Rescuing women’s rights from the trap of identity politics


Rescuing women’s rights from the trap of identity politics

The tyranny of gender has set back the cause of women’s liberation. It’s time for a fightback.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Feminism Identity Politics Long-reads

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Remember the time the ACLU rewrote an old Ruth Bader Ginsburg quote? It was in September 2021, on the first anniversary of RBG’s death. The ACLU rightly wanted to celebrate the esteemed justice who did so much for the liberation of women in the United States. So it took to Twitter to remind people of what RBG said about one of the testiest moral topics in that nation: abortion. ‘The decision whether or not to bear a child is central to a [person’s] life, to [their] wellbeing and dignity’, the ACLU had Ginsburg saying. ‘When the government controls that decision for [people], [they are] being treated as less than a fully adult human responsible for [their] own choices’, the quote continued. Most people’s reaction upon seeing that tweet was probably the same as mine – not ‘Great comment, RBG’ but ‘What’s with all the square brackets?’.

Ginsburg, of course, did not say what the ACLU said she said. She didn’t say ‘person’ or ‘people’ or ‘they’ or ‘their’. She said woman, she, her. Here it is, unmangled, un-Ministry of Truthed: ‘The decision whether or not to bear a child is central to a woman’s life, to her wellbeing and dignity. It is a decision she must make for herself. When government controls that decision for her, she is being treated as less than a fully adult human responsible for her own choices.’ RBG’s commentary on abortion, from 1993, contained another line too, arguably its most important. ‘If you impose restraints that impede her choice’, Ginsburg said, ‘you are disadvantaging her because of her sex’ (my italics). Notably, the ACLU opted not to include that line in its airbrushed, politically corrected version of Ginsburg’s views on abortion. Well, if it is reluctant to say the word ‘woman’, it is hardly going to say ‘sex’, is it?

There were many disturbing things about the ACLU’s memory-holing of the word woman from Ginsburg’s discussion of abortion. The ACLU is meant to be America’s foremost defender of freedom of thought and freedom of speech, yet here it was engaging in an alarmingly Orwellian correction of supposedly troublesome words from 30 years ago. Liberals turned censors. Furthermore, it was maligning Ginsburg herself. It was implicitly depicting her as a dinosaur, a ‘problematic’ old broad from that awful pre-woke era in which – can you believe it? – the elites dared to presume the gender of pregnant people who wanted to be unpregnant. The pasting of ugly square brackets all over RBG’s perfectly sensible comments on abortion was a polite form of redaction, with the shocking words ‘woman’ and ‘she’ obscured in order to save from offence those trans activists and their hyper-woke allies who believe ‘men’ can get pregnant too.

Most disturbing of all was the ACLU’s erasure of sex. Not only did it fail to include Ginsburg’s observation that restrictions on abortion rights represent a denigration of women on the basis of their sex, it flat-out refused to use any sexed term at all, including the w-word. The ACLU, like so many others these days, seemed to be taking flight from reality, from biology, from the materiality of sex and womanhood and the question of what distinguishes women’s bodies from men’s and why this distinction might necessitate women having specific rights. To blot out the material truth of sex on any issue is pretty strange – to do it in relation to abortion is surreal, if not sinister, given abortion is so clearly a matter of bodies, reproduction, sex.

The ACLU / RBG incident points to a very serious problem in 21st-century public life: how the tyranny of gender has usurped the reality and the language of womanhood. How the transgender ideology, and the uncritical embrace of it by so many political and cultural institutions, has led to the shunting aside of older ideas of sex-based rights. How the post-scientific, relativistic notion of sex as something we can choose – so that a man can become a woman simply by declaring himself to be a woman – has obscured the distinctions between the sexes and our ability to talk about why these distinctions are sometimes important. When even one of the world’s most noted institutional defenders of the liberty to speak cannot bring itself to say the word woman in relation to abortion, you know the gender cult has gone too far. Now, following the revelation that the Supreme Court is considering overturning Roe v Wade, it is a matter of urgency that we temper this tyranny of gender and rediscover the importance of sex, truth and freedom of choice.

The Ginsburg comments that the ACLU chose to put through its woking machine were made during her confirmation process after she was nominated to the Supreme Court by President Clinton in 1993. Ginsburg was grilled about abortion by the Senate Judiciary Committee. And, strikingly, she did not hold back. She did not dress up her belief in a woman’s right to choose in the apologetic language of protecting women from the undoubted dangers of backstreet abortions. No, she made the case for women enjoying dominion over their bodies and their lives. This was an issue of control, she said: ‘It is essential to woman’s equality with man that she be the decision-maker, that her choice be controlling.’ RBG’s frankness on abortion rights rattled the committee and surprised even those in the liberal media who held pro-choice views. In ‘strongly endorsing abortion rights’, Ginsburg was taking an ‘unprecedented step’, reported Time on 2 August 1993. This makes it doubly disturbing that the ACLU decided to ideologically rectify Ginsburg’s comments. The ACLU was essentially taming – detoxifying – words which, at the time, felt radical and essential to many people.

Rescuing women’s rights from the trap of identity politics

Fast forward to 2022 and another confirmation hearing, and the difference could not be more stark. The Supreme Court nominee this time is Ketanji Brown Jackson. At her hearing in March she couldn’t even say what a woman is. ‘Can you define the word “woman”?’, she was asked by Republican senator Marsha Blackburn. ‘Can I provide a definition?’, Jackson fumbled. ‘No, I can’t’, she said. ‘I’m not a biologist.’ From RBG saying women should never be disadvantaged because of their sex to Ms Brown struggling to say what a woman even is – what a neat and depressing story about what has happened to political discourse, particularly in relation to women’s rights, over the past 30 years. Indeed, an actual RBG comment was put to Ms Brown to see if she agreed with it. Did she agree with Ginsburg that ‘physical differences between men and women are enduring’ and that ‘the two sexes are not fungible’, asked Blackburn? All Brown could say in response to this plain, truthful observation from RBG is that she had never heard it before.

Many are rightly worried that the Supreme Court might cast out Roe v Wade. They should also be worried that the Supreme Court might in the future have justices who cannot bring themselves to say what the vast majority of us know to be true – that a woman is an adult human female. A Supreme Court that won’t stand up for women’s rights is troubling; a Supreme Court that cannot define a woman is even more so. This shift from a court nominee insisting on women having sex-based rights to faciliate their complete equality with men to a court nominee saying ‘I’m not a biologist’ when asked to say what a woman is captures perfectly the extent to which the trans era’s erasure of the reality of sex leads directly to the denigration of the idea of women’s liberation. After all, if you cannot say the word ‘woman’, how can you make the case for women’s rights? If you cannot explain how women differ to men, how can you argue that women therefore need specific rights to ensure their equality with men? If you refuse to accept the reality of biology, how can you defend the right to choose – a right that is entirely devoted to the control of one’s biology?

Of course it isn’t only the ACLU and Ketanji Brown Jackson who are running scared from the word woman. Everyone’s at it. Keir Starmer is notoriously incapable of saying what a woman is. Terms like ‘pregnant people’ and ‘cervix-havers’ abound in discussions about health. Increasingly, the word woman is disappearing even from the issue of abortion. ‘We welcome and support people of all gender identities to access abortion care services’, says Marie Stopes International. Writers openly complain about the woman-centric focus of abortion care. A non-binary contributor to Women’s Health magazine says it feels ‘dehumanising’ to see the w-word plastered around abortion clinics. ‘They’ sought an abortion and were horrifed to discover that ‘every clinic had the word women’s in the name, all the pamphlets used gendered language and featured images of gender-conforming people’. ‘Gender-conforming people’ – or women, as we used to call them.

This is an extraordinary, and telling, turnaround. To Ginsburg, it was society’s deprivation of control to women, its restriction of a woman’s right to enjoy mastery over her biological self, that was dehumanising. It made a woman ‘less than a fully adult human’. Now it is the defence of a woman’s right to abortion that is apparently dehumanising. Constantly seeing that scarring w-word in reproductive-health settings made my ‘gender dysphoria’ worse, says that writer for Women’s Health; the ominpresence of the w-word meant they had to ‘emotionally disconnect’ from their experience of abortion. What a journey progressives have been on – from arguing that forcing women to give birth against their will is dehumanising to claiming that saying the word woman is dehumanising. Policing women’s health was once seen as the problem; now talking about ‘women’s health’ is the problem.

Even Ms. magazine today publishes articles with headlines like ‘Abortion is not just for cis women’. That piece complains about the fact that ‘cisgender women’ – ie, women – are too often ‘the focus of conversations around abortion’. This ignores ‘transgender and non-binary people’, apparently. ‘We are the ones being alienated’, the Ms. writer says. This is Ms. we are talking about. Arguably the most famous feminist magazine in the world. Founded by Gloria Steinhem. The first issue of which, published in 1972, pre-Roe v Wade, featured a controversial two-page spread headlined ‘We have had abortions’, in which 53 prominent American women, including Billie Jean King, Nora Ephron and Susan Sontag, admitted to having had a pregnancy terminated. This is the magazine which now says the abortion sector’s focus on ‘women’ is a form of ‘discrimination’ (my emphasis). Can you imagine if that ‘We have had abortions’ feature was published today? There would be fury on Twitter. ‘Where are the men?’, outraged activists would demand to know.

So we have the ACLU, Women’s Health and Ms. wondering out loud why ‘women’ are prioritised in the discussion and provision of abortion. We have leading politicians and justices who cannot or will not say what a woman is. We have the British Medical Journal asking, ‘Do we need the word “woman” in healthcare?’. We have actual abortion providers welcoming ‘people of all genders’ to avail of their services. And we have the proliferation of terms like ‘pregnant person’, ‘chest-feeding’, ‘human milk’ and ‘perinatal ward’ because apparently ‘pregnant woman’, ‘breastfeeding’, ‘breastmilk’ and ‘maternity ward’ are deeply offensive terms that might make some people feel invalidated, and possibly dehumanised.

This is the context in which the threatened overturning of Roe v Wade is taking place. Anyone who says this context doesn’t matter, that all we are witnessing is a finessing and improvement of language to make it more inclusive, is lying to themselves. The context in which the Roe v Wade judgement was made in 1973 was one in which the women’s liberation movement was making waves. Placards demanded women’s rights and women’s power to choose. Women’s organisations demanded the right of women to work, to stand for office, to enjoy equal treatment. Activists demanded improved women’s health, to facilitate women’s liberty. In stark contrast, the context in which Roe v Wade now quakes under that first-draft judgement of the Supreme Court is one in which you can be called a bigot just for saying ‘women’s health’. In which talking about women and their sex-based rights has been rebranded as a species of bigotry. In which any woman who insists that women are real and therefore deserve their own sex-based rights and spaces risks being called a bitch, a TERF or a whore and being cancelled from polite society. In which even Ruth Bader Ginsburg can be posthumously censured for the speechcrime of uttering the words woman, she and her.

Rescuing women’s rights from the trap of identity politics

This is not an atmosphere conducive to defending a woman’s liberty to enjoy sovereignty over her biology, her body and her life. So even though there has been a furious reaction from many liberals and leftists to that leaked anti-Roe v Wade draft judgement, this concern is unquestionably diluted by many of these people’s acceptance of the idea that sex is all in the brain, and that womanhood is a feeling, and that talking about biology is bigotry. Think about it like this: if even saying ‘women’s health’ is now problematic, and if JK Rowling can be subjected to rape threats and death threats for saying men are not women, and if abortion providers are under pressure to say their services are open to men and non-binary people too, lest they be accused of making trans people feel ‘dehumanised’, how is it possible to mount a clear-cut case for the right of women to have the final say over their biology and their reproductive choices? It isn’t. The language one needs to make that case has been erased, or at the very least problematised. That is why many of us have argued against the top-down criminalisation of sex-based words and ideas in recent years – because without the right words, without that clarity of language and meaning, it becomes incredibly difficult to say what needs to be said.

And in this case, this is what needs to be said: the right to abortion is fundamentally about ensuring that women are sovereign over themselves. Individual sovereignty, the right of every person to dominion over their thoughts and their bodies, is the foundation stone of freedom and democracy. Self-government is the starting point of liberty. And because women are biologically different to men, in that they can get pregnant, they require an extra right of self-government – namely, the right to decide whether or not to be pregnant. If women are denied this right, if they are forced to carry a child against their will, then they are not self-governing citizens and they are not equal to men.

This is what Ginsburg meant when she said ‘it is essential to woman’s equality with man that she be the decision-maker, that her choice be controlling’. The right to abortion is the guarantee that biological difference does not translate into social inequality. It is the mechanism through which human society ensures that the sex differences between men and women do not crystallise into social differences, into social disadvantage. Abortion is the covenant that pledges that a woman’s reproductive biology will never necessitate the suspension of her social or personal desires. And if we refuse to acknowledge biology, if we refuse to say the word ‘woman’, how can we expect to uphold this essential liberty that makes women equal to men precisely by granting them an extra layer of authority over their biological selves?

Following the Roe v Wade revelations, some in the woke set have argued that the fight for trans rights and the fight for abortion rights are the same struggle. This is completely untrue. The right to choose allows actual women to govern their lives. The right to identify as whatever sex you desire primarily allows actual men to pose as women and to insult any woman who dares to question his identity. Abortion rights expand women’s freedom. What passes for ‘trans rights’ these days too often restricts women’s freedom by punishing them for thoughtcrimes, for the bigotry of talking about sex-based rights, for their exercise of the freedom of association. Abortion rights fortify a woman’s government of her own body and life. Contemporary trans activism interferes with women’s sovereignty by co-opting the idea of womanhood, invading women’s spaces, and seeking to erase the very word ‘woman’. Even from abortion clinics. These are not the same thing. They are polar moral opposites, in fact.

More importantly still, the shift from the Roe v Wade era to today, from Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s demand that women should have ‘controlling’ rights over their lives to today’s obsession with protection from offence, including the alleged offence of seeing the phrase ‘women’s health’ in an abortion clinic, speaks to a broader denigration of the idea of freedom and of political possibility itself. The struggle for abortion rights was about expanding the liberty of the individual against the might of the state. This is why Roe v Wade was primarily about privacy – because it was about keeping the prying eyes and meddling moralism of officialdom out of women’s choices and lives. In contrast, trans activism, like so much of identity politics, is about inviting the state in. It wants validation, not liberty. Recognition, not privacy. Affirmation, not autonomy. This changes the entire nature of ‘progressive’ politics. Where once this politics was concerned with furnishing people with the rights they needed to make their way in the world, to make their own life choices, today it is about demanding that everyone from the state to the individual genuflect to how I feel, to my concerns, to my self-identification. In the Roe v Wade era, women wanted the freedom to pursue the good life as they understood it. In the identitarian era, trans activists and others want the authoritarianism of pressuring everybody, including even abortion clinics, to bow down to their self-image. This is not freedom – it is the deadening need for constant authentication by external actors. It is about as far from Ginsburg’s insistence that people should be the ‘decision-makers’ of their lives as it is possible to get.

The threat to Roe v Wade is a wake-up call. Not only on abortion rights, but also on the weakening of progressive politics, the replacement of freedom with feeling, and the tyranny of identity. If we are serious about equality, choice and autonomy, for women as well as men, then we need a very serious reckoning with the ideology of transgenderism and with the crisis of liberty that it fundamentally springs from.

Brendan O’Neill is spiked’s chief political writer and host of the spiked podcast, The Brendan O’Neill Show. Subscribe to the podcast here. And find Brendan on Instagram: @burntoakboy

Pictures by: Getty Images.

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Topics Feminism Identity Politics Long-reads


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