29 December 2020


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Feminism is neither right-wing nor left-wing. To anyone who doubted the continuing influence of the American Empire, the international response to Ruth Bader Ginsberg's death must give pause for thought. Twitter in Britain - always focused on American events - was immediately filled with feverish speculation about who might replace her on the US Supreme Court. The Glasgow City women's football team announced that they would put her name on a banner as a tribute to this 'feminist icon and role model'.

The non-American women I know, who have never lived in America and have spent very little time there, have expressed their sincere anguish. Most of these grieving Englishmen would not be able to appoint a single judge in, say, France or Australia, and perhaps not even in this country. But American political events are always accorded a special status. This American dominance has a distorting effect on the tone and priorities of feminism in this country, and usually at our expense, as British feminists who keep their eyes fixed across the Atlantic, looking to Big Sister America, often fail to remember that feminists there haven't actually achieved much. That's a country with no maternity rights, which has never managed to adopt the Equality Amendment after nearly a century of struggle, which ranks in the bottom half of the world rankings for female political representation, and which has never had a woman head of state. Yes, it has produced some of the most interesting and influential feminist thinkers in history. It is also the world home of the porn industry. American feminists have spent nearly half a century fighting tooth and nail to defend their most precious and fragile achievement, Roe v. Wade, the 1973 case preventing state legislators from banning first-trimester abortions. Ginsberg's loss at the Supreme Court could endanger Roe, hence the key reason for the despair at the news of her death. But this is a feminist issue that has far less resonance on the British mainland, since abortion up to 28 weeks was legalised in England, Wales and Scotland in 1967. For American feminists, abortion is, understandably enough, the pre-eminent issue; for British feminists, it is not. This particular difference between Britain and America is emblematic of a more general difference between the two countries that has had an important effect on the history of Anglophone feminism. Put simply, the American right has a completely different character from the British right: it is louder, more extreme, more religious and also more powerful. It presents a very formidable threat to the defenders of Roe and some of the most basic feminist principles: the right of a woman to earn money, to own property and to live a life legally and economically separate from that of her father or husband.

The book by Andrea Dworkin 1978, Right-Wing Women gives an idea of the fear American feminists have of the right. The central question: why should a woman ally herself with the right? - is answered with one word: fear. Women, Dworkin argues, are rightly afraid of the world and right-wingers promise to keep them safe. In return, these women must abhor abortion, lesbianism, anti-racism and ocialism. Dworkin writes of talking to right-wing women and finding them alien creatures: "Conservative women were ridiculous, terrifying, bizarre and, as other feminists reported, sometimes strangely moving". These women, according to Dworkin, had made a pact with the devil. Yet Dworkin was able to follow a line that was impossible for other American feminists. Although she was outspoken in her rejection of the right, she always remained wary of the left. It is in Right-Wing Women one of his most famous statements: "The difference between left and right when it comes to women is only where exactly they will place their boots on our necks.". For right-wingers we are private property. For left-wingers we are public property.

The mistake feminists have made over and over again, not only in America but also in this country, is to prioritise animosity towards the right over a clear understanding of the attitude the left takes towards women. The results of that mistake, I think, are beginning to become too obvious to ignore. I am not suggesting that feminists should join forces with the right, certainly not with the extreme religious right that Dworkin wrote about. I am suggesting something else: that feminists should liberate themselves on both the left and the right, as both political traditions have until very recently been entirely dominated by men and male interests. I mean that un productive form of feminist politics must be deliberately orthogonal to the traditional political spectrum. For Americans, this suggestion might be too alarming to be tolerated, given the frightening power of their right wing that so often sends American feminists back into the treacherous arms of the left. But in Great Britain the detachment of feminism from both the left and the right may already be underway. The recent triumph of the British feminists against the proposed reforms to the Gender Recognition Act (GRA) illustrates the point. In 2017, the May government had announced a consultation on legislation to allow transgender people to legally change their gender. LGBT associations such as Stonewall supported the self-idIt would allow people to legally change sex with minimal supervision: no psychiatric consultation, no need to "live as" the opposite sex for a period before formal recognition, and no need to undergo any medical intervention. Self-id would allow anyone, at any time, to simply declare themselves a member of the opposite sex, and the government would be obliged to officially recognise that declaration. For supporters of self-id, this would be a positive step towards the demedicalization and destigmatization of transgender identification. For some feminists, however, self-id is deeply dangerous. The trans movement tries to present the physical differences between men and women as trivial and cosmetic, easily overcome through medical interventions, or even without. Feminists critical of self-id in opposition to transactivism insist instead that the differences between women and men are absolutely important. Not only do women bear children: they are also smaller and weaker than men, which leads to an inherent imbalance of power at the interpersonal level. To put it bluntly, most men can kill most women with their bare hands, but not vice versa. Gender-critical feminists have therefore expressed alarm at the ease with which, with self-id, malicious men could threaten women by gaining access to restricted spaces such as shelters, prisons and women's changing rooms. Those fears are not a fantasy, as they have been realised even with the current system in place that is supposed to be safer, such as when the serial rapist Karen White (born Stephen Terence Wood) was transferred to a women's prison and subsequently convicted of sexually assaulting female prisoners. If self-id were adopted we might expect an increase in Karen White. Yet anyone who has paid the slightest attention to this debate in recent years will know that the concerns of gender critical feminists have not been well received by many leading figures on the left, who have not framed the tension between the desires of transgender people and the fears of women as a challenging conflict requiring careful consideration, but as an expression of feminist fanaticism. Gender critical women have lost their jobs, been arrested and featured in the press simply for criticising trans activism, and many of them were furious. But now it seems that these feminists have triumphed.... The real political opposition to self-id came from 'normal' women who saw the proposal as a potential threat to their legal rights and position. Some of them came to understand the issue thanks to 'Mumsnet'. . . Others attended meetings of A Woman's Place UK, a group of women with their roots in the trade union movement.

Talking about the union is important because Most British gender critical feminists come from the left and many have been active in the Labour Party, the Green Party or other explicitly left-wing political groups. Gender-critical left-wing feminists often point to this as evidence that theirs is not fanaticism at all, rather it is the mainstream left that is guilty of hypocrisy by ignoring the real concerns of women. This troubled relationship with the left is something that confounds many American commentators. A 2019 article on the website of Vox tried to explain to readers the origins of "Terf" (Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists, a term rejected by most gender critical feminists): "Terf ideology has become the de facto face of feminism in the UK, supported by Rupert Murdoch's media and The Times. Any vague opposition to gender-critical thinking in the UK brings accusations of wanting to 'silence women'.. The writer explains the influence of gender critical feminism in Britain as a result of both "historical imperialism" and the "influence of the wider British sceptical movement". I would argue that a much more likely explanation is the non-partisan nature of the debate in Britain, where the division between left and right in the GRA debate is not at all clear. It was a Conservative government that first proposed the reforms and a Conservative government that stopped them. There are both supporters and critics of the trans movement throughout Westminster, and the link with party affiliation is not obvious. Gender critical opinions can be read on both Spectator that in the Morning Star, and while the columnist of the Guardian Owen Jones is one of the most passionate opponents of the gender critical movement, Labour writer JK Rowling is now its most famous supporter. This means that Attempts to discredit gender-critical feminists by associating them with the right - a tactic that works well in America - simply will not work here. The relationship between traditional left/right politics and this new feminist movement is too confusing and this is, I suspect, the key reason for the movement's success. Freed from the destructive pull of tribalism, the gender critical message has been able to cut across and attract supporters from across the political spectrum through a simple appeal to common sense. After all, only a convinced ideologue could really believe that allowing Karen White to enter a women's prison was a good idea. The gender critical argument has always been convincing: it just needed an audience willing to be persuaded. In America, political polarisation is too severe and the far right too frightening to allow a non-partisan debate. In Britain, it is apparently still possible. But despite its eventual success, the battle for the GRA has brought to the surface a latent tension between feminists and the left, from which the fiercest anti-'terf' rhetoric has sprung, and support has been capricious and erratic. Some gender-critical left-wing feminists prefer to think of this incident as a moment of madness on the left, a left that will return to 'correct' politics. I am not so sure. It is true that the roots of feminism are closely linked to the left. The Second Wave was shaped in many ways by the black civil rights movement in America and anti-colonial movements elsewhere in the world. And radical feminism in particular (from which gender-critical feminism springs) is founded on a fundamentally Marxist model of society, which thinks of women as an oppressed class, men as oppressors, and reproductive and sexual labour as a commodity that is coercively obtained. But the story is more complex because although the Second Wave emerged from the left, it was often in conflict with the left. For example, in 1969, at New Left demonstrations against Nixon's inauguration in Washington, feminists who stepped in to speak were heckled by male comrades shouting, "Get her off the stage and fuck her!" and "Fuck her in a dark alley!"

The antagonistic attitude of some left-wingers towards feminism is not new. Moreover, in terms of female political representation in the UK, the Conservative Party is undoubtedly in the lead, having given the country two first female ministers, as well as the first female MP, Nancy Astor. Meanwhile, the Labour Party has yet to elect a female leader. Feminists wedded to the left will protest that this kind of representation is just window dressing and that Margaret Thatcher, in particular, can in no way be considered a feminist. This may be true, but it is also true that some of the most important laws in the history of post-war British feminism were passed by Tory governments: the introduction of maternity benefits, the criminalisation of coercive control and the ban on female genital mutilation. The same applies to Labour governments, which introduced paternity pay and passed acts on abortion and equal pay. At the same time, egregious cases of sexual violence and male chauvinism can be found within both right-wing and left-wing organisations, including Labour and the Conservatives. The sum of the successes and failures of the two sides does not give us a clear winner.

Readers will wonder why we have to invent something different. Given that women make up just over half the population and are clearly as diverse a category internally as men, with their range of ideas and political priorities, why should we bother talking about 'men' and 'women' when we could cut the political cake in another way? Right. But historically, a key claim of the feminist movement - a claim I cherish, despite my unorthodox stance on many feminist issues - is that among women there are sufficiently important similarities to make them a coherent set of political interests. In the past, these interests were often neglected or only selectively and unreliably taken care of by male representatives of various kinds. Often there is no conflict between the interests of men and women, but in some cases there is; an issue that concerns women (e.g. maternity health care) is simply not considered by most men, and is therefore inevitably overlooked in a political context that does not ask: "How will it affect women?". Prominent members of the left embraced the trans movement because they didn't care to ask, "How will this affect women?" They saw it as child's play, the natural outcome of the liberal principle of self-determination, the arc of history bending ever more towards justice. And this is not the only issue on which women have been betrayed by the left. The sex industry is another such issue. The left since the 1960s has abandoned bourgeois rules on sexuality, and that commitment has resulted in the principle that any sexual act is acceptable as long as all parties (nominally) consent to it. But feminist critiques of pornography and prostitution do not accept this principle, they want to draw attention to the many abuses that take place within the sex industry, they therefore find themselves rejected on the left. In 1981 Andrea Dworkin recounted the pain of this hypocrisy: "The new pornography is of the left; and the new pornography is a vast cemetery where the left has gone to die. The left cannot have its whores and also its politics.". Criminal matters are a further source of tension. Criminologist Barbara Wootton once said: 'If men behaved like women, the courts would be idle and the prisons empty'. Violent (especially sexually violent) crimes are overwhelmingly committed by men, women are in a very different position as very often victims and very rarely perpetrators. This means that, as a category, women are reasonably motivated to support anti-crime policies, policies that are most often supported by right-wing parties, particularly now that 'take away the police budget' has become a very fashionable slogan on the left. Many on the left feel uncomfortable with this gender-based analysis of crime because it clashes with the race-based analysis of crime that is usually considered more important. In this country we have seen a devastating spectacle in Rotherham and other towns hit by gangs of child molesters. It is now clear that part of the reason for not prosecuting the perpetrators was a fear on the part of senior police and local authorities that they might be accused of racism. This cowardly reluctance persisted among left-wing right-wingers long after the scandal broke. This means that many of the young victims of the harassment gangs were isolated, abandoned by those who were more concerned about protecting the vulnerable and marginalised. Some of these women victims of violence joined campaigns associated with the extreme right, deluding themselves that they could find safety when in fact they offered nothing of the sort. There have been left-wing feminists who have helped these victims, but they were women (as Julie Bindelthe first journalist to write these stories in the national press) who already had a conflictual relationship with the left. As Bindel wrote: "It is precisely because the liberal left has refused to address the thorny issues surrounding race and ethnicity that the likes of Ukip are able to colonise it so successfully". There is nothing wrong with anti-racism, criticism of the criminal justice system or questioning bourgeois sexual norms: all these activities are potentially feminist. But there is a problem when this is done without anyone asking: "And what effect will this have on women?" Again and again, this question has not been asked on the left. Rather than persisting with the question, the solution many left-affiliated feminists come to, particularly in America, is to mindlessly absorb into their political priorities whatever other left-wing groups demand. When there is no conflict between what feminists want and what these other groups want - when, for example, the perpetrators of violence against women and girls are rich, privileged white men like Harvey Weinstein - then the feminist vision can win. But when a rapist comes from an oppressed group ranked higher than women on the left-hand priority list (which means, as far as I know, any group under the sun), most left-wing feminists will immediately bow to whatever is asked of them. Any woman who opposes this is condemned as a 'terf' or worse.

The political philosopher James Mumford writes in his recent book Vexed: Ethics Beyond Political Tribes of the binding nature of what he calls the "ethics of the complete package'. - that is, the perceived obligation to subscribe to a set of pre-packaged political ideas rather than selecting each idea on its own merits. The whole-package ethos produces not only blind tribalism but also incoherence as the ideas within traditional packages often contradict each other. Mumford encourages readers to resist: our best chance of succeeding, of aligning our action with the good, depends on our ability to sto maintain our political identities and affirm certain fundamental principles across the political spectrum. . . We have to get rid of pre-packaged ideas in order to establish the right lines of conduct.. For feminists, the affiliation with the left may have historical resonance, but the whole package is bad. There is no reason not to take on certain left-wing ideas - for example, support for redistributive taxation and a generous welfare state - but there are other ideas that either inherently conflict with women's interests, or need to be tempered with careful consideration of potential consequences. British feminism needs to stop looking to America, where an ever-worsening political polarisation sees feminists reluctant to extricate themselves from a painful but familiar relationship with the left, despite repeated demonstrations that their interests have never been and never will be worthy of respect. My hope is that the British feminist movement that has been animated by the conflict over the GRA will be able to do what their American sisters have failed to do, recognise the need to leave the left. Neither the right nor the left are accustomed to asking the question, "What impact will this have on women?" Until they do, feminists must reject each other.

Louise Perry, "The Critic (here the original article, translation by Monica Ricci Sargentini)

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