“Pandora,” Odilon Redon. Public Domain.

Don’t Blame Radical Feminists for Transgenderism

Recently, one of Louise Perry’s subscribers asked her whether she thought “feminism, by downplaying sex differences between men and women, created… the ideological preconditions for… transgender ideology.” Louise produced a short video response, in which she understood “feminism” to refer to “radical feminism,” and agreed that it did, in fact, create the preconditions for transgender ideology. As a radical feminist, I’m here to parry her thrust. (Yes, I did have to Google how to use that terminology correctly. And yes, I did note, but decided to forego, the opportunity for a parry/Perry joke).

Louise’s answer was: “Yes! … Entirely unwittingly, radical feminism… did indeed create the ideological conditions necessary for transgenderism to take off.” She elaborated as follows:

Radical feminism says that the psychological differences between the sexes are trivial—the innate psychological differences between the sexes are trivial. Or, indeed, non-existent. … The claim is that evolution stopped at the neck…. Apart from, presumably, parts of the brain responsible for governing the reproductive systems, men and women are psychologically identical at the population level, and all of the stereotypes associated with masculine and feminine behaviours and temperaments are a product of… patriarchy.

There’s some slippage in her claim between brains and minds. Psychology is about minds, things available to our conscious reflection and introspection, like beliefs, memories, desires, preferences, and attitudes. Brains govern bodily organs, but that doesn’t mean there are differences between minds just because the bodies they’re linked to have different organs. That your body can breathe and pump blood (or grow a baby) is a job done by your brain, not your mind. (To compare: we would not normally insist that there were “innate psychological differences” between a cancer survivor and someone else merely on the basis that the former, but not the latter, had a kidney removed in the course of treatment.)

Setting this aside, the claim is that radical feminism sees men and women as fundamentally the same, socialised or enculturated into difference. That doesn’t mean men and women aren’t observably different; if socialisation and culture are successful, then they do construct real difference. The radical feminist claim is a claim about what men and women would be like without differentiating social and cultural influences, or a claim about what men and women could have been like, or could yet be like.

This point is important, for Louise goes on to mention sex differences revealed “in the lab,” including in traits like agreeableness, neuroticism, aggression, and sexuality. Part of the reason she gives for thinking these differences can’t be explained by socialisation and culture is that “we see such consistent differences between men and women cross-culturally.” But we should expect to see consistent differences if there is consistent sex-differentiated socialisation and enculturation. An explanation of observed sex differences that both draws on evolutionary history and gives a substantial role to social learning and culture can be found in University of Melbourne Professor Cordelia Fine’s recent talk “The Evolved Gender Constructivist?” (This was one of several talks from the 2023 conference Sex/Gender Differences: The Big Conversation, which brought together Evolutionary Psychologists and their critics. Or, as the Evolutionary Psychologists might prefer to describe it, which brought together feminist science researchers and their critics! You can probably guess which side I’m on.)

Louise ascribes to radical feminists a “blank slate” view of psychology. This is the view that human minds are a “blank slate” onto which socialisation and culture ascribe everything (language, knowledge, skills, etc.). The alternative is that human minds come pre-loaded. But the blank slate view could be false and radical feminists could be right that there are no innate psychological sex differences. Noam Chomsky, for example, famously defended the idea that human brains come with a language module, which makes them particularly adapted to language acquisition. If this is true, then it refutes the blank slate thesis, without having anything to say about the likelihood or otherwise of psychological sex differences. Whether human brains come “pre-loaded” is a separate question from whether male and female people’s brains come differentially pre-loaded.

Here’s Louise’s big claim, in two parts:

I don’t think the radical feminist view of the blank slate when it comes to male and female psychology is true. I think that there are some innate differences between men and women at the population level. … We’re often talking about overlapping bell curves, there’ll be outliers in every direction, there’ll be a large area of overlap where men and women are very similar.

I’ll just interject here to say that the idea of “innate differences between men and women at the population level” is incoherent. Innateness as a concept applies to individuals, not populations. The only way there could be a trait innate to a population is if there is a trait innate to individuals and we’re talking about a population of those individuals. But that is immediately contradicted by the sentence that comes next, which acknowledges that these are not categorical differences between male and female populations, but only claims about differences between small numbers of males, and small numbers of females. If there’s “a large area of overlap where men and women are very similar,” then there are not innate psychological differences between men and women. Full stop. There might be innate differences between some individuals (e.g. mathematical geniuses and everyone else), but then we’d need an explanation of those individuals.

Let me give the rest of Louise’s answer, so we can then consider her view in more detail. I’ll shorten her claim from above to “there are some innate differences between men and women” so that it’s coherent, given the point I’ve just made.

The radical feminist insistence that that isn’t true [—that there are some innate differences between men and women—] … has set the stage for transgenderism, in the sense that once you’ve already accepted that psychological differences between the sexes are trivial, it becomes much easier to then make the further claim that physical differences between the sexes are trivial.

So if you believe that we are basically, in the brain department, all kind of amorphous gender goo—there’s no way of differentiating between a male and a female brain, really—and you have access to all of this medical technology which allows you to use cross-sex hormones, do very radical surgeries on the breasts and genitals to make someone cosmetically—physically—similar to the opposite sex, you know, why not claim that that person then is, indeed, a member of the opposite sex? … If you don’t think that there’s… some important innate difference between men and women at the psychological level, and if you have the capacity to change people radically at the physical level, then men and women indeed can just basically become one another, can swap places. 

Louise goes on to acknowledge that radical feminists are likely to be “cross” about this conclusion, given that they vehemently do not want men in women-only spaces. But still, she thinks their (our!) “blank slate” reasoning has, however “unwittingly,” paved the way for their presence.

Her reasoning seems to run roughly as follows. Men are not, and cannot be, women. They don’t belong in women-only spaces. If the differences between men and women were merely physical, this would be an inadequate basis upon which to refuse their claims to be women, and to be included in women-only spaces. That’s because the merely physical can be transformed through surgery. (I would add that even if it couldn’t be transformed through surgery, it’s hard to see how the merely physical could be an adequate basis to refuse men’s claims to be treated as women. After all, we care about what a man is likely to do with his penis, or with his probably superior physical strength, not the mere fact that he has those things.) So, the differences must be psychological. And moreover, they must be innate psychological differences, not merely socially constructed psychological differences.

You can probably see from my reconstruction that there is no real justification offered for the last bit. There could be psychological differences between men and women because they have been socially constructed (what is socially constructed is no less “real” than what is natural, and what has been socially constructed can be extremely difficult to “deconstruct”). These socially constructed psychological differences could be sufficient to justify sex separation in some instances. Radical feminists don’t need the claim that these differences are innate in order to justify the protection now of women-only spaces. They would only need that stronger claim if they wanted to justify women-only spaces in perpetuity. It’s hard to see why they would want that, though. Many of them are gender abolitionists, suggesting that this is precisely not their vision of the future.

If the price of sex-separated spaces is to believe in innate psychological differences between the sexes against all the empirical evidence, that price is too high for any kind of feminist to pay. Louise herself admits that it is against all the empirical evidence when she refers to “overlapping bell curves,” “outliers in every direction,” and “a large area of overlap where men and women are very similar.” This is a strangely common mistake that proponents of Evolutionary Psychology make—it’s almost as though they’ve had so many opponents insist that they talk in terms of average differences that they’ve given in and updated their language, but without actually updating their beliefs that men and women are distinct and non-overlapping human kinds. An update to the language but not the beliefs explains how it’s possible to get a single sentence referring, at once, to innate differences between men and women and to most men and women being the same.

Mere average differences between the sexes cannot be used to exclude (or include) trans people. There are plenty of men who are unlike average men, and there are plenty of women who are unlike average women. That means there are plenty of men who are more like average women and plenty of women who are more like average men. If that is already true, then it cannot be the basis of denying that some transwomen are more like women or some trans men are more like men. Perhaps they are.

What the feminist should say is that what distinguishes men from women is a) the minimal facts of their biology, i.e. what distinguishes men and women is what distinguishes male and female, and b) the more substantial facts of their differential social and cultural treatment on the basis of their biology. That is, the more substantial facts of “gender” in the second-wave feminists’ sense. What justifies the refusal to accept that men can become women is that “woman” is co-referential with “female,” and sex cannot be changed. What justifies the refusal to accept men in women-only spaces is that males have been socialised into masculinity, and some of that socialisation presents a threat to women’s interests.

If it could be established that a male had been socialised female since birth (perhaps due to a rare intersex condition that made everyone believe he was actually female), and every female user of a women-only space knew that (so a sexual assault survivor would not be retraumatised by the appearance of a person who appeared to her to be a man), then I can’t see any reason at all for why he shouldn’t use the space. The reasons to exclude him, as they apply in policy debates, are much more practical: in spaces used by strangers, people don’t generally have this information about each other.

To recap: radical feminists are no more committed to “blank slate” theories than anyone else. They do deny (non-contingent) psychological sex differences. But the thing they care about is sex-based socialisation and enculturation—the creation of masculinity out of maleness, and femininity out of femaleness. They do not maintain the importance of women-only spaces because of beliefs about innate male psychology ormere male biology. Indeed, if they believed in either of those things as reasons to separate the sexes, there would be no point in being radical feminists. There would certainly be no point in a commitment to gender abolitionism. Opposing an unchangeable human nature would be a quest doomed to failure.

So, did radical feminism cause transgender ideology? I say no, because radical feminists were only ever claiming that female biology is no limit on what a female person can do. Women’s liberation was a project to liberate women, so that their possibilities would not be artificially constrained by ideas about a woman’s role, or a woman’s place. It was never a project to say, some women should be free to be men. (Doing what a man typically does is not “becoming a man,” just as doing what a woman typically does is not “becoming a woman”).

It is dangerous to associate feminist claims to women’s equality and women’s freedom with the idea that there is no more to being female, or being “gendered,” than subjective identity. No radical feminist has ever said that. Even when radical feminists made claims that treated “man” and “woman” as terms of success for gendered socialisation—so, a female made feminine is a “woman”—and therefore suggested that men must cease being men (as Marilyn Frye did) or that women must commit suicide (as Ti-Grace Atkinson did), what they aspired to was a world of humans, where nothing much was made of the minor biological differences between people. They were not imagining a world where gendered socialisation success terms had shifted to refer to mixed-sex gender identity categories. And they were certainly not imagining a world where men could hijack, with impunity, measures put in place to improve women’s equality.

Radical feminists are perfectly able to explain why men cannot be women, and why men don’t belong in women-only spaces, without making recourse to empirically dubious claims about innate psychological sex differences.