Sunday, August 29, 2021

Who erased women? (1)

The Guardian ran an article a few weeks ago by an Australian feminist, Jane Gleeson-White. She claims that women are being erased by patriarchal economics (because women's domestic work has not been commodified).

It's an odd argument because a patriarchy, by definition, recognises the reality of the sexes. Whether you support the idea of a patriarchy or not, it could not exist without an acknowledgement of the existence of men and women. 

And yet Jane Gleeson-White is correct that there is something like an erasure of womanhood happening in modern society. I wrote about this last month following a debate I had on social media. My opponent argued that it was impossible to define womanhood because womanhood meant whatever people wanted it to mean and that it was "bigotry" to argue otherwise. I pointed out that if womanhood can mean anything and is purely subjective then it is effectively meaningless - it is being erased as a meaningful category.

So who or what is erasing womanhood? In my post I connected the problem to a Hobbesian metaphysics. I won't repeat the argument here, as I'd like to focus instead on how the matter has been argued for politically.

For some decades, the debate about sex followed the general logic of liberalism. Liberals sought to maximise individual autonomy, which was understood to mean maximising the freedom to self-determine and self-define. This meant that predetermined aspects of life were looked on negatively as fetters on the individual. Such predetermined aspects of life included those things we are born into rather than choosing for ourselves, such as our race, our sex and our ethny. The important thing for liberals was to find a way to make such aspects of life no longer matter.

When it came to making our sex not matter, an early step was to separate sex and gender. Being masculine or feminine was no longer something tied naturally to our sex but was instead a separate thing, "gender", that was an oppressive and artificial social construct that could be abolished through such measures as advertising standards or educational programmes. If masculinity and femininity could be abolished, men and women could be made to be the same, and therefore "equal". The fact of biological sex would no longer matter and the liberal project would be realised.

Furthermore, by making gender separate from biological sex it was possible to have a range of personalised expressions of gender. Gender could now be held to be multiple and fluid. Individuals could identify with one or more of a bewildering range of new genders.

And if it is what I identify with that defines my gender, why not make this the same for my sex? It is my identity that now defines my sex rather than the other way round (i.e. instead of my body defining me as male or female, my identity defines whether my body is male or female).

The emergence of transsexualism, as well as the ever expanding variety of "gender expressions", poses a challenge for feminism. The category of womanhood has become, at the very least, leaky. Those who are biologically male can now claim to be part of the women's movement and to occupy female spaces, and it isn't clear if the concept of a woman's movement will make sense to those raised to believe in 52 or more genders.

There has been resistance by old school feminists. The problem is that they have run into the problems that anyone challenging liberalism faces - they are accused of discriminating against a previously oppressed group fighting for the right to self-define ("transphobia"). 

Which brings me to Kathleen Stock, a professor of philosophy at the University of Sussex. She is a lesbian radical feminist, but not really of the type your parents might have known. She has been forced down the same path as the rest of us - she realises that the tide of politics is against her and that what is needed is a rethink of some of the assumptions on which politics is based.

In an online lecture she does a remarkably good job of getting to the heart of things, namely the feminist project to make our sex not matter. She admits that radical feminists have had a project to abolish gender, but argues that this is not achievable. She adds that even if it were possible to abolish these distinctions, this would not be desirable, as it would remove important sources of meaning, identity, camaraderie and achievement for individuals. 

Nor does she think it wise to abolish social norms regulating relationships between the sexes. She notes that these have been looked on negatively in previous feminist thought as "trapping" the sexes into certain roles, but responds by looking into the literature on social norms and finding that they are inescapable for humans who are hardwired to be social and that they can have a beneficial effect. She gives as an example the social norm that it is dishonourable for a man to hit a woman as having a rational origin in the different size and strength of men and women. 

She finishes by arguing that social norms should be judged on whether or not they promote the well-being of men and women. This is, again, a reasonable position with a long pedigree in Western thought, although it does require some debate on what constitutes well-being.

There are some promising aspects of Professor Stock's lecture. I think it's been common for feminists to uphold the categories of male and female only as markers of entry into a political class. The importance of the category of womanhood then becomes for women to seek and to uphold the rights and privileges they have within the political/economic system.

I think it's possible that Kathleen Stock still thinks at least a little along these lines. She says elsewhere, for instance, that, 

There’s a liberal idea that we’ll just keep progressing towards a glorious Utopia. I don’t think that’s right anymore. The picture of human nature that underlies it is flawed. The relationship between men and women is probably always going to be, on some level, antagonistic.

She still puts, at the forefront, the idea of men and women being locked in an antagonistic relationship. Similarly, she says in her lecture that although there are social norms that are beneficial for men, she is only interested personally in promoting those that are beneficial for women. So she is still placing herself on "team women" rather than trying to arrive at some larger framework that will be workable for both sexes.

Nonetheless, she has moved the argument a considerable way toward something else, in particular, by recognising that sex based cultural practices are not only real and inevitable, but also mostly play a positive role in helping to regulate the relationships between men and women, and in providing a source of meaning and identity.

In my next post I'll look in more detail into Professor Stock's lecture. There's some interesting information that's worth delving into.


  1. As always great analysis Mark.

    This will sound too "manosphere" or Roissy/ Heartiste I suppose but antagonism seems inevitable. The sexes have different wants, needs and interests with respect to relationships/marriage. And women have wants that conflict greatly (e.g. desire for alpha genes vs. beta commitment and emotion). This was less a problem in the old days because marriage was necessary for them in a harsh world. Even then this made marriage often difficult despite the harshness in life.

    Both men and women want different things (and SOME common things) from relationships. As a result, each sex feels exploited for what they are expected to give the other. It would be great if both could perfectly channel agape towards the other but in the real world there is a transactional aspect to marriage and women don't seem happy with the exchange. And they don't HAVE TO exchange any more.

    1. Thanks. I agree with you. We talk about men and women being complementary, and this is true at one level of being, but at the same time there are differences between the sexes that do disrupt relationships. We do not fit together in marriage seamlessly. I agree as well that the undermining of the masculine role within the family has had seriously negative consequences for family formation and marital stability.

      So in this sense Kathleen Stock is right that there will always be a certain type/degree of antagonism in relationships between men and women. It doesn't help, though, if feminists see the sexes primarily as political classes in a contest with each other for rights and privileges - Kathleen Stock herself acknowledges that some feminists see this as a zero sum game. It is refreshing that Kathleen Stock takes a larger view, particularly given that she identifies as a lesbian radical feminist, but I don't think she has entirely escaped the older view.

    2. the abandoned bodies of women filling up hospices for the past few decades refutes your demand that they “don’t need Marriage.”

  2. Interesting post. If the newest idea is that your gender determines your sex (and most people don't seem to be buying this) then wouldn't that mean that there are as many sexes as there are genders. I.E., roughly 100? How do those who push this idea address this?

    1. Presumably, yes. But the logic hasn't got that far yet. What you get instead are arguments like that of Chase Strangio, an attorney for the ACLU, who writes that "We all have characteristics that are typically male and typically female and it is really about political choices, social factors, ideological choices that we assign meaning to different parts of our body." So body parts aren't, in his view, by nature either male or female. Which leads transsexuals to talk about their breasts being male etc.

  3. The erasure of women is a subject I've been thinking about recently as well (in fact I've just made a post about it). It's a battle that makes al the other Culture War battles seem insignificant and harmless by comparison. Most of those other Culture War battles did at least have some vaguely rational basis. This one is based on a total and conscious rejection of reality. You can't argue with these people because they are fundamentally entirely irrational but they now have overwhelming political power behind them (especially from the corporate sector).

  4. It seems that Stock being on "team female" is an interesting case to view through the moral foundations of Jonathan Haidt that you have delineated. She is engaging in a group loyalty. However, this is justified on the political left only by thinking of a group as oppressed, hence favoring them merely undoes some of their oppression and hence serves "fairness" and not mere parochial instincts.

    In this manner, the human instinct towards group belonging does not have to be completely suppressed by the leftist.

    1. Clark, I think that's exactly right. If your group is thought to be oppressed then the left allows it to exist as a political class fighting for freedom and equality. Most groups, therefore, do get to express the human instinct toward group belonging - but if you are white, male and heterosexual you miss out.

      There are problems of course. For instance, women are allowed to express a group loyalty, but as a political class in opposition to men. I see this with the women I work with. It is as if they have to split themselves, sometimes reinforcing a "sisterhood" celebrating women's victories over men, but at other times wanting to express their womanhood in relationships with men. It becomes a social game that ultimately undermines the relationships women would like to have with men.

      Also, if you only exist as a political class, then the meaning of womanhood is unstable, and you also become vulnerable when you are seen to be in a position of political advantage compared to other more marginalised groups. This is the problem Stock confronts, to the degree that she rethinks some basic liberal assumptions.

      There is one final complication. I have heard leftists giving Australian Aborigines a higher status than being merely a political class struggling for equality/justice. They look on Aborigines as being a real people - an ethny - in the way they don't do for other groups. It's as if Aborigines get a pass from liberal treatment. I think this has something to do with the way that liberals reject the idea of themselves as culture bearers, but still need some group to play this role, so that they are able to consume or to appreciate culture. I know that Anglo left liberals in early twentieth century America did much the same thing. They insisted that Anglo-American culture was merely derivative and therefore non-existent, but celebrated other non-Anglo cultures, even European ones.