I can still remember the first time my older brother beat me in an arm wrestle. We’re only 17 months apart and shared everything as children – from Lego to imaginary worlds, as well a degree of (usually affectionate) casual violence. Until we both hit puberty, I could reliably beat him at arm wrestling.
Then at 11ish and 13ish, we arrived roughly simultaneously at the onset of puberty. Suddenly he was a lot taller than me and, seemingly overnight, noticeably stronger. Any illusions I had about boys and girls being equal in every way died in that moment, along with my title as All-Harrington Arm-Wrestling Champion.
If you’re a woman with a middle-class upbringing and career path, the fact that men are generally stronger than you doesn’t normally make much difference. Chances are you went to a school that discouraged bullying and punished physical violence. You probably now do an office-based job. So why care about arm wrestling?
After all, feminism is, as activist Cheris Kamarae put it, “the radical notion that women are human beings”: that means believing men and women are equal, sexism is bad, and being able to vote is good. What’s not to like?
If you’re such a woman, you were probably delighted to see Kamala Harris elected as Vice-President of the United States last week. Harris broke new ground for diversity and equality, not just as the first female Vice-President, but as the first black and South Asian one, too. Sure enough, the magazine of the European Parliament, a reliable barometer of bland liberal orthdoxy, hailed Harris’ election as “a remarkable day for democracy and women”.
During her victory speech, Harris herself rejoiced that every little girl watching now “sees that this is a country of possibilities”. She gave a stirring message to “children of our country regardless of your gender”, urging them to “dream with ambition, lead with conviction and see yourselves in a way that others may not simply because they’ve never seen it before”. And while it looks as though it just casually strolled into Harris’ speech as a polite euphemism for the word “sex”, the word “gender” is central to the brand of individualist feminism she now embodies.
Feminists have long argued that “gender” and “sex” are different. Gender encompasses the stereotypes and social expectations governing men and women, while sex is the biological stuff: dangly bits, gestation, hormones and so on. According to this narrative, men and women are basically the same apart from those minor physical details, and it’s mostly ingrained sexist stereotypes that keep women down.
So it’s become a standard feminist pastime to criticise passive or weak female movie characters: think of Ursula Andress as Honey Ryder in Dr No (1962), whose role mostly comprised wearing a bikini and being rescued from peril. Being depicted along such stereotyped lines, we’re told, normalises women’s sexual objectification, keeps women locked into second-class roles and deters us from seeking top jobs. In recent years, Hollywood has stepped up to its feminist duty by replacing these stock roles with strong, active and pugnacious characters, such as Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games or Rey in the new Star Wars movies.
The dowager queen and princess of smashing sexist stereotypes are Hillary and Chelsea Clinton, who in 2019 published The Book of Gutsy Women, an anthology of inspiring female pioneers. The Clintons’ “gutsy women” include, for example, Margaret Chase Smith, the first woman to serve in both US Houses of Congress, and Sally Ride, the first American woman to go into space. Let’s call the stereotype-smashing, freedom-chasing school of women’s liberation “Clinton feminism”: it’s a movement of strong female role models and stories about “the first woman to do [stereotypically masculine thing]”. Again: what’s not to like?
Back in 2016, of course, Clinton feminists were busy cheering on Hillary Clinton herself, who looked like she might pull off one of the most high-profile “first woman” accolades still unclaimed: President of the United States. Only then it turned out that the new President would not only be another man but – worse – a man whose most famous remark on the subject of women was how he liked to “grab ‘em by the pussy”.
In response to this affront, millions of angry women donned knitted pink “pussy” hats and took to the streets in protest. And the demographic make-up of these marchers reveals something that is routinely swept under the carpet by Clinton feminism: social class. According to one survey, 43% of marchers earned above $75,000 per year – despite only 16% of Americans of either sex earning that amount or more. Meanwhile, 52% were graduates, compared to 35% of American women.
But this wasn’t just some freak of the Women’s March. When it comes to embracing feminism, there’s a well-established gap between working and middle-class women on both sides of the pond. One UK poll from 2018 showed that 31% of middle-class women think of themselves as feminists – a figure which dropped to a mere 20% among working-class women. And the numbers are broadly the same across the US; 16% of women educated to high school level identify themselves as feminist compared to 26% of graduate women. Why is that? Surely feminist liberation and equal opportunities are for all women? Well, kind of. When you look a little closer, it becomes clear that the Clinton feminism of “gender” doesn’t just sweep class under the carpet (or, perhaps, asks the cleaner to do so). It also hides what ‘gender’ refers to: sex.
The relation between class and sex becomes clearer when you remember that chasing workplace equality gets steadily easier the less physical a job is. It’s one thing to demand an equal right to earn hundreds of thousands a year as a lawyer, but there’s no feminist campaign for an equal right to become bin men. And everyone knows why. It’s because waste collection is arduous work, and males are – as I learned aged 11 – almost always stronger than females.
Gruellingly physical jobs are just less appealing, too. You’re bound to fight harder for a crack at the jobs traditionally done by men in your social class if those jobs have titles like “lawyer” rather than “sewage worker” or “bin man”. And even for lawyers, Clinton feminism can only ignore sex so far: what we call the “gender pay gap” is mostly an effect of the brutal fact that smashing the glass ceiling is difficult to combine with having babies. Although this is also easier if you’re rich, because along with doing non-physical jobs wealthy women can subcontract the work of raising babies – and even, for some, gestating them. Seen from this perspective, the shortfall in working-class women identifying as “feminist” seems justified.
Because inasmuch as it refers to smashing stereotypes and celebrating CEOs and Vice-Presidents, at least in its mainstream usage, the word “feminism” has been colonised by the class interests of a wealthy elite. This minority of women have comprehensively liberated themselves from the constraints of female biology – whether it women’s relative physical weakness or the time constraints imposed by motherhood – and have achieved this at least in part on the backs of poorer women. That is, under Clinton feminism, the richer a woman is, the freer she is.
And it doesn’t stop there. Having freed wealthy women from their own biology, Clinton feminism has set its sights on abolishing biology for everyone – including those women still affected by it. On his inauguration day, Biden signed an executive order obliging federally funded institutions to interpret “sex discrimination” to include “gender identity” in the category “sex”. In other words, it’s now forbidden to discriminate against a woman for being male, if that male identifies as a woman.
From a Clinton feminist point of view, this is self-evidently feminist progress. It’s part of the great feminist project of ending all sexist discrimination – up to and including discrimination against people who identify as women, for not being biologically female.
In a way, this is understandable. Katniss Everdeen and her ilk gave a generation of women the impression that men and women are broadly physically similar. And the more middle-class you are, the less opportunity you have to revise that view. If your understanding of male and female physical capabilities was shaped not by family members hauling bins for a living, but high-kicking action movie heroines, the idea of anyone’s choices being limited by something so trivial as “sex assigned at birth” just looks like the kind of bigotry feminism has been fighting since forever.
So an edict that forbids schools from excluding male competitors from all-female athletic competitions, provided they identify as female, may, as the Guardian put it, “offer hope for young trans athletes”. But it also abolishes at the stroke of a Clinton-feminist pen any possibility of fair sporting competition for girls and women. Meanwhile, according to radical feminist campaign group WoLF, it could also end any legal standing for sex segregation in domestic violence shelters or prisons.
This all leaves American supporters of women’s rights in a bit of a bind. Trump may have grabbed ‘em by the pussy, and bragged about it in a repulsive way. But is it really better to be governed by an administration that lacks even The Donald’s (apparent literal) grasp of female anatomy? This probably depends how you look at it.
For just as the perks of Clinton feminism trickle up the class hierarchy, its downsides sink to the bottom. It won’t be Clinton feminists who watch the athletic scholarship that was their only prospect of college funding be swept away by someone who went through male puberty. And it won’t be the Clinton feminists who get locked in prisons that are now effectively mixed-sex.
All but the wealthiest women know that you can’t just legislate biology out of existence. As the losses and indignities resulting from the Clinton feminist effort to do so multiply, outrage will build as well. I suspect we’ll see a feminist mutiny before long – and not the nice polite feminism of women who earn more than $75,000 a year. And I don’t think it will be directed at the patriarchy. It’ll be directed at the selfish elite who stole the women’s movement to feather their own nests, then tried to abolish females in the name of freedom.