Search This Blog

Sunday 24 October 2021

Review: Kathleen Stock, Material Girls. Why Reality Matters for Feminism.



This is an excellent book: clear, thorough, convincing and, in context, brave: Kathleen Stock is currently a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Salem but has failed to answer with an unequivocal “Yes” the Witch Question, “Do you believe trans women are women?” (p 142). As a result, trans-activist students (not to be confused with trans-people) are calling for her dismissal: in the pages of Pink News they tell us that they’ve paid their money and don’t expect to have to share their campus space with a transphobe ("No TERFS on our TURF"" reads a banner held by two students,  clearly inspired by their parents' suburban NIMBYism). 

It’s unlikely that many of the protesting students  will read Professor Stock's book, though - to be fair - reading books is not their favourite pastime anyway; the favourites are Salem’s distance learning platforms, Facebook and Twitter. Is that not so?

Stock faces more than a local challenge to be heard. There are now tens or even hundreds of thousands of people in the UK and USA with a direct investment in Gender Identity Theory (or Theories) and careers and future careers are at stake: not only do we have the faculty of hundreds of Gender Studies departments and programmes, together with their students. There are the senior university administrators who have fallen over themselves to adapt to Facebook norms and officially recognise a veritable sweet shop of student gender identities: demifluid and demiflux at Kent, for example. (p. 34. Facebook itself offers seventy-one and counting). If only it were some wonderful prank, like the old US Society for Indecency to Naked Animals (SINNA) which had enthusiastic, donation-offering supporters, and kept going for several years until the founding-prankster decided to ‘fess all. The name should have given the game away since the object of the society was to compel diapers and modesty clothes for cows, dogs, horses, etc. It remains true that if you want to encounter truly wacky beliefs, look to the USA.

Also with skin in the game of Gender Identity Theory are the “charities” which under light-touch UK Charities regulation can function pretty much as cause-promoting commercial organisations with large salary budgets. Stock very pointedly skewers them for misuse of statistics at pages 220-24. These pages ought to make tough reading for those responsible. Why should we regard their Fake News as any different to Donald Trump’s? These pages also remind us of the fact that activist organisations have a bad history of cutting and pasting individual tragedies onto standard issue placards to serve their own purposes, misrepresenting the original history to fit.

Then there are the columnists and commentators and even leading (though not always very bright) figures in major political parties (Labour, Liberal Democrat, Scottish Nationalist) up to their necks in commitments to trans activist demands. None of these people, any time soon, is going to declare that the Emperor Has No Clothes.

Two things.

First, I have never read anything by a Gender Identity Theorist - and I include in that Judith Butler - which has not struck me as flimsy or confused or both, excepting some early work before Orthodoxy imposed its dead hand. As it happened, faculty at what was then the University of Sussex were responsible for some of the most interesting of those early contributions though they labelled it Queer Theory (Jonathan Dollimore, Alan Sinfield, etc).

But it is the current state of intellectual weakness in gender identity theory, and lack of intellectual grasp by students supposedly studying it, which I believe leads to the offence, outrage and punitive reaction to any reasoned criticism. Put on the defensive, the advocates have nowhere else to go; it is as if pointed criticism has punctured a fantasy, not damaged an argument.

Insofar as there is supposed to be some kind of foundation to the claims made about gender identity, then it is usually social construction theories which are invoked. But I find little evidence that they have really been studied, understood, or critically appraised. How many have read, say, Alfred Sch├╝tz The Phenomenology of the Social World dating from 1932 but only translated into English in 1967? (Maybe I cite that work because I recall asking my mother to buy me the expensive North Western University Press translation as a birthday present, in 1967. For my own non-technical critique of social constructionism in general, go to )

There is a fall-back position from social constructionism which simply says that people are who and what they feel they are, which in short order reduces simply to what they claim they are. So if you feel you are a woman trapped in a male body, then that’s what you are until you decide to claim, “I’m a woman”  as if it was in the same performative category as the “I do” in the marriage ceremony. Once you say the necessary words,  trans activists reckon that a woman has been born and that we should open any doors hitherto closed. But the claim “I’m a woman” contains no more guarantee of longevity than does the claim “I do”. Likewise, "They/Them" claimed as pronouns may last no longer than this year's Facebook account. Mere declarations, however decorated with the word "performative"  (and who has actually read J L Austin ....), are not always as robust as they really need to be.

Second, from a distance the gulf which supposedly separates Trans activists from their targetted enemy, the TERFs [Trans-exclusionary radical feminists] is just a small piece of disputed territory. As I understand it, most or all TERFs (an unpleasant term, largely applied to older, female Second Wave feminists in ways which sometimes suggest misogyny) are at least fairly accepting of transgender people and are happy to support measures which make life easier for them. They simply draw the line at some very specific areas which over long decades of hard work have been constructed or retained - and with very good reasons - as Women Only spaces: women’s prisons, women’s refuges, rape crisis centres, women only sports, changing rooms, and toilets. (One never hears any discussion of the situation of trans men in these contexts, which must be either because trans men aren’t rattling the door or because admission is allowed because it is felt or assumed that trans men are safe in a way that trans women aren’t - Stock briefly discusses this). 

It is important to note that trans-activists call for self-identification as the sole criterion for admission to Women Only spaces; no evidence of surgery or use of hormones. Likely results are already known from cases like that of Karen White, a self-identified transwoman assigned to  a woman's  prison  who promptly began to sexually assault female prisoners. Back in court, the prosecution was obliged to follow the guidelines and refer to "her penis" in outlining the assaults. Stock discusses this case.


I recall the moment in 2018 when I decisively lost sympathy for trans-activist demands. I saw in the news a photograph of beaming trans woman Rachel Mckinnon having just won a major US and world women’s cycle race. Mckinnon stands with the two females who had come in at 2nd and 3rd . As one of the runners-up, Jennifer Wagner, later tweeted, it “definitely wasn’t fair”. No, it fucking wasn’t fair, but just as in the USA here in the UK we have thousands of middle-class Neville Chamberlain intellectuals ready to declare how wonderful, how inspiring, and any other Pseuds' Corner claptrap which occurs to them as likely to pay the rent. Stock makes rather more polite remarks on this example at pp 87-88. In the current climate, she has little choice but to remain polite though she occasionally allows herself a “bonkers”. I found the photograph deeply dispiriting, as  the display of a hugely misplaced sense of entitlement and as a put-down for female athletes..  You can easily Google it.


Stock focusses initially on a defence of the permanent (life-time) importance of biological sex and of the sex binary, even when all necessary qualifications about intersex persons and so on are added. I found the defence impeccably argued. Then she turns to what one might call the predictive value of knowing a person’s sex which is strong even if there is little biological determination of behaviours - socialisation will do the trick even if nature doesn’t. Either way, it’s important to know how biological males and females differ in the long run. Thus it is (as I discovered when I joined this select class) that 83% of UK speeding convictions are collected by males. (The Driver and Vehicle Licensing Authority used to classify drivers by “Sex” which they asked me to supply many years ago; they now classify by “Gender” and have switched me - this is what Stock calls GENDER in sense 1; really, it’s just a euphemism (American?) for “Sex”.)

Then she pulls apart Gender Identity theory and sets out her own stall on “What makes a woman?”There follows a very interesting chapter which seems in one way meant as a concession to Identity theory but which would come at the price of conceding that it has an “As If” fictional or imaginary character which is nonetheless important.  

Then we get to the grim bits: the recent history of LGBT and feminist organisations. I think I am entitled to pass over these chapters, and return to my initial recommendation.

See now also my review of Zoe Playdon's The Hidden Case of Ewan Forbes, published 1 December 2021





Monday 4 October 2021

Review: Mark Twain The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn


My last review was of Rudyard Kipling’s Kim (1901) and I have now gone on to read an obvious Compare & Contrast novel, Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884). I was terribly disappointed, for two main reasons.

The novel is narrated by Huck as a series of scenes, more or less improbable. Though there are fine descriptions of the setting and insightful sketches of characters, the scenes don’t really add up to anything bigger and Huck develops less in sensibility than does Kim; it would be wrong to say that his character is static but it is pretty much full formed from the outset.

More importantly, I found the long drawn-out final scenes constructed out of Tom Sawyer’s fantasies almost unendurable. They aren’t funny and (reading anachronistically, perhaps) Tom comes across as the perfect sociopath, utterly oblivious of the consequences of his actions for those who love and care for him - Uncle, Aunt, Jim, Huck. That is one main reason why the phantasmagoria isn’t funny.

Huck is more it touch with reality but, overawed by Tom, goes along far too much with Tom’s fantasy schemes. They go on for many, many tedious pages and when it is Finally Revealed, death-bed confession style (chapter 42), what has really been going on, the narrative becomes perfunctory when it needs most not to be -  as if all that is now needed to close the narrative is for Aunt Sally to pronounce, “Well, that’s all right then”.

So far from being able to set up a serious Compare & Contrast, I throw up my hands and declare, No contest. Kim is a much better book.