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Material Girls: Why Reality Matters for Feminism
by Kathleen Stock
FOR far too long, feminism and other social justice movements have been caught up in postmodern identity politics, wherein lies the abyss. In this timely and important book, Kathleen Stock lays down the gauntlet for a properly materialist approach to the issue of equality for women and sexual minorities.
Stock is an analytic philosopher and “professional” feminist who has herself been on the sharp end of these debates, coming under frequent attack by those who see her work — incorrectly — as transphobic for calling into question the ideas that underlie gender identity theory.
Unlike so many texts in the academic field of feminist studies, Material Girls is written in exceptionally clear and jargon-free prose. It is aimed at a general audience trying to make sense of increasingly fraught public arguments about the social implications of gender identity.
Stock tackles the major ideological battles in the euphemistically named sex/gender debates of the last few years and, as is to be expected in a book by a philosopher, she is particularly strong on the conceptual confusion around language and terminology, as well as the multiple negative impacts of gender identity theory on social justice movements.
She methodically unpacks the various theories about gender that have emerged in the 70 years since Simone de Beauvoir famously wrote “One is not born but rather one becomes a woman.”
She traces a fascinating path through second-wave feminism’s necessary attempt to distinguish between sex as a biological fact and gender as a social construction, through subsequent feminist attempts to both avoid “biological determinism” and acknowledge significant differences among women, to the postmodern turn in which the category “woman” itself came under erasure.
The book demonstrates how, to some extent, feminism was hollowed out from within — it was then a fairly straightforward move for gender-identity advocates to complete the process of delegitimising sex-based definitions of adult human females. The theoretical heavy lifting, and the damage, had already been done.
Stock then provides a thorough debunking of the theory of gender identity. In the process, she puts to bed the view that we all have an inner sense of our own gender identity and that this feeling is more important than our biological sex.
Assessing a range of different meanings of gender, Stock concludes that “gender identity theory’s proposed alternative cannot possibly cover all of the still-pressing contexts in which we need to use the term ‘woman’ meaningfully to refer to adult human females.”
Building on the concept of a “legal fiction” that was the basis of the Gender Recognition Act, Stock advances the intriguing and compelling thesis that gender identity operates as a kind of immersive fiction, strongly influenced by internet culture and social media, in which individuals “immerse themselves in idealised fictions of the self.”
While immersion may offer pleasurable personal benefits, it poses considerable problems at the social and institutional levels when it is written into policy and legal frameworks and the speech and behaviour of others becomes coerced.
It is at this point, where the personal and the social intersect, that competing rights have to be carefully assessed and, Stock, argues, there is ample evidence that women’s rights to sex-specific language, spaces and services have been too readily set aside by public bodies, policy makers and, in Scotland, legislators.
While the book comprehensively covers the ideological aspects of the debate, there could be more acknowledgement of the economic drivers of gender ideology: there is money to be made out of body dissociation, not least by the cosmetic surgery and biomedical industries.
Moreover, a plurality of gender identities, which undercut material inequalities pertaining to sex, race and class are easily incorporated by rainbow branding-friendly corporations, hence the rapid uptake of gender identity as a dominant ideology in capitalist societies.
Material Girls is a closely argued, courageous book and an indispensable read for all who want to make sense of this vitally important contemporary issue.
I would particularly recommend it to those left-wing men who claim not to understand what all the fuss is about — it is about time we all wised up about the consequences of gender identity ideology whether we think we have “skin in the game” or not.
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