3. Academic Analysis and the Silencing of Feminist Discourse

3. Academic Analysis and the Silencing of Feminist Discourse

Chapter Contents

In this chapter I begin by describing some of the differing theories of feminism including a discussion around third wave (intersectional) feminism, and the fourth wave digital feminist activist era. I then present an overview of radical feminist theory and its importance in underpinning the work of the MVAW movement. Moving on, the chapter critiques queer theory through the lens of radical feminism, offering an understanding of the tensions between queer theory and the feminist goal of ending MVAW. I present an analysis of the ‘gender’ versus ‘sex’ debate within the context of queer theory and radical feminist analysis and chart the fault lines of the opposing sides. The chapter then explores the history and context of silencing women in public action and discourse, presenting an analysis of how women’s voices have historically been shut down. I then consider how women who oppose transgender ideology are silenced through online discourse, branded “TERFs” (Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists), and posit this is the 21st century equivalent of a “Witch”. Finally, the chapter summarises where the debate currently rests and the importance of analysing its impact on the MVAW sector.

Feminism – Schools, Thoughts, and Theories

Hooks (1984) succinctly describes the project of feminism as “the struggle to end sexist oppression” (Hooks, 1984, p. 26). The English word ‘feminist’ originated from the French “feminisme,” and was invented in the early nineteenth century by French socialist, Charles Fourier (“Feminism”, n.d. in New World Encyclopedia). Fourier envisioned a world where women would transform both themselves and society, and many women were inspired by this idea (Rowbotham, 1989, p. 8). In the 1890s “Feminist” appeared for the first time in English to define the suffragist campaign (Rowbotham, 1989, p. 8). Like all social movements, feminism is not a monolith and there are varying schools of thought on the meaning of women’s liberation and how it will be achieved (Mackay, 2015, pp. 55 -56; Rowbotham, 1992, p. 6). Broadly speaking, the better-known schools of feminism are ‘liberal’, ‘socialist’, ‘intersectional’, ‘radical’, and more recently, ‘gender critical’. Liberal feminism refers to reform over revolutionary activism: ending discrimination against women through legislation and participation in the public sphere (Rowbotham, 1992, p. 7). Liberal schools of feminism are often mocked by other feminists as too dependent on the state and for measuring women against men as a way to judge equality (Echols, 1989, p. 3; Johnson Lewis, 2019; Mackay, 2015 p. 57). Socialist feminists assert that women are not only subordinated by men but by other social oppressions, such as class and race; capitalism is viewed as the root of oppression of all people, and predates patriarchy (Mackay, 2015, p. 56; Rowbotham, 1989, p. 7). Intersectional feminism was a theory developed in the third wave by Crenshaw (1989) to respond to the separate considerations of race and gender and aimed to capture the applicability of black feminism and anti-discrimination laws (Crenshaw, 1989, p. 139-140). It is through this lens that many who identify as intersectional feminists argue that transgenderism is another axis of discrimination (Van Schuylenbergh, Motmans & Coene, 2017). The third wave was also influenced academically by queer theory which provided more understanding of trans identities and third wave activism focused on micropolitics, challenging sexism and misogyny in everyday rhetoric (Hines, 2017, p. 148; Munro, 2013, p. 23-24). The internet brought with it a digital era of feminism and a fourth wave,      where support for transgender rights comes alive through feminist digital activism and hashtags on social media; this allows younger feminists to call out and link their notions of anti-trans rhetoric from older second wave feminist activist theories and provide a voice for transwomen who they view as marginalised through the mainstream (Munro, 2013, p. 25).

More recently, a new branch of feminism has emerged from the debates on gender reform and transgender ideology: referred to as Gender Critical feminism, it is seen as an offshoot of radical feminism (Mackay: in The Guardian 2020 – Understanding the Fight over Trans Rights, Part 2,  5:26 – 6:14). Gender Critical feminism rejects the definitions of post-structionalist philosophy and trans activism, most notably renouncing the notion that ‘transwomen are women’ (Stock: in The Guardian 2020 – Understanding the Fight over Trans Rights, Part 2, 14:44 – 15:21). Gender Critical feminists are frequently referred to as an anti-trans movement, particularly in reference to the exclusion of transwomen from female-only spaces (Zanghellini, 2020, pp. 1, 6-7).  The focus of this research, however, relies on radical feminist theory and activism. Both are equally important because, as Hanisch (2006) states, a “theory is just a bunch of words—sometimes interesting to think about, but just words, nevertheless—until it is tested in real life”(Hanisch, 2006, p. 2).

Radical Feminist Activism and the MVAW Sector

Feminist movements are often referred to in ‘waves’ and the suffragette movement’s fight to win women the vote is referred to as the first wave of feminism (Fortman, 2017; Mackay, 2015, p. 34). From the 1960s through to 1980s feminism enjoyed a resurgence, which is commonly referred to as the second wave (“Timeline of the Women’s Liberation Movement”, 2014). Through this wave a surge of radical feminist activism exploded, but it is important not to forget its historical roots as a direct descendent of first wave activists (Firestone, 1971, p. 42). Radical feminism was publicly inaugurated by the work of American suffragettes, Susan B Anthony and Elizabeth Stanton and collectively the militant Congressional Union, latterly known as the Women’s Party (Echols, 1989, p.54; Firestone, 1971, p. 42). This radical theory of the first wave was thought to have been buried for political reasons, in part because these suffragettes rejected the sexism of the political left, their assertion that liberation for women would only happen when a sex class system was eliminated was further developed by feminists in the second wave (Echols, 1989, p. 54; Firestone, 1971, p. 42).

During the 1960s, many women began to gather as a result of the left-wing political melting pots for civil liberties and peace movements (Echols, 1989, p. 11, 51-53; Mackay, 2015, p. 35). The rejection of leftist sexism and analysis of women’s oppression continued from the first into the second wave. Women were frustrated by the sexism within leftist political social movements and began to forge a movement of their own (Echols, 1989, p. 3; Hanisch, 2006 p.1; Mckay, 2015, p. 28, 34, 36; Zaretsky, 2013). Rejecting the sexist confines of the left, independent Women’s Liberation groups started to spring up all over the world (Hanisch 2006, p. 1). Radical feminists argued that women constituted a sex class and dedicated themselves to recasting the sex class system (Echols, 1989, p. 3); their goal was to liberate women from the patriarchal structures of gender (Echols, 1989, pp. 3,11). Perhaps most pertinent to this research, radical women organised separately from men, creating an explicitly women-only political force (Echols 1989, p. 51; Mackay, 2015, p. 40), aiming to create a safe space without male control where women could raise their political consciousness, and where autonomy was essential to women’s liberation (Mackay, 2015, pp. 68-69).

The term ‘radical’ means ‘pertaining to the root’ and radical feminism looks at the roots of women’s oppression; its revolutionary intent is expressed by centring women and it remains the only academic and activist theory forged by women, for women (Klein & Rowland, 1996, pp. 9-10). In opposition to a patriarchal society that emphasises male concerns, radical feminism focuses on male violence as central to women’s oppression and a source of social control (Beresford, 2014, p. 770; Mackay, 2015, p.12). Radical feminist theory is based on the emotional and intellectual stories of women (Klein & Rowland, 1996, p. 9), e.g. consciousness raising groups that located women’s personal experiences in the wider political and theoretical context of their oppression (Mackay, 2015, p. 45). Hanisch’s (1969) essay titled ‘The Personal is Political’ yielded a phrase now widely associated with the radical feminist movement (Hanisch, 1969; Mackay, 2015, pp. 45-46).

The first Women’s Liberation Movement (WLM) conference was held at Ruskin College Oxford in 1970 (“Women’s liberation: a national movement”, 2014). The WLM organised eight conferences across the UK where four demands were made and passed, and in subsequent conferences, Edinburgh 1974 and Birmingham 1978, three further demands were added (Mackay, 2015, pp. 48 – 49), all relating to equality and liberation for women. The resulting seven demands were:

  1. Equal pay
  2. Equal educational and job opportunities
  3.  Free contraception and abortion on demand
  4. Free 24-hour nurseries
  5.  Legal and financial independence for all women
  6. The right to a self-defined sexuality. An end to discrimination against lesbians
  7. Freedom for all women from intimidation by the threat or use of violence or sexual coercion regardless of marital status; and an end to the laws, assumptions and institutions which perpetuate male dominance and aggression to women (The British Library, 2014)

The seventh demand underpinned the movement to end MVAW and by the time the demands were finalised, refuges were already being run by women for women across the country (Dobash & Dobash, 1983, p. 223). Feminist theories and policies relating to MVAW have their roots in the social action of the second wave (Loseke, Gelles & Cavanaugh, 2005, p. 20-21). Radical feminists name males as the protagonists of the violence women are routinely subjected to; moreover, they view the endemic levels of MVAW as both a cause and a consequence of male supremacy (Mckay, 2015, p. 11). Through social action, theories of MVAW emerged, articulating the ways women are subordinated by men in the home and beyond (Loseke, Gelles & Cavanaugh, 2005, p. 22).

While radical feminism has been critiqued for focusing on the concerns of middle class, white women (Echols, 1989, p. 203; Hines, 2019, p. 148; Hooks, 1984, p. 11; Rowbotham, 1992, pp. 7, 11), it has always retained a women-centric focus on ending male violence and since the 1970s, the policy and practice of services by and for women has continued (Skinner, Hester & Malos, 2005, p. 147). The goal to end MVAW united feminists, from socialist to radical, evidenced by the diverse women who set up refuges and rape crisis centres across the UK (Kelly, 2013, p. 134; Mackay, 2015, p. 64). But the proposals to reform the Gender Recognition Act (2004) and the policy creep of transgender inclusivity in women’s spaces has sparked discussion of how inclusive these services are for men who identify as women. This discussion is heavily influenced by ideas emerging from queer theory. 

Queer Theory – A Critique

To my middle-class male ex comrades who believe that #sexnotgender is ‘vile’ and ‘disgusting’ I say fuck you. Fuck you again. Go fuck yourselves. Your Queer Theory belongs in the grave. Not female children. Once again. Fuck you.  (Online Ethnography – Queer theory – June 2020)

The term ‘Queer’ describes an opposition to the normal, dominant, or legitimate; ‘Queer Theory’ aims to destabilise and deconstruct dominant ideas of sexual, gendered, racial, national, and political identities (Beresford, 2014, p. 763). Queer theory is both a critique and a construction of identity; by using the word ‘queer’ as a verb – ‘to queer’, the theory suggests that it is through binary identities of heteronormative power structures that meaning is created (Beresford, 2014, p. 763). Queer theory was built upon the philosophical traditions of post-modernism and post-structionalism and although not widely acknowledged, its roots are located in feminist theory (Beresford, 2014, p. 763; Em, 2019 Part I).

Post-structionalism is an intellectual movement opposing the structuralist school of thought in the 1950s and 1960s (Merligen, 2013). Merlingen (2013) describes structuralism as positing that any social element exists “only in patterned, structured relations linking them to other elements in a system, and that the most productive way of understanding the social world is to approach it through examination of these systems” (Merlingen, 2013). Post-structionalism instead focuses on the individual and the discursive construction of the world (Jones, 2018). Post-modernism is linked to post-structuralism positing that everything is constructed through discourse, and both theories seek to explain the social world through language (Darkins, 2017).   

Michel Foucault is deemed the founding father of queer theory (Em, 2019 Part I) and his (1978) work on sexuality offered an alternative to social constructions of sexuality and gender by providing a political critique of the power of institutions: challenging the structures that support heterosexuality as the natural and homogenous way of being (Beresford, 2014, p. 764). In The History of Sexuality (1978), Foucault details the history of the repressive Victorian era to describe the ways in which the married, procreating, heterosexual couple was designed by the state to be seen as legitimate, oppressing any other acts of sexual pleasure by deeming them deviant (Foucault, 1978, pp. 3,45-49). A decade after Foucault, Judith Butler became perhaps the most famous and influential academic philosopher of queer theory (Jeffreys, 2008, p. 329). Her work presented a complex opposing theory to second wave radical feminism. Butler (1990) challenged the feminist theory that assumes ‘women’ as the subject of feminism, questioning whether ‘woman’ is a real category at all (Butler, 1990, p. 2). Butler was writing at a time when the second wave feminist movement was fracturing around debates relating to censorship and exclusion (Ferguson, 1984, p. 107; Smith-Laing, 2017, p.  18). One of the most prominent splits in the 1980s feminist movement centred on ‘liberal’ versus ‘radical’ feminist analysis, including on pornography and perceptions of it as oppressive or liberating (Ferguson, 1984, p. 107). Simultaneously, other feminists were wrestling with the status of transwomen and what it meant to be a woman (Smith-Laing, 2017, p. 18).

The central difference between Butler and radical feminist theory centres on the belief that biological sex and the sexed body is a social construct (Jones, 2019). Butler is critical of radical feminist’s insistence upon analysing women as a sex class, viewing radical feminism’s attempts to deconstruct gender norms as ‘self-defeating’ (Butler, 1990 p.3). Radical feminists’ insistence upon gender as a social construct would, in Butler’s view, be the downfall of the movement (Butler, 1990, p. 7); for Butler, centring women reifies the male/female opposition and continues the subjugation of women (Butler, 1990, p. 7). In a recent interview, Butler reconfirmed her criticisms of radical feminism (Ferber, 2020), asserting that it explicitly focused on centring women and had subsequently inaugurated laws and policies designed to protect them, which is detrimental because the movement makes decisions about what a woman is (Ferber, 2020).

That Butler’s position has not changed over the decades should not be a surprise. In her influential text Gender Trouble (1990), Butler argued that the sexed body is a cultural construction: neither ‘real’ or ‘essential’, but there to repress homosexuality. Society constructs humans to understand their bodies as naturalised via heterosexuality and heteronormativity (Butler, 1990, pp. 9–10, 97-102). Butler’s theories hold the most radical way to liberate women is to examine identity, definitions of womanhood, and who power rests with, and that a “new shape of politics” will only emerge when feminism, or more specifically, radical feminism, no longer sees feminine identity at its foundation (Butler, 1990, p. 7). For queer theorists, the feminist work of breaking down gender stereotypes does not attack the real problem because the identity of ‘self’ defines a woman (Lepold, 2018, p. 476).

Butler’s work remains contentious amongst some feminist theorists because queer theory does not acknowledge the lived experience of women and girls as a separate category (Beresford, 2014, p. 765; Lepold, 2018, p. 478). Butler’s concept that being a woman or a man consists of specific performative acts – if you stop acting like a woman then you stop being a woman – left many commentators arguing she overshoots the mark (Lepold, 2018, p. 476). However, by utilising queer theory’s insistence on prioritising discourse (Beresford, 2014, p. 764), women and men only become so because discourse makes ‘meaning’ to the category of identity (Beresford, 2014, p. 760). This links neatly to transgender ideology: a transwoman becomes a woman at the point of transition, and transition means self-declaration (Ferber, 2020; Lepold, 2018, p. 478).

Feminist critics of queer theory argue that rather than working to end the patriarchal oppression of women, the theory contradicts the revolutionary demands of twentieth century feminism (Jeffreys, 2008, p. 331). Feminists campaigning in the current debate, against efforts by transgender ideologists to mandate the political, social, and legal erasure of sex, point directly to Butler as inaugurating this fault line in feminism (Jones, 2019). Hines (2010), however, argues that queer theory has led to a shift in, and challenge to, the problematic understanding of gender identity and ‘sex’ which lies at the heart of some radical feminist hostility towards trans people (Hines, 2010, p. 599, 608). Trans activists point to the fact that transgender people have a long history, dating back to the ancient Greeks and it was Christianity that made transgender identity punishable (Whittle, 2000, p. 33).

Queer theorists and transgender ideologists do not only utilise philosophy, but also scientific arguments, e.g. using intersex conditions to declare that sex is on a spectrum (Butler, 2019; Fausto-Sterling, 1993; Whittle, 2000, p.17 – 18). Whittle (2000) asserts that one in two hundred babies are born with intersex conditions (Whittle, 2000, p.17). Similarly, Fausto-Sterling (1993) relied on intersex conditions, or disordered sexual development (DSD), to further her philosophies on gender identity, stating these conditions in the population are as high as 1.7% (Fausto-Sterling, 1993). This claim, although often repeated, has been debunked with research finding DSD conditions are around 0.018% of the population, one hundred times lower than Fausto-Sterling’s estimate (Sax, 2002, p. 174). The argument would be relevant if the number of transgender individuals who were born with DSD diagnosis was identified, but it appears this claim is used to further transgender ideology rather than validating a diagnosed reality.

The co-opting of this extremely rare medical condition is consistently utilised by transgender ideologists as justification that biology is not binary (Butler, 2019; Whittle, 2000, p.17 – 18), causing offence to some in the DSD community, and roundly rejected by groups who oppose transgender ideology (“About – LGB Alliance”, 2020; Graham, 2019). Fausto-Sterling recently stated that her assertions were mere “tongue in cheek”:

Figure 4 Queer theory – What is a woman? Online Ethnography Screenshot, February 2020

The argument that anyone can be a woman has been contentious in the feminist movement for decades (Em, 2020, Part VI). Transwomen’s inclusion in feminism has long been discussed, with differing attitudes (Hines, 2019, p. 146–147). Second wave feminist groups split over these issues, whilst some included transwomen, others did not (Mackay: in The Guardian 2020 – Understanding the Fight over Trans Rights, Part 2, 4:23 – 5:01). In 1973 at the West Coast Lesbian Conference in Los Angeles, a scheduled performance from Beth Elliot, a transsexual, was interrupted by keynote speaker, Robin Morgan who stated:

I will not call a male “she”; thirty two years of suffering in this androcentric society and of surviving, have earned me the title “woman”; one walk down the street by a transvestite, five minutes of his being hassled (which he may enjoy), and then he dares, he dares to think he understands our pain? No, in our mothers’ names and in our own, we must not call him sister (Jeffreys, Raymond & Stone, 2014).

The fault line of what defines a woman is clearly reflected in the past and present debate (Jeffreys, 2008, p. 331), where generalised narratives critique the second wave feminist movement as exclusionary to transgender people (Enke, 2018, p. 10). Radical feminist Janice Raymond (1979) asserted that transsexuals are not women, but “deviant males” (Raymond, 1979, p. 183) and transsexualism is “merely one of the most obvious forms of gender dissatisfaction and sex-role playing in a patriarchal society” (Raymond, 1979, p. 184). Raymond’s work is referenced by academics as directly impeding transgender people’s personal safety, moreover her work is seen as one of the hardest to dispel, both in feminist activism and writing, pointing specifically to other academics like Jeffreys and Greer, who are accused of continuing this anti-transgender rhetoric (Hines, 2019, p. 146). Importantly, for transgender ideologists, transfeminist history was being defined in the early 1970s and for some, transwomen and transmen were integral to parts of feminist activism (Enke, 2018, p. 10). Decades later Butler still asserts trans exclusionary radical feminists are not representative of mainstream feminist thought and as such, it is the responsibility of mainstream feminists to prevent such fringe groups of women from speaking for the majority, who she claims are accepting of transgender ideology (Ferber, 2020). For many feminists, Butler undermines the fight for female equality, makes a mockery of the struggle for women’s emancipation, and her philosophy of sex as a cultural construction is unpromising as a starting point (Jeffreys, 2008, p. 331; Smith-Laing, 2017, P. 67), especially, one could assert, when it hits scientific reality. Radical feminist critics hold that queer theory denies the real project of feminism by failing to dismantle the patriarchal structures that subordinate women as a sex class (Beresford, 2014, p. 764; Jones, 2020, p.43). By disappearing ‘sex’, one does not achieve equality, one only erases women.

There is much in queer theory to be praised, including the use of a constructionist account to challenge ideas of homosexuality as a deviant margin of sexuality (Em, 2019 Part II; Beresford, 2014, p. 764). But there are undeniable clashes over queer theorists’ desires to transgress all normative functions; in the context of this research these clashes centre on the contradiction and rejection of the radical feminist project of ending MVAW. Firstly, queer theorists’ insistence that only discourse adds meaning to categories (Beresford, 2014, p. 764) leads directly to a disassociation from the feminist work of women’s consciousness raising groups within the MVAW movement (The Sisterhood and After Team, 2013). For queer theorists, consciousness raising groups merely self-affirm a state of female victimhood (Jones, 2020, p. 24 -25); as such they criticise the gains made by anti-rape theory, practice and legislation on these grounds (Jones, 2020, p. 8, 16). By contrast, queer theorists assert sexual harms are discursively constructed, meaning that speaking of these harms produces subjects, and establishes related categories e.g. ‘the rapist’ and ‘the victim’ (Jones, 2020, p. 9). The suggestion here is that removing the collective narratives of women’s stories of male violence could deconstruct those women as the subject of victimhood, as “naming the victim, makes the victim” (Jones, 2020, p. 2). From a radical feminist perspective, this is victim-blaming in its simplest form: in denying the material acts of male violence, the acts cease to exist, and some queer theorists argue the anti-rape laws won by feminist activists work against women as it makes them the subject of victimhood (Brown, 1995 ix). Queer theory posits that women should disrupt the narrative and displace “the emphasis on what the rape script promotes – MVAW” (Marcus, 1992, p. 395). In other words, women should stop talking to each other about their experiences because it promotes the very nature of the act. It therefore follows that women are to blame for being victims, because they speak of it, and in this sense queer theory reifies the patriarchal systematic oppression of women as a sex class. This is the antithesis of the women-only consciousness raising groups which launched the MVAW movement throughout the UK and the world (Charlton, 1972; Dobash & Dobash, 1983, p. 3; “Women’s liberation: a national movement”, 2014).

Secondly, possibly the most overt example of queer theory’s’ contrast to feminist activism is the notion of paedophilia as an oppressed sexuality (Em, 2019, part I; part 2). Notably, child sexual abuse is statistically evidenced to be a form of male violence as the perpetrators of these crimes are overwhelmingly men (Office of National Statistics, 2018, pp.12, 21; Walker, Pillinger & Brown, 2018, p. 9). None of the famous queer theorists, including Butler, Foucault, Rubin and Califia, speak or spoke out against paedophilia (Jensen, 2018). Instead, they posit that sexual violence against children is an example of oppression against those who perpetrate it, instead they view it as a powerful heteronormative culture against adults who wish to identify their sexual eroticism for children and therefore their ‘sexuality’ in this way (Em, 2019, Part I; Jensen, 2018). Foucault (1978) explores the sexuality of children liberally throughout The History of Sex; for Foucault societal intervention on sexual violence towards a child was mere “pettiness” (Foucault, 1978, p. 31). Rubin (1999) and Califia (2000) follow suit in their assertions that images of child sexual abuse should be an entitlement (Rubin, 1999, p.144-146) and that legislation against child pornography and the age of consent should be repealed (Em, 2019 Part III; Califia, 2000, p. 55-56).

Many concerns raised by feminist women against transgender ideology centre on the reality that male perpetrators of violence to women and children could use, and have used, self-ID in policy and legislation to offend (Balinksi, 2014; Bindel, Manning & Powell, 2019; Peebles, 2019; Trans Crime UK, 2017; Women and Girls Scotland, 2019 p. 6); research shows us the risk of male violence does not disappear at point of transition (Dhejne et al., 2011); and moreover, there is no adequate risk assessment that could prevent predators from entering female-only MVAW spaces (Ingala Smith, 2019c). But queer theorists argue that changes on birth certificates do not pose adverse risks to women because male predators are unlikely to use the reforms in this way; in addition, they posit transwomen face particularly high rates of sexual violence and there is no evidence that they pose any more threat to women than other people (Fileborn et al., 2019). Moreover, the change of birth certificates through legislation represents a shift from a definition of a “sex” to a “social marker” and provides definitive action by countries who want to ensure that transgender populations are not subject to discrimination (Fileborn et al., 2019). 

Queer theory has played a key part in the movement to support the human rights of marginalised groups and has been described as instrumental in tackling “radical feminist separatism by challenging the right of any group to define others by their own limited view of the world” (Whittle, 2000, p. 47). In the context of debates over single sex spaces and self-ID, transgender activists argue that because of radical feminists’ opposition, transwomen have been excluded from rape crisis services and women’s spaces since the 1970s (Whittle, 2000, p. 51). On the opposing side, feminists believe queer theory is no longer utilised to advance the rights of transgender people, but to take away the rights of women as a sex class (Fair Play for Women, 2020).

Queer theory has taken hold in public discourse and become the catalyst for questioning female existence and spaces (Em, 2019, part I). By positioning biology as a social construct, the term woman becomes meaningless as a sex category, leading transgender activists to actively lobby for the removal of single sex exemptions (Woman’s Place UK, 2018b). If sex is not binary there is no need for the protection of women as a sex class because discrimination against them ceases to exist. It is important to spend some time looking at the analysis between queer theorists and feminists on the terminology of ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ and this part of the chapter aims to provide some context as to where the arguments conflict. 

Sex v Gender

I will frame this discussion of the gender versus sex debate based on a radical feminist definition of these terms. For many feminists, gender is the hook upon which social attitudes and stereotypes about sex are constructed, and henceforth how we are subordinated by patriarchy (Mikkola, 2019). Smashing gender stereotypes is a large part of the feminist project but does not mean feminists deny our sex (de Beauvoir, 1949, p. 740). 

Queer theory stands in direct contradiction to radical feminism on this issue, and it is imperative to understand why the difference matters. Feminist use of the terms ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ arises from a historical context of sex-based oppression and the rejection of biological determinism (Delphy 1993, p. 3; Mikkola, 2019). De Beauvoir’s (1949) instrumental text The Second Sex laid the foundations for second wave feminists to differentiate between ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ and create a space where biology is not destiny (Mikkola, 2019). De Beauvoir’s famous claim “one is not born, but rather one becomes a woman” (de Beauvoir, 1949, p. 281) was a sophisticated alternative to biological determinism, catalysing second wave feminists to fight against the social construction of gender norms. De Beauvoir (1949) expertly led feminist women to understand that the “representation of the world, like the world itself, is the work of men; who describe it from their own point of view, which they confuse with the absolute truth” (Firestone, 1971, p. 176). The term ‘gender’ became popular in the 1970s in feminist critiques (Delphy, 1993, p. 2), with Oakley (1972) describing its difference from sex as follows:

Sex’ is a word that refers to the biological differences between male and female: the visible difference in genitalia, the related difference in procreative function. ‘Gender’ however is a matter of culture: it refers to the social classification into ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine (Oakley, 1972, p. 16).

Similarly, in Sexual Politics Millett (1977) asserted the importance of diminishing the impact of women’s gendered socialisation, explaining gender has “essentially cultural rather than biological bases” (Millett, 1977, p. 28-29). Feminists of the 1970s did not deny that sex existed but used ‘gender’ to critique masculine and feminine stereotypes (Williams, 2020, p. 5). The works of de Beauvoir (1949), Oakley (1972) and Millett (1977) are often accused of essentialism by queer theorists but as Moi (2005) points out, they misrepresent de Beauvoir in particular, by misunderstanding the feminist analysis of the sex versus gender distinction (Moi, 2005, p. 3-5).

Psychologists working with transsexuals were the first to employ ‘gender’ in the same sense as feminists, to differentiate between biological differences and social/psychological traits (Mikkola, 2019). Psychologist Robert Stoller (1968) distinguished between sex and gender to support people who felt trapped in the ‘wrong body’ (Stoller, 1968) and he agreed that ‘sex’ refers to male and female biology (Stoller, 1968 viii), with corresponding gender traits of ‘masculine’ and feminine, where a ‘normal’ male would have masculine traits and a female, feminine traits (Stoller, 1968, p. 9). His work also began to lay out the notion of ‘gender identity’ as a conscious or unconscious sense of belonging to one sex and not the other (Stoller, 1968, p. 10). In the last half century, hormonal and surgical treatment advanced significantly, and became available to transgender people; transsexualism was defined as a medical condition; and the rise of the internet inspired the beginning of a transgender activist movement, taking forward a different definition of ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ (Jeffreys, 2008, p. 329). Whittle (2000) explains the transgender viewpoint on sex and gender by asserting that the two are “jumbled up” (Whittle, 2000, p.4) in their distinctions, just because “someone has a vulva, vagina, clitoris, breasts, ovaries, etc, it is quite another to assume that person is either female, feminine or a woman.” (Whittle, 2000, p.4).

Theories of ‘gender identity’ asserting transwomen “feel” like women, and therefore must have a ‘female brain’ (Caselles, 2018; Cleaveland Clinic, 2019) lead some transgender ideologists to adopt the idea that biological sex is multifaceted and malleable (Serano, 2017; Whittle, 2000, p.18). Yet the myth of the ‘female brain’ has been debunked for centuries (Rippon, 2019, p. xi), and has always been heavily resisted by feminists, because it is often accompanied by assertions that women are weaker, less intelligent and more empathetic, and is used as a tool of the patriarchy to exclude women from “the world of men” (Rippon, 2019, p. xi). In her book, The Gendered Brain, Rippon (2019) evidences the vast difference between gender and sex, and traces the biological essentialist argument of women’s biology, including that women’s brains are different, as a means to make us inferior to males (Rippon, 2019, p. 3, 6, 45). Similarly, cognitive neuroscientist, Fine (2010), describes research into female brain differences as rife with “gaps, assumptions, inconsistencies, poor methodology and leaps of faith” (Fine, 2010, p.xxvii), asserting that many scientists already believe there is a difference between male and female brains and consistently seek to justify this belief.

Radical feminists, and gender critical people, reject claims that gender is a feeling that dictates sex (Jeffreys, 2008). Stock (2020) describes ‘gender identity’ as an idea promoted by trans activists to support the notion of people being born in ‘the wrong body’ or ‘the wrong sex’ and transition creates a fiction of the changing of biological sex (Stock: in The Guardian 2020 – Understanding the Fight over Trans Rights, Part 2, 13:00 – 14:35). There is much to support Stock’s (2020) beliefs, for example, trying to unpick the statement “transwomen are women”, quickly becomes nonsensical in its lack of definition and circular logic, yet the mantra has been adopted as an absolute truth by many, with any who disagree being marked a ‘bigot’ (Tobey, 2019). Those who are comfortable with transgender ideology define anyone who is not trans as cisgender, meaningyou align with the gender you were ‘assigned with at birth’ (Munro, 2013). This is a term rejected by many feminists who state nobody is assigned a gender at birth people are simply sexed, moreover the term cis is just another label used to fit into the ideological standpoint of transgenderism (Fair Play for Women, 2018d). Transgender ideologists assert transgender people typically align with and transition to live as the opposite sex to the one that was assigned at their birth (McQueen, 2016, p. 673). Whittle (2000) posits gender identity as an inherent and fundamental part of everyone’s lives and those who are cisgender cannot possibly understand why anyone might want to change it; asserting the notion that transgender people are not seeking to change their identity, merely to present their true “gender identity in such a way that the rest of the world will understand who they are” (Whittle, 2000, p.3).

The confusion of ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ is complex and has its historical legislative and policy roots in both the GRA and the Yogyakarta Principles; feminists who object to the conflation of these terminologies have found themselves silenced. As history shows, if we cannot hear women, we do not have to listen to them.

Silencing of Women 

It’s not hate to defend your rights, and it’s not hate to speak the truth. Magdalen Berns (2019)

Figure 5 Silencing, Online Ethnography Screenshot, May 2019

The silencing of women is well-documented and has a shamefully long history (Beard, 2017). Beard (2017) gives examples including the Greek classic Homer (Beard, 2017, p. 3), arguing that the world of Telemachus and Homer set the precedent for silencing women’s public voices (Beard, 2017, pp. 3-8). The first recorded example of a woman being publicly told to “shut up” dates back almost 3000 years (Beard, 2017, pp. 3-4). Men believed it a hilarious notion that women should run the state as they could not adapt private speech to make it public (Beard, 2017, p. 9). Beard lists the many brutal examples in historical texts of women punished for speaking publicly, including Philomena and Lavinia whose tongues were cut out to prevent them testifying against or naming their rapists; or Lucretia who was allowed to name her rapist as long as she promised to kill herself afterwards (Beard, 2017, p. 13; Ugrešić, 2016).

By the 14th century, the use of the Scold’s or Witch’s bridle proved a creative and tangible method of physical torture used to silence women, with its earliest mention dated to 1380 in Geoffrey Chaucer’s text (Williamson, 2015). The Scold’s bridle was a humiliating punishment for women that rendered speech impossible (Williamson, 2015) and was highly uncomfortable to wear; it was used to prevent women from shouting at people in authority (Williamson, 2015). From 1655, it was referred to as the ‘witches’ bridle’ and associated with misogyny and persecution (Williamson, 2015). One theory concerning the persecution of witches holds they were intelligent women who would not be silenced (Williamson, 2015).

The ducking or cucking stool was by the 16th century a punishment exclusively reserved for women (Underdown, 1987, p. 123). Strapped to a chair, usually a commode, or sometimes simply held by a rope with her right thumb strapped to her left toe, the ducking aimed to humiliate and shame the offending woman (“Ducking Stool”, 2017). For witches, if she floated, she was guilty and would be killed, and if she drowned, she was innocent (“Ducking Stool”, 2017). The woman labelled a scold or a witch was guilty of using her voice, a woman who would not remain silent: “Deprived of virtually all political influence the woman was left with one weapon of freedom her tongue, the liberal use of which branded her a “scold” possessed of unwomanly aggressiveness” (Sharpe, 1997). Sharpe (1997) refers to “The witch and her sister the scold”, evidencing the relationship between the cultural smear of a woman’s reputation for daring to speak up in a manner man deemed inappropriate (Hewitt, 2015). Women who threatened the patriarchy were dealt with brutally and publicly (Underdown, 1987, p. 127), and unsurprisingly, witch-hunting was led by men (Goodare, 2008). Women and girls witnessed the punishments meted out by men against their sisters for speaking up, and in turn restrained their voices and demeanour, staying silent (Bardsley, 2011, p. 2). Women may not be called scolds and witches today, but the tradition of marking, naming and shaming women used in the 14th to 16th centuries echo through society today. While women’s freedom of speech today would be a marvel to our historic sisters, the means used to silence us would be entirely familiar.

While patriarchy has found new, creative ways to silence women, the shift from a scold’s bridle to social media abuse remains as sinister (Lewis et al., 2016, p.1479). Powell et al. (2018) describe ‘digital society’ as an integrated concept in our lives; rather than the digital sphere being separate from human experience, the digital and real-life spheres of our existence combine (Powell et al., 2018, p. 4). They refer to digitally embodied harms that are created through the digital sphere, pointing directly to gendered sexual violence and or gender identity-based hate, positing that the online harassment of these groups takes place across a broader spectrum of violence and abuse that are perpetrated through cultural inequalities and exclusion in wider society (Powell et al., 2018, p. 10).  Studies into human behaviour online note that participants tend to gravitate towards greater levels of aggression in cyberspace than they do offline and the protective factor of hiding behind a screen brings with it a perceived anonymity allowing them to act without fear of reprisals (Owen et al., 2017 p. 35). Similarly, psychologist, Suler (2004), studied the behaviour of people in online chat rooms, noting that participants tended to display greater anger and aggression in cyberspace than they did offline, he argued that this was because “when protected by a screen, people feel that real-world social restrictions, responsibilities and norms don’t apply” (Suler, 2004, pp. 321-326). Whether real or imagined, anonymity may allow people to explore their identities and to act without fear of being held to account for their behaviour in a realm where responsibilities, norms and social restrictions may not apply, he called this ‘The Online Disinhibition Effect’ (Suler, 2004, pp. 321-326).

Jane (2012; p4) describes trolling on the internet as “e-bile,” pointing to the often graphic and sexualised violent context of it, the purpose of which is to “outshout everyone else.” Research evidences that women are more likely to be the recipients and less likely to be the authors of “e-bile” (Jane, 2012; p. 6). Women report being the recipient of “e-bile” as distressing and anxiety provoking; in the most extreme cases female targets have not only removed themselves from online engagement but from the offline public sphere as well (Jane, 2012; p.6), which evidences the new forms of excluding women’s voices. Twitter is renowned for a myriad of sexual violence and abuse against women (Henry & Powell, 2016 p. 200; Lewis et al., 2016, p. 1469; Megarry, 2015, p.46-47), in particular feminist women who dare to engage in political topics, champion different causes, or demonstrate alternative opinions receive shocking levels of threats and violence, and this is posited as another form of MVAW (Lewis et al., 2016, p. 1463). Women express that the abuse is so routine they minimise their experiences and report being afraid of further attacks (Lewis et al., 2016, pp. 1465, 1474; Jane, 2012; p. 6). Megarry (2014) notes “the threatening abuse women receive online impedes their freedom of expression and often causes them to modify their own behaviours in response” (Megarry, 2014, p. 53). The internet, and particularly social media platforms like Twitter, bring with them a mob mentality and an unprecedented speed in shutting down speech, with opinions that are perceived to be ‘hate speech’ conflicting with free speech (Owen et al., 2017 p. 47). Impinging on a user’s ‘safe space’ brings with it snowball effects and mob mentality attacks that dehumanise people as ‘bigots’ who are ‘transphobic’ or ‘misogynistic’, which deliberately creates an environment where people are afraid to speak their minds (Owen et al., 2017, p. 47 – 48). Women are generally held to a different standard than their male counterparts in the political arena and are subjected to attacks directly related to their sex (Megarry, 2014, p. 48). This has played out in the gender reform debate, and women rather than men are the main target (Kirkup, 2019).

Unlike their bridled fore sisters, in a contemporary world women can still have their say, but the fear of retaliation or consequences is endemic and the threat of job loss, complaints to employers, or funding cuts for charitable causes aiming to end MVAW cannot be underestimated. The digital sphere is seen as a mere reflection of offline sexist realities that women are subjected to (Lewis et al., p. 1479). Feminist academics argue that networked misogyny needs to be assessed as a whole rather than the digital and public spheres being separate acts of the patriarchy (Banet-Weiser & Miltner, 2015, p. 173).

Alongside online abuse, there is evidence that transgender rights activists have used a well-orchestrated, ‘no holds barred’ approach to shutting down discourse, perhaps linked to the state signed sanctions of the Yogyakarta Principles (Jeffreys, 2018, p. 12; International Commission of Jurists (ICJ), 2007, p. 10). The example of Maya Forstater is mentioned in the introduction chapter (Drake, 2019), but there are numerous other examples, including, but by no means limited to:

  • Calls for MPs who raise questions about the impact of gender reform to be deselected (Davidson, 2019b)
  • Academic analysis being suppressed (Stock, 2021; The Guardian, 2018)
  • Police contacting a seventy-four-year-old woman to warn her against speaking out on Twitter about her objections to transgender ideology (Kirkup, 2019)
  • Feminists’ children being doxed, targeted, and threatened when speaking out about objections to gender reform (Dreher, 2018)
  • Trans activists urinated on the office door of a female professor of Law at Reading University, who also received a rape threat in the street, and was followed on campus, hiding in bushes to escape (Ardehali, 2018)
  • Two women have been physically attacked by men who identify as transwomen: one at Speakers Corner in Hyde Park (Maria Maclachlan), for handing out leaflets detailing an opposition to gender reform; and another (Julie Bindel) for speaking at a feminist event in Edinburgh about the future of women’s sex-based rights, somewhat ironically focusing on male violence (Chakelian, 2017; Bindel, 2019b; Davidson, 2019a; Doward, 2018).
  • MSP Joanna Cherry was sacked from the front bench of the Scottish National Party, in part because of her work in campaigning for the retention of women’s sex-based rights in relation to proposed gender reform (Daisley, 2021)

These tactics are a small sample of the reported examples and once again, women constitute the main target (Kirkup, 2028a; Kirkup, 2018b). The historical labelling and punishment of women has morphed into new forms of censorship: no-platforming and targeting through public online and offline shaming (Kirkup, 2018b). Although men who raise their voices against transgender ideology do get labelled TERFs (Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists) it is women who bear the brunt of the attacks (Kirkup, 2019d): the acronym is widely accepted as a misogynistic slur and a direct threat to women (“TERF is a slur – Documenting threats of Violence, harassment and abuse”, 2019). The witch has a new name. She is a TERF. 

TERF, Great Granddaughter of the Witch

The term TERF (Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminist) has become synonymous with women objecting to or voicing concerns against gender reform, whether they are radical feminists or not. Academic advocates of transgender ideologies argue the term is important because “ontologically and epistemologically it works to narrate the power relations at stake produced through discursive struggles around gendered authenticity and the tenure of feminism” (Hines, 2019, p. 147). Discussing whether a change in legislation will affect the rights of women and girls will award you the title TERF (Rowling, 2020). TERF originates from author Viv Smythe who claims to be the first to have written down the phrase in 2008, but not necessarily the first to use it (Smythe, 2018). In her blog ‘feminism 101’ Smythe critiqued the severe trans-hostile rhetoric from some radical feminists (Smythe, 2018).

TERF is widely accepted to be a tactic used to ostracise and threaten women into silence (Flaherty, 2018). A quick search on Twitter for ‘TERFs’ reveals tweets describing them as “Nazis” and “ignorant hateful cunts” with invitations for them to “go fuck themselves on cactuses” (Flaherty, 2018). The websites TERF is a slur and TRA violent tweets give a plethora of other examples aimed at the modern-day witch and the phrases “punch a TERF” or “kill all TERFs” are documented hundreds of times (“TERF is a slur – Documenting threats of Violence, harassment and abuse”, 2019; “TRA violent Tweets”, 2015). Questioning the orthodoxy of trans ideology can also result in being placed on a TERF blocker, a list that blocks all Twitter users labelled TERFs and an exceptionally effective form of online shaming, arguably a modern day digital ducking stool (“TERF Blocker – Block Together”, 2019).

Those who use the term TERF claim it is reserved for transphobes who wish to demonise trans people and deny their existence (Flaherty, 2018). Radical or gender critical feminists are frequently accused of denying trans people’s right to exist or even of wanting them dead and are compared to the “Ku Klux Klan” (Jones, 2015). Hines (2019) suggests the term works to attach these perspectives to a particular branch of radical feminism (Hines, 2019, p. 147). Clearly, many in the trans community feel attacked and oppressed; the Transgender Equality (2016) report refers to this in relation to housing and employment (House of Commons Women and Equalities Committee, 2016, p. 8). Thus, for trans rights activists, TERF is a logical response to those who want to attack them and exclude them from single sex spaces, and women who reject the acronym are simply trying to control how others name their bigotry (Ferber, 2020; Flaherty, 2018).

But the silencing, denigration, and abuse by some trans rights activists towards women has had an impact and is remarkably similar to the tactics used by perpetrators of domestic abuse, including the use of intimidation, coercion, threats and humiliation (The Duluth Model, 1984). It is particularly noteworthy that professionals in the MVAW sector have remained silent and passive on the issue. This research provides an original contribution and lifts the lid on this silence.


To summarise, the academic framework of radical feminist theory which underpins the work of the MVAW sector is diametrically opposed to queer theory, and the sex v gender debate has thrown into question how women are defined. Balancing the needs of two oppressed groups is complex. It is imperative that as a society we support and defend the rights of transgender people alongside the rights of women. Universal human rights are not to be taken for granted, but the rights of one oppressed minority should not override the rights of another. The silencing of women is a historical pattern which undeniably morphs over the years, but the outcome is the same, women are denigrated and smeared when raising their voices and, in this debate, they are accused of a new witchcraft. Regarding MVAW spaces, those who sign up to transgender ideology hold there is no clash between transgender rights and women’s rights and no debate to be had (Hunt, 2018; Stonewall, 2018).

But it is urgent that we discuss the implications for services catering to female victims. Policy and legislation based on queer theory makes biological sex meaningless, embedding the concept of ‘single sex spaces’ in undefinable subjective categories, leaving refuges as mixed-sex hostels open to anyone who declares womanhood. I hope the following original research provides women in the movement an opportunity to unclasp their bridles, kick the legs off the cucking stool, and rise up.

And girls need cold anger. They need the cold simmer, the ceaseless grudge, the talent to avoid forgiveness, the side stepping of compromise. They need to know when they say something that they will never back down, ever, ever. (Gregory Maguire, The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West)

In the next chapter I turn to the methodology used to undertake the research.