Having been vociferously challenged by feminists over the last few decades, the idea of an innate gender identity is gaining popularity in progressive circles and culture at large, along with the newer idea that biological sex is a construct. To effectively fight the oppression of women, we must resist these moves and reclaim the language of feminism argues Julie Bindel.
There is no such thing as a ‘real woman’ or ‘real man’.
That might sound odd to readers who are familiar with my work and feminist campaigning. Why fight for women only spaces and to uphold sex-based rights if you don't even believe that there is such a thing as a 'woman'?
Whilst I have no idea what it feels like to be a woman, only that my status as a female is defined in relation to men, I am reminded of it every time I hear of yet another rape, murder or case of FGM. Each time I am alone in a deserted outdoor area at night, and I have to look out for some opportunist predator.
The project of feminism is to dismiss the validity of sex stereotypes that underpin male entitlement and keep women subservient, such as that women enjoy being feminine, and seek out strong, masculine men.
We are now supposed to accept that gender is innate and biological sex is a social construct, in a complete reversal of the actual definition of these terms.
But today, such stereotypes are enjoying a revival. We are now supposed to accept that gender is innate and biological sex is a social construct, in a complete reversal of the actual definition of these terms. If there is no such thing as 'sex' why would scientists study sex differences in Covid 19 deaths?
Feminists adopted the term gender to describe a material reality – the systematic enforcement of male power - and as a tool for political change. It is no wonder that those hostile to feminism would want to sabotage the term. That is also why it is so important for us to reclaim the term gender from the confusion now surrounding it.
Feminism made a clear distinction between sex and gender. Indeed, this distinction was the foundation of second wave feminism because it helped us understand that there was nothing ‘natural’ about femininity for girls or masculinity for boys but that these concepts were merely rules of behaviour. Sex stereotypes, often referred to as ‘gender roles’ are what keep women in subservient positions in relation to men.
There has always been some confusion about the term ‘gender’, often used as a polite substitute for the term ‘sex’ in common parlance, but since the 1990s, (thanks to the likes of Judith Butler and other queer theorists) the term ‘gender’ has been completely misappropriated and used to mean something you can choose to perform, rather than something society imposes on you. More recently, gender has come to mean quite simply transgender, and is often used interchangeably with, or substituted for, biological sex.
Sex stereotypes, often referred to as ‘gender roles’ are what keep women in subservient positions in relation to men.
Worryingly, in many so-called progressive circles, we are now expected to believe that the hijacking of the term gender is liberating for women, despite the fact that it involves ignoring or misinterpreting the structural reality of male dominance over women. Disrupting the meaning of sex and gender seems to make queer-identified people feel radical and edgy because they believe they are subverting ‘heteronormativity’. There is nothing radical or progressive about these developments and forfeiting the political meaning of terms such as gender is not an effective strategy for women’s liberation however much it may appear to open up new choices for individuals in terms of how they identify.
Feminists do not think that women are innately better than men, or that they have any innate qualities or tendencies to behave in any particular way; feminists hold the self-evident view that the significant difference between men and women is power. We wouldn't be involved in a politics of change if we believed that gender was innate. Whereas extreme trans activists want to multiply the number of available genders, feminists want to get rid of gender altogether. However, feminists do understand how infeasible it is to suggest to any human group that they should not "do" gender, by which I mean create a story about the meaning of sex differences.
Women are required to adhere to sex stereotypes or can be violently punished. But unlike Judith Butler, who would have it that all gender is merely a "performance" and in the classic post-modern fashion dismisses the significance of institutionalised sexism and patriarchy, feminists recognise gender as oppressive to girls and women and beneficial to boys and men.
We need to reassert the language of feminism in order to revive feminist politics.
What that would mean is living in a world where the sex into which you were born was no more or less important in determining the kind of life you could lead than the size of your feet. As long as women are oppressed as women we need the term gender to describe that reality. We need to reassert the language of feminism in order to revive feminist politics in the form in which we believe they will best serve the goal of women's liberation.
There is no such thing as an innate gender. It can feel hardwired and immutable but only sex is immutable. The only "natural" lies in our physical bodies. I long for the day when sex differences do not give men the permission to abuse and empower women, and when gender is seen as nothing more than an expression of harmful sex stereotypes that harm women and girls.