bodies - there is much more to us as human beings than our reproductive capacities.
The redefinition of the word ‘woman’ leaves vacant the space that it previously occupied. And because that vacancy needs to be filled - because sometimes we do need to talk about people who have female bodies, as a group - new words are being substituted to take its place. Here are a few examples:
- “Last year, YouGov asked 538 menstruators about their experiences of period pain in the workplace” - The Guardian October 25 2018.
- “Cervical screening (or the smear test) is relevant for everyone aged 25-64 with a cervix” - Cancer Research UK, June 2018.
- “Fact: Not all women have periods. Also a fact: not all people with periods are women. Let’s celebrate the diversity of all people who bleed!” - Tampax, 2020.
- “Often the focus of support and comfort is on the birthing parent, which can leave partners or non-birthing parents feeling isolated and alone” - Sands UK (stillbirth charity).
- “Black birthing bodies need - and deserve - radical solutions, not just sympathy”. From an article by journalist Kimberly Seals Allers.5
Menstruators. People with a cervix. People who bleed. Birthing parents. Black birthing bodies. And these are not one-offs from some weird corner of the internet. They are examples from mainstream organisations and publications, or specialist women’s health services. Since the people who menstruate, who have cervixes, who give birth, have not changed - it is the same people doing it, whatever you call them - I fail to see how this means that we are no longer being defined by reproductive function. Quite the opposite.
These clumsy new constructions have been invented supposedly in the name of trans inclusivity. Well, to be honest, I do not think you become more inclusive by not including the name of the majority group you are addressing, or coming up with multiple constructions to talk to the same people, when those constructions are going to be difficult to understand for anyone without a medical degree, or with learning difficulties, or whose first language is not English.
As for “black birthing bodies”, you have to wonder who came up with this one. Do they have the slightest trace of an education in the history of slavery, and the fact that black women were abused and exploited for centuries as broodstock? They were literally used as “black birthing bodies”. I cannot believe that this is being promoted in the name of ‘inclusivity’ and that so many people buy into it.
How we talk about women affects what we think about women, so I really do not think that changing the language to explicitly reference people by their sex organs or their bodily functions does anything to move the focus away from defining us by our bodies - instead it shifts the focus away from the entirety of a human being, a whole person, to a collection of parts and functions through which we are addressed. This is not progress. This is far more similar to the rightwing view that the central role of women is as breeding stock. And it is much more like the degrading language that male supremacists and incels use to talk about women.
It seems that social conservatism and trans rights orthodoxy think about women in the same way - the only exception being that a small proportion of people born male identify as women; or vice versa. They both hold the view that men and women are fundamentally different in nature; it is just that trans orthodoxy says that sometimes a woman’s nature (or ‘gender identity’) is born in a man’s body. Woman’s nature is, according to them, passive and submissive.
I disagree. While we have clear physical and physiological differences, men and women do not otherwise have essentially different natures. Being submissive is not an identity. If women are or appear to be submissive, it is because we are trained into it, forced into it, coerced into it by violence and the constant threat of violence - not from all men, but from too many men.
No-one is born in the wrong body. There is something seriously wrong in an ideology that relies so heavily on making a distinction between the body and the mind: it is the worst kind of western dualism. (I remember Chris Knight from the Radical Anthropology Group saying that when it is just about the mind, it is always patriarchal.) Trans orthodoxy tells us that some minds (or brains) are ‘born in the wrong body’ - but we are not born in bodies at all. We are born as bodies.
It is not the body that is wrong - it is the society that insists that you act and dress in certain ways as a consequence of the type of body that you have. This is where women should have a natural alliance with trans feminine people. And it should be possible. Together, we could oppose the reinforcement and intensification of the sexist dominance hierarchy, which, be in no doubt, is gaining strength globally. I am not just talking about places like Afghanistan, but about the increasing abuse, exploitation and violence against women in sex trafficking, in the porn industry, in the surrogacy industry - and in the worrying rise of explicitly male supremacist movements in the west.
We could work together. But instead trans rights orthodoxy does not just make the same arguments about women as the patriarchy: it uses the same methods too - silencing, shaming and sexualised intimidation. It accuses us of sham outrage and fake anger, and dismisses women’s entirely reasonable fears. One of the most potent methods of enforcing male dominance is for men to use their male bodies as threats to humiliate and assault us - but trans orthodoxy characterises women as hysterical pearl-clutchers when we collectively say no to nude male bodies in women’s changing rooms.
Unlike traditional conservatism, trans orthodoxy does support and celebrate gender nonconformity in a small minority. But for the majority of us the story is unchanged - women are told that we are an innately submissive class, born to service men. If you are promoting trans rights orthodoxy - arguing that most female people are ‘cis’, and that being a woman is about having feminine feelings of submissiveness - you are buying liberty for only a few, while slapping chains on the rest of us.
Anyone familiar with this debate will recognise these phrases, and others, word for word. It is worth reading what George Orwell had to say about the role of ready-made phrases in totalitarian thought and I would recommend his essay Politics and the English language on that subject: libcom.org/files/Politics%20and%20the%20English%20Language%20-%20George%20Orwell.pdf.↩︎
Actually, a lot of the time, it is not being defined at all. So often, when a transgender rights activist is asked what the word ‘woman’ means - when you beg for a definition that will show they have some understanding of what they are talking about - there is either no answer at all or a non-definition - ‘A woman is anyone who says they’re a woman’ - which is circular, and therefore not a definition. This is a demonstration of just how dysfunctional the whole ideology is: it cannot even tell you what it is trying to convey with the basic words that it is using.↩︎
January 14 2021: weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1330/a-world-without-gender.↩︎