Monday, August 29, 2022

Holly Lawford-Smith's "Gender-Critical Feminism"

Holly Lawford-Smith is an Associate Professor in Political Philosophy in the School of Historical and Philosophical Studies at the University of Melbourne. She works in social, moral, and political philosophy and has focused on climate ethics, collective action, and feminism. Her last book was Not In Their Name (2019), on citizens' culpability for states' actions. Before the University of Melbourne, she worked at the University of Sheffield, the Australian National University, and Charles Sturt University. Her PhD is from the Australian National University and her undergraduate, Honours, and Masters degrees are from the University of Otago.

Lawford-Smith applied the Page 99 Test to her new book, Gender-Critical Feminism, and reported the following:
"More gays, fewer gays, it doesn't matter. No one is harmed by being gay... But the idea doesn't apply to trans people as straightforwardly as Law seems to assume".

This is how page 99 starts. On the previous page, I had explained that Benjamin Law, a well-known gay Australian writer who today has nearly 150K Twitter followers, had alleged that worries about increasing numbers of trans people could only come from 'aversion to--and hatred of--the existence of transgender people'. I was explaining that this idea gets its plausibility from the comparison to gay rights movement, and conservative worries about a gay 'social contagion'. I argue that the worries are in fact very different, because no one is harmed by being gay, so it genuinely doesn't matter if there are more or fewer gays; but people arguably are harmed by identifying as trans, because of the link from trans identification to medical and surgical transition, combined with the fact that demographic changes in who is identifying as trans create a strong possibility that many people currently identifying as trans are not really trans. If we care about harm reduction, then under these circumstances we should care if there are more or fewer people identifying as trans. Most of the rest of page 99 is taken up with empirical description of the potential harms of affirming children as trans, including that they don't get support for co-morbidities that are actually playing a more significant explanatory role in their unwellness, that they are at risk of the unknown long-term effects of puberty blockers and cross-sex hormones, and that had they been left alone they would have been most likely to desist in trans identification, avoiding the pain of surgical transition and the dependency of medical transition.

There's a sense in which the Page 99 Test applies extremely well to this book, because it singles out one of the two most controversial issues in the book, namely the 'affirmation-only' approach to children who identify as trans. (The other controversial issue, starting just a few pages later, is the sexual nature of the trans identification of one cohort of adult trans-identifying males.) It also gets right to the heart of that issue, which is the disagreement with gender identity activists like Benjamin Law over whether there's really "nothing to see here" when it comes to the huge demographic changes to the cohort who identify as transgender today. But there's another sense in which the Test doesn't apply well to this book, or at least is unhelpful to what I intended for the book. That is, the chapter on trans issues, which is Chapter 5 and titled 'Trans/Gender', is just one chapter of a ten-chapter book about gender-critical feminism, the emerging feminist theory and movement. One of the things I was at great pains to argue in the book is that while there is a current preoccupation with trans issues among gender-critical feminists, this is only because of the conflict of interest with women's rights created by the way that trans rights activists are currently pursuing their political goals. What explains why there's such a conflict is more fundamental feminist commitments: women are indignant about the loss of female-only spaces, female-specific rights and protections under the law, and female-centred language. They're realizing more and more that feminism itself has lost sight of its original constituency, and the reasons that justified having a feminist movement in the first place. So it was important to me that trans issues not take up too much space in the book. The Page 99 Test, counterproductively, takes us right into the heart of that conflict, and might misleadingly suggest that the book is 'about' trans issues. It isn't - most of the book is about the connection between gender-critical feminism and radical feminism, and about arguing for a particular version of feminism, one that is narrowly focused on the interests of 'women qua women', meaning, females, and the way that they have been constructed to be feminine across the several thousands of years of male-dominated history.
Visit Holly Lawford-Smith's website.

The Page 99 Test: Not In Their Name.

--Marshal Zeringue