Blog post

Neo-Liberalism, Patriarchy and the Female Body

November 12, 2018Heather Brunskell-Evans

A Presentation given at FiLiA Conference, October 2018

Neo-liberalism is the political philosophy (of the left and the right) that was developed during the 1980s under Margaret Thatcher’s prime ministership but which then gathered traction as populist ‘common-sense’ during the 1990s and onwards. It has several problems: 1) It regards the individual as an autonomous agent, primarily motivated by self-interest; 2) It tells us the unregulated free-market economy alleviates social inequalities; and 3) It describes personal freedom in terms of the individual’s ability to ‘choose’ in a market place of choices. What is wrong with this neo-liberal, economistic view of the human being? It is reductive:  as well as being individual agents, human beings are also located in psychological, social and political contexts that render our autonomy and inter-relationship with others more complex than such an ideology allows.

Neo-liberal philosophy creates a specific political problem for girls and women. On what grounds can I make this claim?  The case of the female body illustrates my point perfectly: On the one hand, women’s bodies are seen as material objects which can be sold through pornography and ‘sex-work’ and consumed like any other product in the market. On the other hand, women’s bodies are seen as immaterial because any man can allegedly ‘become’ a woman, not in Simone De Beauvoir’s sense that female bodied people are not born ‘feminine’ but have to learn it, but through men simply identifying as women. Although a critique of neo-liberalism can equally be applied to pornography and prostitution, in this presentation I explore some of the consequences for girls and women when it becomes culturally accepted as reasonable and legitimate for men to claim they ARE women.

In the last few months the experiences of many women gathered together at this conference have consisted, as you know, of repeated attempts to silence us from discussing the proposed changes to the GRA 2004. There have been various policing strategies ranging from: accusations of ‘hate-speech’, bigotry, or transphobia whenever we have met; successfully encouraging venues not to host our meetings because we belong to ‘hate-groups’; bomb threats to venues that have not capitulated; and the perpetration of actual physical violence on a woman.

Broader issues have also emerged in relation to women’s language use, and about what we can or cannot say about our own bodies, the words we are allowed to use about our own sex organs, and even the spelling of the noun to describe ourselves i.e. the term ‘non-men’ of the Green Party or ‘Womxn’ of the recent Wellcome Trust Exhibition.

It is apparently insufficient to insist, as I do, that it is a human right for any individual to identify with gender in ways that feel personally truthful, that no-one should be discriminated against because of their gender identity, and that everyone, without exception, must be legally protected from violence. Gender critical women and men are compelled to make a further leap with regard to trans ideology and accept, as an article of faith, the completely irrational proposition that men who identify as women not only must be respected and protected in their gender choice, but that they ARE women. Furthermore, just in case we are too intellectually or politically regressive to understand, we are instructed to repeat the mantra till we ‘get it’!

In the very year 2018 that we celebrate the centenary of the parliamentary granting of the right of (some) women to vote – an achievement wrought by gender critical women speaking out against patriarchal power and then suffering, for their pains, from vilification by other women as well as from men – we have witnessed transactivists actively silence women from speaking out about our bodies and body boundaries. When the truth that human beings in possession of penises are male were put on tiny stickers and placed in buildings in protest to the assertion Trans Women Are WOMEN, the police spent our taxes on investigating these acts of resistance and truth-telling as hate speech.

Men telling women how to understand and experience their bodies is as old as recorded history. Since Eve was framed men have attributed to themselves what it is to be generically human. Religion, populist evolutionary biology, and medicine have all historically constructed Man as the norm with Woman as his Other. In the 1970s and 1980s feminist theorists deployed the term patriarchy – literally the rule of the father – to also describe a social structure of inequity based on the naturalisation of ‘femininity’. This epistemological and political development was never intended to dispense with the material reality of binary sex. Political theorising went in tandem with grass roots activism whereby consciousness raising groups sprang up and women shared personal stories. In so doing they revealed the sheer commonality of their sexual experiences and exposed a structural level of sexual abuse by men of women and girls. In this sense, the current Me-Too Campaign is not new, but a revived political ‘calling out’ of men’s sexual conduct. Perhaps it should be re-named and addressed to men as ‘You-Too’.

The backlash in the 1990s against the radical feminist critique of patriarchy was fierce. Society, we were told, had reached a stage of ‘post-feminism’ and we could all rest easy because feminism’s demands had now been met.

The Spice Girls became the epitome for teenage girls of women’s new-found, individualised sexual empowerment. Feminism became a dirty word, conjuring up a spectre of miserable, sexually starved, repressed women who hated men. My students at Goldsmiths College, (one of the first universities unequivocally committed to understanding sex and gender through the lens of Queer Theory, and now the proud UK hotbed of the latter), revealed an actual revulsion towards the F word. Any suggestion that the equality laws and the sexual freedoms from which they benefitted were brought about by feminist activism and our refusal to be bound by hetero-normativity was met with young women’s disavowal. They confidently derided as untrue any suggestion that we – as lesbians, heterosexual women, mothers of sons and daughters, non-mothers, plus the men who stood alongside of us – were sexual freedom fighters.

By the 1990s the idea of women as a sex-class had been rejected, and the particular oppressions belonging to women as a collective, and enacted on female bodies, was lost. Queer Theory developed the concept of social constructionism beyond that which the poststructuralist, feminist analysis such as mine had ever intended. Instead of the dichotomy nature or nurture we can think of the body both as a material reality and as a site for physical experiences inevitably lived through culture and power relations. Transgender ideology is an outcome of the meteoric rise of Queer Theory which does not dispense with biological essentialism but reifies it by simply reversing the order: It asserts that binary sex – being female or male – is socially ‘assigned’ not a biological fact; in contrast gender – an individual feeling of ‘femininity’ or ‘masculinity’ – is pre-social and emerges from the inner being. This ideology has no human scientific basis and over-rides simple facts.

Woe betide anyone who dares critique transgender truths since the other face of this alleged progressivism can be a furious authoritarianism. The particular issue for which I have been vilified is my view that society should tread carefully with gender exploring children and not set them on a medicalized path of hormone treatment which will almost inevitably have irreversible consequences, including sterility, and the increasingly common trend, mastectomy for young women. Medical intervention and surgery will never actually transform the individual to the opposite sex, despite the fact that we feed youthful fantasies with the narrative that such a scenario is possible.  Surgery can only simulate sex organs, such as excising the penis and testicles and construct an internal, insensate cavity into the male body, or create a prosthetic penis fashioned from flesh taken from elsewhere on the female body. Not only is sterility the consequence but so is the reduction or even complete elimination of sexual, genital sensation.

At the very same moment that men who identify as women insist they ARE women but see no need to have their penises removed (perhaps for the reasons described above), there is insistence from well-established trans-affirmative children’s organizations like Mermaids that early medical intervention on children’s bodies in the form of puberty blockers and cross-sex hormones is essential for safe-guarding purposes. Indeed, Mermaids is frustrated by the UK National Health Gender Identity Development Services (GIDS) for taking a watchful waiting approach that does not prescribe hormones with alacrity the moment the child presents at the service with gender dysphoria. Mermaids describes a holistic approach as one that immediately affirms the child and provides confirming hormone treatment, through privatized medicine if necessary. We could pause at this moment and contemplate whether children are being sacrificed on the ideological altar of ‘inherent gender identity’. We could also have a public debate about suicide statistics based on rigorous data provided by recognized social scientific methodology, in contrast to the data collected by the transgender lobby group Stonewall.

‘Gender identity’ is essential to the organization Gendered Intelligence whose CEO is a Queer Theory proponent:

‘How you look, how you speak, how you have sex are all aspects of you, but your identity is paramount. A woman is still a woman, even if she enjoys getting blow jobs. A man is still a man even if he likes getting penetrated vaginally’ (Gendered Intelligence, Sex 101)

Gendered Intelligence’s concept of freedom as individual self-realisation and of gender as individual ‘choice’ seems progressive, inclusive and commensurable with women’s rights. However, it performs the reverse function – it actually re-invigorates traditional ideas of girlhood and womanhood and endorses the reactionary sexual politics which it allegedly subverts.

Queer Theory is also delivered by Gendered Intelligence to younger children in age-modified form in many schools and to teaching staff through diversity training. In this model, an inner ‘femininity’ can compel a child towards sparkles and pink, such that if a boy enjoys these he may be a girl. Or, an inner ‘masculinity’ can compel a child to be disinterested in sparkles and pink and this may signify she is a boy.  The alleged ‘gender fluidity’ of Gendered Intelligence thus reproduces traditional ideas about ‘femininity’ and ‘masculinity’ that have policed women and girls (and men and boys too for that matter) through the ages.

Clearly, the latest transformation in the ever-expanding category LGBTQ is the claim to non-binary gender. Not only does this claim rely for its coherence on the existence of binary gender, but the right to self-define often deprives certain others, i.e. women, the same privilege. A ‘mole’ at a recent Trans Affirmative conference ‘We Are Still Here’ alleges that a self-identified non-binary academic sociologist made the following statement about the book Transgender Children and Young People: Born in Your Own Body[1] ‘I will tear it a new asshole’. If those who attended the conference would like to correct my information, I invite you to personally swear that those words were not said, and of-course I will issue a genuine apology.  Here I want to draw out two aspects of this statement: Firstly, our key-note speaker Carol Adams has demonstrated the way misogynistic violence towards women is deeply encoded in our culture through the naturalization of women’s bodies as meat. I suggest that since books don’t have assholes the speaker was enacting a similar manoeuvre of displacement and transposing a pornographic, sexualized violent fantasy onto the book and in doing so was expressing misogynistic hostility towards its authors.  Secondly, I would like to give you one guess at the sex of the ‘non-binary’ person who is reported to have made the statement. That’s right, you have guessed correctly, and I hope you are horrified that he is a Trustee of the trans-affirming children’s organization GIRES.

It is often pointed out to me that gender self-identification is an equal opportunity issue, i.e. women can identify as men too.  I reply that the disparity between the responses of men who identify as women, and of women who identify as men, demonstrates rather than refutes the feminist point. In all the kafuffle about progressivism, women who identify as men do not insist, for the purposes of inclusivity, that men re-name their genitals in non-biological terms because to name the penis as a penis is exclusionary of female bodied men who don’t possess one. Nor do they urge organisations to re-spell the noun men as ‘mxn’ to include men without penises, or protest outside venues where women gather to speak about proposed GRA reforms chanting ‘Transmen ARE men’. Finally, they do not whip up misandry and direct sexually threatening language at any man who disagrees with transgender ideas.

I assert that a woman is an adult biological female. Our sex, like that of men, was not ‘assigned’ at birth but empirically observed. I am not ‘cis’, the new nomenclature of transgender ideology to which every political party has complied and which gender identity clinics now use. Firstly, ‘cis’ sets up a hierarchy in which allegedly ‘cis’ women have privilege because their biological body and ‘femininity’ match.  In this view women with penises are the most oppressed women of all and are even more essentially women than women themselves.

Secondly, ‘cis’ performs the function of defining ‘femininity’ as inborn. I, like most women, have found normalised, conventional, stereo-typical ‘femininity’ a struggle to achieve, just as achieving masculinity is a struggle for many heterosexual and gay men. Thirdly, ‘cis’ erases corporeality as having any component part of lived womanhood. My body is a material reality through which I have loved, given birth four times (three of which babies were boys) and I did so through the organ of my vagina, not my ‘front hole’ and I fed those babies from my breasts not my ‘chest’. It is not biologically essentialist to assert my own embodied experience, nor is it the privilege of men who identify as women to talk about their embodied experience from childhood onwards whilst silencing mine and those of other women.

I think the GRA consultation and the consciousness raising of women that has ensued is only one step on the journey to growing political consciousness of the dangers of the term ‘gender identity’ and the misogyny of its wielding. I hope that one day we will look back with disbelief that we once lived in a culture where to say, following De Beauvoir: gender is not inherent in a child but is socially achieved by both boys and girls; children should be allowed to be who they are outside of gender constraints, indeed society would be vastly improved if we allowed both girls and boys to express the full range of human emotions, including tenderness and vulnerability; it is society that needs to change, not children’s bodies; adult care-taking requires, no obliges, us to be the grown-ups and (in anything other than the most exceptional of cases), guide all our young people through the psychological, maturational stages of adolescence necessary to achieve adulthood, before allowing them to take any deep, irreversible decisions about their bodies.  I hope that one day we will find it incomprehensible that we sterilised some healthy children and turned with wrath at voices raised in alarm, all in the name, irony of ironies, of child protection!

In conclusion, neo-liberalism, with its focus on individualism and personal choice ignores the existence of patriarchy as a social structure. This has led to a newly minted form of patriarchy’s exercise – the emergence in the 21st century of a masculinist disembodied narrative of womanhood that has been elevated as progressive by all political parties, in particular those of the Left. The consequence of the neo-liberal concept of freedom is its obverse, namely a patriarchal authoritarianism exemplified by gender identity politics. Not a single political party, including the Women’s Equality Party, supported a gender critical woman’s voice at the outset of the GRA consultation and indeed was at great pains to silence it. Thankfully times are changing and it seems, cross-fingers, that the tide is turning. Gender critical voices, including those of some men who have dared to stand with us, have gathered strength through insisting on the right to be heard and I note there is some slight movement in the Women’s Equality Party as a consequence.

Notable women’s organizations spontaneously grew up to challenge the proposed GRA reforms and the ideas upon which they are founded. The women who motored these organization have thus joined the canon of those who have struggled through the centuries for sex equality. I would like to end therefore by applauding Venice Allan of We Need to Talk, Judith Green of A Woman’s Place UK, Nicola Williams of Fair Play for Women, Stephanie Davies-Arai of Transgender Trend,  Kelly-Jay Keen-Minshull of Standing For Women, Rachael Dartnell of Let a Woman Speak, and Liverpool ReSisters (who need to remain anonymous). I would like to applaud the lesbian women who reject the slurs of transphobia and bigotry aimed at them because they refuse to convert and train themselves to find male-bodied self-declared ‘lesbians’, with their self-proclaimed ‘lady dicks’, objects of sexual desire. In particular some women have also brought powerful attention to the Queer myths that the current movement for transgender rights is equivalent to the movement for homosexual rights in the 1970s, and that lesbian women are embraced by LGBTQ.

Lesbian feminists protesting at pride 2018 ‘Get the L Out’ of LGBT

There have also been notable men who have stood with women, some of whom are public figures, although here I would like to thank the mixed sex group Gender Critical Greens .

Finally, I would like to thank the inimitable Kelly-Jay Keen-Minshull aka Posie Parker, who through a YouTube conversation using the simplest of techniques, i.e. naming women as adult females, has helped crystallize the absurdity of the truth claim ‘Transwomen ARE women’. Collectively these women, and our male supporters, have been powerful warriors in blazing a trail that has enabled many other women to challenge the latest 21st century assertion that men have authority to define ‘Woman’.  In so doing they not only expose ‘gender identity’ as an ideology rather than an alleged biological ‘fact’ – but they expose the authoritarianism of neo-liberal identity politics.

[1] Brunskell-Evans, H. and Moore, M. (2018) Transgender Children and Young People: Born in Your Own Body, Cambridge Scholars Publishers: Newcastle-Upon-Tyne

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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