First, a note for subscribers – in case you haven’t already noticed, you can now leave comments below articles. I added this functionality last week (full disclosure; the platform I’m using added it, and I just toggled a button). I didn’t flag it up in advance because I wasn’t completely sure I’d get even these simple instructions right! But it worked, and thanks to the “soft launchers” who added comments to last week’s guest post. In future I expect to spend some time each week replying to subscribers, and look forward to being able to discuss articles more easily and naturally than by email.
I’ve spent part of this week listening to the court hearing in which Mermaids, the child-transition charity, has taken the Charity Commission to court for granting LGB Alliance charitable status. It’s been quite extraordinary, and I’ll want to return to it, but for now I’m still mulling it over. So in this issue I’ll conclude the discussion I started in issue 18, regarding attempts to produce “trans-inclusive” definitions of womanhood.
I said two weeks ago that I had come across four such definitions while writing my book, two of which I discussed in that issue (both analogies: that TWAW in the same way that adoptive parents are parents; and that naturalised citizens are citizens). This week I’ll look at the other two.
The first is due to American philosopher Sally Haslanger, who works at MIT (see “Gender and Race: (What) Are They? (What) Do We Want Them to Be?”). It follows from a distinction she explores between philosophical projects that are “descriptive” and those that are “ameliorative”. A descriptive project is one where the philosopher seeks to reveal what concept a term is actually referring to. An ameliorative project, by contrast, is one where the philosopher tries to work out what concept a term should be referring to, given what he or she is trying to do.
“The questions pertaining to ameliorative projects are the following: what is the point of having this concept?” Haslanger writes. “Which concept would serve these purposes best? This made me instinctively suspicious: it seems rather like pretending words mean something they don’t because the new meaning suits you better. But the discussion of the two concepts in her paper was interesting, and as I read I realised that I had engaged in ameliorative projects myself, albeit without giving them a fancy name.
When my older boy, now an adult, started school, he had no preconceptions about which colours were coded male or female, and was especially fond of pink and purple. But during his first week another child told him that these were “girl colours”, which he came home and repeated to us. To which I replied: “there’s no such thing as ‘girl colours’ or ‘boy colours’: all colours are for everyone.”
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In the descriptive sense, what I said was false: these colours are in fact “girl colours”. They are used by manufacturers, retailers and parents to code toys, clothing and activities as especially for girls. But I don’t think that should be the case, and more generally I think it’s a great shame when people, especially children, avoid things they like and want to do because they think those things are “not for people like me”. I wish that girls didn’t decide that they can’t play rugby or aspire to be astronauts, and that boys didn’t think they can’t take up ballet, or cry at a sad film, or show that they think babies are sweet. (This is a separate question to whether there are on-average sex differences between the sexes: I’m talking about people choosing on the basis of societal messages.)
When I told my son that pink and purple were for everyone, I was engaged in an ameliorative project. (It was a failure, by the way; my son listened to the classmate rather than his mother.) I was giving concepts the meaning I thought they should have (all colours are for everyone) in order to suit my purposes (greater freedom for all children to enjoy whatever they enjoy). Haslanger gives a similar example: a little girl who wonders whether she can wear overalls.
But her real target is—of course—the word “woman”. She argues that in feminist discourse it is used to think and talk about subordination within a sexist society. And so she proposes a new definition: a woman is a member of a social class the unifying feature of which is social subordination based on being presumed or perceived to play the female biological role in reproduction. “An ameliorative inquiry into the concept of woman invites feminists to consider what concept of woman would be most useful in combatting gender injustice,” she writes. “This opens the way for a revisionary analysis that can be tailored to avoid exclusion and marginalization.”
I think Haslanger’s definition is doomed from the start. For one thing, she’s trying to redefine something far more fundamental than the social meaning of colours or clothing. For another, her definition excludes any woman who is not in fact socially subordinated (was the Queen a woman by this definition?). If sexism is ever ended and women are ever fully liberated, there would no longer be any women. Oppression is baked into the definition.
Haslanger acknowledges this problem, but dismisses it as not relevant to feminist inquiry, which she regards as necessarily focused on oppression. Which I regard as a depressingly limited definition of feminism: mine is about everything that moves women towards full and equal human flourishing. Haslanger’s definition also shares with much modern leftwing activism a blindness to types of disadvantage other than marginalisation and prejudice. It is true, for example, that women are socially subordinated because others recognise them as they type of people who have babies. But women do also, as a matter of fact, have babies! It seems obvious that part of the job of feminism is to find practical ways to better accommodate motherhood, independent of whether the current arrangements constitute oppression.
To my mind, this redefinition of “woman” is nothing like as harmless as my declaration that pink and purple aren’t girl colours. It positions women as only and definitionally victims. It excludes from feminist activism many practical measures that could help women, and any celebration of the power and joy of female embodiment. This sort of feminism would have nothing to say about, for example, a research project that looked at how women’s physiology changes after giving birth, or a book proposal about female geniuses. I’ve heard people object to feminism on the grounds that it conceives of women as nothing but victims. I used to think that was unfair; reading Haslanger, I realised it isn’t always.
And finally, I think it’s also worth probing the extent to which ameliorative definitions are “lies”. As I admitted, pink and purple are girl colours—I just think they shouldn’t be, wish they weren’t and see some moral value in expressing that. Perhaps it would have been more effective to say to my son that his classmates were right in identifying a social rule, but that it’s one his mother thinks is stupid and limiting? Campaigns like Pink Stinks and Let Toys Be Toys don’t merely declare piously that all colours, and all toys, are for all children. They work to change facts rather than definitions.
To be fair, I’m sure Haslanger knows this, and sees an ameliorative definition as just the start of an ameliorative project. But I don’t see it as a helpful initial framing. Rather than defining women as the people who are oppressed in a particular way, wouldn’t it be better to say: “Sexists think women are the type of people it’s right and natural to oppress: that women are the type of people who do all the grunt work because they’re the type of people who have babies. Those sexists are right that women are the type of people who have babies—but that needn’t mean women have to do all the grunt work, and here’s how we’re going to start changing that.” This maintains the focus on the defining characteristic of women (biology that evolved for baby-making)—and is, not coincidentally, pretty much the gender-critical position.
None of this is why Haslanger’s fellow believers in TWAW disagree with her, however. Their problem with her definition is that it excludes non-passing transwomen—which, although they do not say this, is pretty much of all of them. (It also includes most transmen.) That is hardly surprising: what Haslanger is saying is that people whom others think are women will be treated as women. This is trivially true, but omits the fact that humans are exquisitely good at telling which people are women from appearance, voice, gait and so on. So in practical terms hardly anyone moves in or out of the “woman” group.
Let’s move on to our final redefinition of “woman”, which is due to British philosopher Katharine Jenkins. In Amelioration and Inclusion: Gender Identity and the Concept of Woman, she writes: “Haslanger’s proposal for target gender concepts does not in fact solve the inclusion problem because it does not include trans people within their identified genders. Focusing on trans women, I show that according to Haslanger’s definition of woman, some trans women would not count as women. Given that a target concept is a normative proposal for how feminists ought to use the concept woman, this is an unacceptable result: the adoption of the concept would exacerbate the existing (and illegitimate) marginalization of trans women within feminist discourse.”
I first read this article in late 2017 or early 2018. I had become aware that something was up with all this trans stuff, and was desperate to understand how so many people—including many I respected and admired intellectually—seemed to be so sure that TWAW despite the obvious absurdity of this proposition. As well as reading everything I could about the impact of trans ideology on broader society (there was much less around on the subject back then), I was also trying to find the killer argument: the one that would finally explain what I had missed.
I remember reading this section of Jenkins’s paper:
“trans people in general are a severely disadvantaged and marginalized group in society, suffering oppression and injustice in multiple respects including discriminatory denial of goods such as employment, medical care, and housing; consistently negative portrayals in the media; and particularly high risks of violence.”
At the time, I thought this was true (now I think: how could you possibly know this, when the group of trans-identified people is so heterogenous and ill-defined?). But I also wondered what it had to do with whether they actually are, or in some sense should be, considered as members of the sex class they claim. Street children in Lago, or Nepalese labourers in the Gulf, are also severely disadvantaged and marginalised—but it doesn’t mean they’re women. It’s an argument from pity: these men are miserable and they’ll be happier if you count them as women. Well, they might be happier, but they’re not women.
But the bit of the paper that really infuriated me was this:
“The proposition that trans gender identities are entirely valid—that trans women are women and trans men are men—is a foundational premise of my argument, which I will not discuss further.”
What the hell, I thought—I’m only staying up late to read this damn philosophy paper to find out why the author thinks that any man who claims to be a woman should count as one! And here Jenkins is, starting from what I had expected to be her conclusion.
Still, let’s read on and get to Jenkins’s definition, according to which TWAW. The problem with Haslanger’s paper, she writes, is not the attempt at an ameliorative inquiry, but the choice of goals.
“In the case of a feminist ameliorative inquiry into woman, the ‘we’ whose goals are guiding the ameliorative inquiry must be conceptualized specifically as including feminists who are trans women.”
Why? WHY?? Why should a feminist inquiry conceptualise its goals to include some men? If ever you need an example of question-begging (assuming that which is to be proven), here you are.
But anyway, ploughing on, Jenkins says that such a conceptualisation requires giving equal weight to a “class” notion of gender (as oppression) and an “identity” notion of gender (what people feel themselves to be, or at least say they feel themselves to be).
“The ameliorative inquiry in fact branches so as to deliver the twin target concepts being classed as a woman and having a female gender identity, both of which deserve equal status within feminist theory.”
Ok, so what is this “female gender identity” thing? Here’s Jenkins’s answer:
“In the context of current dominant ideology, having a female gender identity means having an internal ‘map’ that is formed to guide someone who is subordinated on the basis of having actual or imagined bodily features that are presumed to be evidence of a female’s role in biological reproduction through the social or material realities characteristic of a person who is so subordinated…I am conceiving of gender identity as a response to the social norms that are associated with the social positions that constitute gender as class.”
(That response may be to conform or not to conform—the example Jenkins gives is one woman deciding to shave her armpits and legs while another doesn’t, even as both of them know that women are “supposed to” shave their legs.)
As I write this article, I’m recalling vividly the sense of exhaustion and frustration with which I read these papers in the first place. Why are Haslanger and Jenkins so determined to produce a definition of “woman” that includes some men? Why not separately analyse and seek to ameliorate the griefs, miseries and oppressions of people who are miserable with their sex? Why is these people’s misery taken to change which category they are in?
Jenkins also fails to give the slightest reason to think that transwomen do in fact have “female gender identities”, in the sense she posits. Think of, say, Eddie Izzard, Caitlyn Jenner, Alex Drummond or the “piss artist” who put on a see-through frock a couple of weeks ago and poured a bottle of urine over his head outside the offices of the Equality and Human Rights Commission in London. All are self-declared “trans women”, and I’m certain that both Haslanger and Jenkins would say they are indeed women.
But I see no reason to think that any of them has “an internal ‘map’ that is formed to guide someone who is subordinated on the basis of having actual or imagined bodily features that are presumed to be evidence of a female’s role in biological reproduction through the social or material realities characteristic of a person who is so subordinated”. I think they’re just blokes who, for one reason or another (in the case of the piss artist most definitely a sexual reason) get off on dressing up as women. I may be wrong—but I see no reason to think Jenkins is right, and I can’t think of any way to tell whether she is or isn’t, for any of these people.
Or what about transwomen who are rapists, as in, forcibly penetrate unwilling women with their penises? Now, I’m not saying anything as silly as “all transwomen are rapists”—I’m saying that some definitely are. And what about transmen who get pregnant? Are either of these groups following “internal maps” that have something to do with the opposite sex? Far from it: in both cases they are doing something inescapably linked to their actual sex, not their desired one. To me, this conclusively demonstrates that Jenkins’s redefinition of woman makes claims about the men it seeks to classify as women that are flatly untrue.
And while philosophers are trying to redefine “women” to mean “people who claim to be women”, actual women—the people the word has referred to since time immemorial—still exist as a distinct group, and still need to be referred to. But many people, including many women, really aren’t happy for women to have anything that is just for them—not even a word. Here’s an American PhD student, Katie Kirkland, writing in 2019 on Haslanger’s and Jenkins’s work:
“I argue that feminism’s commitment to eradicating women’s oppression is embedded within a broader commitment to bring about a more just society. Using a definition of ‘woman’ that marginalizes trans women is counterproductive to this aim of feminism.”
Why are women supposed to be the only group forbidden from advocating for themselves without fixing everything else as well? Why are we not allowed to demand things that will make life better for women, without first finding a way to argue that this demand is part of a “broader commitment” to justice for everyone? With advocates like this, it’s hardly surprising that mainstream feminism has become so ineffectual.
At the end of Jenkins’s paper there’s a section that would be hilarious if it wasn’t so tragic. She’s talking about planning for a night-time walk to protest against violence against women. As you can imagine, rather than getting on with it, the organisers tie themselves in knots about who can take part.
“There was unanimous agreement that the sense of ‘woman’ we had in mind included all trans women. We decided to use the term ‘self-defining women’ to highlight explicitly that this was the case. However, this didn’t capture everything that we wanted it to: we recognized that there might be some people who did not identify as women but who were, in a very real sense, targets of the kind of violence and threat of violence against which our protest was directed. We felt both that these people could legitimately expect to be included in our protest and that our protest could only be strengthened by their presence. The kind of people we had in mind were primarily nonbinary people who had been assigned female at birth and trans men who felt that they were regularly misgendered as women, thereby becoming targets for violence directed at women. We tried to find a broader concept that would capture what we meant but could find none that was sufficiently specific.” [Hint: the word you’re looking for is “female”.]
And this, dear reader, is why despite initially planning to discuss in my book the supposed arguments for believing TWAW, in the end I didn’t bother. These arguments are asinine and pointless; the sort of rubbish that gets produced by people living in an intellectual bubble and entirely insulated from robust discussion and challenge. They wouldn’t survive first contact with the still-urgent problems of women all round the world, including poverty, male violence, female genital mutilation, child marriage and so much more.
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