Material Girls: Why Reality Matters for Feminism
By Kathleen Stock. Fleet. 2021. 312 pages

In the very first line of her introduction, written with admirable clarity and courage, as is the entire book, Kathleen Stock outlines her program: “This book is about sex, and about the mysterious thing known as ‘gender’. It is about how, in the first quarter of the twenty-first century … a philosophical theory about something called ‘gender identity’ gripped public consciousness, strongly influencing UK and international institutions….”

Stock is an analytic philosopher based at the University of Sussex, with a keen interest in language and fiction. Her philosophical competence is beyond question: it emerges in every line of this book. It is this acute consciousness of the usage of language, and of how the way in which we use language brings us either closer to truth and reality, or else causes us to become increasingly entangled in a dream world of our own making, which makes the analysis in this book so very penetrating.

There are eight thoroughly-researched chapters. One caveat is that it does not include an index, which in a work of this kind would be most useful. Stock’s research into important biological, medical, legal, historical and social matters has been very thorough. Some of this is very difficult material to read, precisely because of the delicacy of the matters involved: we are talking about people at their most vulnerable here.

Chapter One gives a brief history of the concept of gender identity, emphasising that this is an extreme claim that biological sex is irrelevant and does not exist. In any case, only trans people would have a right to comment.

We are faced with a straight fight between gender identity and sex – which brings us to Chapters Two and Three, “What is Sex?” and “Why Does Sex Matter?” The author deals first with the physical dimension of the subject, demonstrating that biological sex is not merely a philosophical construct. It seems extraordinary that this has to be demonstrated, but this is where we are …

In Chapter Three, she examines the reasons why sex is relevant and cannot be dismissed. She gives a thorough account of same-sex attraction from her own lesbian point of view here. It would be interesting to compare her account with Paul Vitz’s account of similar matters in his most recent book, an essay written by an expert psychologist from a Catholic perspective.

But Stock’s central point stands in any case: biological sex exists, it is important in the life of any individual, whatever their eventual decision about it for a variety of physical, medical and psychological reasons.

She is at pains to emphasise that she sympathises completely with individual trans people. Her target is not individuals, but the activism that uses them to deny reality and alter legislation in ways that are positively harmful to very vulnerable people. Women prisoners, for example, have to endure incarceration with convicted rapists who identify as female. Why did we decide to have women’s prisons to begin with? Female criminals may not be the most sympathetic group of people, but they are extremely vulnerable.

“What is Gender Identity?” and What Makes a Woman?” give extensive philosophical and linguistic analysis of the terms and concepts involved in gender identity theory and sexual identity. “Gender identity” was first coined to fit a particular concept in the 1960s by John Money and Robert Stoller. It is described as follows:

“… trans people are defined, not as people who have had surgery, or taken hormones, or who dress and behave in particular ways, but as people whose gender identities are misaligned with the sex ‘assigned’ to them at birth. Cis people are those whose gender identities align with birth assigned sex. And either way … gender identity is what make you man, woman, or neither.”

Most of us are aware that the term “gender” has replaced the term “sex” in many institutional contexts but trans ideologues apply in all contexts, including the biological.

Traditionally, “sex” has a distinct biological significance, while “gender” is used when biological sex is not at issue – mostly the assignation of gender to words for inanimate objects in several languages, an assignation which is purely arbitrary. The shift in usage from “sex” to “gender” in the human context implies that human beings are similar and that “male” and “female” are assignations just as arbitrary as grammatical gender.

The author is writing as a feminist, so her emphasis is on women, but a similar analysis could be done on the concept of “man”.

She concludes Chapter Five by stating, as gently as she can, that trans women are not women in the same sense as biological females are women; these are fundamentally different biological and conceptual realities. She adds that she understands that this statement will come as a shock to readers who have been taught that there is no meaningful difference. She is at pains to emphasise that this does not imply criticism of individuals, but is simply the establishment of a distinction, which must be maintained legally for the well-being of all concerned.

Chapter Six, “Immersed in a Fiction”, is a very interesting exploration of the conceptual underpinnings of the UK 2004 Gender Recognition Act (GRA) and Gender Recognition Certificates. Stock argues that this legislation constitutes an extended legal fiction. Her account of the passage of this legislation makes for grimly entertaining reading.

She notes that many people are now making statements about trans women being women and so on. They act as if these things are true, i.e., they are immersed in a fiction –but they don’t literally think so.

She also explores the toxic internet culture and remarks that the rising frequency of claims of gender dysphoria in the young correlate with the rising immersion in virtual worlds. She does not condemn immersion outright, but she remarks that there are risks, particularly at the institutional level “once powerful figures become immersed in a fiction, and seek to compel the same attitude in others”.

Chapter Seven, “How Did We get Here”, revisits some of the territory explored by Helen Joyce in her recent book Trans: When Ideology Meets Reality. Stock recapitulates the tactics of activists over the past several decades: appeals for compassion; comparisons of “victims” to a previous group of victims whose claims are now recognised to be just; manipulation of facts and statistics; and violent suppression of disagreement.

She also notes that the femininity adopted by trans activists is facilitated by the representation of women in the media, which is increasingly focussed on external appearance, hair, make-up, clothes, an attitude of submissiveness … If these things make a woman, anyone who adopts them can claim to be a woman. She notes the particularly damaging effect of pornography.

Finally in Chapter Eight, Stock outlines what we need: more honesty; a wider range of perspectives; and reliance on empirical data rather than speculative theory. Here she notes the extraordinary career of Judith Butler “who – with relatively few empirical observations in the entirety of her work on gender – has nonetheless managed to convince large number of people that biological sex does not exist.”

She lists important questions. How many trans children are there? What are the long-term outcomes for children who receive puberty blockers? How many detransitioners are there?

Detransitioners, often children who were encouraged by adults to transition early, are pariahs in contemporary gender studies. Nobody wants to admit they exist, and, like women who have had abortions, their suffering does not count.

Stock remarks that that she is not afraid of a fight. She certainly got one. A ferocious campaign was organised to get her fired from her job at the University of Sussex. A counter petition was organised by some of the most distinguished names in philosophy. The Oxford Thomist Joseph Shaw wryly remarked that he had never imagined he would see that day when he would sign a petition with Peter Singer of Princeton.

Unfortunately, the controversy has taken a toll on her personal life. At the end of October she announced that she had quit. “This has been an absolutely horrible time for me and my family. I’m putting it behind me now. On to brighter things soon, I hope.”

This is an important book, and I hope that it reaches a wide audience.

Molly Bagnall

Molly Bagnall is the pen name of an academic working at a university in the British Isles. She has published extensively in the areas of Philosophy and Theology.