Given the vicious and partisan nature of the debate over trans issues, it was guaranteed that any book on the subject would be lauded by one side and renounced by the other, based almost entirely upon the tribal association of the author.
This seems particularly unjust in the case of Material Girls, by Kathleen Stock, which, despite its sub-title, Why Reality Matters for Feminism, goes out of its way to be both fair-minded and balanced. Indeed, based on the first two chapters, I was wondering if a trans activist had snuck into the printers and quietly substituted a work of their own. Of course, in times of war, attempts at being non-partisan can result in both sides shooting at you, thus the bravery of Dr Stock’s decision not to simply preach to the choir for 300 pages should be recognised.
The book opens with a look at the history of gender identity, the concept of ‘woman’ meaning a performance of womanhood and of sex being a spectrum, rather than a binary. Although I read almost exclusively non-fiction, I have no experience with philosophy (excepting the kind that comes free with pint glasses), and I found this section of the book quite tough going. It’s to the author’s credit that she recognises that these are heavyweight discussions for the lay-person, and explains the concepts involved briefly, but with sufficient clarity to hand-hold the reader through the sections that follow. The issue is more that it’s difficult to read at a steady pace, rather the reader (or, at least, this reader) has to read a sentence or paragraph and then pause, to take in what has just been said.
From chapter 2 – What is sex? – onwards this problem intensifies, as scientific and medical terminology are added to the mix. Again, this is all explained well and the amount of details given feels pitched perfectly to give an understanding of what is being discussed. The reader’s progress may be slowed, but you never feel lost. This section of the book is important, as it demonstrates that Dr Stock is not going to waste words knocking down straw men. The various flavours of gender ideology are all treated seriously, their historical origins are explored, and, in several places in the book, the author specifically denounces what might be thought of as typical ‘TERF’ (Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminist) positions.
Indeed, anybody who has bought this book, expecting it to be a non-stop assault against the idea of gender identity is likely to be disappointed, as is anyone in the opposite camp, who was expecting a tome of TERF talking points to pitch into the flames. Instead, it delivers what is part history of how were got to where we are and, almost, a manifesto for compromise (something that is sure to find detractors in both groups).
Dr Stock identifies 4 distinct meanings of ‘gender’, from GENDER1 – a synonym for biological sex – through to GENDER4 an entirely personal and internal experience of gender, that is psychological rather than physiological in nature. None of the meanings are invalidated, and each is fully explained and explored and, with the aid of a simple decision tree (and I do love a good flowchart) evaluated.
This all builds a strong case for using gender identity, whatever it may be, as a supplement to, rather than a substitute for, GENDER1 – biological sex. Undoubtedly is this section that will attract the most ire from those opposed to allowing biology to be the determinant of gender, but this is not a work that can be dismissed in a couple of tweets. It is methodical, clearly designed to withstand unfriendly scrutiny. The time taken to precisely and fairly describe what gender identity is pays off when it comes to describing what it isn’t.
The book then moves on to look at immersion; our willingness to suspend disbelief and even become angry at those who puncture our bubble, even though we intellectually know it’s a fantasy, such as actors and the audience glaring at someone whose phone rings during a play. This provides genuinely insightful in explaining so much of the behaviour we see daily on social media. In keeping with the book’s overall tone, the value of immersion is given as much page space as discussion of when it becomes problematic.
The focus then moves to institutional capture, how it was done, and the extreme perils of whole branches of public life becoming immersed in fantasy. This will be more familiar territory for those used to following the online battles, and is the only part of the book to really stand out as scathing of those involved in peddling the end of sex to public and private institutions. It’s refreshing to see all of the classics – misused suicide statistics, misrepresented figures on hate crime and violence towards trans people, etc – neatly laid out in one place and well-referenced, it’s just a little jarring that this comes before the book’s conclusion, a call for better activism, including finding common group between the two camps.
Material Girls is, then, a challenging, often surprising and thought-provoking read. It’s a record of where we are now, and how we got here, a suggestion of a path forwards, a look at the philosophical underpinnings of one of the bitterest disputes going, and, in places, a line in the sand for rights that women cannot be expected to concede. Throughout, Dr Stock pitches the book just right, for the non-specialist reader (I’ll put my hand up to owning exactly zero other books on either philosophy or feminism) and has been brave enough to make the work, in places, very personal to her. It’s a book to be read with an open mind, and I sincerely hope that those who read it do more than just judge it on the basis of only two words, the author’s name.