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Material Girls: Why Reality Matters for Feminism

April 21, 2023 Authored by: Kathleen Stock
  • The following piece is taken from the “Introduction” section of 2021 book by Kathleen Stock titlled “Material Girls: Why Reality Matters for Feminism” which explores issues related to transgender individuals. The book reached number 13 on the UK list of best selling non-fiction charts.

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 – quite unexpectedly – a philosophical theory about something called ‘gender identity’ gripped public consciousness, strongly influencing UK and international institutions, and causing protests and even violence. In 2004, the UK government introduced a new law called the Gender Recognition Act. This allowed trans people to get a Gender Recognition Certificate, giving them what the official legal wording called an ‘acquired gender’ in line with their preferences.

In 2004, it was estimated there were about 2,000–5,000 trans people in the UK. Back then, the popular image of a trans person was mainly of a ‘medically transitioned’ adult trans woman, or ‘male-to-female transsexual’: an adult person of the male sex who had taken hormones over a long period of time to change many aspects of appearance, and who had also had ‘sex reassignment’ surgery to refashion natal genitalia. The Gender Recognition Act was brought in so that, among other things, transsexuals could get their birth certificates reissued to record their preferred sex instead of their natal one. In this way, they could protect themselves from accusations of fraud, and avoid being forced to disclose their sex in contexts where it might feel embarrassing or humiliating to do so. To get a Gender Recognition Certificate, applicants did not have to have undergone surgery or hormone treatment, but had to demonstrate they were serious about transition, having lived in their preferred gender for two years. They would also need official diagnosis of a profound and debilitating sense of unease about their sexed body, a psychological condition known as ‘gender dysphoria’.

Six years later, in 2010, gender reassignment was officially made a protected characteristic under the Equality Act. This made it illegal to discriminate against someone because of gender reassignment. To count as eligible for protection, a Gender Recognition Certificate was not officially required. Instead, a person was protected under the terms of the Act if they were ‘proposing to undergo … [were] undergoing or [had] … undergone a process (or part of a process) for the purpose of reassigning the person’s sex by changing physiological or other attributes of sex’. In the Explanatory Notes, this rather opaque definition was further described as a situation ‘where a person has proposed, started or completed a process to change his or her sex’.

As I write this in 2020, sixteen years after the introduction of the Gender Recognition Act and ten years after the Equality Act, the situation on the ground has changed in several big respects. Most obviously, the number of trans people in the UK has rocketed. According to the LGBT charity Stonewall, their ‘best estimate’ is ‘about 600,000’. In 2018, the Government put the figure slightly lower and more cautiously, at ‘200,000– 500,000’, noting that only around 5,000 of these have received a Gender Recognition Certificate since 2004.

Along with this increase, there has been a radical change to the public image of a trans person. For one thing – though we still don’t know the actual proportions – the trans population now contains significant numbers of people of the female sex identifying as trans men or as non-binary (that is, as neither male nor female, or as both). For another, the trans population is no longer exclusively adult. Both of these changes are reflected in the fact the female sex has overtaken the male sex as the largest group of patients in gender clinics for children. In 2010, forty male and thirty-two female children were referred to the national NHS Gender Identity Development Service for children (GIDS); by 2019 that had risen to 624 males and 1,740 females.

In 2018/19 the youngest patient seen by GIDS was three. In 2011, doctors at GIDS started to administer drugs called ‘puberty blockers’ to some patients at their clinic, in order to delay puberty and the physical changes it normally brings. Though clinicians are licensed to prescribe these drugs for other conditions, they have not been licensed for use for children and adolescents with gender dysphoria. (According to the Health Research Authority, particularly in paediatric medicine it is ‘common to use unlicensed medicine based on learning from clinical practice’.

Evidence shows that many young patients who receive puberty blockers later proceed to cross-sex hormones when they reach the age of majority, and sometimes to surgery too. But these days not everyone in the trans community medically transitions – another way in which the 2004 stereotype of a trans person is now outdated. A 2019 study from the US notes that genital surgery has ‘prevalence rates of about 25–50% for transgender men [i.e. females] and 5– 10% for transgender women’ [i.e. males]. Although we don’t know the UK figures, it is clear that many trans people are not seeking surgery. Anecdotally it seems a significant proportion of trans people do not take hormones either. While medical practitioners often still think of being trans as a disorder, associating it with the condition of gender dysphoria and conceiving of it as something to be treated by drugs and surgery, many trans people now reject this idea, and with it the implication that any medical diagnosis or intervention is necessary for being trans.

As the size of the trans population has increased, its political voice has got stronger. Trans political interests are for the first time at the forefront of public consciousness. Prominent UK trans activist organisations such as Stonewall, Mermaids, the Scottish Trans Alliance, Gendered Intelligence, GIRES, Press For Change and All About Trans have made coordinated and effective pushes for a number of new measures, and have met with some success. Since 2015, as a direct result of lobbying, the main English and Scottish political parties have all supported proposed changes to the 2004 Gender Recognition Act that would make getting a Gender Recognition Certificate a matter of ‘self-identification’ or ‘self-ID’, withdrawing the requirements of a medical diagnosis of gender dysphoria and of evidence of having lived in the acquired gender for two years beforehand. On the proposed new terms, getting a GRC, and so also changing one’s birth certificate, would be a purely administrative and relatively instantaneous matter. The Conservatives, initially enthusiastic, have now rowed back on the proposal, but apparently the Labour, Liberal Democrat and Scottish National Parties all still officially support it, and it was included in each of their 2019 general election manifestos. Were Labour to get back into power, it is reasonable to assume they would seek to implement this change. As I write, the Women and Equalities Select Committee is again examining the question of gender recognition reform from an apparently sympathetic perspective.

Kathleen Stock

The focused lobbying for gender recognition reform has sprung from the newly perceived importance of something called ‘gender identity’ in trans activist thinking. According to this theory, it is not the process of gender reassignment that makes you trans but, as Stonewall puts it: ‘A person’s innate sense of their own gender, whether male, female or something else … which may or may not correspond to the sex assigned at birth.’ That is, it’s an inner feeling. It is your gender identity rather than your sex that is considered to be what makes you man, woman or non-binary. It also determines your preferred pronouns: that is, whether you wish to be referred to as ‘she’, ‘he’ or (in the case of non-binary people) ‘they’. Some supportive academics add that binary sex does not materially exist for humans in nature anyway. Educators in schools and universities are now advised by trans activist organisations to teach pupils and students about innate gender identity, and that sex is ‘assigned at birth’.

For at least five years, alongside proposed changes to the issuing of Gender Recognition Certificates, trans activist groups have been lobbying the Government to change the protected characteristic of ‘gender reassignment’ in the Equality Act to ‘gender identity’. They have also pressed to have exemptions removed from the Equality Act that allow discrimination on the basis of sex in certain circumstances – exemptions that might exclude trans people from single-sex spaces belonging to the opposite sex. At the same time, some of these activist groups – most notably Stonewall – have been advising institutions and organisations that existing Equality Act exemptions do not go far enough, and that if they want to be inclusive they should not apply the exemptions in most ordinary cases of public facility and resource provision. Many of those in charge of facilities and resources across the country have listened. So right now, within multiple national organisations, the policies that govern women-only facilities – for instance, changing rooms, hostel dormitories, public toilets, sleeper carriages, school facilities, student accommodation, rape crisis centres and domestic violence refuges – have been explicitly changed to include anyone, male or female, who self-identifies as a woman. Similar policies, citing self-identification as a man, now apply to many men-only facilities. There has also been a big rise in ‘gender neutral’ facilities (in older terminology, unisex).

One striking consequence of this change is that since 2016, trans women – some without GRCs – have been housed alongside female inmates in the female prison estate. Also strikingly, in some amateur and professional sporting competitions, trans women now compete alongside females. Meanwhile, resources originally set up to try to establish equal opportunities for women in the workplace and public life – for instance, all-women training and mentoring events, shortlists or prizes – are now often explicitly open to anyone who identifies as a woman. Even in data collection, gender identity is replacing sex. For instance, despite protests from some academics and some hesitation over a similar plan in England, at the time of writing Census authorities in Scotland and Northern Ireland still plan to instruct respondents to their 2021 Census survey that they may answer the question about their sex as a question about their gender identity . By common consent of many powerful national bodies, it is gender identity that now determines what public spaces you may enter, what resources should be available to you, and how you should be categorised for the purposes of data collection.

Simultaneously there has been a widespread reduction of public references to biological sex. It has become commonplace to hear from politicians, officials and other public figures that ‘trans women are women, and trans men are men’, and that there should be ‘no debate’ about it. It has become unexceptional for non-trans and trans people alike to announce their pronouns, indicative of gender identity, in email signatures or social media bios. In some workplaces, asking about or commenting upon the sex of a fellow trans employee risks your being classed as ‘transphobic’ by official HR policies. The trend in favour of gender identity and away from sex has reached public health communication, with some national health bodies starting to talk about ‘menstruators’ and ‘cervix-havers’ rather than women and girls.

These changes in social organisation and public language have been rapid and have caused enormous disquiet among some sections of the public. A generational divide has opened up. Many younger people cheer on the changes in the name of progress and see dissent as a measure of societal hatred of trans people. Many older women feel concerned or even outright panicked by what seems rapidly to be disappearing, without their having had any real say in the process. While mainstream feminist groups have either kept out of it or straightforwardly supported trans activist demands, grassroots women’s organisations have sprung up to discuss how best to fight the proposed changes. Young activists have protested at these meetings with megaphones, smoke bombs, graffiti and, at one point, a bomb threat.12 Women attendees have been screamed at from close quarters, had water thrown at them, been shoved and blocked from entering. I know, because I am one of them. As I write this in 2020, the public row has just gone global. After J. K. Rowling wrote a blog post in defence of attending to women and girls’ interests during any discussion of trans activist demands, the backlash was intense. Accusations of ‘transphobia’ flooded in from around the world, often accompanied by threats and insults. Stars such as Daniel Radcliffe and Emma Watson, whose reputations were made in the films of Rowling’s books, scrambled to distance themselves from her and to repeat the mantra that ‘trans women are women’. Employees of Rowling’s own publishing house asserted that they would not work on her latest book. Public attention is on the conflict as never before.

The thinking behind the rise of gender identity originally came from academia. I’m an academic too, employed in a philosophy department in a UK university. For most of my professional life, I have focused on exploring questions to do with fiction and imagination, and I have occasionally published in feminist philosophy too. Both of these areas of expertise – fiction and feminism – are highly relevant to the discussion of trans activist claims. Still, it’s worth noting that, despite my recent professional turn towards sex and gender, I’m still mostly considered an outsider to the area. Although I have been writing and speaking on the topic in public for a couple of years now, and have authored academic papers about it, I don’t work in a Gender Studies department, or in the field of queer theory, or in Trans Studies. I’m not trans myself. I’m not even a proper feminist philosopher; at least, I didn’t used to think I was.

This means that academics already working in these fields often consider me unqualified. When I write opinion pieces for magazines or speak on TV, I can almost feel the eye rolls. I am characterised as a clumsy, intellectually unsophisticated rube, making old mistakes in my thinking that they have long since put behind them. ‘Hasn’t she read the literature?’ they ask. ‘How can she be so naïve?’ Another common response is to say that I must be arguing with strawmen: academics don’t really think what I think they think. ‘Nobody thinks there isn’t a distinction between sex and gender, Kathleen,’ I am told, often by the very same academics who are telling me that referring to trans women generally as biologically male, for the purposes of discussing the impacts of sex, is transphobic. Or, even more basically, it’s complained that – whether I mean to be or not – I am a transphobe who shouldn’t be listened to.

Yet my outsider status in this area has many benefits. As far as I can see, standard academic norms for the production of knowledge are not often observed in fields that deal with matters of sex and gender. The whole area has become unacceptably politicised. Particular articles and books are treated like sacred texts rather than the opinionated, potentially fallible or myopic arguments they actually are. As one trans author, Andrea Long Chu, puts it, the result is ‘warmed-over pieties’ and ‘something like church’. There are small things you may question or criticise, and then there are the fundamental orthodoxies it is considered transphobic to deny. Evidence or facts are considered relevant only when they help what is perceived to be the political cause of trans people. Any philosophical critiques that do sometimes (rarely) emerge – especially by non-trans academics – are regularly treated as equivalent to actual attacks on trans people rather than as critiques of views about trans people, or of trans activist commitments. It’s assumed these critiques are not worthy of rational engagement but should be met only with strong moral disapproval and suppression. This sort of judgement floats down from on high, via academic managers, journal editors and referees, to make sure that, on the ground, no dissenting voice gets into ‘the literature’ without a huge struggle. Even worse, it helps ensure that hardly any seriously dissenting voices get into the discipline areas in the first place.

In this suffocating context, I definitely count as a heretic. And that suits me fine. I didn’t become a professional philosopher to go to church. In the article I just quoted from, Andrea Long Chu also describes a lot of academics in Trans Studies as secretly ‘itching for a fight’. I’m more than happy to provide an intellectual one here. I do so partly in the name of academic rigour, and partly on behalf of the women and girls whose lives – as I will document – are adversely affected by policies based on gender identity. I also do so on behalf of the many trans people whose objections to political demands made in the name of gender identity, and also in their name, are routinely ignored. Trans people deserve lives free from fear. They deserve laws and policies that properly protect them from discrimination and violence. But as I will argue, laws and policies based around gender identity are not the right route.


Stock, Kathleen. Material girls: Why reality matters for feminism. Hachette UK, 2021.

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