by UnHerd
Wednesday, 23
June 2021
Video
11:09

Jess de Wahls: Cancelled (and un-cancelled) by the Royal Academy

Freddie Sayers spoke to the artist about her fracas with the institution
by UnHerd


It all started with an Instagram post. Over the weekend, the Royal Academy thanked those  “for bringing an item in the RA shop by an artist [Jess de Wahls] expressing transphobic views to our attention.” The item in question? A collection of floral embroidered patches that can be attached to clothing. Her crime? Writing a blog in 2019 in which she stated that “humans cannot change sex”.

Shortly thereafter came the now-familiar cycle of organisations bowing to social media pressure and seeking forgiveness. On the basis of eight complaints, RA decided to remove all of Jess’s work from its shop without prior warning to the artist. But then came something less predictable: just a few hours ago, the RA took an unprecedented step and apologised to de Wahls for “the way we have treated her”. The institution said that it had betrayed “our most important core value”, namely freedom of speech, and would re-open discussions about re-stocking her work. Shortly before this apology, we spoke to Jess about what it was like to be in the eye of the social media storm:

It’s the fact that I am a woman with an opinion that’s not willing to go, “Okay, I repent. I will say whatever you like, even if I don’t believe it,” just so that I’m allowed to continue my art career. That’s the point.
- Jess de Wahls, UnHerd

What sort of feminist is she?

I don’t see this incarnation of people who think feminism is a fight for equality for everyone. I mean, it’s in the frickin name. It isn’t for everyone, it centres women. And so when people make those distinctions, like “she’s a radical feminist”, I don’t do labels. I stand up for women’s rights. Right, whatever you want to call that. And beyond that, I’m Jess.
- Jess de Wahls, UnHerd

On the danger to women of the new ideology

This whole ideology removes us from our language. I mean, I have seen women referred through this ideology many times as non-men, bleeders, birthers, menstruators, chest feeders, the thing that JK Rowling wrote about last year. And the situation is that if we don’t have words to describe the problems that we have, which feminism deals with, how are we going to address them?
- Jess de Wahls, UnHerd

On the new authoritarianism

This is authoritarian. And coming from East Berlin, I don’t want to live in a space like that, where I can’t say something, I should be able to say something. And you should be able to say, “Well, that’s a load of bollocks.” And then we can talk about it. 
- Jess de Wahls, UnHerd

On being a “gender abolitionist”

I can understand how someone feels like not in tune with their body and wants to adhere to the stereotype of what a woman is supposed to be — ie gender, which to me is a patriarchal tool used to restrict women. I don’t believe that because a woman is a woman, she needs to like pink or dresses, or Barbie. That to me is gender. It’s a social construct to me. Sex is what you’re born with. It’s just simply your reproductive organs. People go, “why do you care what someone’s got in their pants?” I don’t care about what they have in their pants. But there are certain instances where we cannot look past it like prisons, like the weight lifter Laurel Hubbard, what is that? Basically robbing a woman who’s been training her whole life for this place. So this can’t stand.
- Jess de Wahls, UnHerd

On making more space in society

We need to move away again from this “transwomen are literally the same as women” — we need to make more space in society. When we say we have shortlists for women only. There’s no point in saying, well, this is a trans woman. So she should apply that as well. Why can’t we make a shortlist for women and a shortlist for trans people? Why is that? Why can’t we make more space? I’m sorry, I am so done with this. So what if it makes them upset? It makes me upset that people think that to be a woman is an idea that someone can identify into.
- Jess de Wahls, UnHerd

On trans ideology being “deeply conservative”:

I do not see what’s happening right now as liberal at all. This to me is anti liberal. It’s deeply conservative — not in the way that we understand conservatism to be, but it is deeply conservative, it’s completely regressive to say that someone who likes feminine things, therefore has all these new boxes. It’s conservative. I thought we were past that — we had David Bowie being a flamboyant gender bender, not worrying about it. Now everything has to have a label and if you don’t adhere to the label, and the pronouns. I don’t think it’s liberal at all. I think it’s completely the opposite. And I don’t know how we sleepwalked into it. Because I sleepwalked all along. I mean, until I kind of stopped — it’s not good, it’s not healthy, especially not in the arts, it’s really not.
- Jess de Wahls, UnHerd

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Jon Redman
Jon Redman
1 year ago

The irony is delicious here. Until quite recently to identify as a feminist was to be above reproach and to be furnished with a ready-made retort to any critique of your opinions: the critic was just a sexist. Game, set and match.
Feminists have now been outflanked by a coterie of trans loonies even more vicious than themselves. They can close down any feminist critique of themselves by calling the feminist a bigot. They’ve even got a special term of sneering contempt: “terf”. It’s exactly the n-word, updated for contemporary hatreds.
The only counter-argument to the “bigot” attack the feminist can offer is to assert that women and men are fundamentally different. This is of course a position their movement has spent its entire existence dismissing and refusing to accept as an explanation of why their lives are not as they wish.
It’s a bit like reading about the Eastern Front or the Iran-Iraq War. You want both sides to lose.

Fredrick Urbanelli
Fredrick Urbanelli
1 year ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

Exactly. Let ’em bash away!
That’s Entertainment!!

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
1 year ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

Plenty of feminists are highly intelligent, informed and far from being vicious towards all men. Viscous are the women taking down the feminists.

Hosias Kermode
Hosias Kermode
1 year ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

Not so! No feminist ever argued that men and women were identical. Clearly they are not. The point to having two sexes is the enrichment of our genetic inheritance through sexual reproduction. But feminists argued and continue to argue that our genitals should not determine anything else about us, including our opportunities in life. After all, our sex is determined by a single chromosome out of the 23 pairs that go to make us up. Being a man or a woman is a very important part of our identity, but it is only a part of who each of us is. The trans movement makes the mistake of elevating sex into the only thing that defines us and stereotyping what it is to be one sex or the other.

Cathy Carron
Cathy Carron
1 year ago

The rather astonishing irony is that women/females are the worst ‘cancel culture’ offenders, attackers, which is the reason that knitters, embroiderers, crocheters and other successful female-oriented crafters have been attacked in recent years. Jesse de Wahls has been successful as a artist/embroiderer; Her work has been positively acknowledged by the RA. It clearly bothers a fringe set of women. Men aren’t doing this. Methinks it’s age-old ‘envy & jealousy’ that underlies the female-on-female attacks, and they justify it by waving the SJW flag. Human nature is quite powerful and just about impossible to erase. Women can be ‘toxic’ too : )

Last edited 1 year ago by Cathy Carron
Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
1 year ago
Reply to  Cathy Carron

Women are often the most shrill and vituperative. At the risk of being dismissive and condescending, they simply do not represent the most intelligent of the female sex.

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
1 year ago

If people think radical trans ideas are simply on a collision course with feminism, then think again. These people are on a collision course with gay rights as well and this conflict will continue to worsen. Quite rightly so in my opinion. This conflict will inevitably spill over into ‘cis men’s’ rights and poison debates across the spectrum. Trans rights are proving the spearhead for the loony woke crowd.
For a long time women were subjugated and in the west (not so in many other chunks of the world) they have claimed their rights and some safety. They are not going to cede these rights easily, although of course there are plenty of dim-witted handmaidens about who still have to wake up to the skulduggery playing out.
So I have no problem with trans people having rights, but not at the expense of other peoples’ rights – especially as it is deemed acceptable that a man (with a all male parts attached) can simply flip between ‘girl mode’ and ‘boy mode’ on any given day. I don’t want these particular men in my public toilet, in my prison or on the sports field competing against me.
I recently said that I don’t consider men to be the enemy and that I like many men. I want them to have their rights too. This comment didn’t find favour with some on this site. I do wonder what will happen this time.

Last edited 1 year ago by Lesley van Reenen
stephen archer
stephen archer
1 year ago

Apart from being generally sceptical of some feminist views, at least those I’ve experienced, I don’t feel the inclination to involve myself in discussions on such topics. I will however say I found Jess’s views and attitudes regarding free speech, cancel culture and her own rights to her views as being fairly refreshing and balanced, and her definition of conservatism in this context is spot on. In my younger years I regarded many of my elders as narrow-minded and prejuidiced, and now I feel the same towards a large section of the younger generations who have developed complexes beyond belief. Jess seems to be a breath of fresh air.

Margaret Tudeau-Clayton
Margaret Tudeau-Clayton
1 year ago
Reply to  stephen archer

Glad to see that someone at least got the point about conservatism. Jess is the first public figure I have seen to have spelled out the irony that ascribed gender roles is what feminists from Virginia Woolf on fought to dismantle in order that women could choose what kind of work they wanted to do — whether child care or scientific research — and how they dressed/behaved. The flouncy pink dresses and painted nails sported by trans women are a parody of what she calls the stereotypical femine.

Lawrence Bennett
Lawrence Bennett
1 year ago

Why does the notion that men and women should have the same social, economic and political rights produce the thin piercing wail of anti-feminist vituperation conveyed in so many of these comments?
Lawrence Bennett

Joe Donovan
Joe Donovan
1 year ago

She’s “selling out” because she refused to sell out! Brava.

Norman Powers
Norman Powers
1 year ago

Not a very sympathetic character, in my view. Reinforces a lot of what I was already concluding about the trans “debate”.

At least she’s honest about what feminism actually is: not interested in equality, just “rights” for women, and thus by implication, unequal rights for women. More rights than men. Having spent decades building what is in effect a female supremacy movement they are now horrified to learn that not all the sisters got the memo, and some of them think it was about actual equality between men and women after all.

Feminism is ultimately not an honest ideology and that’s on clear display here, where Jess tries to blame her cancellation on conservativism. Conservatives are the ones who object to cancel culture, only the Conservative party have pushed back on it, and most conservative people agree with her position about trans women, but in Jess’s mind the link between evil=conservative is so strong and so resistant to reality that her cancellation by the left must be some sort of conservatism. She can’t explain why, it just is.

Frankly, I’m quite enjoying watching feminism implode like this. At least during my life it has always been built on a foundation of lies about its own intentions. Seeing those lies finally come home to roost is a form of justice, in a way.

Last edited 1 year ago by Norman Powers
Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
1 year ago
Reply to  Norman Powers

Her use of Conservative in that way was wild, like she had run out of of words of scorn and profanity till she finally had to use the last, and most powerful one left to her CONSERVATIVE.

Much like Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy where one word was kept to be that ultimate swear word as all the rest were now just common usage:
Belgium is the rudest word in the Universe, yet by a strange coincidence, also the name of a country on Earth. In the Secondary Phase of the radio series, it is stated as “completely banned in all parts of the Galaxy, except in one part, where they don’t know what it means, and in serious screenplays.””

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
1 year ago
Reply to  Norman Powers

What is ultra cool is my post below where I tell of how Douglas Adams kept one word in the entire Galaxy as being too obscene for use; except in serious Art, and if you remember it was Belg* um, and the post is ‘Awaiting For Moderation’, in classic Jungian Synchronicity.

Douglas McNeish
Douglas McNeish
1 year ago

The subtext here seems to be that the menace is the patriarchy as usual – except that, deviously, they now don the social construct of female identity in order to torment women, depriving them of their rights through the back door by disconnecting female identity from biological sex.

Joe Donovan
Joe Donovan
1 year ago

Just a note to other commenters — feminism is not monolithic! I don’t consider it to be a bad word because a lot of necessary cultural and legal corrections have come under its banner. And then there are (sigh) the likes of Andrea Dworkin and Catherine MacKinnon.