10 June 2021, The Tablet

Contested identities: feminism and gender

Transgender issues

Contested identities: feminism and gender

Professor Kathleen Stock: ‘philosophical rigour’
Photo: © Sonali Fernando


A controversial new book by a British philosopher defends the right of trans people to live free of harassment and discrimination, but argues that emphasis on gender identity instead of biological sex carries a heavy burden for women

When the Catholic Women’s Council published an open ­letter to Pope Francis asking for the inclusion of sisters (sorelle) as well as brothers (fratelli) in the title of his encyclical Fratelli tutti, a Catholic male gender activist in the US wrote a blog in which he accused the council of being Terfs – a derogatory term that stands for trans- exclusionary radical feminists – because the statement referred only to women and not to LGBTQI people. As Kathleen Stock points out in her book, Material Girls: Why Reality Matters for Feminism, this imposed inclusivity is making it near impossible for feminists to focus on issues primarily affecting women and girls.

Stock is a professor of philosophy at the University of Sussex, but her book is intended for a general audience. It is heavy-going in places, mainly because she is careful with her analysis, arguing for a pragmatic, evidence-based approach which can respect trans rights without silencing feminist advocacy for women and girls. She has in her sights campaigns which call for the recognition of gender identity as a self-validating expression of an innate intuition or desire to be identified as other than one’s biological sex. In UK law currently, the Gender Recognition Act (GRA) protects the rights of those who have obtained a Gender Recognition Certificate (GRC) – trans women (males who have undergone a lengthy process of social and sometimes hormonal and surgical transitioning to identify as women), and trans men (ditto in reverse) – to be legally recognised as their acquired gender. Stonewall, the LGBTQI campaigning organisation, argues that the law should be reformed to allow trans people to change their gender identity without such a tran­sitioning process.

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