A Radical Review

Cover of Radical Notion with heading 'gender-critical disputes'

What I learned from Issue Eight – ‘the disputes edition’ – of The Radical Notion and from reading Maya Forstater’s critique of it

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Just in case you’re thinking about last summer and saying…

Oh, no, please, no!

…this, after many doubts and re-starts, is my review, and an attempt at a summary for those who don’t fancy ploughing through it all: I do not doubt the value of the debate, knowing as I do that it grew out of a struggle to understand the myriad differences of opinion and all too often painful battles of ideas that were doing the rounds amongst feminists and others in 2022-3. The summer months were so very dispute-laden, one hesitates to add more disputatious words – so let me begin by saying I have huge respect for all the women out there trying to do feminism in our ‘interesting’ times, and for many who are not feminists, but are honest defenders of women’s legal rights. Where I criticize, I do so in the (fast dying out) academic sense, that assumes ‘this is worth your consideration, so I’m questioning it.’

The academic v popular thing

Where I question a woman’s words, it is not in the nature of an attack but of a question which I hope she, or someone out there, will answer for the sake of clarity and further learning. Maya Forstater, for example, is a clever analyst and a doughty campaigner who has been central to the push-back against those who threaten to dismantle women’s legal rights. My personal debt to Forstater goes further though. Early on in my work in the campaign, at a workshop for women in Camden, I attended a lecture of hers in which she efficiently and unforgettably taught us the detail and the applications of current Equalities law. So far, I have never found anyone on the ‘self-ID’ side who knows the law well enough to win an argument about it. Plenty of us can – in my case, thanks to Maya. That’s the academic bit.

For me, Forstater also looms large in the popular thing. To win a policy battle, a campaign needs to go mainstream – and thank goodness ours has done so – but this is where the ‘but’ comes in. When I saw Jon Ashworth giving his NHS speech at Labour Party conference in 2017, I fell off the wave of delighted cheering and applause that euphoric conference was creating when I realised Ashworth actually wasn’t that passionate about the NHS – he was just having fun working the crowd and getting applause. I had a flashback to that, when watching Forstater’s appearance at FiLiA in 2022.

Don’t get me wrong, I think Forstater’s part in the campaign for women’s rights is sincere and I absolutely support it but the worry is, if a person’s good at campaigning, good at working a crowd, there comes a point where it doesn’t matter what they say. The have fans and followers rather than colleagues and comrades, and fans and followers don’t necessarily have a logical set of arguments to hand if their star is criticized, so they just get angry or upset.

I think that’s how it came about that Forstater wrote such a lazy refutation of this edition of The Radical Notion. She seems to think it is largely wrong-headed — or at least she wants us to think so, but she wants to keep her criticisms short, snappy and I suppose ‘readable’. She seems to be saying that ‘prosperity’ cannot exist ‘without capitalism’ or ‘within a collective’, and saying it as a put down to the ‘lefty’ stuff.

She doesn’t explain the thinking behind those ideas, though. I doubt she really believes capitalism can produce ‘prosperity’ or even subsistence, for everyone – and perhaps that’s the hidden problem. Perhaps that’s why she boils down the difference between WPUK and Standing for Women to ‘indoor events’ and ‘outdoor events’, sweeping so many political differences under the carpet that your living room ends up with a camelious hump. I would counter her view with that of Pragna Patel, who said at last year’s FiLiA that we must have a feminism that’s based in the left, because we need a feminism in which “no-one is left behind.”

Is it really that simple, the reason why left-right debates can’t be fully honest? Is it that both sides know capitalism can’t make everyone happy, but the centre and the right can never admit that, so they need to keep politics running as a sales campaign, a competition their side wants to win, rather than an honest attempt to work out a way forward for everyone?

Forstater then says The Radical Notion contains arguments that will never win popular appeal, and that “it would take too long to explain why”. I think she is saying that patriarchy, capitalism and bio-essentalism are eternal and unchangeable, and that ‘the collective’ is either non-existent or undesirable. She closes by saying “In a choice between being part of an ideologically pure sisterhood and pragmatic and effective impact, I would chose impact.”

Snip from Maya Forstater's blog

Click here to read Forstater’s blog post

In a choice between being part of an ideologically pure sisterhood and pragmatic and effective impact, I would chose impact.

There’s a trick in that last line that’s right down at the Farage end of populist. It’s easy and football-fan fun to go with her every step of the way, and I will, when we’re on a protest march and we need snappy things to chant, but that last line of Forstaters’ is a false choice. Why do I have to choose between being part of a big, impactful campaign and spending time with specialist, academic sisters, learning the things I learn when, for example, reading The Radical Notion?

Personally, I don’t think some of the people Forstater stands up for in her broad sweep article are on the same campaign I am – it’s just that there are some overlaps on our wish list (preserving sex-based rights in the Equality Act, for example) that might result in our turning up at the same demo.

I can’t address that though, not because it would take too long, but because Forstater doesn’t give me enough information. She says she doesn’t like wordy stuff or footnotes, so she hasn’t really explained why she thinks all the things she says about what’s inevitable, or non-existent, when replying to detailed articles in The Radical Notion that said the opposite.

The only answer you can have to people just stating their opinions without explanations, footnotes etc is “okay, I acknowledge that those are your opinions,” so I’ll leave it there.

Don’t cause yourself or anyone else hurt by ‘taking sides’ when you don’t need to though – Forstater’s organization, ‘Sex Matters’ is brilliant and, if you need political analysis and real feminism (Forstater and several others of similar prominence have happily stated that they aren’t feminists), if you are a feminist, or a socialist, or even (pace Julie Bindel) a socialist feminist, The Radical Notion is also brilliant.

So, what’s in the ‘ disputes’ edition of The Radical Notion?

The freedom of speech/thought thing

From the article (anonymously presented) about the state of the academic world, and the destruction of debate and any research that strays into heresies such as mentioning sex, I give you the quote, anonymously attributed to an anonymous contributor, ‘all I see are cruel cowards.’

We need a concerted, efficient, Forstater-like campaign to push back against the undeniably awful way bullying and career-sabotaging are being used in the academic world to promote policies and arguments that cannot be promoted by academic argument, because they make no sense. We urgently need to dismantle the culture in universities that is forcing dissidents into a position where they can only comment anonymously, in small-print-run journals. (To me, that is a very important reason for taking small-print-run journals seriously just now.)

The ‘trans ideology is a cult’ thing

From Lucy Tatman’s article on ‘The Religious Elements of Gender-Identity Ideology’ I give you this:

This is not a criticism of trans-identified people who want to live their lives in peace, it is a criticism of a religious ideology embraced by a vocal and divisive minority of activists and a growing number of NGOs, schools, universities and governments

 – because if the gender-ideologists were not acting like at best, evangelists and at worst, The Inquisition, the ‘disputes edition’ would be hard-put to find enough disputes to write academically about. I wonder though, if Tatman has not put the cart before the horse – the institutions she mentions are increasingly commercial, competitive and feedback obsessed.

To me, the root cause of that is that we’ve accepted the capitalist, profit-driven way of running education. I suspect that the tyranny of this particular ideology came first through the funders and trainers of those profit-dependent institutions, and has in turn led to the growing number of activists who believe in their right to use bullying and sabotage to ensure their own beliefs are not challenged by a need to debate with dissenters.

I found Tatman’s article fascinating because of my lifelong interest in the mythic and the nature of belief but, despite its length and depth I think it will be of interest to those who have asked, why do debates and political differences have to get so nasty these days? Tatman explores the religious nature of belief, and its attendant idea that once you’ve sorted everyone into the ‘good’ and ‘evil’ people, it becomes acceptable to attack the evil.

I would go further – looking at the history books, persecuting ‘the other’ becomes not just acceptable but a duty, a necessity and a survival tactic in any ideology that does not have a rational basis to argue from.

Related to the sex-and-gender thing is…

The single-issue activist thing

The main problem with single-issue activists, in the eyes of those who live political lives, is that they not only do not have a full vision of how their target policies would work in a political system, but they tend to see any analysis-based critique of their work purely as ‘opposition’, rather than as a challenge to debate, test and hone their work. In fact, single-issue activists rarely know why a person might need a wider analysis. As a result, they probably never will see what I just read…

Deep in the heart of this issue of The Radical Notion, deep down in the middle of this edition’s ‘Blob’s Corner’ article ‘sex, death and identitarianism’, I found the words that made sense of the visceral nature of the disputes under discussion. Blob is distinguishing between ideologies, actual policies, and ‘identity politics’. Under ‘identity politics’, she includes patriarchy, most forms of Abrahamic religion and late-stage capitalism. She uses the example of “the male gaze”, and discusses how it seeks to “exert dominion over that which it desires and depends on but can never inhabit or fully control.” The key point being that “as it can never succeed, it … produces a sterile fruit: tragically unnecessary oppression. It is tragic because it destroys its own objective…”

And that is the point. That is the reason why no campaign based on ‘identity’, whether it be the US MAGA cult or the ‘adult human female’ campaigns of the type which, as Rose Rickford points out, are defending ‘womanhood’ rather than sex-based rights, are going to get us where we need to go, and that’s why the ‘disputes edition’ presents, for me, a very necessary discussion, and a clear reason why we need to distinguish what we are doing from what those who are only here to defend an idea are doing.

In short, if it’s all about words like ‘womanhood’ and who’s entitled to use them then yes, it is identity politics, and has no business being included in the Equality Act. That is the trap, that is the danger. People like me are defending the social and legal status of women as a sex-class – that, like it or not, is socialism…

The left-right thing

I did sympathize with views like Forstater’s when I was waist-deep in the footnote-laden pieces some of the people known as ‘hard left’ have produced over the last year. I saw that it was going to get a lot deeper before I understood it all, and I agree that most people are never going to read all that stuff, and I also agree that most people are never going to read The Radical Notion but I maintain that detailed analysis of the misunderstandings of both philosophy and political positioning are necessary, particularly when campaigns cross the Atlantic, otherwise you can end up supporting campaigns that really aren’t going where you need to be so it’s just as well someone’s writing those articles.

There is a particularly useful one by Rose Rickford on the realities of ‘femalism’ as opposed to ‘feminism’ – what’s at stake is no less than all the things women need as a sex-class. We don’t just want our words back, we want a welfare state, and pensions, and rights for refugees, and protection from male violence: all those boring things the left are always bashing on about, so no, it’s not ‘in-fighting’ nor is it a time-wasting, theoretical dispute. As Jane Clare Jones puts it in her piece ‘Feminism is not Identity Politics’:

…if the cost of defeating trans ideology is giving energy and momentum to the forces of extreme conservative reaction – and their efforts to use ‘woke’ over-reach to put feminism, gay rights, and anti-racism firmly back in the box – it will be a hollow victory indeed.

So, if you’re a socialist, or a feminist (ie, one who’s concerned about all the issues that affect women), be glad that someone’s doing the theoretical bit. If you’re interested, but it’s too much to take in in one go – bung it on the shelf, and use it for reference when you need to disentangle those misunderstandings, false equivalents and the resulting bitter arguments that international political activity tends to cause.

Both / and

Oh, and there’s my contribution, under the series heading ‘both/and’, where I attempt to address the problem that almost invariably arises when a woman desperately trying to have a conversation about women’s rights is asked “do you support trans rights?” and responds with “well, it depends…” at which a trans activist goes “nya-ha!

No matter how annoying it gets, that whenever we mention women’s rights the world wants to talk about the trans issue, or that we rarely get time to explain why we don’t accept the whole parcel of gender-ideology that lurks under the heading ‘trans rights’ — despite all that, those of us who are on the left need to remember that socialism is only socialism if it works for everyone – and that includes those who, for as many reasons as there are people doing it, ‘present as’ the opposite sex. We can, if the world insists, talk about women’s rights in those terms – for example, encouraging people to see the difference between sex and gender, and discussing ways to protect and assist trans people that do not compromise sex-based rights.

To summarize the disputes stuff

Was it Kellie Jay Keen who said “I don’t start fights, but I always finish them”? Whoever it was, it left me thinking, but why? Both in my time as ‘a lefty’ in the Labour Party, and my time as a feminist in the women’s campaign, I have noted that both sides in left/right disputes suffer. Both sides get angry, upset, and sometimes sweary and destructive but, it seems to me, only one side truly wants to understand, to understand all of it, enough to do as Andrea Dworkin wanted us to do, when she said “feminism is for all women, even the women you don’t like.”

And I do begin to see why — it’s because we all know that capitalism has not solved any of our problems at a level that works even for the majority, let alone for everyone. If you doubt that, just take a look at the UK after a decade of Tory government — the foodbanks, and the refugees washing up on our beaches in their thousands, the desperate remains of our NHS. It can only be that if you’re of the centre or the right, or if you’re trying to be apolitical and have settled for living in the world as it is, you must be seeing politics as a competition that cannot work for everyone. Competitions have winners and losers, so you need all the smoke and the mirrors to make sure you, personally, end up in the winners’ enclosure.

Jane Clare Jones writes great big long articles with loadsa footnotes – sometimes, as Forstater complains, the footnotes are longer than the articles but the thing is, what her writings in ‘the disputes issue’ do is to pull together all the above and demonstrate that:

The sex-based rights campaign is an evidence-based, rationally based, legal campaign. By contrast, the ‘femalism’ campaign, like the ‘trans rights’ campaign, is identity politics. Identity politics is a feature of neoliberalism that has disastrously, in one form or another, captured both the right and the left in our time. Now, you can support a rationally-based campaign with words (including footnotes) but identity politics is not rationally based, not evidence based, so at best, you fight with emotive slogans and clever footwork but eventually, you have to have an enemy, so you can fight with mobs and guns.

The other stuff

And finally, for those still groaning and wondering if it’s worth the bother, may I assure you that I too groaned on hearing about ‘the disputes issue’ of The Radical Notion, and I was full of battle-weary doubts, even as I was working on my contribution to it but, having read all of it, I recommend it whole-heartedly. It is interesting and not least because the other stuff is still there – poems, stories, letters, a piece imagining what workplace equality would look like, one about the hijab battles, an urgent and awful situation that is currently harming and killing far more women than most people are taking account of and, my personal favourite: a serious and incredibly beautiful re-imagining of Scheherazade.

Do get yourself a copy of The Radical Notion. It’s full of things that need to be thought about, and — just like all the other editions, it’s a darned good read.


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