"Feminists do not conflate sex and gender. Sex is a scientific term for one's biology, and this cannot be changed. As materialists we believe the root of women's oppression lies in her biology, a view underpinning socialist theory for generations. Gender theory does not provide an alternative credible analysis and it is regressive. Queer theorists see the intimate connection between biological sex and oppression and react by trying to dismantle the notion of biological sex whilst socialists and feminists react by seeking to dismantle oppression." - from the Women’s Place UK website.
One of the founding ideas of modern feminism was that, in spite of biological sex, women’s lives are shaped by cultural interpretations of sex differences. Those ideas are what constitute gender ideology and our own perceptions of our gender identity. To paraphrase Simone De Beauvoir: nothing about being called female at birth determines what kind of life a woman will lead and what it means to be a woman. And where you live in the world, what century you were born in are two gigantic sets of variables right there.
That’s why socialist feminists focused on the social institutions that generated cultural meaning about sex difference and which helped to prop up systematic discrimination against women. For us, the family, laws, the state were always at least linked to and often determined by the same structures which generate class exploitation. In other words, as in life, biological sex differences do not matter anywhere near as much as gender. But by the early 1980s radical and cultural feminists were pushing against this materialist feminism, arguing for innate differences based on or strongly connected to biology.
Now, again, some self-proclaimed socialist feminists are trying to resurrect “biological determinism”. The leading lights in the coalition around Women’s Place UK - set up to block legal reforms enabling transgender people to register a change of gender by self-declaration - do call themselves socialist feminists and yet they foreground biological sex differences in a number of ways.
Firstly, biological sex difference is important for instrumental reasons. Their argument is that provisions in the 2010 Equality Act which make sex a protected characteristic would be under-mined if trans people were allowed to self-declare their gender. The perceived threat here being that self-declaration would reinforce the idea that gender (rather than sex) is innate. Except of course while gender is not innate, it can be deconstructed as much as it can be constructed, it is also nigh on impossible for humans to choose their gender identity; it is something they must live with. So why not let people tell the world without paternalistic complications?
Then the government said it had no plans to change the Equality Act and protected characteristics were safe. Still the “trans sceptics” were not satisfied. The GRA reform would, they said, lead to abusive males self-declaring themselves to be women and trying to access women-only safe spaces. The argument here is that the GRA will embolden abusive men to declare themselves to be trans women. Why they would need to do that when they have plenty of other easier opportunities to be abusive is not explained. The implication is that trans women will always be biologically male, that men are inherently predisposed to violence, and that the GRA reforms would therefore speak to and enable abusive men. It is that crude. Thankfully trans people can seek and get help from domestic violence and similar services with and without a gender recognition certificate. Professionals only have to be certain that the person coming to them for help needs their help and the service that they can offer meets their needs.
Another form of biological determinism that has seeped into the debate is that women’s oppression is based on her biology, specifically her child-bearing capacities and the necessity of child rearing. But the biological realities of bearing and bringing up children have made these activities socialised for most of human history. Women tend to die if they do not get experienced help pushing another human down the birth canal, and children have, until recently, been “raised by the village” as the saying goes.
The point is that we have to have a more nuanced understanding of biology in order to understand what human childbearing and childrearing is and then step back from biological explanations in order to see how they became progressively, but never entirely, individualistic endeavours. In any case, in advanced western societies IVF, contraception, adoption and just not bothering with reproduction have all become options for all people and have revolutionised childbirth. My 19 year old daughter often remarks that if she had been born 100 years ago she would be pregnant by now. We can’t quite get our heads round that, and yet we should. We want all women around the world to enjoy human progress, so why are we holding onto the “threat” of this aspect of our biology, as if it childbearing was the same as it was 100 years ago?
Another way in which biology is foregrounded is in opposition to so-called “trans orthodoxy”. This is the idea that trans activists and allies conflate sex and gender and in so doing dismantle the notion of biological sex difference. I’ve already stated that there is no need to conflate the two in order to win the argument that biology isn’t all that. But let’s expand a bit with a few observations:
> The human species is only weakly dimorphic. Nothing between our ears is very dimorphic and it certainly doesn’t determine our sex. This used to be a key argument for feminists wishing to deconstruct reactionary gender ideologies. Why is it only now that we must pay more attention to the sex differences?
> Biological sex difference plays very little role in our lives until puberty; there are a lot of very important years between zero and puberty.
> Our secondary sex characteristics arise from complex interactions between hormones, environment and genes.
> All humans have a mix of female and male hormones and the levels of difference in the mixes are not as great as is commonly thought.
> Atypical variations in the things that make up biological sex are not unusual.
Biological sex difference is something but it isn’t all that; nor is it static. It can be reshaped by the environment and, as it turns out, by human intervention.
A variant of the argument that biology can’t be dismantled is one which says that “extreme gender ideologists” dematerialise true social realities (i.e. biology); that social feelings like gender cannot be all-encompassing basis for determining how people act and think. This argument is not even consistent with the central argument of modern feminism with which I began: that gender is constructed at an early age.
Judith Butler explains how it all works well in a materialist and down-to-earth way:
The institutional forms of power and knowledge we are born into precede, form and orchestrate whatever existential choices we come to make… sex and gender are ‘constructed ‘ in a way that is neither fully determined nor fully chosen but rather caught up in a recurrent tension between determinism and freedom.
We do live in a rigidly gendered society, but fortunately we’ve had fifty years of gender being messed up. People do feel like they have choices, hence women who have found that they like to be manly and boys try to play with the 'wrong' toys.
However if you want to say that gender roles are not changing very much, that patriarchy is not only strong but reasserting itself, and in the form of trans women “invading” women-only spaces, you need to have something you want to define as innate to make your argument. The Women’s Place UK coalition have turned to the idea of sex-based oppression to do that.
It seems to me that the feminists who want to do this, for political reasons, are trying to impose a rather one-sided materiality: a biology-first materiality. But it is actually more like a moral order. People who need to get out of the straight-jacket of their biology and the identities associated with it, are being pathologised and demonised. That may be rooted in an opposition to women’s oppression but it is utterly reactionary nonetheless. Gender diversity is a material part of human existence and it is here to stay.