May 23, 2022 - 10:15am

Having your (female) idea repeated to much greater effect by a (male) colleague in meetings is, for office-working women, such a familiar occurrence it’s become a weary stereotype. So the sight of a man, campaigner Chris Rufo, denouncing ‘gender ideology’ to another man on The Tucker Carlson Show, ruffled many gender-critical feminist feathers — not least when Carlson blamed ‘feminists’ for pushing this ideology, asked: “where are the men to stop this?”

The response to this intervention has highlighted crucial fissures in the potential coalition opposed to gender ideology: willingness to work across the political aisle — and willingness to operate outside ‘classical liberal’ political conventions.

Campaigner Kara Dansky rebuked Rufo, pointing out that women have been “at this for years” (while taking the opportunity to promote her own book). In turn, Rufo’s response was sharp: “frankly, those of you who have “been at this for years” have done nothing but lose ground”.

Cue outrage. Let’s leave aside the fact that in the UK, at least, opposition to trans activism has been far from hopeless. But being told by men that we’re doing it wrong hits a sore point for the many longstanding opponents of trans activism whose views are inflected by radical feminism.

Very crudely, radical feminists object to trans ideology on the basis that ‘gender’ is a hierarchy imposed on women as a class by men as a class, in order to entrench male domination. As such, treating ‘gender’ as more salient in political terms than biological sex is just viewed as a trendy new way of entrenching the same hierarchy, and oppressing the same biological sex class (women) as ever.

From this perspective, the galling sight of males popping up to criticise trans activism and seemingly receiving little blowback, when women have faced years of job losses, social and professional ostracism and even death threats for voicing gender-critical views, looks like yet another data point for “gender is a hierarchy”.

This is by no means the only possible framework for objecting to trans activism, though. Conservatives and Catholics (among others) also object, on quite different grounds. Radical feminists are vocal, but are relatively few in number; what are the prospects, then, of building coalitions across these disparate ideologies? This thorny question has powered much of the internal politics within gender-critical activism in recent years. When Kellie-Jay Keen, aka Posie Parker, was hosted by the Right-wing Heritage Foundation in 2019, debate among gender-critical feminists about the desirability of this alliance was, to put it mildly, intense.

Meanwhile, some more liberal objectors to trans ideology object to Rufo’s mobilisation of institutional power to fight back. “You can’t use the power of the state to win culture war battles,” said writer Katie Herzog. Though in Texas and Florida, it looks a great deal as though conservatives are doing precisely that, to some considerable effect; meanwhile, much of the effective gender-critical activism in the UK has focused on pushing back against precisely this capture of state power by trans activists.

Rufo is explicit about sharing almost none of the radfems’ objectives, and seeing their framework as more part of the problem than not: “I don’t believe “trans-exclusive radical feminism” can solve the problem of “trans-inclusive radical feminism,” he said, while his desired outcome is not “a TERF-approved gender curriculum in schools.”

It’s a serious question, then. Should critical political mass mean coalition between feminists, Christians and the Right, what would be the prospects of radical feminists joining? And in terms of approach, are American political liberals willing to abandon their faith in reason and political process, and — like Rufo — instead try and recapture state power in their own favour?

It’s perhaps the oldest question in practical politics: how badly do you want to win? When what’s at stake is whether it’s legal and morally acceptable to sterilise children in the name of inner identity, it’s a question worth asking.

Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.