One Possibility: Susan Matthews at A Woman’s Place is at the lectern

Susan Matthews is an Honorary Senior Research Fellow at Roehampton University. Susan Matthews writes for Transgender Trend and has contributed to two edited collections on the transgender child. She works on the history of gender and campaigns for better care of young people with gender dysphoria.

This is the transcript of the speech she gave at A Woman’s Place is at the lectern in Oxford on Friday 25th October 2019.

The film of her talk is here but the sound quality is poor

 My talk comes out of writing a chapter on gender identity guides and workbooks for a book edited by Heather Brunskell Evans and Michele Moore which has just been published.

We hear a lot about ‘gender identity’ these days. And often the story goes something like this:

We all have a gender identity: it’s a deeply felt internal sense of self, a kind of gendered soul. Only we know our gender identity – our authentic self – though we can be helped to read this inner soul by gender experts who write gender identity guides and workbooks, who give us a gender vocabulary, who help us to recover our gender memories and free us up to select our gender expression. All through history, in every different culture, people have had an inner gender self (sometimes they’ve been free to express this, sometimes less so). All through human history there have been some people whose inner gender self doesn’t match or isn’t congruent with their body.

How can that happen?

Well your body is also gendered by culture in a way that may not match your gendered self. And if you have a body/soul mismatch as well as an inner/outer mismatch, that can be extraordinarily painful, so painful and distressing that it may be life threatening. Now what we know for sure is that your inner gender self can never be changed because it is your authentic self. Your body is less important (but more visible to the external world).

Although this mismatch has always existed the great thing is that since the mid 20th century we’ve been able to medically correct this body/soul or body/mind mismatch. And with the arrival of puberty blockers at the end of the twentieth century we’ve been able to correct the body/soul mismatch in children before the damaging effects of puberty misalign the body with the sense of self. This technological advance (think of it like insulin for diabetes or a cancer cure) allows a great improvement in human happiness and freedom: the liberation of authentic self. The failure to allow access to this life saving intervention may create such intense distress in mismatched young people that they become vulnerable to self-harm and even suicide.

That’s one possibility.

But there are others and I want to ask why it’s been so hard to explore other narratives than the one I’ve just provided.

Now it’s true that gender identity ideology comes in different versions: you might believe, like Jan Morris, that gender is a kind of ‘soul’, ‘not physical at all […] altogether insubstantial’. 

Or you might believe that it is a physical reality rooted in the structure of the brain, an inextricable fact that is not yet proved but will be one day.

Or you might, like Serano, view it as a mystery: ‘a profound, inexplicable, intrinsic self-knowing.’

I think we can say, though, that these beliefs are not based in reason.

Even so, if you are under 25 some version of these ideas is likely to seem to you both obvious and natural. It’s likely that those protesting our meeting share some of these beliefs. And it’s not surprising that they do so.

For these beliefs are deeply rooted in academia, NHS services, media, government and education. The website of the Office for National Statistics cites the definition of gender identity coined by the psychoanalyst Robert Stoller in 1964. We have consultants in gender dysphoria and a professor of gender identity.

What’s strange to me is not that these ideas are widespread but that a definition constructed to understand the experience of some is now applied to all.

I want to know why so much energy has been expended in trying to silence a group of (often older second wave feminist) women who have been trying to offer a choice of explanatory models.

Why have feminist academics (philosophers, historians, literary historians, sociologists, scientists, disability activists) along with intersex campaigners, autism advocates, gender critical clinicians, mothers, lesbian and gay campaigners, lawyers, detransitioned women and men been called a host of names.

Why has their self-identification as concerned and thoughtful people been ridiculed and rubbished?

Why do they struggle to get publishers?

Why are their careers threatened?

Why do they get protested and shouted at?

Is it because their voices are too powerful, their logic irrefutable? After all, when the wonderful Charlie Evans (in her words) ‘started looking at the sort of Twitter accounts that the queer community TERF block’ she turned ‘from Trans to TERF.’

To understand what is happening now, I think it helps to look back to earlier generations, to think back (as Elaine Showalter said) through our mothers.

Because what we’re doing when we uncover the gender ideology in school books and gender identity guides, in NHS websites and YouTube videos, in academic articles and diversity training is just what Mary Wollstonecraft did in 1792 when she looked at the advice books and teaching materials provided for women in her time, the conduct literature which told women what they could be, that tied them into abusive marriages and as she put it ‘bastilled them for life’.

Wollstonecraft critiqued a model of femininity that had been produced by those she admired, by Jean Jacques Rousseau whose thinking on education and politics fuelled the ideas of the French revolution, by James Fordyce and John Gregory who believed they were working in women’s best interests.

Yet Wollstonecraft saw that these political allies denied women the ability to be fully rational – and limited their intellectual and passionate lives. Without access to rationality, Wollstonecraft believed, women would be turned into playthings for men. Without rationality, women were denied access to full humanity and to the Christian idea of the soul. For Wollstonecraft did not think that the soul was gendered.

It’s what Betty Friedan did in 1963 when she read through archives of women’s magazines from the 1940s, 50s and 60s and discovered that the great march of historical progress had temporarily gone into reverse: women were being sold a quasi-religious myth which she called the ‘feminine mystique.

According to the dominant narrative of her time (framed for white middle class women), woman’s true inner self could only be fully realised by becoming a perfect homemaker, wife, mother and consumer. This myth, Friedan thought, popularised Freud’s ideas about womanhood. Career women, women who put intellectual curiosity before the deep inner drive to nurture, to abandon self to support husband and children, would always be unsatisfied and unhappy. Friedan argued instead that women needed to develop intellectual curiosity and to explore the great issues of their time.

Wollstonecraft and Friedan took on ideas which were deeply rooted in culture and which were portrayed as positive for women. They showed that how we think of ourselves is created in part by culture, by what we read, by what we see. Our inner sense of self is populated by images from the world in which we live. We can only build a self by examining the myths of our own time.

The work of challenging consensus and critiquing myths should be central to the work of the university. Today we fight back on twitter, on Medium, in academic books published by fringe publishers, in conversation, on the platform provided by a Woman’s Place.

And the fight is an important one. Because gender identity beliefs have real life consequences – for children, for young people, for women. These beliefs trap people into thinking that they have no choice. That not fitting gender stereotypes means that there is something wrong with their bodies.

The director of the Gender Identity Development Service celebrates the ways in which young people are ‘exploring gender.’ But I lament the failure of the service to offer an alternative way of understanding gender that would help them to accept their bodies. In my view, the proliferating gender identities are like the range of soap powders you can buy in your local supermarket: the packaging is different but they come from the same multinational company and all damage the environment. What we need are not more gender labels but the choice to understand gender in a different way. To see that gender is part of the world we inhabit rather than an inner soul. To see that we do not need to change our bodies to fit our sense of self. That we are OK as we are.

Today’s new gender myth, in my opinion, is a new version of an old story. In fighting this myth, we are carrying on the struggle begun by women of previous generations.

Because history does not go straight upwards. We constantly veer off the road of progress. Progressive ideas can be captured and changed, repackaged and sold back to us in forms that limit our freedom.

Today we need to think back through our mothers if we are to protect the freedom of our daughters and of our sons.


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