Review of Material Girls by Kathleen Stock

Material Girls: Why Reality Matters for Feminism by Kathleen Stock

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Material Girls by Kathleen Stock


I need to start my review with a disclaimer. First of all, this is not an academic review – simply my own personal response to the book. I would define my feminism as being gender critical. This not an appropriate forum to dissect the hows and whys I came to adopt a gender critical approach in my own thinking, but while gender critical views do inform my feminism, I also think it is important to challenge them, to understand the rationale underlying them, and to consider the issues more broadly, recognising that there are real people who are affected by the ideological issues that arise when one discusses sex and gender, and the conflation of those two terms. This book is an attempt to examine some of these issues, and attempts to do so with compassion, understanding and empathy for women and transpeople who are the most affected by the topics addressed.

The starting point, really, and the crux of why the book came about can be summed up in one statement: “It is now a dictum of modern trans activism that we each have a gender identity.” (p 25). In this book, Dr Kathleen Stock deconstructs the underlying philosophical issues surrounding this statement. She begins by offering an introduction to the history that contributed to the development of gender identity and how it came to dominate current feminist discourse.

She then offers two chapters on what sex is and why sex matters, although there is an overt recognition that she would not have to be writing these chapters if these concepts had not been subjected to some degree of challenge, particularly in an academic context. While there is a part of me that finds it ludicrous that someone has to write a chapter on what sex is, it is apparent that this is required if one accepts the proposition that gender identity is what is most important, or argues that sex is nothing more than a social construct.

By the time I got to the chapter on What Makes a Woman, I have to confess to feeling quite emotional, particularly as Stock turned to what she terms as ‘the witch question’, which is the one which asks whether or not you believe that trans women are women. Commenting on how the desire to be kind can lead to that question being answered in the affirmative, what struck me was her observation that the question itself is one that is often wielded to shut women up, and the ‘trans women are women’ statement is certainly one that appears on social media as an all-powerful mantra, designed to stop any discussion of the issue.

Stock also points to the growing trend of affirming gender identity within the criminal justice system. This, for me, is something I find particularly troubling. As Stock observes, when crimes are reported by the press as being perpetrated by women – females – it misleads the public into thinking that women are just as likely as men to commit crimes that are violent or sexual in nature. When they are recorded as being ‘female’ crimes because on the sole basis that a perpetrator identifies as female, as Stock rightly observes, this compromises the data that could be used to combat violence against women.

One of the most interesting aspects of the book for me, was her discussion around the idea of ‘women as social’, that is being a woman is linked to performative social roles. She turns, albeit briefly, to historic issues regarding slavery and race and whether black women were considered as women (see in particular 165, 166). I found this a particularly interesting discussion, but felt that it could have been taken further, particularly as to how the narrative of the anti-slavery movement was adopted by early feminists. Women were able to argue that their rights were as non-existent as those of enslaved black people and use that comparator as a tool to begin to speak out for women – all women. (See in particular Midgley’s book Women Against Slavery).

The chapter that really got to me, was ‘Immersed in a Fiction’. Legal fictions have never served women well. One of the most damaging was that married women had no legal identity of their own on their marriage and came under the ‘cover’ of their husbands. They were unable to make contracts, own their own property, speak out for themselves. It really was as though someone threw Harry Potter’s cloak of invisibility over them from the moment of their marriage. Again, this was a chapter that I felt that Stock could really have taken much further. As I was reading, I kept waiting for the word ‘gaslighting’ to appear. The demand that women ignore the evidence of their eyes and call someone who is male female, is one that requires compliance or cooperation. Many women choose to affirm a gender identity out of compassion or kindness. But the demand for acceptance of gender identity without question can be manipulative, controlling, coercive and potentially very dangerous for women, especially in settings where they have been required to allow male born people into their sex-segregated spaces with no way of telling whether or not the person they are made to accommodate is safe or a potential threat.

Stock moves on to discuss the ideological creep into the legal justice system generally, noting that the Equal Treatment Bench Book was heavily influenced by Stonewall. This is something that has long troubled me. The English legal system has an established history of allowing the law to evolve organically and lobby groups should have no place in dictating how judges should approach the matters that come before them. Justice should not only be done, but it should be seen to be done. It is difficult to reconcile this objective with a procedural handbook heavily influenced by an organisation such as Stonewall.

The requirement to force women to refer to their rapists as ‘she’ is one that Stock also reports on, and her commentary on this is far more measured than what I (and indeed, most women) would have employed. Indeed, her discussion of what she terms sex-incongruent language is one of the most interesting aspects of the book. To my mind, it is another form of silencing women – your brain is working so hard to try and accommodate the pronouns that have been required that it slows your thinking. It reminded me of those times I was told to watch my tone in an argument. It causes you to police your own language – you are so busy thinking about how to say something that what you are saying loses its imperative – and power.

The book concludes with a chapter on how to create a better activism for both women and trans activists going forward, arguing that neither are well-served by the current discourse around both. In my view, this is a really positive way to bring her discussion of the issues to a close. There is a toxicity that has grown around any discussion of the issues, and it is right to look to alternative approaches to move forward.

There is a lot to take from this book, and it certainly is a useful tool to understanding some of the issues around sex and gender and why it is important to differentiate between the two concepts. I hope it generates some sensible discussion between the two very polarised positions. Judging by some of the reviews I have seen about this book, however, I fear that those who do not want to see why reality matters for women will just keep on shouting.




View all my reviews

Published by Deborah Siddoway

Dickens enthusiast, book lover, wine drinker, writer, lover of all things Victorian, and happily divorced mother of two lovely (and very tall) boys.

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