by Mary Harrington
Monday, 23
May 2022
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10:15

Will feminists join Christopher Rufo in the gender wars?

The activist highlighted crucial fissures in the coalition opposed to trans ideology
by Mary Harrington

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.

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Allison Barrows
Allison Barrows
1 month ago

Rufo has been supremely effective and I’m grateful he’s leading this fight to protect children from those who are actively, publicly harming them. If the fact that this hard-working advocate is man bothers some women, then those women are a big part of the problem.

Martin Johnson
Martin Johnson
1 month ago

I agree. I was surprised at Ms. Harrington’s last sentence, because it seems to me self-evident that if, “what’s at stake is whether it’s legal and morally acceptable to sterilise children in the name of inner identity,” the question of whether to form the strongest possible coalition to fight it, answers itself.

Penny Adrian
Penny Adrian
1 month ago

I despise all forms of Identity Politics, and radical feminism is another form of that (All Men = Privileged; All Women = Oppressed).
But I do consider the argument against Gender Ideology a Pro-Woman argument, which could be called a “feminist” argument.
So called “feminism” has been anti-woman for years: “sex work is work” is an extremely misogynistic phrase, but one promoted by upper middle class “feminists” because they relate more to those buying than to those being bought.
The phrase “carceral feminist” is used against women who think sex offenders and batterers should be treated like the despicable criminals they are and imprisoned (child molesters, in the rare instance that they’re caught, are often given probation rather than prison time – child molesting might as well be legal).
The phrase “carceral feminist” is not only anti-woman, it is also anti-child, which is also a popular “feminist” theme (despite the fact that most women both have and/or want children).
I’m a lifelong progressive Democrat finding myself in the painful position over the past seven years of finding more woman friendly policies promoted by the Right than by the Left.
The Left thinks abortion has been legal in the South when it’s been effectively inaccessible to poor women for decades. Even now, with Roe about to be overturned, they can’t make themselves say that abortion is a women’s issue. To the Left, women no longer exist, so don’t need to be considered.
The Left wants to make sex buying legal and to treat brothels like respectable businesses (not in their own neighborhoods, though – never in their own neighborhoods). There is no industry more grotesquely misogynistic than the sex industry.
The Left ridicules those of us who think porn is harmful to society, especially to young people. They twist themselves into pretzels trying to claim that BDSM is a perfectly healthy fetish, and that child “sex” dolls could be used to tame pedophiles (when anyone with an ounce of sense knows they are perfect grooming tools for child predators: “let’s play with the doll together”).
I have actually come to despise the Left when it comes to their views of women and children. They seem to view women and children primarily as objects of gratification for men, while at the same time pretending that biological differences between men and women are part of a Religious Right conspiracy.
When we pretend there are no differences between men and women, and when we treat women as if they are the same as men, it’s women who are harmed, not men.
You can see this in the issue of male bodied people competing in women’s sports, and you can see it in the denial of women’s greater need for safety in public spaces.
You can also see it in the Left’s insistence that abortion is more about racial and LGBT liberation than about women’s liberation (cuz women don’t actually exist except in the mind).
Anyway, I would ally myself with members of Right more comfortably these days than I would with members of the Left – and I’ve been a progressive Dem my whole life.

michael stanwick
michael stanwick
1 month ago
Reply to  Penny Adrian

I am sympathetic to you 1st point. I think the arguments against gender ideology are profound and impact both men and women at the ontological and epistemological level. I also think that is where the anti intellectualism and anti realism exists. It is a rot at the most fundamental.
I also think the Overton window has shifted significantly to the left politically and intellectually such that perhaps what is now deemed ‘right’ in those domains, was perhaps just left of centre.
Also, underlying much of the push-back against gender ideology is a conservatism of knowledge regarding what we know of reality.

Emre 0
Emre 0
1 month ago
Reply to  Penny Adrian

At this point, I’m beginning to get equally worried about the inevitable right-wing backlash that’s coming, as the Left will have so conclusively discredited themselves, there won’t be a credible left-wing voice until the entire current generation of them disappear from the scene.

Andrew D
Andrew D
1 month ago

So-called Terfs and orthodox (I won’t say conservative) Christians make uneasy bedfellows. There will be many areas in which they sharply disagree, but surely they can agree on matters of objective and demonstrable scientific truth, such as the reality of biological sex.

Rosemary Throssell
Rosemary Throssell
1 month ago
Reply to  Andrew D

What is a “so called terf”

Andrew D
Andrew D
1 month ago

‘So-called’ so as not to legitimise a term of abuse

Sheryl Rhodes
Sheryl Rhodes
1 month ago

Penny said: “I’ve actually come to despise the Left when it comes to their views of women and children. They seem to view women and children primarily as objects of gratification for men….”
Whatever the Left’s view of women and children is purported to be, it will only be a facade meant to provide cover for their eternal agenda of revolution. “The issue is never the issue. The issue is always the revolution” (quote from member of SDS; also a tenet of Saul Alinsky). The identified “cause” du jour (race, trans, etc) is a tool to create anger, social unrest, and instability. The real cause is always the accumulation of power that arises from destabilization and the creation of new activists; those activists and new power structures will then be used to further The Revolution.

michael stanwick
michael stanwick
1 month ago
Reply to  Sheryl Rhodes

Nice. Chimes with James Lindsay’s analysis. He says the cause du jour is constructed via a neo marxist analysis framework. Essentially, the identity theories – such as CRT, feminist theory, Q**** theory etc are all marxism. Thus race marxism, feminist marxism (other than choice and equality feminism), sex, gender and sexuality marxism etc.

Paul Nathanson
Paul Nathanson
1 month ago

“From this perspective, the galling sight of males popping up to criticise trans activism and seemingly receiving little blowback …”
Where does that come from? As a man, I’ve criticized transgender ideology many times and seldom without being attacked for doing so. As a gay man, I’ve criticized transgender ideology, for a different reason, and been attacked with equal ferocity. When it comes to this topic, both woke ideologues and feminist ideologues agree on at least one thing: no man has a “right” to say anything at all about women (unless, of course, it is to agree with what feminists say).

Lindsay S
Lindsay S
1 month ago
Reply to  Paul Nathanson

You have every right to your opinion. If people and politicians are struggling to define women then they’re going to be equally stumped when trying to define a man. This isn’t a “woman’s problem” it’s a social problem that impacts everyone. If a trans boy is a boy then when he gets into a fight with another boy, is it boys being boys or will it be flagged as a transphobic assault? Same goes for adults out on the lash because we all know who will come off physically worse! Guys who pull a pre op lady and don’t take the news well? There are already a couple of high profile murder cases that show how that has gone. There are 101 reasons why it’s all going to go horribly wrong and the impact will be felt across ALL of society.

Cassander Antipatru
Cassander Antipatru
1 month ago

The problem with the TERF position is that, from what I can tell, it was feminists who paved the way for the whole trans phenomenon in the first place, by downplaying or outright denying the biological differences between males and females and arguing that gender norms are (at best) baseless stereotypes. If there’s really so little biological difference between men and women, why shouldn’t we treat people as whatever sex they wish to be treated as, regardless of their biological makeup?

Dave Weeden
Dave Weeden
1 month ago

But American liberals have already abandoned their faith in reason and the political process. US liberal support for continuing COVID restrictions seem less based on data and science that a cargo cult like obsession with following a ritual. And Andrew Sullivan pointed in his substack last Friday, that the Democrats relied on immigration to change the demography of the electorate so they’d be guaranteed election victories. That’s hardly faith in the political process.
Besides, Rufo is clearly right about trans inclusive radical feminists, and certainly in the USA there are more of them than the exclusive kind. He’s right too about the successes feminists have enjoyed. (I seem to remember an Unherd contributor who argued that feminists are all about rejecting their mothers. If only I could remember who that was.) Feminist here takes the place of”homosexual” in Al Pacino’s “I, Roy Marcus Cohn, am not a homosexual” speech in “Angels in America” (on YouTube). Feminists aren’t making any political impact, well unless you count the insistence that everyone work which probably drove down wages. An amazing victory for the left, that.

Barb Skool
Barb Skool
1 month ago
Reply to  Dave Weeden

Did you know that most people think poorly of you? We’ll, they do.

Ray Mullan
Ray Mullan
1 month ago

How I despise these arguments about who has the (sharp intake of breath) privilege to examine a subject, any subject.

I have read and heard views on the trans issue from just about everyone mentioned in the article (including the author whose every piece I look forward to reading as it appears).

But does it really matter that Tucker Carlson and Christopher Rufo speak as two men about this unwholesome travesty? Well, yes it does — only insofar as the fabric of egregious lies at the heart of trans ideology affects men, women and children alike.

Last edited 1 month ago by Ray Mullan
Bruce M
Bruce M
1 month ago

“Where are the men to stop this?”

This idea strikes me as an indirect result of the #metoo movement (and subsequent critique of ‘toxic masculinity’). Much like modern intersectional theory, which states that whites are the cause of, and solution to, “systemic racism”, #metoo was explicit about the lack of power and agency women had to fend off their male oppressors. As ridiculous as it sounds, is it any surprise that some believe that only men can successfully fight for gender equality?
Viewing the world through a radical feminist’s lens, it seems that power only flows in one direction: from men to women. In this scenario, if change requires power, then only men can make change. But if instead, men cede their power to women, then women are no longer oppressed. Feminism (or any essentialist ideology for that matter) without oppression takes on a very sinister tone. Gender equality, by definition, should mean the end of feminism. So (to riff on Thomas Sowell a little), there is a certain class of gender-problem solvers that benefit greatly from continued gender inequality. There are also individuals whose entire identity is based around advocating for these issues, and with no issues to advocate for, they lose that identity. Do most radical feminists really want gender equality if it means the destruction of feminism?

michael stanwick
michael stanwick
1 month ago

So the sight of a man, campaigner Chris Rufo, denouncing ‘gender ideology’ to another man … Carlson blamed ‘feminists’ for pushing this ideology,…
It is perfectly legitimate for Rufo to denounce gender ideology and its consequences, regardless of whether he is a particular sex. Framing Rufo’s comments as if he cannot express them because they are somehow ideas originally created by females or they are a consequence of female standpoints is irrelevant. He may very well have arrived at his conclusions and observations independently and so such framing is fallacious (genetic fallacy).
Carlson’s comment regarding feminists being against female genital mutilation but now for gender ideology is specious. There are many strands of feminist ideology so he really needs to be more specific.

Martin Johnson
Martin Johnson
1 month ago

I think the great culture war of this time is between those who would use state power and social power to censor and suppress all dissent, and those who would accept or tolerate dissent even as they fight for what they think is right.
There can be no discussion or argument if the former win. It is therefore incumbent on all who valu liberty to form whatever coalitions are necessary to defeat them, after which we can all argue about what comes next.

Martin Terrell
Martin Terrell
1 month ago

Listening to your future of feminism discussion recently, I had the impression that political feminists weren’t interested in making common cause with the traditionally minded. It’s a shame as these issues are more important than their protagonists.

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
1 month ago

So far, women have been completely out manoeuvred because they’re too ‘nice’ and ‘understanding’ to deal with the vicious methods of trans activists. They lose as soon as they defend their position, usually in opening their case with ‘I recognise the need for trans people to have rights’ or something similar.
And alongside this lesbians have allowed Stonewall to be captured by trans activists.
So it will need vicious, toxic masculinity to put this right.

Andrew Vigar
Andrew Vigar
1 month ago

Science is the cement in what we are. It is also the fairy dust sprinkled over who we can be.

Paul Sowden
Paul Sowden
1 month ago

As Roosevelt once said “I can’t take communism, nor can you but to cross the bridge I would hold hands with the devil.” The battle to stop children being unnecessarily medicalised will only be won when men join the fight. This is not a fight that feminists can win alone. They might not like everyone who allies with them, but they need a broad coalition and whilst I disagree with Rufos approach on certain matters the battle will more likely be won with him on our side

M. Jamieson
M. Jamieson
1 month ago

Overall I think I’ve seen more rad fems willing to make coalitions with people from different political backgrounds. It is the feminists who are more closely influenced by liberal choice persepctives or sexual revolution ideas, or who are otherwise immersed in identity politics, who seem to object to such alignments.

Caroline Watson
Caroline Watson
1 month ago

I will not sacrifice my feminist principles to make common cause with right wing men.
The anti-feminist right believes that women should be housewives and that little girls should play with dolls and wear pink. The ‘gender’ ideologues believe that anyone who does housework or wears pink is a woman. Both are reinforcing oppressive and misogynistic stereotypes and are two sides of the same coin.
I also have no time for PP. A housewife cannot be a feminist and her main concern seems to be preserving the breeding capacity of girls and banning sex education (even of the entirely factual kind) in schools. Those are not my priorities. I shall continue to support Alison Bailey, Kathleen Stock and JK Rowling. There is no place in feminism for men and, if common cause is made, it should be with gay men who are also facing the homophobia of ‘gender’ ideology.

Dave Weeden
Dave Weeden
1 month ago

Why can’t a housewife be a feminist? I’ve never understood the rules for admission to feminist club, beyond the obvious one: you must talk about feminist club.

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
1 month ago

It is so hard when you want both sides to lose

Allison Barrows
Allison Barrows
1 month ago

QED my earlier comment.

Martin Bollis
Martin Bollis
1 month ago

“I will not sacrifice my feminist principles to make common cause with right wing men.”

I will start my response by abandoning any nuance or understanding of the human condition by aligning myself with and against poorly defined tribal entities.

“The anti-feminist right believes that women should be housewives and that little girls should play with dolls and wear pink. The ‘gender’ ideologues believe that anyone who does housework or wears pink is a woman.”

I will make sweeping, simplistic and untruthful statements to define and demonise two particular tribes with whom I have an issue.

“Both are reinforcing oppressive and misogynistic stereotypes and are two sides of the same coin.”

I will also use aggressive language to describe the behaviour of these tribes whilst categorising this behaviour as stereotypical when it in fact it does not describe the centre of the bell curve at all.

“I also have no time for PP. A housewife cannot be a feminist and her main concern seems to be preserving the breeding capacity of girls and banning sex education (even of the entirely factual kind) in schools.”

I will insist that only my definition of feminism matters, whilst excluding others from my club and aggressively attacking the interests of a significant majority of my sex via ludicrous exaggerations.

“Those are not my priorities. I shall continue to support Alison Bailey, Kathleen Stock and JK Rowling.”

Despite the above I’m not entirely mad.

“There is no place in feminism for men and, if common cause is made, it should be with gay men who are also facing the homophobia of ‘gender’ ideology.”

Oops maybe I am.

Barb Skool
Barb Skool
1 month ago
Reply to  Martin Bollis

I don’t totally agree, but I love your writing style!

Molly O
Molly O
1 month ago
Reply to  Martin Bollis

Well said.

Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
1 month ago

I think that you conflating anti-feminists and right-wing men, and over generalising when you say thay such a man “believes that women should be housewives and that little girls should play with dolls and wear pink”. There may, indeed, be right-wing men who think this way, but certainly not all, and I have met many left-wing men who make all the right noises, but treat women as their personal chattels. So, I judge by a man (or any person) by his actions, not by some box he is put into due to his political beliefs.

Molly O
Molly O
1 month ago

What she said is total BS! I do not believe there are any (or if there are some, they are a tiny number) “conservatives” or “right wing” people, men or women, today who “believe that women should be housewives”.
What many do believe is that a *decision* by a woman to be the main child-care giver in her family while her children are young (as opposed to concentrating on a career) is a perfectly valid decision and should not be shamed as showing some sort of inadequacy – which is what (some) feminists have done for years.

michael stanwick
michael stanwick
1 month ago

There is no place in feminism for men …
Which feminism? Equality feminism? Choice feminism? Marxist feminism? Q**** feminism? Gender feminism?
Anyway, I agree to a point, depending on what “in” means.

Molly O
Molly O
1 month ago

Can you not ally with right wing men (and women) on this one issue? An issue that happens to be one of the worst problems facing women as a class today?

harry storm
harry storm
10 days ago
Reply to  Molly O

What does “join” or “ally with” actually mean, anyway? If people with very different views agree on one issue and vote to change it, they’ve “allied” whether they think so or not. Is she talking about signing right-wing petitions or going to conservative rallies? None of that is necessary or even necessarily desirable. What matters in our democracies — fragile as they seem to be now — is how you vote, not who you “ally with.”