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Talk to Women Talk Back! webinar, 30th Nov 2020
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What’s it like in UK Universities at the moment, when you want to talk or write about women and girls, specifically? I want to say a bit about what it’s like, and then a bit about some of the causes of the situation, as I see them.
Basically, the picture is somewhat mixed. If you want to talk about women or girls in an academic setting, then there are still contexts where, with a bit of luck, you can get away with it - as long as a particular thing does not happen. That particular thing is: that someone (a student, a colleague, a journal editor or referee) doesn’t interject to say “but trans women are women too”, or “do you mean assigned female at birth?” or “don’t you mean cis women?” or something similar. In other words, you can talk about women and girls, as long as nobody mentions gender identity or trans people. At that point, convention dictates that you must immediately stop talking about female people and start talking about gender identity; which of course means that you’ll have changed the subject. At that point, unless you’re prepared to take the professional consequences, you’re basically stuffed, and will be forced to retreat to talking about something that is not women or girls any more, but either a wider category (including trans women and non-binary males), or a narrower one (not including trans men and non-binary females), depending on the case.
So: how likely is it that someone will ask you that sort of question? The situation again varies, and I can think of two relevant factors. It partly varies by University subject area. In the biological sciences and medicine, on the whole you’re less likely to meet this sort of challenge – probably because biologists and medics are confronted relatively more often with undeniable causal effects of being female, and so find it hard to deny them (although some still try). On the other hand, if you’re in the social sciences, it’s more likely, and if you’re in the arts and humanities, it’s most likely of all.
There is another factor relevant to whether you’re likely to be confronted about why you’re not talking about gender identity. It also varies by – and you’re never going to guess this one – sex. Yes, in the ultimate irony, it’s female people that get challenged most when they are talking about women and girls. Men who make academic claims about men and boys, don’t get similarly challenged. So for instance, when University of Kent academic Matthew Goodwin writes and talks about the specific challenges facing white working-class boys, nobody says “don’t you mean cis boys?” or “trans men are men too!’. Meanwhile, since academic men rarely make any claims about women and girls specifically, but tend to talk instead about people as a homogenous group (whether or not they actually mean men), the problem doesn’t arise as often for them anyway.
All this has dire consequences for feminism in academia, because of course, feminist academics supposedly have as a central part of their remit, discussion of the interests of women and girls. It’s here, then, that the spectre of gender identity, as an automatic extinguisher of any discussion of females specifically, is most prevalent. Effectively, the feminist heart has been ripped out of a lot of work taking place in Gender Studies or Women’s Studies departments – for work here can no longer be aimed at only females, or even most females. It has to take into account trans women and the genderqueer, including males who identify as women or who don’t identify as men. This means that work ostensibly on female-specific challenges is often presented confusingly, by falsely pretending that genderqueer males also face those same challenges. Equally, as it’s hard to pretend with a straight face that genderqueer males face challenges around menstruation, pregnancy, maternity, and menopause, these topics are less often explored these days.
(Search: "anywhere", 2015-20)
Partly due to the fear of ever being seen to say something about females generally, what work that is done on females is described as being about “cis women”, which of course excludes females who are trans men or nonbinary. And even when research is done on so-called “cis women”, it’s most often done on certain groups designated as particularly oppressed: e.g. black or Latina or disabled cis women, and so on. Compositional diversity or complexity amongst these groups – for instance in terms of differences in background social class and economic security, political allegiances, religious faiths, and so on – is often ignored, in favour of what seems to me to be cherry-picking, caricature, sentimentalisation, and infantilisation. Even at its best, where academic claims are based on close, patient ethnographic work, the topic in feminist journals tends to be, say, women in north-western Ghana rather than women from Stoke-on-Trent. Equally, the lives and challenges faced by white women are also homogenised and dismissed; white women, whether working class or middle class, rich or poor, raped, assaulted, prostituted, exploited, underpaid, objectified, or otherwise, are often dismissed as “privileged” and so unworthy of serious, sympathetic study.
Via such means, I would go so far as to say that much of academic feminism carried out in English-speaking countries has become entirely irrelevant to ordinary women and girls in those countries. There is a sustained failure to discuss mainstream women and girl’s experiences, as indicated by the dearth of mention of such mundane near-universal experiences as menstruation and menopause in academic feminist journals (suggested anecdotally in my slide just now). There are still some good articles in feminist journals but there is also lot of dross that is beyond parodic, and could only possibly be of interest to other academics equally invested, for career-based reasons, in the language games involved. Take this example, from the most recent edition of Australian Feminist Studies: “Queer Ecologies of Death in the Lab: Rethinking Waste, Decomposition and Death through a Queerfeminist Lens”, in which the author describes “queer ecologies of death in the lab as a material-discursive phenomenon” and discusses how “heteronormative and humanistic ideologies about ‘purity’ and ‘pure Nature’ shape the space of the laboratory and regulate waste management practices.” My point is not at all to blame the author of this article for writing it; they are only doing exactly what the system encourages them to do. But in terms of a discipline of practical relevance to the majority of women and girls, the system looks broken.
Perhaps needless to say, the consequences of this situation are bad for women and girls, both within Universities and beyond it. Within Universities, there is a lack of a strong voice defending the distinctive interests of women students and staff, as well as defending women and girls as distinctive research subjects. Indeed, it’s even worse than this: Gender Studies professors, naively assumed by others in the University to be the official arbiters of what is important for women, blithely assure anyone who will listen that females as a sex have no distinct interests of their own, and may not even exist as a category, talking instead of “vaginal privilege” or “genital fetishism”. Apart from the loss of female-centred knowledge, another result is that there is no real pushback on University policies on spaces and resources for women, entirely allocated by self-identification. Whether it‘s a changing room, a student residence, sports team, women’s officer role, or activist meeting on the so-called “gender pay gap” in Universities (which we all know is actually the sex pay gap), self-identifying women are the group encouraged to attend, not females; and social ostracism from self-identified feminists follows for anyone daring to question this.
Even worse: beyond academia, graduates shaped by their studies at Universities carry their female-blind visions out into the world, utterly convinced of their rectitude, and go off to propagate them in the third sector generally, including women’s organisations and equality organisations in particular. This has resulted in well-established organisations like the Fawcett Society and the Women’s Equality Party being split and effectively neutered when it came to properly representing women’s interests in the gender recognition row. It’s piecemeal-funded, grassroots organisations like Women’s Place and Fairplay for Women and Transgender Trend that fought this battle for ordinary women, and not the feminist third sector.
So how has this happened in Universities? I think there are a range of contributory factors, far more than I could hope to cover, but here are a few that I think are relevant. (All of the following comes with the usual caveat that I’m talking about perceived trends, and that there are always honourable exceptions to any trend.)
The first trend is the tendency of some in the applied humanities and social sciences, to take certain fashionable philosophical theories at face value and then run with them, irrespective of whether the theories actually stand up to scrutiny. In my own discipline, philosophy, there is still - thank God – encouragement to treat every new theory you encounter with an attitude of grumpy suspicion. You have to test it for structural weaknesses, improbable consequences, inconsistencies, and other problems before you endorse it. Negative criticism is far more common than positive endorsement. To take a pertinent example I know very few people in my side of professional philosophy who treats Judith Butler as a serious intellectual figure. That is, her totalising version of social construction is thought of as naïve and simplistic as a metaphysical view. But in other areas like Gender Studies and some part of English, Art History, Sociology, and so on, Butler’s views, and those of others in the same vein, are treated as basically right, and then “applied” to some particular issue: queering the fruit fly in the laboratory, or queering Hildegard of Bingen, or whatever. In data science they say “rubbish in, rubbish out” but you could just as easily say that if you put in a junk philosophical view like Butler’s into a discussion of something else, you will get out exactly what you put in.
A by-product of academics treating theories like Butler’s as starting points of inquiry, rather than as end points, is that those who do so are – quite literally - unable to defend their starting points intellectually. If you ask them why we should accept that there is no material reality outside linguistic constructions, or what they mean by material reality, they have nothing to say. This means they tend to resort to defensive dogmatism and aggressive insult when questioned by philosophers like me. They start to treat their preferred theoretician as a quasi-religious figure whose pronouncements cannot be questioned. And, perhaps in order to escape tricky questions about their own theoretical starting points, they try to position themselves as heroic activists achieving “social justice” by writing impenetrable prose in academic journals, despite the fact their articles are read by an average of about 6 people and possibly understood by fewer. Over time, this makes some academics operate more like cult-leaders than intellectuals: where a cult is defined as “an authoritarian organisation centred around a belief, that has rules and dogma and encourages its members to isolate themselves from those who would test their faith.”
Moving on: another factor here is the professionalisation of academia, where it’s now mandated that you will churn out research articles and books on a regular basis, in order to gain employment or promotion. The huge pressures on feminist academics to publish – and not just to publish, but to come up with something “new” – means that eventually every position in logical space will be argued for, whether or not it should be. New academics quickly learn the basic rules of the academic feminist language game and then run with it, taking it further and further into unintelligible technical language, and irrelevancy to most women’s lives.
A third factor of relevance here that whether academics want to recognise it or not, in virtue of their professional positions most of them (including me, obviously!) belong to an elite, and so end up talking about things only of interest to that elite, in a language only that fellow members of the elite can understand. Hence for instance, the large number of articles in feminist philosophy about “implicit bias” and “microagressions” – and sometimes even about implicit bias and microaggressions in academic philosophy, a subject of no real interest to anyone who is not an academic philosopher. Academics also tend to be insulated from the consequences of their expansive political posturing. It’s incredibly striking to me that those feminist academics who would campaign for self-id in prisons, shelters, and hostels, stand pretty much no chance of ever finding themselves in those situations, and yet would happily give away the rights of women in those places, who so often have histories of poverty and abuse.
A fourth factor in UK academic feminism’s increasing irrelevance is the Americanisation of feminism, following the Americanisation of UK academia generally. With some honourable exceptions, academic feminists often tend to be obsessed with social issues and movements that started in the US, and which are not straightforwardly applicable to the UK. Yet they ignore more local and pressing issues for UK women such as domestic violence and femicide prevalence, the vaginal mesh scandal, sex-game-gone-wrong defences, the women’s state pension scandal, high rates of mental health problems amongst young women, low rape conviction rates, grooming gangs, sex trafficking, the problem of “honour”-based abuse, and so on. Again, it is mostly left to grassroots feminist activist groups to fight these battles, which they do brilliantly.
A fifth and final factor is that academics generally will hire, publish, positively referee, mentor, and give grants to others who are politically like themselves, who emulate their own approaches. This is, I think, why within Universities, it’s often relative outsiders to professional academic feminism – like some of the other fantastic academics here this evening; also like Selina Todd, like Alice Sullivan, like me, and an increasing number of others, including students. We are not seeking to publish in feminist journals and didn’t make our original careers in those networks; so we are able to vocally critique gender identity ideology, where so many within Women’s Studies and Gender Studies apparently cannot. (And if any of you are listening, please join us!)