Several years ago Zero Books published a series of books by a small group of remarkably lucid and insightful young(ish) radical intellectuals. The group included Mark Fisher, Owen Hatherley and Nina Power. Tragically, Mark Fisher is no longer around, but an anthology of his articles and blogs is the subject of a detailed review in last week’s LRB. Owen Hatherley is to be found on any given day in any number of outlets being his customary brilliant self. When I happened across Nina’s Power book (One Dimensional Woman) on my shelf the other day I wondered what had become of her.
I then came across this blog post, written last week. In it she tries with striking honesty and sensitivity to defend herself against the ongoing accusations of transphobia which have led to her losing work and being no-platformed as a ‘TERF’.
The allegations of bigotry relate to a series of Facebook posts in which she challenged the notion (now enshrined in law) that one’s ‘gender’ is purely a matter of self-definition. She points out that for generations of feminists gender has always been a social construct. There is no essential part of any human being which determines what clothes he or she wears or what work he or she is able or should be allowed to do. Nonetheless the concept of gender identity has been used throughout most of human history to oppress people born female.
For a newer generation of LGBT activists, particularly prevalent online and in sections of the Labour Party, such beliefs are now taboo. They hold the notion that one is born physically male or female to be erroneous. There is no such thing as biological sex. Instead, people’s gender is innate, an ineffable maleness or femaleness which is unrelated to genital organs.
The problem is not so much that this logic is highly questionable, but rather that those who do subject it to either cursory or (as in the case of philosophers such as Kathleen Stock and Nina Power) detailed intellectual inquiry have been bullied both on and offline for daring to do so. It’s not only female academics who are being intimidated; women’s rights activists including Julie Bindel and (most recently) Helen Steel, of McLibel fame, have been vilified and no-platformed for having the temerity to stand up for basic feminist principles. Helen was recently removed from a Land Justice UK camp for violating their ‘safe space’ policy with her apparently toxic feminist beliefs.
There has been a wave of attacks on trans rights over the last few years, horrifyingly exemplified by the election of the openly transphobic Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil. In the States Trump himself has whipped up hatred against trans people. Such characters attack LGBT people just as they assault women, in defence of a patriarchy threatened by several decades of social progress. Women and LGBT people are at the frontline in suffering their attacks and seeking to resist them. It’s no accident that both leaders also deny climate change at the service of an ideology which positions nature as just another female body to terrorise and violate.
In defending basic progressive causes and values against such male monsters, unity is paramount. We all need the Left to be able at the very least to recognise its main enemies and to expend its energies on trying to undermine and take away their power. I don’t know what lies behind the trend towards excluding women. Maybe, as some have speculated, it’s another more insidious form of patriarchal power at work, men trying to take away from women even their very right to define themselves as such. Certainly no one can seriously believe that people such as Nina and Helen represent a danger to those who consider themselves to have fluid gender identities. It’s also definitely not the case that any young girl who likes to wear trousers and climb trees is automatically in need of counselling and surgery. Gender is, after all, not an innate quality but a social construct.
I’m unlikely to be threatened and ostracised for making such statements, for one very simple reason that doesn’t need stating. I’m writing this because I find it terrifying that people whose involvement, whether on the plane of intellectual inquiry or political activism, in the movement of what we have to regard as new forms of fascism should be curtailed. I also find it deeply worrying that those who entertain even the slightest doubt about the erasure and exclusion of women are pushed towards making common cause with the far-right, ie with those who are actually hostile not only to trans people per se but also women, gays, immigrants and the planet itself. If women as insightful as Nina Power and as principled as Helen Steel are excluded from our movement, and if we can’t allow meaningful and respectful discussions to take place around issues of huge importance, we are going to fail spectacularly.