Material Girls by Dr Kathleen Stock concedes too much ground to a reactionary orthodoxy, argues Dr Heather Brunskell-Evans.
I find the book Material Girls by Kathleen Stock problematic, philosophically, politically, and ethically.
The book has been received by gender-critical feminists, of whom I am one, to almost unanimous critical acclaim. However, at risk of losing support from my own “side,” I suggest it is important we pause, take a breath, and reflect on Stock’s broad thesis. On the one hand, she makes a case that dimorphic sex is an immutable biological reality and that this matters for women socially and politically. In this current hostile social climate, Stock has thus achieved a victory in getting the fact that biology matters into the public domain. On the other hand, she is not seamlessly aligned with gender critical theory and gender-critical activism. In this review, I demonstrate the book’s troubling alignment with the philosophy of gender identity theory and queer politics. I conclude that the main thesis of the book helps reproduce rather than resist their deleterious material consequences for the lives and bodies of women and children.
A narrative running throughout Material Girls is that Stock is a moderate commentator who can arbitrate between two extremes of political activism: On the one hand lobby groups such as Stonewall UK whose politics are based on gender identity theory; on the other hand, the sometimes-unreasonable feminist activism, of which she homes in on the academic Dr. Julia Long’s as a quintessential example, whose politics are based on gender-critical theory. Stock identifies as “a feminist who cares about other women” (42). However, she prefers her own “evidence-based feminism” facilitated by applying her skills as an analytical philosopher (239).
When I was an undergraduate philosophy student many years ago, the use of the adjective “feminist” to describe an “analytic philosopher” would have been to create a non-sequitur. Analytic philosophy was founded on the faith that a philosopher could, and indeed should, stand outside of “his” own cultural and personal context—described as the Archimedean point of detachment—in order to rationally examine the concepts that inform collective thought. Thankfully, a lot of water has passed under the philosophical bridge since then, so it is now no longer a contradiction in terms for Stock to say that she is an analytic philosopher and a feminist. She declares she has even more “skin in the game” than her feminism (42). Even though she is “a cis person” and not “transgender” she has further personal experience since she is “a sex non-conforming woman” and “a lesbian” (42). Having asserted the validity of situated knowledge-making, Stock then proposes that analytic philosophy can also provide the tools to help her achieve a certain non-situated dispassion. In other words, she has laid claim to a sort of “belt and braces” approach which makes her doubly authorised to analyse gender identity theory and activism and to propose alternatives. She concludes the book with the hope that she will have contributed to an approach to social problems that follows “time-honoured methods” (278). As she writes, “… finding out what exactly the problems are, with a focus on concrete evidence, and listening to all affected parties, and finding out exactly what causes those problems, and what would practically help to make a difference. And then doing it” (278).
I disagree that Stock has fulfilled her aspiration.
Gender Identity Theory
Stock traces the incremental shaping of gender identity theory over 50 years by medicine, sexology, the law, transgender lobby groups, and trans activism. She informs us that in large parts of the Western world, gender identity theory has now taken such a hold of the popular imagination that “trans people” are thought of as those who, without any surgery or hormones, or who dress or behave in certain ways, have “gender identities” which are “misaligned with the sex ‘assigned’ at birth” (109). “Cis-people are those whose gender identities align with birth-assigned sex” (109). In this popular view, “trans women” and “women” are equally women because what makes a woman a woman is not biology but “gender identity” (109). This theory, expressed for example by Stonewall, is that for any and every purpose sex doesn’t matter because men who identify as women are female. Stonewall’s well-known declarative statement to which Stock objects is: “Trans women are women. Get over it!”
Stock says: “In this book I have rejected gender identity theory” (240). In her view, what makes her analysis crucially different from Stonewall’s is the following: her proposition that dimorphic sex is not culturally assigned but is a biological reality that matters politically; and secondly her disbelief that gender is inherent. In contrast to the concept of inherent gender identity, Stock sees “trans” as a cultural identity that involves “processes of active identification rather than as settled stable facts about the self” (128). She uses the term “trans woman” to refer to someone who identifies “strongly, in the psychological sense, either with a particular female or with femaleness as a general object ideal” (129). Stock claims her identification model “fits well with the yearning, idealised quality of many first-hand accounts of trans experience” (130).
Having rejected certain aspects, Stock does not reject gender identity theory in its entirety but, on the contrary, accepts many of its central “truths.” She insists that “theoretical postulates” such as “cis” “should be available for robust critical examination” and that her book will undertake this task (41). Then, in robustly analyzing the concepts of “cis” and “transgenderism”, she concludes they are useful since they join the ranks of other concepts which “when working well, pick out what’s already there” (145). She divides people into two categories “trans people” and “cis people” (or “non-trans” people), referring throughout to herself as “cis.” She continuously describes “trans people” as having a “misaligned gender identity” with the attendant idea that “non-trans” people experience their gender in alignment with their sex.
Stock argues that in some contexts, such as sport and women’s prisons, the words “woman” and “man” should be used in line with biological sex. But in other contexts, we should embrace the fiction that “trans women are women” as an emollient compromise to honour the human rights of men who psychologically identify as women. Stock’s practical solution to the conflict over single-sex safe spaces is to provide separate “third spaces” for “trans women” (251). I argue this is naïve and unworkable. The majority of men who insist, indeed who in Stock’s words, “yearn” to be accepted as female will experience separate facilities to biological women as the transphobic erasure of their “true female self.”
Stock insists that if it is made clear in society that “trans women” can’t change sex, then the word “trans woman” is “powerless to mean otherwise” (240). She mirrors Stonewall’s authoritarianism, apparently without irony, admonishing gender-critical feminists who refuse to participate in the fiction. She says: “Trans people are trans people. Get over it” (240).
Evidence demonstrates that the above assertion of ontology has been extremely powerful both culturally and politically when issued by political parties in the UK such as The Labour Party, The Liberal Democrats, and The Green Party, and also, until very recently, by the Equality and Human Rights Commission, and then adhered to by the media and broadcasting organisations. It has conveyed to many institutions and to individual adults (and young people) that biological sex is irrelevant, or perhaps even that having “the wrong body” should incur specific sympathy. Indeed, many liberal proponents of “diversity and inclusion” consider that biological women are privileged by comparison and that gender-critical feminists are unkind not to include “trans women” into the category “women”.
Truths and lies
For those not in the philosophical know, there are philosophical approaches that are also committed to carrying out robust analyses, but which critique analytical philosophy for its sometimes overinflated and unwarranted claims to dispassion and objectivity, and its lack of critical self-reflexivity.
In contrast to Stock’s analytic approach, a post-structuralist philosophical analysis demonstrates that the newly minted early 21st-century concept of “transgender” constructs classifications of people—the “trans woman,” the “trans man,” the “trans child”—rather than that these are real figures who have unhappily waited throughout history for gender identity theory to finally recognize them and for queer politics to give them a voice. For example, where Stock describes Susie Green, the CEO of the lobby group Mermaids, as the mother of a “trans child” (213) a post-structuralist analysis argues that Green did not find herself the mother of a daughter trapped in a boy’s body. At the beginning of the 20th century and thereafter, Green has been part of a reshaping of society according to gender identity theory, the queer politics of Judith Butler, and a very powerful transactivist lobby, that have collectively created the idea of the authentic “trans child”.
Stock argues against the social constructionist approach. She claims that concepts cannot “on their own, create particular kinds of things, though often they help spread the word” (146). The material consequence of the concept of the “trans child” for example belies her claim, as witnessed by the exponential growth of children and young people, in particular girls, who now experience themselves as having been born in “the wrong body” and present themselves at gender identity development services in greater numbers every year.
Stock castigates gender-critical feminists, or at least strands of gender-critical feminism, for an alleged moralism about “transgenderism” and as uncaring about the pain for which “transition” may be the solution. How, she asks, can gender critical feminists expect to “reach out to younger generations in the future” when, “in the instrumental pursuit of political goals,” we describe the bodies of young women who have had surgery with “dehumanising” terms such as “mutilated” (248)?
Firstly, I do think the removal of healthy tissue, including breasts and limb muscle for prosthetic penile construction is nothing other than the mutilation of girls’ and young women’s bodies. I regard it as morally reprehensible to stand back and to remain silent about that. My concern has never been to find a communication channel with future generations of young women, but rather the present ethical one of not abandoning children and young people to gender identity theory, Big Pharma, lobby groups like Mermaids, and gender identity development services. Curiously, Stock makes the argument that sex matters but takes no ethical or political cognizance that girls’ sexed bodies are objectified and sexualized in our culture, that lesbianism (same-sex attraction) is dehumanized, and that some girls now view “becoming male” as an escape route. Stock attempts to create the philosophical argument that sex matters except when it doesn’t.
Secondly, the dehumanisation lies in having facilitated young people’s unrealisable fantasy that they can change sex. It does not lie in those who underscore the harm that hormones and surgeries affect. Thirdly, I’m not sure what the political goal might be to which Stock is referring, but my own has never been to deny adults the right to identify how they choose (and to use surgery to endorse it) but to deconstruct the “truths” of gender identity theory and to resist the political goals of transgender ideologues who have instrumentalised children to claim that gender identity is inherent and “inborn.”
A better activism in future
Stock claims that her book “is at least partly a feminist one, broadly speaking” in the sense that she says, “at various points, I’ve made what I hope is a strong case for the interests of women in particular” (241). However, she distances herself from “certain trends within feminism,” namely radical and gender-critical feminisms while taking issue with their “modern activism” (239). She hopes “for a better activism in the future” (240).
Stock insists that one of the destructive aspects of feminist activism has been infighting about who the “real” feminist is when it comes to resistance to trans activism. This leads to some feminists’ “ubiquitous use of ad hominems: the unstable mention of a person’s … motives to try to discredit the conclusions of their arguments” (246). Stock then carries out the very thing which she derides and makes ad hominem comments about feminist scholar Julia Long. Unlike Stock, Long insists “trans women” aren’t women in any sense and steadfastly refuses to use female pronouns. Stock impugns her as someone who belongs to a specific group of gender-critical feminist activists “blinded with animosity towards the male sex” (248).
I have no insight into Long’s inner thoughts, but I do know that she has made a significant contribution to the feminist resistance movement. In 2016, she provided a platform for women to discuss the erosion of our rights at a time when the violence, bullying, silencing and slurring from transactivists was at its most arrogantly assured. In 2018 she protested at London Pride that trans activism was erasing the right of lesbians to be same-sex attracted and her political activism helped lay the ground for the creation of the current LGB Alliance in the UK. And in 2019, Long (and the activist Posie Parker) went to USA Capitol Hill and door-stopped Sarah McBride, the then national press secretary for the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), who was on the Hill lobbying for the medicalisation of very young children’s bodies.
Whilst Stock reserves specific opprobrium for Long she throws a veil over the sustained (symbolic and literal) violence against women by transactivists (and their female and male allies). Stock clearly expresses sympathy for autogynephilic men who, she argues, are unfairly singled out as “abhorrent” by gender-critical feminists and by the larger culture (238). She says that transitioning “in particular cases may be what is needed for [autogynephiles]to live happy lives” (239).
The fiction that men who identify as women are female may indeed ease the distress of some men, as Stock points out, but it constructs a lie to which the law and public policy have adhered to the detriment of the lives and bodies of women and children. I agree it is important to examine the psychology of autogynephilic men and that their rights to self-identify as women must be defended. My points here are, firstly that for a man to claim he is a woman, whilst it might be psychologically relieving, is also delusional and it is not the mark of a healthy society to collectively participate in the delusion; secondly, and something to which Stock never refers, is that autogynephilic men (obviously not all) are the most explicitly violent to women on social media, in the workplace and elsewhere, as well as the most vociferous in claiming alleged rights to occupy female single-sex spaces.
Using Stock’s words but inverting them, I argue that she has left unacknowledged the manifold evidence – inflammatory threatening language, violent behaviour, the attempt to silence – that many trans activists, including many who are autogynephilic, are “blinded with animosity towards the female sex.”
I am concerned that the unsuspecting reader of Material Girls will be persuaded by the strong authorial voice which narrates a story of personal detachment and philosophical authority. The reader unversed in the politics of transgenderism will remain largely unaware that gender-critical feminists have created a successful grassroots movement where, despite our differences, we have united, dedicating our labour free, sometimes to great psychological, emotional and economic cost. We have never called for violence (indeed the converse is true) and we have struggled against immense structural odds to begin to turn the tide of institutional capture. In resisting the incremental erosion of women’s rights in favour of men, as well as the protection of children, our activism could not have been better.
Material Girls lacks a committed analysis of the patriarchal power relations in which “masculine” and “feminine” identities are incited, women’s free speech is actively suppressed (including by political parties and the institutions tasked with defending women’s sex-based rights), and the violence with which some men (and women) have been socially permitted, even sanctioned, to respond to women who do not agree that “trans women” are women.
Stock’s self-presentation as a moderator between organisations like Stonewall and gender-critical extremists has been persuasive, even to gender-critical feminists. While some other reviews claim that Stock has put “her head above the parapet,” I argue that Material Girls does precisely the opposite – sadly it is largely conformist to a reactionary politics. The fact that Stock insists biological sex matters does not mitigate the harms of categorizing people as “cis” and “transgender.” The concepts we use matter materially, politically, and ethically. The progress gender critical feminists have made in actively resisting the dehumanization of women and girls is based on a reasoned deconstruction of gender identity theory and a fight against queer politics. I argue the most progressive humane approach for everyone concerned, including those people who identify as “trans”, is for gender critical feminists to continue to put our heads above the parapet and to insist, contra Stock: “Trans women are not women. Society should get over it”!