Material Girls is the new book by academic philosopher Kathleen Stock OBE, professor of philosophy at Sussex University. It is an essential read if you want to understand what the current transgender debate is all about and why there is conflict with women’s groups and feminists. If you cannot understand why anyone in their right mind would consider it fair to allow a male person to compete against a woman in female sport, then here you will find the background to how seemingly impossible beliefs such as these have come to dominate certain sections of ‘progressive’ politics. If you are shocked at the sudden proliferation of ‘gender-neutral’ toilets where there used to be single-sex facilities, and wonder where that trend is coming from; if you are surprised at the increasing number of press reports on ‘female’ sex offenders; if you have noticed the use of dehumanising words such as ‘menstruators’ where the word ‘woman’ used to be, or if your favourite organisation, business or political party seem to suddenly be falling over themselves to be more rainbow-washed than the next one, here are some of the answers.
It’s a fascinating story, based in academia but so well written that it feels like reading a detective novel in places: what’s going to happen next?! The ‘eight key moments in the rapid intellectual onset of gender identity theory’ (as well as containing a delicious joke) is a tour de force. We get a whistle-stop tour of theories from the most influential thinkers in the field, including Anne Fausto-Stirling, Judith Butler and Julia Serano, and the results in some places are mind-boggling. When people complain about academics ‘sitting in their ivory towers’ and informing policy on the ground which is entirely divorced from reality, this is surely a case of that, with knobs on. Despite being an account of academic theories, for non-academics the writing is fresh and accessible and, most importantly in a debate which specialises in deliberately obfuscating meanings, it has clarity. Such clarity. Terms and concepts are defined. I can’t tell you how much of a treat this is.
Stock has both sympathy and criticism for the concerns of trans people and of radical feminists, and she brings her own philosophical speciality to the debate with her concept of ‘immersion in fiction’. This reframing of the transgender experience is original and thought-provoking, keeping a distance as it tries to do from any position which is so entrenched as to be non-negotiable. It’s so thought-provoking that I haven’t made up my mind about the idea yet, to be honest, but I am always happy to have a new concept to ponder. The aim as I understand it is to move away from the polarising positions of ‘Transwomen are women’ and ‘Transwomen are men’, (TWAW v TWAM) as taken respectively by transactivists and radical feminists. It is not, to my reading, a proposal of compromise in terms of women’s sex-based rights (Stock makes it clear as the book concludes that sex as a concept is crucial and necessary and we must keep it to do the job it needs to do). It’s definitely not a proposal of compromise as to the meaning of the word ‘woman’, which Stock defends for the same reason she defends ‘sex’. What it is though, is a proposal to clear some ground for debate, in order that some mutual concerns might have room to be addressed.
To this end, in the most unsympathetic part of the book for radical feminists, there is a critique of some of the ideas expressed by Julia Long. I am a big fan of Julia Long but she is a controversial figure because she speaks her mind, calls a spade a spade and won’t be made to shut up. That’s partly why I like her. Stock’s criticism sees Long as the ‘extreme’ end of a polarised debate, but many feminists would argue that the material truth is not an extreme position to take, and that enough linguistic and conceptual ground has already been lost. Still, there had to be some criticism of a feminist scholar in order to balance the demolition of practically every major queer theorist out there. Long’s work is quoted at length and some readers will hopefully be inspired to go and find out more. If part of the aim of mainstream feminist writing is to raise consciousness there will be some readers that Long speaks to and some that Stock speaks to. I, like many others, value the ideas of both.
There has inevitably been some feminist criticism based on this part of the book (which I now have to refer to as *that bit*) and some of it I agree with. I don’t for example accept that there is ‘frequent casual denigration of trans women’s characters.’ It may be that the overall criticism of transgenderism as a movement, as personified by the writing of Sheila Jeffreys and Julia Long for example, will of necessity be critical of the men within it, but it seems to me that there has been a huge effort on the part of the majority of ‘gender critical’ feminists to be respectful under conditions of extreme provocation. Stock has personal experience of this, having been subject to hateful campaigns against her both at her place of work and on social media, simply for suggesting that sex and gender are a suitable subject for philosophical debate. I understand that she may be criticising one specific branch of radical feminist theory here, and not the general conduct of women on Twitter, but it is hard to stomach nonetheless when the general level of abuse is so one-sided.
The claim that there is a ‘commonplace suggestion, without evidence, that any trans woman’s reasons for transition are likely to be malign’ has produced the most anger, particularly from groups such as Transwidows who have suffered the most personal, private and misunderstood abuse. In a book which is so thorough in the clarity of its language it is a shame that this one statement is so open to misunderstanding. The word ‘any’ here can be read as the suggestion that ‘all’ trans woman’s reasons are likely to be malign, whereas I think it actually means ‘any particular’ trans woman’s reasons are likely to be malign. I might be wrong here, and it may make no difference to some people, but I think it’s an important distinction because there is plenty of evidence for many of the claims being made and it is misleading to suggest that’s not the case. Not least because Stock herself in her conclusion calls on, amongst other things, more evidence to be gathered on the experiences of transwidows in order to define what their political needs are. I don’t believe she intended to belittle their experiences and I think this line has been misunderstood.
On balance though, this is a mainstream publication from an academic philosopher, and looking critically at both sides of an argument comes with the territory, or it should. So much of the debate has been shut down that this is a welcome development and a courageous project from the publisher. I suspect that the book will continue to upset trans activists far more than radical feminists because after looking with a critical eye at evidence from both sides of the divide, Stock comes down firmly on the side of material reality.
In my reading of it, this is not a book which asks for compromise, at least not in the area of women’s rights, including our right to define ourselves. It presents an alternative conceptual worldview to the TWAW/TWAM binary, without telling anyone to ‘be nice’. It presents the thorny question of language as a matter of common humanity rather than necessarily a political ‘gotcha’. The feminist use of TWAM has come about of necessity, in order to reclaim the truth in an argument over language which has up until now disadvantaged women. In that sense it can be defended: clearly in terms of material reality TWAW is false and TWAM is true. Take the language further than that though and you are in the realms of opinion pitted against opinion, or theory v theory, less easy to defend to a mainstream audience and some of it pejorative: for example ‘innate souls’ v ‘delusion’ or ‘marginalised minority’ v ‘men’s sexual rights movement’. In the area of children and young people there is an understandable wish to counteract the bland obfuscating language of ‘top surgery’ and ‘bottom surgery’ but in Stock’s view it is a mistake to go to the other extreme and use shocking terms like ‘mutilation’, if only because it can alienate the young people we want to reach. I see Stock’s argument here as one which seeks to take the emphasis of the debate away from this binary, to sidestep the two extremes, and to create a space of shared experience where the conversation can happen. As I believe the conversation needs to happen, and women need to be consulted as stakeholders in it, I see this as a positive suggestion.
This is absolutely not the same thing as asking for a compromise on rights. By analysing both sides so thoroughly Stock gives more, not less, credence to her conclusion that sex matters, and that where sex matters it really matters. The evidence for and against is laid out and the result is clear: gender identity as a concept cannot and must not take the place of sex as a concept. The book taken as a whole, notwithstanding *that bit*, succeeds to my mind in moving the Overton window of what it is acceptable to think in this controversial debate. Stock has very clearly positioned herself in the centre of the debate and in doing so she has shown that it it is the centre, not an extreme fringe, which supports women’s rights. The central ground, which a lot of readers will be able to relate to as the reasonable place to be, takes it for granted that retaining women’s right to self-define and the right to legislation based on sex is a starting point, not a negotiation. The brilliant thing is, she makes it all seem so obvious.