Abolish the dream of gender abolition
But not for the reasons you think
There’s a lot to love about radical feminism, resurgent in many countries at the moment including in the UK. It’s a grassroots movement, prohibited in nearly all Universities, and which therefore has mostly remained immune to the various forms of progressive left-liberal stupidity metastasising within the academy and on the North London dinner-party circuit. Most obviously, radfems have been able to remain focused on the gruelling work of advocating for the political interests of (only) women and girls, at a time when nearly every other branch of feminism has retired and gone off on a cruise.
Modern radfems understand the importance of the body you inherit at birth and then again at puberty. They are fully aware of how, if you’re female, your body is placed in a web of alienating and objectifying social meaning beyond your control. Even so, they have no truck with sophistic parlour games that pretend that this social meaning is all there is. Radfems understand the fact that basic aspects of males and female bodies, produced by natural selection, causally contribute to predictable patterns of behaviour even across otherwise very different societies. They grasp that some of these patterns involve male sexual and domestic violence against women (and violence against other men too); and that however you dress it up, sexual and domestic violence hurts women because it strikes at the heart of a woman’s capacity for self-determination and peace of mind. They also understand that women need strong social and legal systems to protect them from violent men - but that even so, the problem never entirely goes away.
Relatedly, unlike liberals fixated on over-literal notions of equality, radfems are able to say out loud that the needs of human males and females, though intersecting are somewhat different; and that some of the distinctive sex-specific needs of females are generated by having to cohabit on the planet with males. They can admit without any liberal guilt that males and females have different standards for well-being overall. This frees them up to focus without apology on the political dimensions of special facts about female bodies; on female-only roles like motherhood, sisterhood, daughterhood; and on traditionally female-associated activities such as caring for those older or younger than oneself.
Radfems also understand the limits of choice and consent, and that many women will choose to self-harm in various culturally approved ways. They understand that against the combined forces of economic incentive and societal encouragement, people will go along with things that are bad for them. And they also tend to be concerned with problems affecting ordinary women, focusing on typical or worst-case situations rather than unusually good ones. Their motivation is not protecting the income of the occasional happy hooker, rich porn star, or cheerfully altruistic surrogate, but with financially desperate women pushed into prostitution or into selling their babies. Radfems know that taking money for what your sex organs can provide to others is not a day’s work like any other.
This is all great stuff as far as I’m concerned, and there is much else to admire besides. At the same time though, many radfems simultaneously pursue a goal which undercuts a lot of this. They want to “abolish gender”. I think this is barking. Allow me to explain.
The dream of gender abolition has been present in radical feminism from early on. Shulamith Firestone wrote in 1971 that the “end goal of feminist revolution must be … [that] genital differences between human beings would no longer matter culturally.” Gayle Rubin wrote in 1975 that “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”. Fast-forward to the 21st Century, and the dream is still very much alive and well. For instance, writing in 2019 for Scientific American, Daphna Joel argued that “It is time for a world with no gender. A world with no gender means that the form of one’s genitals, whether female, male or intersex, has no social meaning—just as being right- or left-handed has no inherent meaning.” And in 2020, writing in the journal Philosophia, my good pal Holly Lawford-Smith argued for a world in which “everyone repudiates their gender, understood as the set of norms they are subject to on the basis of their sex (masculinity for males/men, femininity for females/women)” so that “when we map the full spectrum of human behaviour, we will find that it does not cluster in significant ways according to sex”.
Generally speaking, then, the undoubtedly eye-catching endgame is to abolish all social and cultural meanings around being a human male or female. Because this is the goal, radfems tend to scoff at the feebleness of the merely “gender-critical” (a term which is never knowingly spat out without the addition of sneering quotation marks, either by transactivists or radfems). Gender-critical feminists are those feminists like me, whose ambitions extend only to replacing many of the social and cultural meanings of human sex rather than getting rid of the lot. The “be kind” gang think this makes me a horrible meanie. Radfems think it makes me a milquetoast capitulator.
Taken literally, there are two aspects to the radfem utopia, one general and one more specific. Generally, in their ideal society there would still be two different kinds of sexed body, each with ensuing physical powers and limitations, but there wouldn’t be any special social or cultural meanings associated with either as such. More specifically, there wouldn’t be any sex-specific social norms: no prescriptions of the form “women ought to do x” or “men ought to do y”. Since social norms are what give rise to most shared social behaviours, this means that in radfem utopia there would be no (or hardly any) true generalisations of the form “women tend to do x” and “men tend to do y”, going beyond basic genetic events such as ovulation and spermatogenesis.
Those not versed in feminism may be scratching their heads at this point: why on earth would anyone think this would be desirable? The missing piece of the puzzle is that radfems also tend to believe that in patriarchal societies, all the sociocultural meanings and norms attached to the human sexes are automatically oppressive. Whatever sex-associated social life is produced there can only reinforce patterns of dominance for men and submission for women, weakening women and giving men sexual, cultural, and economic power over them. I don’t think this is true either. In what follows, I’ll try to make clear why.
There are a couple of possible ways in which the dialectic could proceed at this point. One route would be to say that nature in males and females extends beyond basic automatic physiological processes, spilling over into concrete aspects of psychology and behaviour as well. In that case, at least some of what we now take to be socioculturally plastic “gender” would not be as plastic as we think. And in that case, there would be no point trying to abolish what is naturally bestowed – for as Kant said, “ought implies can”.
I’m not going to take that route, however. My objection to the possibility of gender abolition rests rather on a much more general and less contested natural fact about our species. In spelling this out, I’m going to focus on the part of the radfem vision that concerns abolishing sex-specific social norms. This is because if I can show that it doesn’t work, I’ll also have shown that there isn’t any future devoid of sex-associated sociocultural meanings, generally.
The basic point is a pretty simple one. Humans, as a species, cannot help collectively generating and following social norms. It’s part of our nature, as the particular kind of social creature we are. A social norm, roughly, is a rule for behaviour within a group, adopted because of anticipated approval or disapproval of others in the group. If you’re following a norm, you do something because you think you will be approved of by the rest of the group for doing it; or because you think you will be disapproved of for not doing it. With most of us, the approval of others feels good and the disapproval of others bad. Even if it doesn’t, we tend to be motivated by the reputational gains attached to social approval, and losses attached to disapproval, and the respective benefits and disadvantages of these in many areas of social life.
Some social norms are helpful (wash your hands after toileting; form a queue when at the checkout; have a siesta in the hottest part of the day) and others are harmful (keep quiet about sexual abuse; drink excessively on nights out; diet to achieve excessive thinness). But whether particular norms enhance or detract from well-being within a particular group, the general capacity of humans to follow social norms is adaptive for the species. It helps humans to coordinate collective forms of action, especially where there would be an incentive for individuals to default. It therefore facilitates cooperation in groups and the management of potentially group-harming behaviour.
Most of us can’t help participating in norm-based behaviour of some kind, even if we consciously refuse to go along with certain norms in particular. How we sit, stand, walk, eat, sleep, talk, laugh, cry, show or hide anger or fear, dress, self-adorn, wash, toilet, shop, exercise (and so on) are all subject to norms, either telling us what we shouldn’t do, or telling us what we should. One of the roles of a parent is to introduce their child to the norms that govern everyday interaction and behaviour wherever they happen to be historically and culturally located. By the time adulthood is achieved, a person may not even notice that their behaviour has been thoroughly socially shaped.
Not all norms are of established vintage, though – new ones spring up all the time. They can be consciously and deliberately introduced within a group, but they don’t have to be. As writers such as Cristina Bicchieri and Cass Sunstein have made clear, many new norms are not consciously formulated at all but spread spontaneously via a kind of social contagion. What start as arbitrarily generated group behaviours can quickly tip over into socially expected actions. One by one, individuals will copy others before them, each assuming she will be approved of if she joins in, or disapproved of if she doesn’t. The social trajectory of the advertisement of “preferred pronouns” in twitter bios and email signatures is a good case in point – from a few outliers first doing it, to becoming a niche fashion trend, to eventually becoming a norm in certain progressive circles carried out by people who hope to get approval for doing it, and/or fear disapproval from others if they don’t.
Viewed in this light, the idea that at some point in a utopian future, humans could consciously and collectively choose to drop all social norms around sexed difference is hubristic in the extreme. To illustrate, let’s look at typical or common aspects of the life-cycle of human females, though similar points could be adapted for males. For most human females, no matter where or when they are culturally located, there are certain life-changing events produced biologically: puberty, menstruation, menopause. Given the naturally-bestowed facts of human reproduction – i.e. the involvement of one sperm and one egg - for most women there are experiences of interactions with the opposite sex of some kind, wanted or unwanted: flirtation, love, rejection, sexual encounters, decisions to form couples, fights, marriages, breakups, betrayals, and bereavement. For most women too, there is a distinctive realm of experience associated with the general understanding, often acquired early on, that males as a sex tend to be stronger and more physically aggressive and have a potential sexual interest in you. For those to whom it happens, there is a realm of sex-associated experiences to do with pregnancy, childbirth, and motherhood generally, that are not interchangeable with the experiences of fatherhood. Ditto a realm of sex-associated experiences associated with being a lesbian as opposed to a gay man. (Contrary to popular belief, the L and the G are not interchangeable in any culture). All of this ordinary stuff of life will inevitably produce sex-specific norms in any culture and so shared sex-associated behaviours, whether we try to stop it or not.
To be clear: I’m not denying the cultural diversity of such experiences across time and place – in fact my point depends on it. I’m saying, rather, that to think that as a species we could voluntarily stop the spontaneous production of sex-specific social norms around such fundamental events and experiences - let alone stop the infusion of these events with sex-associated meanings of any kind - is to fantasise a version of ourselves with far more conscious control than humans actually have. It’s inconceivable that such a scenario could ever be implemented without massive and organised coercion by the state, and even then I don’t think it’s possible.
In a real-life approximation of an attempt at gender abolition – that is, during Mao’s Cultural Revolution – there were still sex-associated norms for women. These norms dictated that women should behave more like men. As the slogan went: “Times have changed. Whatever men comrades can do, women comrades can do too." In case it isn’t clear, this is still a sex-specific social norm. As Kay Ann Johnson describes in her book Women, The Family and Peasant Revolution in China, in practice this norm meant that women under Mao faced the double burden of heavy agricultural work duties in addition to domestic and child-rearing ones. Moreover, in allocating work “no consideration was given in assigning tasks and hours to women who were pregnant or had recently given birth. Numerous cases of miscarriage and haemorrhaging were reported to have resulted from the way cooperatives used female labor.”
This last example points to another problem, this time pertaining to the desirability of gender abolition rather than to its feasibility, though still fitting with the idea that the capacity to follow social norms is adaptive for the human species. Many social norms are neither arbitrary nor destructive but positively useful. Whether started accidentally or deliberately, they are maintained in a group because they serve some purpose conducive to well-being within that group. I gave some examples just now. This is also true of many sex-specific norms – they are conducive to the well-being of one sex or other, or both. Social norms that allow pregnant women to avoid heavy physical work; norms that tell men it is unmanly or otherwise disgraceful to hit women; norms that allow male-free public spaces where women get undressed or sleep - all of these help women. A world in which these sex-specific social norms were abolished would be a world in which women were worse off.
In my experience, radfems try to shake off the point about the usefulness of certain sex-specific norms by saying that in their utopian future, there won’t be any need for norms that protect women from men, because men will have stopped being violent by then. This is truly bizarre, and displays towards future iterations of the male sex a kind of trusting benevolence that any self-respecting radfem would be loathe to grant in the here and now. What is the incentive of future men supposed to be in avoiding hitting, raping, or sexually harassing women, if there are no sex-specific norms telling them not to? (I do understand that decent men don’t do these things now, and won’t do them in future; but the safeguarding of the more physically vulnerable from the predatory few doesn’t normally proceed upon character references for the many).
Yes, there are societies where male physical aggression towards women is reduced compared to other societies; but those are not places with no sex-specific social norms – quite the contrary, in fact. Radfems sometimes talk about “socializing” males out of violent tendencies. I don’t see how this could fail to include the permanent inculcation of sex-specific norms, shaming men for being physically aggressive towards women, and so attach a social penalty which might help deter some of them.
In order to protect women’s interests, now or in future, it’s not just social norms for men that are needed. Women would also benefit from better norms, encouraging them to avoid unhealthy relationships and behaviour – “unhealthy” not in a moralised sense, but in the sense of behaviour that detracts from their well-being and stops them from having flourishing lives. It is no easy matter to work out what these might look like, so far are we from having such norms now, I think. And in searching for them, we should resist generalisations - what count as healthy norms for a particular group of women at a particular cultural location will depend on their surrounding circumstances and the existing social pressures upon them, including what other norms are already in place there. This is one reason why radfems are in a good position to work this stuff out, given their connection to the grassroots and concern with what matters to ordinary women in their own communities. But whatever they were to come up with, it’s unlikely that radfems could do worse than the destructive social norms currently aimed at women and girls in our culture, telling them to engage in dangerous sexual practices, spend thousands of hours and pounds altering their bodies and faces, or to sacrifice their own interests whenever someone with a Rainbow lanyard tells them to.
The idea that certain sex-specific social norms for women might be positively beneficial will be a difficult thing for some to accept. Some may feel that women already carry enough shame, and don’t need more opportunities to socially transgress. But there’s a further source of resistance as well. This one comes from a tendency within radical feminism inherited - I’m sorry to say this, radfems - from the libs.
Liberal individualism, especially the leftist version, tends to view social norms as inevitably constraining, no matter what their content. They are thought of as making people less free, preventing them from having the opportunities they would otherwise have. It’s as if social norms are your dad, stopping you from going out and having fun. This profoundly adolescent strain within the liberal tradition has barely troubled itself to ask what certain norms actually do for society before scheduling them for destruction. The tendency reaches its apotheosis in the academic school of queer theory, whose raison d’être seems to be to abolish norms governing human sexuality no matter what their content. Queer theorists think of social norms as “ontologically violent”, rendering certain subjects culturally intelligible whilst coercively excluding others from social recognition, and apparently never asking themselves if there are some ontological subjects - mainly those pertaining to male sexuality - which women and children would be better off without, thank you very much.
Whether it’s the queer theorist or the radfem version, the liberal paradigm of the individual is also behind the fantasy that we could ever conquer human nature to the extent of rising above social norms generally. We are supposed to be sexless selves throwing off the shackles of animal life in the name of freedom, but in fact that’s daft. Whatever “liberation” radfems are seeking on behalf of women, it cannot coherently mean liberation from what humans essentially are.
In reality, though many social norms are genuine threats to personal freedom, that isn’t because they are norms per se. It’s because they encourage behaviours that damage well-being, either of the self or of others, and so limit the possibility of pursuing a flourishing life; or because, in certain cases, they are backed up by financial, legal, or physical costs to flouting them, so that they are genuinely coercive (and even then, as with norms deterring male violence that are backed up by an effective legal system, this may not always be a bad thing). But norms don’t have to be coercive in these punishing senses. Disapproval on its own, though unpleasant, never killed anyone (and I should know). With most social norms in already-liberalised societies, those who flout them will bear the ordinary costs of social sanction – in mild cases, funny looks and embarrassment, and in more severe cases, stigma and implied shame - but either way, this is hardly an existential threat to liberty or human dignity up there with feudalism or slavery.
No matter how officially scathing about social norms they are in theory, in practice the opponents of women’s interests certainly know how to wield them to get the results they want. Male-dominated movements of every political and religious persuasion have never hesitated to lay down the kind of social law for women that suits them: be chaste, have lots of babies, be silent, be docile, be up for BDSM, don’t criticise prostitution, accept males as “women”, or whatever. It’s always about the attempted production of shame. (I don’t think there’s a single transactivist objection that’s ever been made to me that hasn’t also tried to make me feel shame for speaking out as I do.) To repeat my first point: women can’t get rid of sex-specific social norms. All they can do is fight to get the sex-specific norms that work for them.
The title made me fear you were going to alienate some sister radfems with this piece, and perhaps it will. But your argument is so compelling to me that I cannot imagine what an effective counter would be. I think you have shown what you set out to show: “it doesn't work”, and “there isn’t any future devoid of sex-associated sociocultural meanings, generally.”
One of my favorite passages:
“To be clear: I’m not denying the cultural diversity of such experiences across time and place – in fact my point depends on it. I’m saying, rather, that to think that as a species we could voluntarily stop the spontaneous production of sex-specific social norms around such fundamental events and experiences - let alone stop the infusion of these events with sex-associated meanings of any kind - is to fantasise a version of ourselves with far more conscious control than humans actually have. It’s inconceivable that such a scenario could ever be implemented without massive and organised coercion by the state, and even then I don’t think it’s possible.”
In addition to Mao, I think Stalinist Russia instituted some unhelpful ‘gender abolition’ also. Perhaps the Left is prone to social engineering societies in an attempt to liberate us all. It’s like destroying the village in order to save it.
Big ideas have their place. But shadow boxing with vast elusive generalizations like patriarchy or heteronormativity or even ‘whiteness’ seems inherently fruitless, frustrating, and maddening. I do not like movements that rely on shaming vast swaths of the population based on their sex, sexual orientation, skin color, etc.
I would much rather we take up defensible achievable goals. Radfems have made very good progress that way in the past. The difficult ongoing work is to identify specific changes we want and press a case for such.
I hope the Queer/TRA ‘biology abolition’ movement will ultimately collapse of it’s own weight, albeit with a huge number of casualties along the way. You would know.
I eagerly look forward to what more you will offer us in the year ahead. I am glad you are free to do this work. Much respect and best regards. Thank you.
"To repeat my first point: women can’t get rid of sex-specific social norms. All they can do is fight to get the sex-specific norms that work for them"
The difference in physical size and strength, along with the difference in physical vulnerability related to reproduction, means that it is vitally important for women to fight to maintain social norms that protect us.
The disaster of ignoring differences has led to the Lia Thomas debacle (among others) and to male rapists being housed with female prisoners.
Women are different from men, NOT less.
And when our differences are erased or denied as something shameful, it's women who suffer, while men are left feeling bewildered about how they're supposed to behave.
Women are different, NOT less.
There are protective social norms that women have a RIGHT to maintain.
How this is even controversial is a mystery to me.