‘Something is afoot,’ wrote the academic philosopher Kathleen Stock in 2018:
Beyond the academy, there’s a huge and impassioned discussion going on around the apparent conflict between women-who-are-not-transwomen’s rights and interests and transwomen’s rights and interests. And yet nearly all academic philosophers — including, surprisingly, feminist philosophers — are ignoring it.
Material Girls picks up three years after Stock’s initial musings, and feminist philosophers are knee-deep in debate. Or is debate permitted in matters of gender ideology?
During the past two decades there has been a concerted effort by the likes of Stonewall to override women’s sex-based rights in favour of ‘gender identity’. Trans ideology has become embedded within institutions and we are told that sex does not matter, that it is merely a social construct, unlike the ubiquitous ‘gender’, which feminists know is based on sexist stereotypes.
In 2004, the UK introduced the Gender Recognition Act, which provided much-needed legal protection for those living as the opposite sex. Six years later, gender reassignment was made a protected characteristic under the Equality Act. Today, the number of transgender people in the UK has skyrocketed and the increase in girls being referred to the NHS Gender Identity Development Service is several thousand times higher than a few years ago.
An entire chapter is devoted to making a case that there actually exists a biological basis to sex — and who would have thought it necessary to ever do this? Unsurprisingly, since speaking out, Stock has been targeted by extremists, including many of her own colleagues, with accusations of ‘transphobic bigot’ thrown around with impunity.
Disingenuous assertions by trans activists are easily dismantled, such as that the existence of intersex conditions proves there are more than two sexes. The likes of the popular writer Anne Fausto-Sterling have convinced swathes of people that approximately one in 50 humans (1.7 per cent) are ‘intersex’ when this figure includes around 1.5 per cent of those who have congenital adrenal hyperplasia.
As well as critiquing the institutional and social protection to those haranguing feminists, with the slur of Terf being bandied about in response to the slightest transgression, Stock makes it plain she has no truck with the small number of extremists on the ‘gender critical’ side of the argument.
Occasionally, the more theoretical sections can seem convoluted next to the descriptive ones, but in the main the tone is inclusive and conversational, with lovely snippets of dry humour. Observations such as ‘there was a heavy lesbian presence, in the traditional same-sex sense’ helps to break up some of the drier theoretical material.
There are also several examples of how far down the rabbit hole some of the gender ideology has gone, which Stock presents without ceremony. For example, the University of Kent’s policy recognises and protects the gender identity ‘demifluid’. This refers to people whose gender identity is partially fluid while other parts are static, which is different from ‘demiflux’, which is not the same because ‘flux indicates that one of the genders is non-binary’.
I had hoped for a little more exploration of the direct hit taken by feminists fighting to end male violence, and was frustrated at some of the assumptions and inaccuracies about definitions of feminism. Stock has a tendency to conflate radical feminism with lesbian separatists, a group of feminists in the United States who opt out of mainstream society. She also mistakenly merges feminists and ‘gender critical’ activists, who may or may not have discernible feminist politics and can as easily be Trump-supporting anti-vaxxers as those campaigning against male violence.
She writes with the style of an outsider looking in, but when she describes the culture of silencing and de-platforming within the academy it is clear she has come in for a fair bit of bullying herself. The philosopher Mary Leng and her theory of ‘reverse Voltaire’ — ‘I agree with what you have to say, but will fight to the death to prevent you from saying it’ — sums it up well.
There is a bit of a lost opportunity to examine how original, second-wave feminist theory has been distorted by trans rights activists. For example, in rightly critiquing ‘standpoint epistemology’, relied on by trans people to claim that only they can understand their own oppression, Stock appears to dismiss without qualification ‘the personal is political’ on which the second wave of feminism was built. Indeed, ‘the personal is political’ is often misunderstood as being about identity politics when it is about linking personal experience, such as domestic violence and unwanted sex, and larger social and political structures, such as patriarchy and female subservience.
Stock’s pragmatic and empathetic suggestions for the way forward left me worried that we would have to rely on the goodwill of the trans lobbyists rather than a feminist revolution to bring us back to reality. But Material Girls is a meticulously researched and carefully argued case for returning reason in an increasingly unreasonable world.
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