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British feminism needs a history lesson Labour politicians have exposed their amnesia

A rally organised by UK Feminista in London (Oli Scarff/Getty Images)

A rally organised by UK Feminista in London (Oli Scarff/Getty Images)


June 28, 2024   6 mins

These days, we tend to interpret figures from long ago as if they lived just across the road. Such is the thesis of French sociologist Olivier Roy, who argues that an erasure of national cultural history is well underway. We are, he says, stuck in a perpetual global present: the collective memory banks that used to glue us together have been wiped and with them our understanding of the importance of historical context.

This phenomenon is particularly marked in feminism, made worse by those Utopian-minded thinkers who see the cherry-picking of facts or even untruths as a way to establish their own preferred values. Perversely, while many turn a blind eye to the appalling treatment of women in some contemporaneous cultures, historically distant women who sought to make a dent in the male-centred legal and cultural edifices of their own times are often condemned as morally imperfect, overly entitled Karens who didn’t pay enough attention to colonialism or classism as they made their arguments. Equally, what passes for feminist history in the popular imagination is lazily retrofitted to justify present cultural obsessions.

The really important stuff, it is sometimes suggested, began with a weighty-sounding aphorism by Simone de Beauvoir; then immediately passed through a regrettable stage of racism and self-absorption from middle-class white women towards other minority groups, before various African-American thinkers intervened to set them straight. Taking on some polemical energy from radical feminists in the Sixties and Seventies while carefully detaching from their awkward anti-pornography and anti-prostitution political objectives, feminism finally landed with some relief in the sunlit uplands of Judith Butler’s world, where it has stayed ever since.

Here the human sex categories got all sticky with gender fluidity and began to melt in the heat, to be replaced by a more pleasingly non-binary configuration: always-lipstick, never-lipstick, and sometimes-lipstick. “Consent” became a magical substance, changing objectively awful behaviours into things that are actually fun and liberatory for women, and we all could live happily ever after — or we would have done, had the dark triad of the Pope, Vladimir Putin, and pesky gender-critical women on Rainy Fascist Terf Island not banded together to mess it all up.

Into this yawning intellectual chasm comes a new book by Susanna Rustin, Sexed: A History of British Feminism. In the introduction, Rustin — a social affairs leader writer for the Guardian — sets out her stall: to explain why defences of sex-realism and sex-based rights have been so “pronounced” in the UK, relative to other Anglophone countries, by placing them within a tradition of British feminism reaching back to the 18th century.

Though with some qualms about the branding, Rustin is herself sympathetic to the sex-realist, gender-critical cause. This fact alone would make Sexed a symbolically important book, irrespective of its quality: to find a writer apparently at the heart of the modern Establishment Left, yet who unambiguously rejects transactivist talking points and insists on the political importance of sex, is a rare thing indeed. Luckily though, the book is also impressive in its scope and erudition. The narrative zips along faster than the King’s horse heading for Emily Davison, and elegantly compresses a lot of detailed information about important figures, trends and themes into a relatively small space.

I read Rustin’s book with Roy’s injunction against taking the past as another branch of the present firmly in mind, and yet the book’s content made it hard not to draw parallels with the contemporary moment — and presumably, that is part of its point. Indeed, at times, I wondered what the second (or third, or fourth) wave of feminism had actually been for, exactly, since every possible position in feminist logical space seems to have already been occupied before 1940. From the 18th century onwards, as Rustin tells it, there was robust discussion among British women about whether minds as well as bodies had a sex; whether biological sex difference should be politically prioritised or ignored in advancing women’s interests; whether being in the domestic sphere was limiting or valuable for women; whether there was too much of a focus in feminism upon the preferences of child-free types, or conversely, upon those of mothers; and whether advancing women’s rights was in tension with wider class-based or race-based interests.

Almost as soon as Darwinism appeared on the scene, George Eliot noticed, well in advance of 20th-century feminist critics, that some aspects of its framing were latently sexist. Later Virginia Woolf — whose statue in Bloomsbury now comes with a QR code warning viewers of her objectionable opinions — would observe that sexist arguments generally were often accompanied by claims about the naturalisation of certain traits. And in 1932, nearly 60 years before Butler, Woolf’s biographer Winifred Holtby suggested we should replace talk of sex altogether with talk of “gender” since, as Rustin paraphrases her, “the former was too weighted down with the kinds of biological connotations that dragged women down”.

The many fascinating women who each get to shine for a few pages under Rustin’s scrutiny seem up to date in other ways too. In 1854, educationalist Barbara Bodichon records her love of wild swimming, writing that she had partaken with a friend in a lake “in the most utterly crazy Dianalike way with no Actaeon save a mountain mutton or two who came and stared and thought we were literally two very odd fishes’”. In the early 20th century, MP Eleanor Rathbone was, like many today, worried about “a legal fiction” — albeit one which gave husbands enhanced parental rights rather than potentially bestowing an official sex change upon them. And back when BBC Women’s Hour first started on the radio in 1946, it seems that it had men on — plus ça change. Meanwhile, in a cautionary tale for present members of Just Stop Oil, we are told that Mary Richardson — the suffragette who, in 1914, attacked Velásquez’s Rokeby Venus in the National Gallery with a meat cleaver — “went on to hold a senior role in the British Union of Fascists”.

With the exception of Richardson perhaps, the toughness, cleverness, and collaborative pragmatism of British women fighting on behalf of other women throughout the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries, in deeply belittling and often abusive contexts, comes across as truly impressive — whether or not they called themselves “feminists” or agreed on background political frameworks (they often didn’t, on both counts). And in fact, although Rustin does not sanction such a heretical thought, by the time I arrived at her section on the Sixties and Seventies, things seemed to me to be going downhill.

Suddenly everyone was consciousness-raising like mad — treating the new craze imported from the US as if groups of women had never discussed their circumstances and feelings together before — and becoming subtly beholden to a more volatile sensibility in the process. Despite the undoubted political and legal gains of this period, there was a growing shift of emphasis that looks ominous in retrospect: a move towards internal feelings and “subjectivity”, and a fixation with how women were being culturally represented at the expense of other pressing concerns.

Not everybody liked it: Barbara Castle harrumphed that women in the Seventies “should find a cause bigger than themselves”. And although Rustin doesn’t really mention it, there was another unwelcome development during that period, also following the US: feminists tearing chunks out of one other, based on hierarchical perceptions of privilege plus whatever other personal resentments were bubbling under. In 1976, the American version of this was memorably documented in a piece by Jo Freeman in Ms. magazine, on feminist “trashing”.

At one point in her narrative, Rustin describes how, in the Seventies, “a series of meetings in Brighton was headed ‘How Do We Oppress Each Other?’ and aimed to explore the barriers between women in groupings such as mother/non-mother, lesbian/heterosexual, working class/middle class, young/old, black/white, intellectual/non-intellectual and quiet/vocal.” She seems to think this was a welcome development; to me it sounds quite unlikely to improve group morale or political efficiency. It’s difficult to imagine the lively, eccentric characters from earlier periods of British activism putting up with such elaborate requests for guilt-ridden self-flagellation, and they seem all the more refreshing for that fact.

Here in 2024, circular firing squads within what passes for feminism are now legion; and British gender-criticals are habitually hectored, insulted, screamed at, and worse, for the ways in which “cis women” are supposed to have power over that other, more testosterone-pumped kind of woman. In the approach to the election, various Labour politicians including Keir Starmer have exposed their own historical amnesia about how exactly things got this bad, insinuating that the threats and aggression have flowed equally from each side, and ignoring the fact that senior members of the party have played an instrumental role in getting us here.

“Various Labour politicians including Keir Starmer have exposed their own historical amnesia about how exactly things got this bad.”

But the last chapters of Rustin’s book, bringing British feminism into the recent present, tell a different story. We hear of one party member being physically shoved out of a room at party conference in which she had been peacefully handing out leaflets against self-ID; of the Labour conference fringe meeting in Brighton where fellow conference-goers blocked the entrance, threw water over participants, and kicked the windows throughout (I was there); and of a pledge signed by nearly all candidates for the Labour leadership and deputy leadership, describing gender-critical groups Woman’s Place UK and the LGB Alliance as “hate groups”.

If anything, Rustin substantially underplays the extent to which the party has betrayed the thousands of gender-critical women that once were members or voted for them: leaving out, say, Starmer’s betrayal of his own MP Rosie Duffield, or his refusal to meet with veteran feminist author and campaigner Joan Smith to discuss single sex space. Olivier Roy may be right that we often erroneously treat historical figures as modern ones; still, sometimes even the most modern of figures seem like very convincing throwbacks.


Kathleen Stock is an UnHerd columnist and a co-director of The Lesbian Project.
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Derek Smith
Derek Smith
24 days ago

“If anything, Rustin substantially underplays the extent to which the party has betrayed the thousands of gender-critical women that once were members or voted for them…’

And Kathleen Stock is still going to vote for them.

Dr E C
Dr E C
24 days ago
Reply to  Derek Smith

Is she?

Derek Smith
Derek Smith
24 days ago
Reply to  Dr E C

Yes. Check out UnHerd newsroom Wednesday story, titled ‘Tony Blair: lockdowns in developing world did more harm than good’. Second article there.

So is Julie Bindel.

Liakoura
Liakoura
24 days ago
Reply to  Derek Smith

Because the alternatives are even more dire?

David Morley
David Morley
24 days ago
Reply to  Liakoura

And because trans is not the only, nor the biggest, issue.

Hugh Bryant
Hugh Bryant
23 days ago
Reply to  David Morley

… Yet.

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
23 days ago
Reply to  David Morley

It is because it means we can’t agree on what is real or not. If you lack the ability to point out a man or woman, how can I trust you to manage the public coffers? Moreover, I don’t want one more penny of my taxes going toward this gender scientology.

David Morley
David Morley
23 days ago
Reply to  Julian Farrows

There is a name for that fallacy, but I can’t remember its name. Basically you are concluding from a very particular case (trans) a very general conclusion (we can’t agree on what is real). You then apply this conclusion to totally unrelated cases (eg the public coffers).

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
23 days ago
Reply to  David Morley

But the simple act of allowing men into women’s sports, prisons, and toilets is at the very bottom of the slippery slope. This is what has been warned about the entire time.

David Morley
David Morley
21 days ago
Reply to  Julian Farrows

That’s the slippery slope fallacy.

Bret Larson
Bret Larson
23 days ago
Reply to  Derek Smith

Gaza voted for Hamas also.

Bird
Bird
24 days ago

I think the whole public sphere and discourse is swallowed by by cognitive dissonance and ego. Each one drowning themselves out to for approval by the latest fetish and fad of ‘adolescent ‘ youth culture’ – zeitgeist. politicians duly noted. As the pool of voices gets bigger and bigger – so many professional writers (noting there was once the traditionists) and wannabes now – the lengths one goes to to capture and retain said ‘market’ gets harder and harder. One must get ever more reduced to minute detail and aggrandizement. Side note – take for instance the survey of youth now in the classroom, where once if asked ‘what do you want to be when you grow up” you would generally get say ‘fireman’ or ‘nurse’ or astronaut…….now you get I want to be an Influencer!!! Oh self-gratification and a quick buck – I want to be famous! It is all becoming ‘white noise’ (Unherd exception for the most part).
Feminism is now no different. I find the whole sphere increasingly unmoored from ‘reality’ – just like the politicians from both sides.
Our increasingly egalitarian lifestyle has afforded a class to naval gaze and amuse one -self of any minor detail of ‘discomfort’ and so called malaise. How often do I hear and find myself musing when we are away – oh do they sell lattes around here???? We have all lost our way.
Feminism – is being broken down now into self- pontification of minor discomforts and appeasements – grudges of our actual reality. That is the dissonance in the upper echelons I grow tired of hearing about. Entitlement and selfishness from many. The desire for one thing and the actual reality that bites hard back.
Following Oct 7, and the responses of The West, has been a ‘black mirror’ reflecting back just how far we have digressed from what we all originally held true – morally and socially. How self-deluded we collectively seem to have become. Feminism collectively was an absolute disgrace. Society and the elites have shown their true colours. It is sobering to say the least. For any women out there who has actually suffered domestic violence, rape, child sexual abuse, any person who has suffered the loss of a loved one to this, any women still held in subjective captivity at home, the women who are not allowed an education, for those that have escaped could have had no less than a stunned reaction, numb even, and heartbroken at the society they now live in’s true heart and intention in its very reaction – the lack there-of. The ‘mirror’ showed clearly what her contemporaries really think…….. absolutely nothing. Some even contempt. This has been a gaslighting of massive proportions. A dismissal and a silencing. A re-play of what the 1960s originally was all about. We are far from the 1960s now – Oct 7 showed just how far we have fallen.
Sexual Violence.
Where are the true discussions of actual sexual violence. Adolescents and sexual violence.
Instead, adults fighting adults over their own fantasies and wishes over and above the good of children and the self-sacrifice one must do for the collective good of everyone.

2 plus 2 equals 4
2 plus 2 equals 4
24 days ago

I won’t pretend to be an expert on the history of feminism, but I spent a decade collecting politics and philosophy degrees, from BA to PhD, so I was often in the proximity of many of feminisms ideas and debates.

The thing I always found most bizarre is how any feminist ever thought it was a good idea to start pretending that biological differences don’t exist or at least that by refusing to acknowledge them women’s equality was advanced.

To me it has always seemed self-evident that any oppression of women is ultimately rooted in relative but very real disadvantages in size and strength, their role in reproduction and so on. Pretending differently doesn’t make them go away.

David Morley
David Morley
24 days ago

bizarre is how any feminist ever thought it was a good idea to start pretending that biological differences don’t exist

This is well covered by Pinker in the blank Slate. Basically the acceptance of innate differences sets limits on the possibility for change, especially utopian change.

Also, it is far from clear that male advantage comes from physical strength. This is really to assume what is most at question. It may have played a part in gender roles: hunter/gatherer – but even that is being questioned.

Role in reproduction – yes, of course, but that is where many feminists saw the biggest threat to their liberation.

John Riordan
John Riordan
24 days ago
Reply to  David Morley

“Also, it is far from clear that male advantage comes from physical strength. This is really to assume what is most at question. It may have played a part in gender roles: hunter/gatherer – but even that is being questioned.”

It depends how you define “advantage”. Clearly it is not advantageous to be the first sort of person to get conscripted during wartime and sent to die on the battlefield, nor is it advantageous to be ideally suited to backbreaking, dirty, dangerous work that still commonly exists even in an age of machines, and consequently be at higher risk of early death and disability. It is not advantageous for men for it to be technically more viable and socially more acceptable, in the event of divorce, to eject the man from a household for which he must continue to pay and have restricted contact with his own children, rather than for this apply to the woman.

The historic reality is that most of the advantage of male physical superiority over the female has been socialised for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Feminism, of course, ignores all of this because it is the only way the superficial advantages that supposedly constitute the entirety of male privilege can be asserted as the basis for grievance.

Point of Information
Point of Information
23 days ago
Reply to  John Riordan

“… nor is it advantageous to be ideally suited to backbreaking, dirty, dangerous work that still commonly exists even in an age of machines”.

Such as care work and nursing (bottom wiping) of the elderly and (now commonly) obese.

British women over 55 (a larger proportion of whom worked in care) have the highest rate of work-related musculo-skeletal disorders of any group by age and sex: 2,370 per 100k. By comparison, the same age range among men had 1,990 per 100k. Source: LFS (but I got it from the HSE website, Work-Related Musculoskeletal Disorders).

As I have posted many many times previously, women have not historically been excused from physical work (although I do ask my kid’s teacher if she’ll be helping with the harvest which is what the summer holidays are for). Women have historically been – deep breath – peasants, farmers, plantation slaves, coal miners till the 19th century, mill workers (100s of women and children to only a dozen or so male mechanics because they were so much cheaper), excrement (various specialities) collectors, cleaners, wartime nurses, the main carers for incontinent infants and the elderly, wartime drivers, fruit pickers, fishwives (the ones who gut the fish and shell the crustaceans), and if not the first, often the last line of defense in war (ask the Welsh and the Spanish) and therefore the ones least likely to be spared.

David Morley
David Morley
23 days ago

Well yes – but this has drifted completely off the point, which is the theory that men became dominant in society simply by virtue of a superiority in physical strength.

MJ Reid
MJ Reid
21 days ago
Reply to  David Morley

Not physical strength, but by having big and loud mouths…Men got an education when women didnt. Men got a superior education when women didnt. And men who had an education and shouted were not necessarily stronger, but had bigger mouths and louder voices…

Samir Iker
Samir Iker
21 days ago

That is an utterly nonsense response for a number of reasons.
Firstly, because men have never claimed that women have an “advantage” or “privilege”, and used those claims to demand preferential treatment.

Secondly, the upper class college educated class that dominates and propagated the feminist movement (and has genuine privilege, because of class and income), don’t suffer from ANY of the disadvantages you mentioned. The suffragettes and their descendants don’t do the mill work, care work etc.

Thirdly, the lower income women who genuinely do those backbreaking, tough jobs? Feminists don’t care for them. Their suffering is just a tool for pampered upper class women to hijack for their own victimhood.

jane baker
jane baker
23 days ago
Reply to  John Riordan

This idea of equality of male and female,that man has the greater physical strength is thrown up by FAKE feminists since the 1970s as proof that men have an uncontestable advantage over all women cos they can beat you up. Makes you wonder what sort of men those feminists pick up dahn the pub. Theres an old music hall song goes “Ain’t it a pity that the likes of her should put up on the likes of him” it’s about a big powerful bloke being bossed about and kept busy by his tiny bit vociferous wife. The fact is a clever woman is a match for the strongest man. And I don’t mean passing exams clever. I guess I mean emotional intelligence and innate wisdom. When young such woman usually have strong sexual allure too. By the time that has dimmed they should,if all has gone well,have the respect and love of family and wider community too. Women don’t have to be physically strong and Men don’t have to be Empathetic and ready to cry at the drop of a hat.

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
23 days ago
Reply to  David Morley

You might be on to something regarding physical strength. I remember a time during early adolescence when girls enter that phase where they outgrow their male peers. Several stand out as being mean and vicious bullies who could quite easily knock down a boy their own age. One has to wonder that if girls retained that physical advantage through adulthood would they be just as nice as they claim to be?

Liakoura
Liakoura
24 days ago

“The thing I always found most bizarre is how any feminist ever thought it was a good idea to start pretending that biological differences don’t exist or at least that by refusing to acknowledge them women’s equality was advanced.”
Only bizarre because despite your academic prowess, your research is somewhat flawed:
Before the 1980s, there were no women’s distance races in the Olympics. In the Moscow Games, the longest race for women was the 1,500 meters, which had been instituted in 1972. Women had been excluded from track and field competition altogether until 1928, when their longest race was the 800 metres.
In 2003, Paula Radcliffe ran the London marathon in 2:15:25, beating all but 15 men in a field of 35,000.
It took men the best part of 50 years to go from 2:45 to 2:15. It took women just 20 years.
“Ultra Runner Ann Trason from Oakland, California added credence to this research. In 1989, she beat the men to become the first female USA Track & Field national champion. The field for the 24-hour race included several top US men, but Trason beat them all by running 143 miles, four miles ahead of Scott DeMaree in second place.
Furthermore, more recently:
Women Are Faster Than Men In Distances Over 195 Miles
According to data compiled by Ultrarunning Magazine, every year around 30 ultramarathons in North America will be won outright by women. Those performances are outstanding and tend to be more likely the longer the distance of the event. For example, earlier this year, Maggie Guterl outright won Big Dog’s Backyard Ultra in an astonishing 250-mile performance, a result which in many people’s minds was the singular best female performance of all of 2019. Similarly, in 2017 Courtney Dauwalter outright won the Moab 240, crushing the entire field by an incredible 9 hours. And now comes this statistical analysis indicating that after a certain distance (195 miles to be exact) women as a whole will outperform men.
https://trainright.com/women-faster-than-men-ultramarathon/#:~:text=Women%20are%20faster%20than%20men,the%20distance%20of%20the%20event.

Rachel Taylor
Rachel Taylor
24 days ago
Reply to  Liakoura

This is illogical. Either females can compete with men in athletics on level terms, or they cannot. It is true that the best females will beat almost all the males. But competitions are not intended to discover who can beat “almost all the others”.

2 plus 2 equals 4
2 plus 2 equals 4
24 days ago
Reply to  Rachel Taylor

It is true that the best females will beat almost all the males. But competitions are not intended to discover who can beat “almost all the others”.

Also elite sports is elite sports. Important, inspiring and fantastic to watch etc. But not actually how most women experience the consequences of biological differences between the sexes.
I don’t want to reduce the complex issue of domestic abuse down to questions of size and strength, but clearly the fact that most women are physically smaller and weaker than their male partners is not irrelevant to the disparity in fatalities and serious harm. The average differences in upper body strength and punching power between men and women are huge.

2 plus 2 equals 4
2 plus 2 equals 4
24 days ago
Reply to  Liakoura

I’m sorry but you simply haven’t understood the significance of the data on marathon times you are presenting. Or you’ve understood it but are misrepresenting it.
I don’t have time to go through the whole thing, but just one key example:
Of course the women’s record times would improve at a faster rate than men once women were allowed/encouraged to run the event competitively, at least for a period of time. There will be a much higher ceiling for times to improve until women’s marathon reaches rough equivalence in terms of elite participation levels, talent development pipeline and so on. At which point the gap between records stabilises.
It doesn’t mean that the gap will keep closing until actual parity between the records is achieved.
The gap between the men’s record and women’s marathon records is, depending on whether one uses the women-only record or the mixed race record, either 13% or 9%. That is absolutely in line with the common differences at pretty much all Olympic running events.

David Morley
David Morley
24 days ago

I assumed the original post in this thread meant differences other than physical differences. Average personality and behavioural differences etc. the stuff that roughly constitutes “gender”.

2 plus 2 equals 4
2 plus 2 equals 4
24 days ago
Reply to  David Morley

My original post was indeed predominantly concerned with physical differences. Apologies if this was not clear.
I’m agnostic on the question whether and if so to what extent differences in behaviour, cognition etc between the sexes are biological. I certainly don’t rule it out of hand, because it seems obvious to me that the same process of evolution which results in men having more upper body strength than women could at least in theory also result in, for example, women being naturally more nurturing.
But I honestly am not up with the science on this.

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
24 days ago
Reply to  Liakoura

And both of the Williams sisters in tennis were soundly beaten by the 100th-ranked man. The US women’s soccer team lost to a bunch of 16-year-old boys from Texas. The list goes on while you pick certain cherries that are indicative of little.

Christopher Barclay
Christopher Barclay
24 days ago

Equally bizarre is the underrepresentation of women in technology and science, given that technology has done so much to make the biological differences between men and women less important or totally unimportant.
Due to cars, trains and planes, women can travel the same long distances as men in the same time. Due to guns, women can now defend themselves against men irrespective of their relative physical strengths. Due to contraception and safe abortion, women can control their reproduction.

Janet G
Janet G
23 days ago

How many women have a gun to hand?

Charles Hedges
Charles Hedges
19 days ago
Reply to  Janet G

Prior to 1917 ,onbecould a gunin hardwarestore as G Orwell stated.

jane baker
jane baker
23 days ago

I always think the gung ho.schoolgirls a tv interviewer manages to round up in order for them to claim,”we love science,we all study physics” I think they’ve been subtly programmed by teachers,maybe parents and cultural influenced to say that.
Once they leave school and get to live REAL LIFE they might see things differently. I mean if at university they met a guy who was older than their Dad but owned land and had money would they choose to marry him or would they carry on,get the degree then accrue their own fortune by working for the next 40 years. GB Shaw could have used that question as a basis for a play.

General Store
General Store
22 days ago

why is that bizarre? There are very obvious, well-documented evolutionary /hard wired psychological differences between men and women such that on average men are more interested in things and women in people/relationships. It is evident in new born babies.

General Store
General Store
21 days ago

Kathleen always seems blind to the inexorable momentum that led from a denial of God, a denial of natural law, a denial of telos – of which family, marriage, childbirth and rearing, and sex role differences rooted in biology are a part – to a logical conclusion in gender fluidity, transgenderism and now transhumanism. Once you insist on a vision of people as free-floating, ‘thinking statues’ (Cogito ergo sum) – rational ‘billiard ball’ individuals, disembedded from any communitarian matrix of mutual responsibility; but also from God…..the Imago Dei without a Devine …. there is nothing left of humanity. We get this terrifying Promethean will to power; the utopian, Gnostic idea that we can, on our own, create heaven on earth. Individuals can choose to be what they want – and invent themselves out of existence. Men can be women. Children can be brewed up in artificial gestation tanks (this was 7 years ago: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dt7twXzNEsQ; this is 7 years into the future https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O2RIvJ1U7RE&t=130s). Consciousness can be ‘enhanced’ with AI implants. Transgenderism has opened up the door to transhumanism. And it was feminists like Donna Haraway and Judith Butler who have done most to provide the North Star for this diabolic path.
And it all comes from the humanistic hubris that says we can create a world without suffering. That is Huxley’s Brave New World – drugs, sex and social control. The leftist impulse to create such a world goes back to Rousseau’s mobilization of ‘the general will’ of the people. A ‘general will’ unmoored from the messy, complex, contextual interweaving of particular wills, interests, desires and necessities is always an authoritarian prospect. But it’s also always wildly unrealistic. Life IS suffering and as Tolstoy observed in the famous opening sentence of Anna Karenina., suffering is always particular.
All feminism, really just a strand in that modern weave of secular humanism, socialism ….. is in the dock because it is utopian. Because it denies suffering. Because in Voegelin’s indigestible but memorable phrase, it is an archetypical modern attempt to ‘immanentize the eschaton’. This is what Stock is holding her nose and voting Labour. She can’t wean herself off this project. And it is why feminists (save the reactionary anti-progressive Mary Harrington kind) are always part of the problem

William Amos
William Amos
21 days ago
Reply to  General Store

Or ‘The Devil was the first Whig’ as Dr Johnson put it. It is instantly funny but there is also a dizzying depth that quick witticism.
The self justifying, self gratifying, self regulating, self fashioning, individualism – unbound from history, community, custom, family and Religion – which is the existential core of liberalism, is the very life-force of Milton’s Satan in Paradise Lost.
“We know no time when we were not as now,
Know none before us, self-begot, self-raised
By our own quick’ning power”
(Book V, Lines 859–861)
Although many, from Blake and Shelley onwards, have admired Milton’s Satan, these awful words are not held out for our approbation but for our admonition. Those who proclaim themselves ‘of the party of Satan’ – whether wittingly or otherwise – cannot say they were not well-warned.
Infernal Pride is the root of all spiritual and social unhealthiness. And ‘Equality’ is it’s stalking horse.

General Store
General Store
20 days ago
Reply to  William Amos

Perfectly expressed

Seb Dakin
Seb Dakin
20 days ago

A whole chunk of discourse and modern beliefs is based entirely on pretending that realities you personally find awkward don’t exist, and then hijacking existing language, or making new words up, to prevent people from telling you otherwise.

David Morley
David Morley
24 days ago

And in fact, although Rustin does not sanction such a heretical thought, by the time I arrived at her section on the Sixties and Seventies, things seemed to me to be going downhill

Hard to disagree with this.

It is also the time at which feminists developed a mania for finding evidence for patriarchal oppression everywhere: in art in, music, in science – as if everything in our society must be tainted to the core.

And although the man hating type of feminist had long existed – Wells features one in Ann Veronica, and has a shot at a psychological explanation – it is in the 70s that they really come to the fore.

Likewise feminist Puritanism – always latent – really takes off – not just in relation to sex and the erotic, but even in relation to dress. Taking an interest in the opposite sex, and dressing to attract that interest go from normal to suspect almost overnight.

David Morley
David Morley
24 days ago

There seems to be a kind of revisionist history going on in which the more intelligent gender critical feminists are looking for the feminist developments in the past that led to the rejection of gender critical positions in the present.

The less intelligent, of course, live in the eternal present KS describes, in which it all just went wrong yesterday, with the trans thing.

I think this is a positive development. There needs to be far more historical (and psychological) self reflection by feminists. But it didn’t all go wrong (in the 60s or 70s) because it led to trans. It went wrong because it led to a whole range of foolish ideas, negative cultural influences and shortsighted ideological commitments. In many ways it became a very foolish and gullible movement, ready to believe almost anything that seemed aligned with the cause. There is a serious amount of unpicking to do!

Norfolk Sceptic
Norfolk Sceptic
24 days ago
Reply to  David Morley

These ‘foolish ideas, negative cultural influences and shortsighted ideological commitments’ have consequences.

As Jordan Peterson pointed out to Cathy Newman, most women want to find and settle down with a man: a man with some knowledge of civility, fairness even, and able to help bring up their children. But few men escape the Feminist Agenda, so these women that want to have and bring up the next generation are not only having to readjust their thinking, they also have to cope with men’s mental scars.

There’s nothing better to acquire STEM knowledge and experience than political stability and hope for a prosperous future, and yet the current set of Western politicians insist on causing turmoil, even on Scientific certainties, such as there being two sexes, each with a role within the family, the definition of a vaccine, the wind speed vs power output profile of any wind farm, and that being economical with the truth, or lying, will destroy any credibility that Science used to have.

You cannot be a credible Scientist and a political activist: at least one role will suffer, probably both.

David Morley
David Morley
23 days ago

I agree, obviously.

Tyler Durden
Tyler Durden
24 days ago

The problem that this new feminist movement only has Reform at the ballots because by no accounts should they be voting Labour. They are also reluctant to become part of the conservative cultural bloc because of enduring adherence to the pro-choice movement.
Anyway, my point is that there is no current UK political alternative for feminists campaigning against men’s rights to their very public fetish. Perhaps they should spoil their vote then.

Point of Information
Point of Information
23 days ago
Reply to  Tyler Durden

Not to advise on voting if you’re all for Reform (one less vote for the Tories is fine by me) but you are aware there is more than one party that supports sex based rights?

https://sdp.org.uk/policies/transgender-and-biological-sex-based-rights/

Morgan Evans
Morgan Evans
23 days ago
Reply to  Tyler Durden

There is the SDP. Gender critical (sex realists), social centrist/conservatives and economically left. On abortion they are “Pro-choice, and providing birth control, sex education, and more social services will help reduce the number of abortions”. https://uk.isidewith.com/parties/sdp/policies

Christiane F Hankinson
Christiane F Hankinson
24 days ago

I’m off to order Rustin’s book. Thanks for the review.
Humans have certainly confused themselves.
No one argues whether a male dog is more intelligent than a female dog but animal husbandry ensures we keep their sexes apart especially when young to prevent unwanted pregnancies.
Of course second wave feminists like myself fought for gender non conformity and I was initially excited by the popularity of gender theory and the potential liberation of women from the narrow stereotypes that had been socially enforced in recent history. Both sexes would be liberated from their straight jackets I thought. But then it got nasty and stupid. And now people don’t understand the reasons for different treatments of people of different sexes. Of course males cant be females. Of course they cant be allowed unrestricted access to their spaces and categories. Of course saying so does not make you a bigot.
My abiding concern is that (many) men cannot resist demanding that they are the first sex, the default sex of human and will do anything to undermine attempts by women to deny them that superiority: If they wish to be be women, they can be. If they wish to erase the term women, they can. Women who instinctively recognise this patriarchal threat are now being hunted down. Like their trans-activist attackers, their main defenders are those who believe in stereotypical sex roles. That’s the awful irony. Warning women to get back in their box where they will be safe.

David Morley
David Morley
24 days ago

Women who instinctively recognise this patriarchal threat are now being hunted down.

I started off thinking yours might be a good comment – then you ended up with the above. It’s not patriarchal. The combatants are rival groups of feminists, mainly divided by generation, with a few older conservatives jumping in on the gender critical side.

Point of Information
Point of Information
23 days ago
Reply to  David Morley

Both your Christiane’s comment are and can be true. Many women are attacking “gender-critical” feminists arguing for sex-based rights.

At the same time, many men who say they support sex-based rights also believe in a reductive stereotype of women who are only capable of doing soft easy work (historically nonsense and nonsense now, see the HSE statistics on musculoskeletal injury I posted above) and have soft easy thoughts.

There are several of the latter in this comments section: count the downvotes.

David Morley
David Morley
23 days ago

It’s certainly an odd alliance.

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
24 days ago

Oh, please; the likes of JK Rowling are frequently attacked by other women, including many who hold positions of authority. Boys and girls have deviated from stereotypical roles forever. Only recently has society been infected by the contagion that insists those boys and girls cannot become relatively normal men and women but are instead desperately trying to be the opposite sex.

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
23 days ago
Reply to  Alex Lekas

Traditional roles are not entirely gone. They tend to resurge during times of hardship. However, I do think that Western men will be heavily outmatched by another demographic if things don’t change soon.

Christiane F Hankinson
Christiane F Hankinson
23 days ago
Reply to  Alex Lekas

I wouldn’t dream of attacking JKRowling? What are you talking about? Surely we’re both celebrating gender non conformity as natural and desirable and normal.
Feminism fights for equality of rights in law and status and education for women, as is accorded to men. It’s a long fight and is not over. The idea that some think equality means they think they are the same as men is a fallacy.

David Morley
David Morley
23 days ago

Surely we’re both celebrating gender non conformity as natural and desirable and normal

You’re celebrating it up to the point that you think is desirable, but not beyond. So even non-conformity has to conform to your standards.

Christiane F Hankinson
Christiane F Hankinson
22 days ago

well as de Beauvoir also said ‘Society, being codified by man, decrees that woman is inferior; she can do away with this inferiority only by destroying the male’s superiority.’

William Jackson
William Jackson
24 days ago

My mother, born in 1910, was an ardent feminist. I was sent to a Catholic boarding school when I was eight years old. For the next ten years, I was beaten, psychologically, and sexually abused (including rape by a teacher). I have suffered a life time of mental health issues including, PTSD, night terrors, depression, and anxiety. In my eight decade, I give thanks that my mother, and others unencumbered by their offspring were free to be the brave crusading feminist they were.

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
23 days ago

Have you tried suing? My father went through the same and despite his initial protestations against rehashing the past, he listened to my advice and got himself a lawyer. He eventually won a six-figure settlement.

John Riordan
John Riordan
24 days ago

“Here in 2024, circular firing squads within what passes for feminism are now legion….”

Honestly, the Unherd subscription is worth it just for gems like this, let alone all the other good stuff.

Russell Sharpe
Russell Sharpe
24 days ago

“The narrative zips along faster than the King’s horse heading for Emily Davison”

It bears remarking that it wasn’t heading for Emily Davison. Emily Davison ran out and headed for it.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
23 days ago
Reply to  Russell Sharpe

I heard that she wasn’t a real suffragette, but a mentally ill woman when she threw herself under the king’s horse.

Christiane F Hankinson
Christiane F Hankinson
22 days ago
Reply to  UnHerd Reader

no, she had a return ticket and a banner she wished to attach to the kings horse so it would win flying the banner. She did not throw herself under the horse or intend to kill herself it was a dreadful accident following a reckless albeit very brave act.

Clair D
Clair D
24 days ago

I read this with enormous relish. An insightful and thoroughly enjoyable review of a book I shall now read. Memorable writing – ‘Here in 2024, circular firing squads within what passes for feminism are now legion’ is my current favourite! Thank you.

Claire D
Claire D
23 days ago
Reply to  Clair D

There are so many better more interesting books to read, believe me. I would’nt waste your time.

Claire D
Claire D
23 days ago
Reply to  Clair D

There are so many better books to read it seems a pity to me to waste the time on such a book.
Kathleen Stock always writes well, the University of Sussex’s loss has been the wider reading public’s gain.

Adrian Smith
Adrian Smith
24 days ago

The biggest problem with feminism in the developed world today is that the patriarchy it fought against does not exist and has not existed for decades. It has become a movement that has no unifying cause. All the different things so called feminists moan about today have as many women disagreeing as agreeing – gender ideology is a perfect example, a good number of those who behaved so badly at the Labour party conference described above were women!
If there is a role for feminism at all, it should be in parts of the world where the patriarchy is alive and well. But first they need to analyse and accept the mistakes feminism made in the developed world, so it does not replicate them in the developing world.

Janet G
Janet G
23 days ago
Reply to  Adrian Smith

Where I live we have a crude version of patriarchy, the one based on thuggish force. An example. On our community’s facebook page there are often discussions about local birdlife. Typically a thread consists of contributions from men saying things like, “Run over them- stupid birds” or “The best solution is a pest controller”. The women make positive statements about the birds, their beauty, their skills and abilities etc. Of course there are exceptions among contributors of both sexes. Not knowing many of the contributors in person, I wonder how much their comments about birds reflect their stances in the human world.

David Morley
David Morley
23 days ago
Reply to  Janet G

Where I live we have a crude version of patriarchy

I’m with you on the birds, and frankly some people are just pigs. But first, are you sure they are not just trying to wind you up?

More importantly though this has absolutely nothing to do with patriarchy! Feminists are vague and expansive enough with their use of the term – but I’ve never before seen it defined in terms of one’s attitude to birds. Patriarchy does not mean not being a very nice person!

Janet G
Janet G
23 days ago
Reply to  David Morley

Yes I am sure some of the men think they are being sort of witty. Certainly they elicit “Yeah mate” types of replies.
As to the link with patriarchy, my response is in my final sentence. Would men treat human ‘birds’ with an attitude similar to that they show towards feathered birds? Given the high rate of domestic violence and of women being killed by spouses, I suspect some of them would. Patriarchy is about power and the most obvious form of power that men wield over women is physical.

Samir Iker
Samir Iker
21 days ago
Reply to  Janet G

This is just another instance of putting on a show of compassion versus genuine compassion, and the gender divide in this respect.

If there were a storm or something, and you had to dash out in the rain to save some birds best or even fisk your lives to save some creatures, you can bet it’s “patriarchal” men, who otherwise joke about violence against those birds, who would be the ones to do it.

And as for human “birds”, lesbian couples have higher rates of violence, one third of DV victims are men, and even among the remaining two thirds, the majority of the cases women themselves initiate or co initiate the violence.

Peter Principle
Peter Principle
24 days ago

Great article (as always) but please stop using the phrase “gender critical”. If you call me “gender critical” because I don’t believe in woke drivel, then you might as well also call me “curvature critical” because I do not believe that the earth is flat.

David Morley
David Morley
23 days ago

What phrase do you suggest?

Peter Principle
Peter Principle
23 days ago
Reply to  David Morley

“reality-affirming” would be my preference, if we really do need a label.

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
24 days ago

what passes for feminist history in the popular imagination is lazily retrofitted to justify present cultural obsessions.
This applies to history in general. How many figures and events of the past have been attacked for failing to abide by the expectations of 2024? It is the worst kind of historical illiteracy because it is intentional.
The gender wars have brought us to this unusual place where scores of 30-something women with the jobs they always wanted but no partner in their lives are insisting how happy they are, often through bitter tears.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
23 days ago
Reply to  Alex Lekas

Those bitter tears have to do with fewer eligible men to date. In the United States, 60 percent of college graduates are women and 40 percent are men. College graduates like to marry other graduates. So you have 60 women competing with other women for the 40 eligible men. Thus, the tears for the unlucky 20 women.

Martin Goodfellow
Martin Goodfellow
24 days ago

Having read the article and the comments on it, I’m beginning to think that feminism is a conundrum in need of a pun that could resolve its conflicts with pleasant laughter and harmony. There will, alas, always be those that prefer its dark side. Using political approaches to fulfil personal relationships has only resulted in greater division between men and women, and there is no approved alternative in sight.

Arthur King
Arthur King
24 days ago

Middle and upper middle class women navel gaze while society and the economy crumbles.

Keith Sutherland
Keith Sutherland
24 days ago

>“Consent” became a magical substance
Given the recent passing of Daniel C. Dennett, I would encourage Kathleen to write an essay on the new Cartesianism that is implicit in (what passes for) progressive philosophy. I don’t know whether of not Dan ventured beyond his cogsci comfort zone to comment on current affairs.

Point of Information
Point of Information
23 days ago

Thank you UnHerd for continuing to showcase Professor Stock’s lucid and genuinely under-exposed writing. You have my subscription for another month.

The UK would really benefit from a writer of Stock’s calibre and even-handedness as editor of one of the main broadsheets. If only the Grauniad weren’t so dependent on US ads (attention dollars)…

laurence scaduto
laurence scaduto
23 days ago

“To every thing there is a season.” We, unfortunately, live in a season of madness.
So History, like Science, is abused and ignored, mostly for two reasons.
A) As Kathleen points out, it gets in the way of current ideology, which is everyone’s favorite game, and
B) It’s chock-a-block with uncertainties. Neither History or Science are supposed to be certain; each is an on-going improv. To the typical mind overloaded with received-wisdom that idea is unbearable.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
23 days ago

I’m not sure I understand what feminists want.
As a female myself, I have always had a go at anything I fancied career wise and found that as long as I did a good job, most people were fine. Yes, when I was young I’d go past a building site to a chorus of get em out for the boys, but that was far less threatening than some of the situations I have been in with other women. You can tell its bravado and not meant with the builders.
Same with relationships. Why on earth would anyone with an ounce of self respect go out with, let alone marry a bully.
Mistakes can be made and some women end up in hazardous situations with men; that is why campaigns to make the law fairer for women were such a good idea.
I prefer the idea that not only should a woman be able to attempt anything she wants too, but that she should be as free as men to take responsibility for her decisions and learn from the consequences.

David Morley
David Morley
23 days ago
Reply to  UnHerd Reader

I prefer the idea that not only should a woman be able to attempt anything she wants too, but that she should be as free as men to take responsibility for her decisions and learn from the consequences.

Yes, I’m right there with you. And sometimes there’s way to much complaining about not being allowed to do something while other women are just going ahead and doing it.

Charles Hedges
Charles Hedges
23 days ago

Why did’nt British feminists use as examples all the women who fought in WW1 and WW2? Is it because today , only victims obtain money and status ?
A short summary of those awarded medals fro v bravery and duty : those in SOE who won the GC namely Khan, Szabo and Hallows; those who won the GM , namely Wake and Skarbek, Pearl Witherington who won OBE; all those who died under torture; the women in the WAAF killed when airfields were attacked, Charity Bick who was awarded the GM at the age of fifteen years
Charity Bick – Wikipedia
Daphne Pearson WAAF awarded the GC.
Daphne Pearson – Wikipedianurses
Those in the RN Western approaches , Liverpool who undertook work which helped to defeat the U- boats, Constance Babington RAF Middenham
Constance Babington Smith – Wikipedia
who discovered Peenemunde.
Pearl Witherington – Wikipedia
What did Simone de Beauvoir do to liberate France from the Nazis ?
Nancy Wake was asked if she had any regrets ” yes , I did not kill enough Nazis “.
Has any woman or man ever achieved more than Elizabeth I who inherited a bankrup nation, almost at civil war between Protestants and Roman Catholics and defeated Phillip II, the mightiest monarch in Europe and left a nation wealthy, peaceful and well defended such that it created the modern World. Elizabeth I did more than anyone to move Europe out of feudalism. Elizabeth could read and write Greek, Latin, French and Italian. What about giving a copy of Elizabeth’s speech to every school girl?
My loving people.
We have been persuaded by some that are careful of our safety, to take heed how we commit our selves to armed multitudes, for fear of treachery; but I assure you I do not desire to live to distrust my faithful and loving people. Let tyrants fear. I have always so behaved myself that, under God, I have placed my chiefest strength and safeguard in the loyal hearts and good-will of my subjects; and therefore I am come amongst you, as you see, at this time, not for my recreation and disport, but being resolved, in the midst and heat of the battle, to live and die amongst you all; to lay down for my God, and for my kingdom, and my people, my honour and my blood, even in the dust.
I know I have the body but of a weak, feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England too, and think foul scorn that Parma or Spain, or any prince of Europe, should dare to invade the borders of my realm; to which rather than any dishonour shall grow by me, I myself will take up arms, I myself will be your general, judge, and rewarder of every one of your virtues in the field.
I know already, for your forwardness you have deserved rewards and crowns; and we do assure you on a word of a prince, they shall be duly paid. In the mean time, my lieutenant general shall be in my stead, than whom never prince commanded a more noble or worthy subject; not doubting but by your obedience to my general, by your concord in the camp, and your valour in the field, we shall shortly have a famous victory over these enemies of my God, of my kingdom, and of my people.

Fafa Fafa
Fafa Fafa
23 days ago

I wrote a longer comment about this somewhere, maybe on a different site, so her is there Cliff Notes version.

I think that time has come for sane feminists like KS to realize that there is a large untapped potential of allies in a very large group of people: men.

Men, the sane kind, who know a woman when they see one. Who are “gender-critical” by instinct, so to say. Now, of course, it would require some slack to be cut for mannishness, but the details could be worked out in intelligent conversation, I believe.

JOHN KANEFSKY
JOHN KANEFSKY
23 days ago

It seems to me, as a mere older male, that feminism, especially in the form of academic theorising, has always been at least in part about replacing privileged UMC men with privileged UMC women in well paid jobs and power roles.

Ordinary men and women get ignored.

Christiane F Hankinson
Christiane F Hankinson
22 days ago

‘Society, being codified by man, decrees that woman is inferior; she can do away with this inferiority only by destroying the male’s superiority.’ Simone de Beauvoir and : ‘This has always been a man’s world, and none of the reasons that have been offered in explanation have seemed adequate.’ this should be considered alongside the infamous quote, so misunderstood ‘that one becomes and is not born a woman.’ She wrote in French, her meaning was clear. It was not that women didn’t really exist but that the baggage of identity that women carry is codified by men. The Second Sex’ was a book about patriarchy. Many women don’t want to believe it. Many men don’t either. The idea that some of you espouse that we no longer live in a patriarchy is laughable. It is enjoyed too much by many men and women. That’s the problem. It is deeply ingrained in our culture. That is why de Beauvoir’s book is so important. She unmasked it. I remember being very upset when I first read it. I didn’t want to know I was the second sex, Nothing has surpassed it.
As an unchallenged example that has come up recently for instance…how a royal king’s wife is a queen but a royal queen’s husband is not a king why? because the queen is automatically understood as inferior to a king therefore a legitimate regal queen’s husband can only be a prince. Status not questioned; the inbuilt belief in the superiority of the male in our culture.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
22 days ago

Spot on! Couldn’t put it better myself.

General Store
General Store
20 days ago

Patriarchy: universal, transhistorical, everywhere, all-times…but, strangely, socially constructed and totally not about biology or evolution. The most incoherent catch-all, victim concept of all

Kirk Susong
Kirk Susong
22 days ago

These histories of feminism’s internal squabbles and external conflicts always reveal just how womanly they are.

Brendan O'Leary
Brendan O'Leary
22 days ago

I am thankful that most the women in my life, even the ones that called themselves feminists, always saw it as “us (as a couple, as a family) against the world” rather than “men v women”.

General Store
General Store
22 days ago

and yet your voting Labour ! what a joke

General Store
General Store
22 days ago

comment has gone

JP Shaw
JP Shaw
22 days ago

I remember well when during the 60-70’s mainstream women to use the word “feminist” was to be labelled a “bra burner” a “man hater” and worse. Reading Germaine Greer, Betty Friedan etc; was considered heretical in some circles. Even today some women preface remarks on women, “although I am not a feminist”…. There were women from the religious right at that time, crusaders, like Marabel Morgan who authored the “Total Woman”. She wrote about always being available for your man when he got home from work even wrapping your naked body in Saran wrap for him. With todays’ Gender Critical movement among feminists, there is still the hesitation to be seen as patriarchal critical. Yet most women I read from right and left are concerned about the Gender ideology pseudoscience that is pushing women to the perimeters of society. If women are ever to unite, despite our differences, now is the time.

laurence scaduto
laurence scaduto
21 days ago

Now my comment vaporized! Jeez!