Trans rights campaigners at Reclaim Pride. Credit: Mark Kerrison/In Pictures/ Getty

September 1, 2021   6 mins

Though I’m a middle-aged mother myself now, I’ve had my share of tear-streaked, bitter arguments with my own mum. By turns loving and murderous, swinging wildly between enmeshed empathy and parental authority, mother/daughter relationships can trigger uniquely painful rows.

But it’s not just individual mothers and daughters who do this. It is also reproduced in the women’s movement. In American Electra, the feminist writer Susan Faludi argues that it is a central feature: matricide is a core dynamic in feminism from the Twenties onward.

“The mother stands for the victim in ourselves, the unfree woman, the martyr”, wrote Adrienne Rich in Of Woman Born (1976). Faludi quotes Betty Friedan, perhaps the quintessential rejecter of bourgeois domesticity as a desirable role for women, who said: “I didn’t want to be like my mother”.

And this dynamic, Faludi argues, has translated into “a persistent barrenness” within feminism: that is, a rejection not just of individual mothers but of the movement’s ability to create a heritage over time. Instead, each generation rejects the one that went before, endlessly reproducing this second-wave feminist scorn for endlessly victimised, unfree, martyred and unsatisfied mothers – both literal and also political. It’s a push-me-pull-you dynamic that both rejects whatever came before in the women’s movement, while also longing for an ongoing, motherly warmth and acceptance.

Nowhere is this battle over the nature (or, perhaps, the possibility) of a feminist legacy more evident than in contemporary arguments around trans identity. Shon Faye’s new book on “transgender liberation”, The Transgender Issue, argues this inheritance with energy and clarity. Meanwhile, in what it leaves half-said or unsaid, it also demonstrates it.

In general terms, the book delivers what you’d expect, given gushing blurbs written by Judith Butler, Ash Sarkar and Owen Jones: a bog-standard “intersectional” treatise. It abounds in the expected namechecks of standard “marginalised” groups, gestures in familiar ways at the evils of “capitalism” and evinces standard woke opinions on prostitution, prisons and immigration.

The Transgender Issue: an argument for justice is written with an op-ed journalist’s persuasive energy, in a style that (for anyone familiar with the so-called “Terf wars”) at times egregiously begs often hotly-contested questions. For example, proposed legislation that would replace biological sex in law with self-identified “gender identity”, a change with far-reaching conceptual and political implications, is breezily characterised as “a more humane process for gender recognition”.

But Faye writes well. Anyone seeking a primer on “trans-inclusive” and “gender critical” arguments could do worse than read this book alongside Helen Joyce’s Trans. The book’s interest lies in its ambivalent relation to an older generation of feminism.

Faye draws on second-wave writers and radical feminist history, to argue that far from representing a repudiation of the second-wave legacy, trans-activism is its inheritrix. To this end, The Transgender Issue quotes Andrea Dworkin’s approving 1974 description, in Woman Hating, of how new research and fertility technology “challenges the notion that there are two discrete biological sexes” and “threatens to transform the traditional biology of sex difference into the radical biology of sex similarity”. Elsewhere, Faye correctly points out that disagreements over the place of trans women in feminist groups go all the way back to the Seventies.

Shon Faye’s new book embraces Andrea Dworkin’s “matricidal” dynamic

And, indeed, this matriarchal lineage is difficult to dispute, when it was this generation of feminists who first argued that “sex” and “gender” are separable. Andrea Dworkin stated in Woman Hating that “man” and “woman” are [
] cultural constructs [
] reductive, totalitarian, inappropriate to human becoming”. What Dworkin outlines here is, today, settled opinion among pronouns-in-bio online leftists.

Against what Dworkin called the “totalitarian” idea of “man” and “woman”, other second-wave radical feminists imagined all of us liberated from the givens of biology. Shulamith Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex (1970), for example, dreamed of a future in which women had been wholly liberated from reproduction by a mix of extra-uterine gestation and collectivised childcare.

From this perspective, if we admit of any relationship whatsoever between biology and wider social norms or structures, women are at risk of being subordinated again: relegated once more to (as Rich puts it) “the victim in ourselves, the unfree woman, the martyr”. And if there’s no relationship between biology and identity, why shouldn’t a trans woman be — as Faye argues — also “female”?

Like the secondwavers, Faye rejects the “conservative” idea that women are “vessels for reproduction”. The Transgender Issue situates trans liberation as a logical extension of feminist call for bodily autonomy and particularly for safe and legal abortion. In Faye’s view, both abortion and gender medicine are forms of resistance to “[c]onservative ideological positions about gender roles and the degree to which an individual is entitled to autonomy over their body”.

Faye’s argument for “transfeminism” as a daughter of the second wave, then, has merit. It continues this matrilineal dynamic in one further way: by embracing the “matricidal” dynamic described by Susan Faludi.

Mothers have only the most tenuous presence in The Transgender Issue. Only two get more than passing, warm mention: Faye’s own mother (in the dedication), and the supportive mother of a transgender-identified child.

Mothers as a political group are (in Faye’s characteristically tendentious style) airbrushed out. Reflecting on why British feminism in particular is resistant to the inclusion of trans women, Faye blames this on all manner of things, from a hostile press, to (somehow) the British Empire, while leaving out perhaps the most central rallying-point for “gender critical” activism: Mumsnet, or as it’s sometimes dubbed by those infuriated by its members’ stubborn wrongthink, “Prosecco 4chan”.

Mumsnet’s feminism pages have played a central role in gender critical activism politics for over a decade, a fact not unconnected to Mumsnetters’ (usually) shared experience of maternity. It is, after all, more difficult to take seriously the idea that “woman” is an identity, when you’ve experienced pregnancy, childbirth and the shift in outlook and social role that comes with motherhood. But for Faye, the possibility that mothers might have experiences in common, and views of their own, doesn’t merit airtime.

In The Transgender Issue, mothers appear as bit-part players. Some are kind blunderers who don’t understand their children’s identity needs; others are violently transphobic. Inasmuch we appear as a class at all in connection with the female reproductive role, we’re either gender-diverse “people with uteruses” (ie not mothers), or else women in need of abortion services so they can avoid becoming mothers.

Again, in keeping with second-wave feminism, Faye is keen to sever any connection between women and gestation. In one footnote, the notion that pregnancy is a women’s issue is dismissed as “conservative and regressive”. With that, a key locus of specifically female political interest is reframed as a set of fertility services, that can and should be detached from “woman” as a concept, and whose “postcode lottery” availability represents yet another injustice to the trans community.

Shon Faye’s “transgender liberation”, then, sits in intimately ambivalent mother/daughter relationship with the feminism that birthed it. It embraces the conceptual legacy of second-wave feminism; then, in accordance with that heritage, also rejects motherhood and maternity. And, at the same time rejecting its own second-wave heritage, which (we gather) wasn’t nearly radical enough but instead merely accepted a set of minor improvements to the conditions for bourgeois women under capitalism.

Nor is it enough, in Faye’s view, to replicate such marginal gains for well-off, white, transgender people. Such activism (which the book exemplifies in Stonewall’s corporate “diversity” activism) affords at best superficial improvements without addressing The System that claims the right to determine who is or isn’t “acceptably trans under capitalism”.

For Faye, the real prize is smashing this underlying system, which the book identifies with “patriarchy”. Achieving this seems to mean abolition of all boundaries or limits, a vision that includes ending “rigid” ideas of biological sex, dissolving hierarchical relations such as “the state’s monopoly on legal force through policing, prisons and migrant detention centres” and ending any political structure — such as national borders — that imposes harsh divisions of any kind.

To replace this “patriarchal” regime, Faye envisages one of pure nurture. This order, we gather, would be unstintingly welcoming to the vulnerable, impoverished, addicted or mentally unwell. It would be endlessly adaptive to individuals’ specific, contextual, identity-driven needs. And it would be boundlessly giving with medical, housing and therapeutic resources – up to and including laser hair removal and gamete-freezing, resources certainly not universally available to other groups on the NHS.

It ought, Faye declares, “to be the state’s obligation to support trans people, not the other way around”. Even as it rhetorically sidesteps literal mothers, then, true liberation, is a political regime that sets out liberate women from the need to be mothers, by itself embodying the once-archetypal maternal qualities of empathy, nurture and support.

Faye characterises as “frankly unhinged” Germaine Greer’s argument in The Whole Woman that transgender women are engaged in a form of symbolic matricide. But perhaps it’s more accurate to say Greer didn’t go far enough. That is, it’s not just transfeminism that’s engaged in symbolic matricide, it’s pretty much all of it, from the second wave onwards.

Other strands have, of course, emerged over many decades of sometimes rancorous feminist debate. But Shon Faye makes a convincing case for transgender activism as the matricidal inheritrix of a profoundly matricidal strand in that debate.

And perhaps the regime of therapeutic totalitarianism The Transgender Issue proposes, to replace our current social order, is the true inheritance of this matricidal liberation. For since the likes of Dworkin and Firestone were writing, those women who didn’t want to be like their martyred mothers have increasingly swapped caring for toddlers favour of entry into public and working life.

In tandem, the care of even very young children has since been increasingly outsourced to institutional providers. Many of these young people are now adults: generations for whom, increasingly commonly, the earliest infant experiences of nurture are fused with a more impersonal, institutional authority.

Perhaps it’s natural that such adults would dream of a political regime on the same template of nurturing authoritarianism. And perhaps, too, Shon Faye’s vision of a politics so motherly no one need ever want, compete or quarrel again is the true contemporary legacy of the second wave’s mummy issues.

Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.