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Ending Sex-Based Oppression: Transitional Pathways

Abstract

From a radical feminist perspective, gender is a cage. Or to be more precise, it’s two cages. If genders are cages, then surely we want to let people out. Being less constrained in our choices is something we all have reason to want: theorists in recent years have emphasized the importance of the capability to do and be many different things. At the very least, we should want an end to sex-based oppression. But what does this entail, when it comes to gender? In this paper, I’ll compare four ‘transitional pathways’, with a view to considering how each relates to the ultimate end of ending sex-based oppression. Should we open the doors to the cages, so that people can move freely between them, but leave the cages themselves in place? (Transgender pathway). Should we add more cages? (Nonbinary pathway). Should we make the cages bigger, so that people have a lot more room to move around inside them? Or should we dismantle the cages, so there are no more genders at all? (Gender abolitionist pathways). Some of these options are ‘gender revisionist’, others are gender abolitionist. I’ll argue in favour of a gender abolitionist pathway.

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Notes

  1. The aim of this paper is not to defend the conception of gender as norms against the alternatives (on which more in Section II), but to use one plausible conception of gender to explore the issue of ending sex-based oppression.

  2. The cage metaphor will be familiar from Marilyn Frye’s famous essay ‘Oppression’, in The Politics of Reality (1983), although she would likely resist my application of the metaphor to men, given that men are not oppressed (at least, not as a class).

  3. Some who make a sex/gender distinction of this type (sex/norms imposed on the basis of sex) also use the terms ‘female’ and ‘male’ to refer to sex, and ‘woman’ and ‘man’ to refer to gender. I don’t think this is helpful, and will use ‘female/woman’ and ‘male/man’ as sex terms, and ‘norms of femininity’ and ‘norms of masculinity’ to refer to the gender norms.

  4. ‘Transgender’ is usually used as the umbrella term, which includes both trans and nonbinary identities underneath it. I find it conceptually unhelpful to have an umbrella term that is also the term for one of the identities it covers, so I’ll simply stipulate usage: ‘transgender’ in my usage means a person born male who identifies as either or both of female/woman, or a person born female who identifies as either or both of male/man. ‘Nonbinary’ in my usage means a person of either sex who identifies as neither a woman or a man.

  5. I’ll use ‘third’ in the rest of the paper, but this should be taken to mean any number of genders greater than two.

  6. R.A Briggs & B.R George make a similar assumption when they explore the ‘liberalisation’ of gender categories on trans twin earth: ‘Through all these changes the [gender] roles themselves remain largely intact, but the demographics of the two worlds shift until there is no correlation at all between gender role and biological sex characteristics. […] roughly half of all blokes and half of all grrrls possess typically female biology’ (Briggs & George manuscript., p. 18). (‘Blokes’ is the name they give to the previously male-associated gender category, ‘grrrls’ to the previously female-associated category).

  7. The latter, which came into force in May 2020, makes legal sex a matter of statutorily declared belief.

  8. As Marilyn Frye put it: ‘we do not know whether human behaviour patterns would be dimorphic along lines of chromosomal sex if we were not threatened and bullied; nor do we know, if we assume that they would be dimorphous, what they would be, that is, what constellations of traits and tendencies would fall out along that genetic line’ (Frye 1983, p. 36).

  9. Cf. Bogardus 2020 on whether there really is such a distinction.

  10. Note: the term ‘TERF’ is used by gender identity activists to refer to radical feminists, ‘—RF’, who acknowledge transwomen to be male and thus justifiably excludable from female-only spaces. The ‘TE—’ stands for ‘trans-exclusionary’. Radical feminists do not self-describe with this term, and many consider it to be a slur. See discussion in Allen et al. (2018).

  11. The closest group to (i) for which there is a population estimate is transsexuals, people who have had sex reassignment surgery. On one estimate, there were between 2400 and 10,500 transsexual people in the UK (Equality and Human Rights Commission 2009, p. 33). The total population of the UK in that year was 62 million, which means transsexual people were less than 0.02% of the population. The closest group to (ii) for which there is a population estimate is what the UK Equality and Human Rights Commission calls ‘the trans population’. This will be an overestimate relative to the understanding of transgender stipulated in fn. 4, because it will count nonbinary people, and other people too (see discussion in ibid, pp. 10–19). The estimated size of the trans population in the UK was between 65,000 and 300,000 (ibid, p. 33). That is 0.48% of the population.

  12. Page references refer to the early view version of the paper: https://philpapers.org/rec/BARGAG-6

  13. It has been common in recent feminist history to take this view, that ‘man’ and ‘woman’ refer to social roles. But this creates a contradiction with ordinary linguistic usage, in implying that all female people who don’t occupy the social role don’t count as ‘women’ (for a discussion about the ordinary understanding of ‘woman’ see Byrne 2020). On the understanding of gender as gender norms, a female nonbinary person is a woman, because (or, as long as) the norms of femininity that are applied to female people are still applied to her. For an argument against ‘woman’ as a social role, see Stock (2020).

  14. Note that because the numbers of people with gender dysphoria are too small to make this pathway successful, we have to imagine people without gender dysphoria nonetheless taking it up.

  15. If we understood this pathway in a weaker way as requiring only action congruent with gender norms, it would seem to become a version of the gender abolition pathway – people of each sex violating gender norms by acting in accordance with the other sex’s norms. The problem with how that is working in the actual world is that by claiming to actually be the opposite sex/gender, the behaviour is not necessarily interpreted as norm-violating.

  16. Note that this is a revised understanding of ‘woman’ as a class for the purposes of discussion in this section, and is at odds with the usage synonymous with ‘female’ used throughout the rest of the paper.

  17. Or sex and gender could be legally protected characteristics (as they are in the UK, where a person can get a Gender Recognition Certificate, but there are specific exemptions for where sex and recognized gender come apart). In this case there would be need to be clear guidelines allowing the exclusion of all male people from female-specific rights and legal protections regardless of gender.

  18. On some readings, nonbinary is a third gender category (some nonbinary people report being sanctioned within their communities for not appearing androgynous enough). To the extent that’s true, all three can be combined, in virtue of nonbinary being collapsed into third gender.

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Acknowledgements

I’m grateful to audiences at the Australian National University, Victoria University of Wellington, University of Auckland, University of Flensburg, The University of York, and Lund University; and to Blake Hereth, Luke Roelofs, Robin Dembroff, Sophie Grace Chappell, Suzy Killmister, Charlie Montague, Louise Moody, Erin Nash, Sarah Fine, Will Tuckwell, Stephanie Collins, and Elinor Mason for helpful discussion, criticism, and/or written comments.

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Correspondence to Holly Lawford-Smith.

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Lawford-Smith, H. Ending Sex-Based Oppression: Transitional Pathways. Philosophia 49, 1021–1041 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11406-020-00297-0

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Keywords

  • Sex-based oppression
  • Gender
  • Nonbinary
  • Third gender
  • Transgender
  • Gender abolition
  • Radical feminism
  • Gender critical feminism
  • Ideal theory
  • Non-ideal theory