When did liberal men start thinking it was acceptable to tell feminists how to be feminist?

Glosswitch
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie received a backlash for her comments on trans women: Getty

Ten years ago The Onion published the piece “Man Finally Put In Charge Of Struggling Feminist Movement”. At the time it was intended as satire but, as with much that seemed a joke in the early noughties, one could be forgiven for thinking it has come true today.

Women, it appears, just aren’t as good at feminism as they used to be. Sure, we might have been the ones who fought for the right to vote, set up shelters, argued for rape to be made illegal in marriage, demanded recognition for unpaid domestic work. But when it comes to understanding how sex and gender function, we still need a man to explain it to us.

A man such as, for instance, Pink News’ Josh Jackman. Or the Guardian’s Owen Jones. Or Patrick Strudwick, Noah Berlatsky, Richard Seymour. Anyone, really, with the kind of analytical mind comes from not being hampered by the possession of a uterus. Men are much better at dealing with complex concepts such as gender fluidity and the social construction of sex. Alas, feminists just get distracted and start wittering on about the menopause.

Even before Jenni Murray and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie dared to express opinions about how female people experience womanhood, liberal men – positioning themselves as allies to both trans people and the whole of womankind – have been eager to slap us down. We’re used to seeing debates on gender positioned as infighting between trans people and radical feminists, but it seems to me the role of cis men is too significant to be ignored. It’s shifted from a merely patronising “girls, please don’t fight!” to a full-on attack (but just on feminists who deserve it, you understand).

Jones has expressed outrage over “self-described radical feminists who are not, to say the least, inclusive of trans people.” “TERFs: I heard all your arguments 20 years ago,” declares Strudwick, “My mother was a TERF…I disagree because I bothered to listen to trans people.” Berlatsky piously decrees that “feminism is only strengthened when it is wielded on behalf of anyone who is persecuted.”

So what is the problem here? Why are these women so mean? Why can’t they be more like a cuddly old granny, putting themselves last in order to make sure everyone else feels safe?

Why, in order words, are feminists so gender non-conforming themselves? Surely that’s not how things are supposed to work! “One thing that trans politics shows us,” writes Seymour approvingly, “is that many people resist their socialisation.” But it would appear that resisting socialisation is only good if we’re dealing with superficial acts of non-compliance. When it comes to females refusing to do the emotional labour and selfless accommodation we’ve been conditioned to do since birth, that’s all terribly wrong.

There has been little acknowledgement of the way in which trans politics demands far more of women than it does of men, perhaps because this would require an acknowledgement of the fact that male/female remains as much, if not more, of a dominant axis of oppression as trans/cis. Why aren’t we claiming that “men” needs to become a more inclusive category? If men can get pregnant too, why aren’t men’s rights activists campaigning for abortion rights? Why does pregnancy become a de-politicised “people’s” issue while testicular cancer remains a men’s issue? If sex is irrelevant, why are female people always the ones expected to cede linguistic and physical ground?

Pregnant with my third child, I faced more than one self-righteous male informing me that “biological sex is a construct.” The arrogance of this is staggering. Every single human being on this planet exists because of the reproductive labour of female bodies. Around 830 women die every day due to preventable pregnancy complications. The world is missing an estimated 90 to 100 million women due to the extermination of female – not feminine – infants. In such a situation, to boldly declare that you “see no sex difference” reveals both ignorance and privilege. We’re back to the idea that female people cannot be credible witnesses to their own lives.

If men were genuinely invested in supporting trans women, there’s an obvious thing they could do: stop pretending it is inevitable for “masculine” men to respond with violence to the idea that those who wish to socially transition to womanhood remain biologically male. As feminists have been arguing for decades, maleness and femininity can coexist. If the thought of that makes some men violent, then the problem lies with how men see maleness, not with feminists refusing to treat womanhood as a catch-all category for anything men don’t want to be.

Andrea Dworkin suggested when it comes to justifying misogyny, the right has religion while the left has nature. Trans politics has offered up a suitably postmodern amalgam of both. Are we dealing with scientifically verifiable proof of the “gendered” brain? Or with some mystic, soul-like essence known as “gender identity”? In many ways, it doesn’t matter which, as long as both are reinforcing a male view of how masculinity and femininity work.

I am tired of men posing as more open-minded than feminists, when in fact they’re behaving in the exact same way men have always behaved towards women. If you’re a male person telling a female person to be silent about her experiences of gender and power, you’re not only doing feminism wrong, you’re exemplifying the very values you claim to undermine.

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