Monday, September 13, 2021

Kathleen Stock 2

In my last post I gave an overview of an online lecture by a British radical feminist, Kathleen Stock. In this post, I'll go through her argument in more detail.


a) Gender abolition

Stock begins by admitting that radical feminists have sought to abolish gender. (A note on terminology: I do not agree with the idea that masculinity and femininity are expressions of "gender" rather than sex. Nonetheless, the term "gender" will crop up repeatedly in this post - it's unavoidable when discussing feminist theory. I am not going to put it in quotation marks from here on.)

As evidence, she quotes Gayle Rubin, a professor of anthropology, who wrote in an influential essay in 1975:
The dream I find most compelling is one of an androgynous and genderless (though not sexless) society, in which one's sexual anatomy is irrelevant to who one is, what one does, and with whom one makes love. ('The Traffic in Women' p.204)
Gayle Rubin
There are two points to be briefly made about the Rubin quote. First, even though Rubin does fit the mould of radical 70s lesbian feminist, the politics she is putting forward are not radical in terms of the state ideology - hence the fact that she ended up a professor, an insider.

The liberalism of this era stressed a freedom of the autonomous individual to self-define. This meant that predetermined qualities like our sex were seen negatively as impediments to human freedom, as fetters or as a straitjacket. It then followed that our sex - being unchosen - ought to be made not to matter. And that is the intent of the Rubin quote. Her dream is that "one's sexual anatomy is irrelevant to who one is, what one does".

Rubin's quote is from an essay which claims, in part, that masculinity and femininity, so far from being meaningful ideals that men and women might aspire to, are instead created in early childhood through some very strange Freudian process that involves a sexual attraction to the mother (Oedipal complex). This is interesting because it is one more step in a process within Western culture in which the vertical structure of reality, in which we apprehend aspects of reality to be more or less elevated, is flattened and the higher things are explained instead in more cynical terms as being a product of some base process.

b) Objections

Kathleen Stock is (mostly) not a gender abolitionist. She does not think it possible, nor desirable. This is not because she is committed to the traditionalist view that our masculinity and femininity are, at least in part, hardwired. She notes that there are some who are now adopting this position, such as Deborah Soh, a neuroscientist and "former feminist". Stock is not hostile to the idea that our masculine or feminine identity is innate, but she does not want her argument to rest on this.

She does, however, base her argument on certain biological realities, namely that humans are sexually dimorphic, with distinctively male and female body types and that heterosexuality is adaptive (in the sense that it furthers the reproduction of the species).

By starting from this biological reality Stock immediately rejects the first and most radical version of gender abolition, namely that the categories of "man" and "woman" should themselves be eradicated. This is the position of Monique Wittig, a French lesbian feminist philosopher and founder of the "red dykes" movement in 1971. In 1976 Wittig wrote:
For the category of sex is a totalitarian one...This is why we must destroy it and start thinking beyond it if we want to start thinking at all, as we must destroy the sexes as a sociological reality if we want to start to exist. 

One of the interesting things about this essay, 'The Category of Sex', is that Wittig openly rejects the philosophically "realist" belief in sexual difference, i.e. the idea that there is metaphysically a real category of the masculine and the feminine. She rejects the belief that,

...there are before all thinking, all society, "sexes" (two categories of individuals born) with a constitutive difference, a difference that has ontological consequences (the metaphysical approach)

Perhaps this shows how nominalism, with its emphasis on the idea that there are only individual instances of things, helps to pave the way for the belief that the idea of sex is merely socially imposed.

Monique Wittig
Again, Wittig explains the high (our embodiment of the masculine and feminine) by the low, though she takes a Marxist rather than a Freudian path. She believes that sex was invented as a political category so that the ruling group could enact its domination: "The ruling ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relationships".

Wittig famously claimed that lesbians are not women. This makes sense if you accept her argument that "women" only exist as part of a heterosexual dualism by which one political category "men" dominate another category "women". Lesbians escape this kind of sexual "contract". What Wittig did not foresee is that if you so much reduce the category of womanhood it is difficult to sustain a distinctly "woman's" movement. Little wonder that Kathleen Stock rejects the Wittig position.

Stock is more interested in those who accept, as a baseline position, that humans are a sexually dimorphic species (the biological reality position). She wants to consider whether you can argue from this position that gender should nonetheless be abolished.

She begins with those feminists who wish not so much to abolish the categories of "man" and "woman" but any sociocultural differences associated with them. Stock responds by reminding her listeners that the range of such cultural practices is so vast, that the task of abolishing all of them appears unrealistic, particularly as many of them arise in response to the biological differences between the sexes and the fact of heterosexuality.

Stock then makes a cutting point, namely that those who have favoured this type of gender abolition, such as Shulamith Firestone, were aware of the extraordinarily radical social engineering it would require to be successful. Firestone wrote in 1970:

The reproduction of the species by one sex for the benefit of both would be replaced by (at least the option of) artificial reproduction: children would born to both sexes equally, or independently of either, however one chooses to look at it; the dependence of the child on the mother (and vice versa) would give way to a greatly shortened dependence on a small group of others in general, and any remaining inferiority to adults in physical strength would be compensated for culturally. The division of labour would be ended by the elimination of labour altogether (through cybernetics). The tyranny of the biological family would be broken.

Shulamith Firestone
Firestone believed that abolishing sociocultural differences between the sexes would require the abolition of motherhood, of the biological family, of the dependence of children on adults, and of human labour. 

Stock doesn't believe this transformation would be desirable, even if it were possible. She points out that it would leave children with attachment disorders, that its implementation would be authoritarian, and that there would be medical issues in having male bodies gestate children.

Stock's next argument is quite a departure from the usual politics. Instead of arguing that sex-based cultural practices are always and everywhere a fetter on the self-determining individual, she argues that they can have a positive effect, in providing individuals with a source of meaning, obtained via identity, purpose, achievement and camaraderie. She believes that there is a risk of a "profound loss" for the individual if all of this were to be suddenly abolished.

Kathleen Stock makes it clear that she does not support this version of gender abolition. She then turns to a third version of gender abolition, which involves the eradication of all social norms based around sex. Stock treats this version seriously and spends some time looking at the role of social norms in society. It's an interesting discussion, but lengthy, so I'll save it for the next post.