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While «feminism» is a household term, few people are likely to be able to describe the many distinct types of feminism jockeying for prime position in the public imagination. Even fewer are likely to have heard of «gender-critical feminism», the newest and perhaps most controversial type to join the tussle. But feminism’s internecine conflict is spilling out of activist groups and the academy, into public life, and piquing the curiosity of people with no particular interest in feminism and no particular history of thinking of themselves as feminists.
At first glance, it’s hard to see what’s controversial about the commitments of gender-critical feminism, or why they’re inspiring such wrath from other types of feminists that the conflict has become a matter of general interest. Gender-critical feminists, reviving the tradition of radical feminism begun in the late 1960s in the United States, believe that there are two sexes (and differences of sexual development don’t disprove this); that the female sex has been historically subordinated; that sex equality has not yet been achieved in any country, although more progress has been made in some countries than others; and that until there is sex equality, and as a means to achieving it, it remains important to protect female people’s sex-based rights in law.
If it seems unusual that I said «female people’s sex-based rights» here instead of the more direct «women’s rights», the explanation is in the fact that there is conflict over the most basic terms feminists use. Gender-critical feminists think that a «woman» is an adult human female, while many of our opponents disagree, and think that a «woman» is any person who declares themselves to be a woman. If I wanted to put our opponents’ view in our language, then I would say they think a woman is «a person of either sex who declares themselves a woman», but this would bias the matter in our favour, for our opponents are mostly sex denialists. They think that sex is a social construct, or a performance, or «points in a multidimensional space», or a «vast, infinitely malleable continuum». With sex out of the way, all that’s left is «gender», here understood not in the way feminists first conceived it—as «sex roles»—but rather reconceived as an identity. «Woman», «man», and «nonbinary», are ways that people feel about themselves, on a par with other aspects of identity like nationality (e.g. «Swiss»), ethnicity/culture (e.g. «Persian»), relationships (e.g. «mother»), career (e.g. «journalist»), and more.
Minorities struggling for recognition
The philosopher Charles Taylor wrote in his 1992 essay «The Politics of Recognition» of identity as «a person’s understanding of who they are, of their fundamental defining characteristics as a human being». A prominent idea at the time was that identity required social recognition, that «a person or group of people can suffer real damage, real distortion, if the people or society around them mirror back to them a confining or demeaning or contemptible picture of themselves», and that non-recognition could «inflict harm» and «be a form of oppression». If «gender identity» is a new aspect of identity, and identity requires social recognition (non-recognition can do harm, or be oppressive), then withholding recognition of a person’s «gender identity» is a moral wrong. We seem to have an easy explanation of why there is such a fierce moral reaction to the gender-critical feminists’ commitments.
If gender-critical feminists are right that sex matters, then the sex of people with gender identities matters too. This creates a tension between how gender-critical feminists categorize transwomen, namely by sex, as…